The ISN is Thankful For Brave School Leadership

By: Barry Golden – ISN Consultant

As we approach Thanksgiving Day, ISN staff and several members of our Board of Directors have been reflecting on our service and impact on education in Wisconsin since our inception nearly four years ago.

We all concurred that innovation must continue to be our focus and passion.  In that spirit, we asked ourselves,

“what is the ISN thankful for in this season of gratitude?

There are a lot of innovations occurring in some 4K-12 classrooms and school buildings in Wisconsin, but we are still waiting for the inspired wave of risk taking leaders to establish zones of innovation within school districts across the state and the country to establish schools that “Do Different.”  There are some great examples of such schools and we want to express our appreciation and to honor those educators who are truly bending the curve of innovation by challenging the “one size fits all” mindset that seems to have hijacked our educational system.

We wish to honor and pay tribute to those leaders, staff, school boards and community members who have found a way to foster and empower teachers to assume a more active role in how we educate students differently; not only for students with differences, but with structures that recognize and educate students based on their strengths and interests versus trying to fix student weaknesses so they can fit a “proficient or advanced” factory model where individual differences are seen as being abnormal.

So, to those individuals who are doing education differently, be they board members, administrators, teaching staff or community groups, we thank you for your creativity and belief that guiding student learning fosters and supports curiosity which is what drives all humans to be different.

Guest Blogger: Matthew Scott

Matthew Scott

My name is Matthew Scott. I’m a teacher and writer from the UK. I currently live in the US and decided to explore some of the innovative work taking place here in education. This was mainly done in the hope of being able to take a few ideas home with me when I go back to Britain. Then I got carried away. This blog will chart that journey.

One: The Storm Before The Calm

I’d never driven through a tornado before. It was a Wednesday morning and I was on my way to Monona, Wisconsin, a town just over an hour west of where I live. My destination was the Project Based Learning Un-Conference organized by WISN and Project Foundry. It was a gathering of educators with varying degrees of expertise in the field of PBL. I’d been in touch via email with Sarah from WISN who had been extremely positive and helpful, but I was still nervous. You see, I’ve been in the US for a couple of years and (apart from volunteer work at a downtown Milwaukee city literacy center) haven’t set foot in a classroom for a while. My wife assured me I’d be fine – teaching was like riding a bike. Yes, I thought. Or driving a car. On the ‘wrong’ side of the road. Through a tornado…

Okay, perhaps this is a little over-dramatic. There was no twister that morning but the warnings were out and judging by the number of cars with hazards lining the highway or hiding under bridges, the likelihood of one touching down wasn’t altogether unreasonable. And my nervousness was extremely real. Apart from a vague outline, I had no real idea about PBL. It did actually feel a little like the first day at high school again.

I needn’t have worried. The Un-Conference was hosted by the wonderful people of MG21 Liberal Arts Charter School and as I pulled into the parking lot I was relieved to see the WISN and Project Foundry signage pointing me in the right direction (again, read the symbolism there as far as cliché will allow). After signing in, I headed into a large computer lab for the welcome speeches and breakdown of the sessions for the next few days. The room was already buzzing with conversation and it was clear that a lot of people knew each other or had come as part of teams. At that time I was still absolutely convinced I was the most clueless person there. Everyone had laptops – really nice ones. I had a legal pad and two pens in case one ran out of ink. But despite the diverse range of experience and experiences in the room, it was clear that this conference was designed with the goal of exploration in mind, and what’s the good of exploring if you already know exactly where you are going?

My own meandering began with a session on Advisory. It was run by the Valley New School from Appleton, WI and after circling-up for a few ice-breaking games, people began to explain why they were there and what they hoped to take out of the session. I will admit now that although I was taking in a great deal of information much of it swirled about like the weather on the way in that morning – the odd tree branch might flash by in the wind, something recognizable, but nothing for me to grab hold of with any confidence. This had nothing to do with the excellently led session and more that so much of the terminology and language – the basic jargon of US education – was so alien to me. Imagine a US educator visiting a similar event in Britain and having to work out what Key Stages, or Pupil Premium, or even GCSE meant before they’d even had a chance to think about the topic being discussed? Luckily, for one activity, I found myself partnered with Steven Rippe from WISN and, as I’m sure any of you who have spent any period of time in Steven’s company will attest, things suddenly got a whole lot cooler.

Having worked out what I was actually doing there, it was Steven who came up with what this whole blog is going to be about: It’s a project. ‘If your aim is to find out as much as you can about PBL, treat it as a project’ – that was his suggestion. Suddenly all the anxiety about not knowing anything became a driving force: I could just learn. Need-to-knows, making real-world connections, linking back to standards: all of this went from being the content of the learning to the actual process. I was going to do a project on finding out as much as I could about PBL and the product, tentatively, would be this blog.

So, this is the first post: an introduction. Forgive me for not going into detail about the rest of the terrific Un-Conference: the sessions on building a culture for PBL in a traditional school environment; how to integrate PBL into core subjects; examples from educators actually doing PBL in teacher-led settings, student-led settings and everything else in between; PLPs; assessment; Project Foundry; and the inspirational key note address from Joe Bower – no, all of these matters and more will, I’m sure, be discussed in more detail in later posts.

Nor am I going to write too much just now about the quick realization that although the jargon might be slightly different, this infamous shared language, which is often ironically said to separate us on either side of the Atlantic, actually speaks of exactly the same concerns, challenges and, most importantly, passion I hear when talking to teachers back home. Sometimes it’s buried deep beneath warranted frustrations but it’s still there.

For now I’m just saying hello.

Before I go though, I should mention that a week after the UnConference, I drove to the WISN office in Madison to discuss this whole adventure. The weather that day? Glorious sunshine.

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

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.