The innovative visions showing up on paper are strikingly different than what’s being put into practice.
Co-Creator, BlendED Academy
Learner-centered practices and innovative programming are showing up more frequently in the visions, missions, and directives of districts across the nation. However, what’s showing up on paper are strikingly different than what’s being put into practice. Beyond the attractiveness of trendy buzzwords, it appears many districts are simply unsure where to start once the words are drafted.
As part of the BlendED Academy at Jefferson High School in Cedar Rapids, IA, I have had the opportunity to take part in a collaboration that started with the same approach. A group of teachers came up with an idea to transform learning within our community. Those words made it on paper, and now we’re working to implement it to the level of a full-scale program.
Throughout this process, I’ve recognized ten lessons that can be applied to any school or district exploring a transformational journey of their own. The specifics from my experience are far less important than the higher level lessons. The practices put in place in your community must be tailored to the needs of your learners and community.
1. Start with Why (a la Simon Sinek)
Nearly five years ago, I began to ponder whether or not I wanted to remain a high school science teacher in the school district I was teaching in. I was frustrated by rising class sizes and the unfathomable percentage of students with IEPs or 504 plans in general education and co-taught classrooms. I felt as though I was working so hard to provide individual attention to each student that I was nearing burnout. I explored what other opportunities were out there that would challenge, yet still reward me (yes, there existed selfish thoughts).
What ultimately pushed me to stay and address the current issues facing our school were the students and feeling the need to do better by them. So, my why was pretty simple—my students.
2. Find Support
My next step was to find a group of like-minded teachers and begin to brainstorm solutions. I actually got with these fellow leaders in a seemingly haphazard way.
Upon having a few discussions with the administration at my current school, I reluctantly agreed to a meeting in which the objective was to start a program that would address some of the issues or barriers to freshmen success. The meeting was open to everyone in our building, yet only seven staff members chose to partake.
During the meeting, we brainstormed some of the things that plagued our freshmen students, including attendance, behavior, engagement, and social belonging. And, from this meeting, every collaborative conversation we have had since takes us back to our original discussions and question: What is the best thing for our current students? This question drives our work forward and guides each change we implement.
3. Create from What’s Available to You
The seven of us began unlearning everything we currently knew about how school was traditionally run. To discuss learner-centered solutions, we needed to start from scratch with as few barriers as possible. The one barrier set forth by our administration was that we had to teach the same standards that the rest of our building was teaching. A big barrier, but we were willing to work with it.
We began with a single question: Imagine, if you could design an educational experience for 14-16-year-old students, what would that look like?
We decided we needed to find a way for our students to accelerate through the content standards so we could free up time for project-based learning experiences that incorporated community members. We looked at the school schedule and determined if we co-taught the three core classes (language arts, mathematics, and science) for three consecutive periods, we could mess with the schedule during those three periods. We (including our students) determined we didn’t each need the traditional 52-minute class periods and five-minute passing period. We have determined that time should be the one consistent variable.
While BlendED Academy certainly advertises the benefits of our model, we also make sure that people are aware of the struggles that come along with trying something new.
Co-Creator, BlendED Academy
So, although our seminars are set at 30-minutes, the actual time for each learning target varies by student and must be determined by the student and teacher, together. Some of our students need the teacher for an entire three-hour block, while others may not need to see or work with the teacher at all for that day. So long as they are keeping up with a pace to keep them on track with what the administration has laid out for us, they determine the time requirements.
After making this discovery, we began building the foundation of our seminar model—we break the classes down into smaller time periods and students can self-select when and where they need direct instruction. This means that if a student is “on track” in relation to the standards, they will have additional time work on their projects. The projects that students work on are determined by a combination of the students’ passions and the needs of the community. We utilize a college and career planning tool to determine student interests and seek community members to collaborate with students on projects. Occasionally, we have community members reach out to us to ask how they can help and determine potential projects that students might enjoy.
4. Prepare for Push Back
Typically, when talking to schools and districts that are implementing innovative practices, you tend to only hear how wonderful everything is. While BlendED Academy certainly advertises the benefits of our model, we also make sure that people are aware of the struggles that come along with trying something new—particularly when it falls outside the traditional framework.
By living within a traditional school, it often feels as though there is a competition for who’s doing best by the students. Traditional educators can develop a perception that our model is aiming to push them out. Rather than seeing us as another path for our diverse learners to expand their potential, many feel threatened and endangered.
This perception can lead to unexpected impacts like ensuring class sizes match the norms of traditional schooling. We currently have an average class size between 20 and 35 students, which matches up with the rest of the building. While that serves to satisfy the staff in our building, it comes at the expense of some of the learner-centered goals of our program. Class sizes that large make it more difficult to combine two classrooms and allow teachers to take students to alternative locations for work on their community projects. Every member of our team is responsible for a large group of students at every point throughout the day.
In some sense, it has become cyclical. We began reimagining school because of burnout, and as we appeal to varying perceptions, we find ourselves dipping back into the struggle of providing our team with the flexibility to provide each student with the opportunities they deserve without exhausting the educators.
5. Create Space for Continuous Self-Reflection and Collaboration
One of our stopgaps to prevent burnout and attrition is our team’s commitment to collaborating and sharing the experiences, stories, and hardships of the day. We have a dedicated planning and lunch period that allows us to meet to discuss issues that arise, schedules for upcoming days, or plans for future events. During this time, we commit to conversations regarding our students, including things that might be going on with them in their lives outside of school, as well as behaviors we are seeing in school. We also constantly discuss ways to improve our practices—how to find more time to do more things, how to meet with all our students, and how to tweak our current system to meet our desired goals. We also revisit our goals and vision each year to determine what we want to look like and ways to improve.
