After 33 straight years of going to school, this year I broke the streak and ventured out to do something different. In June, I resigned my position as a teacher at the Science Leadership Academy (SLA) and launched into unknown territory, one where I did not report to school in the fall. When I made this public, many people were excited for me, scared for me, thought I was crazy — I mean who leaves a position they love at a wonderful school.
The decision had nothing to do with SLA and everything to do with a personal choice to make a change. And so with 15 years of teaching under my belt, I set off on my own. The work I am doing right now fits into four categories: school-based professional development, conference keynoting and presenting, teaching online for the University of Minnesota and working on a new school venture. While I do not have an employer, I am busy with work and look forward to working with more schools in the future.
While I am traveling for this work, I make a concerted effort to visit schools as much as possible. Since August I have had the pleasure to visit schools in Virginia, Arizona, Kansas, Wisconsin, Colorado, British Columbia and California. In some schools, I could spend days, in others only a few hours. My eyes and ears were open, closely observing some truly lovely learning spaces.
Generally, the talk of education reform focuses on deficiency, what is lacking, not good enough. It drives the conversation into a negative and defeated place. What I am seeing out there, is genuine growth and movement toward crafting space that affirms student voice and choice, challenges students with learning opportunities that are less about recitation and more about investigation, validates professionalism and provides time to learn and grow as a staff. There are so many examples of where we are getting it right.
Here are a few of my observations from my travels:
Byrne Creek Secondary — Only 7 years old, Byrne Creek Secondary in Burnaby, British Columbia, has a challenging job with a student population made up of large number of refugee students. The needs of this population drive the school atmosphere to value each child and their development in their new home. They fund a Community Organizer that is a liaison with local businesses, organizations and parents. This intentionality of purpose is critical to the traction and success they are seeing in their community every day.
Alpine Leadership Academy — A middle school program that resides inside a traditional building, Alpine Leadership Academy in Flagstaff, Ariz., is working to create authentic learning experiences while cultivating the concept of stewardship within their students. I was lucky to be invited along for two of the expeditions where the students were engaged in replanting the Schultz Burn site on the San Francisco Peaks as well as watch them explore the ecological diversity of the Nature Conservancy. Honoring the child as explorer and contributing member of the community was evident throughout the activities. It was a joy to watch.
San Marcos Unified School District — The two days that I spent with the teachers of SMUSD in San Marcos, Calif., were incredibly invigorating. At the beginning of the school year, a cohort of teachers launched into a Inquiry Driven Instruction, One-to-One Laptop implementation. This was a big undertaking. Many times I have heard about and seen 1:1 programs that worry so much about the hardware, the change to teaching strategies and approach is overlooked. In the SMUSD program, a shift in the teaching and learning was served by the technology, not the other way around. I could not have been more thrilled to help the staff move that process along.
Arrowhead Union High School – After one day with the staff at Arrowhead Union High School in Hartland, Wis., it was evident that they are committed to collaborating with their colleagues to improve the teaching and learning. The administration empowered the teachers to have a huge say in how the professional development manifests itself in the school plan. Delicious food was served, a fun slideshow of teaching and learning at the school, and most notably, scheduled time for processing and implementation. This combination of teacher empowerment, fun and time was spot on when asking a staff to move in a new teaching and learning direction.
It is a gift to have this time to be able to see different systems in practice, observe the classrooms of master teachers and be invited into the conversation. I challenge everyone to share positive stories from your classrooms, schools and communities as much as possible. This thing we are all trying to accomplish, meaningful teaching and learning, is hard. Sharing the positive stories — be it face to face, at local community meetings, online — makes the difference in so many ways. I hope to be able to share more as I travel throughout the year. The teaching, learning and adventure continue.
Diana Laufenberg has taught all grade levels from 7 to 12 in social studies over the past 15 years. She most recently taught at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, an inquiry-driven, project-based high school focused on modern learning. This year she is teaching graduate-level courses online for the University of Minnesota and consulting on a number of school-based projects. Her practice has deep roots in experiential education, taking students from the classroom to the real world and back again. Diana was featured on TED.com for her “How to Learn? From Mistakes” and recognized for earning National Board Certification.