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Response: Leaders Must 'Walk the Walk' and Create a Culture of Innovation

(This is the second post in a three-part series.  You can see Part One here.)

The new "question-of-the-week" is:

How can school leaders (directors, principals) support curriculum innovations?


In Part One, Dr. Sanée Bell, Mark Estrada, Sally J. Zepeda, Adeyemi Stembridge, Kenneth Baum, David Krulwich, and Daniel Venables contributed their suggestions. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Sanée amd Mark on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, PJ Caposey, Amber Teamann, Matt Renwick, Paul Barnwell, and Mitch Barnes share their ideas.

Response From PJ Caposey

PJ Caposey is an award-winning educator, author of three books (Teach Smart, Building a Culture of Support and Making Evaluation Meaningful), and sought after speaker and consultant specializing in school culture, principal coaching, effective evaluation practices, and student-centered instruction. PJ currently serves as the Superintendent of Schools for Meridian CUSD 223 in Northwest Illinois and can be reached via twitter (@MCUSDSupe):

Innovate: To make changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas, or products.

Innovation is essential for education to be transformed. As educators our job is to create leaders for our changing society. We must prepare kids for their tomorrow, not our today. In order to stay relevant as a profession, we must continue to remain unfinished as individuals and dogged in our pursuit of the best possible strategies to reach our students. We must transform and revolutionize the way we reach kids - but this is not something school leaders can simply mandate takes place. In fact, this is one of the largest misconceptions regarding innovation is that it is something that can just happen or that can be mandated. Educational leaders can promote their teachers becoming innovative in the classroom in five very straightforward ways:

1) Build instructional competency

It is very difficult to introduce new and better methods of doing something without intimate knowledge of how that something works. Thus, for innovation to take hold in schools teachers must first know what great instruction looks like, what the most recent brain science is telling us, and already be more than competent in their craft. Those teachers are the ones that have the potential to build upon a current system with new and innovative ideas. The best thing a leader can do to promote innovation is to promote great practice in the current system.

2) Do not allow technology integration to be a choice

It is impossible to think of educational innovation and to not consider the use of technology. If a leader wants to foster a culture of innovation they must not allow the use of technology to be an option. While this is a rigid statement - it is impossible to be innovative in a digital society when not embracing the potential of technology in the classroom. Mandates generally do not produce innovation or change - but this is one item in which compromise is not an option.

3) Give Time

Innovation takes time and takes collaboration. Both of these things are infinitely valuable in schools. If a school leader truly wants to inspire innovation, they must be flexible and generous with time and opportunities to collaborate in district and out of district. Simply put, new thought takes time and often needs many iterations to be successful. Great leaders have the patience to allow the process to develop by giving time and the ability to interact with teachers (within and outside of their building) and their staff.

4) Model the Behavior

It is impossible to promote innovation and to be committed to old-school practices as an individual. The absolute best thing a leader can do to create a true culture of innovation is to walk-the-walk. It is hard to follow someone continually preaching the use of technology who never uses technology to communicate, present, or provide professional development.

5) Feel Free to Fail

One quick tangible item a principal or school leader could employ is a 'Feel Free to Fail' card. Giving out a business card inscribed Feel Free to Fail and telling staff that you expect to meet with them after they try something new and it flops is a great way to promote the mindset that teaching does not be perfect. This also allows a leader to have face-to-face conversations with people regarding instruction and how they are serving students. This idea promotes trying new things, collaboration, and allows for a leader to provide support to teachers as they are growing through the change process.

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Response From Amber Teamann

Amber Teamann is the principal of Whitt Elementary School in Wylie, Texas. She is an ASCD Emerging Leader and writes the popular blog, Love, Learn, Lead. Connect with Amber on Twitter @8Amber8:

The most important thing a school leader can do to support curriculum innovation (or ANY innovation) is to get into the "say yes" mindset. If there is a safety concern, then say no, but otherwise get in the habit of saying yes. If your building feels they can come to you with an out of the box idea, and you are going to support it, then you will begin to see little bursts of innovation & that spark will catch fire and SPREAD.

Now, saying yes, doesn't mean you just let all rational thinking go out the window, you can definitely ask questions that lend themselves to a positive parameter setting discussion. I like to use "Tell me more..." or "What are you looking to see accomplished with this idea?" to let my teachers know that I am ok with the risk, but that there is always accountability. I saw a teacher this past year push himself way outside his boundaries just because I supported what he asked to do. I volunteered my time in his classroom when he was attempting his project, and I laughed along with him as the students failed, and failed again, only to find success when they'd almost given up. Imagine if he had panicked when it didn't go the way he wanted it too, the first time with me in the room. I asked him to come share his reflections with me later in the week and he said one of the smartest things I'd heard in a while, "You never know what your students don't know until you ask them to create something."

