The existential issue in education of our time, particularly in the public sector, is the tension between teaching to the test and teaching for the skills that students will actually need in their futures. It is unlikely that I will see that issue playing out any more clearly on my journey, and with a good balance of effect, than I did at Brecknock Elementary in rural Pennsylvania this week. I believe there is real need for students to learn content, but not at the exclusion of more real-world experiences. The leaders and faculty at Brecknock, like many across the country, are caught in this tension, and rather than just wringing their hands, they are effectively innovating to make the best of both worlds.
Many of you know Lyn Hilt (@L_Hilt), Principal at Brecknock from her blog, her many presentations and trainings, and from her helpful presence on Twitter. I was pleased to get to spend a morning with Lyn and her team. Brecknock is a K-6 with about 480 students. They have a number of special education programs on the campus, including a growing special needs program for students with autism. Lyn has been a forceful presence with her strong background in the use of educational technology, and an equally determined focus on collaborative, project-based, and connected learning. The reality is, and I heard this from several members of the team, state standards are paramount and come first. What is exciting, and should be of interest to many, is that Lyn and her team are managing to elevate their standard test scores at the same time they evolve the curriculum to be increasingly rich in what we (reluctantly) call 21st Century skills.
Lyn and her superintendent share a concern for integrating 21C skills into the curriculum, so there is overall support from the top. The teachers know that they need to use new standards-focused program, even though they find some to be overly teacher-directed and focused on “drill and kill”. The solution of several of the grade level groups is to meet frequently, parse upcoming units, and see where they can tweak actual classroom activities to cover the required content but in much more student-focused and project-based ways.
Some results and examples that others will find useful:
- Using student blogs in several classrooms. Lyn overcame some parent concerns about student blogging by holding a special session at back-to-school night for parents and students to write on the blog together; problem solved!
- They built an activity time into long literary blocks assigned in the schedule to give students the flexibility to develop extra projects of special interest to them.
- The parent-teacher organization is sponsoring an academic fair with broadly inclusive parameters to get many students to participate.
- The teachers have been using Google Docs for three years to create collaborative workspaces.
In particular, I spoke with Stephanie Ciabatinni of the 3rd grade team, and she described how the team meets one a week, takes a “have to do” from the proscribed program, and breaks it down to insert higher-order projects and skill work. She said the goals they use to construct these units are as follows:
- Work should be student-directed.
- Projects should include student collaboration.
- It should work towards developing the students as independent learners.
- All students should be actively engaged in the activity.
In addition, Stephanie said that this work has made the teachers more active and better co-learners as they are developing product that both meets the standards requirements AND satisfies the team’s innate sense of what they really want the students to learn. Of course, in order to get this work done, the team needs time, and Lyn (who the teachers describe as “an incredible role model”) has figured out how to carve out 45minutes of common time for every grade level team EVERY DAY. She says this process has really busted the old silos of working in their own classrooms and has dramatically amplified what the teachers are exposed to and what they do with it in the classroom. The teachers describe Lyn as finding the resources for them to do their jobs well. She encourages teachers to find things, and try them. They share with each other every day, and that reduces the decision cycle to days or sometimes even hours.
Technology is a big deal at Brecknock, not because they have the latest gadgets, but for two other reasons. First, they use small numbers of computers in every classroom to leverage content learning, all the time. I visited almost every room, and in each, there was a group of students doing independent work on a set of 5-6 desktops. Second, Lyn has introduced her team to the use of social media. She encourages blogging and Tweeting, and her teachers and students are massively more connected to colleagues and information sources than other schools I have visited. They teach the students the power and risks of social media, but they are not afraid to leverage it as a learning tool.
The other big takeaway I had from my morning was how both active and calm all the classrooms were. Most classes had about 28 students, but every classroom is designed with creative use of learning stations, reading corners, and the like. In every room, groups of 5-6 students were working hard at a station, and then rotating through to other areas. I did not see a single room where the students sat in their rows answering to a teacher standing at the front of the class.
It is a tough time for educators who are assessed on how well their students do on a standard exam, while in their professional heart they know that teaching to a test is not fulfilling the best long-term interests of the students. (If I have exaggerated this tension, it is my fault and not the teachers at Brecknock.) This group has found ways to do both, and elegantly, with no more resources than those contained in any other public school. As this discussion plays out at the national level, perhaps for quite some time to come, teachers can toe the line, wring their hands, or innovate for creative solutions that meet multiple learning objectives.
Last thing; special shout out of thanks to the group of 6th grade girls, Liz, Hannah, and Laura in Ms. Kuipers class who prepared and presented me with a OneNote presentation with student-generated reflections on Brecknock and what it means to them. Great job, ladies!