Wednesday, November 28, 2012

New Tech vision

As part of my work with the Collaborative for Teaching and Learning and the Buck Institute for Education I've recently had the opportunity to visit two radically innovative yet different schools. A few weeks ago I spent a day at ACE Leadership Academy, a charter school in Albuquerque, NM, and shared my thoughts in a post. Earlier this week I joined the CTL staff for an Executive Tour at Columbus Signature Academy, a New Tech Network public school in the heart of Indiana.
Upon entering CSA the first thing you notice is the radically different physical space. This former auto parts warehouse has been redesigned by an architectural team that listened to the needs and wants of the leadership team. There are classrooms but they tend to be more open than the traditional pillboxes where most teachers ply their craft. That openness extends to the culture that has been created for and by staff and students using the basic tenets of project based learning. 
Our tour started in a conference room with a generation of Knows and Need to Knows as well as a Driving Question all led by two female students who were very well spoken and confident in dealing with this small group of adults. The importance of that process became more evident as we walked the school and talked with various students and facilitators (the artists formerly known as teachers) about their learning. As students worked we observed these Need to Know lists being put to good use as a guide for the learning necessary to complete the project. For teachers and students these lists serve as a formative assessment and the meta-cognition is invaluable. Our group loved the "feel" of the school as we noted the sense of calm and purpose that students approached their work. 
As a part of the New Tech Network technology certainly was an integral part of what goes on at CSA but surprisingly it doesn't really feel like a "tech first" school. Yes, it's a 1:1 environment where students have access to more tech tools than many traditional school students but it's an embedded, organic part of the process instead of a dog and pony show where tech was used for tech's sake. 
Having visited other New Tech Network schools the similarities of authentic and purposeful student work and technology were evident but this school has placed an emphasis on culture and it shows. Schools engaged in PBL tend to have a positive culture but CSA intentionally teaches and assesses the building blocks of culture as school wide learning outcomes. I noticed some differences in their application of PBL from my ideal but they were not far from it and the embrace of systems and protocols like Critical Friends ensures that they will continue to make great progress in their teaching and learning.
I did wonder why New Tech Network suggests math be taught in more of a problem based learning context.  I'm not a math expert but it seems math as a subject area fits with projects as well as any other. I also noticed some activities that did not seem as tightly connected to the actual Need to Knows of the projects and at least one project where the teacher was to be the audience. Knowing that this was a snapshot without extended information jumping to conclusions is not fair but in the design of schools and instruction learning is the top priority and I see those elements as key components in that learning. It could be argued that because of their innovation they are under more scrutiny and it's more important that students are getting what they need to be college and career ready otherwise they'll be easy targets for detractors. Designing for student engagement is of utmost importance to me so I did wonder about the level of voice and choice students at CSA had in their projects. They certainly were able to approach the projects from different angles but what if the project topic was not particularly interesting? PBL is inherently more engaging but on an intellectual level, I wonder how we might design and plan for the emotional do we include student's passion in their work?
I came away from this visit energized and excited. I would love to see more schools embrace this type of vision, including the school my daughter attends, and I wonder how to make that happen. It's not enough to merely be innovative, which in itself is no small task, it's about a vision that includes a long term plan where any innovation is purposeful in addressing a need in that plan. While I might tweak a few things if I were designing a school, New Tech Network does a good job of helping schools with the planning and support for intentional innovation centered on meaningful and rewarding work for students and staff.
I'll end this post with a Driving Question of my own and invite you to suggest revisions: How can we, as education leaders, move our education systems to better meet the needs of 21st Century students? What are your Need to Knows?  

Friday, November 16, 2012

A study in chaos - ACE Leadership High School

Earlier this week, along with other National Faculty members of the Buck Institute for Education, I shared the opportunity to visit ACE Leadership High School in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Under considerable direction and guidance from fellow BIE NF Tim Kubik it's clear that ACE is changing lives and is perhaps a model for changing high school as most of us know it. With the understanding that this school is a work in progress, in it's infancy actually, ACE has it's faults, problems, and challenges but as Principal and Co-Founder Tony Monfiletto noted during our visit, lives are being saved here.
ACE (Architecture, Construction, and Engineering) is a charter school in a public-private partnership with AGC - New Mexico. Even those most critical of charter schools have to take notice of the successes here as a great example of how, when freed from some of the traditional constraints and parameters, schools can meet the needs of even the most challenging populations. And make no mistake about it, this school does indeed serve a challenging population. If I recall correctly there are currently 290 students (with plans to grow to over 400), mostly Latino, who think of school as unnecessary and irrelevant. Actually as I walked and talked during my visit I saw only one young lady with blonde hair, one African-American, and one young man who appeared to be white. The focus is on educating low income students of color and with the local industry clearly tied to a work force that is nearly 90% Latino, of which 50% are without a high school diploma, this connection makes sense for all parties involved. 
The incentive for AGC's investment is access to a more skilled work force and ACE helps provide that by building capacity in students using effective project based learning. ACE emphasizes the three C's of Collaboration, Communication, and Client Driven. The latter is important in this context as their mission "is to prepare young people to have successful careers in the construction profession." To increase the relevancy and authenticity students do real work on real projects for real clients including a rubric used to teach and assess "Client Driven" work. This rubric includes three categories; deriving value, innovative solutions, and professionalism...all from the client perspective. Just as teachers and schools should be focused on student needs, the ACE students are pushed to understand their work is primarily about the client and it's in this context that they ask students, "what are you doing to build your reputation today?"
ACE Leardership Morning Meeting
The distinct difference in climate going on here was palpable. This is a chaotic environment. There were no "classes" for students to rotate through. There was very little of the "sit and get" traditional didactic teaching. Instead students and teachers started their day huddled together with general announcements from all parties involved, including students, and then transitioned to short advisory groups for direction from teachers/advisors for their morning projects. Then all hell broke loose and students began working. Some stayed in those small rooms while others retreated to corners and more comfortable work spaces throughout the building with teachers floating through to support that work. Were there some students off task? Of course, and the ideal of 100% engagement was just that, an ideal. But in thinking of how real adults work, is 100% engagement realistic? Instead this was a place where student behavior and thinking were being shaped by the culture to norms and expectations that would help make them successful in the present and future and sometimes that looks messy.
One concern I did come away with is how effectively they are teaching all areas of content. While math and science are natural fits helping students understand key historical content seems a bit more difficult. For instance, how does one shoehorn D-Day into a project about construction without it feeling contrived? It takes some creativity and a full embrace of the necessary paradigm shift but perhaps it makes sense when you start considering the rebuilding that takes place in the years after major wars. ACE is grappling with this problem in much the same way their students are struggling with their projects and while these kinds of issues are sure to be fodder for opponents of charters and non-traditional education my hope is that this will open the doors to questions we need to discuss to move forward. Is it time to question the content? Is it what you know or what you know how to do? As a former US History teacher I must confess that I almost never made it through the content that grows yearly and I know I'm not alone. Nearly any teacher will agree that depth is better than breadth and one has to wonder the impact of the trade-off of creating lifelong learners and contributors to society instead of repositories of facts that might excel on Jeopardy. In the meantime I'd like to reflect on Tony Monfiletto's statement referenced earlier in a way that is important in the context of extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation. I'm not so sure that this school is saving the lives of these kids as much as I'm sure that this school is equipping these kids to save their own lives. As messy as that might look I'll take that every single day over a set of test scores.