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Cultivating a Positive Adult Culture: Find Ways to Say Yes

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By Jennifer Ferrari, Chief Schools Officer at Distinctive Schools, and Jin-Soo Huh, Executive Director of Personalized Learning at Distinctive Schools

It is easy to get excited about next generation learning and the new and emerging pathways that are opening up to our students. Classrooms look and feel like open office environments, with students buzzing about learning spaces designed with purpose and efficiency in mind.

In one corner, students put their heads together around a complex math task where they diligently strive to uncover the pattern in their problem. They gather around a table strewn with Unifix cubes, markers, poster paper and paper clips. They excitedly chatter about their thinking; the joy of collaboration even inspires dancing. In another corner of the room, with his feet kicked up on a futon, a student wearing headphones individually tackles conceptual ST Math games on his Chromebook. Meanwhile, at the center of the room, the teacher shows a group of students how to speed up their work by using an algorithm for the problem they just solved without one. Kids go about their business and do what they have to do to meet their learning targets. The reimagined classroom is alive and humming like a well-oiled machine.

When visitors come to see Distinctive Schools classrooms in action, they are inspired by what they observe and feel. Most of all, they are inspired by the joyful learning and strong sense of learner agency that they observe among students in their personalized learning environments. Visitors are brimming with questions and ideas about ways to transform their own classrooms and schools, and grapple with where to begin.

As the personalized learning movement continues to grow and gain traction across the country, it is essential that the true intent of the work is preserved. Student-centered teaching and learning, that which situates students at the core of all decisions and planning, aims to nurture each child to become a deep thinker and their own best teacher. Personalized learning cannot be reduced to fancy furniture and access to one-to-one technology; it's so much more. Personalized learning is a commitment from educators to do what it takes to ensure that all kids will be ready for their bright futures.

At the core of personalized learning is a positive adult culture that enables and encourages educators to study existing shortcomings in our schools and classrooms, and to collaboratively and passionately find innovative solutions. Andy Calkins, Director for Next Generation Learning Challenges, identified Distinctive Schools' adult culture as one of its distinguishing features. While there are many factors that contribute to Distinctive Schools' positive adult culture, here are a few examples of ways in which Distinctive Schools cultivates adult culture by empowering them to innovate and lead.

Empowering Educators to Innovate and Lead

At Distinctive Schools, leaders commit to building a strong adult culture in order to create "all-in" teams of innovators. Educators are directly involved in the decision-making processes at their schools, and they are encouraged to be bold in their thinking. Read more about how Chicago International Charter School (CICS) West Belden, the first school in the Distinctive Schools network to embark on shifting toward a personalized learning model, built their foundation for innovation in this case study developed in partnership with FSG.

On the solid foundation of a strong culture and celebratory spirit, Distinctive Schools educators are empowered to try new things and innovate. CICS West Belden Principal, Colleen Collins, shared that the secret to successful innovation is finding ways to say 'yes' to teachers' ideas and to get behind them in support of their efforts.

For example, CICS West Belden teachers Christina Hanna and Kelly Pollack presented at the recent ASU+GSV Summit about the idea they pitched to restructure a suite of rooms--including the old reading room--into a learning space where they could co-teach approximately 60 students in a multigrade setting. The expert teachers were proven leaders in personalized learning, and they had a crystal-clear vision and plan for their concept. Principal Colleen Collins found a way to say 'yes' to this teacher-generated idea, and by supporting them with the space and resources to reimagine their teaching and learning environment, magic happened. Throughout the school year, Hanna and Pollack worked tirelessly to create the most effective learning environment for their students, and improvement came with each iteration.  

Similarly, when the CICS Bucktown deans pitched their idea to transform their disciplinary practices to become more restorative and supportive of their students, their principal, Sarah O'Connell, found a way to say 'yes.' The team--some of whom also presented at the ASU+GSV conference this spring--articulated a clear vision for this transformation: they redefined their previously traditional disciplinarian roles to better support the development of students' social-emotional learning skills.

What did this look like in practice? They carefully planned and led a full-school transformation, which has led to decreased disciplinary referrals and suspensions. They participated in book studies, attended conferences, and rewrote their job descriptions to reflect their more proactive approaches and strategies to address discipline and provide student support. The team also led meaningful restorative justice learning opportunities for the CICS Bucktown staff, and educators participated in Mindful Practices trainings to promote healthy, responsive learning environments. Today, when visitors tour the CICS Bucktown campus, they can see and feel how students are loved and cared for, and they are inspired by the profound impact that this work has had on the entire school community.    

Ultimately, in order to sustain the evolution of personalized learning, it is essential to involve teachers in the process to nurture a palpable and contagious esprit de corps. At Distinctive Schools, educators are motivated and committed to providing fantastic learning opportunities for typically underserved kids, and they are energized by the possibilities that await them; as a result, they continually challenge themselves to reimagine education. Magic happens when leaders find ways to say 'yes' to their ideas. 

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