Continued reflections on a student-centered learning ecosystem with Dr. Tim Kubik.
Actions and Consequences from Meghan’s Perspective
The messy middle of this work looked like a lot of talking and rumbling with ideas. As fellowship members grappled with student engagement and the conditions that fostered high levels of student engagement and learning, ideas for projects with community partners emerged. Often project ideas were formulated with other fellowship members who enjoyed sharing ideas and making ideas stronger. Other times, hypotheses were developed by members of the fellowship who spent time talking with students in their classes. Some fellowship members knew they wanted to work with a specific community partner. Still, they weren’t sure what work they wanted to do together, so plans unfolded over time with dialogue between the two.
Before implementing their projects, we decided to measure student engagement in the classroom using a tool called StudentExperience21, a tool by Battelle for Kids that has been honed with years of research. It breaks down student engagement into four main components: hope, belonging, student engagement, and 21st-century learning. (That last one always makes me laugh since we’ve been in this century for over 22 years, but we have a lot to learn and a long way to go in this current century.) Students answer a series of questions anonymously, and teachers then receive results on both those four areas and how the collective group of students on their roster scored on each question. Teachers can also choose whether they want administrators to be able to see their class results or not.
There was apprehension about giving this assessment. Fear of what students might say and how that would make us feel. Anxiety over what administrators would think of their results should they choose to share those results with them. Fear that we won’t know what to do to improve the results and how that will make us feel in the end. We discovered the anxiety through a couple of individual conversations with teachers. They were afraid to give the assessment. Not because teachers thought they would get feedback that engagement was low but because they already knew student engagement felt low. They weren’t sure how they could improve it. We decided to have them give the assessment but not look at the results. They already had dissatisfaction with the levels of student engagement in the classrooms. They were going to try something new, including community-connected learning with their students, to see if that brought more energy and enthusiasm.
So, we figured let’s give the assessment. Let’s not look at it, but after we try some things, let’s give it again. If we start to feel more curious and less scared about the results, then teachers could look at actions and consider the consequences. So, all members of the fellowship gave the assessment at the start of our action research and again at the end.
We tried to assure teachers that the survey was not intended to measure whether community-connected learning was effective or whether a teacher was effective. Unfortunately, our work as educators is too often about measuring and proving final products versus fostering curiosity, inquiry, and action research.
There was a good bit of discomfort but safety. We were all uncomfortable together, reflecting together, caring for this work and each other. Together.
Recently Natasha shared a quote that reminds me of why this work that felt scary sometimes worked.
“We only need to lay a log
Lightly from time to time.
A fire grows
simply because the space is there
in which the flame
that knows just how it wants to burn
can find its way.
-Judy Sorum Brown
Quite simply, we threw on some strategic logs. And cultivated space.
Actions and Consequences from Tim’s Perspective
Starting a fire can have positive and negative effects, most of which relate to the control of the burn. Empowering a sense of community is similarly challenging. The newfound sense of belonging sets high expectations and initiative, leaving many educators feeling out of control. That feeling is as true in a classroom as in professional learning. But as Meghan suggests above, the answer to that loss of control isn’t to prevent the fire from burning. Instead, it’s about knowing when to lay on another log.
The SCLE fellowship cohort was scheduled for three-hour Zoom meetings after school several times a month. The leadership team and I all agreed that we had to work constructively with their energy rather than channel it to an end. While we had West Clermont’s Profile of a Graduate as a “north star,” we had to admit that we weren’t sure what we would find when we got there.
In the first meeting, I decided we had to know one another in the cohort. I knew some, but not all of the teachers, and the teachers didn’t know one another outside of their elementary or secondary roles. So we began with a simple sharing exercise that was both personal and professional. We talked about the things that had engaged us as people and as learners. While we didn’t come to any agreements, we did come to a better understanding of what each of us meant by engagement as we had experienced it.
