In this installment, Meghan and Tim reflect on how a loose approach with a professional learning community increases perspective and learning in the design cycle.
Context & Perspective from Meghan’s Perspective
In the beginning, one of the most challenging parts of this work was trying to convey to people with different perspectives what we were even doing. It’s hard to get people to the table if you don’t have a compelling why and clarity of purpose. As Tim discusses below, we got clear on our goal of elevating and utilizing the strengths among us to grow student learning outcomes and strengthen our workforce. Strengthening the workforce part of our mission and messaging was important. It is no small ask for community partners to spend a half day away from work and daily life. So, it was vital for us to find a way to communicate that this was not merely a philanthropic endeavor on their part, but in fact, this work could benefit their businesses and organizations.
We did our best to explain that we wanted to make learning more authentic and relevant and that the best way to do that was by understanding and leveraging our community’s strengths: students, teachers, and community members. We filled a large room–for two days. The presence of the community was powerful.
While getting people to do the room is critical, what you do during your time together is mission critical. Tim encouraged Natasha and me to kick off our time together. Of course, we outlined our vision and how vital this work of partnerships was to achieving our Portrait of a Graduate. But the voice I held most strongly in my heart was that of Priya Parker, author of The Art of Gathering. She explains that people are most open to having an emotional connection with you at the beginning or end of a meeting.
It’s worth mentioning that this was, in fact, the first time that the chosen teachers were gathering for the fellowship. A lot was going on, yet through Tim’s artful facilitation, we came away with big thinking, ideas, and a sense of connection.
Because this work is complex, some teachers walked away from those days and said, “You know, I don’t know that I understand exactly what this is yet, but I’m excited about it.” And that sense of “I’m not sure I know what I’m doing, but I’m excited about it” continued throughout their experience until close to the end when many discovered what it was all about and what this made them want to do in the future.
The most important work is often the most complex in nature. I’ve often said, “If people aren’t uncomfortable, we probably aren’t doing anything that matters.” People got uncomfortable AND were safe and held throughout this experience. I think that is part of what made this fellowship special. The sense that we were doing hard things. While we didn’t really “know what we were doing,” we did it with great care for the work, our students, and each other.
After those initial meetings, people were hungry for more. Students wanted more seats at the table. They felt empowered by a sense that of all the voices in the room – their voices mattered most. Community partners and teachers were excited about newly formed connections and relationships. This excitement was the wave of energy needed to carry us into the messy middle that was community-connected learning in the classroom.
As Brene Brown says, “The middle is messy, but it’s also where the MAGIC happens.”
Context and Perspective from Tim’s Perspective
Once Meghan and Amy identified the SCLE Fellows, district leadership was clear that we should begin with asset mapping in the school and the larger learning ecosystem. We discussed how assets were not just places where learning might occur but people, problems in the community, and all the perspectives that come with those.
Meghan and I faced two challenges as we got closer to our first gathering in October. First, we had to fill a room with 25 teachers, close to 40 partners, and enough engaging students to go around. Then, we had to ensure all voices would be heard equitably. Mike Overbey worked to get the community partners into the room, but teachers also helped as recruiters for students and some partners. This dual effort meant that those coming into the room reflected inside and outside perspectives. It also meant we needed a very big space even though we divided it into two sessions!
Logistics aside, we also had to collaborate closely on how to frame and pitch the first meetings for the fellowship. Meghan frequently asked about the assets I brought to the table for this work as a facilitator. I asked her who was coming to the room just as often. Both questions led to some uncertainty, as they depended on one another. We realized that we needed a “why” everyone could understand regardless of their perspective. We focused less on the gaps we were trying to address with this work and more on the gifts everyone brought to it. It also required us to allay fears that some of our younger students might not have much to offer (fears that dissipated quickly once the work began!). To do that, Mike Overbey worked with Amy Storer and Meghan to organize some very intentional table teams, and that work proved decisive in getting everyone engaged when they arrived.
In the end, the fellows wouldn’t be fully on board until January, but the delay created an opportunity to help us prototype answers to some of their questions. Community partners, instructional coaches, and students networked around a set of prompts over the two half-day asset-mapping sessions in October. We got to know one another and brainstormed “100 Ideas” in each small table team to get “bricks” on the table. The students worked the room, and their tables, with curiosity and intensity at least as high as that of the adults, and in a few cases, they were truly extraordinary. Following Stanford’s Doug Thomas and John Seeley Brown’s New Culture of Learning (2013), we hung out, messed around, and then geeked out with those ideas. We spent a few hours mapping assets, storyboarded possible student experiences over a project or the course of their education, and then reflected on what we learned. All of this data was saved and then collated into a summary for thinking about the next meeting, which would start the work with the Fellows in earnest.
