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Students as Consultants at Chelan School of Innovation

Friday was a hedgehog day. 

Last Spring at a convening of Big Picture regional directors in Seattle, Michael Soguero and Sarah Bertucci from Eagle Rock led us through work to identify our “hedgehogs,” i.e. the sweet spot where our skills, passions, and demand (for our work) overlap. (That oversimplifies the concept: more about it here and here.) 

I don’t have the exact wording in front of me, but my hedgehog included working with students as consultants to help school leaders envision and implement equity-driven innovations outside their current reach. Friday morning at 6:30am, I pulled out of the Highline Big Picture parking lot in a rented minivan with lots of coffee, a bag of groceries, and this amazing team: 

Clockwise from me on the lower left are Ravan Nahal, Molly Marquis, Gwen Lennox (301 advisor), Edgar Ventura, Eldridge Cole, and Larissa Brewer. About four hours later we arrived at the new Chelan School of Innovation, where our plan was to share a demonstration and insights about exhibitions with the CSI community. Sara Mounsey and Kim Odell, who together comprise the staff of the Methow Valley School District’s Independent Learning Center, drove down from Twisp, Washington, with about twelve students – nearly half of their school!

CSI occupies one huge room, a former Mason’s lodge, in the upstairs of the Chelan Public Library. It’s a great setting for large presentations, with a lush red carpet and a slightly elevated stage area at one end of the room.

CSI principal Crosby Carpenter gave a quick welcome and then asked everyone present to share their their name, where they’re from, and a favorite Halloween costume from childhood. After that, Ravan jumped right in with a condensed demonstration of her Gateway exhibition from last year. She literally needed no introduction; the extent of my involvement with the group presentation to that point was like everyone else’s: sharing my name and favorite costume. I was delighted later when one of the CSI support staff asked me where I worked and what was my relationship to today’s presentation.

Ravan started at Big Picture as a 7th grader with Highline’s first middle school cohort, and she is now a 301 (junior). She and I have collaborated on other projects, and I’m consistently struck by her maturity and expertise. After going over her exhibition, she responded to various questions from adults and then actively solicited questions from students until they got comfortable enough to start raising their hands and asking more. Molly, Larissa, Eldridge, and Edgar chimed in with their perspectives. I was so impressed by their articulateness and poise. When I later asked Tim, one of the Chelan advisors, if he thought the day was helping them, he remarked that while his students were probably not tracking everything the visitors were saying, they were definitely tracking who they were, what kind of people they are, and he thought that was making a huge difference. I realized in retrospect that this is what was happening as each of the Highline students turned in his or her seat to respond to a question. It was immediately apparent: this person has something to say, and they are confident sharing in a room full of strangers.

After Ravan’s presentation, Crosby suggested that the student visitors split up and that everyone else group around them for more discussion. The group of guys talking with Eldridge and Edgar wanted to share their projects, and soon they were touring around the room to see a ninth grader’s bike shop project and a recording studio students are building at the top of the stairs right outside the big red room.

After these sessions, we broke for lunch and lots of informal collaboration among students and staff across the three schools.

Eldridge, who just transferred to Big Picture as a junior this school year from a 1600+ student comprehensive high school, got my vote for leadership move of the day. After the small groups had been meeting for some time and the group of guys was touring the studio, I noticed two students from CSI break off from the group and start to play hacky sack. I was roving among the groups, listening in and taking pictures. These two boys didn’t leave the room altogether, and my reaction was to think, “Well, they’re still part of the overall scene here; maybe that’s the extent of their engagement right now.” One of my graduate school professors might have called what they were doing legitimate peripheral participation – lots of scholarship on that here. Not good enough for Eldridge. Within a couple of minutes I overheard him stepping into their hack circle saying, “What about you two? What are you guys interested in?” I’d like to get all school administrators enrolled in the Eldridge Academy of Effective Re-engagement.

Apart from the questions asked and answered among these three schools, I think one of the most important outcomes of the day will prove to be the relationships. Gwen Lennox, 301 advisor from Highline, previously worked at Lafayette Big Picture in upstate New York, probably our most demographically similar school to these two programs in central Washington. Gwen made great connections to the teachers and leaders of these new schools, and I’m hopeful about the role this will play in our growing regional network.

