Thursday, August 2, 2012

De-Silo-ing Our Work

On the heels of a two-day conference about the changes that are on the horizon surrounding the Common Core State Standards, I've had the opportunity to be a part of a five-day institute on Education for Sustainability. These worlds dance and collide in an awkward dance. Both know that they need to play together, but neither is willing to sell its soul to the other. These five days have given me an opportunity to look for a unifying theory to the work that we are doing at Maplewood Richmond Heights Middle School. In an era of just giving in, and doing it like everyone else, we are resisting the urge to conform because we believe our longview on education contains the elements that we hold tight to as they are essential for successful and happy kids. Our mission, "MRH Middle School provides academic and real life experiences, both inside and outside the classroom, that promote social, personal and intellectual growth in all individuals. The curriculum and opportunities at MRH Middle School create well-rounded students prepared to make thoughtful decisions and successfully participate in the future." provides a drive for our staff and students that promotes a progressive brand of learning that both fosters scholarship as well as fights against the ills of poverty that impact our community and more closely about 50% of our students. To do this, we see it as essential to have some tools and critical thinking skills that give our students an opportunity to examine our work from a 10,000 feet level. For us, this means growing our teacher and student capacity surrounding Systems Thinking. Systems thinking gives students the ability to see patterns, understand the limits of a system, develop connections, examine change over time, and discuss unintended consequences. This new lens for examining all learning elevates the thinking and understanding of students to the levels of analysis and synthesis that is called for in the Common Core. In addition, we are starting to also look at the tools that come from Design Thinking that can supplement this lens. Through this enhanced lens that gives our students better than 20/20 vision, we are able to begin relevant and rigorous studies surrounding the concepts of justice and empathy that tie the study of sustainability together. In science, the focus is around environmental justice and how we conserve, share, and innovate around the issues surrounding water, food, and energy. In social studies, we are growing our thinking and discussion surrounding economic justice. This includes learning the essence of small business development, making microloans to those in need, and examining the economic causes of conflict, legislation, and decision making. In English Language Arts, the concepts of social justice and sustainable communities take center stage. This includes reflecting on ideas like embracing diversity, growing empathy, leaning together peacefully, and providing voice when others are muted. All of this work around justice continues to bring us space to grow across disciplines and "de-silo" our learning. To approach these concepts, it is essential to bring a fresh set of instructional goals to the classroom that blend the art and science of teaching. Our schools focuses on reshaping our daily learning by pushing three things into the center of the instructional model. They are place-based learning or expeditionary learning that give students the opportunity to learn outside of the classroom for 20% of their learning time, project-based learning that connects students to real-world problems that give them opportunities advocate, innovate, and take on a solution mind frame, and excellent student work that provides students the time and space to create, refine, and present their thinking over time about topics and ideas that they are passionate about to authentic audience. What outcomes does this bring for our students? It is becoming clear that our expanded definition of success which values building leaders, citizens, stewards, and scholars is being reached. Students are showcasing their skills in all of these areas through local presentations, e-portfolio entries, video creation skills, and results on state testing. In addition, we are gaining ground in leaps and bounds in the areas of creativity, innovation, risk-taking, and passion for learning. Without the complexity of our work that values a unique approach to bringing students to the end of the beginning of the journey, the incredible outcomes that are desired by schools around the country and by the founders of the Common Core State Standards would never be possible. Many schools that take a simple approach moving forward will plateau, and without fresh and innovative models to learning to grow and collaborate with, these schools will struggle to create new leaders, sustainable communities and provide for those students with the greatest needs.

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