2014 WISN Conference on Innovation – What’s Your Plan?

On behalf of the Wisconsin Innovative Schools Network, I can’t tell you how thrilled I am about our upcoming Conference on Innovation. If you’re reading this, I sure hope you’ll be there, too, since beginning on March 26, you’ll join nearly 500 educators who will gather for three days of networking, problem solving, and collaboration with colleagues from all across the state—and with some of the most inspiring thought leaders in education today. Personally, I can’t wait to hear Alfie Kohn talk about high stakes testing and the discussion I KNOW will ensue!

As I’ve learned throughout my career, conferences can be overwhelming with opportunities and possibilities. Want to get the most of this conference? Here are some tips that I’ve found helpful:

Begin with (realistic) goals. Before you get to the conference, ask yourself: What goals can I realistically attend to during this short time? If I could only do three things what would they be? How can you keep those goals fresh in your mind while staying open to the unexpected?

Plan ahead for how you will take your learning home. If you’re attending the conference with a team, you’re in the best position to strategize about how to implement your learning. But even on your own, identify specific actions you’ll take when you leave the conference. How will you share new knowledge with others? How will you continue your learning and collaborative efforts?

Remember, experts are everywhere. Your most significant insights may come from conversation with someone at your lunch table or from the person sitting next to you who’s gone through the a similar challenge and found a great solution. Don’t be shy! Introduce yourself. Ask people for e-mail addresses and put them in a safe place so you really can stay in touch.

Find time to reflect every day. Allow yourself the time and space to review what you’ve heard. Find a reflection partner if discussion helps you process new information. Take advantage of social media to put a new idea out into the world. Perhaps take a brief moment to journal after sessions to track first impressions and identify questions.

Schedule a conference follow up. Whether you set a Blue Jeans Network or Skype date with a new peer or volunteer to present to your local school board, you’ll reinforce your learning and find new ways to apply your knowledge with intentional follow up that extends beyond your first couple of weeks back at home.

We’ve designed incredible learning experiences led by some of the best leaders in education. Our great hope is that you’ll discover new ways of thinking about your school or your own teaching practice and through modeling and coaching build capacity in others. I’m looking forward to welcoming all returning attendees from last year’s inaugural conference—and hope to see many new faces, too. Remember: Don’t be shy. Please introduce yourself as the leader that you are!

WISN will tweet throughout the conference and invites you to do the same. Follow the conference and attendees as they share their learning with #WISN2014 or at our official Twitter page. Don’t forget to check out the conference app for more up to the minute info.  Just go to eventmobi.com/wisn2014 on any device.

Leaves are falling and high-stakes testing is rising.

Our family made the decision recently to have our 3rd and 7th grade children opted-out of the WKCE testing that started this week in their district.  I have, for years, as a teacher and principal, felt deeply that these tests do little to inform our instruction yet the time taken to administer them is overwhelming.  The question of standardized testing is everywhere in the news. Articles about massive testing have become a regular occurrence in the media and organizations like United Opt-Out National are taking this issue to a whole new level.

There are many pros and cons on this issue. Within the last week or so, parents from my daughter’s elementary school have been debating the issue over an email listserv. A parent from the school, Brian Lavendel, recently shared his thoughts about this topic after writing his own opt-out letter for his daughter. Here is an excerpt from his post:

You simply can’t tell much about what a person can do or how they will perform either in high school or college by administering multiple-choice tests. Nor have I seen good evidence that standardized tests tell you what a child needs in the classroom. (What you can do is predict who will do well on the tests–those whose experiences fall most within the cultural norms—i.e. white, middle class–and those who have learned how to take tests.)

 Some say you need standardized tests so that we can compare how kids from Wisconsin are doing with kids from Kansas or from Korea. But I wonder about the usefulness of measurements that can be made so simple that they can compare across broad swaths of humanity. I can’t think of a metric that could be that broad and still be useful.

Add to that the fact that these tests take precious time from classroom instruction. Is that really what we want teachers and students to be focusing on? I don’t. I think in part where I am coming from is that I have much more confidence in our daughter’s teacher to teach and assess my daughter than any standardized test.

