Think about your own experience as a student and what absolutely rocked your world as a learner. Then think about what bored you to tears. As somebody who went to school in the ‘70s, it would be safe to say that I have lived and breathed compliance, as those were certainly the times! Whether you are as old as I am or not, I’m also fairly certain that there are many out there who don’t remember much of how they learned, never mind what they learned. Yes, I am an excellent reader and passionate about books. I can multiple, divide, add and subtract like a speed demon and I can write solid essays. Do I remember how I got there? Barely. My memories are of a few projects that I worked on in high school that I was really passionate about. So, it is safe to say that my academic experience as a youngster wasn’t riveting! I don’t want that for my students.
Skip ahead years later to one of my students skipping down the hallway today, practically vibrating as she made her way back to class. I asked her why she was sooooo excited and her response was that they were going to do some more amazing things in class and they weren’t going to do any work at all! Interesting concept! What I found in her class were groups of students working on an Olympics-based hands-on activity, discussing, sharing, wondering, constructing and then doing some more sharing in preparation for a seriously cool design challenge to come up with a super-amazing-the-best-ever Olympic run so that their favorite athletes could perform better. Definitely no work was happening here…other than math, reading and writing, critical thinking, creativity, science and social studies. Yup! Definitely zero work taking place here. I want more of this excitement for my students!
How do I make this possible? As an administrator, it is my job to make it easier for our team to do so. These are some of the steps that I have taken on my journey to be more innovative:
Professional Learning Networks (PLNs). Each staff member at our school is expected to take part in a PLN, based on whatever interests them, as long as it improves student learning. PLNs offer two key components that are part and parcel of the way that I do business…the opportunity to collaborate and access to more brain power. We are very fortunate that our school division supports this learning. When a team gets together to work on something that they are passionate about, the outcome can be amazing…challenging…and uplifting. One team recently designed their own version of breakout boxes for our Grades 5 to 8 students. It was an extraordinary amount of work, but they broke out the breakout boxes today, and the students were ridiculously engaged in the process of finding the lost voyageur (Festival du Voyageur theme). While doing this, they were developing their language, creativity, communication, collaboration and critical thinking skills. The next step will be to support students as they create and develop their own games for these boxes, and believe me, they are excited to be able to do so. In this case, they were engaged and are empowered to take this on themselves.
Revamping the standard staff meeting. Enough with the blah, blah, blah each month. It’s enough to make me poke out my eyeballs. Now, once a week, we send out an electronic MAGazine on our portal to staff (MAG is our school acronym), which includes all the less interesting or tedious reading that can be done at their leisure, rather than wasting precious time during a meeting. What needs to be done that week or prior to the next staff meeting is highlighted in yellow (red if it is urgent). Then, during the meeting, we allot a shorter period of time to share items that are mandated by the Board Office or that require a discussion. Another portion of the meeting is dedicated to networking so that either our PLNs or grade levels can collaborate on specific projects. The third piece focuses on resources and learning, providing an opportunity for staff to move forward with their understanding about a concept, a strategy or an initiative. This approach has continued to foster a collaborative work environment, and frankly, I love it!
Pineapple Charts. As George mentioned in this week’s live chat, teachers need an opportunity to observe each other in the classroom. My Admin partner and I are really lucky, because we get to pop in and out of our team’s classrooms on a daily basis, and as a result, I learn a ton. But as George also said, my ability to do so doesn’t help my team, if they don’t have the same opportunities. As a follower of Jennifer Gonzalez’ Cult of Pedagogy (follow her at https://www.cultofpedagogy.com or on Twitter at @cultofpedagogy), I learned about Pineapple Charts, a concept which promotes classroom visits. Last month was our second round, which saw teachers posting what they were teaching in class on a bulletin board in the staff room. This allowed their colleagues to know when to visit them for observation purposes. Following feedback during our staff meeting today, the decision was made to post this sign up form on our school website (already done), so that it becomes a year-long event and not something that takes place only during a specific block of time. Staff have also asked me to post the calendar in our MAGazine so that they are reminded about what is being offered and alerts have been created so that they know when something is coming up. So, yay me! The key is to be consistent with coverage for teachers who may not have a prep period to observe something that is of interest to them. A very small price to pay for an opportunity for amazing learning!
Curriculum – Say What? One of the biggest roadblocks to innovation is this insane idea that teachers have to cover EVERYTHING in the curriculum to be effective at their jobs. Seriously??? In each subject area, there are essential outcomes, and strangely enough, many of these overlap from subject to subject. Who knew??? We can actually integrate these subjects so that we tap into multiple outcomes from different vantage points! At the same time, whipping through a curriculum without allowing students to delve deeper into it isn’t an effective approach either, because let’s face it, cruising at breakneck speed to get through all outcomes in a geography unit in 6 days doesn’t provide the students with the opportunity to really learn the material, nor to develop their skills as critical and creative thinkers. So, give teachers the permission to breathe…not everything needs to be covered, nor can it be effectively.
Find a way! As an administrator, I know only too well that we have to work within certain constraints, budgets being one of them. There are also provincial exams to contend with and expectations at divisional levels that need to be addressed. The list is long. But we need to find a way to work around these obstacles. A good friend of mine has said many a time, «If you believe in it, do it…and then beg forgiveness later!» Now I’m not suggesting that you break any rules, but when your teachers come to you with an idea or a question, as George also says, learn to be innovative within the box. If they are looking for resources to further a project, reach out to your community. Freebies abound out there! If they are looking to collaborate with another teacher somewhere in the school division (or elsewhere), contact your people, get on Twitter, and do what you need to do to support them. If they are excited about the idea of project-based learning (another yay me!), find schools that are doing more of the same, and send your teachers off to learn from them. If they need money for said resources, get creative with your budget (within reason!). When you support your staff with ideas that they are passionate about, I can guarantee you that your students will benefit from their enthusiasm ten-fold.
Professional Development & Team Planning. We all know that there are not enough hours in the day to complete everything that we set out to do. So, when a team approches me because they need extra time to work on a collaborative project, I use my PD funds to give them time to meet. With an entire afternoon to focus on any given project so that they can follow through on these ideas without interruption, allowing that whole flow process to happen, they are able to come up with incredible lessons/units. When this happens, it is nothing short of a win-win for everyone, because not only are staff members pumped, but our students benefit from their enthusiasm and amazing ideas!
So, these are just a few of the ways that I support innovation and work at evolving as a team member and administrator. I know that I have a long way to go, but I’m loving every minute of it!