HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


It’s Okay to Say No When You Have a Vision of Yes

by Dr. Barbara Gereboff Issue: Rising Ed Trends

Gereboff argues that, before jumping into change driven by a particular technology or educational philosophy, a school should develop a principled process for collaborative review and evaluation.

We turned down an offer from a national foundation to subsidize the building of a dedicated computer laboratory, some educational software and the purchase of a dozen Smartboards three years ago. We had previously done some thinking about technology goals for our school and we were pretty certain that a computer lab was “old school” and that our wireless school was more progressive. The software looked like technology’s answer to the workbooks that we eschew, and we had recently heard from one of our parents that there were new, more nimble alternatives to Smartboards. But could a foundation really not know this? Were we arrogant, or just plain wrong, in our assumptions?

We convened a meeting of our staff technology committee to address these questions: is a dedicated computer laboratory necessary or desirable in a wireless school, is the proffered software compatible with our teaching philosophy and are Smartboards “cutting edge” or dinosaurs? The committee’s research supported our original assumptions and framed our thinking as we moved forward in considering initiatives, Four principles have emerged for considering any initiative: compatibility with the school’s educational philosophy and mission; engagement with entrepreneurs, educators and local resources who are working in these fields; openness to suggestibility; capacity—both financial and human.

Although we rejected the items that were specifically proposed by this foundation, the idea that STEM was an area in which we wanted to focus resources grew out of this encounter. Up until this point, science, technology, engineering and mathematics operated as silos. We wanted to consider what it would look like if we shone a light on all four of these areas. We wanted to do this not because STEM is the new “hot” area in education, but because it made sense in our particular environment. Since the encounter with the foundation three years ago, we decided to turn our school into a STEM center, where we emphasize every aspect of STEM and connect it to our curricula and school mission. Our approach is systemic, addressing curricular choices as well as the way we do all of our business (i.e., admissions and development, business office, front office).

Compatibility

There are so many STEM initiatives available that represent very different learning philosophies. There are programs that are skills-based and those that encourage discovery learning. To successfully integrate STEM initiatives into a school, the education leadership needs to match those initiatives to the school’s philosophy. Our school uses UbD (Understanding by Design) to specify curricula choices (using Atlas curricula software), and our program leans heavily in the constructivist tradition where inquiry-learning, interdisciplinary units and project-based learning are normative. Given this emphasis, adopting the Singapore method for teaching mathematics matched our focus on inquiry learning and mathematical understanding. We rejected, or limited, the use of any STEM initiatives that were primarily skill-based and searched for those applications and programs that would empower our students to learn and that would propel our curricula forward. Alan November’s work on using technology to empower students informs our thinking. A school with a greater emphasis on factual learning would choose different applications.

Engagement

The environment in which a school sits can serve to inform curricula choices. Our reaction to the visiting foundation drew heavily from local culture. We sit at the tip of the Silicon Valley and our school is shaped in many ways by this reality. Our parents, grandparents and donors are innovators and entrepreneurs leading the technology revolution. They are the scientists working in revolutionary biomedical and marine biology research, and they are the design engineers who are creating the items that simplify our daily lives. If our school were located in Washington, DC, we might focus more on STEM applications to the political arena, and if we were in the middle of the agricultural centers of our country we might want to focus our energy more on agricultural applications. The professions of our parents and donors can inform our curricula choices, provide important role-modeling for our students and create a deep connection to untapped groups to our schools.

Early in our journey, we made some connections to local companies in our area that are experimenting in the K-8 education environment. Two of our administrators attended a training session with Google employees where they learned gaming techniques to use with faculty and students to generate ideas and to clarify problems. One administrator attended a workshop with Sol Khan, and shortly thereafter we began letting students sign on to Khan Academy when they need to relearn or practice particular skills. A few of our teachers and our technology teachers partnered with a local museum to develop and to test an educational game.

We have connected to a local technology company that creates educational software for the military. Together we’re writing a grant to test critical-thinking development among children using software adapted from other applications. We’ve visited IDEO (a premier design center in Palo Alto) and have trained our teachers using their educational toolkit (which is free and available on their website). We received a gift from another local company—Marketo—that provides us with software that analyzes visitors to our website and sends them appropriate information regularly based on their interest.

