School Climate & Safety Opinion

Educator-to-Educator Mentoring to Support Real-World Learning Redesign

By Contributing Blogger — February 28, 2019 6 min read
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By Casey Lamb, the chief operating officer for Schools That Can

On Feb.5-6, 2019, in Pittsburgh, the Transforming Learning Collaborative (TLC), a partnership between Next Generation Learning Challenges, Schools That Can, and Da Vinci Schools, launched the midwinter convenings for its first ever TLC Incubator. The Incubator is a yearlong experience for teams interested in designing a new school or redesigning learning in an existing school to align with real-world learning practices like project-based learning, mastery-based grading, and industry partnerships.

Incubator teams meet up three times throughout the year—together at the fall TLC Conference at Da Vinci Schools to set goals for the year, across the country at carefully curated midwinter convenings tailored to school needs, and at a culminating event at the STC Forum in the spring. The trip to Pittsburgh marked the first of five convenings, each of which included school visits, best-practice presentations, and design sessions led by the team’s mentors.

Over two days in Pittsburgh, local schools shared best practices relevant to the Incubator team from Educational Solutions, a charter-management organization that runs three schools in Columbus, Ohio. Ed Solutions has been making steady academic progress; it is now trying to do more project-based learning (PBL). Building on an after-school robotics club it ran last year, the CMO is integrating PBL into the school day with a pilot group of 6th grade students and teachers across two schools. The long-term goal is to incorporate PBL instruction within core content classrooms organizationwide. During its trip to Pittsburgh, Ed Solutions learned from three schools, all with different approaches to project-based learning: Montour school district, Manchester Academic Charter School, and Avonworth school district.

At Montour, real-world learning and innovative technology abounds. The team visited Montour’s middle and elementary schools and learned about how they are using the theme of artificial intelligence (AI) to focus learning around real-world challenges. This included observing a middle school class just beginning its AI unit and a presentation from the district’s director of innovation, Justin Aglio. The biggest takeaway from Aglio’s talk: While technology grows exponentially and no one can predict what the future holds, we do know that it is people who will ultimately design and control the future of technology. As teachers, we must acknowledge these realities and prepare students by equipping them with a foundational understanding of new technologies like AI.

Next up, Manchester Academic Charter School shared how it leverages partnerships with industries in the Pittsburgh community to do more than is possible alone. In particular, school leaders highlighted their partnership with the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh and the Museum Lab, which will soon house their middle school in a new state-of-the-art museum wing. This will foster further collaboration with museum educators as they test out approaches to learning that can transform teachers’ lessons.

To round out the first day, the Avonworth school district shared its transformative journey to fully integrated project-based learning across the district. Though the district has traditionally maintained strong graduation rates and test scores, Superintendent Tom Ralston recognized that preparing students for the real world means more than training them to succeed on tests. He and his team brought together a cohort of stakeholders who visited schools across the country to hone their vision, bringing back new ideas and engaging students to determine what they wanted to do differently in their classrooms. Ultimately, this led to a transformed culture and approach to instruction across their district.

On the second day of the convening, the team from Ed Solutions gathered at Avonworth to observe classrooms and work on their own goals. Visiting classes, they spoke with students about their current project, which includes collaborating with the Heinz History Museum to curate an exhibit that they were presenting for Black History Month. Students were working in teams to create an artistic piece that tells the story of a significant person or event. These pieces were to be featured in a museum exhibit at the end of the month that will be open to the community and for which the students will act as docents.

Inspired by all they had learned, the team from Ed Solutions then worked through a design protocol facilitated by Kaitlin Toon, their Da Vinci Schools mentor, to fine tune plans for their PBL pilot, which will integrate science and technology for teachers and students this spring. In fact, though only a few weeks have passed, the team from Ed Solutions has already received additional training from Ready AI, one of Montour’s partners. Toon shared her admiration for the hard work and dedication the team at Ed Solutions brings to the table. “They’re so committed to doing what’s good for kids. Learning alongside them, and from our many collaborative partners during this convening, has gifted me with a new perspective of the important shifts happening in education around our country, and as much as they think they might be learning from me, they are teaching me so much—I am improving my own craft right along with them. This has been such a wonderful, collaborative experience.”

Also in early February, a team of educators from Tech Boston Academy convened in San Diego to learn about industry collaboration from Vista Unified school district and Escondido school district’s CompetencyX program. Earlier this week (Feb. 25-26), educators from CityLab, Personalized Learning Prep, and Ignite Middle School—all from Dallas—gathered in Chicago to learn from Chicago Tech Academy, GCE Lab School, Distinctive Schools, and Polaris Charter Academy. Finally, a team from YouthForce NOLA focused on building a postsecondary pathway for students will gather in Austin next month to learn from PelotonU.

The TLC’s inaugural Incubator includes six school teams, all but one of whom represent existing schools. They are piloting interventions this year that will help them drive bigger changes beyond the Incubator. Each Incubator team is matched with a mentor, who is a current leader in an exemplary school that works with the team to guide their process and support their change-management efforts. This year all mentors come from Da Vinci Schools and have been integral in developing curriculum for TLC programming.

The rest of the Incubator teams are attending convenings this week and next. Follow the action on Twitter at #TransformLearning. Teams will convene at the Schools That Can National Forum in Newark on April 30–May 1, the culminating event of the TLC Incubator.

Photos by Schools That Can, from top:

  • Students at Montour Middle School get to know their Cozmo Robots as they dig into the Ready A.I. Curriculum.
  • Students at Avonworth work independently and collaboratively on projects during an interdisciplinary class.
  • The team from Educational Solutions together with their mentor and TLC representative (left to right across the top then bottom): Bob Stephens, James Schlunt, Casey Lamb (Schools That Can), Kaitlin Toon (Da Vinci Schools), Estella Stephens, Janelle Horton, Shanshan Huang, Amy Schrock, and Barbra Bowers

The opinions expressed in Next Gen Learning in Action are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.