We Can All Play a Part

When I talk to other teachers about my school, I often hear, “well, you’re small enough that you can do that.” There’s an attitude that we have a luxury of being small and well-staffed – so we can pay attention to things that public school teachers can’t.

Yes and no.

While we certainly benefit from our staffing ratio, there are strategies we use in therapeutic schools that any public school could put into effect with minimal legwork that go miles in their support of all learners. These changes range from small things, like teachers offering differentiated break opportunities in class, to large rethinking of school structures like discipline/suspensions/expulsions.

This article from the New York Times’ Opinionator column describes some of the work being done in the field right now in creating trauma-informed schools. It’s a good introduction for teachers or schools just beginning to think about how to incorporate trauma-informed practices into their systems and structures.

In a month I’ll be facilitating a conversation at EduCon Philly on Understanding, Intention, and Awareness: Lessons For Everyone From a Therapeutic School. My basic feeling is this: what we do at our therapeutic school isn’t a proprietary “program,” an expertise that takes years to develop, or a secret methodology. It’s an understanding of where our students come from, an awareness of how we bring ourselves to the work, and an intention crafted with the student’s needs in mind. Trauma-informed, special ed-informed, just informed in general  we can all move our schools forward with some self-reflection.

If you’re at EduCon, I look forward to starting the conversation with you all. If you won’t be, let’s connect! How do you think we can move our schools toward more supportive practices for children with trauma histories?

Quick thought: what works in public schools?

 As an independent school teacher, I’m often grateful that I don’t have to deal with the bureaucracy and brokenness of public school.
Lately though, I’ve been wondering about the parts of public schools that do work, and how I can export some of those elements to my own practice.

I know I don’t want grades, but there’s something to be said for accountability that goes beyond pass/fail. I know I want students to be engaged and hands-on learners, but there’s something to be said for learning how to listen to a lecture and take notes. Being an independent school gives me the freedom to do things completely differently from “traditional” school – but does that mean I should, all the time? 

Balance is key, of course.  But this quick thought is one I’m going to carry with me planning for the fall.

photo credit: I, Timmy via photo pin cc

Essential Conditions: How do I get there?

There wasn’t a technology plan or department at my school before I started working there. I don’t want to discount the work that many teachers have done there over the years and the expertise of my coworkers in the area of tech. We have hard jobs, and we have a lot on our plates without taking on tertiary responsibilities. I just mention the lack of structure as context for talking about the Essential Conditions.

This Essential Conditions list comes from the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) in relation to their NETS standards, which outline essential skills for students and teachers, much like state standards or Common Core standards do for subject areas. Here’s the list (or view it at the source):

ESSENTIAL CONDITIONS: NECESSARY CONDITIONS TO EFFECTIVELY LEVERAGE TECHNOLOGY FOR LEARNING

Shared Vision

Proactive leadership in developing a shared vision for educational technology among all education stakeholders, including teachers and support staff, school and district administrators, teacher educators, students, parents, and the community

Empowered Leaders

Stakeholders at every level empowered to be leaders in effecting change

Implementation Planning

A systematic plan aligned with a shared vision for school effectiveness and student learning through the infusion of information and communication technologies (ICT) and digital learning resources

Consistent and Adequate Funding

Ongoing funding to support technology infrastructure, personnel, digital resources, and staff development

Equitable Access

Robust and reliable access to current and emerging technologies and digital resources, with connectivity for all students, teachers, staff, and school leaders

Skilled Personnel

Educators, support staff, and other leaders skilled in the selection and effective use of  appropriate ICT resources

Ongoing Professional Learning

Technology-related professional learning plans and opportunities with dedicated time to practice and share ideas

Technical Support

Consistent and reliable assistance for maintaining, renewing, and using ICT and digital learning resources

Curriculum Framework

Content standards and related digital curriculum resources that are aligned with and support digital age learning and work

Student-Centered Learning

Planning, teaching, and assessment centered around the needs and abilities of students

Assessment and Evaluation

Continuous assessment of teaching, learning, and leadership, and evaluation of the use of ICT and digital resources

Engaged Communities

Partnerships and collaboration within communities to support and fund the use of ICT and digital resources

Support Policies

Policies, financial plans, accountability measures, and incentive structures to support the use of ICT and digital learning resources for learning and in district school operations

Supportive External Context

Policies and initiatives at the national, regional, and local levels to support schools and teacher preparation programs in effective implementation of technology for achieving curriculum and learning technology (ICT) standards

This resource makes sense to me. Before I can start holding teachers and students accountable for digital literacy, I need these conditions to be met. I need all these things to support the best learning, so that technology makes life easier and more fulfilling, rather than technology being a source of frustration or anxiety.

