#ILoveMySchool

Last year we adopted a Manifesto which describes our purpose and will soon guide our strategic plan. As an educator who strives to transform education, I find it to be inspirational. The Mount Vernon Presbyterian School Manifesto states:

Education is changing.

We live amidst a fundamental reordering of how we think about school: from the centuries-old belief that content knowledge is its central currency, to the nascent understanding that what you know matters less than who you are, and what you are uniquely capable of impacting.

Across the country, communities and schools are beginning to test this shift in myriad ways. But overall, educators, parents and community leaders are still in search of a well-lighted path that can illuminate what the future of education will actually need to look like — and require.

A way forward has already been envisioned: the Mount Vernon Continuum. More than perhaps any other school, Mount Vernon understands what the chemistry of a great school requires:

  • A clear and compelling organizational mission.
  • Cultural norms that invite people to step outside of their comfort zone.
  • People-centered design principles that guide teaching and learning.
  • And six timeless, significant habits of mind.

Continuum

To continue to set the conditions for learners to excel in college, career, and citizenship, there is still much work to be done. As a school of inquiry, innovation, and impact, we see three key essential questions guiding our future work:

How might we make school more reflective of real life?

We choose to engage and explore all scales of community. We welcome the chance to live at the edges where disciplines mingle in search of maximum impact. We want our school to be a destination for anyone who wishes to design a better world. We want our school to create intermingling rivers of connection between people, ideas, and sectors. We want our school to embody a new notion of what “school” is and does.

How might we empower all learners to be seekers and explorers?

We choose to wander and to wonder. We seek to create a learning environment that invites all people to follow the sparks of motivation, interest and curiosity as far as they can take them. We seek to provide paths of faith and curiosity. We seek to nurture experiences of deep purpose and joyful play. We seek to model living, learning mindsets that constantly adapt and expand.

How might we inspire one another — and the larger world — through the work we undertake together?

We choose to make our thinking visible and actionable. We envision learning in which children are seen and heard. We envision transparency in the learning journey — process, product, and progress. We welcome the chance to wrestle with voices and perspectives that challenge our assumptions. We envision learning in which our trust for each other strengthens our sense of individual freedom, autonomy, and interdependence.

We choose to graduate learners and leaders who are “impact-ready.”

We choose to experiment with extraordinary ideas that might one day become the norm. We will not just build a roadmap for future generations of MVPS students and families; Mount Vernon will continue to carve a path for the future of learning itself.

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The Response from Parents in October

This photo shows where this group of Graded parents stands on university for their children. As you can see, the standards are high.
This photo shows where this group of Graded parents stands on university for their children. As you can see, the standards are high.

School started at the end of July and by October students and parents were questioning our implementation of the new changes. A group of parents presented us with the following list of questions.

Questions from Parents

  • Why the implementation did not consider a pilot to test and debug the system before implementing it to the whole high-school?
  • Which are the reasons to change a grade system in the middle of the high school (changing rules in the middle of the game)?
  • One of the consequences of the new system is a considerable increase in workload for teachers. What is the approach used in the new system to overcome this challenge? How was the training process for the teachers with regard to the new system? How long were they trained?
  • Is the system fully implemented according to the original plan? Has anything gone wrong with the implementation? What are the difficulties encountered in the implementation process?
  • Does the school have any plans to approach colleges aiming to explain the system so the students have the same opportunities in the application when compared with other students with a different grading system?
  • Does the school have any plans to approach colleges aiming to explain the system so the students have the same opportunities in the application when compared with other students with a different grading system?
  • The general perception is that the new system will result in lower grades for students. While this issue can be adjusted over time it is not clear how long this will take and more than one class may be severely impacted by its adoption in the way it was implemented.

Our team quickly moved to meet with parents and I still remember facing a somewhat hostile audience of parents. While we humbly defended our work, we knew that there was a sense of urgency to improve.

