Listening to What Matters Most

undefinedEvery year I attend graduation at what, until recently, was our alternative high school. It was a credit recovery school where learners who need an alternative pathway to graduation went after they had repeatedly failed at our comprehensive high schools. We are moving to a Project Based Learning (PBL) high school where we provide new opportunities for learners earlier to prevent failure and the need for credit recovery. They usually have two student speakers at graduation who tell stories of their challenging times in school and life before they attended our alternative high school and things turned around. The students are articulate, passionate, and often bring many in the audience to tears. They talk about finding their passions, connecting with teachers on a deep level, and learning resiliency skills at the new school. As I sat at graduation last June, I was struck by the power of what one learner had to say about her learning journey and looked around to realize more people needed to hear it.

I recently read a great post by A.J. Juliani called The Surprising Research about Students and Listening Skills. In it, he writes about an experiment where people missed a gorilla moving through a group of people playing catch as they were asked to focus on watching one pair throwing the ball back and forth. “This experiment reveals two things: that we are missing a lot of what goes on around us, and that we have no idea that we are missing so much.” I worry that sometimes what we are missing in our schools is the voice of our learner and we have no idea how impactful that voice can be to inform our practice. He goes on to write, “We have to admit to the fact that our attention does not always lead to full awareness. We have blind spots, and the real power is acknowledging our lack of complete awareness.” The post is mostly about how our students listen, but the same idea applies to our leaders and teachers. Is one of our blind spots to complete awareness of success in school not asking our learners, listening fully to them, and then acting on what they tell us?  

I asked the principal from our PBL high school to invite a panel of learners (including the young lady who spoke at graduation) to speak to our leadership team for our opening kick-off in early August. A panel of four learners spoke to our principals, assistant principals, district office staff, and instructional coaches that day about their experience in our schools. They shared stories of times they had felt successful throughout their school career, and what happened that meant in their junior or senior year they needed a credit recovery option. We learned a lot from learners our system had failed at one point and got it right at another. It was an amazing way to open our eyes to the urgency to get it right for kids and the power of what happens when we do. 

When we met again in September, we opened again with a learner panel. This time we chose a group from an intermediate learning community that is project-based, multi-age, and centered around relationships before content. The learners from this community said things like, “We are able to be leaders. We know that we can make change in our world. Our community is like a family.” The learners talked about closing their own gaps in math and reading because their work had purpose. They shared stories of projects they had created and connections to our greater community outside of school. These learners presented about their learning community in a break-out session at a national conference a few weeks ago. When the opening keynote for the day asked a question of hundreds of people who are leaders in our field, it was one of our learners who answered his question on why personalized learning is so important. She has found her voice about her learning and is not afraid to share it no matter how big the audience.

Our October learner panel was a group of high school students who were chosen to participate in the African American Male Initiative (AAMI). These learners were able to articulate times they felt empowered and supported, but also many times where they felt judged and undervalued. They expressed a sense that there are different expectations for them based on race and different responses to their behaviors than the reactions to their white peers. All of these learners are at our comprehensive high schools where our learning is still pretty traditional, but they have found opportunities to feel engaged and connected through AAMI, clubs, sports, music, and when they felt the teacher was kind and got to know them on a personal level. They are learning to become leaders within our schools with ideas on course offerings and training for teachers, but are also looking for more ways to be heard.  

One young man from this panel was quieter than the others. I had to ask him some probing questions to get him to share his story and he clearly felt nervous. I went to meet with him to thank him for being on the panel and reassure him that he had done a fantastic job. We acknowledged that it is not easy as a high school student to speak to a large room full of administrators and coaches. His entire face lit up during the conversation, and he said, “I get to do that again, right?” The smile on his face made my week as I knew we had given him a voice to share what he needs from school and empowered him through the panel to want to share it with others.  

All our learners have been able to articulate lots of bright spots, which is encouraging. We want to take the time to celebrate those moments. They were also able to articulate some areas for growth that had a common theme:

  • The relationship the learners have with the adults around them is the key to their success. When they felt they could trust an adult in the school and any teacher takes the time to get to know them, they thrive. 
  • They want school to be authentic, exciting, and project based. Each learner talked about the importance of learning being flexible, connected to their interests, and something they could do that would help the world be a better place. Young people want to know they are having an impact. School should be one place where they definitely get that opportunity.  
  • Learners want to be heard and asked about their ideas. They have interesting ones on what school should and could be that are all things we can do.    

We were fortunate to have George Couros with us for our first panel. He shared his thoughts on the experience in his blog and gave us some powerful tools to shift our practice in schools in a workshop for the rest of that morning. “Listening to students who “struggled” in the traditional setting of school (that were now all flourishing in new environments) is something we need to do more often, but listening is only a first step. When we receive the feedback, what will we do differently because of it, and how will the students know?” We have many staff reading his new book co-written with Katie Novak, Innovate Inside the Box. It is full of strategies to help us with exactly what our learners are asking for- ways to create relationships, innovative practices, and taking ownership of change.