Without going into detail, I’ll say that these conditions are not being met right now in my school.  I would assume that’s common among most schools; you can imagine the added challenges in a small non-profit independent school. Last summer I collaborated with a couple of other teachers to look at the NETS for students and the Vermont tech standards to create a pared-down list of essential skills for our particular students. This Essential Conditions list was an afterthought in our group –  brought up with the “Oh, we should probably talk about this more” comment that rarely leads to it actually being talked about more.

I think I went about that process backwards. This summer, as I get more time for professional development and long-term planning, I think it’s time to really take apart these conditions and start advocating for what we’d need to get them met. While some of those items seem big – like the “External Context” – I need to remember that as an empowered educator, they are all within my scope of influence. I can advocate to my legislators. I can raise awareness in my community. I can network with other professionals to fill in the gaps in my own program. I just need to start.

Anyone have experience with really digging into the Essential Conditions? I’d love to hear your thoughts and perspectives.

Reflections on Edcamp Boston from an independent school teacher

My main takeaway from Edcamp Boston was the brilliance of the overall structure and feel of the day. I am now totally a convert to unconferences. The model just makes sense. I appreciated the collaborative we’re-all-in-it-together feel. I appreciated that sessions were sometimes just questions or calls for help. I appreciated that everyone was treated like an expert, and everyone’s opinion held equal esteem. One of the sessions I went to was about how one school transformed their inservice through an Edcamp model, and that was pretty inspiring to me. We have lots of professional development at my school, and while there is some amount of agency among the teachers to propose and lead sessions, I think we could take it one step further. That’s something I’ll definitely bring up to my school leadership as we start planning for summer inservice.

The spectacular view from Edcamp Boston at the Microsoft NERD.
The spectacular view from Edcamp Boston at the Microsoft NERD.

My other takeaway from Edcamp was how glad I am to not work in public school. Throughout the day, I heard so much from other teachers about feeling isolated at their schools, feeling unsupported by administration, feeling distanced from their peers. In one session on urban education, I talked about my school’s framework of “unconditional positive regard” toward students. One teacher asked me how that was implemented – how do you get teachers to start living that? I was lucky enough to be able to answer that that’s the way it’s been since before I started working at my school – that’s just part of our culture. I am so lucky that I have peers who support me, administration who really care about and believe in our students, and the autonomy to implement changes or experiment with pedagogy in my classroom.

I was also reminded all day of how grateful I am to not have to deal with standardized testing. My kids have the option to take the Vermont state tests, but it may not surprise you that most of them opt out. I don’t have any pressure from my administration to get higher test scores. I take that for granted most of the time, and Edcamp gave me a new appreciation that the pressures at my school are about how to best serve each individual student. That’s the way it should be.

Don’t get me wrong – I respect so much those who work in public schools. It just hurts my heart that some of my peers at public schools are struggling so much, and I wish there was a way for the positive culture at places like my school to influence culture at the public schools around us. On the flip side of the coin, I definitely developed some envy over the day of the institutional support received by some of my fellow tech integrators. I recognize that at my school, the idea of structured technology integration is new, and these things take time. It was inspiring to hear about established programs at other schools and dream about where my program can be in the future.

Networking and collaboration at Edcamp Boston
Networking and collaboration at Edcamp Boston

I guess that brings me back around to the importance of something like Edcamp. A free conference allows a wider cross-section of teachers from schools that may not be able to fund attendance at other conferences. I got to meet a great range of teachers from different settings, and as much as I took from them, I hope they’ll take a little from me as well. Maybe then we can close the gap of isolation that so many people talked about, and become more of a community that can come together to support our students with care.