This past week, our Design class held their first ever exhibit based on the Tikkon Olam Challenge. Over 200 individuals attended the exhibition. For those not following this blog, Tikkon Olan is Hebrew for “heal the world.” Students were tasked with working with a “need knower,” a group or individuals to determine his/her needs and find a way to meet that need. While doing this, students applied the Design Thinking process which originates with empathy. Students worked collaboratively to create a list of questions designed to develop a better understanding of their need knower. After the initial interview, students developed a more concentrated set of questions to better determine a need or an opportunity for their need knower. After working to identify at least one need for their need knower, students ideated several ways in which to meet the identified needs of the need knower. Students then chose a solution and created a prototype. The students then solicited feedback from the need knower and made a second prototype and tested it.
This challenged proved to be one of the best challenges in that students learned to focus on meeting the needs of others. Here are some of the highlights of what our students accomplished:
One of our groups worked with our school resource officer (SRO) to identify that he needed the opportunity to work out more during the school day, often when he is in his office. They worked to create a Metaverse experience to connect various YouTube videos showing simple exercises that he could do in his office. They also found out that he enjoyed quotes from the Art of War attributed to Sun Tzu. They integrated quotes into the Metaverse experience to further inspire our SRO.
A second used Metaverse to help a special needs student learn to spell. They had to obtain various lists of spelling words from the student’s teacher and program them into their Metaverse experience. The students quickly realized that they had to include a short audio recording telling the student the word instead of typing it in the app since the student was spelling it. This was a great design challenge that our students realized they need to solve.
A third group worked with another special needs student to provide him with an experience of friendship and acceptance after identifying a need of social interactions. This group also interviewed the student’s mother to better determine needs. The group created an experience where he played several games and bonded with them. The student was extremely happy. This group also created a large poster with pictures to help him always remember his experience. They even plan to continue to work with him in the future.
Another group worked in secret to design a space for theatre teacher where individuals could donate unwanted goods for teachers to use. This was been a dream for this teacher for many years. When she visited the exhibition, they told her about their plan and she very humbled by what the students had created. Later, the students created a strong pitch to our school’s principal to help make this space a reality. They are already solicited donations for their space. A short video is embedded at the top of this blog from these young men.
The exhibition was simply a finishing stage for a successful challenge. Students seemed very pleased with what they accomplished. The visitors provided amazing feedback and even complimented how well spoken our students were in these presentations. It is moments like this solidify the importance of the work that we are doing. The work that our students are doing matters and it shows. By showcasing some of the extraordinary things going on at North Rowan High School, our students see that their work matter. They see that their ideas matter. They see that their ideas matter. The school’s transformation continues but the early successes of school designed with the idea of “what box?” seems to be the right path for North Rowan High School.
Based on the feedback of our visitors, we have much more to accomplish but we are pleased that we are marking on a journey that will benefit our students and their futures positively. This week, we will have two sets of students present at NCTIES in Raleigh on their Design Experience. If you are able, please stop by the student showcase and see what teams from both the 9th and 10th grade Design courses are doing.
It has been a thrilling past two weeks in Design Challenge. Our students worked to apply the Design Thinking process for our Tikkun Olam challenge where they identify a "need knower," a person or group with a specific need. The students started with the empathy phase by creating a T-chart with perceived needs for their need knower. Students then worked collaboratively to develop a list of questions to ask their need knower. Some of our groups worked with individuals with disabilities while other groups focused on individuals in our school such as our financial secretary, cafeteria worked, and assistant principals. Each group developed a preliminary list of questions based on the perceived needs of their need knower. After interviewing their need knower, students returned and completed the final part of their T-chart to list the needs that they actually discovered. The image below shows the work of a group that chose to work with the cafeteria workers. This group discovered a need to identify the foods that students would prefer and a need for students to do a better job cleaning up the cafeteria after finishing their lunch. Another group who is working with students with disabilities determined that their need knower needed a better way to count money and make change. Several groups really struggled with identifying the needs of their need knower. This was due in part to not asking enough questions to dig deep enough. In other cases, it was due to their need knower not clearly identifying or sharing a need. This really challenged students to think hard about their need knower.
During the ideation phase, students generated possible solutions to the identified needs. We really pushed them to think more creatively about how to respond. It was interesting to see the various solutions that our students ideated. As we finalize our prototypes and complete our testing phase, I am excited about what our students will create. More importantly though, our students have experienced how the design thinking process can be applied to solve problems that impact others. The work that our students are doing is work that matters because it makes a different in the lives of other. This is the beauty of the Tikkun Olam challenge in that it heals the world and makes it better for others.
