Saturday, March 14, 2015

Educational Intoxication

This week, a team of six teachers from our school and I were fortunate enough to attend High Tech High in San Diego.  Several years ago I had heard Larry Rosenstock, the founder of High Tech High, speak at a conference that I attended.  I was captivated by his ideas around the equity in education, and the importance for schools to engage the heads, hearts and hands of children and teachers through project-based learning.  In order for our school to begin the process of articulating a guiding vision, I brought HTH teachers Chris Wakefield and Anthony Conwright to Sa-Hali last May to introduce the concepts of PBL to our school, and to open up a dialogue about the possibilities that a PBL approach could have for our students and staff.  And this February, after our Instructional Rounds observation team helped us discover that we need to develop tasks that enable our students to demonstrate our attributes of creativity, collaboration, and resilience, I knew it was high time for us to get to High Tech High. And as I sit here on the plane ride home looking back on the last three days, I realize that I will fail miserably at doing justice to describing the feelings I had during the experience, however, in the innovative spirit of “don’t worry, be crappy” from Guy Kawasaki--here goes my set of random thoughts. (I will blog more about more 'structural' things and 'what nexts', but this one will be more about the ‘feel’ of the place).

The moment that our stepped on to the campus (or campuses, as there are five schools on the property), we immediately felt welcome.  That might sound a tad cliche, so let me qualify ‘welcome’:  people were not just happy to see us, they were eager to see us.  High Tech High gets hundreds of visitors each year, yet students, staff, directors, support staff and, well, pretty much anyone around the campus wanted to talk to us.   And then, like a wave, this palpable and tangible culture washed over us.

Some random thoughts and memories...

  • Students sitting in classes would invite us (and even pull us!) into their classrooms and immediately start talking about what they were doing and why they were doing it.  They would grab a couple of friends or classmates and say things like “look at Alicia’s comic strip, it’s REALLY cool”, and then Alicia would tell you about the why they were doing the project and about feedback and iterations she went through to make her project better.  There were dozens and dozens of kids in hallways and open spaces that would say hello and would take the time to answer questions, or give directions, or ask about you and where you were from. Classrooms were open to anyone.  
  • Teachers I met (and I met dozens) in a hallway or meeting would say things like “Don’t forget, my name is Rob, and I teach in the end classroom of the far hallway.  Make sure you see what we’re doing today.”.  Or they would ask you what you were interested in, and then say “You know who you need to talk to?  Tom.  He is doing something that’s right up your alley with his kids today.  He’d really want you to see it.”.  And when you went to see Tom, he would say to you “Cool, I saw Jeff at lunch today and he said you would be stopping in, come sit with a couple of students!”
  • If you made a request, maybe something something like “Would it be possible to chat with a Director (we call them Principals) for a few minutes?”, our host Angela would set up meeting with two Directors from different schools so that you could get a few different perspectives.  Everyone made time for you, and no one was flustered or exasperated to do so.  Quite the opposite in fact, they wanted to share!  When I asked a senior Humanities teacher about this, he said “I do a lot of work to prepare my day so that I can spend time talking to people like you so I can learn more.  The kids are working and learning, and I am working and learning.  It just seems to make sense.”  
  • When teachers were chatting with you, the students were WORKING--peer critiquing, walking into another classroom to get something, sprawling across desks, and helping eachother.  But they were also RELAXING.  In fact, one of the Grade 6 teachers said that he didn’t want his students to “go too easy or too hard”.  When I asked him why, he said because learning is supposed to be enjoyable, NOT work.”
  • If you had an idea for a project, the school get a chunk of time to do a tuning protocol seemingly out of thin air.  Suddenly, there would be a group of HTH teachers who were on lunch break or prep gathered around you in a room, and the protocol would begin, and 20 minutes later, ideas were amplified, modified, critiqued, and made better.  Much better.
  • If you had a question, staff members would ask more questions of you, give you ideas, give you a book reference or an online resource, and then physically take you immediately to someone else who might be able to help.
  • All Meetings were wide open to visitors.  I went to a planning meeting, and even a faculty meeting.  At the faculty meeting, every single person made me feel welcome there, asked me questions about our school, and wanted me to participate in the activities.  “Why wouldn’t you?  We always need more good ideas!” people would say.  The tone was relaxed, fun, friendly, and the work got done.  One of the staff members led a fun primer activity about Pi Day to get people talking to others that they hadn’t seen all week.  Then, in the carousel activity we did, the leader didn’t assign people to groups or tell them to start in different spots, but instead said “I know you all of you will want to make sure you visit each of the stations to see if  the ideas people are sharing spark new ones for you”.  And who’d believe it, people moved about the room to the different stations, dialoguing with whomever was there, bouncing ideas off each other, and jotting thoughts down.  At one point, one teacher commented on the attendance to the student sign-up X block that HTH has in their timetable.  Another said, “I guess we should be doing something worth doing then!”, and the other person agreed, and they moved along.

I could honestly go on.  And on.  And on.  And in future posts I will. But in our closing meeting with our host Angela, she asked for each of our ‘takeaways’ for the week.  And as we were sitting there, a thought hit me.

Many people may think of High Tech High as a sort of unattainable educational utopia.  They erroneously may feel that it is some sort of elite, private, wealthy school with limitless resources and ‘gifted’ students (whatever that means…). They might be blinded by pictures of projects and palm trees, robots and resources, and some bit of technology in every child’s hands.  And because of this, educators in other, more ‘traditional’ schools might easily become discouraged with what ‘they don’t have’ compared to the perception of the resources they see at High Tech High.  

But High Tech High is not private, it is publicly funded according to daily student attendance. Their students come from every zip code in the San Diego area, regardless of socioeconomic status. The school has funding constraints just like my school does.  They do not have endless piles of money or resources--they have to make cuts and tough choices just like the rest of us. Their students are just kids like any other kids; they talk, text, laugh, get bored, and have attention spans identical in length to every student that I have met.

But there IS one thing that would make me think of High Tech High as ‘elite’.  There IS something that our group wholeheartedly agreed that was truly limitless in supply, and that has changed my thinking as an educator and as a person.

High Tech High is elite in its limitless commitment to the idea of service to others.  From students and teachers alike, we felt this culture in each of the schools from the moment we got there.  People were helping people. They were celebrating risk-taking and amplifying ideas for the greater good. And for a brief couple of days, we seven were invited to be a part of it. It was educationally intoxicating, and to a person in our group, this culture of service was why none of us really wanted to leave.

I look forward to the conversations and questions that will arise from our visit to High Tech High going forward at Sa-Hali. To try to replicate what High Tech High does would be impossible, and not something I would wish to do. Before I came to HTH, I had my own driving question that I was hoping to have our school community take on as a project, which was "How can we enable our people to do their best work?". However, HTH has inspired me to change my driving question to "How can we enable our people to do their best work in service to others?" and co-create our own feeling of 'educational intoxication' for our students, staff and community.

I want to thank our team that attended HTH - Jordan Backman, Susanne Blohm, Tanya Cail, Jen Cacaci, Cecile McVittie, and Kirk Smith.  The professionalism that you showed, the questions you asked, and your willingness to learn would make any Sa-Hali student, staff member or parent proud.

I also want to thank Chris Wakefield for inviting us HTH, Angela Guerrero for her passion in being the most accommodating host, and the entire HTH community for opening your doors and your arms to us!