The most important lesson we learned from it all was yes, a conventional district can fruitfully engage in a transformative process without immediately turning back to what’s familiar and comfortable.
Salisbury Township School District is a small public school district located on the south side of Allentown, Pennsylvania. The district represents a single municipality covering less than 12 square miles and serves approximately 1,600 students across four school buildings.
I have been an educator at Salisbury Township since 1995, but it was in 2015 when my concept of what education could be completely shifted. I, along with my colleague, Randy Ziegenfuss, coincidentally came across a recently published document called “A Transformational Vision for Education in the US.” We immediately knew we had found something truly transformational.
Almost immediately after our discovery, we began engaging stakeholders (educators, parents, board members, learners) in a year-long visioning process driven by two questions:
- What are the skills, knowledge/literacies, and dispositions our graduates will need to be successful?
- What kinds of learning environments will best foster the development of these competencies and qualities?
Once this process was complete, we came away from the experience with two foundational assets—our Learning Beliefs (based on Education Reimagined’s five elements) and Profile of a Graduate. These two documents have been the engine of our work for the past three years and counting.
When we first engaged stakeholders in 2015, we knew transformation had to be a human-first endeavor. And, we knew professional learning (and unlearning) would be critical to our success in transforming our learning environments from school-centered to learner-centered.
Over the span of four school years, we have been collaborating as a district leadership team to plan and implement Leading #YourSalisbury professional learning to help us take ground in realizing our vision. Because the learner-centered movement will only sustain itself through the sharing of knowledge across learner-centered models, I want to showcase how the Leading #YourSalisbury cohort model has evolved over time and elevate the learning and reflection that led to its many iterations.
Embracing my best impression of Lewis Carroll, let’s “begin at the beginning” and over the course of this series of articles, we will continue “till we come to the end; then stop”—exploring how our professional learning and transformation journey has evolved.
In year one (2016-17) as Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning, I collaborated with Superintendent, Randy Ziegenfuss, Ed.D. and Ross Cooper, Supervisor of Instructional Practice, to develop a district-wide Leading #YourSalisbury cohort. We collectively decided the goal of the cohort would be to build a shared understanding of the:
- Salisbury Township School District (STSD) Profile of a Graduate (the knowledge, skills, and dispositions we want our learners to have when they graduate);
- STSD Learning Beliefs (forward-thinking ideas that guide instructional planning); and
- The Profile of a Graduate’s 4Cs (communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creating).
With these goals driving the work, we had to determine how best to navigate the financial and time considerations for the district and the cohort’s participants throughout the academic year. How could we provide a transformational experience, while sticking to our budget (considering the financial cost of substitutes) and conferring with participants on their availability to take time away from their classroom and administrative responsibilities?
After gaining a full picture of everything we needed to consider, we landed on six professional learning days—three full-day sessions with all four building teams together and three full-day sessions where individual building teams would meet together to implement building-specific action plans.
All Building Meetings
Our first full-day session took place in October 2016. Our focus areas included:
- Building a deeper understanding of the Profile of a Graduate and Learning Beliefs, as well as the capacity to share our understanding;
- Discovering how to use the 4Cs as an entry point to the profile;
- Understanding the importance of social media to tell our story and connect outside the classroom; and
- Identifying places to find resources to support this work.
The day began with an invitation for teachers to self-assess their understanding of the Profile of a Graduate. Teachers reviewed the profile and identified their areas of strength and need. This self-assessment grounded teachers in a shared desire to develop a common understanding of our district vision.
Once grounded in self-understanding, we shifted our focus to the skills portion of the Profile of a Graduate. Employing a group ChalkTalk and two tools—Investigating the 4Cs and an Introductory Video, we created a well-rounded understanding of the 4Cs. Before jumping into any conversations about implementation strategies, we needed to ensure every building leadership team was aligned in how they related to the 4Cs.
It’s no secret to anyone working in education that language matters. For example, when I talk about the importance of communication, one person could interpret that as “clearly telling a student what to do,” while another thinks communication is about “having a two-way, co-created conversation between teacher and learner.” If individual perceptions were not given the space to be stated, we would find ourselves in troubled waters from the start.
Knowing how much synergy had been created throughout this process, we needed to make sure we could communicate that synergy so this work continued having support from the Board and community.