Successful professionals provide valuable guidance for students. Connecting our students to local scientists is an important part of our middle school science fair. The science projects in our fair evolve from student work that begins in sixth grade and can continue through eighth grade, and the people called in to judge are local scientists who evaluate projects in their field and provide important feedback.

Suggestibility

Like so many educators hearing about some innovation in another school, we too had been guilty of jumping into defensive mode (that’s nothing, here’s what we do …) or shutting down, not wanting to add one more item to our plate. We’ve found another stance that is very useful: the openness to suggestibility. We listen, we run the idea through our criteria (does it fit our teaching philosophy, etc.), and then we consider testing the idea.

A couple of years ago, we had heard about the use of QR (Quick Response) codes at one school. When we presented QR codes to the staff, we charged the staff with demonstrating how QR codes had pedagogic import for our school. At a staff meeting, a week later, our fourth grade team presented the idea that a fourth grade learning goal is student awareness of “audience”—knowing how to present ideas to particular audiences. They argued that having their students explain their work using QR codes would be compatible with that curricula goal; thus the use of QR codes became normative in the fourth grade.

The success of any shift in emphasis or initiative in any school is dependent upon a receptive staff. Like most schools, we have some early adopters and others who are more hesitant. The staff needs a collegial atmosphere with scaffolding to learn new techniques. They also need a school culture where a “no” is a “maybe,” and where it is normative to try, to fail and to try again.

Capacity

Developing a sharp focus around STEM or around any major program initiative requires strategic planning. Each goal needs to be considered in light of human and financial resources. Are there staff people that have the ability and knowledge that would serve the school better in the new area of emphasis? Are there staff at neighboring institutions who could be leveraged? Are their staff leaders who can teach the rest of the staff?

We successfully moved a long-time Judaic studies teacher who had excellent technology knowledge and skills into a K-3 technology teaching position. We grew our technology department from one part-time IT person and part-time teacher to a full time IT person, and a full-time and a three-quarters time technology teacher. Both teachers have time assigned to meet one on one with teachers to explore new ideas that would apply to particular grade levels.

We share a campus with our local JCC and they have an excellent IT department. We share with them two other full-time backup IT staff people, and we included them in our search for the right IT person with a school focus. To support our science and engineering initiatives, we added two part-time science teachers, growing the department from one teacher to three colleagues who have scheduled time to work together.

In planning staff development around our STEM initiatives, we have chosen to send teacher leaders to particular trainings with the explicit understanding that they must return and train the rest of our staff. More than the positive financial impact of this approach is the long-term learning effects. We are able to better customize staff learning and to have staff members always on hand to explain or to teach other staff members.

We are a small school (215 students), and not a particularly wealthy school either. But with careful planning and sharp focus, it was possible to grow our initiatives with minimal budget impact. In three short years, the following are some of the items that have become part of our school: kindergartners discovering structures—of cities, of bodies, of buildings and then building their own city; first and second graders keeping digital portfolios of their work; third graders blogging with each other within their literature circles. Starting in fourth grade, students use Google documents in their collaborative research.

Fourth graders create an invention or an app that could be used for a mitzvah that they have researched. Fourth grade also wires a model city. This year, one group of students created a hydro-engine to power the electricity in their model city. Middle school students engage in digital music, photography, movie and art creation. They solve forensic cases in science labs, and they build bridges and test their strength. Last year, our administration created a game for our teacher in-service set in the city of San Francisco to consider feedback loops in gaming. Our marketing team is ever mindful of social media—a few of us are regular “tweeters” and “bloggers.”

The essential lessons learned from this journey are these. Strike a balance between saying “no” to items that are not compatible with your school philosophy while also remaining open to suggestibility. Leverage local talent. Plan strategically: assess and redeploy your resources around your focus.

Dr. Barbara Gereboff is the head of school at Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City, California. bgereboff@wornickjds.org

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