Being the “new kid on the block” can often feel overwhelming, stressful, and sometimes just plain scary. However, on my first day of work in the School of Education at Mills College, I felt peaceful, relaxed, and very happy to be here. The faculty, students, and staff all bring something unique to this place. They are inspired, passionate, dedicated, kind and helpful people. I feel very lucky to have the opportunity to work here with them all.
The Mills College campus is beautiful with lush, green grass, white buildings with red tile roofs, and towering oak and eucalyptus trees. It is a paradise to behold. This beauty radiates a peacefulness which is not found on larger campuses or universities. This peace fosters creativity and innovation as well as a genuine thirst for knowledge. As I look out from my open office window on a warm, sunny afternoon, I can hear children playing outside. Every day I say to myself, “I work in an amazing place.”
Of all the jobs that I have held throughout my career in early childhood education and administration, very few have been so positive and so enjoyable as working at the School of Education. Everyone here at Mills listens to each other, respects each other, and works together in an uncommon way that moves this school forward with a shared goal to make it even better, stronger, and “ahead of the curve.”
For people who have been at Mills for some time, it might be hard to see or remember how special this place is. For me, having just arrived, I am reminded daily of something I tell myself often: “Try not to take things for granted in your life, look at what you have with fresh eyes and be grateful for it.”
I wrote a post for this blog back in February, when I was planning to open a new school in Freedom, Maine. Shortly after writing the post, I held some informational sessions at local public libraries in the area. I wanted to see how many families might be interested in this type of school. It’s really outside of the box: three days a week, half of every school day spent outside, a truly multi-age setting of 5-10 year-colds all together, two full-time teachers, preparing and eating meals together made from local, organic foods… I just didn’t know if there would be enough interest to make a go of it.
At the first information session, one person showed up.
Three came to the second, and three came to the third. I paused to reconsider the idea. I thought deeply, talked to all my people, and decided in the end to go ahead with it. Even if I could get ten children, I figured, at least I would have a wonderful school environment for my own two daughters, and I would be able to provide what I feel is the best that education has to offer to another eight local children.
Well, The Mill School opened its doors on September 10th, fully enrolled with twenty local children, ages five to ten, and another eighteen on the waiting list. As it turns out, a lot of people are interested in exactly this kind of school. And so far, things are going as smoothly as can be expected at a brand new school. My colleague and I have changed the daily schedule about five times already. But the children are relaxed and happy, the parents are so supportive, and we have time to really get to know the children, as people, and as learners. Our first place-based curricular unit has begun, our food is delicious, and we are spending a lot of time outside, building strong bodies and connecting to the natural environment. The children are learning the daily routines. It feels to me as if this outside-of-the-box school is blossoming. As one student said to me yesterday, “It’s so weird. At my old school, the teacher was the enemy. But here, you’re just not. You two, like, seem to really care about us.” I smiled, and she paused before she added, “And the food here is so good too!”
I am always interested in hearing about other schools where things are being done differently; please let me know if you have a story to share. You can contact me, and learn more about The Mill School, at www.themillschool.org
How often have you heard someone deplore Twitter as the downfall of writing? It happened to me –again—just the other day, when a former teacher carefully explained that because of Twitter, no one stays on topic in a sustained way. I feel that this is a lot to put on Twitter. People used to blame Sesame Street for shortening children’s attention spans by creating too short intervals of drama. Maybe we move, think, and write more quickly now than we used to, but I’m not sure that Twitter and Sesame Street are wholly to blame. For example, there was a time in the olden days when we wrote in short little bursts, a time that was also known for elegant formal writing. How different, I wonder, is Twitter from a telegram?
