Monday, February 20, 2017

Reimagining Classrooms

Spring Branch Middle School’s core design team of campus leaders includes (left to right) Associate Superintendent for Academic Performance and Support Tyler Ream, Coordinator of Personalization Patricia Kassir, Spring Branch Middle Principal Bryan Williams and Associate Superintendent for Research and Design Elliott Witney.

Take a moment to think deeply about three crucial education questions:
  • What if all students were prepared to finish high school and inspired to reach their highest ambitions, dreams and goals?
  • What if teaching and learning were tailored especially to fit a student’s individual needs and interests?
  • How might schools and classrooms be redesigned to meet future career and job needs in a high paced, quickly changing world?
At Spring Branch Middle School, an energized group of parents, teachers and administrators have been asking these types of questions and beginning to envision what great educational experiences for students might be.

They’ve been researching, gathering data, formulating and trying out new ideas, and learning from the results. 

Spring Branch ISD is one of only 10 educational organizations across the nation chosen to be a part of an initial group of districts and schools supported in “human-centered design thinking” work by The Collaborative, a school redesign process organization.

The Collaborative is led by the nonprofit Transcend Education organization and the NewSchools Venture Fund (NSVF). Schools joining SBISD and Spring Branch Middle in redesign planning also include KIPP Houston, YES Prep, Tulsa, Okla., and District of Columbia (Washington, D.C.) public schools, among others.  

Spring Branch Middle School’s core design team of campus leaders, teachers and parents is about half way through a highly detailed and deeply resourced effort that might result in a classroom-level pilot program or project in the months ahead.

The SBISD middle school joined The Collaborative’s initial choices for review and development of new school models or program. Spring Branch Middle was joined by KIPP Houston, Yes Prep, Tulsa and District of Columbia (D.C.) public schools, among others named in the first-year focus and redesign efforts being conducted nationwide.

Transcend Education helps provide design and implementation support. This group’s work at Spring Branch Middle is part of a broader effort across the district to reimagine and redesign the traditional classroom through innovation.

Innovation examples across SBISD include two Vanguard teaching cohorts, Summit Schools classrooms at two campuses, possible implementation of the Teach-to-One Math platform at three middle schools, and ongoing, targeted work to improve our academic performance and teacher development.

As indicated in the district’s Strategic Plan, SBISD has a goal to strategically and intentionally support its schools as they move toward a more personalized learning approach for students.

Through a generous NSVF financial gift, Spring Branch Middle Principal Bryan Williams and several SBISD leaders took part in learning visits last year to a variety of innovative schools across the country.

Led by Transcend team members, the Spring Branch leaders studied compelling and effective approaches to learning and gained ideas about school design. Rob Strain, who was a founding Transcend team member, works closely today with Spring Branch Middle’s redesign team as a “thought partner.”

“As educators, we all read about these ideas in theory, but it’s being applied today, and schools across the country are already doing things for kids focused on personalized learning,” Principal Williams said after his September 2016 tour of redesigned schools. “My take away from the trip was, ‘Wow! All this theory is real work that is being done with students today.’”

At the heart of the “design thinking” and school redesign movement reflected in this work is an understanding and belief that the current model of schools is the legacy of a system created for addressing the shift from an agrarian system to an industrial society, or what is often described as the “factory model” of schooling – teachers up front and center, students sitting in desks.

While an industrial model of education has worked for some students, not all students under an industrial model have reached their fullest potential. Our rapidly changing world is creating new economic opportunities, and we know that the job market of the future will look quite different from today’s working environment.

In education, models of learning throughout the nation are trying to reimagine their design and function so that they develop students who not only reach their highest ambitions, but also are able to compete in this predicted world of rapid change. 

“Spring Branch Middle School represents our district at large: We have a rich history, incredible educators, and a lot of powerful learning for students,” Principal Williams told his parents early this school year. “We also have a real distance to go to truly serve every student and to ensure that our graduates are set up for a rapidly changing future. I see this opportunity as one that invites us to understand the nuances of that need and really think boldly about what is possible right here on our campus and, more broadly, in our district.”

Last September, Spring Branch Middle formed a Core Design Team that included five teachers, three parents and campus administrators. During October and November, the group reviewed and discussed student and family aspirations as well as current practices and experiences. The group also reflected on student needs for future success in academics and life, and conducted student interviews to help shed light on needs and aspirations.

“Our first charge as a group was to deeply listen – to spend time with different members of our community, in particular our students, to better understand aspirations as well as their current reality,” Principal Williams said.

Insights gained through this interview and listening process were used to zero in on and to think about and “imagine” solutions involving possible classroom or program redesigns. In short, how might current reality evolve to better develop student aspirations?

“I have truly enjoyed the opportunity to reimagine what the school day could look like for our students,” said parent and Transcend team member Suzanne Stiles, who now serves as SBISD PTA Council president.

“Rob Strain with Transcend and Principal Williams have done a fabulous job leading us through the process. At the beginning, it seemed like we were trying to tackle this huge unknown thing. As each meeting has gone by, we really see the progress that has been made,” she said.

Stiles is former PTA president at Spring Branch Middle. She also serves on the executive board of the Spring Branch Education Foundation.

Teachers have provided amazing insights and are dedicated to the project and process, Stiles adds, ranging from huge meeting time requirements to testing new ideas in their classrooms. “We really do have great teachers at Spring Branch Middle School!” she exclaims.

Stiles and middle school educator Michelle Easto, a team member, said that the process takes pride in its inclusiveness, listening skills, and ability to think about the wants and needs of all.

“The redesign process has provided us a new way to look at change,” Easto said. “I appreciate the fact that it begins with empathy, a genuine way to gain input from all stakeholders. It has provided us a way to focus in on the needs of our students in a logical and a well-thought out manner. What we hope to gain from the experience could result in great change for students, and I’m excited to be a part of that change!”

Students, parents and faculty are constantly updated and queried, Stiles said. The process has seemed difficult at times “because this kind of thinking forces you to imagine what you have been taught to not imagine.”

“We are not trying to change everything, but trying to reimagine what is already taking place. That means from the time kids arrive at school – Where do they go? What do they do? Could we have better areas for them to socialize in? – to what does lunch look like, how might such time be better used, what do students want to do with that time?” Stiles said rhetorically.

Teacher time and collaboration are among other weighty design process topics the group has tackled, alongside student needs. 

In recent months, the group has focused on solving key student needs and researching designs that might be applied to a Spring Branch Middle pilot project. The design group is expecting an initial prototype, or pilot, to be defined and perhaps tested on a small scale later this spring. In the “design thinking” environment, prototype ideas are often shared and adjusted, or iterated, over a short period of time to help drive positive results and create the best outcome possible.

“There are so many opportunities. It is really exciting and so positive for Spring Branch Middle School and for SBISD,” Stiles said. “I have really loved being on this design team, and there are so many super smart people on the team. We are very blessed in SBISD!”

Principal Williams praises the Transcend Education model of aiming high on educational goals and solutions, and asking a piercing question: “With no parameters or restraints, what kind of school would we want to design for our kids?”

At Spring Branch Middle, one answer to that question may be shared soon.


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