Wednesday, May 15, 2019

“Inspired to Learn and Other Lessons from Kansas Stories”

By Vicki Bechard, LFKS Secretary

The videos are completed.  The series, Inspired to Learn:  Kansas Stories, is ready for use.  We are proud of the product, but the journey was more than an end point. What did we learn in this process?  From the beginning this has been a learning journey filled with hope, joy, frustration, perseverance, and pride.  We have been inspired by those we interviewed, and those who were willing to let us peek into their professional learning experiences. We have been energized by the convictions and expertise of these Kansas educators. Our own learning and passion have been reignited.  The “we” in this blog represents Dayna Richardson (LFKS Executive Director) and me - partners, colleagues and friends in this journey.  A year after we intended to be done, here is a glimpse of our story…

The journey of Inspired to Learn:  Kansas Stories is much like a school year – only longer.  We began with a vision in the application process 4 years ago, and started with so much hope, excitement and energy once we received this 3 year grant just like the first day of school.  Our “classroom” was filled with unknowns, dreams that needed direction, and the desire to acquire skills and support to make those dreams a reality.

Transforming professional learning was our focus in Learning Forward Kansas as we rebooted our organization.  As LFKS reached out to educators across the state, we continued to hear, “But what does it look like in my school?”  This driving question became the trigger for LFKS to apply for the Learning Forward Affiliate Grant in 2015.  The Kansas State Board of Education approved the Standards for Professional Learning in 2012, but few schools knew about this, much less utilized the standards to improve their instructional practice.  Our vision was to do something different:  to create a video series featuring Kansas educators that could be a resource to schools and educators who were seeking to improve their professional learning experiences.  Our purpose was to facilitate their understanding so our initial plan was to create a video on each of the Standards of Professional Learning, plus one on the process of change. 

Every educator begins their school year with a vision and a plan to support that vision.  But the needs of the students often alter those plans.  Our experience with the video series was very similar.  Once we received the grant, our thoughts began to shift into a different direction based on continued discussions and observations from the field.  Educators didn’t need another resource defining the Standards for Professional Learning.  They wanted something to help them use and implement them.  After discussing our new understanding with our LFKS board, several Kansas educational leaders, and our support group from Learning Forward, we realized that we must create something that was useful, modeled effective professional learning, and helped guide educational leaders to use the Standards of Professional Learning collectively, not individually.  Silos were a thing of the past.  We soon came to realize, we are better together.

Kansas has a wide range of school sizes, strengths, and needs.  One size does not fit all for learning in the classroom, with the faculty, or from one school to the next.  What effective professional learning looks like in an urban school is vastly different than a small rural school hundreds of miles from a large city.  Regardless of the differences in resources, delivery methods, or personnel, the goal remains the same:  every educator wants to use effective instructional practices that lead to student success.  And to that end, all educators are inspired to learn, and want to know “What does that look like in my school?”

Our Work:  Inspiration, Listening, People, Collaboration, Time and Feedback (repeat 5 times)
When we listen to the learners, our instruction becomes more focused on the needs of that learner.  Sometimes what we believe to be the best way to learn may not be the best method for the learner.  With that understanding comes revision and a renewed focus on the purpose of our work.  What is the learning goal?  How will we get there?

Our first video attempt was too long and lacked clear focus.  We got some tough feedback from a supportive organization of educators.  We swallowed hard but we listened and started again.  We realized we had failed to establish the WHY and convey that what we were doing was important – not just to us – but to all Kansas educators aspiring to improve teaching and learning.  It wasn’t enough to have great sound bites from great educators; we had to weave a meaningful message of the importance of effective professional learning.  Our learners spoke to us and we listened.  Those plans we made when “school started” were put aside and reworked with a renewed focus on the learner’s needs.

Since Lois Brown Easton’s article, “The Why, How, and What of Professional Learning,” appeared in Learning Forward’s Tools for Learning Schools in 2012, we have focused on the importance of establishing the “why” in everything we do and within every learning opportunity LFKS offers.  Further study of Simon Sinek’s work (which was the basis for Easton’s article), strengthened our belief in ensuring that establishing the why is the first and most important step to effectively change one’s practice.  This understanding and the feedback we received led us to the realization that our first video attempt lacked the WHY and subsequently required a major revision. Going forward, this philosophy guided everything we did and led to how the Inspired to LearnKansas Stories video series was organized. 