6. Fail Hard, Fail Fast
We are currently on schedule variation number 1,542 (not an accurate number, though it feels this way). We were given the flexibility from both district and building leaders to make mistakes and the time to correct them. I want to make sure that at no point is failure the end result. The important thing is that we take our “failures” seriously and learn from them for continuous program improvement. We have changed many things from year-to-year to meet our goals.
The first goal is that the program must meet the students where they are. The second is that we deem it necessary to implement large-scale changes if we find new ways to tackle issues. We also recognize that when something is not going the way we would like it to, there needs to be an immediate correction on our end. Otherwise, we will fail our students over the long term.
I like to think along the lines of Elon Musk’s work with Tesla. Traditional car companies typically roll out a new car every year with minor corrections from last year’s model—forcing car buyers to purchase a new model year to get the improvements. At Tesla, most improvements are made with a “simple” software upgrade that provides the buyers with immediate corrections on their current vehicle (regardless of the year they made the purchase), reducing the need to roll out a “new” car each year. Our program operates in a similar manner: If something isn’t working, we collaborate to make changes for the benefit of the students, almost immediately.
7. Network and Learn from Other Programs and Schools
One of the most beneficial experiences for our team was the opportunity to visit some of the innovative programs in Waukesha, Wisconsin and invite their leaders to visit us. From Waukesha’s FLIGHT Academy, we picked up the idea that morphed into our Advisor Groups. At Waukesha North’s INSPIRE program, we liked the idea of breakout rooms and a type of seminar modeling. At Butler Middle School’s QUEST program, we liked the jobs that students participated in—QUEST functioned as a small community, and student engagement was evident. At Waukesha STEM Academy, we enjoyed seeing how they utilized the building and the scanners outside of each room that tracked attendance and availability. Most of our team went on one of two visits and were able to pick up things that we felt could apply to our program and students.
As the BlendED Academy has developed and grown, we have had the opportunity to reach out and show others what we have to offer and how we conduct learner-centered practices within a larger school. One of the hesitations of districts is how to allocate resources that can help promote and sustain these practices. What we have been able to show through hosting various districts and schools is that, with a few dedicated teachers and support from a district level, learner-centered practices can be a part of any building, with minimal resource reallocation.
BlendED has also provided me the opportunity to present and share our practices at a state and national level. For example, I have had the pleasure of presenting to small groups at the Iowa Competency-based Education (CBE) Collaborative. Additionally, I have been able to take students to present our practices and their experiences to the Iowa Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (IACTE), which is comprised of 32 teacher preparation programs in Iowa. The students discussed what their experience is like in the program and complemented the presentation on how best to prepare post-secondary education students for learner-centered practices.
8. Define Success
Through our seminar scheduling model, we have addressed most of the issues that affect our freshmen. We have shown that we have better attendance, engagement, and feeling of belonging. Each of our teachers now serves as an advisor to 35 students in our program. During advisor meetings, we begin by getting to know our students on a more personal level. We talk about life, interests, goals, and potential college and career aspirations. From these discussions, we ensure that the students understand there is an advocate for them at school and determine potential projects that might be of interest to them.
As a by-product, we have also shown increased proficiency and growth numbers on standardized tests, which has satisfied the needs of the district and state while moving our program forward.
What our team has come to pride ourselves on are the relationships and trust we have built with our students. Our belief is that relationships drive a student’s education. If we can build the relationship and trust with our students, we can get them to learn anything. When we couple that with weaving their passions into their education, they now have investment and ownership in their education.
When looking at programs that have implemented learner-centered practices in the past, many of them have struggled to find long-term sustainability. The factors that commonly contribute to this are a lack of support from district and/or building leadership; the attrition of leaders—teachers, administrators, state members—who helped guide the visioning process and implement the vision in the beginning stages; teacher burnout due to implementing too much, too soon; or the lack of a long-term vision.
There are a few things that have helped keep us going thus far. We have been given the ability to adjust to meet the needs of our students and adapt each year. We generally get along well as a staff. We are committed to the success of every student. And, we have committed time for collaborative planning and preparation each day.
We understand that changes will come and people will move on, so we need to be diligent in how we become sustainable when those changes occur.
Co-Creator, BlendED Academy
Additionally, the leadership is distributed with each one of us taking on roles and responsibilities; yet, we keep the group informed of every decision and action. One of the focuses has been to maximize what we do with very little financial allocation. Everything we have done comes from grants that are completed by the students or teachers, which eases the decision by the school and the district in terms of whether to support our initiative.
Up to this point, we have been fortunate enough to have retained our entire group of educators each year. We understand that changes will come and people will move on, so we need to be diligent in how we become sustainable when those changes occur. Program sustainability is something that I have been thinking about for a few years, since reading the book Better Together by Robert D. Putnam and Lewis M. Feldstein. The authors discuss the importance of program sustainability and highlight programs that aren’t simply driven by one person and would be able to survive if a visionary leader were to leave the program.
What is important for us moving forward is to focus on distributed leadership and every team member taking responsibility for certain aspects of our program. If a person leaves, we then must only fill in the missing piece and not the whole. Additionally, it is important to continually revisit the mission and vision of our program and ensure that everyone is committed to those core beliefs. If there is a fracture in the group, we can begin to expect the integrity of the program to diminish.
10. Vision for the Future
The important thing for BlendED moving forward is the vision for the future. Our district’s vision is Every Learner: Future Ready. This is something that needs to drive our work as we continue. As a team, we know where we want to be regarding the opportunities and experiences we need to provide for our students. Having attended the most recent Learning Lab Training in San Francisco, we now have the framework from which to operate, and the Lexicon, in particular, will help to guide our future discussions and the opportunities provided to our students. While we implement most of the five elements in the BlendED Academy, we need to shift to where they are evident on a daily basis, in every learning experience.