Forget the Full Moon & Time Change; Focus on Scientific Literacy, Media Literacy, and Empathy During the Coronovirus Outbreak
What a crazy week it has been? Normally a time switch to daylight savings time along with a full moon in the middle of March is enough to put many educators on edge. However, this week has proven to be unlike any other one.
In a period of a week, we have gone from some concern over the coronavirus to canceling large gatherings of groups, closing churches, and urging people to work from home. In addition, many states have closed public schools. As a science teacher and technology facilitator, I have gone through a range of emotions. I watched as my college students received notice yesterday that the rest of their sport season is cancelled and witness their disappointment. I saw our 7th grade students leave school on Tuesday with excitement of going to Charleston only to learn a few hours later that the trip was cancelled due to concerns about the outbreak.
It has been a week of challenge and reflection. As I sit at my desk this evening, my mind runs among three main areas: scientific literacy, media literacy, and empathy. It is quite the combination. But I believe that it is these three areas that will yield the most answers and direction as we move forward.
In my forty-four years, I never recall a situation such as this. As the parent of 7-year old son, I am sensitive to the emotions, feelings, and challenges that impact him. As a public school educator for over 20 years, I am very aware of what many of the middle schoolers that I work with are experiencing and wondering. As a classically trained chemist, I am amazed at how much more work is needed in improving scientific literacy. As a technology facilitator, I am confident in knowing that media literacy is needed more than ever. So how do all these things converge?
In many of my conversations with students, friends, colleagues, and others, I have come to realize the need to have a good understanding of viruses and how they spread. I think that a lot of individuals have major misunderstandings. While there is some widespread debate about viruses (and if they alive) in the scientific community, they are basically the equivalent of DNA hijackers. They invade a host cell, insert into the genome structure, and force the host cell to replicate the new structure. They live off the host cell eventually spreading to other cells both in the host organism and other organisms. Viruses are common and most often, we are only impacted by them for a short period. This often results in staying home sick and symptoms that are undesirables. Healthy individuals tend to recover in a short period of time. Individuals with compromised immune systems are considered more at risk. Recovery times are longer and the symptoms are more extreme. There is a higher rate of death in individuals with compromised immune systems who are infected with viruses. The current coronavirus is one member of a large family of coronoviruses. Coronoviruses often causes respiratory illnesses, fevers, and coughs.
It important that we understand that these viruses are spread through contact and the best way to limit the spread is through limited contact with others. I am not advocating for living in a protective bubble though. Instead, the utilization of good hygiene practices is most likely a better route. Routine washing of hands with soap and warm water is one of the most common recommended practices. Additionally, the regular cleaning of surfaces with proper solutions will reduce their spread. If a person is coughing or sneezing, it is important these individuals cover their mouths or noses so they do not spread the virus to others. Finally, if an individual is showing symptoms, they should limit their contact with others and focus on recovering though plenty of rest and proper nutrition. Even with these practices, viruses can still be contracted and we must realize that is part of living in our world.
The sociopolitical impact of this outbreak has been very interesting as well. I think that a lot of individuals initially associated the outbrak with a political issue and this may have created some challenges in ensuring that everyone had correct information. This is why media literacy is so important. In today’s polarized world, many individuals simply agree with what their preferred politician instead of analyzing what said politician may be saying. I have preferred politicians and I usually like what they say. But it does not always mean that they are correct. In many instances, they are incorrect. I don’t think that they purposefully choose to be incorrect but rather they want to appeal to their supporters. I get it but we, as citizens, must be vigilant in analyzing what others say in the media and social media. We must be willing to do fact checks and accept that our preferred politicians may be speaking in hopes of public approval instead of accuracy. We have to learn how to verify information from multiple courses, apply what we have learned, and be able to determine the accuracy and shades of accuracy in what others say. We must be willing to challenge others whose words are not accurate. We have to be aware of the dangers of inaccurate information and limit the circulation of this information.
Finally, we come to empathy. This is one of the more challenging areas. Our students are unsure about what to feel. They look to us adults to help them make sense of this new reality. But we, as the adults, are often not sure what to make of it ourselves. We need to make sure that we have accurate information that can be verified (hence, scientific and media literacy). But we have to also make sure that we are supporting each other. Each of us will process and react differently to this new reality. It is okay to let our children know that we are not certain about everything. I think that we need to have open conversations where we listen to our students and acknowledge their concerns and seek to answer their questions. Our students and children must feel safe and we must make sure that we do our best to make them feel and be safe. We have to also ensure that we validate their feelings and help them navigate their complex feelings and emotions. We have to ensure that we take the time to really understand them and what they are thinking. We call this empathy. We must also reassure our students that they are supported and loved. This new reality can be a great learning opportunity for us to connect in authentic ways with our children and students. We must acknowledge that it is okay to be concerned and even fearful. We must reassure them that they have our support and we will work through these events together.
