Autonomy Over Oppression

by Kayla Larkin, 2016 Education Innovation Fellow

California, February 2016, a “high-performing” public charter school in San Jose. A tiny little black boy no older than five struggles to carry his lunch and walk up a flight of outdoor stairs at the same time. He finally makes it to the top. He stops. The teacher at the top of the stairs scolds him for not walking in scholar position, and orders him to turn around and “do it again.”

I cringe.

I have been that teacher at the top of the stairs, telling similar-faced and similar-aged students to “do it again.” And for what? To prepare them for a world where people walk a certain way?

In that moment, I think of my students 3,000 miles away in DC, who are likely being told to sit and walk in a certain way, to be silent for the first 15 minutes of lunch because they couldn’t possibly finish their lunch and socialize with their peers at the same time. That sort of autonomy would be too tempting.

I think about the students across town in San Jose at schools with many more affluent white students and I wonder why those children are not being told how to walk, sit, or talk. Why are they allowed to move about the classroom and the school freely? Why are they allowed to speak without restriction? And how are they possibly able to finish their lunch and socialize at the same time?!

When we talk about race and equity in education, we talk about funding, teacher quality, test scores, access to technology. What we don’t talk about is autonomy. Why is it that schools that serve wealthier, white children are the schools that allow for student autonomy—a necessary life skill for college and career readiness—while schools that serve less affluent, black and brown children deny their students the opportunity to wield and develop those most critical skills?

I came back from California and tried to undo years of bad habits that I had developed that stifled my students’ autonomy. At first, it was a little scary. I felt like I might lose control if I let them talk instead of eat, walk, or move silently. I thought I might get in trouble for not forcing students to sit or walk in our school’s take on the “scholar position.”

But what was scarier was what would happen if I didn’t start teaching my students autonomy. They might not learn how to manage their time and responsibilities; they might not learn how to work with others; they might not learn how to get off topic while doing their work and then get themselves back on track. And as a white educator, I realized that if I did not begin to relinquish autonomy to my students, it would mean that I would resign myself to a classroom management style that lent itself more to perpetuating institutionalized oppression than to purposefully empowering students of color.

So fast-forward to the Shaw neighborhood in, Washington D.C. during March, April, May, and June of 2016: I let my students talk during breakfast and they didn’t go hungry. I piloted a Montessori-styled model in a class full of black and brown students, and they thrived just like the whiter, wealthier students I saw in California. I watched students go from working silently and independently to actively collaborating, debating, and discussing their learning with their peers. I watched my students go from being prepared to oblige others and accept the status quo, to being prepared to question the state of things and to lead.

12 Kayla Larkin

Kayla Larkin is a second and third grade English Language Arts teacher at Center City PCS–Shaw Campus.

Advertisements

Innovation Should Not Be Strangled by Inequity

by Latisha Chisholm, 2016 Education Innovation Fellow

Equity in education is at the core of who I am as a social worker and educator. I was raised under the poverty line by a single mother. A great education and the opportunities it has afforded me are the tools I have used to move out of poverty and into a place where I am serving children and communities that reflect me and where I grew up.

I moved from social work into teaching because I noticed that the students I case managed did not have some of the basic skills I considered necessary for successful transition into adulthood. How could they be “successful,” or access anything they could dream of, if they could not read above a 6th grade level? How could they be productive citizens if filling out employment applications independently was difficult and sometimes impossible to do coherently?

By the end of my first three years in the classroom, I had not gotten one professional development opportunity focused on data-supported methods that work with academically struggling youth of color—methods proven to actually close the achievement gap. I have used Kagan Structures, or instructional strategies “designed to increase student engagement and cooperation.”1 These instruction strategies contributed to some success with students as measured by highly effective DCPS teacher ratings, high student engagement and academic success with students repeating the ninth grade, and greater ease of planning for differentiation. The effects, however, were not big enough. My students were still flailing and falling further behind in gathering the skills needed to be productive and self-sustaining adults.

kagan-brain

As a psychology major and licensed social worker who focuses on adolescents, I am always thinking about child development and how the brain works. A hallmark of adolescent behavior is impulsivity. Of course, I found that my students were making impulsive decisions. Deciding not to do work. Not to turn in assignments. Not to come to school daily. Not to revise work for better grades or mastery, if they had gotten at least a passing grade. Not to do the best they could at all times. These actions did not make sense to me as a generally logical adult, primarily because if asked, all of my students would verbalize that they wanted to graduate from high school. They could tell you at least one profession they were interested in.

