Sunday, April 14, 2013

Kicking off at The Met

Since leaving NZ a week ago it's been a whirlwind, starting with two days in New York before hiring a car to drive to Providence, Rhode Island. Providence is home to The Met - a Big Picture school, founded by Dennis Littkey And Elliot Washor. It was great to see in action what I had been reading about. Since then we have flown to Boston for a night so that we could get up early enough to fly to Toronto, hire a car and drive to Westmount High School in Hamilton. The next day, Friday, we visited Mary Ward High School for the day. Now we're in Calgary and I'm still a bit blogless! I had intended to blog my way through but at the moment am faced with three unfinished drafts! So, I shall begin - one school at a time:

I did regret not being able to investigate Providence more. The part that I saw was picturesque with cobbled streets and beautiful achrchitecture. The Rhode Island art school contributed to the artsy feel of the place. We had breakfast in this great cafe which relied on local and organic produce and emphasised the importance of staying local and supporting the community. It made me reflect on the potential Hobsonville point community has to create a sustainable culture which embraces and supports innovation and creativity. This idea of strong partnerships set the scene for the day.

The Met campus was built in 2000 and it wasn't flash learning spaces and technology that stood out (they didn't really feature at all), but rather the strong and positive relationships between students and advisors and the general buzz of students engaged and in control of their learning. It was quite difficult to pin down any specific structures and while this was frustrating it was also an indicator that the lack of visible structure was probably due to students learning being so personalised - getting on with their own learning, with schedules dependent on what their needs were at that time. I have been quite an avid reader of Big Picture material and possibly my take on what I saw was slightly clouded by my expectations of what I thought should be happening. Staff who talked to us were very Big Picture positive and students were delightful and very much part of the vision, however, at times it felt like I was in the midst of a marketing campaign.

Don't get me wrong, what I saw was a very successful model that is definitely working, but it's a model that comes with lots of glossy brochures (Maybe that's an American thing). I also got a sense that its a model that is relatively fixed and I'm of the firm belief that a successful educational model is one that is continually evolving. Maybe, because it is so pedagogically based, it can afford to be more static? In reflection it was good to see my idea of a perfect model flawed, just for the fact that it required me to challenge my own thinking. For example, a state numeracy test has been recently introduced and to deal with this they pull all their 9th graders together and teach them maths in a fairly traditional way. Relationships are so strong that the students appeared to be coping with this shift, however, it seem to contradict the teaching and learning that The Met advocates for - through authentic and rich tasks, developed around students passions. It was a reminder of the importance of keeping teaching and learning at the forefront, and not be dictated by structures and assessment.

The Met is set out as schools within a school. We spent the day in Unity. A couple of structures that are in place is the 'school' coming together as a group in the morning for a 'pick-me-up' which could be notices, achievements, current events etc... Two days a week are designated to Internships, where a number of students are mentored and working with people in the community on career paths or interests that are relevant to them. Each day students are in school they spend time in the morning and afternoon In their advisory. This is when they talk about and plan what their learning will look like for the day. In between this time students are either working in advisory spaces, attending interest models and working on big projects. We were able to see students pitch their business plans at their business awards which resulted in real partnerships and funding. Students ownership of their proposals in an authentic environment was impressive and really defined who they were as learners. Despite my perceived 'fuzziness', academic rigour was at the forefront. Students don't move on because they are another year older. They move on when they can meet expectations and learning outcomes, displaying evidence of their learning in authentic contexts.

It's been 6 days since our visit to The Met so this blog is a bit behind schedule (much to the amusement of my colleagues - as I have mentioned posting it every day!).

The Met visit was very much a 'one way experience'. We were there purely to see their model, not to engage in discussions which shared teaching and learning experiences. We even got to meet Denis Littkey (bit of a movie star moment). I was a little disappointed when he shook our hands, then poof... He was gone. What I learnt, or rather, what was reinforced for me: an open mind is crucial. Also, the importance of leaving what you know at the door - use it later to help form thinking, but to go into these school visits with no expectations / judgements of what you think it should be like.

What I came away with: recognising the value of the advisory role in ensuring all students needs are met and that no one slips through the gaps. The power of partnerships - The Met has done this well, forming and maintaining partnerships, which enable successful internships and ensures learning is happening in and outside of the school building. Passion and interest projects which engage students and enable learning to be personalised. The importance of applying an academically rigorous structure to students projects to ensure depth and breadth. The Met has developed a model that is highly successful for their students. Students are engaged and passionate about their learning. They are pursuing their interests in authentic contexts and students see themselves as professionals in their pursuits.

We aren't about applying the Big Picture model to our environment, but are about identifying what works well and creating a teaching and learning environment relevant for our students.

Overall, a great start to our tour of innovative and future focused schools.

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!