As we move forward, we must show love and kindness to others. The safety net that many of us have enjoyed (often not realizing) has been removed. So as we adjust to a new normal, be sure to help and support each other. We can always show our true humanity by taking the time to listen to others, support them, and help them find correct answers to their questions.
It has been a long time since I was able to post but I am thrilled to share about our Kindness Club Challenge. The Kindness Club meets once a week. Students elected to be in the club. The purpose of the club is to spread kindness to others. This is such an admirable challenge for our students. Mrs. Losey is the club's sponsor and she has done a great job with inspiring the club to spread kindness to others. In discussing the club with her, we decided to tackle a large challenge that students would complete over the course of a few weeks. Since it had been a long time since I was able to help with a Design Challenge, I was eager to implement this with the Kindness Club. We decided to have students create a book for children in early elementary school. In doing so, we were able to connect English/Language Arts (ELA) standards as well. While the connection to content standards was not an initial goal, it was awesome to be able to connect what students where learning in their ELA classes to a real world, authentic challenge that encompassed kindness and empathy.
We immediately recruited our dynamic literacy coach to assist with plot diagrams and story boards. Mrs. Pembroke was outstanding and pushed our students to create books that were extraordinary. We worked in helping our students examine children's literature books and determine what devices were effective and ineffective in them. We then compiled a list of these practices to consider implementing in our creation. Our students were eager and committed. As we journeyed through the creation process, we had several obstacles to overcome. The largest obstacle was that of time as we approached Thanksgiving and the Winter Holiday break. We also had several interruptions which kept the club from meeting each week. Additionally, we had to contend with students being pulled out for remediation during this time. However, the Kindness Club did not let this discourage them from creating their children's books. Instead. they worked hard outside of the club period and completed some amazing products that exceeded expectations.
We partnered with our nearby elementary school, China Grove Elementary School. The Media Coordinator, Mrs. Litke, arranged for the Kindness Club to share their creations with the entire 2nd grade. This was no small feat as it was the week before Winter Holiday break where time is a challenge. Our students were initially nervous about sharing their creations as I think that any creator, designers, author, and illustrator would be. But once they got started, they rose to the occasion and the 2nd grade authentic audience loved it! The 2nd graders loved meeting authors who looked like them and our students shared about their design process to the younger students.
I was so proud of our students for taking this opportunity to design an authentic product that will positively influence younger students. I am also pleased that our Kindness Club students learned that they can be designers, authors, illustrators, and creators. The process of design lies in the ability to change paradigms. Our students also were challenged to examine assumptions that they may not have realized. I asked them if they had ever thought of themselves as authors and most replied "no." Upon deeper conversations with the students, they began to realize that they could be authors, designers, creators, or anything else they wanted to be. This experience served to liberate our students from many of the assumptions that they held about what they could be in the future. Additionally, we discovered that many of our students are natural storytellers, a fact that was readily apparent in our 2nd graders attention to the authors.
I am deeply appreciative that our Kindness Club was able to share their amazing creations with others. I hope that during this season in which we often espouse love and peace that our Kindness Club shared these with others. I cannot wait to see what many of our students will do in the future as a result of learning the transformative power of design. During January, we will have creations on display in the CGMS Media Center. I invite you to come and check them out.
What an exciting month it has been with our designers and creators at China Grove Middle School. I have collaborated with our two 7th grade ELA teachers to connect Design Thinking to the novel "Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie" by Jordan Sonnenblick. About a month ago, one of our newest teachers, Miss Makenna Pate (@MakennaPate) approached me with an idea of how to connect the novel to Design Thinking. Honestly, I had not never thought about doing this. As I thought about her idea, my excitement grew. Here was an amazing way to connect the novel with her curriculum standards to Design Thinking. Miss Pate's idea illustrated what I love most about creative thinking and innovation. She saw a way to connect two seemingly unrelated things together in a new creation that will benefit her students.
