Category: Community Engagement

Sustaining and Sharing Cultural Heritage at the Tatitlek Community School

October 10, 2019 by

This is the fourth post in a series about the Chugach School District in Alaska. Links to the other posts are provided at the end of this article.

Student Making a Kayak Paddle

Making a Traditional Kayak Paddle During Cultural Heritage Week

Almost all students in the Tatitlek Community School are Alaska Natives. One of the village elders, David Totemoff, who is also a recent past Chief and Tatitlek Indian Reorganization Act Council President, spoke strongly of the need to promote traditional tribal values and the importance of the school in supporting that effort. The school and the church are the main community centers in Tatitlek, a village of about 65 residents on Prince William Sound that I visited with Mike Hanley, Superintendent of the Chugach School District and former Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development. Two projects from Tatitlek are described below that build community, cultural competence, and community service experience within a competency-based education framework.

Cultural Heritage Week – Peksulineq

Activities to build students’ cultural knowledge are infused throughout the school year, according to Jed and Nichole Palmer, who have been the school’s two teachers for 16 years. The ongoing learning gets a tremendous boost from Cultural Heritage Week, a week of cultural immersion every spring that involves many members of the village as well as students and adults from other schools and districts. The week is called Peksulineq, which means “things are coming to life” in Sugt’stun, the native language of the local Alutiiq tribe.

Peksulineq SignPeksulineq runs from Sunday to Saturday, with more than 80 students arriving by boat and bush plane (there’s no road access) to join the Tatitlek students, along with chaperones, instructors, and other visitors. From Monday through Friday, the older students rotate through several workshops on topics such as sewing animal skins, beading, dancing, carving wood or soapstone, making traditional kayak paddles or miniature kayak models, and processing salmon or sea lions. Sometimes there are classes in Sugt’stun, which also take place during the school year. The younger students mostly stay with one teacher and do smaller-scale versions of some of those projects, as well as participating in story-telling activities related to local culture. The instructors infuse historical knowledge to help students understand how each activity fits into the village’s culture.

To take fish processing as a project example, the students might catch salmon or start with salmon caught by a village member. Then they go through the process of cleaning, brining, smoking, cutting up, and canning the fish. By the end of the week, the students have canned salmon that they can bring home, give as gifts to people who helped with Cultural Heritage Week, or auction off at the fundraiser that happens at the end-of-week celebration.

Processing a Sea Lion

Processing a Sea Lion

In addition to the goal of sustaining Tatitlek’s cultural heritage, the week helps Chugach students fulfill the district’s Culture and Communication standards, which include the following:

  • Students will understand and participate in the cultural heritage and traditions of their own cultural community.
  • Students will understand and appreciate the unique aspects of their own culture.
  • Students will understand and respect the unique aspects of other cultures.
  • Students will participate in a variety of art forms (dance, music, theater, visual arts) and appreciate the arts.

Depending on the student’s level, these standards include learning targets such as :

  • (Level 2 out of 8) Listens to and discusses a variety of stories from oral traditions (i.e., myths, legends, fables, folk tales).
  • (Level 7 out of 8) Appreciates the arts in three or more ways, including practicing their skills as an audience member (e.g., listening, providing positive feedback); participating in one or more forms of art (e.g., dance, music, theatre, or visual arts); studying artwork from other cultures; and learning artistic techniques from one or more artists.

(more…)

Bringing Parents Into Competency-Based Schools

October 3, 2019 by

This is the second post in a series about the Chugach School District in Alaska. Links to the other posts are provided at the end of this article.

Whittier Sign - You Fit Right InWhen teachers talk about the challenges of competency-based education, they tend to focus on big, structural changes such as varied pacing and pathways, diverse assessments, and student agency. So when I asked teachers at the Whittier Community School about their biggest challenge, I was surprised when two of them independently mentioned helping parents understand and embrace the system.

