“Focus on Kids, Not Ourselves”: Guiding Principle At Design 39 Campus

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“Focus on Kids, Not Ourselves”: Guiding Principle At Design 39 Campus

The classrooms look huge...but only because there is no clutter of "stuff and the minimalist furniture.

The classrooms look huge…but only because there is no clutter of “stuff and the minimalist furniture.

“All we have to do is focus on the kids and not ourselves.”  That was principal Sonya Wrisley’s response as I gawked at the seemingly vast amount of space that her students have in the newly-opened Design 39 Campus in Poway Unified School District.  I could not get over how open, how “not densely packed” the classrooms felt, with loads of room for the students to spread out on the floor, or arrange their rolling tables into various pod-like configurations.  And yet there was no magic at play; Sonya assured me that not only are her student counts and classroom sizes the same as those in other schools, but that the overall square footage on a per student basis is the same.  In designing the new school, they just made choices that give vastly more space over to the students.

Several wet and dry makery spaces are starting to fill with donated odds and ends.

Several wet and dry makery spaces are starting to fill with donated odds and ends.

Teachers do not have their own room, so there are no teacher desks and no walls of teacher-specific supplies. The school does not use hard copy textbooks so there are no shelves of books.  Teachers do not have large office-like meeting places; pods of six-teacher cohorts share a small conference room-like meeting space where they can collaborate during their daily one-hour meeting time, and where they can store personal belongings in a locker.  Perhaps the iconic image of yielding space is Sonya’s desk: a three-foot square writeable white table in an open area of the Welcome Center, with no computer and no phone.  Just a table and two chairs, out for everyone to see.  It is a remarkably visible sign that the leader’s place is not at her desk, but out in the school where learning is taking place.

Several "Collaboratoria" spaces allow flexible group learning to occur all the time.

Several “Collaboratoria” spaces allow flexible group learning to occur all the time.

Grade 5-6 teacher Kelly Eveleth had a group of students in one of the large “Collaboratorium” spaces that break up the standard classrooms.  Teachers Bret Fitzpatrick and Kyle Asmus had opened the movable wall between their adjacent classrooms and were team teaching.  A group of 2nd-3rd graders filled one of the half-dozen makery spaces, “seeing which team can make the longest piece of paper out of one sheet of construction paper. The longest wins…but it is not a competition”, one girl shared with me. The previous afternoon Sonya told me that a local high school student who plans to study fashion design in college had teamed with a grandmother volunteer to lead students through a fabric design challenge in another makery space where parents had donated six Singer sewing machines off of the school’s Amazon Wish List. (Another great way to get stuff for your makery space: contact your local hobby stores and ask for whatever they are tossing: returns, extras, over-stocks. Pretty much anything they have is useful in a maker space!)

The guiding principals of Design 39 Campus are as progressive and transformative as any I have seen in the many schools I have visited, but as a newly evolving organizational culture it is impossible to do everything at once.  Having just posted a reminder of Steve Jobs’ relentless focus on doing a few things really well, I asked Sonya what her priority foci were right now, just two weeks into the life of the school.

Students learn to input, share, and prioritize ideas with lots of Post-it notes!

Students learn to input, share, and prioritize ideas with lots of Post-it notes!

“Integration, inquiry, and design thinking”, she quickly said. Mornings are for “Integrated Learning Time”; no rigid boundaries of subject, time, or space.  The pod teachers decide when and how the students will move, and the teams focus relentlessly on how students will learn content through big, cross-disciplinary themes.  The afternoons are split between “Deep Dives”, physical activity-based “Minds in Motion”, “Exploration” opportunities for students to follow their passions,  and some dedicated time for mathematics in the upper grade levels.  Within each of these broad areas, the teachers are expected to amplify the process of inquiry and to embed the skills of design thinking.

In a 2nd-3rd grade room a student asked the teacher if they were going on a field trip to the zoo this year.  His response: “We are not scheduling field trips yet; we will decide that later. We don’t really know yet where our interests will lead us this year; we might end up in a place that is completely different from where we started.”

Some reflections from my short observation; take a walk around your school and think how they apply:

  • How might we further dissolve rigidity by allowing students to re-arrange classroom furniture on a very frequent (more than daily) basis to meet the learning objectives of the moment?
  • How often can we get students up to the writing walls to collaborate on work rather than taking individual notes or keying into their individual devices?
  • How might we constantly defuse the “teacher-centrism” of the room?  If the teacher is not using a fixed projector or other device that requires a “front of the room”, why set the podium there, or stand there?
  • How might we empower students to ask the questions that guide discussion?
  • How might we allow students to find the best ways to interact within learning teams, rather than giving them a strict methodology to follow?  When have we given them enough instruction on how to learn, and when is it best for them to find this out for themselves and with their peers?

I will visit Design 39 Campus frequently; others are getting on Sonya’s calendar already! Welcome to the lab school of the 21st Century, not in a private school setting under the umbrella of a university, but in a public school in a state with the second lowest level of per student funding in the nation.

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