It is difficult to know the impact of such testing on our children. A 2010 College of William & Mary study found Americans’ scores on the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking have been dropping since 1990, and researcher Kyung-Hee Kim lays part of the blame on the increase in standardized testing: “If we neglect creative students in school because of the structure and the testing movement… then they become underachievers.”  Looking around the globe, Finland topped the international education (PISA) rankings from 2001-2008, yet has “no external standardized tests used to rank students or schools,” according to Stanford University researchers Linda Darling-Hammond and Laura McCloskey.  Success has been achieved using “assessments that encourage students to be active learners who can find, analyze, and use information to solve problems in novel situations.”

I believe that there are many ways of assessing students’ learning which don’t involve the time and energy being spent on standardized tests that tell us very little about our children’s capacities in life. I welcome your comments.

 

Dr. Heather Terrill Stotts, Executive Director

 

Dr. Brian Lavendel studied standardized writing assessment for his PhD, served on the National Council of Teachers of English Testing Committee and the Conference on College Composition and Communication Assessment committee on this topic, and was brought in to consult with ACT on their assessments. Through this work, he concluded that large-scale metrics are inappropriate and invalid for measuring the type of higher-order learning we really want our kids to be experiencing in today’s classrooms. 

Creating KTEC: Kenosha School of Technology Enhanced Curriculum

Creating KTEC: Kenosha School of Technology Enhanced Curriculum

The mission of Kenosha School of Technology Enhanced Curriculum (KTEC), a preschool – eighth grade charter school that engages all students in an innovative learning environment, is to prepare students through academic excellence by the use of 21st Century skills and technology integration. Students at KTEC are participants and collaborators in engaging lessons that integrate technology into all curriculum areas to ensure learning and higher order thinking skills.

The Kenosha School of Technology Enhanced Curriculum (KTEC) serves the needs of students in preschool through eighth grade.  KTEC opened with 325 students in the fall of 2007 and now is at capacity with 471 students and over 300 on a waiting list.

We all know that technology has revolutionized how people around the world work, play, and communicate.  Studies show that the meaningful integration of technology into the curriculum can enhance student learning.  Integrating technology in the curriculum also helps students improve the skills that are necessary to succeed in a future dominated by technology.

The IES (Institute of Education Sciences) Practice Guide, published by the U.S. Department of Education, presents evidence-based advice to practitioners working to encourage girls in mathematics and science. The Guide provides five recommendations for encouraging girls in mathematics and science, including the level of evidence to support each recommendation and guidance for carrying out each recommendation. These recommendations include the following:

  1. Teachers should explicitly teach students that academic abilities are expandable and improvable in order to enhance girls’ beliefs about their abilities.
  2. Teachers should provide students with prescriptive, informational feedback regarding their performance.
  3. Teachers should expose girls to female role models who have achieved in math or science in order to promote positive beliefs regarding women’s abilities in math and science.
  4. Teachers can foster girls’ long-term interest in math and science by choosing activities connecting math and science activities to careers in ways that do not reinforce existing gender stereotypes and choosing activities that spark initial curiosity about math and science content.
  5. Teachers should provide opportunities for students to engage in spatial skills training.

KTEC is headed in the right direction, utilizing the IES recommendations for the future of their students. According to the U.S. Bureau of Statistics, in the next five years, STEM jobs are projected to grow twice as quickly as jobs in other fields. While all jobs are expected to grow by 10%, STEM jobs are expected to increase by 21%. Similarly, 80% of jobs in the next decade will require technical skills. The US Department of Labor claims that out of the 20 fastest growing occupations projected to 2014, fifteen of them require significant mathematics or science preparation. The U.S. will have over one million job openings in STEM-related fields by 2018; yet, according to the U.S. Bureau of Statistics, only 16% of U.S. bachelor’s degrees will specialize in STEM. As a nation, we are not graduating nearly enough STEM majors to supply the demand. To put these numbers into perspective, of the 3.8 million 9th graders in the US, only 233,000 end up choosing a STEM degree in college (National Center for Education Statistics).

