It was the semester's midpoint @hightechhigh and as I walked the halls during this particular week, I noticed something. Tables were pulled out of the classrooms with teacher teams and individual students sitting around them. I kept walking and there were more tables with teachers and students chatting and pointing at things on paper & screens. I stopped to find out what was happening, of course--because I am fabulously(!!) nosy.
The teacher teams had a list of all their students, project timelines, and project deliverables at each table. While students worked independently in the classroom, the teacher teams made personal check ins with each student. They were curious about how each student was making progress on the project's deliverables (smaller building blocks, prototypes, etc. that are intended to be scaffolds to completing the larger project). Students came to the table prepared to talk about their progress and the teachers provided guidance like consultants.
Project work is team work. Teacher teams design collaborative, interdisciplinary projects that are super badass, complex, and wicked! They pour their hearts and souls into their work and it shows!
If you're getting your PBL on, what might be some ways to build scaffolds to support learning, growth, and progress for students? How might we do the same thing for teachers as learning designers? Going a bit further: how might we design super badass learning experiences for adults? How are we personalizing their learning journey?
Once upon a time a tribe from far, far away went to design bootcamp in Seattle. Everyday, day-after-day, the tribe walked miles in the freezing, blistering Seattle rain. One day, they were challenged to create a meaningful experience for another person. They tribe ventured back into the hard, dreary rains and they talked to and observed young people, waiting people, wet people and annoyed people. When they returned to design camp, they unpacked those conversations and observations, searching for patterns, differences and insights.
Then, there was an interruption, an outsider from a local clan, appeared and called the Improviser. He played the SILLIEST games like the Name Game, Dr. Know-it-All, & the strangest game of all "Yes, and." When the Improviser spoke the tribe listened and the last thing he said was: "IMPROV is about listening fully, listening with humility, building onto others' ideas, and making your partner look GREAT." Just as quickly as the Improvisor appeared, he was gone.
In his place, two more outsiders arrived from a clan of local ideators. The Ideators went to work immediately with ruthless precision and delicate care. No fun and games with this pair! They were about process, process, process AND getting every single idea out of the tribe's heads and onto sticky notes. The tribe brainstormed individually, group brainstormed, re-brainstormed, and leap-frogged brain-stormed. By the end of the session, the tribe was...spent. The Ideators grouped and placed the fragile ideas along a horizon from "easily attainable" to "pie in the sky." The Ideators were in, out and gone in the blink of an eye. But before they left, their parting words were clear: "The best way to have a good idea is to have a bunch of ideas." The tribe walked back to the tents in the rain, drained from the day and soaked from the Typhoon.
The next day, the tribe braved the rains again and when they returned to bootcamp, they were surprised to find a Master Builder. The Master Builder shared prototypes never seen before--from low resolution prototypes created with pen and paper to high-resolution prototypes with fully-functional digital interfaces. The tribe knew he was truly a Master Builder. He told countless stories of failure, failure and even more failure. He shared how he learned from early failures to improve design features. Then the clouds parted and the tribe heard him say, "Build it as early as possible. Break it then fix it. PROTOTYPE to THINK." With that, the tribe was off to build, prototype and test their designs with the Master Builder alongside them.
Since then, the tribe returned to sunnier skies in their home lands and they have never been quite the same. One of the tribe members said, "I am a better collaborator, contributor, designer and person today then before I went to bootcamp. I have greater confidence." I believe in ordinary people who want to do extraordinary work.
Our tribe was organized into three study groups: Empathy to Insights, Ideation, and Rapid Prototyping. I believe culture is not just about wearing the same shirts on Friday (which is totally cool!) or celebrating birthdays (which is also super cool!!). I believe another way to view culture is through the lens of HOW we work together: how we listen to each other, develop shared points of view, cultivate and test new ideas, and our willingness to wade through messinesses to make something beautiful and radically useful.
Day 3 together--with me as their new director.
On Day 1, our school talked about how "culture eats strategy for breakfast" and we began to explore our shared purpose together at High Tech High. On Day 2, we talked about and started designing EPIC projects. Back to Day 3, forty of us gathered in the room after a light breakfast to return to the topic of our shared purpose.
The plan was to guide/facilitate the group dialogue and creation of ONE powerful purpose statement. SCRATCH THAT PLAN!! I stepped back instead and said, "You have 45 minutes to create ONE powerful purpose statement. Use whatever you need....And (I added) it cannot be more than 12 words." (PAUSE)
I stepped back and they all stepped up. Teachers got materials organized. Other teachers began proposing a process, organizing people, and then the natural back and forth began. Teachers made sure newer teachers had a voice, generally quiet people had a voice and veteran teachers chimed in too. (I watched--mouth shut.)
