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Innovation in Real Time, Part III

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By Lisa Renzi, Gretchen Lafond, Jennifer Nicol, and Sujata Bhatt

Educators as Designers: Lisa Renzi, Middle School Team

As our school has begun to adopt a more learner-centered approach, we have frequently struggled to turn our ideas into meaningful, structural change. The logistical, financial, and operational obstacles to innovation can be frustrating. As a classroom teacher, I am often baffled at how quickly time slips through my fingers; my exciting ideas for transforming my classroom into a more learner-centered environment are often the first casualty of a busy schedule.

The Mass IDEAS School Design Institute--a weekend-long experience created by Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC)--challenged our team to rediscover the knowledge that when our systems don't work for students and families, we can and should redesign them to function more effectively. For me, one of the most liberating concepts was the idea that while school communities often approach school design with a fear of the unknown and worst case scenario expectations, it is possible to redesign in a way that incorporates the expectation that some of our ideas may fail, but that failure itself is part of the design process. Participating in the Institute was such an inspiring process because it allowed our team to experience the adventure of innovation without the stress and pressure of the daily business of a school going on around us.

Failing Forward: Gretchen Lafond, Middle School Team

Our school is great, but it could be better. And like many other schools, 'it could be better' turns into implementing the latest fad in education reform, resulting in short-term changes, frustration, and an exhausted return to where we started.

Our students are half-heartedly engaged in our classrooms, at times only participating to avoid failing the class. Many of our students feel stuck in a mundane routine, feeling powerless and ignored. And so many teachers are working tirelessly to change this--but working tirelessly is another problem. Transforming a classroom requires resources, like time, money, and brainpower. Transforming a classroom or a school requires long-term staff interdependency, collaboration, creativity, and bravery.

Many teachers are, or at least try to be, fearless in the face of change, but on the inside we're plagued with questions: If I make this change, will my students be able to show content mastery? Will my students progress through the curriculum at the proper pace? Will my administrator 'sign off' on this? Will families? Will the district? Considering all these questions, fear seems to be a sensible response. Is all this worth trying to fix something that isn't really broken?

I've often said that if I had x-sum of money, I would do this with my students or that to my classroom. The question driving all my in-class micro-transformations is: What does an authentic and meaningful education look like for our students?

Enter the Mass Ideas Design Institute. Mass Ideas and NGLC presented an opportunity to think critically about our school with other like-minded yet diverse teams invested in creating classrooms that help students thrive.

Our students are 'vibrant, diverse, and talented'. During the Institute, we decided to describe our students in this way, not in an attempt to negate other realities many of our students face, but to remove the shadow unfairly cast on them by labels they cannot control. I think we're all willing to take this a step further and give our students the tools they need to define themselves.

The Mass Ideas Design Institute was surprisingly low-tech, especially for TBA teachers. We used sharpies, poster paper, and lots of Post-It notes (sorry, Earth). And I loved it! There was something powerful about the process of putting pen-to-paper--watching our ideas become real in a sense, then placing those ideas on a poster where all could see. The benefits of being in a room with like-minded designers (including two fearless students) were seeing some of the trends in our own ideas, sharing (and releasing) our fears, and drafting--not just dreaming--together. The demands we often place on our students were placed on us: think critically, think with different people, think without fear. Now do!

Going forward, I plan to see hope in failure. The concept of failing forward has helped assuage many fears. Knowing that we will fail the first time is oddly calming; what we learn from failure is what we earn.

To counter the dreaded 'fad reform' cycles we all seem to have experienced, we've decided to spread our middle school redesign across several years, with many checkpoints along the way, to create enduring improvements. Our team will embed a continuous reflection and feedback cycle that engages all stakeholders, and primarily, our students. We had a collective 'a-ha' moment, realizing that our students should be at the heart of this work as agents of change. Our first phase involves sixth graders designing their ideal school (just like we did), receiving similar guidelines and facilitation.

We do not have any solutions for the problems we named during the Institute, but we have a better framework to identify them. We have a little less fear and a little more hope.

Spreading Innovation: Jennifer Nicol

As a result of work done by Lisa Renzi and Gretchen Lafond, as well as their colleagues Allie Cohn, Dan Witsil, and Emily Griggs, this spring TBA students, parents, and community members will participate in a design experience modeled after the Mass IDEAS School Design Institute. Spring Professional Development has been reimaged to allow for necessary planning time. The bell schedule and curriculum maps have been altered to provide ample time for students to apply the design process to their TBA experience. Thanks to the critical support of co-headmasters Nora Vernazza and Keith Love, financial resources are being reallocated to support this work.

TechBoston Academy's innovation journey is bumpy but forward-moving. We are committed to redefining expectations for open-enrollment high-needs public schools from simply high test scores to authentic student empowerment through ownership of learning and school culture. We will support students in their work to be fully actualized agents of change.

The District View: Sujata Bhatt

From a district-level perspective, we are thrilled at the work taking place at TBA. We had hoped that the initial Barr Foundation-MIT-STEAM Studio spark (mentioned in our first Innovation in Real Time blog post) would spread energy and excitement for redesign throughout the school, and it happened faster than we imagined! As TBA redesigns its future, we look forward to continue to resource the school through change management and storytelling support, as well as grant writing and networking opportunities. We hope that this bright spot inspires other BPS schools to embark on their own student-centered redesign journeys.

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