One of the major tenets of KTEC is that staff members need to have training that fits the school’s mission as well as their own professional needs and interests. Dr. Angela Andersson, Principal of KTEC, is a leader who believes in shared governance and empowering staff members and parents to take the necessary steps to continue forward progress. As an example, staff members Michelle Zazula and Sarah McMillian have had ongoing national training in STEM practices and Project Lead the Way and are now training not only staff members in their own building but educators across the state and nation.  Scott Hodges has also been trained in myriad STEM approaches as well as Lego Robotics and uses his expertise to offer training across the nation as well.

In partnership with the Wisconsin Innovative Schools Network, KTEC staff have been sharing their practices with educators across the state and continue to do so with planned visitations and collaboration days throughout the 2013-14 school year. You can find out more by visiting InnovativeSchoolsNetwork.com or KTEC.kusd.edu.

It Takes Courage

Painted on the wall at WISN partner school’s Milwaukee College Prep’s (MCP) Lloyd St. campus is the following quote by Andrew Jackson: One person with courage makes a majority.  In my recent visit to MCP’s campuses on Milwaukee’s north side, the depth of compassion, collaboration, and community among their staff and scholars (students) emanated at every turn.  MCP takes Malcom Forbes’s stand that when you cease to dream you cease to live and they live this with their students every day.

Chief Operations Officer and Talent Recruiter, Dr. Kristi Cole, believes that an uncompromising K-8 education is the difference between dreams realized and dreams denied. When asked what the most important quality is that she looks for when hiring staff for MCP, she responded, “Without a doubt, it is professionals who believe in the hope that we offer our scholars.” It sort-of made me want to camp out there for the week.

In Alfie Kohn’s recent article entitled Encouraging Educator Change, he states, “We have to be willing to fight for what’s right even in the face of concerted opposition.” I believe that Dr. Cole and the teachers at MCP show a great deal of courage every single day. They take all students who apply contrary to what people may believe about Milwaukee charter schools. They offer significant staff development around their educational model for their teachers. They communicate deeply with the families of their scholars. Standing up and showing courage in a difficult system is no easy task.

Educators across our state and nation are showing courage every single day. The recent example of hundreds of Florida teachers who returned their ‘pay for performance’ checks is a goose bump-inducing example of such courage. It takes courage to enter into shared governance models and democratic decision-making. It takes courage to create and implement innovative models of instruction. It takes courage to stand up and speak out against high-stakes testing. It takes courage to teach.

Dr. Heather Terrill Stotts, Executive Director

Welcome to the 2013-14 School Year with WISN

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction announced the recipients of charter school grants to support the opening of 19 new charter schools for the 2013-14 school year.  These new schools are among those included in a new round of federally funded charter school grants for the state totaling $12.8 million. WISN will be partnering with almost all of those grantees.  We look forward to the experience and enthusiasm they will bring to the WISN, a new and growing network that works best with educators willing to engage in a give and take of ideas, seeking and sharing at the same time.

Collaboration is at the heart of WISN’s success because schools in general, and charter schools in particular, face many challenges as they operate in a public environment that is often uninformed or sometimes hostile. We believe committed educators are key to changing this environment, and that by working together we can realize the innovation and school improvements we dream of for our students.

WISN is an organization built on these dreams, but it is also built with a deep understanding of the day-to-day needs of educators like you. Our team knows what it takes to implement technology, examine pedagogy, build community, deal with budgeting, planning, and governance—and a host of other subjects crucial for successful charter schools. This is perhaps our greatest value: To offer expertise, consultation, and services on topics such as these, while we expand our own pool of experts from our partners.

To help them choose the services right for their schools, we’re delighted to present our brand new online Marketplace where partners will be able to browse and “shop” for WISN events, workshops, etc. Partners will gather the decision-makers for their school, explore the Marketplace together, and create their WISN School Profile and Service Agreement by following the instructions in the Marketplace.