I was excited but a little uncertain about how to combine these together. How would we work with the empathy piece since the character does not exist in actuality? Should students work in groups or as individuals? These and more questions ran through my mind as I contemplated how to approach this amazing opportunity. I immediately went to some of the Challenge Based Learning (CBL) activities that we used last year North Rowan High School and began to adapt them to meet our needs. I worked closely with Miss Pate and Mr. Jeremy Boice (@boice7ss) to connect their Common Core Standards to our templates. We realized that empathy is a key theme for the 7th grade ELA curriculum. We also explored the resources that we had available and connected an Achieve 3000 about Koko the gorilla and showed an amazing Inside Edition video to "hook" our students prior to the article. I also reached out the Design teachers at North Rowan High for some extra support and was reminded of the empathy maps. We worked to create an empathy map based on Steven the main character.
Since none of us were ultimately certain about how this would turn out, we spent several hours planning, providing feedback to each other, and wondering. In the end, I think the activity was well designed and we supported each other in the process. It was a positive and rewarding experience to work with the content area teachers to plan and adapt the instruction to support student use of Design Thinking to create a product that would solve a need for Steven. During this time, AJ Juliani posted a blog "Empathy: the Most Important 21st Century Skill" which was so timely and really helped me to "connect the dots" with our students. Juliani discusses one of the ways to teach empathy is through stories and we were doing just that by reading the novel. The students were the expert on Steven. They knew about him, his experiences, his challenges, and his dreams. As a result, we were able to create an experience where students showcased their critical and creative thinking while solving a problem that mattered.
As I reflect on this experience, it has truly been career changing. Previously I had struggled personally to see how to connect Design Thinking to the curriculum of my colleagues. But in one swift moment, a beginning teacher solved that challenge for me. I am elated with what our students have done and inspired by their willingness to work hard to find a solution to help Steven in the novel. Perhaps more importantly, our students have experienced the power of empathy and how it can transform their perspectives. We worked with students of all academic abilities in this activity. It was amazing to see that all students have the capacity to be challenged with Design Thinking in a meaningful way. Many students commented that they loved the active learning associated with Design Thinking and that their thoughts were important and valued. Below is a short interview that I conducted with two of our students.
Many of you may find the materials that we used helpful in connecting Design Thinking to curriculum areas. All of our students have an iPad and we used Pages due to the ability to integrate tools such as video, audio, and drawing with ease. We spent less than five minutes showing students how to use the technology over the period of three days. We also created an empathy map using Keynote. We then printed out the empathy map for students to complete. We broke the journal up into smaller pieces to make it more manageable for our students so they could focus on one area at a time. Additionally, we provided some background on Design Thinking so students were able to connect the process with their activity along the way.
Below are the files that we used. There may be some things in the file that need to be changed but overall, we are excited about sharing the extraordinary things going on at China Grove Middle School with others. For more images documenting the experiences of our students, check out the twitter feeds of Miss Pate (@makennapate) and my own twitter (@scibri). Once again, a big thank you to Makenna Pate and Jeremy Boice for their willingness to create design challenges in their classes.
It is tough to believe that we are already half way through the first quarter. Before we know it, the end of the first quarter will be here. As I have worked with various teachers in the building and co-taught several classes, I have been impressed with the positive energy and mindsets of teachers who want to do what is best for our students. It has been amazing to see the thinking and design that so many of our staff are doing to create engaging learning experiences for our students.
Earlier this month, I worked with our 6th Grade ELA teachers to provide an introduction to Design Thinking. We started by teaching Design Thinking vocabulary. The students were charged with using empathy to get to know their partner. They were pushed to deduce insights to determine their partner's needs in order to create a personalized background for their iPad. Check out the full activity in this hyperdoc. Students found this activity to be interesting and it really pushed them to step outside of themselves to create a meaningful design for another person. For many of our 6th graders, this was a challenge. They had to learn how to ask questions that dug deeper and were more than just one word answers. We modeled how to ask good questions and had them write their own questions prior to the activity. As we moved toward the prototype phase, one student commented that "I think that I need to go back and ask my partner some more questions." I responded "Exactly. That is the beauty of Design Thinking, we can go back and do a different stage at any time."
The highlight of the experience occurred when students shared their design with their partners. I attend this sharing of the screensavers with several of the classes and it was truly a magic moment for so many of our students. There were lots of smiles and high fives. Most students felt that their partner did a great job getting to understand them and creating something very personal and unique. I was blown away with many of the designs. Below this post is one of the more interesting backgrounds that students created. The young man who drew this screensaver did so by hand on the iPad. He learned his partner's favorite colors and that she loved cats. As a result, his creation was well received and his partner shared that she would pay money for this screensaver.