HS Parent Meeting Grading.100614

Out of this experience I learned the following:

  • This was the first time that we had standardized grading and reporting practices throughout the high school and this was not an easy task. In the past each department has a certain level of autonomy which meant that we were frequently on different pages. Making this change was easier said then done. We had to constantly define our policy language and unpack the details. We encouraged everyone to ask questions so that we could find out what was not understood. We were revisiting policy at every faculty meeting.
  • Making these changes put all of us under the microscope. I realized that poor practices that went unnoticed in the past were now being commented on by students and parents. For example, if the formative assessments did not align with the summative assessments, students noticed. If the classroom activities did not align, the students noticed.
  • While we had piloted certain aspects, it may have helped to do more prior to the full rollout.
  • The parents were right, these changes did mean much more work for teachers. Our teachers were having to work much harder and the pressure was on for them to improve their assessment practices.

Stay tuned for what we learned at the end of the first semester.

Organizational Inertia -Does it make you uncomfortable?

As we deeply think about innovation and what it takes to create an innovative culture we’re seeing the real challenges and barriers that organizations face. In February 2013 Graded hosted the Innovate 2013 Conference and Fabio Gandour, IBM Brasil Chief Scientist, was one of our panelists. He presented a wonderful metaphor for what inertia looks like. He says that this metaphor can make people feel a bit uncomfortable.

Organizational inertia is the tendency of a mature organization to continue on its current trajectory. This inertia can be described as being made up of two elements — resource rigidity and routine rigidity. Resource rigidity stems from an unwillingness to invest, while routine rigidity stems from an inability to change the patterns and logic that underlie those investments. Resource rigidity relates to the motivation to respond, routine rigidity to the structure of that response.

In the face of rapid or discontinuous external change, it is the organizational inertia that must be overcome if a firm is to survive. In a competitive situation where new players are entering the industry, it is the incumbents that are particularly susceptible to the downside of this inertia. In this case it is often referred to as incumbent inertia.

Overcoming organizational inertia —
Threat perception in organizations experiencing discontinuous change is often thought to be the impetus necessary to prompt organizational change, a change in inertia, by decreasing the current inertia through changes in resources and routines. While threat perception is a response catalyst, it has been found to decrease inertia in some cases, a good thing, but increase inertia in other cases.

Source: http://www.createadvantage.com/glossary/organizational-inertia

What is your organization doing to overcome inertia?

Jumping on the Innovation in Education Bandwagon

“Innovation” by Thomas Hawk is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Our school’s leadership team is reading Tony Wagner’s book “Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World” as we grapple with what innovation looks like in schools. (You can follow our discussion on Twitter – #gradedllt) I highly recommend Wagner’s book along with Suzie Boss’s book “Bringing Innovation to School: Empowering Students to Thrive in a Changing World”. It’s extremely easy to find definitions on innovation that we can all agree on. The really difficult step is to change practices to become innovative. I recently attended a conference where the word, “Innovation” was overused and mis-used. I went to one presentation where the presenter was convinced that his school had been innovative by adopting a program that has been around for 40 years. The new program changed their culture but it certainly wasn’t something that was innovative to the world of education.

“Innovation may then be defined as the process of having original ideas and insights that have value, and then implementing them so that they are accepted and used by significant numbers of people. By this definition, a major innovation is one that is so successful that soon after its introduction few people can even remember what life was like before the innovation was introduced.” Rick Miller, President Olin College

“creative problem solving.” She said, “Problem solving without the creative element is not truly innovative.” And creativity that is not applied to real world problems cannot be considered innovation either. Innovation is our lifeblood at P&G—but not just innovation for its own sake. It’s about taking real needs and creating a bridge to a solution.” Ellen Bowman

Our question is, “What is innovation at Graded?”  My thinking has gone in two different directions lately.

  1. What are we doing at Graded that is innovative?
  2. How are we cultivating innovators?

Since our Core Values state, “Learners at Graded strive to be Innovative: They engage in creative and imaginative thinking that enables them to extend their learning in original and insightful ways.”  I’ve been focusing on #2.

Montessori schools have been cultivating innovators for over 100 years.

“Maria Montessori has a posse yes she does” by cho girl is licensed under CC BY 2.0

When you ask someone to list the schools that they consider innovative, how often do Montessori schools make the list?