“One of the biggest challenges right now is the influx of new families,” Teacher Lindsey Erk said, “and educating those families on what type of system we are, when 99% are used to a traditional system.” Teacher Andrea Korbe said, “I think the biggest challenge every year is helping families understand what competency-based really means. Because parents are always trying to hang their children’s education on the framework of their own education. Naturally, that’s their lens for understanding it. Understanding competency-based is my job, so it makes sense to me, but we need to help parents understand it bit by bit, as their kids grow and things change for them.”

This Is Just The Way It Is

At most other schools I’ve visited, parents and guardians had a choice to send their children to a different school or to select the traditional track in a school that offered both traditional and competency-based options. But reaching the nearest school to Whittier requires paying a hefty toll to drive through a long, single-lane tunnel that only opens in each direction for 15 minutes per hour—and then driving well beyond that.

“We’re in a unique situation because we’ve been at this for a number of years,” Korbe explained, “and when a parent comes in, this is just the way it is. There’s no discussion of ‘Do we want to get on board?’ or ‘Do we want to change this?’—which is where many schools are. And given the transient nature of our community, every year we’re onboarding more parents throughout the year. We need to say ‘This is what this means, this is how it looks, and this is how our system progresses.’ So it’s just this continuous loop of information that you’re trying to move everybody through.”

Whittier Student Reading to Younger StudentsPersonalizing Parent Relations

These teachers’ perspectives show one version of what bringing parents into a mature competency-based system can look like. In some ways it sounds like what parents encounter in the traditional system, in the sense that the school’s basic approach to education isn’t really up for negotiation. But what’s different is the level of effort and the types of strategies used to bring parents on board and help them understand. Much like competency-based instruction for students, the strategies for parents also have varied pathways and personalization.

“We have tried a number of things,” Korbe said. “It’s different for every person. When you’re first enrolling, we give you the 30,000-foot view. Then as your student is in our system longer, through conferences and other one-on-one parent meetings, you continue to educate them about ‘This is where your student is, and this is what will come next for them,’ and ‘Yes, they’re making progress,’ or ‘No, they’re not—and that’s concerning.’ So you’re working through it, usually with parents one on one. We’ve tried some community parent meetings, but that didn’t prove very successful for us. One on one has been more effective. Because you can get more into the nitty gritty. I can’t talk with a parent about their kid in front of an entire group of parents, and answer their particular questions. That’s not ethical.” It would be easy to imagine a larger school, with 50 or 100 new students entering every year, making greater use of group orientation strategies, but clearly there is no substitute for individualized discussion when possible.

Both teachers felt that parents whose children entered the school in the early grades have been more successful in understanding the educational approach. Erk explained that it’s essential to meet with families often when their children first enroll, and convey repeatedly over time that “seat time no longer matters, that you can sit in a class all semester long and not master the content. So teaming up with parents and kids to make sure they understand that mastery is what we’re looking for, not seat time. It’s a lot of conversation. It’s a lot of small bits of information at first, then slowly building on it.” (more…)

Supporting Deeper Learning Through High-Quality Internship Projects

September 12, 2019 by
Sonn Sam

Sonn Sam

My recent CompetencyWorks post focused on helping schools facilitate deep, authentic student learning through real-world projects. This second post focuses on the nuts and bolts of supporting high-quality student internship projects through the lens of one student’s experience and some helpful tools and ideas.

As a former advisor and principal at Big Picture Learning (BPL) schools, I found that developing rigorous projects with students was the greatest lever to transforming them and their learning experiences. For the first time in their educational career, they saw how the quality, depth, and impact of their work and learning could all be driven by them. They found this deeply empowering.

So how does it work? BPL’s design is anchored in the 3 R’s: Relationships, Relevance, and Rigor. Strong student-to-teacher and student-to-student relationships form the foundation. Learning is relevant because it is anchored in student interests and contexts. Strong relationships and relevance become the fertile soil in which high-quality, rigorous learning can be cultivated. We see high-quality internship projects as the highest form of rigor, because they demand students to acquire and apply high levels of academic, industry, and social-emotional learning standards and skills.

