A few weeks ago, I arrived at High Tech High’s Graduate School of Education in San Diego to complete a Master’s in Education. For someone who had for the past couple years been avoiding the possibility of going to school again, I stumbled my way into a program that (thankfully) you would not consider your average graduate program.
Around this time last year, I set out to do a “Master’s” of a different kind. Having worked in the education technology field on and off since college, a colleague and I decided our understanding of education was not as deep as we were telling ourselves. I really wanted to make a difference in education, at a deep systems level. For me, much of the education technology work happening around me felt surface-level and out of touch from the realities of how educational reform was happening. But how exactly that was the case, I wasn’t sure. So, my colleague and I crafted our own list of books to read, schools to visit, and educators to talk to. We called it the Self-Guided Master’s in Education.
Of course, I had no plans to do an actual Master’s degree. In fact, my frustration with the school system was why I wanted to innovate in education, anyway. When I got to college, and found a series of large lecture-based classes, uninspired professors, and a choiceless curriculum, I told myself that after graduation day I would not come near another formal educational institution (unless I was creating one of my own). But through my self-guided inquiry this past year, one connection led to another, and I found myself in touch with some folks at High Tech High’s graduate school of education.
Once I got over the fact that doing the program would mean going to school again, I realized the opportunity at hand was a unique one. Not only was this the only education graduate program fully embedded in an actual K-12 school (and that too, one of today’s pioneering charter schools), but that I would spend most of my time actually working at the K-12 school itself, doing self-guided research. Classes would be only in the evenings, with material specific and targeted to the work I was doing in the school. Aside from these few structures, the program seemed largely open to my sculpting. I decided to give it shot.
When I did arrive on the campus, I was not surprised to see that my first 2 weeks would involve a decent amount of class. But that was the only predictable thing about it. In fact, the majority of the first couple weeks had less to do with graduate school and more to do withschool school. That’s because our first couple weeks were blended with the actual High Tech High school’s training week for new teachers, called Odyssey.
Soon, it started to make perfect sense. The first topic we dug into as a class was the art of observation and inquiry. Odyssey served as the perfect backdrop, as we practiced our observation skills watching High Tech onboard its new teachers. Of course, this is where perhaps the biggest challenge in observation surfaced itself: the tension between observing and participating. “The researcher can assume one of several stances while collecting information as an observer; stances range from being a full participant – the investigator is a member of the group being observed – to being a spectator” (Merriam, 1998, p. 100). We would not only be observing the activities the newly hired teachers were doing; we would actually being doing them ourselves, alongside the teachers. This made things at once harder and easier. For one, we could no longer peacefully keep a distance and take notes: we were too busy getting our hands dirty. On the other hand, because we were full participants, we by definition got the firsthand experience we would not have had access to as outside observers. Additionally, we were now part of the community, trusted peers with those whom we were observing. If this was not the case, we’d have to work harder to build the trust we might need to reach the deeper levels of understanding that we seeked.
This will be a tension I’m sure I’ll continue to explore in my work this year while placed at the High Tech High School in Chula Vista, doing my own combination of observation and participation. However, I’m very much looking forward to the challenge, because it’s not an opportunity many get. Carolyn Frank (1999) explains that “an ethnographic perspective provides a lens to understand these particular patterns of classroom life which often become invisible because they become so regular, patterned, and ordinary” (p. 3). Even teachers who have spent years in the classroom may not ever get the chance to observe the way I will be able to in my role, and I plan to make the most of that opportunity.
New Teacher Training
HTH’s Odyssey for new teachers is a peek not only into its professional development methodologies but into its learning culture more broadly. Most student learning at the school happens in a project-based format. Thus, a training session full of lectures would be hypocritical.
Thankfully, there were not many lectures. The first two days of Odyssey were what they called a Project Slice, a miniature project-based learning experience that the teachers went through in groups, as if they were students in a project-based classroom. New teachers got to experience a project from a student’s perspective and simultaneously observe an experienced teacher in action. This type of “modeling,” where the Odyssey staff “showed” instead of “told” how they taught or led a particular experience, would be a large component of how the training was run throughout the week. I interviewed one of the new teachers, Kandy Galvez, about her experience in Odyssey, and what stood out to her was how important and helpful it was for her to observe examples and behaviors similar to those she would be performing in her classroom (personal communication, August 12, 2016). Leading an open-ended student project is an art and a skill–a difficult one too, especially for those “unlearning” traditional teaching models–and it helps to see it modeled by experienced High Tech teachers.
After the Slice, the rest of Odyssey was a combination of new teachers working through the process of designing and iterating on their own project ideas, continuing getting to know each other better, and participating in workshops with experienced staff members. Kandy, the new teacher I interviewed, stressed the importance of the second point—she really valued the connections she was making during Odyssey. She knew she had support going forward as she started the new year. This was a big deal for her, because she said one of her fears was coming up with projects from scratch during the year. Now she knew she had a support system from which to get input and feedback.
