Eye On Leadership
by Edna Varner
Key message #2: We take good work to the next level.
Those of us old enough to remember the original Star Trek television series or interested enough to watch reruns in syndication are likely to recognize this opening line from the captain’s log:
Space... the Final Frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.
After years of extensive (and expensive) professional development, innovative new programs, higher standards, and professional literature on every subject imaginable in schools across the country, one would think there would be few final education frontiers left to settle. We have learned much about the world we inhabit called “school”. Yet, educators still seek those strange new worlds where adults thrive in professional learning communities, where new ideas and opportunities for using them abound, and where the learning strategies we teach routinely take all of our students to places where no one has gone before. Those are places of rigor and relevance, real worlds, our worlds. Those are the learning places.
If we are truly to achieve our unaccomplished purposes, we must all be dedicated to taking good work to the next level. The world’s highest performing schools do that by making teaching public and creating opportunities for teachers to learn from each other. For years students sat in rows, attempting to learn in isolation. Some did, but even they missed daily opportunities to have their thinking challenged and stretched through collaboration with peers.
Teachers and leaders also need regular opportunities for team learning. Cornerstone Winter Meetings allow us to focus together on how we are taking good work to the next level and how we can support each other on the journey.
If you have not read Michael Fullan’s book, Learning Places (with Clif St. Germaine), I highly recommend it. I thought about its messages repeatedly as we left the closing session of the Muscogee County/Cornerstone Winter Meeting and headed north to Springfield to prepare for three days of what Fullan describes as “orchestrating student and teacher development simultaneously”. For Cornerstone, some of the most important learning places are schools. This is why our professional development is school-based. Conference centers are certainly convenient, but school is where the students, teachers, and leaders are. At the Winter Meeting, we come together as a network of district staff and schools, hosting one day of this three-day event in a central location. But most of the conference hours are where teachers and learners work, and where those who care about them frequent.
Fullan and St. Germaine have much to say about the activities of the learning places, and the Winter Meeting demonstrates their points. This year, each conference begins with a road map that ensures everyone--from the uninitiated to the seasoned veteran-- knows where we have been and where we are going. Because awareness of the larger context in which we move is useful information for any journey, Journalist Ray Suarez encouraged us in Muscogee to address the unknown (standardized test questions or life dilemmas) with curiosity and the capacity to self-teach. Tony Plana, actor and executive director of the East LA Classic Theater, will take us on a different route with his perspective on the power of the performing arts to improve oral and written literacy for students, especially second language learners.
One glance at the Winter Conference agenda should suggest our ambition and confidence in this joint quest. A pre-registration session at Rigdon Road Elementary in Columbus, Georgia and at Lincoln Elementary in Springfield prepares first year Cornerstone Schools and invited district staff, principals, and teachers to experience professional development in classrooms with clipboards, prep work on the lesson taught, a student assignment, and a focus on observing the impact of teaching on student learning. One day, this will replace all “sit and get” professional development.
Teachers beyond year one with Cornerstone devote the first day of the conference to articulating what good instruction looks like. The expectation is that every participant will respond positively to the guiding question of our protocol for reflection and analysis, developed by the National School Reform Faculty: “What about the process took you well beyond what you already knew?” Colleagues from Muscogee and Talladega were advised that the only way they could reach the learning place with this process was to push themselves and expect others to push their thinking as well. Differentiation is not something that happens to us. We cause it through our approach to the opportunities presented.
Fullan’s book asks a number of questions that could have been written for the work of this year’s Winter Meeting:
- What can classroom teachers do to enliven the exchange of ideas and draw student attention to relevant, meaningful context?
- How can we guarantee that our teachers search out, experiment with, and share ideas and resources for improving classroom teaching?
- How can we use change knowledge to cultivate and model innovativeness—the capacity to develop leadership behaviors in others?
Conference attendees added their own through presentations, group activities, and Q&A:
- What does “making sense” mean
- How does reading this way help you better understand text?
- How do we prepare children for careers that do not currently exist?
- What can the data tell us?
- How does this process clarify the components of an innovation?
- What is the smallest thing we can do to make the biggest difference?
- How do we turn “happy accidents” into every day occurrences?
- What next?
As you may expect, some of the questions were answered through conference sessions, some through epiphanies in Muscogee’s classrooms, and others through table conversations. For example,
- Karen Wetherell and 1st Grade students demonstrated how students at all levels can gain access to a challenging lesson on classifying characteristics of insects. My student, #16, was a struggler for sure. He was easily distracted, mischievous enough to draw a star on his folder to get an invitation to a group to which he was not assigned, but dead-on clear about how to classify information on spiders and what to do with his burning questions about them.
- Janet Cumbee and school teams used a design tool, Innovation Configuration, to build leadership capacity for clearly communicating the elements of an innovation. “It’s hard to accomplish a common purpose,” claimed one of our Talladega colleagues, “when everyone has a different interpretation of what the innovation should look like and what we must do to implement it.”
- Ellin Keene shared the question that stumped an author and inspired a book. Even really smart adults are still learners!
Other questions remain to be asked and answered by our Springfield colleagues. Teachers at Lincoln, Lynch, Indian Orchard, Kensington, Walsh, and Balliet are opening their classrooms for the study of model lessons, and in doing so they are doing what Fullan describes as fueling their passions and exercising the potential of their students. Most importantly, they are taking us boldly to where they have not gone before with a lesson developed for our study. We will be there in February, delighted to be on the road with them, on a mission to discover strange new worlds through reading, writing, thinking critically, reasoning, analyzing and evaluating information, communicating effectively in a variety of forms, and through systematic inquiry into important matters. Next stop, the Springfield Winter Meeting and the learning places.
Fullan, Michael and Clif St. Germain, Learning Places: A Field Guide for Improving the Context of Schools, Corwin Press, 2006.