Innovation Lab, Community Space Power Change at Cushing Academy

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Innovation Lab, Community Space Power Change at Cushing Academy

At most schools I have visited on this journey I move, visit, peer into classes, talk with different groups of faculty and staff and students.  Today I went to essentially one room and talked to one group of teachers and students.  But what a “room” and what a group!  I seem to be on a role this week, seeing the many faces of how process and structure can transform schools in fascinating, tantalizing, and important ways.  This is what I had hoped for on my journey: something that all of us can learn from, borrow, steal, use in our own schools.  For a window into the intersection of imagination and structural support for innovation at a school, read on!

Cushing Academy is a 9-12 boarding school on a hill an hour west of Boston, and the reception area walls are covered with the flags of every country from which Cushing students have hailed.  I did not count but reckon there are not many countries missing from the wall.  I was immediately handed over to Nancy Boyle, Director of the Innovation Laboratory (I count at least five times in this journey that I have asked: do you have someone with THAT title at your school?). We went down to the “library”, and that is where I will begin.

I have helped design and build a library, and this is not one in any traditional sense.  There are books, but it is primarily a flowing, open, interconnected space for meeting, sharing, learning, and (I LOVE this part), playing.  There are few walls, yet spaces are created by partitions and changes in level. Where there are walls, they have a lot of glass.  In this one big connected space there is/are:

  • Tables for group work

    Cafe is part of the library space.

  • Easy chair sitting areas
  • Little kid reading area for the faculty little kids to hang out
  • Classrooms with full-wall writing surfaces
  • A café
  • Barstool-height counters and diner-type booths
  • TV’s with the news always on
  • A quiet study room that will have headphone jacks and walls painted in soothing colors
  • Desk to check out noise-cancelling headphones
  • The “play” area with a half dozen home made tables that they call iClass tables, essentially smart boards in a table that teachers and students can play on and use (more on these later)
  • The faculty lounge

Now, that is what I call a modern school library.  The office of the Innovation Lab is right off the library space as well, so I sat down with Nancy and talked a bit.

The Cushing Innovation Lab, now in just their first year, consists of Nancy and four others, two for each of the major school divisions, Humanities and STEM.  All are teachers. One is a “coordinator” who works directly with other teachers to integrate technology and develop new curriculum or teaching approaches.  The other is an “innovator” who looks at the big picture of what is out there in the world, thinks about what is possible, and brings those ideas into the frame for discussion with faculty.  The team hosts Food for Thought lunches, brings in guest speakers, and sponsors brainstorming sessions.  They work with the school’s interdisciplinary faculty teams to develop PD programs and, as Nancy said “just get to know each other again, build community, and understand how each is approaching their work.”  Nancy feels that 50-60% of the teachers are teaching in ways that we might consider non-traditional. Here are a few examples:

  • One teacher has created a vertical garden and is working with her students on questions of sustainability, urban food growing, and the problem of off-world agriculture.
  • They have a fledgling robotics program.
  • A number of teachers have gone away from textbooks and have written their own course texts and published them as iBooks.
  • A math teacher has set up a lab for high level programming classes.
  • Science teachers are flipping their classes and worked over the summer to produce an iBook for next year.
  • All teachers got iPads to play with last year and two classes of students got them this year and are piloting their use.
  • They built and named the “play” area with the interactive tables, which are being piloted in a chemistry class.

Group study areas on the library

I got to meet with a whole class of students who were piloting the iPads.  We talked about how those impact their work. (I shot of a lot of video clips, which I will release later, so won’t go into every quote here.) In summary:

  • “I write more in class and take better notes because I can easily transfer them all to my computer.”
  • “I don’t have to carry all that stuff and I don’t forget things as much.”
  • “We can click right over to all the resources beyond just reading the words.”
  • “We can look at each others work in class on the screen.”

I asked the students to set aside the Apple advertising ideas and think about how they work and learn differently when they have the ability to be connected all the time.

  • “Learning starts when you are born and stops when you die.”
  • “Our class blogs and wikis are ways to work together and I can go back to those even when I am at home.”
  • We are all working together.  I don’t feel like it is just me.”