You can join with us by heading to our online Marketplace to register for WISN workshops, online sessions, visitation days, or just browse our website to learn about other partner schools. Above all, we are a network of resources. If we don’t know the answer to your question, we can point you to someone who does. We’re confident that partnering with the network will make your school stronger, and we are also confident that other schools will be stronger for your contributions.

Welcome to an exciting upcoming school year. We look forward to working with you.

Dr. Heather Terrill Stotts, Executive Director

Educational Alphabet Soup

ASCD A Lexicon of Learning
What do educators mean when they say….?
Are you wondering what constructivism really means?  How about ungraded schools?  It seems like we are often using acronyms like ESL, NCLB and more jargon that is difficult to understand and even harder to explain to others. Consider going to the ASCD site A Lexicon of Learning  to learn more about educational terminology.  You may also want to consider putting this link on your website and sharing with your schools’ stakeholders to help with communication and understanding.

Conquering the Testing Monster

Testing. Take off the -ing at the end and you have a dreaded “4 letter word”. We shouldn’t feel that way about testing as, of course, as educators, we know that the collection of relevant data helps us inform instructional practices.  However, the phrase “relevant data” is really important here.  This is talked about everywhere and I love this piece below that addresses this very issue.

The following is a post from Diane Ravitch’s Blog on June 17, 2013 titled First Grade Teacher: How I Conquered the Testing Monster 

In response to the question, “Can You Do the Wrong Thing in the Right Way?,” this teacher responded with a fascinating account of how she conquered the testing monster in her first-grade classroom.

She writes:

I’ve been thinking about testing too. A lot. I teach first grade. My students arrive at the tender age of 5 or 6 and exit at 6 or 7. I give my students 6 benchmark tests a year, 3 in literacy and 3 in math. This past year, 4 more tests were added to the roster – this time on computer. That adds up to 10 – yes 10 -multiple choice tests every year for children who still cry for their moms, pee on the carpet, fall asleep spread eagle on the floor, and poke, prod, tease, and growl at each other. Oh –did I say that the children can’t read, at least for the first third of the year –the first 3 or 4 tests?

I am told the tests are to help inform my instruction. But I know the truth. The tests are there in first grade to get the kids ready for the tests in second grade –the tests that really matter – the tests that will count on the schools’ API and AYP reports. (California tests 2nd grade).

As a pragmatist, I’m efficient, organized, hold traditional values, and like rules and order. I know how to do what is expected of me and how to show results. So I reasoned I could use these structural strengths to get the tests over with, show the expected results, meet the smart goals, so that I could move on to the creative part of teaching –the part that cannot be quantified– the part of teaching where I get to interact with the children I am charged with developing academically, I get to know their passions, fears, ideas, the part of teaching that educates children – where there are no borders between painting and reading and playing basketball and building towers and writing , the part of teaching that is magical, that combines knowledge of standards, expertise, and passion on the part of the teacher with excitement, willingness, surprise, and vision from children.

But that is not what happened. Every breathing space I created for myself and my students by my efficiency got filled up with another expectation. More students – 18 one year, 20 the next, 24 for a few years, then 26; a new policy of all-day, full inclusion of special needs children in the general education classroom; a neighborhood impacted by the housing market decline and its resultant mobile population – causing more to move in and out of my classroom during the year; a school in program improvement – in effect designated as failing, and the resultant punishments – more administrative scrutiny, narrowing of curriculum to math and reading, canceling of arts programs during the school day; flight of families to school with better scores; and noisy classrooms in buildings without connecting walls.

So I got tired. I got beaten down. I got discouraged. And if you think I had it bad, think of the kids. Imagine a teacher for them who is always cross, always serious, harps about the test, never takes the time to ask them how they are doing, is too busy to tie a shoe lace or rub a boo-boo. That is me. I cringe as I write this.

Standardized tests don’t just stop my students from thinking, they teach them not to think. Imagine a 5 year old child who doesn’t read, and may not even speak English. They look at an 8 by 11 inch white paper devoid of all but one or two sketches. They listen as I read the question to them. Then I read the 3 or 4 choices. They pick the choice and fill in the bubble. Imagine the time I spend teaching them how to find the question, scroll with their eyes through the 4 choices, all while listening to me drone on and repeat the question and the choices until all 26 of them have bubbled something in. Imagine that this one test has 8 pages of questions – 15 or 20 questions in all. No wonder I’m cross. No wonder their eyes are glazed and they are growling.

