Growing a school – like an onion!

Growing a school community is like growing an onion.  In order to flourish, both require for example: care, attention and perseverance over a period of time…and both are multi-layered.  Furthermore, although students are the very reason for which schools exist, this post will focus on the actions of the adults in the schoolhouse, and represents some but not all of the journey we have taken.

In my last post I used a Capra quote to illustrate the importance of nurturing what is helpful and being careful as you move forward, not to destroy that which is already good.  (see quote at the end in blue if interested)  You see, not all that is new is best and not all that is old should be discarded….and conversely, not all that is old is best and not all that is new should be ignored.  Often times, it is tweaking what was, and adding in what is new that is most helpful (keeping in mind evidence shown by current research, as well as a deep understanding of the children who are entrusted to us).

I see the staff at the school as “the centre of the onion”, having the propensity to affect the condition (health) of all the other onion layers.  (If the core of the onion is “healthy and strong”, then it is more likely that the onion will grow well.)  There is much both inside and outside the schoolhouse that impacts this “part of the onion”…..and it is not the point of this post to unpack this layer (the centre).  (see http://summit.sfu.ca/item/11268 for more thoughts in regard to this, if desired)

Year 1

  • a visioning process
  • purposeful and fluid collaborative time
  • a community question

As most principals do, I spent most of my first year at the school observing and working with teacher leaders to put in place a foundation to build from.  Part of this was to begin a visioning process in September to make sure we were all “on the same page”.  Students, staff and the community were involved in this in a myriad of ways.  As luck would have it, our district began a visioning process mid way through the year as well, so we were able to fold our work into the district’s process.

Secondly, teachers began to ask questions about why students seemed to be having difficulty with their self-regulation.  Much of our collaborative time in year 1 was spent on our visioning process and on beginning to investigate this question. (I have written about helpful collaborative structures in a previous post).

Thirdly, our community was asked to consider whether or not we wished to become a “traditional school-as defined by the school community ” within the parameters of our visioning process (traditional pieces like uniforms with progressive teaching practices)….. and the overwhelming answer from families and staff was yes.

Year 2-4

  • expansion of collaborative patterns
  • expansion of collaborative structures

Both patterns and structures are important aspects of a living systems style of learning community (see quote below).  By harnessing the positive, forward thinking, collaborative thoughts of the school community, we were able to expand both helpful patterns of thinking and helpful school wide structures.

Pattern examples – Over time, increasingly more staff were seeing all students as their collective responsibility (not primarily the responsibility of one classroom teacher).  Teacher leaders began to teach self-regulation strategies to students (and fellow teachers observed and participated in these lessons).  Co-teaching and planning was embraced by a number of staff.  Collaboration time was being used well by all staff to move learning forward in a positive way for students.  Staff saw themselves as explorers of what might be, and were not as concerned about having to “know all the answers” (comfort with discomfort).  Staff continue to be highly respectful of each other, and of students and their needs within the questioning (inquiry) process.  (This does not mean Utopia – but it means that staff know how to move forwards in a helpful, rather than unhelpful fashion – it is not the purpose of this post to unpack this way of interacting.)

Structural examples – We have chosen to have periods of time during the week that are common to all so that students can sometimes be grouped according to their interests or according to their “zone of proximal development”.  (These groups are often multi-age or multi-grade.)  This also ensures that students have more than one staff member helping them with their growth, and more than one staff member to connect with.  The following is a list of some (not all) of the common times/structures we have put in place:

  • Intermediate (all grade 4-7s) leadership groups/activities.
  • Grade 1-7 direct reading instruction groups (we are  a school with a high ELL population)
  • Intermediate LiD (Learning in Depth) (from Egan’s work)
  • Primary challenge math
  • Kindergarten (all classes) “Reggio” inspired afternoons
  • Grade 7 inquiry focus group (students who partner with lead staff in the work of the school inquiry question)

Not all of these groups/structures have existed in all four years.  Some have been maintained each year, and some have existed for a year or two or have changed in configuration over time.  A living systems LC allows for critical and timely analysis of systems (by those who are enmeshed in them) that are in place in order to make sure they are best serving students’ needs.

The overarching picture here is one of multi layers and multi dimensions, or of lush growth within a life-giving environment.  This requires the autonomy of staff within a framework of positive interconnectedness.  I am interested to see if this sustains over time……and am hopeful that it will.

I shall argue that the key to a comprehensive theory of living systems lies in the synthesis of two very different approaches, the study of substance (or structure) and the study of form (or pattern). In the study of structure we measure and weigh things. Patterns, however, cannot be measured or weighed; they must be mapped. To understand a pattern we must map a configuration of relationships. In other words, structure involves quantities, while pattern involves qualities.  The study of pattern is crucial to the understanding of living systems because systemic properties, as we have seen, arise from a configuration of ordered relationships. Systemic properties are properties of a pattern. What is destroyed when a living organism is dissected is its pattern. The components are still there, but the configuration of relationships among them–the pattern–is destroyed, and thus the organism dies. (Capra, p. 81, 1996)

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One Response to Growing a school – like an onion!

  1. Pingback: The Secret Garden – Keys to Success | jmlauman

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