Maybe that’s coming on a little strong. Let me explain. I recently returned from SoCal with a team of amazing educators and admin from Lamoille Union. While there, we attended CUE, visited four schools, and attended Deeper Learning. It was an amazing experience full of inspiration in the form of real people doing some incredible things in schools. From innovative learning spaces–open space devoid of desks, materials at the ready, seats built for movement, etc–to deeper learning through projects driven by student curiosity and choice, to design thinking the way to a better educational experience for students and teachers alike.
And they are doing it with 34 students in their rooms. No joke. Really–34 students packed into smaller rooms than those we are lucky to have at Lamoille, and students are engaged. Often times when I stepped into a classroom, the teacher was difficult to locate. In one instance, the teacher was at a desk in the corner looking through designs that her students had recently submitted for a competition, while the students themselves worked on prototypes. In another case, where students were guiding a 6,000-piece robot around the room by remote control, the teacher wasn’t even there that day. No spitballs in the air, no fires in the maker space–just a few super engaged boys tweaking their basketball-throwing robot.
Perhaps you’re thinking these are pipe dreams–something only the wealthy districts can afford to do, but that wasn’t the case, either. In fact, Vista Innovation and Design Academy (VIDA) was an absolute mess just three years ago. Gangs were prevalent as was gang culture throughout the small school, complete with fighting, graffiti-laden school furniture, and students who didn’t believe their school was a school. Three years later, with the leadership of Eric Chagala Ed.D, that school has a much different story–one where students are engaged, digging deeply into the design process to bring projects to life, and finding joy in learning.
So, Vermont, what is holding us back? So many of us are fortunate to have class sizes of less than twenty. Time and again, tour leaders pointed out how great it was that students could “get plenty of one-on-one attention” when their class sizes were just shy of thirty, or in one case, when the other half of the class was on a field trip and there were only eighteen students with one teacher. In a state that has just passed a law requiring us to personalize learning, what excuse do we have to do anything but embrace it with fervor?
As a Rowland fellow, I constantly shoot out new findings to my steering committee, hoping that they don’t just hit “delete” when they see my name. They never disappoint me. In fact, two days after I purchased our first Breakout Edu box, Pat LaClair was using it in his Latin class. A few weeks later, Chris Bologna had designed a Breakout lesson around Africa. This week, Whitney Kaulbach took it for a spin in conjunction with the Russian revolution. I am not so naive as to believe that every educator has the energy to cannonball new ideas as these three; they are, indeed, exceptional. However, what is stopping us from pushing the boundaries more often? My theories, and their answers, below:
- Time. There is never enough time. Instead of saying, “I just don’t have the time to [fill-in-the-blank],” try reframing the thought. How about, “What can I accomplish in the few minutes that I have?”
- Resources. If you are teaching in a public school, there are never enough of these either. But if you’re teaching in Vermont, at least at my school, you’re lucky. You have what you need, and when you want something new, ask. What harm is there in asking? And if the admin denies you, check out DonorsChoose. Find a way. Be resourceful.
- Apathy. On the part of the kids or on the part of the teachers? Maybe it’s both. Either way, take a look at the system in place. It’s been around for over a century. We don’t live like we did a century ago, so no wonder we are apathetic about school. Remember why you started teaching, even if it was years ago.
- Ambivalence. Some teachers find it easier to just keep doing what they’ve been doing for so long. They’re right about the ease–change is difficult. But really, if we continue teaching the way we have over the last 100 years, with the teacher at the helm driving everything about the experience, we aren’t educating our children to become thoughtful, creative, innovative citizens of our world.
- Fear. There are plenty of things that could go wrong when you try something different. If you lived by that credo, however, you’d still be eating plain cereal and drinking from a sippy cup. Dig as deeply as you need to in order to recapture that curious, playful child within and trust in him/her to guide your explorations.
- We ARE doing amazing things, but we don’t talk about it enough. Honestly, I think this might be the key to what’s happening in VT. This sabbatical has given me time to visit classrooms and talk to teachers about the amazing things they are doing in their classrooms. I think they are so busy prepping awesome lessons and doing the insane work that great teachers do that they don’t have time to go the extra step to get it out there–by website, by newsletter, whatever. The Alt School has a documentarian on staff to capture many of the great things they are doing. Perhaps we can invite students to help us in this quest by asking them to use their social media prowess to help us get the word out.
It’s time for people from around the country to start visiting us. There are incredible things happening in our classrooms; documenting and then publicizing them helps us celebrate our successes, inspire others, and push one another to be the change. Let’s start focusing on the bright spots and leave the five excuses above in the dust.