Consider this example, from the 1960s:
MISS MARGARET BHAL= POCAHONTAS ARK=
CONGRATULATIONS WE ARE VERY PROUD OF YOUR ACCOMPLISHMENT
IN WINNING THE SOUTHWESTERN PIANO AUDITION=
WINTHROP ROCKEFELLER GOVERNOR=
If you remove the address and signature, it’s tweetable. As is this gem:
May 5th 1945
International Moscow via Mackay Radio
To: Mr Joseph Bard
We congratulate you with setting up the banner of victory upon Berlin by the Red Army = Signed Family Phillip Berdichevsky
The first telegram, of congratulations, and the second one, reflecting world events, could easily be on Twitter today, though we would write them a little differently. (If you are interested in recasting your tweets as telegrams, here are best practices.) Both forms limit how you construct your message. One big big difference between them is that telegrams were for special occasions, whereas Twitter is an every day if not every hour sort of thing. Another difference is that a telegram goes to one person, who then has to spread the news. When you tweet, you share your thoughts or news with everyone you know.
Some people don’t like that because it seems self-promoting and -aggrandizing. But social media can be about more than the individual –the way the School of Education’s Twitter feed, Facebook page, and blog are. You send us your individual news, accomplishments, or thoughts; we combine them with other people’s news and what we get is a picture of who we are as a community. Scroll through our feeds or check them regularly, and you will begin to see what values we hold and represent, and what goals we treasure.
I love this for two reasons. First, it puts concrete examples to fairly abstract concepts. I frequently stand on a soapbox in SOE meetings and declare that it’s fine to say that we are all about Leadership, Equity, and Collaboration, but the power of the words comes when we show how we practice these values. How do we see and define leadership? How do we collaborate and embody equity? Just as any musical group has its own sound, so we have a distinct take on these qualities. And we can share our interpretation not just by describing it, but showing it in action. Social media is the mirror that reflects that action.
I also love social media because it makes another hub of community for our school. One hub is, of course, the classroom, where you meet and learn with your colleagues. Another hub is the wide world, where you may work with other alums. But social media is broader. It is a place where current or prospective students can learn what our graduates do with their degrees. It is a place where graduates can see what their professors are working on now. It is a place where we can share a video our organization made or news of an upcoming event. From social media, we get a wonderful sense of the variety and depth of our work, both here at Mills, and in the world.
Twitter hasn’t kept me from being able to write, for example, a 700 word blog. Twitter has made it much easier for me to tap into the community I work with. It is a real and compelling reflection of who we are, and why we are unique.
Elizabeth Baker is the Associate Professor of Practice TTS/Math-Science 4 + 1 Program Director at the School of Education at Mills College.
“What we observe is not nature itself but nature observed to our method of questioning.” –Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy
In 1995, California launched the “Garden in Every School” program, and since then the Department of Education has provided standards, curriculum, and evaluative research for school gardens. In addition, the legislature has enacted several bills that promote and (partially) fund school gardens. In 2003, when I was hired to work on an NSF grant using a garden-based mathematics curriculum, there were 3,000 public edible school gardens in California. By 2008 when our grant ended, there were 6,000 schools participating in the edible school garden movement (http://cns.ucdavis.edu/news/index.cfm). Currently, the California School Garden Network reckons that there are close to 10,000 schools participating.
Our state continues to emphasize nutrition education and health through the CA Nutrition Services Department, which now manages the Garden in Every School program. Consequently, we see many raised bed vegetable boxes on typically asphalt-covered or flat green space. School gardens in public urban areas generally do not contain intimate spaces, wild spaces, or even much digging room. Often there is no place to sit or gather a group of students together. There are exceptions, most notably The Edible School Yard at the MLK garden in Berkeley, and two of my favorite spaces: Franklin Elementary and Joaquin Miller in Oakland. Although there are detractors, the most incendiary being Caitlin Flanagan (Cultivating Failure in the January 1, 2010 issue of the Atlantic Monthly), incorporating a school garden into elementary and some secondary schools continues to be on the side of the angels, and research backs up the academic and social/behavioral merits. (See, for example, Lieberman and Hoody, Closing the Achievement Gap: Using the Environment as an Integrating Context for Learning, a 1992 paper presented at the State Education and Environmental Roundtable San Diego; D. Blair, The Child in the Garden: An Evaluative review of the Benefits of School Gardening, in the Journal of Environmental Education, Winter, Vol. 40, issue 2 in 2009.)