But it gets worse. I am complicit in this next part. Standardized tests actually make students stupid. Yes, stupid. Not only are the kids not thinking, they are losing the ability to think. In my zeal to get administrative scrutiny off me and my students, I mistakenly thought that if I give them the test results they want, then I could do what I know was best for my students. To that end I trained my students to do well in these tests. I taught them to look for loopholes; to eliminate and guess; to find key words; to look for clues; in short, to exchange the process of thinking for the process of manipulation. I capitalized on my knowledge of young children, and the fact that they want to please adults and like to get the answer “right”. I justified my actions by saying that I had no choice, that the consequences of low test scores at my school were too dire to contemplate, and I wasn’t willing to put myself in professional or financial jeopardy. Clearly, testing made me stupid too.

I can’t speak for all my fellow teachers at my school, but I suspect many of them would, at the very least, recognize similar behaviors in their test-teaching practices. So, when despite our best collective efforts at raising test scores failed and my school entered 2nd year program improvement, I surrendered my stupidity and started speaking up, and eventually speaking out. I read research, blogs, government publications, and journals. I read widely from educational, historical, economic, pediatric, and psychological literature. I challenged administrative authority at my school to do the same – read, think, debate, discuss, and much to my surprise, did not get rebuffed. Astonishingly, I got ignored.

At about the same time I woke up out of my testing-induced nightmare , I started to notice the monster I had helped create. My students were only happy when they got the answer right. For many years my collegues and I had noticed a trend in young children – a trend toward passivity in learning. We had theories – all the kids had TV’s in the bedrooms, they had far too much screen time – computer, games, cells, TV’s in cars, lack of adult supervision and interaction, lack of conversational models at home, lack of social models at home, the list went on. But what wasn’t on the list was what I was culpable for – I had become about the right answer. They wanted to please me. They knew that if they waited long enough I would help them find the right answer. And I did.

One day, during small group math rotation, I put up privacy boards during the practice part of a lesson on math reasoning. The story problem went like this: There are 10 buttons on my coat. 6 are red and the rest are blue. How many are blue? We have worked on these kind of problems frequently, and the children have seen them in test format. Using connecting cubes as buttons, the children had to make a model of the problem. Three kids cried that day. The stress of thinking for and by themselves got to them. You see, many of the children had become expert at copying – watching what other children did in the group to get an answer and then providing “their” answer a nanosecond later. The children did not trust themselves enough to even attempt an answer. Their discomfort was palpable, and I was appalled.

Crying notwithstanding, I continued to use privacy boards. I also started to coach the kids about my belief in their abilities. I found that as they worked out a math problem using manipulatives to represent objects, I could lean in and coach them, one to one. Then, when they all had their answers, we pushed down the privacy boards to explore what we had all done. Ever so slowly, over many weeks, they started to regain their confidence.

You might wonder why I had not been doing this kind of teaching all along. I had, 11 years ago, pre-NCLB. Testing, along with the breadth of the standards and the resulting mountain of material to cover, much of it developmentally inappropriate, slowly eroded my professional judgement. Pressure to produce results through collaboration and mind-numbing analysis sapped my energy. A constant barrage of media stories about the ineffectiveness of teachers, some of it supported by leaders at my own school, drowned my spirit. Then I heard you, Diane, speak as a guest of my district and union. I started to read your work and have never looked back.

So thank you from the bottom of my heart. You are truly brave. You inspire me to speak up and speak out. You remind me that knowledge is power –I had forgotten. Now I get my ducks in a row, collect my facts, back up my intuition and experience with research, and speak up without fear or rancor. And in the process of speaking up for myself, I speak up for my students. And ever so slowly I start to rebuild my confidence too.