In one of the panels, I asked a student what she will need from our high schools when she gets there. She paused and said that she didn’t feel she was in a position to change how a large high school runs. I explained that is exactly why she was on the panel and that she should share her thoughts with the high school leaders in the room. In Innovate Inside the Box, George quotes a colleague who once said, “It does not matter what your position is; you can influence change. If education is going to move forward, you can’t wait for ‘someone else’ to do it.” Our learners are the ones currently influencing meaningful change for us in our schools. I can’t wait to see where they take us next.

What made me better

When I reflect on my skills as a teacher throughout my career, I can think of examples of what I did well and a million things I would have done differently.  I am teaching a class at a local university this semester and know confidently that I am a better teacher now than I was when I was in the classroom. The opportunity to see other teachers in action in my leadership role for the last several years is what has made me better.  I get to speak to educators and learners all the time about what is working well in their classrooms and what they would like to see grow. It includes spending time in many classrooms where we and others are getting it right and learners can articulate the process of their learning in order to create great things. 

Professional development that is connected to a vision of our work with meaningful processing time to reflect is how we push teachers to move from single projects to true learner driven practice.  We take a lot of teachers and teams on site visits to schools in our area and across our country who are already doing the kind of work we are trying to do to see it in action. It is hard to find a large comprehensive system that is there yet, so we are often at small charters of specialty programs that are offshoots of schools.  The visits are always amazing as we are able to interact with teachers and learners and see learner driven practice, but often the most important part of the time is the meal after the visit or the long trip home where we can talk about what we saw, process, and plan for what parts we can implement within our system. The goal is not to replicate but to figure out how to ask the right reflective questions of ourselves and one another to tie what we saw to our personal passions and interests and figure out how to bring all of that together to shift the learner experience.

We also spend a lot of our time talking about how this is the kind of learning experience ALL learners should have.  It should not be reserved for some kids in special programs or special schools. The visits with the deep discussions are often the leverage point that takes an educator from trying a few things to a true shift of practice that is more inclusive.  It helps them to be more collaborative as they are often on these visits with other staff from across our district that they might not already know having a shared experience . The power in seeing some things we are already doing well and celebrating those helps us to not be overwhelmed when looking for ways to grow.  The key is to make the time, take the staff who are ready to take some bold steps, and then follow up with them multiple times throughout the year so they have support to keep going with the work.   

On a recent site visit, I took a chance and messaged some of the teachers to join us off-site after the formal conference to continue our learning.  Fortunately, they were willing to take the opportunity to discuss their work with us over dinner. It was an impactful experience to listen to teachers that have been doing this work for some time engage in professional discourse about grading, telling their story and standards.  The teachers were open about their own growth over time and how our staff could take pieces of what they saw back to our schools to create a more equitable opportunities for all learners through empowerment. We went back to the site the next day with a new lens on what to look for in learner and teacher observations that we could do instead of being lost in the surface things like the physical set-up.  Things that may have looked idealistic the day before now looked possible. The modeling of professional discourse created space for our team to do the same and ask some great questions about how we can do this work and how it does not have to look the same across all our schools.  Encouraging staff to push boundaries and challenge one another’s thinking is how we look at someone else’s professional practice and find a way to make it our own.

A few things we discover each time we do a site visit became apparent:

  • This work is messy.  It takes deep dialogue on what is right for learners and how to give up control in a way that is not always natural for teachers.  
  • Change is uncomfortable and unpredictable, but easier with the proper support.  People tend to say, “Change is hard.” There was a great article from the Harvard Business Review in January of 2008 that explained why that phrase becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that permits us not to try.  We have to be able to think bigger than that.  
  • We need to get more comfortable with professional discourse and open discussion about where we are now and where we can go that may push our thinking.
  • Teachers have to connect their own passion to their work in schools.  When it is authentic to the teachers, it becomes authentic with the learners.
  • Our teachers need to see the work in action often and learn how to get and give productive feedback.
  • The standards are always embedded in innovative, learner driven work.  They just aren’t always owned solely by the teacher.  
  • Many times, the teacher in a learner driven classroom finds joy in their work.

We have evolved our district wide professional development to hopefully reflect all of these.  Our teachers will have time in small groups to learn their standards well enough to empower learners to take ownership of mastery of those standards within cross-curricular projects.  Staff will then have the opportunity to sign up to see another teacher modeling classroom practice that is learner driven. They will be our own internal site visits. We will use structured protocols to get and give feedback at each site to ensure we are using the time for genuine collaboration as we know that is what drives teacher practice.  We can’t make more time than we have, so we use the protocols from The School Reform Initiative as a way to restructure the time and make sure it is used for purposeful feedback and collaboration. 

Our teachers hosting visits that day have been invited to participate for the first round as they are already trying new things, having success with learner empowerment and finding joy in their work.  It is not expected that anything that is “perfect” or a “show”.  It is meant for one teacher to share their experience and encourage others to try new things with an open dialogue about how and what supports they will need. Our goal is that our teachers engage with one another to see what’s possible, work together to get there for every learner and find joy in the work.