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Innovation in Real-Time - Part II

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By Nora Vernazza, Co-Headmaster, and Yusuf Hamdan, High School Team, Boston Public Schools

Inspired to redesign learning experiences, leaders and educators from TechBoston Academy (TBA) share their perspectives on approaching innovation--and failing forward--following several revelatory training and brainstorming sessions. (Check out the first post of this three-part series: Innovation in Real-Time - Part I.)

Leading Innovation: Nora Vernazza, Co-Headmaster

For me the first spark was Design39 in San Diego which I visited when I was in town for a wedding; I was amazed at what was possible in a public school. I began connecting with the BPS Office of Innovation to explore further, and they sent us to Education Reimagined's Pioneer Lab training, which gave us a simple, north star framework for student-centered learning as well as the understanding that this was not gradual change, but rather a paradigm shift. We returned to our fairly traditional comprehensive 6-12 in a large urban district and felt excited but overwhelmed by questions and fears: how do we do this, where do we begin, can this even be done, is this what our students should be doing? We understood, though, that providing a school that's relevant, contextualized, and personalized was an equity issue, and that we had to move forward with a clear mission of providing learner-centered environments for our students.

We focused our summer institute entirely on building the common language around the Education Reimagined framework's five elements: competency-based; personalized, relevant, and contextualized; learner agency; socially embedded; open-walled. There was lots of excitement and apprehension, and there were lots of questions. We framed this year, our Year 1, as a learning year, and gave our educators voice and choice..As Jen Nicol, our Director of Innovation wrote in an earlier blogpost, we began with a small, open request: we asked each educator to choose one of the five elements and put it into action at some point  throughout the school day (advisory, classroom, learning commons, anywhere). Our teachers responded to that flexibility. Now, three-fourths of the way through the school year, I see learner-centeredness between 25-50% of the time.  

We celebrate our bright spots in our monthly newsletter. We give shoutouts and acknowledgements in our staff meetings. Partnering with the Office of Innovation, we continue to offer opportunities for our staff to learn more through school visits, more Pioneer Lab Teams, collaborative professional development with other schools engaged in similar journeys, and reflective blogposts like this one. We are very excited that the spirit is catching!

As a school leader, I know my role is to help set the vision and mission, as well as advocate for innovation and create capacity for it. I address fears (the fear of the unknown, fear of change of district leadership, fear that that changes in central office priorities could derail our momentum, fear that change will mean chaos).

I also know that as a school leader I need supports. It's crucial that we have our Director of Innovation who focuses on the redesign work. In other schools BPS Innovation has Innovation Leads who operate in a similar capacity. Having this Central Office point team that can provide change management coaching and other resources is enormously useful. Above all, it's crucial that our superintendent, Tommy Chang, understands and promotes the work.

Igniting Innovation: Yusuf Hamdan, High School Team

I was in the cafeteria with over a hundred colleagues as a new initiative was announced to remake our 9th grade and then eventually our school. We all quietly looked at each other and rolled our eyes, "this won't last" we whispered. We aren't bad teachers, in fact, we are remarkable but as teachers we must protect our students. Often it feels that our students become test subjects for large corporations, political parties, billionaires, and other removed adults looking to pat themselves on the back. But this time was different. Our grant came with resources and our administration worked methodically to guard against innovation fatigue and to build trust and buy in. The administration at TechBoston Academy used authentic private conversations with teachers, has included teachers in their decision making process, and clearly places empathy toward our students at the forefront. The way our school is approaching innovation has changed me from a skeptic to an advocate for innovation.

The spark began with a private conversation with our Chief Academic Officer about my placement for next year. I asked him "where do you want me" and he replied that he wanted me to be a part of our innovative 9th grade team. He gave me concrete feedback that showed genuine respect for my craft and trust in my vision. Our conversation left me feeling empowered to begin testing student-centered projects in my classroom. We met regularly and emailed into the late night about how to offer more choice, personalization, and relevance to my project for my American Revolution unit for students to design their own protests and for my Presidents Unit for students to offer advice to President Trump from the first presidents. My faith in my administration and the drive to innovate was further strengthened when our Director of Innovation asked me to attend an NGLC visit to the Bay Area to learn from innovative schools. The genuine trust the administration showed me was easy to reciprocate and to in turn trust the innovation process and begin testing innovative ideas in my classroom.

As I began to feel empowered as an innovative educator, I felt comfortable taking risks in the classroom and with administration. Our school began piloting advisory blocks, so I modified an advisory template I saw in California and facilitated a discussion intended to empower students and build agency within students to advocate for themselves at school. I have requested meeting after meeting with our Director of Innovation, Chief Academic Officer, and Headmaster and have been received with excitement. Our meetings touch on logistics, but are grounded in designing our innovation out of our empathy for our students...a key process of the design process. We discuss systems and programs that would uniquely help our population of students and motivate them to achieve at higher levels.

While I began this journey as a skeptic, I am continuing it as a valued member of a team of educators who innovate because our students deserve the best education. I am honored to be on this team that provides authentic feedback to teachers, puts teachers at the table, and puts empathy toward our students at the forefront of innovation.

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