In short, I could not have dreamed up a stronger team of consultants, and the long drive home was thoroughly entertaining, with a series of impromptu comedy sketches from the backseats. I passed my laptop around the minivan during the drive. Somehow Gwen skipped out of this, but here is what the students shared about the day.

Molly I walked into Chelan School of Innovation earlier today not knowing at all what to expect. Unsurprisingly, right when I walked through its doors I immediately felt the positive and diverse energy that Big Picture schools embody so well. The space of CSI alone was channeling every one of its students’ creative individual passions, the staff all seemed engaged and respected by their cohort, and most importantly- the students of CSI were happy to be in the space that they’ve created with their community. A great experience I was part of was watching a freestyle cypher occur in the student-built recording studio. One of the CSI advisors, Erik, was connecting with his students through an activity (free styling), and I was blown away by how much effort he and all the other advisors/staff put into utilizing their students’ interests and talents in a way where they can connect on an honest level. Thank you Jeff for inviting me on this trip and I hope to return to this great addition to the Big Picture network soon! –Molly Marquis, 301, Highline Big Picture.

Larissa Hello my name is Larissa and I am a senior. I’m very interested in education and very involved in student voice and leadership. Today I don’t think I was really expecting what happened. I am so glad that I came today because it really helped me get to relax and not worry about anything in life. It was really good to get to see what CSI was. At first I was really expecting to see an image of what Highline BP was like, especially after visiting Bellevue Big Picture High School this week. That’s not what I got. I think CSI has a really positive community. As someone who has struggled with my own education but has really grown through the years, I think the experience that I have had really helped me share my story and to be very honest with the students. I talked about my experience with LTI, advisory, student voice, and projects. After answering questions from them, I had questions of my own and asked them. The way they structure their curriculum and the day is very different but it is really cool. I also explained to them some of the things I have noticed in my experience at Big Picture about advisory circles and recruitment and students being involved in that process. I think explaining that process was very helpful.

Edgar My name is Edgar, 301 (Junior Year). I am a writer, and my interest is to be an English teacher in Japan one day. My day in my Chelan was enjoyable. I found it really interesting that their school is in a library. The students seem to be very proud of what their internships and projects are. I like the home-y feel of their classroom. I think we need a carpet or at least a rug in our room.

Eldridge My name is Eldridge. Being a junior at Big Picture, I related well to the students at the Chelan campus. They showed me a reflection of where I am at in my own high school career, which helped me in more ways than one. One thing I enjoyed about the trip…. Well, in all honesty, I enjoyed the whole trip; but one thing I would highlight would definitely be when Edgar and I bonded with the kids inside of their studio. We (the Chelan kids, Edgar and I) really connected on what it was to go to schools such as our own. I would absolutely recommend going on trips like these more often.

Ravan When Big Picture students say their school is home, they mean it. And I wasn’t surprised to hear students of CSI say that. They have a small but strong community. When I walked into their school, a gigantic room with very flattering red carpet, I was instantly happy to be there because I felt that space was the physicality of what Big Picture is. Talking to everyone was great, and presenting was fun as well. I felt like I was talking to my kind: peers who are knee deep in passion for the things they are interested in. Overall, I hope to stay connected with many of them and see the end result of the Meditation Chamber and their recording studios. I also enjoyed the ride there and back with Eldridge, Edgar, Molly, Larissa, Gwen and Jeff. I’m really grateful to be at a school where opportunities like these are available and the natural bonding that comes with it. 

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Evolution of Learning Plans

A couple months ago I wrote about Bryce the 10th grader from Nampa, Idaho, and the 1:1 meeting we had in front of the staff of his school. The purpose was to develop his Learning Plan and help staff there understand how to build and support interest-driven student learning plans. The plan we made that day, like those in use at Highline Big Picture for the last several years, has three parts: Vision, Goals, and Projects. In my earlier writing I didn’t share the history of this learning plan format. 