As we continue to implement Design Thinking across China Grove Middle School, our teachers being challenged to think creatively and boldly about how to connect Design Thinking to their curriculum. In our next challenge, I will highlight the work that 7th ELA teachers will be doing with Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie. One of our newest teachers approached me several weeks ago with an extraordinary idea about how we could combine Design Thinking with the novel. We are currently developing this project as students finish reading the novel. I am so inspired by this new teacher's willingness to think beyond the box about how to make her curriculum more relevant to her students.
This week ended on an extraordinary note. I spent the summer thinking and planning on how to help classroom teachers integrate the process of design thinking (and related variations) into their classroom. Last year I worked at a high school with tremendous vision that opted to challenge the status quo of traditional education that treats the students as consumers and measures their success on how their ability to consume and reproduce information on a standardized test. North Rowan High School realized that this method does nothing to help our students develop the skills and experiences necessary to lead a productive and passion filled life in our world. Instead they rejected the notion that a standardized test can measure a student's true learning and the effectiveness of a school. In our state, schools receive "letter grades" based on test performance. This method too often reduces schools to a simple letter grade that is easy for politicians and bureaucrats to divide schools in easy category for analysis. Each school, much like the students who attend them, is much more complex than a letter grade. In reviewing grades assigned to various schools in my system and the rest of the state, there is a strong correlation between the grades assigned to schools and their population. In North Carolina, the higher the letter grade, the more likely that the school serves less students of poverty. As poverty increases, the letter grade typically decreases. While there are exceptions to this, more often than not, this pattern holds true. If you look at schools earning higher grades, they tend to be more affluent. This affords those students with opportunities to have experiences that students of poverty may not have. If you look at a school rated as "A," it is much more likely that many students have visited different states and even foreign countries. In schools with lower ratings, it is highly likely that many of their students very rarely have gone outside of the county where they live much less the state.
With this mind, I learned many valuable lessons while serving as a Design / Challenge Based Learning (CBL) instructor at North Rowan High School. The work that the staff has and continues to do with the integration of Design Thinking and CBL has already proved its worth as students have developed and expanded on many skills necessary for success in the future. Their students can work effectively in groups, share ideas and evaluate them in ways that lead to better success, and solve problems in unique and innovative ways. It is for these reasons that I realized that this important work must be shared and replicated at other schools. When presented with the opportunity to serve as an instructional coach at my previous middle school where I would work with teachers to implement a similar curriculum, I knew that I had to answer this call.
The power of having students create something is akin to something sacred. Our great creator gave each of us unlimited potential in creativity. Michael Cohen (@thetechrabbi and write of Educated by Design: Designing the Space to Experiment, Explore, and Extract Your Creative Potential), describes creativity as a mindset. And I definitely agree with him. Upon returning to China Grove Middle School, my challenge is to help teachers transform our students into designers who create, not consume. This will be our first year of focusing on having students "CREATE, NOT CONSUME." In doing this, we must find a way to connect the curriculum to having our students create products that matter.
This week, we had a major transition in the "force" of moving students into becoming creators and designers. And it was in the most unlikely of all subjects - math. I say that with deep admiration for math. I am a chemist by training and a recovering chemistry teacher who still dabbles in teaching chemistry lab at a local college. As such, I know the importance of making sure that our students have a strong math background. But if I had to pick a subject area willing to go forward with transitioning from having students be full consumers to creators, I most likely would not have guessed math. But it happened and it was amazing, scary, and organic.
Our two 7th grade math teachers, Mr. T Downs (@neverletudowns) and Ms. A Ramey (@rameyac), wanted to find a way to make rates come alive for our students. For many 7th graders, the idea of rates is very challenging. One of the greatest challenges that 7th graders face is understanding what rates are and how they relate to their lives. We worked collaboratively as a team to develop a challenge where students would have to create their own rate, measure it, and then apply it in a new way. We spent time planning and collaborating to create this challenge and broke it down into smaller pieces. Both Mr. Downs and Ms. Ramey are amazing educators and I applaud them for stepping outside of their normal roles to try this new way of helping students connect to math. We put safeguards in place and Ms. Ramey and Mr. Downs worked to create an environment where students could take risks, fail, and learn from failure. For me personally, it was like a spiritual experience to see the engagement level of students with various academic abilities get excited about math and connect it to the real world. It was very inspiring to see educators willing to be vulnerable and try this new way with no guarantee of success. Here is a link to their plan for this challenge.
While the students have not quite yet finished the project, here are some of the initial take aways that I observed:
While there are numerous benefits that we could continue to list, it is important to note that students are excited about learning and connecting rates to their daily lives. I am in awe of both Mr. Downs and Ms. Ramey for their incredible willingness to step away from the box and forge a new way to make math relevant to their students. I am confident that many students in the 7th grade math classes have gone home and shared what they are doing with their parents. And for many 7th graders to share anything that they are learning and doing at school with their parents is an epic win.
