BLC14 Connections and Reflections

My brain is constantly looking for connections – for a way to organize things into categories. My three days at the Building Learning Communities Conference 2014 were filled with such a deluge of ideas and thoughts, I didn’t think I’d ever come to grips with it all. It’s taken me two weeks of reading over my notes, looking back through tweets, and just walking away and thinking about other things for a while, but I think I’ve made some connections. Someone else might have attended the same sessions and had the same conversations and come up with completely different connections. But here are my three big takeaways:

  • Give students a voice and an audience.
  • Teach them to fish.
  • Make the world their home.

Give students a voice and an audience.

Over and over we heard about student voice. In her keynote address, Shannon McClintock Miller shared how she completely redefined the Van Meter school library by asking students what they thought it should be. I was brought to tears by her story about Luke, an autistic high school student who found his voice by taking ownership of the library’s new makerspace. I know we have dozens of “Lukes” in our district. Are we helping each of them to find his or her own voice?

As they find their voice, do we help our students develop an authentic audience? In that same keynote, we heard from Shilpa Yarlagadda, an amazing young woman who founded Club Academia, a collection of video tutorials for students – created by students – on a wide range of subjects. Sounds like Khan Academy, you say? Yes…but created BY HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS. I also attended a session with Eric Marcos, a middle school math teacher from California, who started both MathTrain.tv and StudentCreated.tv, featuring video tutorials created by MIDDLE SCHOOL STUDENTS. These students have found an audience for their work in other students. They demonstrate their understanding of what they’ve learned by teaching it to someone else. They use their voice to add value to the world.

Teach them to fish.

The old proverb says that if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day; but if you teach him to fish, he can eat for a lifetime. If you name that fish “information”, the proverb helps to define a serious issue in today’s schools. In this age of abundant information, it is no longer necessary for schools to be the dispenser of all knowledge. Experts are everywhere, literally at the tips of our fingers. Instead, our focus should be on teaching students how to navigate all that information and what to do with it once they find it. Alan November asked, “Where is the process change?” His point was if we continue to do things the way we’ve always done them, kids will just Google the answers. We need to change the kind of questions we’re asking…and more importantly, teach our students to ask the right questions. As one who focuses on the use of technology as a tool for learning, this statement really resonated with me: If we don’t change the kinds of questions we ask, then all our investment in technology will actually lower the quality of education because all we’ve done is to teach our kids to look up the answers. We have to teach our kids how to think and how to learn – to be resilient, self-directed learners. We have to stop feeding them and concentrate instead on teaching them to fish.

Make the world their home.

When Walt Disney launched “It’s a Small World”, I wonder if he had any idea how true that statement would become. While the physical size of our world may not have changed, the ability to cross those distances – both in real life and virtually – has become routine. Using the Internet, it is now just as easy to communicate with someone on the other side of the globe as with someone on the other side of town. This is a game changer for our students. It’s no longer enough to be vaguely familiar with the names of countries and their locations on a map. Today it is important to be able to communicate and collaborate with people from diverse cultures. “International Fairs” and “Cultural Days” in schools are not enough. We have to adopt what Silvia Rosenthal Tolisano refers to as a “global mindset”. We can’t just learn about other people and places, we need to learn with and from people in other places. We have to open the walls of our classrooms so that our students learn to think about things from a wide, global perspective. We have to help them think of the world as their home…the whole world.

So those are my big three. As I reflect on them, I find myself continuing the connections – this time to our mission statement.

The mission of the Mechanicsburg Area School District is to develop:

  • Resilient, self-directed learners able to achieve personal goals
  • Critical and creative thinkers capable of transferring knowledge to new situations
  • Collaborative team players with effective communication skills
  • Productive, responsible citizens in a diverse and ever-changing global society.

While it’s not really this simple, here’s a quick map:

Give students a voice and an audience.
  • Critical and creative thinkers capable of transferring knowledge to new situations
  • Collaborative team players with effective communication skills
Teach them to fish.
  • Resilient, self-directed learners able to achieve personal goals
  • Critical and creative thinkers capable of transferring knowledge to new situations
Make the world their home.
  • Collaborative team players with effective communication skills
  • Productive, responsible citizens in a diverse and ever-changing global society.

In short, all my big takeaways from BLC are reflected in our new mission statement. That’s reassuring. But now the hard part begins. How do we make these part of what we do? How do I share all of this without pushing people over the edge? Where do we start?

One more takeaway from BLC. As Michael Fullan noted in the opening keynote, it’s time to “talk the walk”. Modeling is vital, but it’s not enough. As we model important changes, it’s crucial to be transparent about what we’re doing and why it’s so important. As we move forward, I have to make sure I talk the walk. Writing this reflection is my first step on that path.

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