Community, above everything else, is the goal for which our schools should strive. Every conversation I experienced at #EdcampUSA looped back to the idea that schools need be communities of practice. Having a community focus creates more opportunities for student achievement, better professional learning, and truly progressive and innovative practice because the environment is safe, supportive, and focused upon the needs of the community members. A strong community is resilient against the shocks of individuals leaving and is better equipped to accept and assimilate newcomers.
The first session I attended was facilitated by Susan Bearden entitled How Should Schools be Evaluated. The group spent most of the time, however, defining what schools should value. It was a necessary first step to a huge topic. I honestly wish we had all day to discuss it for both the importance of the idea and because Susan is a great facilitator. As we defined what a school should be and evaluated upon, it became apparent that many of the suggestions were trying to overcome the problems with the way we do education now, but wouldn’t exist if we did it differently. If schools were judged upon their ability to foster community, many of the other concerns – student engagement, staff buy-in, behavioral issues – would fall away naturally. This was supported by a number of personal experiences shared throughout the conversation.
Session two, facilitated by Jared Wastler, was all about innovation in school. What does it look like and how do we foster it? There was a recognition that innovation is scary because it “destroys” as much as it “creates”, especially if it is happening above the classroom level. Innovation renders practices and positions obsolete while creating new opportunities. Again, community is the foundation upon which innovations may be built. The community supports innovators both when they succeed and fail, provides feedback for better outcomes, and mitigates the destructive effects of innovation by finding new roles for people affected in a secondary / tertiary manner. You want innovation? Build a strong community of trust first.
During block 3, I facilitated a session called Scheduling: The Only Technology that Matters. It was a cheeky title aimed at a group that places high value in electronics but, a topic that I feel carries significant truth. The schedule, more than anything else, facilitates or hinders a group’s ability to build a community. The schedule determines who is with whom, where ,and when. Look at a traditional schedule from the people perspective – One teacher, with disparate groups of students for specific periods of time, all day long. It makes collaborating a hassle to be overcome. As a point of comparison, I shared the schedule for a program my colleagues and I built called simply The Learning Community (LC for short, in the link above). Typically in the upper grades, the schedule is organized, with near ubiquity, around content delivery - Algebra, English, World History, Biology, etc. Everything after that requires serious contortions of the schedule to achieve. Our system, however, focused upon the types of social interactions we wanted to see – inquiry, collaboration, and above all, community. We achieved this through cross curricular team teaching and a daily, community wide, 20% time called Advisory. Through this we achieved a system that is nimble and flexible to meet the needs of all community members. Students have a significant safety net with at least 2 and sometimes as many as 5 adults to lean on at any time. Advisory affords time for peer teaching, small group instruction, and processing time. Having all of the adults together created a level of consistency in methods, curriculum, and expectations that would be impossible to achieve otherwise. The team teaching also created all day opportunities for peer coaching and over 6 hours a week for PLC type activities all within the contracted work day. Community flourished all because we committed to one change – rethinking the schedule.
For the final session, David Timony facilitated a session called Kicking Against the Goads or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Rebellion. The premise of this session was to find ways to encourage people to do the right thing even though it may be personally painful or damaging, in other words, to kick back against the piercing goads that are driving us towards malpractice. Let’s be honest, there really is a lot of bad ideas, damaging ideas, coming from legislatures, “advocacy” groups, and various Departments of Education from around country. Rather than push back, many districts choose acquiescence. Individuals who instead, choose to reject these bad practices to protect students, the profession, and in some cases, democracy in general, find themselves alienated within their own districts, maybe even fired. Again, the one thing we kept touching upon was the need for strong community. It provides support and empowers individual to stand against the nonsense that is being imposed around the country.
So, in summary, my big takeaway from Edcamp USDOE is that if we want to move schools forward, then we need to focus on building schools into communities first!