I hope to post some of the final products with additional reflection in the coming week. Be sure to follow Mr. Downs (@neverletudowns) and Ms. Ramey (@rameyac) and show them some love for their willingness to be educational disruptors. Check out some of the sites and sounds from today below. I encourage you to think about how to transform your students from only consumers into creators and designers just as our 7th grade math teachers have done.
Design Thinking Video #1: Notice the vibe of the classroom
Design Thinking Video #2 - Teacher Coaching Student in Processes
The last two weeks have been very busy. I collaborated with the design teachers at North Rowan High School and provided a three day training for 10 educators from three of the feeder schools in the North area. This training was the first of a kind for our community. Our objective were to prepare teachers that will be teaching design and Challenge Based Learning (CBL) for the upcoming year. This training was truly trailblazing for many reasons. We crafted the training that we felt neophyte design teachers would need. We also wanted the training to be active and for participants to be truly engaged in the process. We provided a balance of having teachers participate as a student as well as providing teaching tips. Many of the teachers that we trained readily shared how effective that they found the training.
As design teachers, we must model what we teach. We met in May to begin to outline the training with identified learning goals and outcomes. But we also wanted an extraordinary learning experience that would ensure that our attendees dreamed big and boldly. We incorporated two off-campus learning expeditions (field trips). In the first expedition, participants were ushered into an activity bus and taken to a local shopping center after completing a design process where participants partnered up and progress through the Design Thinking process. They were charged with creating a gift based on determining the needs of their partner, an activity provided by d.design school from Stanford. After participants had ideated and received feedback from their partners, they choose a prototype to create. We then quickly ushered the participants to the local shopping center with $5 to purchase materials for their prototypes. Participants had the opportunity to purchase any items within their budget to create their prototypes. They had to obtain items that could be assembled together to create the prototype. They could not give their partner a pre-made item; instead, they had to assemble the prototype using multiple items. Our second trip involved visiting our local homeless shelter where we learned about the services provided both to homeless individuals and those with financial needs. We also managed to work in a presentation about the energy efficiencies of the buildings Participants were totally blown away with what they experienced. They also had lunch at the shelter where they interacted with many of the guests that the shelter serves. Participants were encouraged to spend some time getting to know some of the guests and their stories, another connection to the empathy piece of design.
Many participants found the process of creating a gift for their partner to be challenging as it required them to create something new that met the needs of their partners. And this is the point of design. As we progressed through the training, we reminded teachers of the importance of helping students to focus the needs of others instead of their individual needs. I asked several groups what each person thought about what their partner made for them and if it met their needs. I also asked each person if they would buy the product that was created and how much they would pay for it. It was amazing to see the variety of responses. Some individuals really felt like their partner "zeroed in" on their needs and created something that would personally benefit them. Other individuals felt differently and would have liked to see have seen their partner focus more extensively on their needs. This is an important element of design. The designer must suspend much of their self (and possibly ego) to create something that focuses on the end user. This is what I love most about teaching design. It helps others step outside of themselves and connect to another person or larger world in a way that makes a difference. I reminded participants that much of the work that they will be doing will overlap with the work that an anthropologist does when they employ ethnography to understand a new group or culture.
Perhaps a much larger important point of design focuses on helping the designer to expand their ability to empathize with others. I think many of us would agree on the importance of this in today's world. As a former science teacher, I understand the importance of making sure that we have scientific literate citizens and teaching our content. However, I would argue that even more important than that is creating citizens who understand others and solve problems that change the quality of life for others. And this is precisely what we do in design. It is my hope that after this training, the teachers will be better able to support their students as they learn to design for others and make a difference in the lives of others.
Many individuals understand the Hawaiian word “Aloha” to mean both hello and good bye. However, this is only a surface level understanding. It actually means love, peace, and compassion. It is these qualities that I found more endearing about the students and staff at North Rowan High School. The students and staff in that building have a lot of love for each other. The students are truly kind and compassionate toward others. In fact, much of the fabric of the school and community is built upon this compassion and love for others. It is truly the force that connects everyone. I was so fortunate to be part of this and have been propounding impacted by this love. While many individuals outside of this community often focus on the many challenges that that the students face daily, it is even more crucial for those individuals to dig deeper to develop a true and complete understanding of what it means to be North Rowan.