Note: In my next post, I will share the results of our challenge. Design students will share their work during our "True North Design Exhibition" on Tuesday, February 26 from 10 to 11:30 AM. Please join us. You can learn more and register for our the event at bit.ly/nrhsdesign.
I have been involved in public education for just over 20 years. During that time, I have experienced a variety of hierarchical management structures. While I was taught to be flexible and adapt, nothing would prepare me for what I have experienced this year at North Rowan High School. The reality is that North Rowan High School is a different kind of place. In many ways, it is a trendsetter although it may not always be recognized as so. But like many artists, trends, and good practices, it takes time for the world to realize innovation. Education is especially slow to recognize this.
As a restart school, North Rowan High School has trail blazed a new path, one that I would dare say that no one, including me, saw coming. It is difficult to describe what makes North Rowan High School so different since no one factor dominates. As a restart school, North Rowan High has embraced and extended its flexibility to do many cutting edge things that are light years ahead. Sometimes I don’t even appreciate where we are until I take time to stop, breathe, and reflect.
One of the most influential factors that has influenced our transition is our students. Many of our students come from challenging backgrounds that would cause them to be considered “at risk.” Our community does not have a lot of benefactors with deep pockets. But we do have a lot of people in our community that love and support our school. This feeling has carried over to how our staff and faculty work with our students. Because the community supports the school, the school, in reciprocation, supports our students. The staff is very nurturing of our students and work with them as they are. We realize the realities of the lives of our students. But instead of making excuses, we support and lift them up. Our students realize this. They know that we are there to help them. In turn, our students thrive in our school. Many of them grow up to be effective leaders in our towns and community. Our students understand resiliency better than most students. They are able to recover from setbacks quickly and move on to create better solutions. They are also willing to accept responsibility in many cases for their actions and inactions. They understand that their success is based on the effort that they are wiling to put into school, sports, and life.
Our students are the heart of what we do at North Rowan High School and our decisions are driven by creating the best possible school for them. While we may not always get it right the first time, we always let what is best for our students drive our decisions. It is our desire to create a better future for them that drives us to come to school daily. Recently, a plan was put forward that would close our school due to low enrollment. This was particularly disturbing for our students and staff. As a new staff member, I listened carefully to the concerns of my colleagues. At no time did any staff member ever talk about what was best for them instead they focused on what was best for our students. Individuals in our community would often comment how sad they felt for us as we may lose our jobs. But that was never mentioned by any staff member. Our concern, rightly so, was on doing what was best for our students. Our staff rallied for what was best for our students. We knew that deep down closing our school was not in the best interest of our students. We are the individuals who serve our students each and every day. As a result, we know what they need and seek to provide the support and nurturing needed to help them be successful.
The next factor that makes a difference at our school is that our administration seeks to empower each of us in making decisions. This is one of the areas that I most admire about our restart. We, as teachers, are treated as professionals whose input is valued. Very rarely do we have unilateral decisions made by our administration. Instead the administration pulls the staff together to work collaboratively to design solutions that are in the best interest of our students. The input of each staff member is valued. While it would be easy for an administration to simply tell (or rather dictate) what each staff member will do, our administration does not. They work to actively support us in finding the best way forward. Much like they expect us to empower our students, they empower us. During the possible closures, our administration was one of the most at risk groups of losing their jobs. While it would have been understandable for them to be frustrated and discouraged, they never showed it. Instead, they worked harder to ensure that our students and staff was supported. In many experience, this is a highly unusual response to the impeding potential of losing your job. Our administration can be routinely found around campus pitching in where needed. Recently our assistant principals were outside picking up trash around our school. While some may argue that this is not their job, I was inspired by their actions. They truly lead by service to others.
