Last week eleven of my colleagues and I had the privilege of traveling to High Tech High in San Diego, California for a transformative professional development experience. High Tech High is a collection of charter schools whose students are admitted by a zip code based lottery designed to draw students who demographically reflect the diversity of the surrounding San Diego county. “High Tech High” is a bit of a misnomer, because although the school incorporates technology in a variety of ways into the classroom, technology is not the focus. High Tech High focuses rather on using project-based learning (PBL) to enhance student engagement and achievement.
What is PBL?
PBL is a constructivist approach to teaching that involves student-centered instruction through assigning purposeful activities and projects. It allows students to work more autonomously to construct their own learning, and culminates in realistic, student-generated products. While the projects are the product, the processes by which the students arrive at that product are far more important. Teachers use scaffolding, elements of design thinking, front-load students with essential understandings and develop inquiry questions to be answered before the conclusion of the project. PBL proponents understand that student knowledge is constructed, not transmitted and work to build a reflective understanding of the project development experience.
The 2017 Winter Residency
Over the course of our three days at the HTH Winter Residency, participants worked to refine their understand of PBL through activities and discussion. Our group came well prepared with existing projects and ideas we were looking to refine and tune. Some of the major initiatives we’ve been working on at our school include our ‘Innovation Wednesdays’ and a possible school wide project to celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary. Individual teachers also had inquiry questions and class projects they brought to HTH to tune up and reflect upon with colleagues from around the US and Canada.
Two of the most valuable and rewarding aspects over the three days of the residency I found were the opportunity to explore the campus and to interview current HTH students.
I’ve always been interested in the intersection between form and function and specifically in a school how its physical space influences the style of instruction. The classrooms of HTH have enormous windows giving visitors like us the opportunity to peer in and easily see what’s happening. Students work in rooms where desks are arranged in circles or small groups for more collaboration. Transparency is seen not only in the generous windows, but also in how student work is displayed throughout the interior of the buildings. There were visual displays of learning around the schools including murals, exhibitions and even science demonstrations that could fit in a classroom windowpane.
Making learning visible is a consistent theme, and was achieved primarily through three methods; firstly, the aforementioned exhibitions of work, secondly through presentations of learning, and thirdly though student-led conferences. During student conferences, students would address what they are learning and why, how they’re successful, what challenges them, how they’re doing as an individual learner and how they’re doing within the broader learning community. Conferences are mediated with a curated selection of student work the provided authentic evidence.
The opportunity to speak with current HTH students was also immensely insightful. All the students we spoke with were incredibly articulate and able to express quite thoughtfully their experience at the school. They all seemed very aware of what a special place it was they were attending, and how lucky they were to have been chosen by lottery. Student performance seemed to be buoyed both by the fact their work is constantly exhibited, and because they knew the opportunity they had been afforded was one coveted by many other students. In my discussions with the students I tried to dig deeper into any perceived shortcomings of their experience, to take a more critical look at anything HTH could be doing better with their project-based approach. One of the aspects the students lamented was that they didn’t have many of the conventional extra-curricular experiences like sports teams or school dances other schools were more likely to have. Any shortcomings, however, paled in comparison to the educational opportunities made possible by going to HTH, including the remarkable post-secondary enrolment rates.
Dr. Kaleb Rashad
The other truly inspiring piece of the Winter Residency was the chance to hear the new Director of High Tech High, Dr. Kaleb Rashad, speak. He was both the keynote speaker and also provided a Q&A session at the end of the three days. He encouraged us to look for inspiration during our time, and not simply to try and imitate what they were doing. Dr. Rashad had a lot to say about leadership, both from a theoretical and practical perspective. His mantra was to “love your people” and that in doing so, they would feel empowered to do “badass work!” When asked what he looked for with respect to instruction when sitting in a typical HTH class, he said that students should be engaging first in divergent, convergent, and then reflective thinking processes. When it comes to Pro-D he suggested we should always be modeling for teachers what we want them to do in their classes – avoid stand and deliver professional development experiences! Dr. Rashad has had a variety of educational leadership experiences, and throughout all of them it is evident he’s worked hard to build positive relationships and an inclusive and supportive school culture. To that end, he’s introduced something he calls ‘open mic’, where he makes an effort to sit for 10 minutes at the start of the year with each and every staff member to listen closely to his or her concerns without judgement. Anything said in those meetings is always shared in confidence. Dr. Rashad urged us to build trust and show people you love them – and that your staff, in turn, will also trust and love each other. One of the best ways to do this was via what he called “the two P’s”: permission and policies. Give your staff permission to dream big – to go for it and try something new and innovative and have them feel supported. And the second “P” is policies. An educational leader should work to get the rules and policies out of the way stop people from doing amazing work. Reducing those barriers will help cultivate a positive school culture and make great things happen for students.
Documenting the Process
Part of my process in attending the Winter Residency was to document the journey of my North Vancouver colleagues. I made an effort throughout the three days to grab as many sound bites and video clips as I could to stitch together at the conclusion of our time together. I’m pretty self-critical, so the finished product is never as good as I’d wish, but I was really happy that in documenting our experience I got to celebrate my colleagues’ experience and all the wonderful reflections they had. If building collegial trust and relationships is considered a vital piece of positive school culture, we certainly checked that box off on this trip. Spending four full and intense days together was a wonderful way for us to bond, and I know we’re stronger as a staff for having taken so many people down with us. I have to thank our school board for being so supportive of this experience in allowing us to go. This video also helps validate the professional growth we were all hoping to gain by attending.
There were so many take-aways from this experience from project-tuning major school projects like “Innovation Wednesdays” & “Canada 150”, to speaking with students and exploring the campus, to reflecting on educational leadership and connecting with colleagues. This was truly a transformative professional development experience. For Handsworth staff, all of these take-aways were wrapped in the over-arching goal of increasing student engagement. Our first week back at Handsworth has already been influenced by our time away. Staff met this week to introduce a student leadership course to bring new student voice opportunities to our school and to help shape version 2.0 of Innovation Wednesdays. Our Canada 150 project has a small working group who will start drafting details for our staff. Each staff member who came on the experience had to commit to refining one piece of his or her practice, and for me it’s all about how I make student learning more visible. One of things I was reminded of while at HTH was that students raise their performance when they know their work is going to be public. It becomes less about the marks and more about the quality of the work itself. Look for me to be sharing more student work in the future via social media and in exhibitions around the school. Thanks to HTH and to SD44 for a wonderful experience.