During my time there, I saw students who supported each other. They encouraged each other. They picked each other up when discouraged. They complimented each other. And they kept each other humble. The staff absorbed many of these same qualities. They were nurtured and inspired them to be the best that they could be each day. Each educator saw beyond each exterior to see the potential that each students possessed. The educators worked collectively to ensure that all students were support and encouraged to perform at these best possible level. It is these experiences and observed qualities that will forever be connected to North Rowan High. I encourage others who do not know the love, compassion, and kindness that exists in the North Rowan community to take time to integrate themselves into the community to see first hand how extraordinary this community is.
This past year was a year of fundamental change that will forever evolve North Rowan High. The school is no longer one of the status quo schools. Rather it is a school that had pioneered radical and necessary changes to create learning experiences and opportunities that will propel students forward in the future. Many of the changes implemented at North Rowan now serve as a beacon for the rest of Rowan-Salisbury Schools and the state. Innovation has driven the changes at the school and this has resulted in some extraordinary learning experiences for students and staff. While many may not yet realize, North Rowan High is a trailblazer and is moving into directions yet unknown. The most fundamental of this experiences involve the use of Design and Challenge Based Learning. If schools are not incorporating these practices into their curriculum and work with students, then I would dare say that the schools are failing to properly propel their students for the future. The administration has allowed for creative thinking coupled with determination to drive many of the changes at the school. At the heart of these changes is a strong desire to prepare students for the many challenges and tribulations that they will experience during their life. North Rowan High educators refuse to let students be unprepared to pivot when challenges and obstacles arise. Instead, they seek to grow the resiliency of the students by having them experience and learn how to think critically, problem solve, share ideas, and work together with others.
Recently AJ Juliana, co-author of “LAUNCH: Using Design Thinking to Boost Creativity and Bring Out the Maker in Every Student,” tweeted “Our job as teachers is not to "prepare" kids for something; our job is to help kids learn to prepare themselves for anything.” The changes that have occurred at North Rowan High are definitely preparing students for anything that they may encounter in the future. This is precisely what schools should be doing. If your school is doing this, I would encourage you to ask why. In the spirit of Aloha, the work and changes that have occurred at North Rowan High have come as a result of the love and compassion that exists in the North Rowan community.
It has been an amazing experience to serve as a Design teacher at North Rowan and I will be forever amazed at the amazing growth that occurred. The changes have helped to energize a community and that is inspiring. North Rowan High will always have a special place in my heart and soul. For it is these experiences that have inspired me to experience the true value of education in changing the lives of others. As a previous chemistry teacher, I used to think that balancing equations and completing calculations were some of the most important things that a student needed to be able to do upon graduating high school. But my eyes have been opened to see that there are many more important things that our students need.
When the early pilgrims first came to North America, they left the world that they knew in search of a better life and future. They set out on unchartered seas to find a new and better way of life where they could live as they wanted. It is this same spirit and need to create a better way that drove the changes at North Rowan High. Must like our early settlers, North Rowan High was responsible for developing a new way that better served all students. Earlier this year, an opportunity arose in which I would be able to share many of the new and innovative ways of educating students with China Grove Middle School. As I contemplated this opportunity, I spent much time in deliberate thought, reflection, and prayer about which path I should follow. In the end, the answer was obvious. The amazing and brilliant things that are occurring at North Rowan High School need to be shared with others. It is too much of a good thing not to use with others. As a result, I have accepted a position as a Design Coach where I will work closely with teachers and students in implementing Design Thinking, Problem Based Learning, and Challenge Based Learning. While it is difficult to leave North Rowan, I know that I will remain connected to the many individuals and practices that have occurred and will continue to occur there. I know that these practices are what are best for all students and we must spread these practices to others. This is my personal “True North.” The great thing is that I will still be able to support and learn with my colleagues at North Rowan and we can share ideas and innovative practices with each other. If you have not yet had the chance to see the many positive things occurring at North Rowan High, you must do this. It is with much gracious humility that I saw a special thank you to North Rowan High for inspiring both my spirit and heart. In the spirit of Aloha, I send my deepest admiration and love to North Rowan.
It has been a year of extraordinary change and growth at North Rowan High School. A few years ago, North Rowan High School was designated as a “Restart School” and given charter school like flexibility. This designation was done based on the school not meeting growth goals for several years in a row. With this status, the school was allowed to relaunch itself with less restrictions and escape from the traditional ways that public schools are governed in North Carolina. The school was able to change its calendar to align with the community college system. As a result, North Rowan, while the smallest high school in Rowan-Salisbury Schools, has one of the highest percentages of students enrolling in community college courses while in high school. This affords students the opportunity to earn college credits before high school graduation. Based on this system, it is possible for students to complete a large majority of their community college course requirements for either degrees or certification programs. Further, there is minimal cost to the student and their family. This provides an opportunity for post-high school education that many of our students may not have received otherwise due. It saves families financial resources as well. In fact, North Rowan High School has so many students taking courses that our community college sends several instructors to our campus to teach classes.