As I reflect on the changes at North Rowan High, it is my hope that other schools in Rowan-Salisbury will use this kind of model as a guide to create something extraordinary for their students. We often do not let barriers impede our progress at North Rowan. When an idea is presented, we rarely hear “No you can’t do that.” Instead, we hear “That would be really cool .. Have you thought about this?” This kind of mindset is one that leads to growth and true change over time. We need not let obstacles discourage us from pursuing a better way. Our administration has empowered us to work together to create solutions that serve all. As I have spoken with other educators in our system, I am concerned that many of them are not experiencing the ability to create true change and transformation. This could be due to not being bold enough to really thing about schools differently. Or perhaps, their thinking is too revolutionary. At North Rowan High, we no longer even discuss thinking outside the box. Instead, we say “what box?” as we have learned to think in more global, divergent ways as we seek to best serve our students. My hope is that our school system will truly allow all schools to experience true change under our system’s renewal status where schools can be created that best serve students and their communities. What we have allowed to do at North Rowan High is amazing. Our students have already experienced so many successes and we are just getting started. Recently at a conference, I heard the following quote by Alice Walker. “The nature of the flower is to bloom.” To all my fellow educators, I offer the following advice: “Be bold in your vision. Create something much better for our students because they matter. Cultivate what is needed for all students to bloom.”
During the past summer, I was driving across North Carolina on a 4-day road trip where I was part of a team providing professional learning to teachers on the Digital Learning Competencies (DLCs). I was stuck in rush hour traffic in Charlotte and my colleague Lisa Simmerson called. She informed that one of our proposals “Engaging and Empowering Through Instructional Coaching” had been accepted to FETC. We were excited. About 20 minutes later, I learned that our second proposal “Motiving Students Through Scavenger Hunts” was accepted as a skill builder session at FETC. While I was uncertain about what a skill builder session was, I was elated that both our proposals were excited and we represent our schools and school district at one of the largest national conferences on Educational Technology.
When we arrived in Orlando on Sunday, we were greeted by a lot of rain and clouds. But we did not let this dampen our enthusiasm about the conference. Upon arriving Monday morning, we eagerly split up ready to learn. Well actually, we were not quite as eager as I have indicated. My colleague and I have been fortunate to attend many conferences in the past. Recently, some of the more prominent ones that we have attended have left us feeling underwhelmed. We love learning about new technology tools but we both have progressed beyond the “glitter and sparkly feel” of a new tool that ultimately fizzles out when used in the classroom for more than a month. In our role as instructional coaches, we work extensively with the implementation of various tools to enhance instruction. Sometimes, a new tool turns out to be very effective. But there are times when a fancy new tools fails to deliver with time upon implementation. As a result, we actively seek to make sure that tools we recommend are worthwhile and directly benefit either students or teachers. We also seek to make sure that we are good stewards of the money that we receive.
We spent the next three days exploring every aspect of FETC rating from sessions, keynotes, networking, and the vendor hall. As we flew back home late Wednesday, we reflected on the experience and both felt that FETC was a great experience. What I found most exhilarating about FETC was the sessions that I attended, far and wide, stimulated my thinking and creativity. Granted, there were some “how to” sessions but most of the sessions allowed us to interact with the presenter and others in attendance to go beyond the tool and actually share ways for implementing the tool. We loved that we were challenged to grow in new ways. We learned about new tools but, more importantly, we returned back to school with ways to use them the very next day. Below are my most important “take aways” from FETC 2019:
1) Creativity has become a focal piece for moving beyond using technology simply as an enhanced substitution. All students have the ability to be creative. Students look at the world in different ways. By encouraging and engaging in creative tasks, students have the ability to share their thinking in a way that is new and unique to them. In the opening keynote, Jennifer Womble shared that “Creativity is innately human and will not be replaced by automation.” Jennifer’s statement is so true and we must cultivate creativity with our students. This is what will give them the leading edge during their lifetime. Creativity will be the currency for our student’s economic evaluation and personal satisfaction.
2) Students must create authentic work that relates to the real world. Technology is simply a tool that will allow students to create. But so is a paper and pencil. Regardless of the tool used, students must create. This is truly a human experience. In having students create, they get to learn more about themselves as well.
3) As we become increasingly more connected, we must be mindful of taking time to disconnect from our devices and focus on taking care of ourselves. This may mean that we don't receive breaking news or be the first know. But that is not always be a bad thing. Instead, we need to invest in taking time to focus on ourselves. As one presenter shared: “There is a reason why airlines tell you that in the event of a loss of pressure, masks will automatically be dispensed and to put yours on before helping another person.”
4) We must continue to harness the power of our personal learning networks (PLNs). I met some amazing people at FETC such as Andrea Chavez-Kopp (@adkopp760) and Jennifer Williams (@JenWilliamsEdu). As we grow our PLNs, we must be certain we are using our PLNs effectively to create amazing learning and growing opportunities. Jennifer cohosts a twitter chat on Thursday at 7 PM using #CreateEdu which I attended this week for the first time. This chat was incredible. We had individuals all over the world participate. I got several good ideas and was inspired by this week’s chat. Be sure join us in the future.