I don’t remember which year it was in the development of Highline Big Picture, but we were fortunate (they still are) to have some teacher leaders who advocated that if we were really trying to strip away the contrivances of school and drive our practice based on the elements of powerful learning, then what works well for our students ought to be much the same as what works for us. Dan Dundon, now in his 13th year with the school (and yes, the school is only 12 years old), was and remains outspoken about the absurdity of pushing onto students learning tools and practices that we’ve neither tried nor embrace. This made a lot of sense to me, and as principal I decided that if students had learning plans, staff needed learning plans. Although people bought into this idea, I couldn’t get anyone, including myself, to complete one. The learning plan format we were using for students asked me to list my projects and other work and describe how each of the five learning goals (Empirical Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning, Communication, etc.) would be represented in each project. I believe it also had a space to indicate what I would show at my exhibition. It didn’t ask for much in the way of why I might be doing any of the work I was doing. 

As we struggled to make good on our commitment to practice what we preached, we realized that our approach to learning plans didn’t seem to add any value to our work. Instead, it felt like an assignment, and a very tedious one. The work I was doing didn’t fit well in to the boxes. Naming the subject-area academic content of work I hadn’t done yet seemed contrived if not impossible. Our epiphany was that making that learning plan bore no resemblance to what real adults in real workplaces would do to enhance their clarity, productivity, or effectiveness. 

A few of us were aspiring practitioners of David Allen’s Getting Things Done (a.k.a. GTD) approach, and at the time I was reading his newly-released Making It All Work. I was starting to really understand GTD’s six "horizons of focus” at the same time we were asking the question, “If the learning plan format we're currently giving our students feels like a waste of time for our own productivity, what would a functional adult learning plan look like?” To make the new learning plan, I consolidated Allen’s top two levels into one and omitted the “areas of responsibility” level. I also left off “next actions,” figuring that was too much specificity for a learning plan. That’s been the learning plan format at Highline since then, and it’s the format I advocate in my work with other schools. 

What I am most excited about in my current work is that yesterday morning I had another 1:1 meeting at Bryce’s school, again in front of the staff, this time with advisor Brandy Fitzwater. Brandy had already developed a solid draft of her Learning Plan, following the Vision/Goals/Projects format identical to Bryce’s. In this meeting we went through and refined the vision section, worked to make the goals more specific, measurable, and actionable, and we added numerous projects and renamed many of them to describe their state of completion. For example, "Create a strong advisory culture" was one of her goals. This seemed too amorphous and ill-defined, and in our work together it turned into several projects: 

  • Strong advisory culture defined

  • Current advisory culture assessed

  • Advisory improvements planned


Each staff member had developed a learning plan prior to this meeting, and they made refinements to their own plans as Brandy and I revised hers. I won’t share her plan here, but, like Bryce’s, it includes a mix of the personal and the professional. As the meeting started, we agreed as a whole staff that a good and functioning (staff) learning plan ought to accomplish at least three things: it should contribute to making the school great, it should "improve your life,” as one advisor put it, and it should strengthen your professional practice. One intent in clarifying this was to identify the parallels with student learning plans, which have at least two of those functions — improving your life and helping you become more skillful and knowledgeable — and arguably all three, if you believe that high-functioning learning plans for all students would translate to a great school. A second intent was to hold up the learning plan as representative of why we are here and what we want. I think for learning plans to function most effectively in the culture of the school, they need to be comprehensive and inclusive, not one compass among several. If I’m a person working at a school, it seems reasonable that my and my supervisor’s hopes ought to be covered within those three things. I want to thrive as a person, I want to get better at what I want to get better at in my work, and I want my work to contribute to the success or effectiveness of the workplace as a whole. 

We also agreed in this meeting that these staff learning plans, in the same format as student learning plans, will be the primary focus of coaching and evaluative meetings between administrators and teachers. The principal and vice principal now have shared access to each teacher’s learning plan, and they are determining which of them has which teachers as “advisees.” During the work with Brandy’s plan, we invited Carleen and Jason (principal and VP) to suggest additional goals for Brandy to add to her plan. 

One of the last things we discussed yesterday was scheduling actual evaluative teacher exhibitions, driven by the learning plans and assessed by panels of fellow staff, administrators, and students, in the weeks leading up to the next student exhibitions in January. 

This is as close as I have come to a level of school coherence I’ve been envisioning since that initial learning plan change. I look forward to sharing how it unfolds over this school year. 


Jeff

 

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(Articles and updates coming soon)
 

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