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“What would school look like if we could really do what we are being asked?” teacher leader Mike Ritzius (@mritzius) passionately inquired at Edcamp Leadership during a session he titled, organizing for organic leadership. Mike’s answer for the public vocational tech high school in New Jersey where he teaches involved a radical rethinking of the use of time and space in school, along with a dramatic redesign of curriculum and student support. While the scope and specifics of Mike Ritzius’ innovation address vastly different concerns than those we face at my school, his emphasis on the importance of empowering teachers with the authority to make decisions based on student need prompted me to wonder. What would school look like if we could really do what we are being asked? What would school look like if teachers were really empowered to make decisions, even bold decisions requiring rethinking and redesign, based on student need?
Edcamp Leadership, which took place this past July in New Jersey, was my very first edcamp experience. For those who have not yet attended an edcamp, they are “unconferences”; free participant driven professional learning experiences. At Edcamp Leadership, a poster board listing times and room numbers, but no session names, was propped up on a window sill. Volunteers passed out brightly colored post-it notes, encouraging participants to sign up to facilitate a session. While many of us tentatively stood by, wondering whether we should facilitate a session or not, other brave learners stepped forward and stuck a post-it note up with their session topic, their name and their twitter handle onto the board. The day’s schedule was born! The schedule was immediately posted on Edcamp Leadership’s web page for all to access and off we all went for a day of engaging conversation and learning.
In addition to Mike Ritzius’ session, I attended Evernote for Teams, Professional Learning Communities and students with Sharon McCarthy @ienvision; He, She, They, We: Tools for Faculty Evaluation and Development with Dr. David Timony @DrTimony; and Managing Change with @DLE59 (who I still know only by twitter handle). The “what would school look like if” theme permeated all of the sessions I attended. What would school look like if we used web 2.0 tools such as Evernote more effectively to promote true collaboration within schools? What would school look like if faculty evaluation and development was truly designed around the needs of teachers as professional learners? What would school look like if we provided effective supports as we manage change?
Throughout Edcamp Leadership, I learned with some of the smartest educators I have ever met. Principals and school administrators struggled openly, sensitively and wisely concerning the challenges we face. Yet even more compelling to me were the voices of the teachers present. Dr. Timony’s session was particularly relevant to me. As dedicated, knowledgable administrators talked passionately about the time we spend in classrooms, equally dedicated, knowledgable teachers shared their frustrations with administrators’ visits, explaining that students don’t act as they naturally would during administrators’ walkthroughs and observations, teachers feel as though they are “on stage”, and most significantly, administrators do not offer the feedback teachers‘ crave to improve practice. The teachers’ words resonated with me. I wondered and I probed, seeking to learn what might make principals’ engagement in learning and teaching more valuable to teachers. It is a conversation I am pursuing, both with teachers in my professional learning network and even more poignantly, with teachers in my own school.
At the sessions on Evernote and managing change, teachers and principals had more similar perspectives to one another. We shared ways of using Evernote, an app for note-taking and archiving, to collaborate more effectively. We reflected on the difficulties of change: insufficient time, insufficient support, negativity about new directions, a sense of entitlement among individuals who feel they do not need to change, and finally, the threat of extinction if we do not change. While we spent most of the session sharing insights into ways of patiently addressing difficulties with change, we ended with a potent conversation about how schools’ declines are generally gradual. A participant shared the often used anecdote of a frog in cold water that is slowly heated, with the frog not realizing the danger until it is too late. I left wondering how we can we balance patience with the urgency of our students’ needs; how we can be mindful of recognizing when the water is boiling and help each other to jump out, or rather jump into more effective ways of supporting student learning, no matter how difficult or uncomfortable that jump may appear.
I left Edcamp Leadership wondering; wondering about using Evernote more effectively, wondering about supervision, evaluation, collaboration, and coaching to meet teachers’ professional learning needs, and wondering about managing change. Most of all I wondered about Mike Ritzius’ essential questions. What would school look like if we could really do what we are being asked? What would school look like if teachers were really empowered to make decisions, even bold decisions requiring rethinking and redesign, based on student need?
What do you think?