5) Michael Cohen’s book “Educated by Design” is an amazing book that has only been out for a few weeks. It was a huge topic of discussion at FETC. I attended a session with Michael and he was amazing. He was part of a session with five other presenters. In fact this is where I met Jennifer Williams. It was amazing to see the work that these six individuals where doing with Adobe Spark and creativity. I gained new ideas about how to use this totally free tool where students create. As a side note, Cohen’s book is a definite must read for educators who want their students performing authentic work that matters. I also was able to get Michael to sign the book (a definite plus).
6) Data Privacy for students and educators continue to grow. We must move our digital citizenship lessons to the next level. While most everyone focuses on cyberbullying and the importance of not giving out personal information over the internet, most agree that we can and should do more. I was able meet one of my digital citizenship heroes, Susan Bearden (@s_bearden). Her book “Digital Citizenship: A Community Based Approach”is an important read for all educators. Further, we must ensure that all classroom teachers are fully supported in teaching and supporting digital citizenship in their classroom. Too often, classroom teachers report not feeling fully prepared to teach digital citizenship. Those in instructional support positions must work to provide support and learning opportunities for classroom teachers in digital citizenship.
FETC was a tremendous growth opportunity for me as I learned so much and found many new resources. I encourage you to continue the learning by sharing various resources and ideas using the #FETC and @fetc. To those who organized the conference, thank you for a great learning experience. It was just what I needed to be inspired.
I started reading a dynamic book over the weekend. Educated by Design by Michael Cohen (@thetechrabbi) is a fascinating book that I enthusiastically recommend. While I have only read about half of it, I have found so many ideas that resonate with me in the work that we are doing both in Design Challenge at North Rowan High School and with our renewal system in the Rowan-Salisbury Schools. One of the key idea that I am focused on currently involves what Cohen describes as functional fixedness. Fixedness, as described by Cohen is "the inability to use a known object in a new way." Fixedness, as I have processed, is a state of mind that prohibits others from finding new ways to do or use something.
I think that too often educators have "fixedness" so engrained in their being that we fail to innovate the learning experiences of our students. Further fixedness keeps us stuck in the cycle of status quo where we fail to consider new approaches that better serve our students. Many of us even actively fight to maintain the status quo because it is something familiar to us. We fail to realize the importance of "and" when hearing a new idea or use. Instead, we too often say "but." The conjunction used makes a huge difference in the future actions that we take. By using "and," we are able to rise about fixedness and consider a new and potentially better way. When we use "but," we continue to exhibit the symptoms of fixedness.
At North Rowan High School, I have previous blogged about how the box was not even considered when relaunching the school under the restart plan. Instead, the hard work was done by others who thought, considered, and reflected on what was needed to create authentic learning experiences for all students. Essentially, the concept of fixedness was suspended from use in the school AND this is why we have been able to create something truly innovative that better serves students. While we still have much work to go, I applaud the thought, effort, and reflection put in by those educators who sought a better way for our students. It has been such a difference for our students.
As our school system continues its journey into being North Carolina's first renewal system with "charter like flexibility", I want to issue a challenge to all other school's instructional design team (IDTs). The work that you are doing to redesign schools that serves all students by creating authentic learning experiences is the most important work that you will do as an educator. But that work will not be easy nor will be linear or clean. Instead, it will be challenging, messy, and beautiful. I encourage IDTs to be bold in designing schools that prepare students for the future. Further I encourage the IDTs to take the time to really think about and inwardly digest the various ideas and suspend fixedness from their work. Focus on what is really needed to ensure students are prepared for the future. This work is not easy but it is important. As you design your schools, eliminate thoughts and processes that limit the creative potential and curiosity of our students. Also, be prepared to take risks. Sometimes, when we innovate, others may not support or see the value in what we are doing. That, while expected, is okay. It is part of innovation. However, we cannot and must let the lack of support of others (an ailment of fixedness) limit our willingness to boldly create schools and learning experiences that propel students forward. And by all means, read Cohen's book Educated by Design to help shape your thinking and for inspiration.
Many individuals are familiar with the story of the mystical Phoenix - a bird of fire that ends up burning itself only to be reborn from its ashes. Each time, a newer and stronger Phoenix emerges. This story is also the story of North Rowan High School.