After orienting around the 4Cs, we dug even deeper by inviting participants to create a Frayer model of critical thinking for each of the 4Cs. Speaking of language, it might seem odd we used a critical thinking model to explore critical thinking (one of the 4Cs), but it was a great practice all the same. The Frayer model is a “graphic organizer for vocabulary building.” Our models included: Examples, Non-Examples, Characteristics, and Definitions.
Following this, we shifted the conversation to tools and strategies that would enable these leaders to build critical thinking skills within themselves and their learners. Teachers explored Thinking Protocols, which are used to structure conversations and/or writing activities that scaffold critical thinking. Teachers identified lessons/activities they could utilize to support learners as they verbalize their thinking. While reviewing the resources, teachers considered the following guiding questions:
- How can thinking protocols be used to teach critical thinking?
- Which protocols would be effective at your level?
- Identify one protocol that could be used in your grade level/department.
We saw a variety of ideas emerge that were connected to these questions. Referencing protocols like Connect, Extend, Challenge; Creative Questions; and Compass Points, leaders began seeing how the work we engaged in leading up to this conversation could connect to a reimagined teaching practice.
Expanding our Professional Learning Network
The size of an individual educator’s Professional Learning Network used to be dependent on attending large education conferences, cross-district professional development opportunities, and other in-person gatherings. Today, we can create global networks by the simple click of a mouse. With personal experience engaging with educators from across the country and world, Randy, Ross, and I wanted to show our leadership cohorts the power of social media when used as a professional learning tool.
During this session, we had teachers review an article titled The “Twitter” Factor and invited them to consider their own experiences (personal and professional), any qualms they had about using the technology in support of their students and own personal growth, and what their next steps could be in this realm. As we venture down our learner-centered transformation journey, we know we must iterate with each other and take advantage of lessons learned in other communities.
Before ending our first full session, we wanted to take a step back and invite teams to share their hopes and fears about venturing down this transformational path. It was important to hear everyone’s voices. Teachers worked to complete the Hopes and Fears protocol (Adapted), which focuses on a triad of “think, feel, and do”:
- I think the vision is…
- I imagine implementing part of it will be like…
- I believe these aspects will be easier to implement because …
- I believe these aspects will be harder to implement because…
- This idea of implementing the vision makes me feel…
- It motivates me to…
- It demotivates me to…
- This changes my routine by…
- It requires new actions, such as…
- It makes me want to do (or not do)…
The conversations from this activity helped us reflect on our work and identify needs for the second whole group session. Participants wanted more time to reflect on their ideas, and they wanted more time to make connections across grade levels and buildings. They were also ready to learn more about the learning beliefs, as their confidence and understanding of the Profile of a Graduate increased.
Three months after our first session, all four building teams were back together in January 2017. We began the morning with each building team sharing their successes and challenges of taking the first session’s reflections and putting them into action. A few notable successes included: developing professional learning experiences in respective buildings (sharing ideas and tools from our first session); highlighting and showcasing students who demonstrate the dispositions as articulated in the Profile of a Graduate; and developing a disposition of the month to build language about this work with learners. These successes supported the development of a shared understanding across students and staff.
Teachers shared they’d faced challenges in managing time to effectively deliver professional learning to their staff members in their respective buildings; creating learning opportunities that were age-appropriate; finding time for planning; and maintaining momentum for this work in light of other educational and operational challenges. The constraint of time was a common theme as our teachers and leaders have very full plates.
In session one, we had focused on and gained fluency in the Profile of a Graduate. So, during this second session, we focused on building a shared understanding of our Learning Beliefs, which were directly inspired by the five elements introduced in Education Reimagined’s vision document. To connect ourselves more deeply to those beliefs, we identified two essential questions to keep at the front of our minds throughout the day:
- How do children and adults learn most powerfully and deeply in their lives?
- How does that happen for students and teachers in our schools?
Participants also read It’s a Paradigm Shift, So What? and employed a thinking routine (I used to think, but now I think) to share their reflections on the article.
Some standout reflections include:
- I used to think I knew what “learner-centered” meant, but now I’m not so sure. It is a shift in mindset, and once it clicks, education looks so different!
- I used to think that I had to be more school-centered when teaching, especially with young children, in order to model learning and behavior. Now, I think that even young children need more opportunities to use interests to explore and create their own learning.
- I used to think that young students needed more guidance to experiment in a learning-centered culture. Now, I think that providing more opportunities for choosing topics makes learning more meaningful and that allowing more flexibility in timelines may enable deeper learning to take place.