One Student’s Real-World Project

My student Zaidee was a budding artist. Ever since arriving in my advisory in 9th grade, they (Zaidee’s preferred pronoun) could always be found doodling, drawing, or creating something original, with an eclectic style. Fortunately, at the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center (the Met) in Providence, Rhode Island, our entire design is built around leveraging students’ passions through real-world internships.

Zaidee and David

Zaidee and friend David (painting a mural for another student’s internship project with an advertising firm)

During junior year, Zaidee’s internship combined a passion for art with an intention to help people. With the support of their dad, Zaidee landed an internship with a local non-profit that provided artistic outlets for developmentally challenged older adults. We learned during an informational interview that community members from across the state came there to paint, draw, sing, play instruments, and record their own music. Their smiles and the gentle hum of productive artistry in the background truly warmed our hearts.

This was a special place and Zaidee knew it. Art empowered so many aspects of their life, and here they saw how art empowered these community members. To ensure that students and internship sites are a good fit, Big Picture schools engage in an informational interview and shadow day process where students ask questions of the potential mentor and spend some time on site to get a feel for the day-to-day activities. For Zaidee, the informational interview and shadow day made it clear that this was the right place to do an internship.

After they spent several days observing and assisting wherever needed, I scheduled a project set-up meeting with the mentor to help develop Zaidee’s internship project. The bedrock of high-quality projects is authenticity, and the process of finding authenticity is a conversation guided by a few simple questions. I ask the student, “What are you interested in learning?” and I ask the mentor, “What is a current challenge or opportunity you are facing right now”? As they both answer the question and the conversation evolves, we usually arrive at an idea and a product for a project.

This is where I introduce the mentor to our Project Development Tool, which helps us flesh out the student’s project. It is a living document that the student, mentor, and I will communicate and work with as the student carries out the project. As her advisor, I help make or push the connections between the project and academic and social-emotional skills. Simultaneously, the mentor makes connections with industry skills. Using this tool, we help the student break the project into manageable pieces and set realistic timelines. We also use the Project Rubric to be clear with students and mentors about what high quality looks like while planning and carrying out the project. (more…)

Structuring Schools to Enable Deep, Student-Centered Learning in Real-World Settings

September 9, 2019 by
Sonn Sam

Sonn Sam

One of the main pillars of the Big Picture Learning design is deep, authentic student learning in the real world. For more than 20 years, BPL has experienced the power of this approach for increasing equity and deeper learning centered on the student’s talents and passions. In most schools, learning mostly takes place within the school building, and engaging with community partners is uncharted territory. So how can a school go about developing a real-world learning program? As a regional director for Big Picture Learning (and before that a BPL principal and advisor) supporting teachers and school leaders, this has been a major priority of my work. Here are some of the major lessons I’ve learned about what’s needed to make it happen.

Visionary Leadership: There needs to be a leader at the helm who holds deeply to the concept of deep, authentic student learning in the real world. A leader who leads through modeling and works tirelessly with their staff to consistently improve their practice. Why? Unfortunately, our current educational system was built and designed for in-school learning. The focus on standardized tests, daily schedule, course sequence, credits, seat time, and so on was designed to support a particular approach to education. So when a leader attempts to redefine the system by designing real-world learning structures such as an internship program, friction will arise. The gravitational pull on leaders to fit into and return to the old system will be immense, and this will be a true test of a leader’s core values and vision. In the face of this friction and in the eyes of their teachers, the leader will need to remain fully engaged in the problem-solving process to stay true to the vision. In my experience in leading and supporting systemic change, there are no silver bullets, but one thing is essential: a visionary leader who stays true to their core values.

