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Awareness (March 2014)

i Feb 14th No Comments by

In what ways does your community deepen its collective and individual awareness?
How do you intentional build community and trust in your school? How do you intentional build community and trust in your classroom?  What is common or different? 
To what extent and purpose is your adult community committed to adult instruction and reflection?  What does that look like? 

School reform is complex. It is more than any one “right” curriculum, standardized assessment or legislation can solve.  Furthermore, given the history of power and privilege in America and American institutions such as our education system, even the most effective curriculum, assessment and instruction must be supported by dynamic conditions in support of constant inquiry, interruption and improvement – transformation.

A wise, local funder supporting a family engagement project of ours told us, “Don’t tell me that this family engagement plan will improve math scores.”  She had done enough of her own homework not only to recognize that many conditions and systems are needed to impact any such improvement – and authentic family partnership was a one such condition, not a direct cause for accelerating success and improvement for students.

With a mission to interrupt and transform our current reality in public schools, SF-CESS’ work intends to name, model and help create these conditions.  In the next weeks, Monday Musings will review the four stages (Awareness, Interruptive & Catalytic Experiences, Meaning Making, Action & Assessment) and related conditions we consider necessary for teacher – and school transformation.  This week, the focus is Awareness.

“True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing” – Socrates

 

Awareness

Before we can transform who we are or what we do in any intentional way, we must know not only where it is we wish to go, but also from where we started.  We must be aware not only of our current reality but also of our own stance and schema of this reality – in the skin we are in.

Schools spend tremendous time and resources assessing the current reality for their students and exploring prescriptive efforts to change those results – yet the patterns of who is served and not served in our schools persists across every corner of this country. Understanding our current reality requires an understanding of our history and how it impacts (intentionally and unintentionally) our present situation.  Educators and families and the larger community (including legislators) must learn about and discuss the history and design or public education in relation to our current results.  And as long as our equity gaps are inseparable from racial demographics, we need to speak openly and courageously about the legacy of slavery and the reality of race and power in America (and our schools) as well.

Given that the experience gap between so many of our educators and their least reached students includes an educators success within the very system they are challenged to change, schools also must be places where individuals can engage in ongoing inquiry and learning about their own histories – in the skin they are in – that inform their schemas (believes, mindsets, values, stances, etc.), which play out in their daily interactions and decisions.

This type of inquiry and learning is frequently de-prioritized or dismissed as “touchy-feely activities”.   When done well, this characterization could not be further from the truth.

When done well, this work does invite us to engage our affective domain – an essential component to work in today’s educational system.  Why should we not create space to do affective work given that the current reality – if looked at with honesty – should cause outrage, sadness and fear?   Still, such work is a leap from business as usual for many schools, so time and attention need to be committed to creating the conditions for the honest exploration of our histories and current realities – individually and collectively.

We have learned that some conditions and their related strategies support and develop individual and shared awareness. While not exhaustive, these include Intentional Community and Trust Building as well as Instruction and Reflection.

Intentional Community and Trust Building
To move a school culture from the limited paradigm of head and hands work only to that of including the work of our hearts and histories requires a deeper level of honesty and risk taking.  This requires an investment in developing community and trust between individuals and as a collective. There is a litany of resources for developing trust and community, the least of which include:

 

  • Calibrating and using a common purpose for the community – this work occurs at many levels, from the organizational mission and vision to objectives and goals for collective meetings and work.

  • Developing, agreeing on and actively using community and discourse norms and expectations – perhaps more important is also agreeing on and actively using responses when norms or expectations are not met.

  • Agreeing on definitions for the community’s common language – it is especially important to share understanding of power language such as accountability, collaboration, culture, engagement, equity, leadership, respect, etc.

  • Engaging in meaningful and intentional and meaningful trust building work – this needs to occur regularly in a manner and should model the community and trust development needed with our students and families.

  • Providing ample time and reflective prompts for regular and meaningful storytelling about our experiences, values and beliefs – these could include simple think-pair-shares, panel and fishbowl presentations, or larger group discussions such as Socratic Seminars.

  • Developing and using transparent decision-making and conflict-resolution practices – decisions and challenges arise normally in-group dynamics and conflicts frequently arise because of how we respond.

 

Instruction and Reflection

We can no longer reinforce cultures in which it is unacceptable to say, “I don’t know”.  Our learning must include data discussions and direct instruction in the areas where community knowledge is limited or isolated and reflection of our history/ histories – as a system and as individuals. Effective efforts include but are not limited to:

 

  • Engaging in regular equity-centered data based inquiry – one of the few benefits to NCLB is that our schools and districts have gotten very good at collecting, disaggregating and doing quick analyses on its data.  What still lacks is collective and courageous community discourse about the results and their root causes.  These conversations require time, care and strong facilitation.

  • Including the expertise of others – while it is true that public education’s systems do not naturally foster the trust and empowerment needed for educators to develop answers to their dilemmas, it also is important to recognize that as educators, we don’t always know what we don’t know. Just as important as it is to support peer-led professional inquiry and learning communities, we must create communities in which outsiders and outside expertise are welcomed to provide direct instruction and diverse perspectives – especially when our insiders have not demonstrated sufficient knowledge or representation to serve students unlike themselves.

  • Naming and reflecting on the skin we are in – simultaneous to deepening our awareness of our current reality and systemic design, we must reflect on our own experiences in this system and our resulting operant theory or schema for how we navigate within it – from our values and beliefs to expectations and biases.

  • Expecting and fostering humility – given the vast representation of dominant culture within our schools, many are challenged to adopt the humility necessary to fully embrace the multiple and divergent experiences, perspectives and truths about school and the conflicts these may surface between our espoused and operant theories of action.  Towards more equitable schools, humility is not a sign of uncertainty or weakness, but rather a necessary leadership quality that should be modeled and supported and evidenced in how a school looks at core systems from hiring to collaboration to supervision.

 

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