I recently returned from an inspiring trip to England that included visits to gardens, including school gardens. I was struck by the diversity and creative use of small school garden spaces for academic use. Perhaps because there has been a long history of gardening as a national pastime, of small home gardens, and of community vegetable allotments, the educational use focused more on creating interesting, diverse, and/or beautiful spots for students to be in –in other words, the emphasis was more on wonder and less on fava beans.For example, some schools, taking their lead from the British Natural History Museum, and perhaps less worried about bee stings or law suits from bee stings, kept bee houses if they found bees near the school. If there was a source of unwanted timber, typically tree stumps, schools made “stumperies”. When I asked what were the best kind of stumps for stumperies, I was told “the ones available!” These are seeded with ferns and soil then left to be; as they decompose, they become a great habitat. Schools emphasize increasing wildlife and diversity, and the students are counting, year after year. Counting the rain, the sun, the clouds, the insects, the arachnids, the birds, the ferns, and the plants that appear. The students use data from past years’ classes, and as the years add up so do the questions and evidence about what new has arrived and in what quantities, what the climate is up to, and what change is happening. Elementary gardens don’t look so elementary. They are intensely local just as the students are.
I know that some of our schools are doing these kinds of things too: creating habitat gardens for butterflies; bee- and pollinator-friendly plantings that may include vegetables too, and other naturalized and native plant areas. But even though we live in a place where we can harvest strawberries in November, it is hard work and most of the work falls on the shoulders of teachers. I can attest to the community building and wonderful things that can happen on “community garden days” (a euphuism for weeding) in our local public schools, but I am hoping we can opt for a certain spaciousness of thinking and planning in our school garden spaces that allow for things to emerge –a constructivist approach to school gardens, if you will. Let’s resist the pressing urge to align all of the garden work to the standards, guidelines, and benchmarks, and justify it with the test scores. Resist imposing specific questions with correct answers. Resist imposing order to the planter boxes. Let’s instead create spaces that invite paying close attention, welcoming places for students to be idle and just observe and develop their own method for questions.
This July, I went with five educators—including Linda Kroll, Fredi Breuer, Serena Clayton and Regie Stites—to Haiti to work with teachers from three different schools supported by Sionfonds [http://www.sionfondsforhaiti.org], an NGO founded by Annie Blackstone. Sionfonds works with local communities to construct buildings for schools in locations with few, and sometimes no, educational opportunities. Once the schools are established, Sionfonds pays teacher salaries and provides medical and dental care for children and families in the school community. During the past two years, the organization has also provided professional development to improve teaching, a crucial matter in Haiti where literacy rates are alarmingly low among children and adults. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Education_in_Haiti]
We spent a week at the Sionfonds school in Cavaillon, a small rural community about four hours from Port-Au-Prince. Together with 25 teachers from the three schools, we ran a week-long summer school for about 190 children that focused on community building, reading, writing, and bookmaking. Our goal was to introduce collaborative methods while teaching the children and teachers. We first spent the first day working with the teachers. For the rest of the week, the teachers spent each morning in classrooms, teaching in teams of two and three; in the afternoons, they met with us to reflect on their experiences and learn new methods for collaboration and teaching literacy. They used this knowledge to plan the next day.
We wanted the teachers to be captured by the excitement of collaborating with one another to learn new methods of teaching. We also wanted them to learn new ways to talk about reading, writing, and making books. We knew they would learn differently if we set them up to learn with and from each other. We hoped teachers would then bring these same methods into their classrooms, so that students could learn with and from peers as well as from teachers. We also wanted teachers and students –many of whom live in homes with no books—to feel that they were readers and writers. Overall, we wanted to convey that school is much more than preparation for tests, and education can allow children and adults alike to dream and imagine new possibilities.
We were pleased to find that there was already lots of collaboration in the school. The classrooms were partitioned off by small poles and narrow strips of canvas, with as many as five classrooms in a single open space. The voices of teachers and children from all the adjoining classes mixed together, sometimes creating so much noise it was difficult to hear. Great teaching ideas traveled between classes along with and through the sounds.
We built on this collaboration as we paired teachers from different schools to teach in a single classroom and then introduced literacy practices that could be taught using collaborative methods. One more formal collaborative practice is called “collaborative mentoring,” and we introduced it to the teaches as a way they could observe and provide feedback for each other’s teaching. Teachers shared their classroom experiences and observations in powerful conversations, and over the week we saw them try out practices they observed in their partner teachers’ classes.
