Sunday, January 29, 2012

Educon: An “Independence Hall” for Education

I woke early on day two of Educon. 2.4  I took a walk in the crisp air through historic Philadelphia. I stopped for a moment as I stood with the Liberty Bell on one side of me and Independence Hall on the other.  It was here that the Declaration of Independence was adopted, and the Constitution of the United States debated, drafted and signed. Like most Americans, I have always marveled at the inspiration, sacrifice and leadership that led our country to its birth.  And in this season of presidential primaries and an upcoming election, I wondered about the leadership and decisions that will emerge in the months ahead.

Then I wandered 17 streets to The Science Leadership Academy (SLA).  I stopped at Starbucks for breakfast and to read the latest Educon tweets and blogs as I prepped for the day.  Bill Ferriter’s post, “Three Innovation Questions Left Unanswered,” set the stage for my thinking as I continued to SLA.

Upon arrival, the room was full of educators representing many states and some countries outside of the United States.  Chris Lehmann, SLA’s principal, began the day with an enthusiastic welcome.  He noted that Educon had brought together educators from public, private, charter, magnet and other schools--a collaboration that many have thought impossible.

The day was filled with thought and debate as I attended conversations and met many people from my PLN--educators who have inspired my quest to become a 21st century educator and an advocate for optimal education for all of America’s children.  I was struck by the diversity of perspectives and roles represented by the many educators at the conference--that diversity presented challenge as we discussed topics such as discipline, resiliency, structure and content.  

At one point, I was sitting at a table with two administrators and two classroom teachers including a principal of a 4,000-student high school in Queens, a vice principal of a 2,000-student middle school in Baltimore, a teacher from a small independent school in Colorado and a social studies teacher from a 500-student middle school in New Hampshire.  As we discussed topics related to student-centered, inquiry-based schools, our points were both similar and dissimilar since the context of our teaching environments differed greatly with respect to age, class and culture, yet our goals were similar in that we all wanted to engage, empower and educate students in affirming, positive ways.  Chris Lehmann and Pia Martin led the discussion.  They discussed the common practices at SLA that minimize the “space” between teacher and student, creating a collaborative inquiry-based culture.  We noticed that each room had four similar posters including the grade-level theme with essential questions, core values, rules and a common rubric.

At another point in the conference, I found myself at a table of coaches and educators from education-related organizations.  As we discussed the implementation of new programs and structures, I found that I became a bit defensive as I heard educators from outside of schools discuss what needs to happen.  I know that my emotions were coming from the fact that so many decisions and discussions have and still occur that create curriculum, structure and systems for educators without educator input.  I firmly believe that educators have to be at the decision-making table, and what happens in schools should not be a product of outside agencies’ decisions.  

Similarly, when Mr. Green, the Philadelphia Councilman spoke about charter schools, I worried.  I’m not an economics expert, but I worry about the impact privatization will have on education. I can imagine that it’s easy to hire and fire companies that offer to educate for a fixed fee, but will those companies really care about what’s best for children and offer all of America’s students equitable opportunities to learn and grow. Yet, has public education offered that to all students?  In my opinion, equity in education, in addition to health care, are the civil rights issues of our day--do we provide adequate health care and education to all of America’s children?  I believe that every child deserves that, and by providing that for the Nation’s children, we will build a stronger citizenry who will be better equipped for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Gary Stager’s presentation on Constructing Modern Knowledge was the most applicable to my quest at Educon which is the subject of learning design.  I am seeking as much knowledge as possible to grow our current curriculum so that it includes the latest research related to cognition and life-long learning skills and habits. Stager challenged educators to use technology to amplify learning rather than focusing on “secretarial skills.” He prompted us to wake up each morning asking ourselves, “How can we make this the best seven hours in a child’s day?” and helped us to see how typical school schedules do not match one’s natural ability or inclination to learn.  He shared with us the eight steps of constructing knowledge which focus on responsive, hands-on, student-centered inquiry and activity.

In the halls, educators were discussing their dissertations, new school creations, online education, current work and many, many more topics.  In a sense, SLA had become a kind of Independence Hall for educators--a place where new ideas were being discussed to give birth to new and renewed schools as places where children thrive.  As I left SLA, I realized that Philadelphia, the birthplace of the United States, is an apt location for this conference.