During this 2-hour listening session, I had the opportunity to hear and record the ideas of our district’s 16 elementary school principals. As in the previous sessions, I asked these participants a series of questions in order to get to the heart of what they wanted education to look like.
The first question was meant to help us center on the students:
In what ways should children benefit from their school experience?
As in every session, one of the first responses was to provide children with the academic, social, and emotional skills to be a successful adult and to provide a sense of their own futures. But the responders also talked a lot about the children’s present. They desired children to gain learning, thinking, and problem solving skills. They wanted students to have enthusiasm and a natural desire and curiosity for learning. They also wanted their students to build their own character, feeling a sense of belonging, being unafraid to take risks, feeling that it is safe to mess up, and having the confidence to state their opinion, even if it’s different from that of the adults they are interacting with.
They wanted students to explore what interests them – to have the opportunity to discover where their passions lie and what their dreams are (including fine arts, etc.). They talked a lot about opportunity, listing opportunities of a wide range, those that tie in real-life experiences, and arts appreciation and involvement. The participants also wanted to offer a sense of citizenship among their students, nurturing kids that accept culture and diversity, are involved in their community, have a mind towards social action, and the capacity to strive for both individual and team success. They addressed the core content too, acknowledging its importance along with that of providing good teachers and giving kids the skills to conduct both simple and complex research. And they wanted kids to have fun.
Give the current accepted definition of a successful student.
- Proficient or above
- Pass the test
- Follow the rules
- Show up every day
- Get it right
- College bound or career ready
- Solid work ethic
Now imagine you were given the opportunity to define what makes a successful student. How would you define what that is?
- Shows growth
- Compassionate, happy, curious
- Engaged, eager to learn
- Has ownership of learning
- Flexible thinker
- Physically, artistically, academically, socially, and emotionally stretched – and stretched beyond specific interests
- Has friends, is confident, a team player
- Problem solver
- Basic needs/resources provided to all
- Success regardless of income or home life
From here, we launched into the first small group exercise. These are some of the questions they considered:
- Think about yourself, your own children, your students
- Without any influence of peer principals, superintendents, parents, federal standards, etc., – you are accountable only to the students – how would you transform education?
- What excites your students? What do they want to do and learn about?
- Do you see a difference in helping them grow up to become what and/or who they want to be and helping them be the best kid they can be now (is education always planning for the future, or is some of it simply beneficial for students’ present?)
- In your experience, how do kids learn best? What types of activities engage them the most?
- How do you learn and create at home?
I can’t list everything they mentioned here (though if you want the full report at the end, let me know!), but the themes were very familiar to those of the previous sessions.
Physical Space and Tools: They talked a little about the physical space and tools, primarily emphasizing the need for resource-rich, flexible spaces that are open and have walls/furniture, etc. that can be moved. They wanted the space to nurture collaboration and to incorporate plenty of technology. They also discussed the need to make technology equitable for all students.
The Arts: There was a lot of talk promoting more and integrated arts, offering plenty of opportunities for creating.
Physical Health: A lot of folks talked about the need for students to get up and move throughout the day; they emphasized the need for increased fitness too, mentioning Phy. Ed. and the possibility of incorporating equipment such as treadmills into the school building. Offering “three square meals” was also mentioned.
Student-Centered Environment: This was a huge theme of the afternoon. The principals desired strength-based education that involved students as problem solvers and decision makers. They suggested students be a part of guiding their own learning and tracking their own progress, setting individual learning goals, and having choice. The ideas of flexible, non-graded, ability- or interest-based grouping, or “walking to learn” (where a child can walk to a different class/grade to get instruction that better meets his/her needs) were suggested several times. They wanted to encourage students to take risks, so they emphasized the need to shift to an environment in which it was safe to mess up.
Learning Modes: Participants dreamed of a school that had integrated curricula, fostered global awareness, staffed involved, engaged teachers who use a variety of teaching styles, provided content-related field trips and real-life lessons (including exposure to empathy opportunities), offered spiraling curricula, and emphasized STEAM and project- or discovery-based learning.
Community: The particular school that is being considered in this visioning process will be built in Lincoln, ND, a small rural town that sits about 20 minutes away from the larger Bismarck area. This little town is expanding exponentially, largely due to the oil boom in the western part of the state. As a result, the needs of the town are quickly outstripping the established infrastructure. The principals talked about this point, and saw the new school building as an opportunity to provide expanded community services such as day care for teachers, before and after school programming and day care, medical, mental health, and counseling services, laundry facilities, etc. They also saw this as an opportunity to help build community relationships, collaborating and partnering with parents and community members, and offering a diverse, multicultural environment.
Staffing and Schedule: The participants desired increased staffing, including instructional coaches, and full-time support staff such as counselors, social workers, and PE and music teachers. They wanted all staff to receive “role releases” so they could provide adult intervention when needed on campus. As for the schedule, several expressed interest in an extended or flexible school day, and a year-round model.
From Abstract to Concrete
After our abstract visioning process, I asked the principals to consider their ideas on a practical level. How could they apply these ideas on a day-to-day basis? Here are the questions they considered:
- What does the physical space look like? What tools are students using? How does the day flow? What types of learning are being experienced each day? What methods are you using? What types of collaboration are going on? In short, what is the child’s experience? What is yours? How do you measure success? How do you establish student goals? What is your mission statement for your school? What are its values? Move from the abstract to the concrete.
Physical Space: The principals described a spacious facility that is clutter-free and has plenty of flexible space and movable furniture. They desired the space to be comfortable, with lots of natural lighting and geothermal heating. They preferred tables to desks and wanted plenty of discovery areas and lab space to encourage hands-on learning.
Tools: Technology was key in their vision; they desired mobile technology, Activboards, iPads and tablets. They wanted authentic texts, leveled libraries for reading instruction, and a sufficient budget for educational supplies, including the library, curriculum resources, classroom supplies, office supplies, special education, staff work room supplies, art, music and PE.
Content: Here, the participants talked of integrated, project-based learning that is strength-based and relevant to the students. They emphasized student choice and student engagement. They desired an environment that is accepting of diversity. A couple of teachers brought up Perpich School in Minnesota as an example to be considered. Perpich offers core teaching in the mornings, and arts in the afternoons.
Assessment and Student Goals: Assessment based on standards and guidelines was mentioned, and so was student-led goal setting and student-designed rubrics. They desired report cards that are standards-based, but that reflect individual goals and growth, and aren’t grade-based. They talked of the need to address the core standards in the assessment process, but also wanted to incorporate art, music, and PE.
Leadership/Professional Development: The principals desired a connected, well-supported teaching staff, emphasizing collaboration, instructional coaching, opportunity for reflection on their teaching/learning, and professional development that is focused on the school’s vision and is paced and supported. They wanted an environment in which teachers really knew their learners, both socially and academically. They also mentioned the need for a building-based transition team in each elementary school.
At the end of the session, one principal observed that these approaches didn’t have to wait for a new school building, but could be instituted now, in any school. They discussed the difficulties of instituting such changes, but recognized their ideas as necessary in creating the ideal learning environment. It was a pleasure working with this group, and enjoyable to see how many of their thoughts were reflected in earlier participant sessions. After all of these sessions are completed, I’ll take a look at these intersections of thought and map out comments that come up consistently in each group.
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