Collaboration at the DPI/WISN Conference on Innovation

Network. The last word of our name. When I began this job, I had no idea of how profound the implications of that word would be. I wear many hats in my work, but over the last year, perhaps the most important one I’ve worn is that of collaborator. Beyond the incredible collaborative work that created the Wisconsin Innovative Schools Network, I have also learned about how much collaboration is central to what we do with our partners, and with other organizations around the country. It’s implicit in the word network, and this focus on collaboration will be central to our upcoming conference.

I recently read an interview in Isthmus with David Krakauer. He’s the director of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, an organization within UW Madison devoted to innovation and reshaping the nature of higher education. The article was filled with thought provoking ideas, but I was particularly intrigued by how much collaboration is at the center of his vision. For example, when architects designed the Institute, they considered ways for people from different departments to “bump into” each other, so that conversations and interactions could occur naturally, encouraging a kind of disciplinary cross-pollinization, which we know is a powerful tool in creativity. He also talked about the need to reach outside the walls of educational institutions. “The only way forward is a new kind of collaboration between academia and industry.”

I believe that collaboration is also at the heart of any way forward, and that our most important job at the WISN is to encourage it.

Collaboration might mean that people work together on a project. The ability to do that is a central 21st century skill. But collaboration can also mean something more like what David Krakauer describes: facilitating ideas, experiences, and questions among people who might not normally be in contact with each other and letting information pass easily between those who might otherwise be isolated.

I see our upcoming DPI/WISN Conference on Innovation this March 12-13-14 in Appleton as a prime opportunity for this type of collaboration. We are creating specific models and opportunities within the three days to encourage conversations, challenge thinking, and share visions and ideas, allowing for ongoing collaboration, but also making random, unpredictable, and potentially transformative connections possible.

I’ll write more about the nature of our collaboration later, but, for the moment, come
to our conference
, and bring your collaborator hat. It will get lots of wear.

As always, I welcome your feedback.

-Dr. Heather Terrill Stotts, Executive Director

What do we want from our schools?

In the December 17, 2012 issue of the New Yorker, Louis Menand writes about one of the French President’s more obscure powers; he can abolish homework, and in fact has the intention of doing so. It’s easy to imagine that such a move would win him a huge majority of voters in the 8-18 demographic, but the article goes on to explore the efficacy of homework in general. As I’ve argued for a long time, there is very little reason for homework, and very little correlation between homework and academic achievement. The longest term and most in-depth studies show only a slight connection between homework and success in school, and it’s a connection that draws at least in part on the relative education and income levels of families. There is no study that shows that large amounts of homework make much, if any, difference for students.

I encourage you to read the New Yorker article, as it explores these questions in more depth. But I was more intrigued by a deeper question Menand poses. He asserts that homework is in fact a reflection of the kind of schools that a country and its population perceive that they want. Thus, Finland, the most highly rated education system in the world by Pearson’s global report, has no homework. South Korea, in the number two spot, is legendary for the sheer quantity of study expected by their students. Each approach reveals something about the national character.

And so the question surfaces for us. What kind of schools do we, as a country or a state, want? Especially at a deeper, perhaps less conscious level, what do we as parents, educators, and citizens, want for our students?

I’ll hazard a couple of guesses, in no particular order, but I’d be very curious to hear what others’ perceptions might include.

I believe that Americans in general want schools that are orderly, safe, and serious. Parents are often confused when they see children out of their seats, not utilizing textbooks, having fun, even when deeply engaged in learning. Somehow we carry an image deeply embedded in our cultural psyche that learning means sitting at a desk and being quiet.

Americans want the basics covered. The horror stories of students graduating and being unable to read, or being deficient in foundational math skills, provoke a round of collective disapproval and often blame aimed at the education system.

Surveys also have shown that parents want their children to learn kindness, to get along with others, and to show compassion.

We also want schools that compare favorably to schools in other nations. One of the best ways to get us riled up is by showing how we are lower than others in international rankings.

It’s not a comprehensive list, but it raises the question of where the central focus of the WISN fits with directions in American education.