What do you suppose the founders of Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin; Amazon’s founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos; Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales; Julia Child; and rapper Sean “P. Diddy” Combs all have in common? Gregersen’s research, cited earlier, uncovered an extraordinary commonality among some of the most innovative individuals: they all went to Montessori schools, where they learned through play. (Wagner, pp27-28)

If you consider Wagner’s characteristics of a learning culture that cultivates innovators, you can see why Montessori schools most definitely should be on your list.

  • collaboration
  • multidisciplinary learning
  • thoughtful risk-taking, trial and error
  • creating
  • intrinsic motivation: play, passion, and purpose (Wagner p. 200)

I’m currently a participant in the Deeper Learning MOOC (#DLMOOC) which is organized by High Tech High and supported by a number of organizations. One of which is Expeditionary Learning Schools. I don’t know much about EL Schools other than I have worked with several educators who once were involved in the organization. I’ve frequently heard from them that, “The EL schools organization, and their schools, aren’t what I would call innovative.” If you look at their website you find no mention of innovation in the “Our Approach”section,  yet, it’s easy to argue that EL schools provide students with the type of environment that Wagner has defined.

Maybe a truly innovative school focuses on answering both questions.

“What are we doing that is innovative and how are we cultivating innovators?

Nothing like a little risk taking to keep things fresh

A couple of years ago I presented, School Leaders Set the Tone by Playing, Experimenting and Taking Risks at the 2011 K12 Online Conference and I talked about the importance of taking risks. Even so, when I turned 50 in August my wife had to really shame me into agreeing to an exciting birthday adventure. In the morning we went hot air ballooning and in the afternoon we went skydiving. Even though Wikipedia states, “Despite the perception of danger, fatalities are rare. However, each year a number of people are hurt or killed parachuting worldwide. (Skydiving fatalities and dropzone.com) About 21 skydivers are killed each year in the US, roughly one death for every 150,000 jumps (about 0.0007%).”, it still felt risky to me. It was certainly an adrenaline rush and I highly recommend the experience. Afterwards, my 15 year old son proclaimed that he was going for his 16th birthday next year. Guess who will be joining him.

My colleague, Ocki Fernandes also joined my wife and I on the adventure. My next challenge is to talk the members of our leadership team into going as a group. Oh, BTW, a few weeks later our business manager jumped to celebrate her 50th birthday. I’m thinking that we’ll have a critical mass when it comes to convincing the rest of the team.

The best time… Design Thinking part 2

The design thinking work on our annual trips for next year continues as we work to “Redesign the experiences to make them indispensable and unforgettable so that the mission and core values come to to life.” There are three things that I  think that I’ve learned in the past couple of weeks. I’m not exactly sure if I’m on the right track but, as the facilitator, I’m moving forward.

We started our last meeting by watching this trailer for the documentary, Design & Thinking.

Get to work prototyping and plan to fail often

It’s short and clip and one of the take-aways for me was that the teams should work quickly to create a prototype. I’ve found that in education we typically spend too much time on planning. We’re probably cautious and conservative when it comes to making changes. Grant Lichtman is his post Your School and Google’s Nine Principles of Innovation states, “Adults want proof that something new will work; we want a 20-year longitudinal study to show that something different is better than what we have done in the past.” We want to cover all our bases and think through every angle so that we plan it right the first time. In this process the idea is to create something quickly, based on the information that you have and then you test it out. So, we decided to break into teams and start prototyping our trips for next year. At the same time we are talking to teachers and students to learn more about what it would take to make the trips “indispensable and unforgettable” I think that all of us have been also thinking that it’s November (almost December) and we don’t have our plan for the trips set in stone yet. Well, maybe we’re behind schedule but…

The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now. Chinese Proverb

The second learning from the trailer is that we should plan to fail. When I initially considered this I thought, “No way! This can’t happen because we are the high school leadership team and we’re supposed to come up with the perfect solutions. What will people think if we fail?” Then I realized that it actually may be a good thing for us to fail. Maybe we need to learn how to learn from failure and to model this for our community. Hey, one of our core values is Risk-taking.