Another benefit afforded by the charter like flexibility is the ability for the school’s leadership to work to redesign the school in a way that benefits all students. Many of our students come from challenging socioeconomic conditions. As a result, the school often provides positive interactions for our students as well as meeting many of their basic physical needs. In doing so, we have had to acknowledge that we must first meet our students’ primary needs of hunger, clothing, and belonging before we can assist them in meeting their educational goals. We have instituted training and development around recognizing and supporting students who have experienced various types of trauma. This has helped the staff to recognize signs of students experiencing trauma and how to respond to best support these students. While this is not necessarily tied to having charter like flexibility, the ability to really think and diagnose the true needs of our students in our redesign is tied to the flexibility.
One of the most extraordinary benefits of having flexibility has involved the ability to redesign our curriculum. We have created a lower and upper school. The lower school, composed of 9th and 10th grades, is a hybrid creation that helps to support student with the transition from middle school to high school. Again, we have taken the time to create protocols and practices that best support students as they enter high school. Each grade level is small enough so that it functions as traditional department. The teachers meet at least once weekly to discuss the progress of students and outline any necessary steps to better support students. Further, there are often multiple teachers who attend parent conferences and IEP meetings.
If one teacher contacts a parent, they share the overall progress of the student in all courses typically. This has helped to address any challenges that our students are experiencing. This set up is typically unheard of in high school. It is an effective practice that has been modified from middle school. The grade level also has the same planning period while facilitates the teachers meeting. We implemented intensive intervention with all students in danger of failing courses in early March and continued support through the end of the academic year.
Perhaps the biggest benefit that our students, especially those who had not historically been as successful in school, was the creation of a Design / Challenge Based Learning course. This is the course that would have had Piaget and Vygotsky giving “high gives” to our school’s visionary leadership. The school formed supportive partnerships with various organizations to institute this new way of learning in school.
Students were initially uncertain about this course as they were so accustomed to “the test prep model of schooling” where they are given the information, memorize it, and provide it back on the test. Instead of continuing to perpetuate conditions of “winners and non-winners” in the classroom, we have developed a learning experience where all students can be winners. This means that all students can share their unique gifts, attributes, and strengths in a way that is incorporated into their learning.
By changing the metric of how a student does against a pre-established and arbitrary standard, we have developed a curriculum where students are evaluated based on their progress and growth from where they started. We infuse critical thinking, collaboration, communication, creative thinking, and student agency into how we measure student success and growth. We have sent tremendous growth from our students who have struggled academically in the past. They are very willing to share their thoughts and ideas and prefer to learn through Challenged Based Learning.
By applying a Design Thinking mindset where we celebrate growth, many of our students are excited about learning for the first time in years. It reminds me of the love that my son showed for learning when he first went to Kindergarten. We have been able to push our students to think beyond the world that they know through feedback, nurturing, and resilience. We have seen our students take innovative ideas and make them into reality through Challenged Based Learning.
As we prepare to finish this year, we have also seen high school teachers transform how they think about curriculum and teaching. Traditionally high school teachers are fiercely independent. They often do not have time to collaborate with others to create true interdisciplinary learning across the curriculum. As part of our Design class, our teachers have seen an effective model of co-teaching where all teachers are equal and collaborate effectively. As a result, many of our content teachers have yearned to co-teach with other teachers since they have seen this model in action.
Typically, co-teaching involves one teacher performing the instruction while the other teacher monitors behavior. However, our co-teaching model in Design transcends this. As a result, our model had created teachers who equally share and participate in instruction at all levels. This requires extensive communication and multiple check-ins each day, but it is worth it. Those co-teaching in this model report satisfaction and enjoyment. One teacher even shared that this is the first time in years that he has enjoyed co-teaching. Each teacher is celebrated for their effective instructional practices and has a vested interest in the learning outcomes for all students
While I have only outlined a few of the successes afforded by having the charter like flexibility at North Rowan High School, it is worth noting that none of this would have been possible without having a visionary leader who is willing to do the hard thinking and find creative solutions to complex problems. Additionally, the staff at North Rowan High School has embraced the need to redesign school differently and create an environment where all students have the opportunity to be successful. The most important thing that our students have experienced is that they see that their work matters. They now see purpose and meaning in the work that they are doing. Ultimately, that is what we want all our students to experience.
