In one of my posts from earlier this fall, I wrote about the work we have been doing to set a vision for teaching and learning at Fishers Elementary School. You can check out that post (Setting a vision) if you’d like to know more about the work we’re doing. With our process, one of the things we want to think about is how do we make sure that whatever the vision is, it becomes ingrained as part of what we do. In the book Thrive, Grant Lichtman talks about the importance of both “short-term goals of this generation of students and the longer-horizon challenges that will face those yet to attend.” Lichtman goes on to discuss the value of building a mission and vision that will last long beyond the time that I’m here as the principal.
That’s a heavy idea to think about. I’m a first-year principal. I still feel like I’m just getting my feet wet, and now I’m being challenged to think about what learning will look like here at FES when I’m no longer here? In fact, in the book Lichtman talks about identifying aiming points that reflect the best version of our school in 10 to 20 years.
The reality is that in the world we are living in, change is inevitable, and the change cycle in most parts of the world just keeps moving faster. But change in schools seems to be on a different time scale. There are classrooms that you walk into today that feel and act much like the classroom I was in as an elementary student in the 1980s. We still have a structure to our day that is much the same (arrive, go to class, related arts, lunch, recess, back to class, head home). We are still grouping kids primarily by age, no matter what their variability may be in preparedness for the subjects we’re teaching. (In previous posts I’ve talked about this variability, probably most clearly in this blog: ‘What is the “average” student? Part II’) And for the most part, we still expect students to attend school from kindergarten to 12th grade, and much of what we are doing during that time is to then prepare students to go to college (with little attention paid to students who might not want/need to attend college for the future they have chosen).
So, what are some of the guiding lights that I believe will help to show where we’re trying to go? Three things stand out to me, in no particular order…
- Integrated Subject Matter – For years in education, we have been putting subjects into their little buckets. There’s math time, there’s reading time, there’s writing time, not to mention all the other subject areas that we learn in school. But the thing is, they all go together. When was the last time you did math just to do math? Yesterday I had to do some math to figure out percentages so that I had data for a meeting I was preparing. That data then went into a report I created, and later talked about while presenting. At FES, we will create integrated learning opportunities for students so that they see that reading, writing, math, and all other forms of learning act in service of one another. We will research models of integrated learning that are working in other schools to create a system that will work for FES.
- Cross Grade-Level Collaboration – The only times in my life where the majority of the people that I worked with were all the same age as me was during my time as a student in the K-12 classroom. In the real world, I have had colleagues who were older than me, younger than me, and some who were the same age as me. Depending on the context of my career, there are times where I walk into the room as one of the experts on a topic, others where I may be knowledgeable but still have more to learn, and other times still where I am the novice learner. I think that schools, especially elementary schools, could do a better job of differentiating learning for students by working across grade levels. If there is a first-grade student who is capable of working on the same math that a third-grade teacher is teaching, why do we keep them in the first-grade classroom? And if the second-grade class has been doing a lot of research on rocks and minerals, why can’t they share that knowledge with the fourth-grade class that’s about to embark on a unit in geology. Here at FES, we will create the conditions that allow students to learn from one another and with one another, even if they are not in the same class or grade.
- High-quality project-based learning – Several years ago, while teaching 6th-grade social studies, it was a couple of weeks before winter break and we had reached our unit on Ancient Rome. We had just done a relatively traditional unit on Ancient Greece, and I was not excited to try to do things the same way. I began looking at the materials I had available for our unit, and I noticed that there was information on lots of interesting topics – clothing, games, architecture, food, and so much more. I decided that we were going to do things differently. I spent a day doing a quick introductory activity to the period and geography that we were going to be studying, and then I set them free. Students were challenged to pick whatever topic they were interested in, do some research on it, and then come up with some way to share what they had learned with others. I fully expected at the end that I would end up with a whole bunch of posters with information, or students creating power points, but that’s not what happened. One student asked if she could create a picture book about her topic. Another student wanted to take class time to teach students the popular game that kids played during the time. Another student built a working, scaled-down model of a Roman aqueduct. Another student designed and made an outfit similar to what a child from Ancient Rome might wear. And when we got to the end of the unit and I gave the unit test, average scores were higher than most tests I gave that year. (Reflection: I probably didn’t need to do the test to assess the learning of my students, but in the time I was working, we still had a traditional report card and I needed grades in the grade book – that’s a whole different issue and conversation) At FES, we will create conditions where high-quality project-based learning is the norm when we talk about what learning will look like at Fishers Elementary School.
Along with these guiding lights, we are currently gathering data in the form of a survey from our school community, both teachers and students, to help identify what it is that we value about FES, as well as what might make us even more valuable to our community. These guiding lights will help us to continue to revamp our mission and vision for learning. In the coming months I look forward to working with a team of stakeholders to analyze the responses we have received, finalize our mission, and then begin the task of identifying the strengths we already have as well as the learning we will need to do to continue to grow.