Creating a Shared Instructional Vision: From the Founding Year to the Present
Three years ago, when the founding staff opened the school there was a shared vision of instruction. We experimented with an innovative hybrid of problem based learning and Understanding by Design. One of the pictures we used to share this idea of alignment was that of misaligned railroad tracks. We believed and knew that if we were not constantly talking about instruction in the same way, we would be well intentioned professionals that would not achieve our mission. A common language, a common time, and a common mental model were mission critical.
In department meetings we looked at student work and teacher work to ensure a common understanding and definition of rigor. You see, the CCSS was just introduced and we were trying our best to define what the standards meant, how to teach them, and how to assess them. We also implemented an AP for All model in the 9th grade starting with AP World History. This decision, albeit controversial, gave us a road map for rigor. In this context, we defined rigor as text complexity and writing demands.
The year was exciting. We were pioneers trying to create a proof point of success in DC without pushing kids out and without being self-selective. The constraints were and still are noble and provide a beacon that continues to guide our growth.
The Growth Years: Years 2 and 3
Then, we doubled and tripled in size. The staff that joined us in the second year of the school were equally talented and enterprising and brought a new fire to the team. Each of the members brought a complementary skill set that we did not know that we needed. We were still small enough to share ideas, information, and common time, and a common language. You see, the largest team of teachers in the second year was only four.
We began to meet as grade level teams in the second year. With two grade levels with distinct needs, it was clear that the time and talent needed to be allocated in different ways to solve what we saw as intractable problems. In terms of complexity of students, we tripled our size in a year. The needs of the students in the second year presented more stress than our structures were designed to hold. We saw behavioral challenges with our first emotionally disabled students and did not have all of the supports available to help them achieve. This was a trying year but because of our size in numbers, we still enjoyed shared conversations about instruction, rigor, task complexity, and the progress of our students.
We continued to grow as expected adding more complexity, more ideas, and more potential. The teachers joining us in the third year were excited and I was excited to continue to learn with them. At the beginning of last year, I reflected at our size and then was saddened by our size. I realized that I had not clarified the expectations of planning enough for a team of now almost 30 people to implement a rigorous curriculum consistently. Everyone was planning and documenting their curriculum in their own way, using their own tools. Some folks were still using curriculum frameworks from the first year and others were using tools gathered at PDs, etc.
In our third year, we also experimented with competency based models of learning. An innovation unto itself, this model challenges conventional frameworks of teaching and planning and where and when learning occurs. This is tremendously exciting because we saw students experience levels of success that we have not seen in the traditional setting.
With all of these new ideas, we have to think about the experience of our most exceptional students. For our specialists, who have to modify and make accommodations for our students with special needs, our planning was not efficient. With lessons looking different on different tools, you can only imagine how many different switches they would have to turn off and on daily. More importantly, additional consideration was needed for our most exceptional students. Could modifications and accommodations be implemented with fidelity if we are all planning and think differently about instruction? What does this mean for instructional across a grade level? What is the impact of this on student achievement? After a year of PBIS implementation, I was asking myself 3 guiding questions:
· How do we approach instructional planning?
· How do we all share the same expectations for planning?
· How do we institutionalize our instructional practice?
Enter Year 4: A Vision in Action
In the fourth quarter of the game, we have even more dynamic, brilliant staff and bigger instructional puzzles to solve. This is the inaugural year of the PARCC assessment. It is exciting to finally have a challenging assessment that can really help us prepare our students for the college of their choice. We have a glimpse of the test’s expectations and we know that we have to think differently about assessment and instruction in order to prepare our students effectively. If we implement the same curriculum, with the same planning habits, we will not get a different result. This hurts students.
In our fourth year, I am excited that our largest planning team is now over 10 people. With even more people, the need for a shared instructional vision is greater now than ever before. The vision in action is how we document our ideas on the unit planning and lesson planning templates. This documentation is not about compliance. It is about a commitment to our students and mission and allows all of us to work better and smarter together.
Every morning when I prepare for work, I could not be more excited and proud to work with this team. The thoughtfulness and care exhibited, I believe, is unmatched. Our peer culture is strong and makes even the most stressful days joyous. You all shine so bright, that other people see your shine too. There will be a time when you are ready for the next challenge. It might be here. It might be elsewhere. If I did not work my best to capture your brilliance on paper, I failed our school and the classes of 2019, 2020, 2021, and so on. I am asking you to document the lessons and units for the future student that does not yet attend Haynes. I want to make sure that the quality only improves and we need a baseline first. The documentation of our curriculum this year is the baseline. Write with detail. Share your thinking. Your ideas are important and valuable. Let’s work together to create a shared vision that will continue to prepare our students for the college of their choice.