Arlington ISD is engaged in a 5-year partnership with The Holdsworth Center to help them grow outstanding leaders at the district and campus levels. Half the district’s campuses will go through a 2-year Campus Leadership Program, in which a team of school leaders work to strengthen their own personal leadership skills and tackle a problem on their campus that impacts student outcomes. Katherine Young is on the Crow Leadership Academy Campus Leadership Program team, and their student-centered problem is around giving students more voice, choice and ownership in their learning. She and her team will graduate from the program in July.
I’m working with a teacher on a reading comprehension lesson using a passage about hurricanes, part of my job as an instructional coach at Crow Leadership Academy in Arlington ISD. When I’m in coaching mode, I ask two questions: How can we make learning more engaging for our students and how can we get our students to take ownership of their learning experience?
As I talk with the teacher, we come up with an idea. What if we gave students time to explore any natural phenomenon that fascinated them – tsunamis, volcanoes, forest fires – and conduct their own research?
The kids take the opportunity and run with it, happily working together and delivering their findings in novel and creative ways. I can see the teacher is excited and proud of what her students have accomplished.
But I also know these unscheduled detours are difficult for teachers; they have a lot of material to cover in a short amount of time, and when testing pressure bears down, it feels like there’s barely time to breathe much less expand upon a single lesson.
The majority of our 500 students at Crow come from low-income families and neighborhoods. Historically, our state test scores have not been strong. As a school community, we are facing some big challenges.
But as educators, we believe it’s our responsibility to equip our students for whatever lies ahead not just in the next grade but in the rest of their lives. And that means teaching them to think for themselves. We don’t want them learning just to pass a test or please a teacher. We want them learning because they’re genuinely curious and excited by their own discoveries. We want them to leave school confident in their ability to take on the world.
It’s become clear we will not reach that goal with a traditional, passive approach to learning.
Rethinking our approach
While Crow has made huge gains in building a strong, positive culture over the past four years, our students have continued to struggle academically and enrollment has declined. The percentage of students meeting or mastering required skills has hovered under 40 percent since 2017-18.
In many classrooms, we noticed that kids would come to class, sit in rows and absorb information from the teacher. They were not being asked – or empowered – to think critically.
We looked around for programs that would push us to think differently. We chose to pursue becoming an International Baccalaureate, or IB, school because the use of inquiry-based learning methods would give students more voice, choice and ownership of their learning.
At its highest level, inquiry-based learning asks students to pose their own questions, problems or scenarios, seek out their own answers, and organize that information in a compelling or persuasive way. Instead of being the keeper of all knowledge, the teacher’s role is to facilitate the student’s own learning. Our littlest ones don’t start at this level, of course, which is why we take a laddered approach over time toward the highest levels of inquiry.
Using this approach also means allowing students to sometimes struggle when it benefits them, a practice that’s especially tough when time is short.
In the first year of pursuing IB, we focused on transforming our physical spaces. We helped teachers repurpose furniture to create flexible seating that supported conversation and collaboration.
Now in our second year, teachers are using development and planning time to dig into the state-mandated curriculum, or TEKS, and create lessons that will not only be aligned to our state standards but will also introduce choice and inquiry to drive the learning deeper. How can we design one assignment that will allow students to practice a host of skills – reading, writing, math and scientific investigation?
A huge boon for us has been our participation in The Holdsworth Center’s Campus Leadership Program, a 2-year learning journey that has not only brought our leadership team closer together but has also taught us new ways to approach problem-solving on our campus. Just like our kids, the grown-ups are still learning too.
Holdsworth has taught us to slow down and be more methodical in our approach. We are making fewer assumptions, instead using data and evidence to drive our decision-making and figure out what’s working (or not working).
The valley of doubt
I won’t sugarcoat it. Breaking down and rebuilding what and how we teach every day is a ton of work. We are all tired. When state accountability test results came out last year, our scores fell significantly. It felt like a punch in the gut. We knew there were a number of factors at play, but we also questioned our commitment to student voice, choice and ownership. Were we doing the right thing? Could we really make this work?
It was in this valley of doubt this past fall that I boarded a plane to San Diego with my principal to visit High Tech High, a school dedicated to teaching through collaborative, student-led projects. The learning expedition was sponsored by The Holdsworth Center as part of the Campus Leadership Program.
After touring the campus, I sat down with a student named Jasmine for an empathy interview – basically an open conversation designed to understand the thoughts and feelings of another person to uncover unexpected insights.
“I feel like I have a voice in the classroom,” Jasmine told me. “The teachers don’t treat me like a baby – they ask me for my opinion and how I want to do my assignments. I feel like I’m doing work for more than a grade.”
As I sat there listening to her, I knew that this is what my students needed; we were on the right path. But I also knew that path would not be paved with rainbows and butterflies. We heard enough from the principal and staff to know that they struggled with the same challenges we did. They didn’t have it all figured out, but that did not stop them from innovating.
Hoping and persevering
Recently, a team of leaders from Klenk Elementary in Klein ISD came to Crow as part of a paired learning exchange through Holdsworth’s Campus Leadership Program. As part of that visit, Klenk leaders popped into classrooms and conducted empathy interviews with Crow students, a practice we adopted after our visit to High Tech High.
It was a wonderful exchange, but we learned we have a long way to go. Many of our students reported they do not yet feel they have a voice or choice in their learning and told us we can do a better job providing hands-on learning experiences.
Other students, however, told us they felt like their teachers truly cared about their learning, and that they felt safe asking questions because a teacher told them there were no wrong answers. This is progress, and we celebrate all the victories we can.
When state test scores come out in June, we hope to see our efforts reflected in higher numbers. But the real test of whether we have succeeded will come from the mouths of our students.
When they tell us, like Jasmine did, that they feel their opinion matters and that they are learning because they want to – not because they have to – then we will know we have succeeded. When they are willing to take chances, persevere through challenges and use their talents to make a difference for someone else, we will have succeeded. When our students can compete with confidence on the same level as peers who have not struggled with poverty, we will have succeeded.
This work is hard, but it is the greatest gift we can give our students. Just as we ask them to persevere, we must do the same.