Similarly, although the children often worked together informally, we showed the teachers several formal strategies they could use to help students collaborate. In Haiti, as in much of the world, teachers ask questions and the whole class responds – hopefully with the answer anticipated by the teacher. We showed teachers how they could instead engage the students by having them turn to a partner to discuss the ideas in the book rather than by searching for a correct answer. We suggested that they ask students questions to elicit more details in their writing, rather than simply demanding that they fill a page. Further, we encouraged them to teach pairs of students to try this same process with each other. During the week, each teacher and student made two different kinds of books, one for poetry and one for narrative writing; at our celebration at the end of the week, younger and older children shared their stories with one another, illustrating another form of collaboration.
A week of literacy and collaboration was a powerful experience for the teachers and students. During the time we were in Cavaillon, we saw so much change. We saw adults and children learn the pleasure of reading stories with unexpected endings and of arguing about their meaning. We saw them experience the delight of seeing poems and stories unfold, of writing in books they made themselves, and sharing those books with their families and friends. They learned to view themselves as readers and authors. On the last day, a fifth grade teacher told us, “We know a lot of stories but I never decided to write them down. Last night I wrote a beautiful story in French. I will ask the children to make predictions when I read it in September. I think the story will go far and I am very happy.”
Our work in Haiti illustrates how important it is to create opportunities for teachers and students to work together and learn from one another. In the United States we have largely eliminated such opportunities for collaboration in our relentless push to raise test scores and close the so-called achievement gap. We forget how important it is for teachers to learn from one another and share their expertise, which reinforces the professionalism of teaching. In a world consumed by high stakes educational reform, we have become blind to how collaborative practice improves the quality of teaching. I suggest we pause, reflect, and learn from efforts such as our work in Haiti, where we saw teachers and children learning from and with each other, and joyfully and proudly changing their practices.
Katherine Schultz is the Dean and Professor of Education at the School of Education at Mills College.
In my last blog, I introduced the Inquiry into Leadership for Early Childhood Professionals Project. Now I want to take you inside one of these meetings…
Each time we gather, a presenter courageously opens up his or her professional practice for public discussion sharing a current dilemma she/he is facing in the workplace. We use the Prospect Center’s Descriptive Review (DR) of a Professional Dilemma of Practice, a structured inquiry protocol. The DR process uses thick description of “the particular”—e.g., individuals, relationships, communities, and contexts—as methods for strengthening equity (El Haj, 2003; Himley & Carini, 2000), a stark contrast with approaches that minimize human variation through top-down universalist interventions (Himley, 2000).
The DR process models how leadership can be strengthened through collaborative inquiry as new layers of understanding emerge when groups engage in sustained conversation around a shared topic. Early childhood professionals are able to put the world “out of play” for a moment with time to pause, reflect, reframe and return to their professional world to “act in it in wiser ways” (Himley, 2000, p. 200).
The dilemmas we have explored to date are wide-ranging. Two examples of guiding questions include:
- As a program manager at a family engagement non-profit agency, how can I leverage my position as a trainer/consultant to support the schools, teachers, and families I am working with to strengthen family engagement within the program?
- As a special education preK teacher in an urban school district, how do I remain true to my teaching practices when given inconsistent resources and support?
To provide a window into the types of discourse that emerge, I share brief moments of Natalia’s dilemma [2nd question above] about working in a public preK special education class in a low income urban school district. She explained the daily challenges presented by a lack of resources:
“For example, I don’t have a telephone in my room and I’m way across the field from everyone else and yet I have a child with a seizure disorder and so I have my cell phone with me in case I need to call 911. I’m supposed to have an aide but she went on break one day and never came back. I park in a parking lot that is gated and I need to leave at 3:30pm every day for safety reasons, which leaves me with no time to prep for my teaching. I’m all alone for most of the day as some days the transitions are so hard for the children to get to the playground that we don’t even leave the classroom. The bathrooms in my classroom are filthy, the window is broken and there are very few toys or materials for the children. The physical environment is INCREDIBLY challenging to navigate for children with developmental challenges. I was trained to see quality environments as the right of every child. It has been very hard to have that here.”