Earlier today, our school board made the decision to continue to keep North Rowan High School open for the foreseeable future. That was great news for many in our community. For several years, North Rowan High has been struggling with enrollment and making progress under our current testing and accountability program. A lot of the lack of success could be tied to many factors including declining economic opportunities in our community resulting in less students. Additionally, there has been a variety of different leaders in the school over the past 10 years. Approximately two years ago, our current principal, Meredith Williams, was appointed to serve as principal. Mrs. Williams is a homegrown product of the North Rowan community. She graduated from our high school while earning the prestigious Morehead Scholarship to UNC-Chapel Hill. I can attest that students earning this scholarship are often the strongest students in their classes and continue to do amazing things to improve the lives of their communities.
Mrs. Williams is quite humble and always refocuses the spotlight on others whether students or staff. Her humility is only matched by her vision and disruptive thinking. You may be wondering what disruptive thinking is. Some would define it as thinking outside the box. But to use that analogy would presume that Mrs. Williams was at some point inside the box and moved outside of its edges. In actually, she has never let her thinking be defined by a worn out box. Instead, she has transformed into a designer where new ways of being and doing things are imagined and implemented that disrupt the status quo and eliminates the mediocre. In actuality, it is her willingness to share Design Thinking and empower her staff that has resulted in our school creating learning experiences that matter and transform the lives of our students.
Under her leadership, the school has continued to made consistent academic growth. While we still have far to go, we are making growth and with our board of education deciding to leave North Rowan High School open, the hard work and tremendous progress that has occurred has been acknowledged. I applaud our board for their willingness to solicit community input. I know that this was not always a pleasant activity as many individuals in our community were very passionate about North Rowan High. However, it is encouraging to see how supportive our community was and the passion that many had for North Rowan High School. I know that this was not an easy decision for our board of education as our district is struggling with declining enrollment. We currently have over 5,000 open student seats. But sometimes, we have to make decisions that best serve students and our board showed this today. They recognized that the curriculum redesigns and the positive changes at North Rowan High School are making a difference. With their votes of support, our board is saying to our community and students that “we believe in you and want you to be successful.” Financially this will challenge our board to make tough choices but I am firmly convinced that this decision was made in the best interest of students and I send my gratitude to our board of education.
As we move forward, it is time for North Rowan High to be reborn. We need those strong supporters to continue to support our school, students, community, and board of education. We need individuals to join our PTA and Athletic Boosters. We need people in our community to serve as positive and encouraging role models for our students and let them know that they are valued and loved. We need to hold each other to high expectations and demand nothing less than our best from each other. We will continue to change the trajectory of our students. With each hurdle, we will continue to be reborn and create a world class education for our students that disrupts much of the traditional idea of school where we create winners and losers. Instead, we will transform into a model that others will want to emulate and become.
As we evolve, we must ensure that our community remains fully supportive of our school and students. We cannot have anything less than full support. We must also be prepared to support our leaders and build each other up. While we have passed this hurdle, let’s renew our focus on helping to ensure that each student at North Rowan High School has the maximum opportunities available to be successful.
Below is a poem in our Design Challenge created a few weeks ago as part of our "Making Stories Come Alive" units where students were challenged to identify a story, poem, or other work and remix it to add new value to an original work. Students then had to perform their creation with an authentic audience. A group of extraordinary young ladies created this poem and shared it with a group of nursing home residents. This poem spoke profoundly to me as it was about their experiences. The group of young ladies who wrote this poem are dynamic. In honor of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr holiday, I am so thrilled to share this amazing creation.
Let American Become Its Dream by Saige, B, and Julianna
Let America become its dream
Let it be the dream it should be
Let it be the freedom most wants
Let it be the fantasy most imagine
(America isn’t what it’s supposed to be)
Let it be an equal power to all
Where all people get treated
The same where no one
Feels the right to be mislead
(There’s never been equal rights or freedom for us)
I am the broken African-American
I am the unwanted Immigrant
I am the lost Native American
I am the wounded Caucasian
(Let all get treated the same with the same amount of wealths)
I am the Caucasian, wealthy and privileged
The one that owns many lands
The Caucasian that believes all
People should have equal rights
We are the young African Americans
Suffering from gun violence and racism
Many getting abused and neglected
(Let America Dream stop all the violence)
O, Let America Become It’s Dream
The lands that were never there
The land where every man is free
We must take back our land again
We the people shouldn’t be determined by the color of our skin
But by the love in our hearts
Instead of fighting against one another, why don’t we come together
And set a good example for the ones younger than us
O, Let America Become Its Dream
Let it be peace
Let it stop the madness
Let it be more happier and positive
Let it be CHANGED!!!!!
