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Moving Beyond Educational Echo Chambers

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By Sean Wybrant, Educator, Palmer High School in Colorado Springs School District 11

"Hey! I just got my grant approval and I am going to be able to set up my classroom with stations for the kids to work in teams to make some really cool projects. I just need a little advice; I haven't really done a station rotation in my classroom--what are some high school programs I should visit to see what it looks like?"

I can clearly remember the day I asked this question to Scott Fuller, my Next Generation Learning Coordinator. My students were working with virtual reality, augmented reality, motion capture, circuitry, and we were about to add a recording studio to the mix. My head was full of the kids' dreams, but I didn't have enough of each type of tech for every kid to have one or even the chance for each small group of students to have one. I knew that stations were the answer, I just didn't know what that looked like. I was thinking about what it might look like when Scott's response brought my daydream to a halt:

"You don't need to see a high school. You need to go spend some time in an elementary school classroom."

I didn't know how to respond. For seven years I had taught at the high school level, and for five years before that I had taught at the middle school level. Scott knew that. I was a little taken aback at first. I mean, I believed in what elementary school teachers do every day. I couldn't imagine spending my day with the screaming, the runny noses, the playground duties, the tears, the "He touched me!!!"s, and the general level of unrestrained energy I imagined (with some trepidation) they must deal with every day. Those teachers are saints who magically endow students with the ability to read, write, and count so that the students will somehow turn into people I can understand and work with. Those teachers are artists...just not the kind I understood.

"Um...and what are you thinking I will be able to bring back and use in my classroom?"

"If you really want to see stations, understand how they work, and see the kind of flow you want, you need to go see the people who do it all the time. Really. Go visit an elementary school."

I told Scott I would and then I sat there for a while thinking about it. I was reluctant, and it took me a little while to figure out why. In all my years of teaching I had bought into the idea that high school was separate from middle school and that my years in middle school were different than elementary in really meaningful ways. My certifications and degrees were for secondary and I was unqualified to really understand elementary school instruction. I didn't know how to teach reading or how to evaluate coloring or how to give feedback on writing with missing letters. To be honest and a little vulnerable, the prospect of spending a whole day in an elementary school scared me.

I wrote an email asking to observe in my daughters' school. I had worked on district-level tasks with many of the teachers, but this was a different kind of interaction. I wanted to use the visit as a chance to understand my own kids' education a little better as well as to see how I could adapt whatever Scott thought I would see, if I could even figure out how to make it work for me. I was still a little skeptical.

When I showed up to Trailblazer Elementary School, I walked in at the same time as another visitor.  Immediately I was taken aback. Two first graders were walking unattended down the hall carrying laptop computers. The other visitor asked if the students were lost, to which one of the kids kindly responded with some measure of concern, "No. We know exactly where we are going. Are you lost? Do you need us to show you the office?" It wasn't the answer I was expecting, and it set the tone for a day of professional learning I had not anticipated. I mean, even in my high school adults would freak out if kids were wandering around with laptops!

Over the course of the day I saw students directing their own learning in first grade through fifth grade classrooms. I saw teachers masterfully weaving small group, whole group, and independent learning into an artistic pedagogical tapestry. Students flowed from station to station in classrooms and pods based on digital timers, instruction, and student timekeeping. Students would greet me at doors and explain how classrooms worked and why stations were set up the way they were. Some students were doing the same kinds of projects my freshmen were doing. Some students were barely reading while others were reading novels, in the same class no-less. Instructional coaches flowed in and out of rooms and pulled students for extensions or remediation. Students flowed from one leveled group in a subject to a different leveled group in a different subject with the kind of flexibility I dreamed about for my own students. Throughout the day I couldn't keep up with all the things I wanted to implement when I got back to my own classroom, and from an instructional standpoint I left that day with a far more concrete respect for the work elementary professionals do every day.

Since that experience I have visited multiple elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools. Each has offered at least one idea I hadn't thought of before and changed my perspective on what professionals in education do for kids.

For years, I bought into the idea that I would learn best from teachers teaching at my own level, often unconsciously minimizing the possibility of learning from teachers at other levels or from other subjects. I stayed in my educational echo chambers, even when I could see that it was not leading to professional outcomes I needed for my students. I realized that day that if I truly want to understand how to improve education for the students coming to me I need to really understand where they are coming from, and that the opposite is true as well. To see what's possible we need to break out of the norms that keep us only with others in similar situations.

Regardless of what level you teach in, take a chance, go beyond the echo chamber, and visit a different school, grade level, content area, educational environment, department meeting, etc. and see what your colleagues are doing. You just might be surprised with what you can take away from the experience. I know I sure was, and my students and I are all the better for it.

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