Natalia’s colleagues asked 30 minutes of clarifying questions to help everyone understand the dilemma in more depth inspiring her to reflect on her relationships, her purposes, and goals for teaching, and the agency she had to influence positive change. For example:
- How much freedom do you have to create your own curriculum?
- Could you be written up for licensing violations?
- What have been your successes? What are you proud of?
- How did you make the decision to teach at this school?
Next, the group offered Natalia 22 recommendations. She listened but was asked not to respond. This helps the presenter learn to quiet her/his habit of ‘reacting’ to feedback. It also recognizes that the recommendations could be helpful for other participants as the dilemmas are acting as collective texts that everyone can use for strengthening practice. A more experienced colleague working in the same district encouraged Nalalia to go over the IEP rights every time she met with families and encourage them to contact the district office. Others reminded her that relationships, not things, are at the heart of teachers’ work. She was also encouraged to be strategic with her ‘asks,’ to decide on two she really wanted, allowing her under-resourced district a way to meet her needs.
Natalia’s colleagues encouraged her to reframe the situation and see herself as the primary resource for her students, to focus her energy on building strategic relationships with others in her district and to focus on the successes and changes she could make. Natalia reported having new ways of considering and responding to her dilemma and a renewed sense of what she called “unity and support” to inspire her. Other participants reported that the process helped them to learn to listen to others, to value collegial relationships, and to understand the courage that leadership required.
Three years ago, I found myself completing a grant report where I became intrigued with one of the questions I was required to answer: “What are you doing to support leadership development for your alumni after they leave Mills?” After thinking for quite some time, I realized that I was unable to answer the question. As I drove home that night, I sat with the tension of the empty answer box on the report, and my knowledge of the importance of providing alumni with sustained opportunities to continue the learning and intellectual growth they started in graduate school.
After thoughtful conversations with Dean Kathy Schultz and with my colleagues, I collaborated with Professor Linda Kroll and Mills alumna Jennifer Kagiwada to launch the “Inquiry into Leadership for Early Childhood Professionals Project.” Now in its third year, we invite alumni four times each year to the Mills campus to enjoy the opportunity to engage in deep and engaged conversations about the rich and complex work of early childhood professionals over a pizza dinner. At each meeting, a presenter courageously opens up her/his professional practice by sharing a dilemma she/he currently confronts in the workplace.
The professionals who participate in the Inquiry meetings represent a very diverse group: family child care providers; infant/toddler/preschool, elementary, and special education teachers; preschool directors and site supervisors; family engagement coordinators; resource and referral specialists; subsidy administrators; philanthropists; experts in policy and advocacy; early interventionists; college instructors and researchers. Some have been in the field for decades, while others graduated from Mills only last year. Each inquiry varies according to the participants in attendance, the dilemma explored, and even the environment where it takes place. Yet common across all of the inquiries is the collaborative production of complexities that participants (especially the presenter) had not previously understood.
We have been very inspired by the rich conversations and the strengthened relationships that resulted from the first three years of the Inquiry into Leadership for Early Childhood Professionals Project. This past year, we decided to expand the Inquiry Events to include community partners beyond Mills ECE graduates. We are interested in sharing this model of inquiry with our valued colleagues in the larger field. We also had the wonderful opportunity of having one of our meetings filmed by West Ed for the California Department of Education. They plan to create a 5-7 minute video segment of the meeting included on a DVD linking the new California Early Childhood Educator Competencies (http://www.cde.ca.gov/sp/cd/re/ececomps.asp) with contextualized examples of how the competencies can look when authentically embedded in professional practice. The Mills Inquiry Event will exemplify how leadership can be developed in the early childhood field and linked to the leadership competencies used for professional development for teachers and administrators across the state. We were honored to be part of this important project.
Thinking back to that grant report three years ago, I can now reflect on what a tremendous gift it has been to work with such an engaging and thoughtful group of professional colleagues to collaborate on the development of this professional learning community. “What are you doing to support leadership development for your alumni after they leave Mills?”