Title: What’s Change Really Like… A Tale from Our Canadian Neighbors

As usual, I’ll begin this piece with a bit of context…

As many of you know I’ve been spending time working on my learning… mainly learning about learning.  As a part of this process I’ve become more of an active participant in the Modern Learners Community.  One fascinating aspect of this engagement has been the opportunity to participate in the Modern Learners’ Change School professional learning experience.

Change School is a virtual, cohort-based learning experience in which participants engage with the Modern Learners team and one another in an exploration of, and support for, the process of reimagining school in their districts.

One of the unanticipated benefits of the experience, and one I can’t stress strongly enough, has been the opportunity to meet, listen to, and learn from some wonderfully talented and committed educators from around the globe (participants In Cohort 7 are working throughout the US, Canada, Africa, Asia, Australia and New Zealand).  This cohort (the 7thand latest) was attended primarily by new participants but also by a number of participants from earlier cohorts who returned to deepen their earlier experience, complete explorations which had been left incomplete due to the pressures of their jobs, and continue their access to the team’s support of their change school efforts, etc.

The experience was as intense as it was enjoyable (and, yes, I’d recommend joining the Modern Learners Community and a Change School cohort if at all possible).  Through weekly online “cohort meetings” supplemented by weekly scheduled group or individual coaching sessions, and the participants’ responses to team offered “provocations”, I came to know a number exceptional educators and began what I can honestly term deep, engaging connections.

In today’s post and the one that will follow, I’d like to share with you pieces of an exchange which occurred between me and a Cohort 7 educator, Cam Jones. Cam was recently assigned to an administrative role in one of his district’s alternate high schools in Canada.  But why would I suggest that you visit a bit here with Cam?  Because Cam, more and better than anyone with whom I’ve spoken in recent months, has managed to capture in his “conversation” with both me and himself the logistical and internal challenges involved in changing school.

In the first of this two-parter I’ll share Cam’s response to a question I had shared with him about applying the 5 Key Questions referred to by Dr. James Ryan in his 2016 commencement address to the graduates of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.

Note: In the introduction to his address, Ryan captured what I would consider to be the essence of good leadership and a seriously underutilized skill… the asking of good questions.  Ryan shared with the graduates that, as graduates of Harvard, people would expect them to have answers.  He suggested, however, that their success would depend less on giving answers and more on the quality of the questions they asked.  He offered 5 and a bonus question.

Here, once again, are Ryan’s Five Questions

  1. Wait …What?– (asking a clarifying question) – understand an issue before advocating for it – at root of all understanding
  2. I wonder (why/if)– at the heart of all curiosity
  3. Couldn’t we at least?—getting past disagreements – beginning of all progress
  4. How can I help?– relationship builder and alternative to “savior complex” – how we help matters as much as that we helped – at the base of all good relationships
  5. What truly matters?– gets you to the heart of life

Bonus question:  Did you get what you wanted out of life?

Cam’s writing speaks for itself.   With Cam’s permission, I’m sharing here pieces of what he wrote.  I trust you’ll find his words and his self-reflection as eloquent and moving as I have.

I begin with Cam’s response to Ryan’s questions in the context of his work at his and other alternate high schools in the district (there are six).

“How else I wonder can we do things?”

“I’ve wondered why we do things the way we do, often.  It comes down to this: in working with students marginalized by the system in a variety of ways, our program relies on a tool for learning that I don’t see the benefit of.  Further, the method of delivery is counterintuitive: we work with the most visibly disengaged students using the least engaging way of learning I can imagine–independent, read and write. So, why…why do we do that?  I think the answer falls to pressing concerns. Many, if not all, of our students are non-attenders before they arrive at our site… Our students are well behind on credits relative to their age because of disruptions to their education. They often return to our setting with deficits/gaps in their learning, executive function, and social/emotional well-being. The Alternate Program provides an alternative to the system: we exist to serve the student where they are now, first.

And this is the rub: I think the pressing concern for our programs is student well-being; it is our operational and aspirational focus. I think our “wonder why” is that we’ve never wondered why. Maybe we haven’t had to. Maybe we haven’t wanted to. And over time we’ve become comfortable with our rationale for our approach, or our not needing to provide a rationale.  Instead of talking about learning, we talk about the trauma our students arrive with, and manage daily, and glaze over the learning part of our responsibility with credit accumulation. If they’re earning, they’re learning. “

Couldn’t we at least…

“Couldn’t we at least…” come back to learning.  I think we are. I think the contemporary vision for the Alternate Program is coming back to learning.  In part out of necessity. Our student demographic doesn’t fit our narrative as it might have years ago.  In the past our structures were hard and fast, at least as the narrative recalls them. These structures are eroding and allowing different structures to surface.  Moreover, supports that were not part of the Alts are now front and centre. We’re coming back to learning.”

How can I help?

“How can I help?”  I’m learning how to help.  I’m asking questions. At times I’m letting my impatience, my frustration be known.  At other times, I’m letting my passion get ahead of me, and letting my disappointment with how we do things be visible.  In the meantime, I’ve found other ways, better ways in my mind, of doing things. I am modeling an approach where my expertise is learning, and the curriculum is a background to the collaborative work I do with students.  I’m turning my attention to awareness of my blind spots: students who engage in collaboration are thriving in my classroom; students that aren’t engaged: well, I’m working on that too.  It’s a little tougher.

In the meantime, I’m designing what I am calling alternate experiences beyond the walls of the school, with community partners, and using these examples as means to open the discussion about what learning can look like.  And I’m constantly checking myself against the idea of being a learner with the students, alongside the students, and fighting the instinct to “educate” in the ways I was “educated”.

What truly matters?

“Because, after all, “What truly matters?” in my work in the Alts (Alternate Schools) and elsewhere is that I’m striving towards a way of doing things that aligns with my beliefs, about learning, about life, about a vision for school, and how we support the students who have rejected the system and said “I’m not jumping through your hoops.”

“And did you get what you wanted out of life, even so?” 

“And did you get what you wanted out of life, even so?”  It’s funny: I ended up an English teacher, again, begrudgingly.  This was not the path I thought I’d take to the Alts. I just knew I wanted to get to the Alts.  The timing was imperfect, the context not ideal.  And yet in returning to the classroom I’ve had this amazing opportunity to be a better teacher.  I’m not sure ashamed is the right word, but I certainly wasn’t proud of my teaching experience, in hindsight.

This year I’ve moved closer to a version of myself as teacher that I’m proud of.  It’s a work in progress, but I’m energized by it.  And as someone who wants to challenge how we do things, and be part of the answer and change going forward, I can’t think of a better place to start from.”

Being the change on the ground, rather than seeing the change from on high are two very different perspectives. The ground game has more work and more risk; but when it works there’s nothing more beautiful to watch.”

When you think about changing what happens to/for kids in school, what do you wonder? How would you answer “What matters?” Does what happens in your school/district include intentional actions to support your response to the “what matters” question?

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