Having returned from the holiday break, we have been working on a "Mock Trial" challenge with our students. Since most of our students are currently taking the equivalent of Civics class, this has afforded us the opportunity to connect what they are learning with our Design Challenge. Further, we have even delved in some biology connections such as gel electrophoresis, DNA, and forensic analysis of evidence. When students first saw many of our activities, we heard "I learned this in Ms. Freeman's class" or "I remember this from biology." While students did not quite realize the connections that they were making between their core courses and our design challenge course, my colleagues and I did. We had been very intentional in making sure that we had connections between the core courses and our design challenge course. Prior to the holiday break, our social studies colleague had taught about civil and criminal court as well as a variety of ideas including that defendants are innocent unless proven guilty.
As we started the challenge, students were uncertain about what a mock trial may involve. And to tell the truth so was I. I am classically trained as a science teacher. I did minor in anthropology so I had some connection with analysis of forensic evidence based on my anthropology and chemistry backgrounds. But I had minimal knowledge of our legal system. What I knew I mainly had learned from watching Judge Judy and The People's Court (we live in a tough day time TV market). As we progress through our challenge, my colleagues and I opted to conduct a mock trial where students would try a homicide case. This afforded me the opportunity to learn along with my students, again proving that our design challenge course is very student centered where teachers learn alongside with students. Often, the questions or insights that our students result in expanding what I know as well.
We chose a very challenging case where an undergraduate died while performing an initiation task for a fraternity. The case was very challenging and, at times, we all experienced frustration. While this case was ambitious, the students definitely rose to the occasion as they do with our challenges. Students had to learn to work together and rely on each other. This facilitated increased collaboration and communication. Additionally, our students had to think critically and creatively about the facts of the case. One great example that I shared involved students asking why an alleged murderer would drive the victim to the emergency room to saver her life only to try to kill her later. Many of our students began to evaluate the validity of the information in the court documents and sought to make connections between the various pieces of information. We saw students at all ability levels push themselves to wonder and think about what makes sense. They pondered such questions as "Why would the pledge master want to murder an aspiring pledge" and "Would a college professor really give "A"s for poor work in order to show his commitment to the fraternity?"
Our students also learned the importance of making sure that their witnesses knew their parts and could accurately portray them when interviewed on the witness stand. I saw our prosecution and defense attorneys make decisions on their own about pulling witnesses prior to the court case to review testimony and ensure that the witnesses were well prepared to testify accurately. We had witnesses who had to think on their feet with some of the questions that they were asked in the trial. Perhaps one of the more interesting experiences occurred when the lawyers involved had to make an objection and to provide the rationale. I would dare say that almost all of our students understand what hearsay is and how it used as an objection. We had students who played the role of judge that had to make decisions regarding these objections and explain them to the class. We had also had juries who had to debate the facts and reach a verdict.
As we progressed through the various trials, I saw many students become passionate engaged in representing their assigned side. When verdicts were shared, I saw the passion of the students who won come through as well as the disappointment in the students who lost the case. It was truly an experience that many students will not forget. One of the most important lessons that students said that they learned is the importance of making sure that your case is well prepared and everyone knows the role that they play in this case. This is a powerful artifact of learning and shows the importance of design and challenge based on learning. As an instructor, I could have taught the standards and asked students to share what they learned. They may have remembered what they learned in a few weeks or not. However, based on experiencing a mock trial, students live it. They understand the importance of the burden of proof and how to evaluate evidence. They can clearly articulate what happens in a court case if thorough preparation has not occurred. They also think about what they could do different next time. Essentially, our students reflected on their experience and considered what they could have done differently next time. Although students do not realize it, they were engaged in high levels of metacognition where they reflected on their thinking.
The experiences associated with this challenge definitely provided a new way for our students to learn so much more. Several teachers shared that our students were using the terminology from our design challenge in other classes. Several colleagues also mentioned that they heard students actively discussing the case to try to better understand it and develop new insights. Essentially what they were doing in our design challenge class was spilling over into other areas. One colleague shared that one of our students told him "I know what you all are doing - you are making us use what we learn in other classes. And I like that." This student seems to have figured out the value of design challenge and the benefits associated from cross curricular planning. As we move forward, I continue to be so proud of our students and the great transformations that are occurring within them. Many of students are developing strong leadership qualities in leading their peers while learning to listen and value what others say. Many of students are eager to see what they will be doing and look forward to be challenged to grow. It continues to be so personally gratifying to see that the work we are doing with our students truly matters and is making a difference in their lives. At the end of our course, it continues to be my hope that our students will leave being empowered to solve any kind of problem through collaborating with others while thinking critically and creatively.
