The year was 1988 and I was a new high school principal in Franklin County, Virginia. The school had problems – a high drop out rate, low percentage of students going on to higher education, and parent and student apathy to name a few. We did a good job of working with the academically talented students, but not all students. In my five years as principal the faculty (with changes) came around to accept a mission of meeting all students’ needs. We started interdisciplinary teaming in 9th grade to ease the middle school transition, set up a mentoring program for at-risk students, and taught interdisciplinary classes (combining 11th grade American Literature and American History so students studied the Civil War as they read the Red Badge of Courage) to make school more meaningful and relevant for student learning. We also reprised the musicals that the drama and music department put on after 20 years of artistic silence in that arena. I met with all new faculty every Friday over pizza and soda to help them last through the first year and be more effective than they might have been otherwise. At the end of the fifth year our drop out
When I was thirty, I had the great good fortune to attend my first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and thereby board what I think of as the great ship of AA, which was to carry me through the often-stormy seas of life, one day at a time, to today, 33 years later. AA is an extraordinary model of learning. There are no paid employees and no one has higher rank than anyone else. We learn by sharing our “experience, strength, and hope” with each other. Meetings are lead by volunteers, who tell their stories: “what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now” (quotes from the “Big Book” of AA by Bill WIlson, the founder). Support, in the form of friendship, telephone calls, and getting to meetings, is offered unreservedly by members to each other. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. Meetings are always free, and available in most areas every day of the week. The principles of the program are put above personalities, and you are advised to “take what you want, and leave the rest.” Learning happens at your own pace, incrementally, over time. No one lectures. The important
All of our students deserve well-trained teachers, but high needs schools often struggle to retain teachers, especially in math and science. I was lucky to work for 18 years with a remarkable group of teachers at Bret Harte Middle School in Oakland. Nine years ago, our science and math departments were struggling with turnover, so we applied and received a state grant to improve instruction. We assigned each new teacher an experienced colleague to serve as their informal mentor, and we met several times a month to share and learn together. We conducted lesson study, developing lessons together, then observing one another teach. We looked hard at our assessment practices, and learned to do formative assessments. There were several keys to making this work.1. Classroom teachers were in charge. We set the direction of the project, and we chose the tools we would use to collaborate. We had a vision for what we needed and we owned the process. 2. Our principal, Mary Hamadeh, was supportive but not prescriptive. She encouraged us to apply for the grant, but she did not attempt to micromanage it.3. We brought in resources from partners in the community. Local experts in Lesson Study from
For the past year and a half, I’ve been working with a small group of schools in Chicago that are improving kids’ learning through instructional leadership teams. These are teams of teachers in schools that work democratically and systematically to help teachers throughout the school adopt a powerful practice, such as classroom writers workshop. What I love about this is that it is not only improving classrooms, but also developing teachers’ leadership capacity so they can continue making improvements whether consultants or grant funds or other outside resources are available or not. And when teachers learn how to work more democratically, they come to view kids this way as well. This is a kind of sustainable improvement in education that we have lacked across the country. Too often schools depend on outside experts (like me) to promote change, and then we wonder why it doesn’t last. What’s also exciting is that the well-structured development process the teams are using helps insure that the effort really gets carried out and deepened as it goes along — which too often hasn’t happened in schools. I’ve helped coach the teams — but it’s really the teachers and the kids who do the work.