Lesson plans and learning goals continue to evolve during a school year, and the same thing happened in our video experience.  Once the first video was completed, the second video seemed easier to do.  We saw that educational leaders believed that professional learning was important but too many were relying on one-size-fits-all or sit and get sessions that just weren’t engaging, meaningful or relevant.  That lead us to - What does effective professional learning look like…. in Kansas schools?  Once we conveyed this message in video two, the questions began to shift – How does this work? How do we plan?  How do we engage staff?  How do we promote collaboration that changes practice and leads to student success?  Understanding why is critical.  Clarify what is important.  But how is the vehicle that takes us from knowing to doing

As a result, the rest of the videos revolved around how effective professional learning is achieved from multiple perspectives, using a wide variety of strategies.  As a teacher would personalize learning experiences for students in his/her classroom, our focus was fine-tuned, and the video series took shape.  We needed more interviews, different questions, and more examples of effective professional learning to feature in these how videos.  Sometimes learning and progress is messy as educators will tell you.  We also felt these same growing pains.  Confusion reigned sometimes as we watched draft videos over and over causing pictures and words to seemingly swim together.  Cutting footage typically came from asking ourselves to revisit our purpose for the video we were watching.  Did this comment or picture fit? Does it help tell the story?

One of our greatest aha’s was when we went together to film in a small 1A school in south central Kansas where educators were excited about project based learning and making learning relevant and engaging.  We discovered them when they presented with their students at the KSDE conference the previous fall.  How could we use their energy?  Their passion inspired us.  Their humility was revealed in their desire to simply do what was best for kids and credit each other for their success.  How could we bottle their success to be shared with others?  To that end, our questions to them weren’t about the project based learning itself, but focused on how they made this work.  What professional learning had to happen to get it started and more importantly, sustain this work at such a high level?  What lessons could they share with others on what to do and what to avoid? How did leaders support and facilitate their work? We started to understand the importance of HOW and the need to share this with our fellow Kansas educators.

If we were to do a “walkthrough” of our “classroom” one would see engaging lessons, modeling of effective professional learning, and a variety of learning strategies (protocols) that meet learners where they are.  One would see collaboration and deep conversations around thought-provoking questions.  One would see experts discussing their beliefs, experiences, successes and challenges.  Learning would be happening before, during and after viewing the video utilizing protocols in the accompanying facilitation guides. And one would see the learners taking this information and adapting it for use in their own work.  The initiatives that schools undertake are designed to meet the needs of their students so the examples in the videos are there for consideration and not intended to be the only answer.  Our intent for this video series was to spark real professional learning, where educators turn theory into action, or as we like to say, to go from knowing to doing.

When the culture in a classroom, building or district becomes focused on growth and success for ALL, and is supported through every action, and every professional learning opportunity, students win.  Our purpose in creating these videos was to support these efforts as schools and educators evolve.  Just like educators believe that everyone can learn given the opportunity, resources and sufficient time, this video series was created in the same way. 

Our Journey Continues.  It was a 3 year grant, but it took 4 years to complete.  Life happens in the middle of our plans sometimes, and we make adjustments.  We couldn’t have done this without the willingness of Kansas educators to share their experiences on camera or let us be a part of their school’s professional learning sessions.  We also relied heavily on the support and feedback of Kansas educators that we knew well and others that we befriended during this process.  Our technical support was second to none and allowed our dream to become a reality.  But without the dream, backed by the grant received from the Learning Forward Foundation, none of this would have happened.  Again our video series journey parallels the classroom experience.  Support matters.  Resources matter.  People matter.  

Our journey comes to an end during May, much like a school year.  It has taken us from knowing to doing, and while we are happy to rest a bit, we recognize we have much more to do.  Our future work, as we look to the next school year, will benefit from the valuable lessons learned firsthand that we are #BetterTogether.  Join us as we continue Learning Forward. 

Click here to learn more about the video series.