Last week, I met with a student’s parents to answer their questions about the Common Core State Standards and how Harwood Union is implementing them. The highlight of our conversation though centered on the direction Harwood Union is taking as it relates to Act 77 – the Vermont Flexible Pathways legislation, and specifically to personal learning plans. I was especially struck by the personal story the dad shared with me about the high school learning experience that was most significant for him, and his hope for a redesign of public education that would capitalize on the passion and interests of individual students and then provide opportunities to make relevant adult world connections while promoting core learning goals.
As an educational leader and a member of an administrative team, one of the greatest challenges is balancing the need to be present in the building with opportunities to expand my capacity through external professional learning and networks that provide perspective and inspiration; both which are essential to the change process.
Recently, through the generosity of the Rowland Fellowship granted to two Harwood teachers, I was able to attend the High Tech High Graduate School of Education Winter Residency in San Diego, CA. The High Tech High Graduate School of Education is the Nation’s first graduate school situated entirely within a K-12 learning community (hightechhigh.org), that is designed to develop innovative, authentic, and rigorous learning environments.
The experience was extremely worthwhile. High Tech High is founded on Dewey’s concept that understanding comes through activity. It is an independent public charter that operates eleven schools serving a diverse, lottery selected student population from all over San Diego. All High Tech High schools embody the design principles of personalization, adult world connections, common intellectual mission, and teacher as designer. While there, we attended workshops led by High Tech High teachers, students and community mentors, conducted classroom observations and engaged in panel discussions with a wide range of educators and students. Many facets of the HTH program mirror, what I believe Act 77, the Flexible Pathways legislation is designed to achieve in Vermont Schools.
On the first day, my greatest take away related to the manner in which HTH teachers engage the external community of San Diego. High Tech embraces project-based learning (PBL) a multi-disciplinary approach that encompasses each of their design principles. And when teachers and students design a project, it always includes partnering with an outside entity: scientists; museum curators; lawyers, videographers; law enforcement; social workers; landscapers – the list is endless. What is truly amazing though is the depth of collaboration; it is not simply a show and tell, one-time classroom visit. The collaboration is for the duration of the project and includes on-going expert guidance and authentic access to relevant world experiences.
The communities that comprise Harwood Union have a plethora of talent. I believe if Harwood Union explored and adopted widespread community collaboration, then it would contribute to a learning design that would increase student engagement. Collaboration with experts from the community would not only help students experience the relevancy of content knowledge and 21st century skills and connect them to their community in meaningful ways, but it would also provide them with a greater understanding as to the type of career paths and/or life long learning that interests them.
After one of the PBL presentations, I had the opportunity to speak with a genomics doctoral student conducting research at the University of CA, San Diego, who was collaborating with a science and art teacher on a project related to genetic disposition and health factors. It was his first experience working with adolescents in a school setting and in his lab. At the end of our conversation he stated, “It is an opportunity in which everybody wins.”