Staffing: When I first became a principal, BPL co-founder Dennis Littky gave me a piece of advice that has served me well through the years. He said, “The single most important decision you will ever make as a leader is selecting the ‘right’ staff member.” Simple, right? As a young administrator, I took heed. But after 10 years as a school administrator, I have experienced first-hand the truth of this statement. I have made many bad decisions as a leader, but nothing has been more difficult than a bad staffing decision. Underperforming staff members can be coached to be better—but fundamentally I can coach skills, but I can’t coach will. In other words, staff mindsets about the work are equivalent to their competencies to learn and do the work. At Big Picture Learning, in order to find the “right” staff member, we developed a list of BPL Advisor Competencies that captures the skills and will needed to appropriately execute on our design.

Another pivotal role to support real-world learning is the Internship Coordinator—the bridge that connects the school with local internship opportunities. Equipped with an entrepreneurial spirit, this staff member will need to survey students about their interests, develop marketing materials for the program, establish internship procedures for students and staff, hit the pavement to reach out to local businesses and community leaders, host informational events to educate the community about the programs, regularly check on mentors and students, and help curate activities to better prepare students for the real world.

Big Picture Learning LogoFor most schools with traditional staff structures, allocating a full-time position to support real-world learning may be difficult. In my last school, our social worker became a half-time social worker and half-time internship coordinator. Although this helped us start our program, we didn’t see the progress or success we were looking for. Finally, I decided to make her a full-time internship coordinator, and for the first time almost 100% of our students were placed in internships just one month into the school year. With her attention focused solely on internships, she was able to commit to building needed infrastructure at the end of the previous school year, expand our internship network over the summer, and solidify internships much sooner in the school year. This was the momentum we needed, and we would not have achieved it without the full-time position. (more…)

In Real Life: Designing Outcomes Aimed for Equity

January 28, 2019 by

Cynthia Green, Executive Director of Secondary Programs and Pathways, Madison Metropolitan School District; and Karyn Stocks Glover, Principal, Capital High

This article is the third in a nine-part “In Real Life” series on the complex, fundamental questions that practitioners in competency-based systems grapple with “in real life.” Links to the other posts can be found at the end of this article.

Because competency-based education (CBE) systems expect all students to reach mastery on all competencies, how those competencies are defined (and who gets to define them) becomes critical. For district and school leaders aiming to promote equity in their systems, this question is only heightened. How inclusive and representative are vision-setting and decision-making processes? How can leaders garner support from various stakeholders and help reconcile differing perspectives on what equity means or how to achieve it?

To better understand how competency-based school systems reckon with these fundamental questions, I sat down with Cynthia Green, Executive Director of Secondary Programs and Pathways for Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD), and Karyn Stocks Glover, Principal of Capital High in MMSD.

(more…)

Competency-Based Education: The Break from Tradition that Our Schools Need

October 22, 2018 by

At this year’s iNACOL 2018 Symposium, I will have two opportunities to share my thoughts and experiences after spending a decade leading a New Hampshire high school through a transformation from a traditional to a competency-based system. The first will be in a Sunday morning pre-conference session entitled “Learning from School-Based Practitioners: Building a Successful Competency-Based Education System in your District/School.” There, my colleague Jonathan Vander Els and I will share resources and tools from our 2017 Solution Tree book entitled Breaking With Tradition, the Shift to Competency-Based Learning in PLCs at Work. On Tuesday morning, Jonathan and I will join our good friends: competency educational specialist Rose Colby and Ace Parsi of the National Center for Learning Disabilities for a breakout session entitled “Leveraging Competency Education to Promote Equity for ALL Students by Prioritizing Academic and Personal Competencies Supported by Effective Leadership, Personalization, and PLCs.” (more…)

Personalized Learning: Lessons to Get the Message Right

May 2, 2018 by

This post originally appeared at Getting Smart on April 8, 2018 and ExcelinEd on April 4, 2018.

Interest in personalized learning continues to surge all across the country. However, not everyone understands what personalized learning looks like or the changes it will necessitate, and people are often wary of what they don’t understand. So how we talk about personalized learning can either engage families or push them away. (more…)

WordPress SEO fine-tune by Meta SEO Pack from Poradnik Webmastera