The process changes from defining and removing barriers to developing solutions

As I mentioned in my last post, my past experience has been with the quality process and the focus is on defining the problem and barriers and then taking steps to remove the barriers. My last piece of learning deals with a shift from removing barriers to developing solutions. As we speak to students and teachers I find that I’m energized by thinking about possibilities and solutions. We also looked at what other schools and organizations are doing with trips and that was inspirational. It forced us to think differently about what we currently do. While we have defined parameters, we seem to not be spending time coming up with reasons why we can’t make changes. Instead we envisioning what can be and how we can create that amazing experience for students and teachers.

We have another prototyping session next week and each team is responsible for coming up with a plan. We’ve invited two travel companies that we work with to provide us with ideas and options. I’ve also got one more focus group session with 11th grade students. Oh, did I mention that the two groups have are just a bit competitive? It just adds to the fun.

As I learn while doing I need to think about how we can test out the prototypes. Maybe we can present these to students and teachers for comments or for a vote. Based on our expectation of failure it makes sense to not immediately decide to use one of the models for the real thing. Probably better to test it out with our audiences before spending an enormous amount of money on the trips. Anyone have advice for our next step? I welcome any and all suggestions.

Just say yes and …

I am so fortunate to work at a school where we have access to resources and allowed to take risks. While Graded has always worked to be on the cutting edge, the entire community was jump started after Innovate 2013. I still remember watching the flea video just after the conference and saying to myself that I have to keep the lid off as much as possible. While the school has been 1:1 for the past three years, we’ve recently started branching out by giving students learning experiences around other technologies. I have to admit that it’s been fun saying yes to new ideas from teachers and students and then working to support their efforts. My fear of failing had diminished and my attitude is that we will all learn and benefit from the opportunity.  The results have been extremely positive and I love the culture that we’re working in.

In February, Keren Soriano organized the Graded Developers Association. She realized that we had a group of middle and high school students who wanted to learn programming and she brought in Luciano Ramalho to work with our students. She was right because the e-mail advertising the 10 week course was sent out on Friday evening at the beginning of our Carnival vacation and by the next morning the course was full. Several of our high school students worked with Luciano to teach the course and he helped them improve their programming skills. Today the high school students were in my office and we were working on a strategy for Luciano to offer Python courses after school this semester. The middle school course will continue and I imagine that our numbers will only grow in the coming years. Keren was right, there were Graded students who wanted this experience.

Not long after this we were presented with the opportunity for our students to collect data using Arduino technology that was connected to satellites in space. We didn’t even really understand how it worked but it sounded like an opportunity that we could not pass up.  Amy Flindt and Adam Cross volunteered to work with students on this project and it’s been a mix of after school and in class work with the majority of the work being done outside of class. We partnered with Manoel Belem who is a space junkie and Nanosatisfi. Belem is the man behind SpaceTrip4Us. It was challenging for the students to come up with a phenomena to study since they had little knowledge of astronomy. After hours of discussion and research they decided to study solar flares. They’re in the process of programming the Arduino board and the board will be using sensors to collect data for one week. The work has been challenging and the students are learning what it is like to work Nanosatisfi which is a start-up company, project delays that are totally out of their control and a very new subject for them. They look forward to sharing the results and the process that they went through with the world in the coming months.

Finally, Luciano connected us with the guys at Metamaquina, a start-up company that makes 3D printers and we are about to open up Graded’s Maker Space.  Instead of taking a wait and see attitude, Mike Dunlop and his team decided to remodel the space and purchase toys knowing that students and teachers would use them. We’re not exactly sure how people will use the room but we’re confident that Graded teachers and students will figure it out over time. What I love is that the students and adults will all be learners and they’ll be learning from each other.  We’re planning to host events and I’m sure that there will be many times when the students will be teaching the teachers.

Who knows what will be next but I know that it sure feels great to say yes and then figure out how we can make things happen. Anyone have ideas on what our next project should be?