From here, we could have gone to planning authentic project-learning experiences. I leaned that way, but Meghan was concerned that it was too early to much pressure on the fellows. We faced our first question regarding adding to the fire. In retrospect, Meghan was right based on her experience with the teachers she and Amy had chosen. Instead of diving right into the work to be done, we spent much of February and March reflecting on the work they had already done – with projects, with students, with community partners, and with each other. Delaying the work to be done had significant consequences for the work that teachers would eventually do.
By the end of March, two possibilities began to sprout. The first was the need for the fellows to define their success criteria. Project-based teachers will recognize this as the desire of some learners to craft their rubrics. Although we didn’t go in that direction, we did spend two meetings surfacing and refining what eventually became the criteria by which teachers would judge their successes in their projects. Tim then worked to align their thought with the Battelle survey framework and the Portrait of a Graduate.
The second sprout was that teachers were tired of waiting to start their project ideation. Many began to talk to one another about possibilities before April and May. It’s important to note that these conversations happened outside regular school hours and even the three-hour Monday sessions. Sparks were spreading. Teachers were taking ownership and initiative such that by the time we got to the planned project planning sessions in April, they were ready to learn how to improve their ideas. In effect, we added to their fire rather than trying to stoke our own.
The sessions in April weren’t “training sessions” but rather exploratory learning experiences. Teachers had the option to breakout into Zoom rooms by planning teams and followed their own inquiries. We returned as a whole group and reflected on what we’d learned, sharing new learning and more questions. Even though the projects weren’t perfect, the fire in the fellowship grew. The projects spanned the Teacher Practice and Learner Agency possibilities outlined in Project ARC’s Learning ARC Rubric. Still, they were prototypes the teachers were excited to try, and that made them perfect. Rather than being pushed into doing a project or delaying to get things “right,” the fellows were ready to learn from those prototypes. In most cases, the projects engaged the learners, and the teachers were glad to have their learners back in the classroom physically and mentally.
As I reflect on all those Monday afternoons this spring, I’m struck by how we danced with the fire. It helped me realize that gradual release isn’t linear but a natural part of the design cycle. Too often, we think learning must result from teacher actions. In truth, the professional educator’s sense of when to let go and when to direct has the most significant consequences. For learners to take ownership of their work, they must have a fire within, not under them.
When we came together to discuss our reflections, the first thing Meghan said was that we do “too much rushing around in education. Sure, we get a charge (or a fire?) out of productivity, but is it the right productivity” Instead of pulling learners through with that charge, perhaps we need to allow time for learners to engage. Learners need time to play with ideas and perspectives, but we often dictate how to use that time or rush on because of the spark we feel.
When do we ever give learners the time to engage?
When we get to the project phase, where learners consider Actions and Consequences, we often hope they will see the high stakes and significant results. Have they thought about career paths or post-secondary education when studying for a test? Have they spent enough time in school polishing their personality to nail the personal statement in an interview or application? The spark often goes out when we focus on remote questions like these. Maybe it’s better to act and focus on short-term learning rather than the long-term consequences.
Meghan’s reflection on the Student Experience 21 data is a case in point. Teachers were anxious about what that data might say about them as career educators, not what it might say about one day as an educator that, with a bit of reflection, might light a fire to be a better professional. Meghan and Jessica’s decision to make looking at the data optional gave them a feeling of peace that all they were doing was establishing a baseline to return to when they were ready, maybe even next year.
This decision and delaying the project design workshops were important in letting the fire burn slowly for a while before adding another log. When we’re rushing around in education to get a charge out of being busy, as Meghan put it, we tend to throw logs and all sorts of combustibles onto other people’s fires, fires they might have been perfectly comfortable to let get low enough that everyone felt safe around them. If you’ve sat around a campfire this summer, you know putting another log on the fire is often a group decision, not one for one person alone.
Schools, on the other hand, often start blazes from the top down, and that tends to get many of them thinking they’re not good enough unless they are running around with their hair on fire, shining brightly for everyone to see. As we near the end of these reflections, we have a deeper appreciation that seeing and accommodating the fire within our learners and learning environments is essential to cultivating learner engagement and ownership.