I had a long conversation with Bud at the TIE Conference and he suggested that I share some of what we’ve been doing with our project, so here goes. This will be a little different because, up until now, posts on this blog have always been intended for our staff development group (with one exception). While I’ve always known it’s been out there for others to read (and we’ve occasionally received comments from others), the assumption was that I was mainly writing for teachers in my building. We’ll see if I’m as comfortable writing specifically to a larger audience . . .
While this earlier post describes this blog and our project, I thought I’d go back and describe the process that got us here. I’ve been at Arapahoe High School for 15 years, originally as a math teacher and then slowly moving into the Director of Technology position (fancy name for building-level technology coordinator). Arapahoe is located in a southern suburb of Denver, amidst middle to upper middle class neighborhoods. We’re a fairly typical suburban school of 2,100 students with a supportive community and a great faculty. Arapahoe is an excellent school by most measures. We were designated a Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education and have been a state School of Excellence every year since that award has been around (tied to CSAP - our state testing scores). Each year about 92% of our graduates go on to two or four year colleges.
But after teaching for a few years at Arapahoe, I became concerned that we weren’t asking enough – or at least not asking the right things – of our students. We should have high test scores, because the students that come to Arapahoe are – in general – well prepared and have very supportive families who care about education. Almost all of our students should be able to continue their education after high school, because they are the students that our school system is designed for. In all of my math classes, from basic skills up to Honors Pre-Calculus, I saw similar things. Students who were very compliant – they would pretty much do what you asked them to do and – for the most part – would get good grades and move through the system. But any time I asked them to go beyond the usual requirements, any time I asked them to really extend themselves or do some original thinking, they balked (and the honors students were the ones who balked the most). They were very happy with the status quo of teacher delivering information, student giving the information back to the teacher, and nobody rocking the boat. And, in their defense, this had worked very well for them, their siblings, their parents, and almost everybody they knew. And the staff and the parents were pretty much satisfied as well. A word I used often to describe the Arapahoe community was "complacent."
But I felt like they were capable of so much more – if only we asked them for it. Because of my interest in technology, I also felt like the world was changing quickly and that maybe these strategies that had served them so well in the past might not serve them so well in the near future. As I transitioned from teaching math to being the technology guy for the building, I was initially consumed with simply getting the equipment and infrastructure necessary to hopefully use technology well in support of our academic goals. But once that process was well underway, I began to ask questions again about exactly what we were expecting from our students and whether those were really the things we should be asking from them. I read a lot of educational theory type books, but mostly confined my conversations to my teacher wife. We talked about the type of education we wanted for our daughter, how we wanted her to be engaged in her learning, passionate about what she was doing, exploring and constructing and evaluating and synthesizing and . . . well, you can fill in all the buzzwords. Basically we wanted her education to be relevant, meaningful, and purposeful.
Then a few years ago my district – like a lot of districts – added an “instructional coach” position at the building level. This position was to help teachers become better teachers, to work with them both individually and in groups to improve their instruction. Somewhat by chance I started having conversations with our instructional coach and we began to brainstorm ways that our faculty could have some of these discussions about what truly matters for kids. Shortly after that our district got on the Professional Learning Communities bandwagon, and urged us to focus on “essential learnings.” I had been in the process of writing technology grants (unsuccessfully for the most part) and decided to re-focus my grant writing more on staff development (although still with a strong technology component). I knew that what we needed the most to use technology effectively in instruction was time. Time for teachers to plan. Time for teachers to work collaboratively. Time for teachers to really get a handle on what the “essential learnings” they wanted their students to get were and what instructional strategies (and technological tools) could help them get there. Time for teachers to examine what they were doing in their classrooms and see if it actually matched up with what their beliefs were.
Then a convergence of several things happened. The World is Flat was published, outsourcing was in the news, 21st century learning skills was a hot topic in education, schools and entire states were implementing laptop programs for students . . . and I finally wrote a grant that was worth funding. This allowed us to get started with sixteen teachers this past school year and was the basis for a larger grant that we received during the school year that will allow us to add thirty-two more teachers in August.
This past year has allowed us the luxury of time to explore both the theory and the practice of education – as well as some technological tools to help facilitate our instruction. It has allowed us to work together, to discuss, sometimes even to argue over what we all believe passionately is a very important topic. While we certainly don’t claim to have all the answers, I do think we have a lot of really good questions. We will continue to ask questions and attempt to answer them as best we can over the next few years (funded by the grant) and beyond (because that’s what teachers do).
In the future I will post a description of some of the topics we have tackled this past year, as well as some of the successes and failures of our staff development effort. It will probably be a few weeks, though, as I’m off to NECC for the first time next week along with four other teachers from our staff development effort. Then at the end of NECC my wife and daughter will be joining me for four days exploring the wonders of San Diego (there are a lot of wonders for a six year old). Bud, unlike Ani before last week, my daughter has seen the ocean, but only the Atlantic. This will be her first visit to the Pacific (although she did spend 14+ hours flying over it when she was nine months old).