Images from our mock trial
I just finished reading Tony Wagner’s “Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World.” This book has many important lessons for those who work with both young people and talent acquisition. While the book is a few years old, it still contains very relevant information that is needed to help shape the way that we change and prepare our young people for living in the 21st century.
Before I extend on some of my key “take aways” though, I want to share some cynicism that I have had for several years regarding the American Dream. This may be due to having living some a challenging economic crisis where I saw many of my former students who went to college, earned their degree, and followed the steps that they were supposed to in order to realize the American Dream. I had become disillusioned with the idea of the American Dream after seeing so many of my former students unable to find employment in their chosen fields. We had always been taught that the American Dream is open to all who are willing to work hard. As someone who grew up in rural Appalachia, poverty was a way of life. There were times when our family struggled to pay bills and put food on the table. While we never went hungry, there were times when we had to make dollars stretch and eat the same meal several days since it was more economical. But I was told that if I worked hard, I could go to college and get a good job. I did just that. I earned a full scholarship to college, double majored in chemistry and education, and secured a great teaching position at a well respected high school. I taught extraordinary students and helped many of them follow their own “American Dream.” I was lucky. I realized the dream and benefitted from following the right steps. However, many of my students who were told the same thing, even my myself, have not been to realize that American Dream because the world and our economy has changed. Many of my previous students currently live at home and have high levels of student loans from college. Many of them have taken lower paying jobs, often outside of their areas of specialization. It does not seem quite right that these students did what they were supposed to and in the end, their dreams did not materialize like they had been told. It is for these reasons that I have become to doubt that the American Dream existed any more. It only seems to exist for a few select students who were either very lucky or have financially secure backgrounds.
In reading Wagner’s book though, I feel that like many things, the American Dream has changed. In what I am leaning toward calling the “American Dream 2.0,” students still have the opportunity to realize the dream provided that they are able to innovate. As our economy and world has changed, a new paradigm has emerged. Information is readily accessible to anyone with access to the internet and a device. Many argue that there is not a need to memorize as many facts since that knowledge can be retrieved by a device in a matter of seconds. While base knowledge is still important, there is some relevance to that. Also, innovation in the past often resulted in improving the efficiency of the manufacturing process or earning larger profits for a corporation. Wagner refers to this as “trying to squeeze more juice from the same orange.”
As globalization has created a world wide economy where labor is cheaper in developing countries, we must be mindful that innovation will no longer occur using our “old ways.” Instead, innovation will occur when individuals work collaboratively together to solve problems in creative ways that connect in ways that are disruptive to the status quo. Individuals who are adaptable and agile with higher levels of curiosity and imagination will lead the way in innovation. Individuals who are able to connect these points are those who will be able to realize the “American Dream 2.0.”
In our classrooms, I would dare say that too often we continue to prepare students for a differentiation work force with archaic management structures. Most students leave high school with the idea of the “top-down” structure of management where there are a few people at the top who make decisions to be carried out by those further down in the management chain. This model, muck like warm vanilla ice cream, is comforting to many but really fails to nurture and cultivate innovation with our students. Instead, disruption must occur if we truly want innovation to be something that our students do upon graduation from high school.
This year has been a year of change and evaluation for me. I have “unlearned” much of what I was taught and trained to do in the classroom. The practices and procedures that were drilled into me fail to create innovation in many cases. I am not saying that they are no longer relevant but rather, that they do not lead to creating innovators. Instead, we have worked to “refocus” our thoughts, actions, and behaviors to help our students see the importance of being innovators, creators, and entrepreneurs. Wagner mentioned in the book that many students who do school well often are not very innovative. Students who need to be more innovators often do not fit in our model very well. And that has definitely been true in my experience. During our first few weeks of class, several students asked if we could “just tell them what they needed to know” or “just read us the notes so we can copy them down and study them.” My co-teacher and I looked at each other and emphatically responded “that is not possible.” We explained to them that they would be responsible for generating their own knowledge with our support. Further they would be responsible for demonstrating their learning by creating something that is an improvement or solves a problem.