If I'd shot his idea down, or resisted his efforts to do something different than his teammates, not only would his students have missed out on some creative learning, but I'd have missed an incredible bonding opportunity with a  staff member. He saw me as something he worked with, not just someone he worked for. 

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Response From Matt Renwick

Matt Renwick is an elementary school principal in Mineral Point, Wisconsin and author of multiple books, including 5 Myths About Classroom Technology: How do we integrate digital tools to truly enhance learning? (ASCD, 2015). Learn more about Matt on his website, mattrenwick.com, and by following him on Twitter @ReadByExample:

School leaders can support curriculum innovations by asking faculty to assess and determine where exactly the curriculum needs innovating. This can be done by providing teachers with time with their teams or departments to do a curriculum audit. That could include unpacking the standards that are being addressed, aligning standards with the essential understandings, revisiting the big questions within the unit to decide if they are effective in helping students think more deeply about the content, and ensuring that the performance task accurately assesses student understanding related to the goals and objectives of the curriculum.

Once the learning goals are vetted and the outcomes are aligned with these goals, teacher teams can take a closer look at the learning progressions. Teachers benefit from some type of framework for developing curriculum, such as Understanding by Design, along with training to use this approach when inquiring about better practices. Questions to ask include, "Do these activities effectively guide students to the essential understandings of the unit? Is the objective clear in each lesson? Are we differentiating our approach enough so all students can be successful? Will students find the learning experiences relevant in their lives?" If the answer is no to any one of these questions, then teachers will need more time to redesign the experiences.

In addition to time, structure and training, school leaders would be wise to allocate a certain portion of their building budget toward purchasing resources requested by teachers, once they have improved their curriculum in innovative ways. For example, teachers might conclude that their performance task which involves writing for a specific audience requires more hardware. This might lead to purchasing additional computing stations in order to increase the ratio of technology to student, as well as access to a larger community of readers via a blog or a website developed by the students. These resources also increase the authenticity of the work students are completing, as it resembles what learners do in the real world. When school leaders provide time, structure, training, and resources for teachers to innovate, the results can be impressive.

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Response From Paul Barnwell

Paul Barnwell serves as in a hybrid educator role in Louisville, KY, splitting his time between teaching English and Digital Media at Fern Creek High School and working on developing new professional learning systems. When not working on education-related issues, he enjoys writing, gardening, traveling with his wife Rebecca, bow-hunting, and playing bass:

While many school systems still adhere to graduation and course requirements tethered to the Committee of 10, a group of thinkers who determined the academic "canon" in 1890, fortunately there are ways in which school directors and principals can support curriculum innovations. Here are three ways in which this can occur:

Invite Teachers to Design Electives

When teacher passions and interests are invited to come alive in a school curriculum, enthusiasm is contagious. At Fern Creek High School in Louisville, KY, where I teach, principal Dr. Nate Meyer has been a great advocate for teachers designing dynamic elective courses to expand curricular offerings. We've got popular courses designed by teachers on Food Literacy, Global Issues, Digital Storytelling, among others, that wouldn't be possible without the support of our principal.

Embrace Varied Forms of Learning

In order for curriculum innovations to occur, building leaders should be willing to think about the purpose of school and a variety of outcomes for students. Developing young people into productive, healthy citizens isn't just about ensuring academic success.

For example, mental health issues, trauma, and stress are huge impediments to student learning. Offering programs personal wellness or mindfulness meditation, for example, are not aligned to traditional curriculums, but offer opportunities to support students' well-being and development. Or courses with elements of service-learning and empathy building, like this great example out of Colombia, South Carolina.

Challenge PLCs to Think Outside the Box

Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) have ushered in unprecedented teacher collaboration in many school systems, but a myopic focus on academic achievement data may actually thwart innovation. PLCS should be invited to engage in true professional inquiry, and here are five questions building leaders should encourage teams to consider.

Time is always an issue when it comes to collaboration and innovation, and it's easy to fall into a routine rut, during which conversations about new ways to approach teaching and learning fall by the wayside. Building leaders should encourage all collaborative teams to critically ask why they are discussing what they do, to what end, and what other perspectives or approaches might be valid in enhancing teaching and learning.

