School Improvement Innovation Summit: Day 2

Wow.  That’s all I can say – wow.  How do I capture 11.5 hours of the SIIS into one blog post – it’s not even really possible.  Today was the classic example of information overload – it’s a good thing I took notes – because after the first several sessions I was having trouble focusing and concentrating on what was being shared.  Let’s travel through the day together as I work to review and reflect on what was shared…

After a wonderful buffet breakfast (hey, what can I say – I like food :)) the opening session was led by Chet Linton, President & CEO of the School Improvement Network. A couple of things he shared that I’ll pass on.  First, there is a group on PD360 for the SIIS – so if you haven’t joined it you may want to do so ASAP (do a search for “Innovation Summit”).  He did a great presentation on the changes in education over the past century, focusing on innovations of today and how that impacts education.  Education as we know it today is a result of the industrial age – a time when information was controlled and classrooms were isolated.  But today’s world is not like that any more: today information is just a click away from anyone with a cell phone (and most, if not all our students have those), and students live connected lives and are used to making choices.  As Chet reminded us, students today are “digital natives” and are used to publishing, collaborating, and contributing to the world around them – yet in schools we still approach education as a transfer of knowledge from the expert (teacher) to the student.  It is a great illustration (unfortunately) of Albert Einstein’s statement, “The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.”  Which raises the question: how are we going to change how we teacher to better match how students can learn?  Chet set the stage for the rest of the summit – a summit which strives to answer that question.

Next on the docket was Karen Cator, Director, Office for Education Technology for the US Department of Education.  Ms. Cator did a fantastic job of setting forth a vision for Learning Powered Technology: a place where learning is focused on 21st Century experiences (not memorizing information), focusing on how people learn and using current brain research to design instruction, using assessment to measure “what matters”, and creating a teaching workforce that is “highly effective and highly connected”.  Her goals were lofty and her speech inspirational  – now it just remains to be seen if we as educators are up to the task, a task that will require many of us to change our entire philosophy of education (including what it is, how it takes places, and our role in it).   A copy of the National Technology Plan can be found by clicking on this link – the plan she presented to us and had a major part in authoring.

I spent two sessions of the day attending sessions focused on equity and reaching students of different cultures.  The first was presented by Bonnie Davis entitled, “Teaching Students Who Don’t Look Like Me.”  Bonnie was honest about her own struggles in this area, something I found refreshing in a presenter, and I was able to identify with her in so many ways.  She shared some specific strategies to help acknowledge, honor, and validate the people we work with (students and staff), and also reminded us of the importance of having role models for our students to look up to.  One of the most thought-provoking things she said all day was sharing research which indicates “The number of feet one must walk before seeing a picture of a black male doing something besides entertainment or sports has a correlation to academic achievement for black males at the school.”  This absolutely astounded me!  She also focused on our need as educators to develop cultural proficiency – telling us it’s a journey to learn “what I don’t know I don’t know.”  Some other things I didn’t know: brain research indicates that as we approach students, once we get about 8 feet away students are able to figure out if we like them or not; brain research also indicates that we should get within an arms length of every student in our classroom multiple times every hour – because that communicates a “like for” the student and reinforces the belief that we care for and believe in them.  Yet how often in classes does the teacher spend the entire class period (or most of it) at the front of the room by the board.  Or, worse yet, sitting at a desk or podium?  Teachers need to be up moving around the room – not just to monitor students, but to connect with them as well.  Finally, she discussed the issues of the culture lens through which we view the world.  For me, that’s a white, middle-class male lens – because that’s my culture.  And that culture influences both my leadership and teaching style.  Yet how often do I consider that when I design instruction for those I teach?