As I reflect on the six months, it has been a plethora of experiences and emotions mixed up. Our students have made so much progress in becoming more divergent thinkers, problem solvers, and creators. We still experience setbacks which is part of the innovation process. But our students seem to be more intrinsically motivated which is our goal. We want our students to be able to find solutions to problems, work with others, and create. At this point, it would be so challenging to return back to a regular classroom where “status quo” is the expectation. Much of this is based on knowing that what we are doing with our students at North Rowan High School really is the right thing that we should be doing with all students. I think that too often, we, in education, get stuck on the status quo because it is easy to measure how students are doing on a standard since many feel that we can test them. However, I would say that this minimizes any student and her/his potential since our students have many gifts and often know much more about a concept than a test can measure. It is my hope that many more schools will move toward adopting a school wide model where students are celebrated for being innovators, creators, and disruptors of the status quo. We must continue to stress the importance of these things in order for all students to be able to realize their potential, the new “American Dream 2.0.”
I encourage you to follow Tony Wagner on Twitter at @DrTonyWagner
As part of our relaunch of North Rowan High School, we created a hybrid course where Design Thinking, Design, and Challenge Based are integrated into a core course for students. This extraordinary creation was the ideation of several ideas and “failing forwards” of our principal. She initially sought to form a Health Science Academy as part of the school’s innovative relaunch. While we can always benefit from increased interests in Health Science by students, this idea was simply a recycled idea of what schools in our district had done but packaged differently. The principal described how the idea of a Health Science Academy literally fell apart in a 24-hour time span. In retrospect, it was one of the best things that ever could have happened. It brought out the best qualities of North Rowan High School and its students with one of them being resiliency. Resiliency is ubiquitous for the North Rowan experience. Due to the many challenging circumstances that our students and community have faced historically, they have developed the ability to circumvent obstacles and move forward.
Our administration could easily have just thrown their hands up when the Health Science Academy idea fell apart. It would have been understandable but not acceptable. Instead our staff dug down deep to find a better way. In doing so, they lived the experience of Design Thinking. By taking the time to clearly understand the needs of our students, our administrators demonstrated empathy. Further they took the time to clearly articulate and define the challenge that our students lack necessary skills for an ever-evolving world. While there are many skills and competencies that are needed, these “Master Designers” identified critical thinking, collaboration, communication, student agency, and creativity as the important focus areas.
After spending significant time ideating how students may best experience these core competencies, a model was created where all 9th and 10th graders would take a double course and that is where I enter the equation. As one of the four teachers charged with our “Design Challenge” course, I had to unlearn and relearn many things. One of the things that I am most amazed by is the transformation from a teacher-o-centric classroom where I, as the teacher, set up the classroom, dispense the information, manage what students learn, and assign “winners and losers.” By that, I mean I have to issue grades. Those who adapt to the teacher-o-centric are typically students who do school well and get good grades. Those who don’t adapt as well often find school less than empowering and earn lower grades. In our relaunch though, we eliminate many of the traditional ideas of school where we reward those who do school well and frustrate those who do not adapt to our model.
In our relaunch, we have created a learning experience where students are truly leading the way in what they are learning. In this “Student-O-Centric” model, my role has evolved into a true facilitator learner where I assist students in their learning while learning along with them. It has been a challenge to shift from the traditional paradigms I learned as a teacher into one where I am a facilitator of learning. It is also a model that has equity in that all students have an opportunity to be successful at a level appropriate for them. While some of our students may have deficits with various skills, we are able to meet them where they are, assist in building their capacity, and valuing their thoughts and creativity. It has been amazing to see the growth that many of our students have made over the course of a semester with this “new” way. I have seen students who would barely even acknowledge me create poems that they read proudly to middle schoolers. I have seen students work in groups to create remixed stories that add value to the original. Our students have created amazing programs and opportunities to combat poverty in our community. Our students have done all this while learning forward.
By creating a student-o-centric learning experience, we have been able to inspire many of our students to see that they can make a difference in this world and contribute in positive ways. We have been able to help students explore their passions and learn their strengths. In essence, we have created a classroom where students drive their learning much like Piaget described. It is extremely gratifying to see students creating their own knowledge. While we still make mistakes and a lot to learn, our work matters as it helps all students have the opportunity to be successful. I applaud our principal for being willing to fully embrace the Design Thinking mindset to create dynamic learning experiences that serve all students and celebrates their inherent gifts and creativity. What we have created for our students at North Rowan High School is so important and truly innovative.