At the WISN, we believe that the focus on schools should be on encouraging innovation in education in order to identify and share best practices. We also believe that those best practices include a focus on collaboration, creativity, and student-focused instruction. Does this vision fit with the larger direction of American education, and with the image our culture has for schools?

The short answer is that I don’t know, but that I believe a central tenet of our work is to share what we are learning about education, not only with members of our network, but with the public at large. It’s not enough to function within an isolated group. The work of changing education takes place as much in legislative bodies and community forums as it does in schools themselves.

And so our direction in the new year becomes two fold, inner and outer. We will continue making connections between educators, sharing what we’re learning. But we will also work to form and reveal a vision of what education can be, to be part of the debate about where schools are headed.

And if, along the way, we can rethink homework, we’ll have a host of new advocates, drawn from those who matter most— the students themselves.

As always, I welcome your feedback.

-Dr. Heather Terrill Stotts, Executive Director

Welcoming 2013…and reviewing our mission

In my role as executive director at the WISN I have been part of literally hundreds of discussions about collaboration, creativity, pedagogical approaches, and ways forward for all schools. I’ve spent hours planning events and learning about the wealth of resource and experiences all over our state.

But here at the beginning of 2013, I find myself thinking about very different issues. Where in schools’ missions do we find a place for grief, compassion, and even outrage?

Shootings in schools make the news with a certain regularity, but something about the events in Newtown Connecticut have struck a deeper chord than before. Everyone is appalled at the carnage, but the solutions offered vary widely, from arming teachers to focusing more on mental health issues, to, of course, the possibility of greater limits on gun accessibility. It’s too early to know what will change in our country as result of the shootings. It’s possible that the demand for change and the spikes in public opinion will ebb, and that politics as usual will forestall meaningful legislation or policies.

But what can we as educators do? As we seek to chart new directions and new beliefs about what schools can and should do, how do we include educational initiatives that can begin to address the conditions and symptoms of school violence, as well as help students with the aftermath of events and eventually come to their own reasoned and informed opinions about these issues?

I believe that we need to see issues of emotional competence, empathy, and organized political action as central to our teaching, not as add-ons during “character week” or a six-unit focus on responsibility or generosity. There is plenty of room in the curriculum to explore character issues within the study of history or science, and to have students reflect on their own values and beliefs within the scope and sequence of a discipline or subject. Emotional intelligence, with all of its varied attributes and demands, takes place throughout the course of our days, and our lives. Why should schools isolate such considerations? Such isolation detracts from depth of learning, and sends a message that the affective quality of our lives can be contained or limited, when in fact, it’s the affective nature of our lives that determines our quality of life.

In addition, we do need to focus on certain issues. Bullying has been in the spotlight for several years now, and I believe this focus is making a difference. Perhaps we need a similar focus on issues of violence itself. Students know violence, and experience it frequently through the media. Can a specific theme like this become central to schools?

The implications of such approaches reach directly into the 21st century skills we refer to so often. Communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity all have strong roots in how we process emotion. Bringing a metacognitive sensibility to classrooms will not only help students to communicate and collaborate more effectively, but can help them reflect on the emotional processes, strengths, and weaknesses that they bring to any project.

As educators, we also need to take time to grieve what happened. Our students may or may not react deeply to the events of the Newtown school, but every teacher I have spoken with grieves for all the children, and the brave adults involved. We grieve for the families, but also for our image of schools as a safe place, devoted to learning and community. Events like Newtown shatter, or at least chip away, at this image we carry of our schools. My own grief at what happened increases my commitment to improving schools, and for telling the world about the great things that happen there. I want the nation to have greater respect for the profession, and to have a greater understanding of the urgency facing education. It’s not just about curriculum, it’s about the way we are as a community. And even tragedies can, in the end, help us grow.

Our prayers and thoughts go out to everyone affected by the shooting. There is no way to minimize the events. I hope that I can keep the sense of urgency, and the sense of possibility, as we enter into this new year.

Your comments or questions are welcome. Please send  to me at Heather@InnovativeSchoolsNetwork.com.

Heather Terrill Stotts, WISN Executive Director