Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Making a difference

This is my last blog before we head of on our trip to America and Canada to visit a variety of schools that have reputations for their innovative approach to teaching and learning.  We land in New York and visit 'The Met' in Providence, Rhode Island and then to Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver to a number of Self-Directed Learning Schools.  I plan to blog my way around as I have a feeling I'll have plenty to talk about.  It would be fair to say, we are very excited.  Claire has done a great job with her recent blog to explain where we are going and why, so check it out:

Overseas travel alone is a treat, but for me, to visit a school, 'The Met', founded by Dennis Littky is, not to sound too corny a dream come true!  When I reflect on what has most recently shaped my thinking and informed my practice, it's Dennis Litkky's work (along with Eliot Levine), particularly his books, 'One Kid at a Time' and 'Big Picture Education'.  This leads to my slight diversion about what has made a difference for me:

We have just finished presenting information sessions to fellow educators who are interested in pursuing a leader of learning role at Hobsonville Point Secondary School.  It has been a valuable exercise for us as a team to really bring our thinking together, so far.  Also, when you are required to introduce yourself, you can't help but reflect on how you've got to this point.  Opotiki College has been a significant factor.   The positive and nurturing atmosphere along with high academic success that was notable at Opotiki College can be largely credited to strong leadership (by this I don't just mean the Senior Leadership Team, but leadership across the school), along with the willingness of teachers to have their practices and thinking continually challenged.  There was also a strong commitment to Te Kotahitanga, Restorative Practices and more recently the shift to 100 minute teaching blocks and the establishment of Learning Advisory groups (students in small groups with one key teacher who is their pastoral and academic mentor as they move through school).  Also, twelve years before Opotiki, I was at the Outward Bound School and that experience was very much the catalyst for me to think about the possibilities for teaching and learning outside the traditional model. The Outward Bound model uses the outdoor environment as their tool.  Ironically, the Ministry of Education refused to accept my time there as 'teaching time', however, at that point I was 6 years into my teaching career and it was the first place that I experienced school wide student engagement, authentic and project driven teaching and learning, built on a strong vision and values.  Students connected strongly with their instructor and through the development of this positive relationship were able to be challenged and exposed to numerous experiences.  

We all bring experiences and practices that inform our thinking.  Despite the different schools and the different communities we've all been involved in, one thing remains the same - students at the centre of teaching and learning.

Back to the now, and to my point!  Our thinking around Hobsonville Point Secondary School isn't something we're plucking from thin air.  Our thinking is largely influenced by current research and evidence, along with our experiences and own practice in education.  

So - what do we know?  What is the evidence telling us? Positive relationships and the powerful influence of every student having at least one teacher that they connect with to support their journey through school, to ensure their learning is personalised for them, is key.  Another strong message is that students engage in their learning when it is authentic and relevant to them.  HOW OBVIOUS IS THIS? - the idea that students respond well when there are positive relationships?  That students are engaged when learning is relevant?  I don't think people disagree with these statements and I know that there are pockets of exceptional teaching and learning happening in most schools.  However, it is not school wide as most schools are operating within traditional structures which don't allow for longer and more flexible blocks of learning.  Students are, if anything, often structured into large tutor groups for 10 minutes at the beginning of each day, therefore not allowing for 'tutors' to be able to provide the pastoral and academic support required.  

Some of the structures we are thinking about at Hobsonville Point Secondary School are Learning Hubs - students in small groups with a Learning Coach who will be their person. Each student's Learning Coach will work with their students and their families to ensure learning is rigourous and challenging, yet ultimately, personalised and relevant to what that student needs at that time. Learning Coaches will ensure students are engaging in a range of experiences to ignite passions and foster inquiry learning.   Learning will also occur through big projects which will not only allow for authenticity, but also the ability to form strong partnerships with the community. Specialised learning will be sort when required and will be driven by student’s needs, rather than assessment.  Our 'timetable' (even if we call it that) will be driven by students, rather than teachers.  

Some, who have head our vision, have referred to us as being 'brave' and 'courageous'. (Others have looked slightly daunted).  While we enjoy the accolades, that's not what drives us.  We have a responsibility to provide an environment that allows all students to be successful, to be thinkers, innovators, creators and collaborators.  To be students who can contribute positively to their school and their community.   What drives us is the belief that this is possible.  

We don't have all the answers to the 'how to' yet, but are desperately looking forward to our travels where some of our 'how to' questions can be addressed.  This doesn't mean we are going to find a successful model and apply it.  Our research and visiting of other schools is so we can see what works well and become more informed so that we can develop a model that works for our school, our students and our community.

New York - here we come!

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