Jun 072014

edcampdoe logo

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!

 Posted by at 12:17 pm
Sep 252012


It is funny watching what happens when people break things. Observations are made, insights are gained, comparisons happen, and lessons are learned. Launching ISP Lite, now called the “Learning Community at CCTS”, (Someone throw some siracha on this name – PLEASE!) has had a similar effect.

In this new system, we  schedule and roster students in a way that allows us to team teach across the curriculum. Generally, math pairs with science and history pairs with language arts but we have the freedom to shuffle these pairings. The experience has been eye-opening.

In just three weeks, we were stunned to discover just how often all four us teach the same skills but use different language and methods to do so. When classes were separate, the results were confusions for students, inefficiency for teachers, and frustration for everyone. Once we put our classes together, however, each lesson fed into the next. My lesson on making quantitative observations using the metric system became a math lesson on proportions and solving for X which became an English lesson on differentiating between summary and reaction. Topics that required a few days each were compressed into single lessons taught cross-curricularly in a more effective manner.

All of this was made possible by “breaking” the schedule and giving teachers the room to act as professionals. It showed that simply aligning the curriculum on paper is not enough. We are doing things differently and it is already making a difference.

Mar 152012

Evers' Project 365 Blog

Splish, Splash, Swim - Evers' Project 365 Blog

When my colleagues and I built the Integrated Studies Program (ISP) three years ago, our intention was to create a program that removed major hurdles to student learning and meet our core mission as a vocational school. By rethinking the schedule and integrating the curriculum, we were able to create a program that is adaptable to student needs and more tightly tied to their chosen trades. Students rarely ask “Why do I need to know this” because they are given the opportunity to apply their learning to their engineering, IT, or performing arts career areas immediately. All of this is made possible by leveraging technology to add asynchronous components to the learning environment, allowing students to move more quickly than their peers or receive additional help from members of the learning community.

The changes worked beautifully (Slide 10)….but not for everyone. For a minority of students, ISP was culture shock. They craved more structure but they also needed the opportunities afforded by the open schedule. Because of this , ISP has an attrition rate of about 20%. These students move back to traditional classes with a rigid schedule.This is often due to comfort with the “game of school” – grading for compliance rather than learning, being told exactly what to produce rather creating true original work, checklist learning, etc. My colleagues and I found the situation to be disheartening and needed to address it.

Enter ISP Lite (we do not have an official name yet)- an amalgam of traditionally organized classes and the fully open schedule of the original Integrated Studies Program. In building ISP Lite, we preserved the aspects of ISP that are obviously beneficial – Teacher-student advisors and advisory time, all teachers having common students, and asynchronous learning components. We did however, bring back aspects of the rigid schedule to give students (and some teachers) the structure that they felt was lacking in ISP.

To preserve the flexibility in the schedule, we incorporated a daily 20% time  period called Advisory. During this time, students and teachers can engage in cross-curricular projects, perform independent work, get extra help, or do whatever is necessary to meet their individual needs. ISP Lite will be offered only to freshman next year with the hope that 20% time will eventually morph into 100% time in subsequent years as students learn how to work in a self-guided learning environment.

The 2012 – 2013 school year is shaping up to be an interesting one with traditional, ISP, and ISP Lite all being offered to  students. By providing 3 different types of learning environments, we are that much closer to meeting the needs of 100% of our students 100% of the time.

Apr 082011

Cross posted at RE:School
sparadrap by dimitridf via Flickr

sparadrap by dimitridf via Flickr

”Research concurs. Collaborative time for teachers to undertake and then sustain school improvement may be more important than equipment or facilities or even staff development (Fullan and Miles 1992, Louis 1992, Rosenholtz 1989).” – From Finding Time for Collaboration – Mary Anne Raywid – ASCD.org
Nobody will question the fact that collaboration is a key component of all successful schools; so important that one would think that creating environments conducive to collaboration would be a guiding principle of most decisions made in such institutions. Sadly, however, this is not true. For most schools, collaboration time is treated as secondary to the needs of rigid classroom schedules. It is something treated as extra beyond the scope of the normal workday or squeezed into the schedule and treated as an inconvenience.
“ the National Staff Development Council released a report, “Professional Learning in the Learning Profession.” As the report points out, the United States “is far behind in providing public school teachers with opportunities to participate in extended learning opportunities and productive collaborative communities.” – From Making Time for Teacher Collaboration Is Crucial Suzie Boss – Edutopia
For schools that do collaboration well, the majority still engage in scheduling yoga. They are mandating dedicated times for engagement and collaboration rather than structuring the environment to encourage collegial behavior naturally. This form of collaboration also misses a teaching opportunity because students are not involved or even witness the process.


In creating the Integrated Studies Program, we did not build in specific collaboration time. We felt that it was contrived and artificial. Instead, we created a cohort of students, gave them all common teachers, and put everyone in the same space with the majority of content delivered asynchronously. When inspiration hit or help was needed, the teachers talked and collaborated immediately, in full view of students, rather than wait until 2pm every other Tuesday and when students were gone. Rather than tell people to work  harder, we removed many of the impediments to collaborating – rigid schedules, one teacher per class period, and having students spread across multiple teachers.   The end result was a group of faculty who operated as a unit, with collaboration as the norm rather than an additional duty, because that is what the environment encouraged. This allowed us to put in less effort and yet achieve so much more.

Mar 292011

 Cross posted at RE:School 
Image by Zen Sutherland

Image by Zen Sutherland

In building the Integrated Studies Program (ISP), we considered all aspects of the learning environment. One that stood out significantly was the idea of the 40 minute class period. In a traditional high school setting, students generally meet for roughly 200 minutes per week per class regardless of what is to be learned and regardless of whether the learner is struggling with the material or mastering it readily. No matter what, the 200 minutes are sacred; teachers are forced to create lessons that fit neatly into 40 minute chunks while meeting the needs of all learners in the room.

We rejected the sanctity of the weekly 200 minutes. We reduced formal class time to 20 – 80 minutes per week per content area dependent upon the needs of the learners (ie – support for a large group project, addressing a common misconception as seen in the data, addressing a state standard being neglected by a group of students, labs). We achieved this by adopting a project based approach tied to standards with the standards tied to online learning modules. This allowed everyone to work asynchronously which, in turn, created time for teachers to work more closely, even one to one, with struggling learners for extended periods of time. The more advanced learners could then move ahead without growing frustrated and bored by the pace of the class. We recognized that formal class time is an aspect of, not the entirety of, the learning environment.

By eliminating the constraint of a rigid schedule, we created an environment where students have the autonomy to advocate for their own learning; the students are now participants in the learning rather than recipients of information. In moving the learning to a more asynchronous environment, school is redefined for the student. The classroom is more student driven as opposed to teacher driven b/c the student now gets to decide how and when to move through the curriculum rather than be directed. Students recognized this change quickly, saying “I am no longer held back by my classes” and “I can do my work when I want”. Moving from equal class time to equitable class time causes a significant change in the class environment.