Reinventing the wheel?

A Reflection on Process, on behalf of the Freeport School District Instructional Learning Coaches

by Laura Stocker

Are we just recreating the wheel? It’s hard not to lament about this question when you’re in education. For every new idea that comes out, there’s someone out there who can say, “What? We were doing that in 1987!” The way practices swing in and out of vogue is a running joke among educators. And that’s exactly how our team felt when it was charged with the development of a Learner Centered Implementation Matrix.

Surely, someone has already done this work and laid out a neat and tidy plan to step-by-step your way to student centered AND if you just google the right keywords it should pop right up. Right? What we discovered when we initially began our search is that student centered learning doesn’t come to your district express mail, in a one-box-complete-set-follow-the-jumpstart-plan-to-see-student-centered-results-in-just-ten-days transformational kit. Not only does it NOT come prepackaged and as a ready to roll out kit, educational systems should ask for the money back guarantee if it did! The most important part of transforming educational systems IS the work of designing the system collaboratively!

In the fall of 2014, my team, consisting of eight instructional coaches began working with Kim Carter of QED Foundation to move the struggling educational system in Freeport, Illinois forward in Student Centered Instructional Practices. As with any transformational endeavor, it has to begin with often uncomfortable, sometimes surprising, occasionally ugly truth seeking. Over the course of the first year, our team collected data about instructional practices across the district and discovered an overall lack of differentiation to be a reoccurring theme.

Thank goodness it was mostly just differentiation because that’s a concept in education that’s been around forever and easy to fix, right? Have you ever really thought about what it means to differentiate instruction? If you haven’t, I challenge you to gather a team of colleagues together for a good old brainstorming session on that topic. You’ll be amazed at what you didn’t realize you didn’t realize about…well…everything. Differentiation is deep, wide, and frequently misunderstood. The analogy of the iceberg to explain differentiation is spot on. Most of what we hear and see about differentiation is just the tiniest tip peeking out above the immense, expansive, substantive foundation. That’s the kind of iceberg that will sink a Titanic, or educational system, if you don’t dive deep and stay in the water for a while. It was this exploration of differentiation that became the foundation for our work on a Student Centered Implementation Matrix.

In the fall of 2015, our work continued with guidance and support of our guru Kim Carter. Due to budget cuts and career opportunities, our team of eight was down to five survivors. (Even though instructional coaching is a highly effective form of professional development, over the past few years, our coaching program has been cut back dramatically. It was bit of a bad joke with us that you should feel pretty lucky if you hadn’t been voted off the island yet. However, at the end of this school year, I’m sad to report, there were no survivors.) Under fresh administration, we were challenged to go beyond differentiation to develop a vision and guide for student centered practices in our district. Kim suggested that we develop an implementation matrix. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term “implementation matrix” we had to google this too. Basically, it’s a tool used primarily in the manufacturing world and is designed to develop strategies and action steps toward a related goal or objective. This tool would make the vision of student centered learning for Freeport School District concrete and best of all, shared.

While our small team forged the initial draft, plans were made to illicit elicit critical feedback essential to ensure that the matrix represented multiple perspectives and clearly articulated expectations.   Throughout the development process, we hosted feedback sessions with various district stakeholders beginning with the curriculum department, then administrators, the student-centered committee, and eventually all district teachers. Each time we elicited feedback from a group, we ran the session with a modified tuning protocol. This feedback would be reflected upon by our team and considered into the subsequent revisions of the document. Because of the collaborative nature of this work, I would like to personally thank Google for designing a tool that allows an entire team to work on a document at the same time, even when one of them lives in New Hampshire! This process of feedback, reflection, and revision allowed for all voices to be heard, shared the ownership in the development of a shared vision and guide for student-centered practices, and sparked valuable conversations around our strengths and struggles as we work together to transform learning for students in the Freeport School District.

Thankfully, all of the instructional coaches are still gainfully employed by the Freeport School District, each of us in different roles but all deeply committed to serving and inspiring our students, colleagues, and community to reimagine education. While I cannot be certain about the future of our Student-Centered Implementation Matrix, I hope it will continue to evolve and ignite conversations between educators. Creating this document was a challenging, thought provoking, exciting process that opened my mind to new possibilities for education.

I do have a few words of wisdom for others willing to embark on this journey.

A Code of Collaboration is an essential element of collaborative work. When doing this type of work, it gets personal. Creating a code or agreement for group interactions helps create a safe environment allowing for discussions to be difficult but not damaging to the relationships of its members.

Celebrate the uniqueness of others! Strong teams develop out of true appreciation of the experiences, intelligence, and personality each individual brings to the table. Choosing to take a stance of admiration for the members of your team allows you to assume positive intentions in situations when it may seem like someone is just being negative, argumentative, or just plain annoying. Sometimes the best ideas emerge from the most uncomfortable moments and having genuine appreciation for the individuals on your team ensures that at the end of the day you’ll be able to sit around the table and laugh together.

The harder you work the more you grow. Every moment spent creating this document with my team, whether we were researching, deep in discussion, or interrogating each other for the perfect combination of words, we were growing. Collaboratively defining and describing the pathway from a traditional educational model to a gold standard student-centered model of teaching and learning was one of the most challenging and rewarding professional experiences of my career and I know my colleagues would wholeheartedly agree. Reinventing the wheel in education can be work worth repeating!

Respectfully submitted,

Laura Stocker, on behalf of the Instructional Learning Coaches

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