Reflections on an Emerging Student-Centered Learning Ecosystem: Inquiry and Ideas (Part II)

In this installment, Meghan and Tim reflect on how allowing everyone time for questions allows authentic lines of inquiry and ideas, to “bubble up.”

Inquiry and Ideas from Tim’s Perspective

When we met over the summer of 2021, it was clear that West Clermont’s vision was expanding in a way that raised new questions and possibilities. Natasha asked about internships, mentorships, and “really any connection possibilities.” Mike was busy identifying community partners but had also been reading Julia Freeland Fisher’s Who You Know, so he was asking about the “missing metrics”. Director of Curriculum and Instruction, Ellie Preston, was also in on the meetings and brought questions about what a “learning ecosystem PLC” would know and be able to do. The district was also exploring a possible relationship with Project ARC partner Community Share. New to her role, Meghan’s questions focused more on getting a handle on all the ideas we discussed. I was just trying to understand where the district was after COVID.

As the conversation progressed, we all agreed on one thing: that teachers should meet with community partners to engage in some community asset mapping. This couldn’t be just another professional development training, it had to feel like an inquiry. As we thought about how to plan it, the conversation took an interesting turn to talk about West Clermont students. So much of what we’ve heard about students returning from COVID-related remote learning is negative.

Many teachers struggled with what they perceived as behavioral changes when students returned from COVID remote learning. This has always been present but was more extreme in the fall of 2021. Rather than focus on deficits and “learning-loss,” the district leadership team began talking about what students had gained from the change of pace. “Kids learned time management/making choices without being taught, and these strategies built a new sense of independence that they like…Teachers too, we accelerated our technology roll-out plan by about 2 years.” “We have a new sense of priorities and what traditions should stick or be let go. We want to invest in people/build capacity.” These ideas helped us think about how to answer our questions with the assets we had, and it wasn’t long before the idea of including students in the community asset mapping session took root. The excitement in the Zoom was palpable.

West Clermont Local School District had a lot of plans already and questions about how these plans would fit with the Student-Centered Learning Ecosystem Fellowship. They could have gotten stuck in meeting after meeting about how to synchronize the implementation of all these plans, but instead, we focused on the assets coming out of COVID rather than what was lost. In the end, the district leaders chose to open the task of putting it all together to their teachers, community partners, and some of their students. The community asset mapping session with teachers, community partners, and students in October of 2021 would give them the Context and Perspective they needed to go forward.

Inquiry and Ideas from Meghan’s Perspective

Often, what stunts continuous improvement efforts are big, hairy plans. Big, hairy, audacious goals can sometimes be awesome. On the other hand, big, hairy, audacious plans can be unwieldy and unrealistic and can lead to burnout and shutdown. Perhaps this is why as a part of our district’s continuous improvement efforts in the 21-22 school year, we defined goals but focused on 30 days plans versus year-long plans. What will we do for the next 30 days to achieve these goals? And as part of our efforts in 22-23, what lead measures of success can we use this month to determine whether our efforts have been fruitful? As James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, has stated, “Goals are good for setting direction, but systems are best for making progress.” Often, we get so caught up in setting goals that we forget to build the systems that make progress on those goals a reality.

In this case, we knew we wanted to take steps forward in achieving our Portrait of a Graduate, but we weren’t sure how to get there. To start, as Tim previously mentioned, we organized interested, willing educators. We assembled a team of roughly 30 educators through a simple application process. We asked a series of questions related to how they think about their classroom, their students, and their learning. 

Their responses were powerful and inspiring. Many wrote about wanting to connect at a deeper level with their students, a desire for learning to be more meaningful, a personal interest in learning and growing, and their willingness to try things they had never done before to increase student engagement. We set a schedule for monthly meetings. We also knew we wanted to engage our community to make student learning more connected to the world outside of school. Because, in theory, this makes learning more meaningful and engaging. And we decided to focus more on the learning than the final product. 

But other than that, we had this Portrait of a Graduate as a north star. So, now what? We determined that West Clermont school leaders and teachers had one thing in common; an interest in understanding student motivation and engagement. Like many communities in the post(ish)-Covid era, we’ve struggled to get our students to come to school. We’ve struggled to get our students to engage in the classroom.

Thus, our entry point into this journey was curiosity and care about a problem: decreased student engagement. Quite simply, we started studying student engagement. We read professional voices, examined research, and most importantly, studied our classrooms. Tim created space for reflection and conversation. Teachers talked to each other and listened to each other. Through that dialogue, thoughts started to emerge, and ideas were generated. Over time, each fellowship member (sometimes in partnership with each other) had an idea for a small, action-research project. Not so small that it could be executed from start to finish in one day but not so big that it could not be achieved in a few weeks.


The 2021-22 school year started like most school years with an opening keynote. This year’s speaker, Mark Perna, opened the space for big questions as part of the plan for August. The same would be true when George Couros gave a keynote to staff in January. The goal was not to implement a program but to get people thinking about how small moves can have a big impact.

Goals and dreams don’t honor the ebb and flow of the school year, things that are bubbling up and unique. The district’s 30-Day Plans didn’t require the integration of several “Big Hairy Plans.” This approach to planning kept things loose enough that there was space to allow big plans about implementing the Portrait of a Graduate to be responsive to immediate needs and opportunities.

Student engagement wasn’t specifically in the call for SCLE Fellows but it “bubbled up,” to use Meghan’s phrase. She created a post that was shared with all teachers. While the focus was on community partnership as part of West Clermont’s legacy in achieving the Portrait of a Graduate, applicants had to answer some general questions, too. Some of these came from Josh Schacter at Community Share, i.e., what did applicants think of the teacher as a learner, student voice, and agency as a means to engaging learning, real-world projects, structured reflection, and collaborative inquiry?

Engagement bubbled up as a theme in their answers, but as an asset, not a problem. Teachers who applied felt responsible and capable of engaging students post-COVID rather than blaming the kids. Teachers who signed up knew they’d be working but needed to know that their learning would be the outcome, not a new product or protocol. Overall the applicants saw the fellowship as an opportunity for teachers to experience collaborative learning rather than compliance or production, which is more common in training.

Amy and Meghan did a great job selecting teachers from all over the district and many grade levels. As the fellowship took shape, each teacher brought assets of their own that they knew could work, but also a willingness to learn that came from not seeing their approach as “the” answer. In the words of improv comedy, they came with bricks rather than a cathedral.  This kind of openness to inclusion would be key to ideation and innovation. The smartest person in the room may be the room, but only when everyone who should be is in the room. Now the immediate challenge was getting everyone in a room to share and learn from their various contexts and perspectives.

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