I was frustrated and continued to try new things in hopes of seeing big changes with my students. I began prototyping, or trying out innovative ideas, in my classroom before being introduced to CityBridge, the d.school (it was just starting up when I graduated from Stanford), or design thinking. By August 2015—during my 4th year of teaching—I began to ask myself a big question. “How might I increase student ownership and self-reflection that results in more engagement and higher overall academic progress?” My first prototype of the academic year included data walls, student support plans, and checklists for moving toward mastery on each class objective. These seemed to engage some students, but the success was limited to my students who were present everyday. They were not creative enough for students that were partially connected to school.

prototype1

The second prototype went a little deeper. I added an attendance data wall that highlighted days absent, or when work was refused, and documented grades. There was a requirement to review attendance data and write a reflection that included an assessment of how one’s grade related to their attendance. I also continued to use checklists to track mastery. I wanted the students to see how much their own actions, attendance, and engagement affected their overall progress. This was moderately successful, and I saw that students were better able to express the connection between their actions and their grades. Grades were no longer this arbitrary thing that the teacher assigned, but a reflection of the level of effort and consistency put in.

The adolescent mind, however, seemed to still need a higher level of analysis and something to remind them of why their current education is important them. I still was looking to increase ownership and self-reflection, so I created a individualized learning plan for each student. This included assessments around career interest and learning styles, analysis of current grades, and short-, medium-, and long-term goal setting. Each student’s long-term goals required them to finish high school at some point, so their short-term goals encouraged them to do better in class by being more consistent. I was elated because I could see them buying into the idea of high school actually having personal importance to them. I gave them warm ups that required them to look back at their goals and assess their own progress. My goal was to keep reminding them, as often as possible and in various ways, that their actions today either moved them closer to or away from their larger goals. I was so excited at the student response that I gave my prototype to a fellow teacher and we agreed to look at it after he implemented it with his class. We wanted to see if his student engagement also increased and to figure out the best ways to tweak it.

prototype2

I became a CityBridge fellow right after I began prototyping the individualized learning plan. During the first leg of the fellowship, our focus was on learning about innovative practices in the field. My personal motive was to understand the practices of anyone who was doing anything that works with the most difficult high school population to move and to figure out how to implement whatever they were doing that works. During a presentation from Summit Public Schools in California they began to describe Basecamp, an online personalized learning plan that Facebook engineers have designed for their schools and to share with others. During that presentation, I looked at my peer—the same teacher I had shared my paper individualized learning plan with—and we understood we had stumbled upon a digital prototype of exactly what we had been doing by paper in our classrooms. What are the odds that we would find a refined iteration of the exact thing we were prototyping in our classes?

The day after hearing the presentation about Summit Basecamp, we went to visit one of their schools. During a presentation from their administrators, I asked the series of questions I have come to be known for asking at every school visit: “Does this work with your most struggling populations? How do you know?” Summit was one of only two high schools we visited that was able to provide concrete data showing they were actually closing the achievement gap. After four years at Summit, students in their most difficult population—which mirrors that of the most struggling students in the United States—were reading on grade level when they graduated. Their bottom quartile of students were increasing reading levels at a rate 3.6 times that of the average student in that same quartile across the United States. I was astonished and captivated. I have never met a high schooler who came in reading significantly below grade level and graduated reading on grade level.

summit-data

At this point in our fellowship learning phase, seeing data from a charter school that was closing the achievement gap with students that mirror the bottom quartile of students in the United States was impressive. Honestly, it was the most impressive thing I had heard. The alignment with my own theory of change, and Summit’s years of testing, was icing on the cake. The most important thing I could do at that point was figure out how to get into their training cohort for Summit Basecamp and bring this opportunity to my students.

The sense of urgency I had was almost overwhelming. It felt intense, but looking back I understand why. Everyday we graduate students who do not have a baseline level of numeracy and literacy skills to be competitive in the workforce. They have not been properly equipped by the school district, but they are still graduating. There was no time to waste, because there is no time to waste. Every year that goes by is a new graduating class that will struggle in the world. Therefore, because I had been introduced to something that may help change that, my school needed it, like, yesterday.

At this point, I had not seen the content on the platform, which was okay. Working with students as low as mine often are, I knew we would have to modify or replace content to be sure it was appropriate for my students. I understood that the Summit Basecamp team had the same theory of change as I did, and they tested it with fantastic results. They had created an academic prefrontal cortex for the adolescent brain—a space where students could input their long-term goals and track how their day-to-day decisions moved them closer to meeting those goals. It was an interactive self-assessment. The Summit Personalized Learning Platform holds the rules that students need to be successful as they have defined it for themselves. It does exactly what the brain cannot always do for itself in adolescence.

