May 042011

Cross-posted at RE:School
Recently, I was part of great conversation on twitter with @8Amber8 @ToddWhitaker @Matt_Gomez @kylepace on rules in school and their implications for individual classrooms. An area upon which we all agreed was that good teachers tend to stretch the rules. They recognize the difference between equal and equitable and equitable treatment for students but they also recognize the need to justify the stretching.
The second area of agreement was upon the need for consistency. Predictable environments are safe and students need that in order to learn effectively. The juxtaposition of these two ideas led to a question – what happens when individual teachers stretch rules in different ways? The consensus was that teachers need to communicate with one another to maintain consistency, but does this really solve the problem? It is impossible for a teacher to know how all of his or her colleagues are doing something unless it can be witnessed regularly. After kicking the idea around for awhile, this tweet summed up the conversation up perfectly:
via @Toddwhitaker

via @Toddwhitaker

My assertion through the entire conversation was this: Inconsistency is created by the organization of the school environment (schedule, content area classrooms, students scattered across multiple teachers). Isolated classrooms allow for derivations of behavior to occur. This, in turn, creates frustrations for students because there are different expectations in every class and breeds behavioral problems.

To overcome the challenge of consistency, schools have adopted a number of strategies. The Professional Learning Community (PLCs) creates a more formal system of collaboration for the faculty ensuring greater continuity of practice. Small Learning Communities (SLCs) extend the concept of PLCs to the students. Each PLC is now responsible for a common group of children making it easier for teachers to agree upon common practice and maintain consistency.

In my personal practice, my colleagues and went beyond the PLC and SLC structure in our Integrated Studies Program by also placing students and teachers in a common space. By grouping everyone together and working asynchronously, the teachers were able to observe each other on a daily basis. We adopted each other’s methods, created a common classroom language, and promoted the principles of the classroom in similar ways. The asynchronicity and common space also allowed us to involve students more deeply in developing common practice. We invited them to form advisory and judiciary communities, giving students a strong voice. A socially constructed learning community sprang forth because of one change – shared physical space. Inconsistencies and the need to “stretch the rules” evaporated because the community dictated the principles of classroom process and behavior for students and adults alike. It does not get any more consistent than that.

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.

Mar 062011

Cross posted at Re:School

Several years ago, my colleagues and I recognized that students and teachers in our school were being done a disservice. In response to changing expectations in a high-accountability landscape, members of the school community were being  pressed to work harder without any consideration given towards updating the necessary tools or supporting structures. Pressure to achieve higher test scores stressed individual efforts over overall school environment. By taking the broadest look at the actual roadblocks to success, we articulated the Integrated Studies Program (ISP).

The most noticeable feature of ISP is the 3,500 square foot, freely-configurable room. Around the perimeter are cubicles equipped with desktop computers. Laptops are available for mobile computing. Students may arrange tables and chairs however they see fit. At any given moment, there are students working on and offline, independently or in small groups, and with or without adult direction. There are two conventional classrooms associated with the program where teachers and students perform large group instruction and presentations or work on projects that require a controlled environment outside the main area. The intention of this is to make an immanently flexible space that may be adapted to the needs of the learning community rather than force individuals to adapt to the artificial constraints imposed by the space. Removing the physical barriers between the classrooms allows the faculty to create a cohesive community with a common language and expectations with little expense of effort. It happens naturally because that is what the environment encourages. Isolation breeds inconsistency between classrooms and that isolation no longer existed.

Rethinking curriculum, schedule, and learning spaces created the opportunity for a number of notable outcomes. Replacing closed classrooms as the centers of activity with an open working environment allowed learning to be social and collaborative for students and teachers, better representing the professional environments students will encounter as adults. Eliminating the schedule and pacing guides, we were more able to teach literacy skills throughout the curriculum. By blending math with science instruction we were better able to make abstract concepts more concrete. Situating science within historical context helped students connect esoteric content to their world. By removing the barriers among content areas, students create deeper meaning for the topics they are studying.

By changing the conditions of the classroom, we changed as teachers in fundamental ways. We developed as professionals at an extraordinary rate. We observed, we collaborated, we provided constant feedback to one another, we held each other accountable, we picked each other up when one of us had an off day. Even the best administration could not have promoted the type of growth that we promoted in each other. The students witnessed all of this and the interpersonal interactions between them improved greatly because of it.

The key to our success is that ISP is classroom driven. We can better meet the individual needs of all children because we are no longer restricted by what are, ultimately, arbitrary structures put in place for managerial convenience. Even though teacher leadership at this depth has a tendency to make those in administration uncomfortable, the feeling can be overcome by each side recognizing that meeting the needs of children is the ultimate goal and meaningful work towards that end is sometimes difficult yet always worthwhile.