Curtis Linton was one of the few presenters today who actually brought a tear to my eye.  Curtis co-authored the book Courageous Conversations about Race and has just released a new book (which I had him autograph!) entitled Equity 101 and his presentation entitled, “Equity & Courageous Conversations” was absolutely amazing.  He started by identifying the three areas equity resides and the three areas we need to address to improve equity: our personal beliefs and experiences, our institutional beliefs and expectations, and our professional attitudes and behavior.  Curtis shared specific information regarding his own history as well as his family’s experiences now that he’s a father.  As with Bonnie Dixon, he was open and honest about his experiences and struggles and concerns, and he made a very important point that providing/ensuring equity is not something that can be accomplished by just doing some professional development but requires people to have a fundamental change in beliefs so that they can truly strive to meet the needs of all students (and not have different expectations for students based on how they look).

One of the highlights of the day was the lunch keynote presentation by Dr. John Covington and Mary Essleman of the Kansas City School District.  Their experience in working to turn around an entire district was nothing short of miraculous and inspirational.  I hope this presentation makes its way onto PD360 at some point in the future because my paragraph highlight hardly does it justice.  Two things that were said which stood out to me that I want to share.  First is the fact that Kansas City is transitioning it schools to standards based schools, meaning they do not have grades any more but look at what students need to know at different “levels” and not allowing a student to progress until they have mastered that content.  I’m not sure how it all works (because he didn’t get in to that), but it is something I want to take time to look at and explore more.  The second was the conviction he shared that “all kids” really means “all kids”.  He shared that when he met with principals who wanted to increase their proficiency from “20% to 25%” he told them he felt that was too low of a bar, but he would allow them to keep it there if the principals would “Let [him] come to your school and walk through the halls with you and you point out to [him] which of the 75% of students you are going to write off.”

The second focus of the day today (for me) was attendance at sessions focused on the Common Core State Standards. Trenton Goble shared a program called MasteryConnect which has been designed to track student performance on the common core standards.  Syd Dixon (who works for the Utah State Office of Education) shared information on how Utah is making the transition to the Common Core Standards in an effort to provide a model for other districts to share.  Without going into too much detail, her model seems very similar to that which North Carolina is following.  She also spent a portion of her presentation discussing what the Common Core is, but instead of sharing all that information here I’ll simply refer you to a previous post I did early this month on the subject.

The day ended by a final presentation by Michael Fullan on motion leadership.  I’ll be honest and just tell you that this particular session just had too much information in it presented in too short of a period at too late in the day for me to process.  If you’d like to read more about what his presentation focused on click on this link, which will take you to his paper on the subject.  The one thing I do want to share from this presentation is his emphasis on creating a system of Core Beliefs for a school and district – something reinforced by Curtis Linton in his presentation on Equity and my own experience in talking with others and serving at schools.  He shared the core beliefs of one system he worked with as follows:

1) Hope is not a strategy

2) Don’t blame the kids

3) It’s all about learning

And I have to say those are pretty good core beliefs.  One of the things I struggle with is when districts and schools say they have a belief but then their actions do not back it up.  As a profession most of us would say we believe “all students can learn”, but too often we don’t act that way.  We write students off because of how they look, act, or talk.  Then we try to justify our hypocrisy by saying, “Well I believe all students CAN learn, but not all students WILL learn.” or “I believe I students can learn, but not all students can learn at the same rate and to the same standard.”

And so we get to the heart of the problem: a lack of belief and a disconnect between what we say we believe and how we act.  I won’t get into the details of my personal life and personal beliefs regarding issues outside of education in this  post, but when my younger sister died suddenly over 12 years ago I had to face a crisis of belief where I needed to decide if I was going to have the same beliefs about life and death as I said I did or I just needed to change what I said I believed so it lined up with how I acted.  The same is true of education today: too many people claim to believe one thing yet act in ways that are contrary to that belief.  Shame on us!

Because of the length of this post and, most likely, the length of tomorrow’s post, I’ll share some more detailed reflective thoughts and wrap-up on Thursday after the conference is over and I’ve had time to better process all the information that was shared.  For today, though, I hope you have a little taste of what happened – and if it was any reflection of what will happen tomorrow then tomorrow is looking like a good day.

If you’d like copies of my raw notes from the sessions you are free to click on this link, which will take you to them.


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