“And you may ask yourself, well how did I get here?” – from the song Once In A Lifetime by the Talking Heads
Over the course of the next several posts, I will share my story of how I arrived at this moment…this moment of believing so strongly in the reimagination of schools to focus on deeper learning so that all student can feel the power of personalized learning! I didn’t just wake up one day thinking, “PBL sounds like a great idea!” or “What’s the latest buzzword I can start using?”
My journey started back when I was a middle school assistant principal on the east side of Michigan. I had a few colleagues that had started reading the book, Making Thinking Visible by Ron Ritchhart, Mark Church, and Karin Morrison. Always loving a good read, I ordered the book ready to read in the spring of 2013. While my intention was to begin the book right away, the reality of springtime in a middle school made reading it impossible. Scheduling, end of year activities, and “8th graders in June” took over and I wasn’t able to start it. It was that summer at Ludington State Park and a family camping trip with a friend/colleague, Dr. Amanda McKay, that I finally sat down and began to read…AND I COULDN’T STOP!
The thoughts and arguments being made in the book just made so much sense. In fact, I remember thinking, “Why haven’t I been focusing on a Culture of Thinking in my school?” If you have not had a chance to read the book, I would suggest doing so immediately! If you are a teacher, there are a number of thinking routines that you can use right away to allow thinking to happen in your classroom at deeper levels. Anyways, I can point to that summer as a watershed moment when I realized our aim in schools should be to promote thinking and discourse among all of our students.
After that summer, I took a principal position of a 5th/6th grade school in Forest Hills Public Schools. During the course of the year, I invited my school improvement team to join me on a book study. (In a plug for why you should be on Twitter to grow your professional learning network) I sent out a tweet asking if anyone had done a book study with this book. Here is the response I received from a teacher in Troy…
At the time, I had never met Scott (he has since gone on to become an outstanding Principal), but my team took him up on the opportunity to visit his school. When we were there, we saw a K-5 school where students were engaged and the student talk happening at all grade levels blew our minds! I heard 2nd grade students saying things like, “I would like to add to their thinking,” and “I respectfully disagree with his thinking.” It became clear that at this school, a culture where thinking was valued and elevated was occurring in every classroom.
From this point forward, we worked as a school community with students, staff, and families to create a culture of thinking where all stakeholders (including families) knew we valued the thinking and creativity of our students more than being right and wrong. We were able to get to the point where visitors could walk in our halls and ask a random student what our school valued, and they would respond with an answering referencing their thinking.
It was powerful work and I owe it to the staff of my former school for being the leaders in taking on this fundamental shift. It was through their collective efforts that helped transform the school, and in turn, transform me as an instructional leader…an innovative leader. In reflecting deeper on the growth of our school and of us as individuals, a veteran teacher, Brian May, said “I used to think I was a pretty good teacher. But when I started to focus on their thinking and pushing to encourage more discourse, I could see what a huge difference it has made with them.” Seeing this growth among both students and staff left a lasting impression on me!
The work to create a culture of thinking laid the foundation…for the night when I was sitting at my dining room table, and my phone rang…
To Be Continued…