Schools of Brotherly Love
I work for the most amazing school division in the country, if not the world. One of the many reasons I can’t imagine working anywhere other than Regina Public Schools is the fact that, as a division, we value on-going professional learning all in an effort to improve learning opportunities for students. My latest opportunity to learn occurred this month in the form of site visitations to three well-known high schools in the city of Philadelphia. Joined by four awesome colleagues, we set out to see first-hand the strategies, practices, attitudes, and beliefs being used to meet the needs of a variety of learners.
What follows is hardly a detailed review of my visit to each of the three schools. Rather, as my limited time permits, my goal is to quickly share some of the synthesized main themes and discoveries I made during my stay in the city of brotherly love. A full review of each individual school would not be appropriate given the limited time we spent at each.
To set the context, here are the three schools we had the pleasure of touring:
Big Idea 1: The Importance of a Strong Advisory/Mentorship Program as the Foundation for Student Success
The title says it all. At all three high schools I visited both staff and students spoke to the power of the relationships. Student success, it would seem, can only be realized when underpinned by strong bonds forged between adults and youth. These tight relationships were easily observable by paying attention to the interactions taking place between people. Students described that their desire to feel cared for needed to be fulfilled before even thinking about participating in the learning process. Adults in the building recounted times when they spent their personal time outside of school hours to attend sporting and cultural events featuring their students, and even the odd visit to a student’s home to lend support or to connect with parents and caregivers. I got the impression that professionals in each of the three schools were committed to an unremitting, relentless pursuit of student success, and this extended far further than academic success.
Big Idea 2: If Learning Involves the Real World, You Probably Shouldn’t Always, You Know, Be in the School.
What a novel concept. Real world learning through community internship placements and service learning are an integral part of the learning experience at the schools we visited. This is not an additive to their studies at school. In fact, skills and knowledge gleaned from students’ internships created the foundation for the project-based learning completed back at the school under the guidance of teaching professionals and other adult mentors. Interestingly, at at least one of the schools, students often sought out and arranged their own interest-based internships in the community to which they reported several times per week. Experiential learning also occurred outside the internships through inquiry-driven field trips and community partnerships with local museums and places of higher learning. Guess learning doesn’t occur in a vacuum after all.
Big Idea 3: Teachers should be careful designers of learning experiences underpinned by learner-centred pedagogy.
“We teach children first, not subjects. We will leave the transmission of content up to university professors” said one of the professionals during an afternoon visit. Another teacher shared his model for carefully and collaboratively designing learning experiences that would later be reviewed and scored by colleagues before being tested on a group of learners in the school. We saw essential questions and learning values affixed to classroom walls, needed of course to help drive the inquiry and project-based learning at the schools. The role of technology in learning was also clearly articulated by our hosts at two of the schools. Both saw technology as a tool within the learning design, not as the focus itself. The idea here is that solid pedagogy should be foundation, not laptops, tablets, and interactive white boards. One of the school’s principals, however, shared with us that technology itself can be a catalyst for pedagogical change, a point countered at another school we visited. Lastly, we saw a great deal of integration of subject matter as opposed to content being taught in silos.
Big Idea 4: Some Folks Love Data Collected From Standardized Tests; Others Love Learners and Learning.