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Response From Mitch Barnes

Mitch Barnes is Principal of Braymer High School in Braymer, Missouri:

Getting out of the Rut: How Principals Can Support School Change

Four years ago Braymer High School participated in the National Writing Project's College Ready Writers Program (CRWP). CRWP is a professional development program focused on argument writing. For my school this has been a tremendous experience. As a result of this professional development opportunity, I want to share a few things I have learned about how principals support school change.

  • The Principal is the variable for the staff: This idea is not my own. If you have read Todd Whitaker's work: What Great Principals Do Differently: Fifteen Things That Matter Most, you are familiar with this concept. If administrators support and participate in an initiative, the chances of its success are very high. What is important to an administrator is what gets monitored. Unfortunately, much of what gets monitored in schools is not academic. I gave the project my support, attention and participation. I attended conventions, meetings, and conferences; wrote alongside my staff; attended the our local writing project's Invitational Summer Institute to qualify as a NWP Teacher Consultant; mentored new staff in regards to argument writing; encouraged all content area teachers to implement argument writing into their classes. I even wound up with 12 graduate hours in English. Principals cannot use the excuse that time prevents their involvement: they don't have time not to be involved!

  • The Teacher is the variable in the classroom: This is also a Whitaker idea. The individual teacher in the individual classroom is the greatest variable to an initiative's success or failure. Good teachers are always learning. I will soon move into my 3rd decade of educational experience and I am still learning. I have learned at least two things from everyone I have met. How to be and how not to be. How to act and how not to act. How to treat others and how not to treat others. Was that two or six? You get the idea.

Here's a list of some of what we learned to do in the College-Ready Writers Program:

  • Create low-stakes routine argument writing
  • Teacher a variety of mini-units focusing complex claims, selecting and organizing evidence, writing Op-Eds.
  • Forwarding and Countering textual evidence
  • Identify students' Funds of Knowledge
  • Responding to, assessing, and making multimedia arguments

Does my list excite you? Teaching is a great adventure and as an administrator I want teachers who understand they are the difference makers.

  • Good principals model and embrace strategies that improve teachers' effectiveness: CRWP asked a lot of teachers. They had to learn new ways to teach writing, new approaches to argument, new terminology. And they had to stop doing some of what they were doing. Our local writing project provided support for questioning and deep conversations, and we learned from them. We changed, and we are better for it. Was it hard? Yes, change is hard, but when we were notified that 10 of our students would receive Scholastic Writing Awards, we knew that change was right.

  • Good teachers model and embrace strategies which improve student success: Lead by example, write with them. This advice is for administrators as well as teachers. When we got involved with the Writing Project, I had not written for anything other than work for years. I re-discovered the joy of writing. In the classroom what better example could you have to show students than your own piece of work? Likewise, if you do the work yourself, you get the feel of exactly what you are asking for. I have filled page after page the past few years while being involved in the Writing Project and its work.  At one session, the leader brought a large bag of shoes and placed them all around the room. We were to pick a pair of shoes and write about them.  Here is what I wrote:

Walk a mile in my shoes:

"I am drawn to this tiny black shoe, perhaps the smallest shoe of all, it reminds me of our life's greatest tragedy as we approached the fall. She lived only sixteen days, everyone said she was so strong, but then came the day that it all went so wrong.  My granddaughter was so precious, tender, and sweet, this shoe reminds me of her little feet. Would she have been an athlete, an artist, a dancer, we do not know, God has chosen for it to be so."

Our experience at Braymer with NWP, and CRWP, was fantastic and it was all made possible because of the leadership of our local site, the Prairie Lands Writing Project.  At Braymer we have learned much, changed much, and are better for it.

Works Cited

DeWitt, Peter, and Todd Whitaker.  "Already Said It."  Education Week Blog. 20 Oct. 2015.  Web. 20 Oct. 2015.

Whitaker, Todd. What Great Principals Do Differently: 18 Things That Matter Most. New York: Routledge, 2012. Print.

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Thanks to PJ, Amber, Matt, Paul and Mitch for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected]. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it's selected or if you'd prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form.  It's titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder--you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email or RSS Reader. And, if you missed any of the highlights from the first five years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below. They don't include ones from this current year, but you can find them by clicking on the "answers" category found in the sidebar.

This Year's Most Popular Q & A Posts!

Classroom Management Advice

Student Motivation & Social Emotional Learning

Implementing The Common Core

Race & Gender Challenges

Best Ways To Begin & End The School Year

Brain-Based Learning

Teaching Social Studies

Project-Based Learning

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I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributers to this column.

Look for Part Three in a few days...

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