In thinking about the opportunity presented to North Rowan High School, it has been outstanding to see the growth and positive changes made. While we are far from perfect, we have taken steps to ensure that all students have the opportunity to learn at high levels. We also are able to implement new strategies and opportunities that we may not have previously considered. Additionally, we are more apt to think in different ways than before. We have often joked that we are more about “What Box?” instead of “Outside of the Box” as we don’t let the box limit what we do. The opportunities afforded to North Rowan High School are making a difference. We have less restrictions to limit what we can do to support our students. This leads me to wonder what all schools could do if afforded the same charter like flexibilities like we have been. I can only wonder how much joy that our students would experience in learning and growing.
This past week as we prepared for spring break, Design students were extra busy with finalizing many of their challenges. In our last challenge "Tikkon Olam," where students identified a need for an individual or group, they were tasked with designing a solution based on that identified need. We had four groups who went to our local middle school and worked with students in our CCAC course. Our design students took the time to interview each student to find out what they liked. They also interviewed the teacher who requested that our students create sensory board to help her students practice and master certain skills. Before this, I had never heard of a sensory board. Another indication of how much I learn as a teacher in our Design course. The students worked with drawing up prototypes of the sensory boards. They also had to do research to find tutorials on several of the identified skills. We also had to reach out to our construction teacher who was amazing with obtaining the boards needed. We also had to employ the construction skills of our co-teacher, Coach Causby to help with drilling various holes and other parts of the board. The students worked very hard to create board that would meet the needs of their students. They received feedback from both their student and the classroom teacher and made final design changes. Earlier this week, our students traveled to the middle school to present their boards. In the tweet below, my extraordinary colleagues captured the excitement and joy of the students at receiving their customized sensory board. The beauty of this experience is that our Design students applied empathy to understand the experiences and challenges of others. Many of the students asked me about how to teach someone how to open a lock, braid hair, or tie their shoes. Instead of answering them, I had them do research and find their answers. We checked in with them to make sure that were heading in the correct direction though. In this season of both Easter and Passover, it is important to note the love that our students showed for others in designing and creating a product that will serve the CCAC students well in years to come. Outstanding job Cavaliers!
Today was an extraordinary day at North Rowan High School. What appeared to be the last Monday before a well deserved spring break turned out to be one of North Rowan's proudest moments. Unbeknownst to many, a couple of Design Challenge students had been worked tediously behind the scenes to create a pep rally / basketball game for our athletes who would be competing in Special Olympics later this week. Students were charged with designing their own challenge while ensuring that they met the competencies set forth in the areas of critical thinking, collaboration, communication, creativity, and agency. We challenged our students to create a challenge that really mattered. As this was our final challenge, we wanted to see what students had learned and could do.
One group, compromised of mainly athletes, realized that too often many groups in our school are "underlooked." One such group is our students who compete in Special Olympics. From earlier challenges, students had realized that these students often feel disconnected from various parts of school. As a result, this group decided that the school needed to do something to recognize and celebrate our Special Olympics athletes. And as such, they came through in True North fashion that only a Cavalier could pull off. This group coordinated the band and cheerleaders even though both groups have finished for the year. Additionally, they recruited buddies for each athlete to help and provide encouragement during the game. The group designed a poster for each student that included their likes. The group also coordinated with our principal and athletic director to secure the time, place, and equipment necessary for the event. Additionally, they worked closely with the teacher and instructional assistants to ensure that this event was a quality production.
While there were a few glitches and a learning curve, I was pleased to see the students used their strengths and talents to create a truly innovative experience that elicited many positive and encouraging responses throughout social media. Several parents shared the following:
One commenter even included that she wished her nearby high school would do the same for their students.
In working with our Design students on this events, I heard them comment numerous times how much more work this was than they imagined. They never realized how hard it is to keep everything running smoothly. The Design students learned a lot about event coordination that we could never have taught them in the academic classroom. Further, they showed the importance of empathy by taking this opportunity to recognize their fellow students in a positive way. In the end, this group definitely saw, along with the entire school, that their work mattered and it made a difference for students. It is my hope that others were connecting to this important lesson that our students were teaching each of us. I also hope that our example will inspire other schools to create a comparable event not just for Special Olympic athletes but for other groups who may have been underlooked as well. May this example inspire each of us to think of the greater good and remind us of what our students are truly capable of doing when given the opportunity and support needed.
The ideas shared here are my own and do not necessarily represent my employers, associations, or organizations. These thoughts are entirely my own.