This collaborative ethic rang true not only in the teacher training, but in our Masters classes as well. For example, the other graduate students and I spent a lot of time in class getting to know each other, through often uncomfortably intimate conversation exercises. When we were unpacking the readings, we were also encouraged to share our personal experiences along with our academic interpretations. At first, the purpose of all this sharing was not clear to me. But it turns out that what we were experiencing was an authentic taste of the collaborative nature of the work that’s done at High Tech. As I will discuss later in the context of leadership, my first week at High Tech High made me rethink the idea of being a strong individual leader in favor of doing work that’s collaboratively owned and led. We were building a trust in our first week that would be a good foundation for a year of not only shared learning experiences but of shared doing experiences. As Barth (2006) poignantly put it, “Empowerment, recognition, satisfaction, and success in our work—all in scarce supply within our schools—will never stem from going it alone as masterful teacher, principal, or students, no matter how accomplished one is. Empowerment, recognition, satisfaction, and success come only from being an active participant within a masterful group—a group of colleagues”.
Designing equitable experiences
Before I got to High Tech High, I knew that it emphasized project-based learning and also an equitable learning environment. I wasn’t really sure how the two fit together. I thought the main idea was to bring diverse students together, and support all individuals with their needs to make the environment equitable for everyone. What I didn’t realize is that the learning experiences themselves are a channel through which equity can be designed for.
One mechanism through which project-based learning enables equity is by allowing multiple access points. For a given learning activity in class, having multiple access points enables all learners to feel that they are qualified to participate. In the beginning of his Writing to Learn workshop during Odyssey, HTH founder Rob Riordan posed the question, “Who doesn’t know what a freewrite is?” (personal communication, 2016) before immediately stopping himself. Later in the workshop, he recalled that moment in the beginning of class and explained how in asking that question he was immediately dividing the class into “those who know” and “those who don’t”—exactly the opposite of an equitable learning experience. On the other hand, an equitable experience is one where everyone, regardless of where they are in terms of prior knowledge, socioeconomic status, racial or gender identity, etc., can be an equal participant in the experience. Since well-designed projects by nature are not limited to a fixed method of learning, students with different backgrounds can find unique ways to contribute to the project from where they currently stand.
Another way to foster equitable learning experiences is to honor “experience as text” (Riordan & Caillier, 2016). This is a concept for which High Tech High has been inspired by Dewey’s (1938) discussion of bringing experience into the classroom and Freire’s (2013) of using this experience as the foundation for a jointly created curriculum. We all bring different resources to the table. An affluent American student and a recent immigrant will each have different levels of access to a given set of learning materials. But the one thing everyone shares is a unique set of personal experiences. Thus, when we make our experiences our “text,” through writing or dialogue, everyone is on equal footing, because we are all experts of our own experience. This new type of “text” can be the groundwork for dialogue, learning skills, and co-creating projects. As Rob Riordan says, “If we honor experience as text, every child has standing in a classroom” (personal communication, 2016).
What these discussions around equity speak of in terms of the role schools plays in society is especially fascinating to me. Friere wrote, “It is not our role to speak to the people about our own view of the world, nor to attempt to impose that view on them, but rather to dialogue with the people about their view and ours” (2013). And once we dialogue with our students about the realities of their world, we empower them to change those realities. Schools themselves can be venues for students to make change in their world. This angle is one I really look forward to digging into this year.
How does one person with a desire to improve a system turn their ideas into reality? Before I got here, I presumed that coming to High Tech High well help me fortify my individual practice as an educator and leader. But a couple weeks in, my definition of leadership has expanded.
Kelly Wilson, our Director in the Masters of Education program, brought up a fascinating point on how leaders often talk about getting “buy-in” for their ideas from those they are leading. Under that framing, High Tech High’s job during this week would be to get all of us to “buy into” its philosophy, so we can go practice it during the year. But—and this ties into equity as well—this is a subtly oppressive and one-sided form of leadership because it presumes that the leader has the answer/correct way of thinking. The alternative framing Kelly suggested was that of “shared ownership” (personal communication, August 16, 2016). This is at once powerful, logical, and difficult. Shared ownership suggests we work together to come up with a vision, which might be more or different than what any one leader originally put on the table.
High Tech High is a school that’s built around the idea of shared ownership. For example, a student’s day largely consists of projects over which they have a lot of creative autonomy. Similarly, teachers at HTH are given a lot of freedom to design the curriculum for their classes. In other words, while leaders–whether directors, teachers, or other staff–at High Tech may have a strong vision, they are really co-creating the outcomes with their peers and those whom they are leading.
Coming to High Tech High’s Graduate School of Education is the step I chose to take in helping making change in education. I’m most excited to work with everyone else here with me to co-create that change.
Barth, R. S. (2006). Improving relationships within the schoolhouse. Educational Leadership, 63(6), 8-13.
Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York: Simon & Schuster Touchstone Edition, 1997.
Frank, C. (1999). An ethnographic perspective. Ethnographic eyes (pp. 1-14). Portsmouth, NH: Heineman.
Friere, P. (2013). Chapter 3 & Chapter 4. Pedadogy of the opressed (30th edition; pp. 87-183). New York: Bloomsbury Academic.
Merriam, S. (1998). Being a careful observer. Qualitative research and case study applications in education (pp. 94-111). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Riordan, R. & Caillier, S. (in press). Schools as equitable communities of inquiry. In J. Cook (Ed.)Education for a Changing World.