My partner teacher, also an Education Innovation Fellow, and I went back to our school on a mission. We recruited teachers and administrators. We gave presentations to our school about the program and what we had seen. We were so convincing that every administrator and approximately 15 teachers agreed to complete the application process for our school to be a Summit Basecamp site. While most schools applying put in one application, our principal asked us to put in two. We were excited. Excited about what this could mean for our students and how much they could benefit from the personalized learning platform.

After applying and finding out the program was excited to work with us, we also learned we had to get central office approval to bring the program to our school. We thought this would be an easy task. There were so many reasons why it made sense for our school. Two other DCPS schools in northwest were already implementing the model in their school. Anacostia High is a “Target 40” school, which means we have been identified as one of the 40 lowest performing schools in the district, and need innovative ideas to really bring about change that affects students in the most important ways.

We were told no. Officially, the platform is not compatible with our network and other technology systems. Our school would not be able to access the flexible workarounds used by others schools that enable them to use Summit Basecamp. We were cautioned to remember that many lessons from our charter colleagues cannot be successfully scaled.

Innovation was strangled and a quarter of the educators in my school were left staring at a brick wall.

In speaking to other innovators, I found that Google accounts were a large problem. Every program that required students to have Google accounts was rejected if it required district approval.

I continued to stare at the brick wall, to process the blanket “no.”

The school, teachers, and administrators are on board and excited.

The program is free and will fly us out to to California to get trained.

The program administrators will create the accounts students need for us, so there is no extra work put on the District.

What about what Lisa Delpit said?

In their first iteration, charter schools were to be beacons for what could happen in public schools. They were intended to develop models for working with the most challenging populations. What they discovered was to be shared and reproduced in other public school classrooms. 2

What about the achievement gap?

What about the corresponding opportunity gap?

What about the severity of the need?

What about the dire need for innovation at a bottom 40 school?

What about treating east and west of the river equitably, and giving us the same chances, flexibility, and opportunity as them?

What about the fact that no one knows how to close the achievement gap at the high school level? I believe that makes it our duty to neutralize any potential roadblocks in order to make sure what has been proven to work gets to our most vulnerable students.

There are almost no techniques that people use in high schools that have been proven to work with the most marginalized youth. There may be none. If there are, I have not heard of them. Charter schools have the luxury and flexibility to innovate at a rate that traditional public schools do not. When a charter does develop a great idea and has the wherewithal make it available for free to public schools, it is our duty as educators to make sure what works gets to those who need it most.

How do we move forward and ensure innovation is not strangled by the inequity?

Latisha Chisholm, LGSW, is a Special Education Coordinator at Anacostia High School.

04-latisha-chisholm


1Spencer, K. Summer 2008. Kagan Structures Simply Put. Retrieved from Kagan Online.

2 Delpit, L. (2012). “Multiplication is for White People”: Raising expectations for other people’s children. New York, NY: The New Press

Notes from the Road: California 2016, Part II

We can’t believe it’s over! Our week in California with the Education Innovation Fellowship was filled with surprises, insights, and amazing experiences. Over the course of the trip, we visited eight school across San Francisco and Los Angeles and were blown away by the many different ways school leaders and teachers are re-thinking school design.

Our first few days in California are detailed in last week’s post. Here’s how the second half of our trip went: 

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 24

Summit Prep Redwood City High School 
This high school was a real treat for us to visit. Summit Prep is where Summit Basecamp—an online tool that helps teachers and schools design personalized learning plans—originated and was first implemented. The demonstration of Summit Basecamp we received at the Facebook offices set expectations very high, but the school was able to deliver on its promise of a truly innovative way of teaching students. We were able to see how Summit allows students and teachers to seamlessly view and track student progress over their entire academic career; students set goals and receive personalized coaching and instruction to meet those goals. 

Khan Lab School
You may be familiar with Sal Khan’s online learning platform, Khan Academy, and Sal Khan recently started his own school based on an idea he calls the “one world schoolhouse.” Khan Lab School is a beautiful, open, one-room, multi-age school where students are placed into “independence levels” rather than grade levels. We saw students tinkering away on projects, working independently on assignments, and challenging each other with interesting questions. 

Rocketship Spark Academy

We were also able to visit a Rocketship School in San Jose. Rocketship has really pioneered the blended learning model and has seen tremendous growth in student performance. Preston Smith, the CEO and co-founder of Rocketship, gave an inspiring talk to the fellows after our tour!