The students left and we were joined by the other members of the Innovation Lab, Grant Geske, Peter Clarke, Michelle Salvucci, and Rebecca Lefcourt.  Yes, there is a lot of technology at work, but these folks teach chemistry, humanities, English, and I am sure some things I forgot to note.  If you were looking for a SWAT team of adults to push 21C, this is the group.  I am not going to try to attribute quotes and thoughts to each; I would get it wrong.

  • “Innovation Lab is here to allow people to model and tinker.”
  • “We are asking what ‘interdisciplinary’ means.  It does not have to mean two teachers teaching in class together. It means getting students to create their own connections, not impose one on them.”
  • “The charge of the Lab is to listen to teachers about their passions, to see how they might be able to link those passions to help their students create new knowledge.”
  • “Our job is to show what is possible; to create opportunities to structure conversations, and to listen for passion and then help teachers apply it.”
  • “We need to ask, ‘Why are we doing it this way’?”
  • “There is more value in creating a textbook than in studying from one.”

We talked about the junction between progressivism and traditionalism.  They feel the tension and tug of college entrance pulling them back, and are trying to find the sweet spot where nervous parents and college counselors see the rigor and passionate students and teachers feel the passion.  (They offer all the AP exams, but they don’t teach all of the AP classes; they dropped the ones where they wanted to expand outside the mandated curriculum). They are asking why these two traditions should be considered at odds since these progressive ideas (yes, they were progressive more than a hundred years ago as well) do in fact prepare students to do well in college and beyond.  Peter is thinking about creating an iBook from many years of highly insightful student logs from their trips and studies in Bhutan. Rebecca and her students built and published their own digital study guide for The Odyssey.  Grant designed and built the iClass tables out of off the shelf parts and a bit of programming. Students can work at the tables in groups via pointer and fingers and the teacher can monitor it all from one location. It is like a bunch of big, communal iPads; commercial versions cost big dollars but Grant built these for a few hundred bucks apiece.

“Play” area includes iClass Tables designed and built at Cushing that allow group work around a touch screen surface.

These are thoughtful folks who are just starting to really work together, so of course they see stones in the road.  “Young teachers are expected to be purveyors of knowledge and we don’t mentor them well enough; some of the brightest leave teaching because they can’t create.”  “Some teachers think that all students should be as passionate about their subject as they are themselves and this is rarely the case.  We need to show teachers how to express their passion in different ways.”

I asked the team what success five years from now might look like for the Lab and for its impact on Cushing:

  • Cushing will be recognized as a place that sends out students with real imagination and passion and the creativity to apply them.
  • When you interview everyone at the school you will get a similar set of answers about how a resources like the Lab can and has supported real innovation in the classroom.
  • Many faculty will want to rotate into positions in the Lab.
  • Senior students will complete capstone projects that demonstrate real synthesis on something they are passionate about.

The Lab has been afforded time to play and tinker, and some really talented people are seconded to work on these issues.  They want to publish all of the original work that comes out of Cushing via this new approach to learning; if it can help those with fewer time and people resources that is a win.  Through “play” with creating the work of classes, teachers and students will increasingly be co-learners in a learning space that is every bit as flowing, cohesive, and connected as the “library” where we met

Does every school have the resources to create an Innovation Lab and team?  No.  Do many schools have resources that could effectively be re-tasked to the Innovation Lab team model?  You bet. As we have seen this week, if you want to turn talk to action, create a structure and give it resources, a name, and a charge.  Put some superstars in place and let them do their thing. The teachers and students are empowered and energized.  Obstacles to their passion are being moved aside. Toss out the tension between “progressive” and “college prep”. Those are excuses grounded in turf battles and old ownership stakes.  Everyone won’t sign on in the first minute, but this is how you bust silos, yank out old anchors, and move nimbly in new directions. We will all watch and listen closely to see how this works at Cushing; my bet is on a huge success, with a transformed learning experience that really prepares these students for their futures, not our past.

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