That kicked off in a meeting in mid-January. Students, fellows, and community partners gathered once more (some were new, some returning) for a single session that was effectively a design prototype sprint. The process started with a simple challenge: who can draw? Few raised their hands. When I clarified that I didn’t say: “who can draw well,” more hands raised, now we could productively draw one another, to recognize what we could do rather than what we could not. From there, we were ready for an “EdCafe” of project pitches based on the work of my friend and long-time thought partner Katrina Kennett and ended with a dozen or more initial project ideas hanging on the wall.
Now came the ultimate test: would students be excited about the project ideas they had helped to co-design, and would teachers and community partners sign on to do the work? As the adults in the room sat back and waited anxiously, the students took a handful of colored dots and voted on those elements of a project pitch they found most engaging. Most project pitches received a few dots, but some were covered, and this helped everyone to see the student’s perspective. Teachers and partners then took those projects from the wall they wanted to support, exchanged contact information, or connected on Community Share to flesh out the ideas over the spring. The designers claimed most of their projects (the rest filed as “save for later”), and the adults in the room gave the students well-deserved applause.
The beginning of this work was a blur for us for many reasons. We weren’t exactly sure what this would look like and what this would be, but we knew we needed to build a community. Without community, we have nothing. We simply cannot flourish when we do not leverage the unique assets of all stakeholders in our school districts, including our students, educators, and community members.
Most schools assume that they already have that community because they have a building with staff, students, and family. Yet there is an artfulness to building community. It requires intentionality, which can be likened to a gardener planting seeds and setting the conditions in which those seeds can grow and flourish and support each other in the ecosystem. Tim had planted seeds with the middle school in 2020, but the seeds withered during COVID. Now we were genuinely growing a community lens, meaning our ability to see ourselves as connected inside and outside the classroom and school walls. When we see how connected we all are and how leveraging the assets of others in our community makes us feel, makes the work feel, makes the world around us feel, we all get better.
October was a big seed planting moment for our community. Gathering students, instructional coaches, and community members around tables for dialogue, mapping assets, and imagining how we might work together and support each other through storyboarding was an actual seed planting and community-strengthening exercise.
January was a seed planting moment because now that we had some community members excited about possibilities. It was time to get a dedicated, small group of Fellowship teachers around the table with students for critical dialogue around student engagement. How might we leverage those partnerships and the enthusiasm of those partners to bring authentic, relevant, and community-connected learning experiences to students through a collaborative inquiry model?
We did not know that student engagement would be a high-energy topic. Rather this emerged from the group on that day and in the days that followed. So they followed where the energy was leading the group. Tight in the mission. Loose in the methods. Tight in the sense that collaborative inquiry is essential. Collaborative inquiry, as defined by Jenni Donohoo in her book Collaborative Inquiry, “Collaborative inquiry is a structure in which members of a professional learning community (PLC) come together to systematically examine their educational practices. Teams work together to ask questions, develop theories of action, determine action steps, and gather and analyze evidence to assess the impact of their actions.” But loose in the methods in the sense that individual teachers decided what areas of study and community projects they created.
At the end of our January day, fellowship members stayed in the room. There was conversation. There was laughter. It’s always a good sign when people don’t run to escape the room after a long PD session. This enthusiasm was paired with sound bites from teachers, “I’m not really sure what this is exactly, but I’m excited to do this work.” That same sentiment was the one from the start in planning for this group, not knowing where this was going exactly but being excited about it. The mission was to be together with our community in our learning. The specifics of what that looked like were yet to be uncovered.
There has been much focus over the years in the field of education on covering content and skills. There has been less of a focus on the “uncovering,” or learning from the community you’re building and allowing that learning to drive the direction of the work. We tend to forget that Wiggins and McTighe proposed their six facets of understanding not as a recipe for learning but as “an approach to curriculum and instruction designed to engage students in inquiry, promote “uncoverage,” and make the understanding of big ideas more likely. (Wiggins and McTyghe 1998, p.3)
And to think that uncoverage truly started with community building. Through the diversity of thought. It started by looking for, celebrating, and getting deeply interested in assets and needs and where those two might intersect in the form of learning. In this case, the assets were those in the fellowship, our students, and our community, and the need was student engagement. We didn’t exactly know what we were doing, but as Tim remarked later in the process and Meghan would remind him as the cohort wrapped up, “Perhaps all we need is each other. Really each other.”