***

THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 25

Incubator School
Incubator School has developed a model that positions students as the “CEO” of their individual learning experiences. Students embark on large entrepreneurial projects that serve as the core of their educational experience. We saw students designing and printing 3D objects to solve problems, teams of students working on animation projects, and students designing flight paths for mini-drones. Sujata Bhaat, the founder of Incubator School, envisions a future where her students will leave high school ready to start their own businesses or explore a diverse array of post-secondary educational opportunities. 

Los Feliz Charter School for the Arts
At Los Feliz Charter School for the Arts, students learn through an innovative arts-integrated curriculum that utilizes art as a vehicle to teach all subject areas. The school’s architecture is awe-inspiring, and the interior is full of hanging sculptures, paintings, and large, brightly colored shipping containers that act as rooms. Another interesting tidbit: the school has virtually no walls or closed off rooms, so there is an open, free feeling about the entire space. 


Homeboy Industries
Although Homeboy Industries is not a school, it serves as a powerful example of the impact a community-based organization can have. Homeboy serves people formerly involved in gangs and who have been through the criminal justice system. We started our visit to Homeboy in Homegirl Cafe, a excellent cafe-style restaurant run mostly by women in the program. We were given an tour by a young man whose life story moved us all: After being shot in the head, he lost control of his ability to speak, but he found refuge at Homeboy. He then became a tour guide, where he was able to rehabilitate his speech.  

***

FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 26 

Da Vinci Innovation Academy
Our reaction to Da Vinci Innovation Academy was universal: What a cool school! Da Vinci blends homeschooling and onsite learning: Students attend school two days a week and are homeschooled for five days. What we loved about Da Vinci was how each child was valued and affirmed in a very profound way.

Saint Anne School
Our final school tour was also one of the most motivating. Michael Browning, the principal of Saint Anne School, is a fierce and passionate advocate of the blended learning model. The fellows were so inspired by Michael’s vision for blended learning and the impact it has had on the culture and achievement of the school. 

***

In addition to school visits, our week in California was full of powerful conversations about race and equity, educational practice, and school design. It was inspiring for us, the CityBridge staff, to see how eager our fellows are to come back and bring the many new ideas and experiences they have had back to their classrooms. The week was full of laughter, tears, and growing friendships—all of the things that make us a family, not just a fellowship. It has been a privilege to witness this family of educators become even more committed to transforming their communities and their schools.

 

Notes from the Road: California 2016

Last Sunday, CityBridge’s fourth cohort of Education Innovation Fellows jumped on a plane and headed out west for a whirlwind week of innovative schools and design thinking in California. Every year, this trip has been life-changing for our fellows: diving deep into design thinking and seeing new ideas in practice is, as we’ve learned, a powerful combination.

Stay tuned for a full download—but until then, here are some snapshots from the road. Join in the fellows’ experiences in real time by following @CityBridgeFdn and #EIF16 on Twitter.

On Monday, Fellows brainstormed big ideas and questions they have about 8 Great Leaps in education:

1

They formed teams bases on common themes and challenges they’re passionate about.

They then headed to Stanford and honed their design thinking skills with a workshop at the d.school:

2

Here are a few folks building “student empathy totems” to remind them of how they can put themselves in the shoes of one of their learners:

IMG_0725

Then they shared their totems in a gallery walk discussion:

4

On Tuesday, the team started the day at Urban Montessori Charter School, where fellows learned the key elements of the Montessori model and how the school expands upon that core model with design thinking. They also heard from the school staff about the challenges of crafting an intentionally diverse public school:

IMG_0735

After Urban Montessori, the fellows headed across Oakland to La Escuelita, an Oakland Unified elementary school:

IMG_0738

There, they learned about how the teachers have driven the design and implementation of a blended learning model and a maker space. Students in the maker space were building circuits:

IMG_0744

Lighthouse Community Charter School in Oakland was their next stop, where teachers gathered in that school’s maker space, the Creativity Lab:

IMG_0748

Fellows (and CityBridge staff!) got to experience the basics of making by investigating real-world products, taking them apart, and explaining the complexity of the component parts. In this meta-moment, teachers dissect a pencil sharper:

IMG_0758

The team’s last stop was the Facebook headquarters, the world’s largest open-plan office, where Shauntel Poulson (Reach Capital) introduced fellows to the ed-tech market. They closed the day with a highly interactive Nearpod demo from Guido Kovalskys, Nearpod CEO, and a demo of the Summit Basecamp Personalized Learning Platform from the Basecamp team and the Facebook engineers who work full time on the project.

Today, the fellows will head down to Los Angeles for more school visits, design thinking, and discussions about how to do school better. Stay tuned!