- I used to think that students learned best when an educator drove the instruction. Now, I believe that students can learn from their own self-driven ideas.
- I used to think my students should be engaged by my interests, but now I think I should have been making learning relevant by allowing them to dig into theirs.
We used these activities as formative assessments and guideposts for our future work. Throughout the transformation process, we have found it really powerful to have moments in time that we can look back on and say “look how far we’ve come”—particularly in moments where it may seem like little progress has been made. Our ambitions and goals are audacious, so we must celebrate every step we make in the right direction.
Other resources from Education Reimagined that expanded our teachers’ learning included:
Teachers used these resources (and more) to work together to create more Frayer models that explored each of the five elements identified in Education Reimagined’s vision document and adopted as our Learning Beliefs. Once again, we needed to ensure the language we used throughout the duration of the cohort’s training and when leaders trained teachers in their respective buildings was all aligned.
Throughout the rest of the second session, buildings continued working on their action plans in an effort to turnkey some of the content and develop teacher-led professional learning in their respective buildings. We also reconvened as a whole group to ask the question: How do we evaluate our work this year? We engaged in a dialogue about possible data sources, including: self-assessments, evidence from staff meetings, pre/post-conferences for teachers’ observations, and photos from Twitter, etc.
Finally, in May 2017, we conducted the third whole group session. We again began with some reflection:
- What did we learn?
- Where did we succeed?
- Where did we fail?
With each new question, the sharing grew in length, which showcased how connected the group was becoming. Everyone was open and vulnerable as they shared examples and challenges they experienced during the spring semester.
As this was our final whole district session, we spent some time working with participants to think about telling the story of our work. Knowing how much synergy had been created throughout this process, we needed to make sure we could communicate that synergy so this work continued having support from the Board and community.
Each building added slides to a presentation which we shared with the community at a Curriculum Meeting later that month. Building teams added key activities and outcomes from their action plans, as well as photos to document what was happening. At the meeting, each building team presented to the Board, enabling the Board to get a picture of the work underway and to raise their questions. It made a major difference to have this designated time during the third session for building teams to prepare and practice for these presentations.
Following this work, we had prepared for some flexible time that allowed us to collaborate around any areas of interest the cohort wanted to explore more deeply before heading into summer break and as they planned for more improvements in the fall. A few teachers expressed a shared interest around open-walled learning (one of the Learning Beliefs).. Having tackled so much higher level thinking, we wanted to look at some specific examples of how open-walled learning can show up within a learner-centered context.
We explored “place-based learning” and “project-based learning” as two terms that are educational buzzwords, but when applied within a learner-centered context, take on a whole new meaning.
For place-based learning, we read, What is place-based education and why does it matter? And, 5 Levels of Place-Based Learning Implementation. As participants read, they considered what work they already saw themselves or colleagues doing related to place-based learning and open-walled learning, what most excited them about what could be done, and any barriers or limitations they saw to this kind of work.
After completing the reading, teachers again used the thinking routine: I used to think, but now I think… Here are some of the responses:
- I used to think that service learning and entrepreneurial skills were part of extracurricular activities and not necessarily a part of traditional classroom curriculum.
- I used to think connecting with the community was difficult, now I think there are many avenues to reach a community connection.
- I used to think that only young children learned best through “play”. This applies to all learners. PBL is learning through play at many levels. As the article quotes, “anytime, anywhere learning” should not just be applied to connecting to wifi, but should be to having the students physically interact with the outside world.
To explore project-based learning (PBL), we asked participants to identify connections between PBL and open-walled learning. We shared multiple resources including: Hacking PBL Launch Pad, Buck Institute for Education, Edutopia – Project-Based Learning topic page, Getting Smart, and IDEO Education.
It’s quite the understatement to say we learned a lot during our first attempt at the Leading #YourSalisbury cohort. But, the most important lesson we learned from it all was yes, a conventional district can fruitfully engage in a transformative process without immediately turning back to what’s familiar and comfortable. In the surveys we conducted to help evaluate our work together, there were so many successes for the entire district and individual building teams to celebrate. And, many exciting areas for growth in the upcoming year.
The biggest area of growth that was identified was an even deeper and shared understanding of our district vision. During the second year, this was our cohort’s main focus. Once that shared understanding was clearly established, we took our two years of work and scaled from a cohort model to a district-wide implementation model, which we will explore in part two of this article series.