They identified common phrases and drafted like 8 possible sentences. There was more back and forth as everyone haggled over words/phrases like: meaningful, purposeful, transformative, etc. Then 8 possible sentences were posted on the wall for all to see and they sounded FINE (typical, legitimate) statements like any other school in America might have. Someone else noticed it too and said, "But what makes it High Tech High though??" Time was ticking away, pressure was mounting.
With 10 minutes to go (and a lot of chatter going on), I said, "There's one more thing: It has to be SEXY." There were audible gasps--then explosions of laughter.
Then someone said, what if the purpose was.... "to be excellent to each other and do badass work?" The group of 40 collectively, quietly said "yeah" and then erupted aloud in agreement. HOWEVER, there were a few folks who expressed some discomfort with that phrasing--although they really liked the spirit, tone--the soul of it all.
Then, on time and on tap, a new teacher who just moved to San Diego (from New York, just 3 weeks ago) paused the group and said, "Wait...I moved here from 3000 miles away to do...badass work."
MIC DROP. We're done!
The question that started the conversation was from my good friend @drchagala who says "Schools Have Souls."
Now, I will probably get fired, but we will do BADASS WORK!!
For a whole week, new High Tech High teachers attend a week-long deep dive into all things related to project-based learning called Odyssey. This year there are approximately 125+ new teachers, veteran teachers and directors. Yesterday, the large group was broken into 5 smaller "project slice" groups of roughly 25 participants. Each project slice is like a condensed version of a project-based learning experience--excepted condensed from several weeks to one week.
After a very good icebreaker, our project group began by writing a response to this prompt:
"If you found out that you had to leave your home and your city (maybe for good), what (could be people, belongings) would you take with you? Why?" I listed: 1) my wife, my boys, my cats and my shih tzu--for companionship and love; 2) my wallet, keys, cellphone, toolbox--for practical purposes, etc. All good right?
Then, we were asked to open a folder located in the center of our group's table. Each folder contained 7 photographic profiles of Syrian refugees with a short vignette about each person and his or her belongings. Suddenly, it was not just a fanciful or pleasant exercise. It was about real people, real conflict, in a real context--super timely. There was an elementary age child, a barber, a mother, a sister, an artist, a soccer player, a person in a wheelchair.
It was only the beginning of this experience, and yet we were all overcome with a noticeable sense of empathy for the people captured in the photos. One of our colleagues posed this question to the group: "What is our responsibility to our global neighbors?"Other insights included the importance of human connection and how hope might emerge out of despair.
What happens when we put people at the center of our studies? What happens to the learner's experience when they explore REAL topics and the impact on REAL people? More, what happens when you engage the hearts and minds of learners?
As we transitioned to the next activity, the the facilitator* pointed out purposefully:
"Passion, curiosity, and inquiry are used to call people to action" in the design of powerful projects.
It is not just about the projects, but rather using projects as a window into humanity and as a vehicle of personal transformation.
I am looking to Day 2!!!! This is why I LOVE PROJECT BASED LEARNING.
Back in May (2016), three High Tech High teachers emailed me to say they wanted to make sure that we scheduled time to design powerful projects for our students in the upcoming school year. I was the newbie, incoming director--and I barely knew their names!! BUT, I knew they were VERY serious about designing powerful projects. In fact they had already prototyped a plan for our first days back together in the fall... (They were very pushy!!! which I LIKE!!)
Together, we created a simple survey with 3 questions like these and sent them out to our peeps:
1) What are the top 3 outcomes that you would like to see as a result of our time together during the August Staff Days?
2) What sort of support do you feel you need with project design and project planning?
A. HABANERO = "I'm on FIRE!! I can get it done and support others."
B. SPICY = "I am more than capable of spreading the flames of PBL"
C. MILD = "I'm cooking and the grill's warming up!"
3) What would be absolutely delightful during our August Staff Days?
We met twice in the summer to review the survey data and to gain insight into each person's needs and the needs of the larger group. Three major themes emerged:
CULTURE, PEOPLE, & PROJECTS
Image: Work Rules! by Lazlo Bock
Culture = who we are, what we believe, and how we work together. People = how we care for each other. Projects = designing transformative learning experiences (EPIC--projects that call people to ACTION).
Those three teachers: Jade, Jeff, and Rowan pushed us and helped us to design powerful learning experiences for the adults. We do NOT have it all figured out, but we have a strong commitment:
"To Be Excellent to Each Other & Do Badass Work." It's more like a journey than a destination and it's a badass journey! (I like saying badass, by the way...it totally agrees with my sensibilities as a jarhead!)
My role is to support their direction and our commitment. I continue to be AMAZED by their love for each other, the passion they possess for designing powerful learning experiences for students, and their love for High Tech High.