5 Tips for the 2016 Education Innovation Fellows

To the 2016 class of Education Innovation Fellows,

I’m going to assume that you applied for this fellowship because you’re not 100% happy with the way education is currently run and delivered in our country’s public school system. You’re in good company—I’ve met few educators who are wholly satisfied with it.

I’m also going to assume that you see some amount of promise and potential in technology and individualization as a lever to drive student achievement and teacher effectiveness/satisfaction. You’re in growing company there!

This fellowship was a life-changing experience for me.

Honestly. I have a feeling of restlessness around the learning I see happening at my school that keeps me up at night. I can’t stop looking at other schools, reading about innovation, and asking neat people for informational interviews. I have a sense of drive, an optimism, and an absolute obligation that was little more than a vague thought when I first applied for the fellowship.

So, with that, I have a few tips for you to get the most out of the fellowship:

1. Before a program day or trip, get plenty of sleep, and treat yourself well.

CityBridge knows how valuable your time is. They will not be wasting it. With that said, you are in for a long day (or, for your travel portion, days) of learning and absorbing lots of information. Treat yourself well.

pic1

2. Please, take notes on all your school visits.

We went on about 30 school visits throughout the year. They start to blur together. There’s nothing worse than trying to pitch a pilot or modification to your principal, referencing the evidence you’ve seen at a school visit, and then forgetting the school. So make sure you label the note with the name of the school—especially because you might see three schools in one day!

pic2.png

3. Build relationships with your fellow…fellows!

Honestly, one of my biggest regrets from my Fellowship experience has nothing to do with tech or individualized learning. I honestly wish I had gone more out of my way to build relationships with my co-fellows. They are absolutely amazing people, with a crazy amount of combined teaching experience. You never know what a bumpy bus ride conversation between school visits might bring up, but I want you to go further than that. During the fellowship, email them. Reach out to them to go get a drink or some supper. You might even find a TechBFF.

Happy-Dance

4. Blog at least once a month.

Taking something you’ve learned about/experimented with in your classroom/failed at and writing about it is helpful to you and helpful to others. It also builds your tool belt of teacher-leader experiences and opens you to collaboration, discussion and growth.

Typing

5. Embrace the messy.

So much of what you see will be in its first few years, in a pilot, in revision, or being wholly changed. You may run a pilot that is really messy. You might will have a scenario where ten students can’t log in to their reading program at the computer station. And this is all okay. Embrace the mess. Lots of schools haven’t even touched individualized learning with a ten-foot pole. This is your permission to feel like you have no idea what you’re doing, make mistakes, learn, and pivot!

pic5.png

Blair-Mishleau-Web

Blair Mishleau, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow (Alumnus)
KIPP DC Heights Academy

Reflections on Startup Weekend EDU D.C.: Next Gen Schools

CityBridge_SUWKND2015_185.jpg

This past weekend, we hosted the first Startup Weekend dedicated to school design outside of California—and the first one to be held in more than 18 months. The energy and the excitement of the weekend are still fresh, so I thought we would report out to other potential organizing teams on what we learned.

  1. The demand is there. We had more than 90 people buy $75 tickets to participate in a Startup Weekend dedicated to school design. Educators are hungry for opportunities to engage with colleagues in designing the future of school.
  2. Be clear about what you mean by school design. We wrote a new judging rubric for the weekend that deviates from the universal Startup Weekend judging criteria. This is a really important step. We also learned that five areas of judging is too many—both for participants and for judges. In the future we would work to narrow it down to three.
  3. Coaching is awesome. Our coaches got rave reviews from participants. Participants said that they got their most important insights from exchanges with coaches. One group said they felt like they’d had a graduate-level seminar in 30 minutes.
  4. Make it a community event. Our speakers, our coaches, our judges, and our organizing team were all local. In the end, our participants left feeling like innovation exists in our community and can be driven by our community—we don’t need to fly people in from California to make it happen.

I’ll close with a final personal reflection. We had more than 150 people attend some portion of the weekend. On Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, our host site, Columbia Heights Educational Campus, opened its doors at 7 a.m. and closed at 11 p.m., and we had teams there at all hours. And to a person, attendees were energetic, optimistic, and grateful for the opportunity.

Innovation in education is going to come from treating students differently and providing very different experiences. People are at the very heart of this movement. The question I keep coming back to is: How are we going to do that if we don’t start treating educators differently—and providing different experiences?

It is our hope that Startup Weekend could be one of those experiences, and it exceeded my expectations.

Thank you to everyone for a fantastic weekend!

Margaret Angell, Director, CityBridge Education Innovation Portfolio