We had the opportunity to chat with Principal Dan Warner at Narragansett High School who shared with us an organic shift from fear to courage with his Fuse Architect team.
One area of growth for our team is that they’re starting to look at our design challenge courageously. When we first started out, there was a lot of fear, a lot of unknowns. Our design challenge hasn’t changed since we submitted it. Our whole focus is trying to change the experience for freshmen so that by changing the freshman experience, it will change their future experiences as sophomores, as juniors, and as seniors. We’re figuring out what does that senior look like and what do we need to put in place in their freshmen year and year after year. The vision we have for our graduates is that they’ll be able to be self-sufficient, go to the University of Rhode Island to take classes, not necessarily be here in the building because they’re out doing internships, and they’ll be thinking about what skills they would need to be successful in order to transition from high school to either college or the workforce or wherever.
In order to accomplish this, we have two administrators and five teachers involved. This includes me as principal, the superintendent, and five teachers who teach mainly freshmen courses. We have no major triumphs to share yet, as we’re just starting to do things little by little. We started a Freshmen Council and we’re trying to get them to understand the whole concept of student voice and choice and what that looks like. There are some activities that the whole group has done with the freshmen class, including planning to take them out to do a high-ropes course for team building. The voice and choice has been one of those fear factors for students since with that comes the responsibility of owning your own learning and understanding what that means. It’s a big transition for them. The days of spoon feeding them are over. For the most part, students are buying into it, and so we’re hopeful.
I see courage too in the teachers involved in this process. The collaboration between the five teachers has been a wonderful side benefit of this project. They’re working together, trying different lesson planning, and using information systems to try to get the kids more engaged. Consequently, the beauty is that the students are hearing about the project from five different teachers. So when they’re hearing it multiple times in a consistent way, you hope they take it and apply it. The challenge comes in there only being five teachers involved in the project, but there are other teachers involved with the freshmen, so we need to get them at least an understanding so that they are onboard with what we are doing. And then we need to think what training do we need to give sophomore teachers so that they are prepared to support the kids to continue on this trajectory next year.
Another instance of generating courage rather than fear is by way of adding supports for both students and teachers throughout this work. For instance, we partnered with PowerSchool, and we have a trainer helping us with implementation. The trainer was here with us over the summer and throughout the year. Having that continuous support is key especially as our teachers are starting to get up and running on a new system.
We’re trying to change school, and it is so hard. The structures alone are stifling. So for my training, I came from a laboratory school in Colorado, and it was great. We tried something new all of the time with never the same schedule. We were always questioning what we could do to maximize something or make it more effective and efficient. So I’ve always had this mindset of trying to change this monster that we call public education. This is our attempt to do that. For example, I would love to see a 7am to 7pm school. Kids come and go as they please. Teachers would have different schedules. That is a scary proposition for people. Any changes that you try to make have to be within parameters of a set box, and sometimes it just doesn’t work.
If given the opportunity to continue this Fuse Architect work, we would be working on the mindset of both students and educators and getting them to think differently about things. We spend a lot of time preparing kids to go to college – what does that mean really? One kid’s preparation is totally different from another kid’s, so we need to be flexible and mobile. We need to understand that there are a thousand points of data along the spectrum. I would like to see us working toward that model. People throw around the term student-centered all the time when they’re still doing teacher-centered. I just say either stop using the term or do something about it. I would like to get more staff involved if we have the opportunity to continue this work.
Because we’re a small school, I think we can make a huge change. More time is essential. Innovation doesn’t happen in a short amount of time, especially when you have parameters that you have to work around or get out of. The reason it works is that you have teachers who are willing to do it and wanting to do it. As you get to the critical mass, you’ll run into the naysayers. You have to figure out how to bring them on. It’s like the Diffusion of Innovation model. You have to have the buy-in and change management. If you can switch the naysayers over, they’re going to sing the praises of the program because they initially look at the program mindfully with a critical eye.