Podcast: Leading Schools That Move Students From Access to Success - Steve Barkley

Podcast: Leading Schools That Move Students From Access to Success

Leading Schools That Move Students From Access to Success

Experienced teacher, head of school and the author of “The Landscape Model of Learning,” Jennifer D. Klein, describes how schools build learning communities where students belong and thrive because they are supported for their experiences, gifts, and challenges. How do coaches with school leaders guide teachers to explore understanding learners as fully as we can, supporting learners’ aspirations and goal setting with multiple pathways of learning? How do leaders model for teachers similar learning communities that we desire for students.

Connect with Jennifer to learn more and find her blogs, videos & books here.

Subscribe to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast on iTunes or visit BarkleyPD.com to find new episodes!

Podcast Transcript:

[00:00:00.290] – Steve [Intro]

Welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. As instructional coaches and school leaders, you have a challenge to guide continuous teacher growth that promotes student success. This podcast looks to support you with strategies from our experienced guests and insights that I’ve gathered across many years. I’m thrilled you’re here. Thanks for listening.

[00:00:30.500] – Steve

Leading schools that move students from access to success. Our podcast guest today is Jennifer D. Klein, who encourages learning communities where students belong and thrive because they are recognized and supported for their experiences, gifts, and challenges. She is the author of “The Global Education Guidebook: Humanizing K12 Classrooms Worldwide Through Equitable Partnerships,” as well as the author of, “The Landscape Model of Learning: Designing Student-Centered Experience for Cognitive and Cultural Inclusion.” Jennifer is a former head of school with extensive international experience during her 30 years in education. She facilitates workshops for teachers, school leaders, and students, working to amplify student voice by providing tools for high-quality project-based learning in all cultural and socioeconomic contexts and building school culture to support those practices. Welcome, Jennifer.

[00:01:43.090] – Jennifer

Thank you so much. I’m so thrilled to have this conversation with you.

[00:01:45.460] – Steve

I’m delighted that you’ve joined us. I’m wondering if you can share your experiences that have led to your focus on building learning communities that are student-centered.

[00:01:57.740] – Jennifer

Well, a great deal of this comes from my experience growing up, I was very fortunate to attend schools that were very much student-centered and student-motivated in many regards. I think that is a big piece of what I bring to the work that I do. The way that SolutionTree put it in one of my bios was that I live and breathe the pedagologies that were used to educate me. I thought that was a really nice way of framing it because we are how we were taught ourselves. I think most educators either model based on what they experienced or they model in opposition if their experience was a negative one. But in my case, it was a very positive one. So that’s a big, big piece of it. The other thing, too, is that I certainly have seen over the years that students in my own classroom as a teacher, because I did spend many years, about 19 years in the classroom, that students are deeply motivated by those student-centered experiences. There’s a small subset of student personalities that love the teacher in charge, just tell me what I need to know for the test. But once you get them thinking for themselves a little bit more, they get excited about what’s possible.

[00:03:05.680] – Jennifer

I think from a leadership perspective, students should be the heart of every conversation. They should be what we are focused on most. Even when we know we’re going to get resistance, I think we have to start and end our conversations on what is best for learners and make our decisions on the basis of that. I’ve been a teacher, I’ve been a leader of a school, I was a head of school outside of Bogotá, Colombia for several years, and I work with leaders today who are discovering the joys of this culture building.

[00:03:38.220] – Steve

You struck a cord there for me. Sometime back, I interviewed an award-winning superintendent, and he used the statement that too many people interpreted student-centered as students were in the center of our thinking when the decisions were being made when instead it should be students are in the decision-making process, making decisions.

[00:04:08.940] – Jennifer

Absolutely. I love that distinction. I think that’s the highest level. That’s certainly what I aspire to. I can’t say that I was able to do it in every regard when I was a leader myself. I think every context is a little bit different in terms of whether it feels appropriate to people that students are involved. But I can tell you right off the bat that one of the coolest models that we found for the book, for the Landscape Model of Learning was the school in Boise, Idaho, called One Stone, where students actually are not just on the board as board members for the school, but the President of the board is always a student. They’re involved in the tax preparation of the school as a nonprofit every year. They’re involved in absolutely everything. They help to design their growth transcript. They help to design the curriculum. I mean, that’s the best. That’s the dream, is that students are involved in all decision making.

[00:05:05.930] – Steve

You gave us the highest pinnacle now. If you walk into a school and it has a learning environment that’s helping all students reach their highest possible level of individual success. Talk a little bit about things that would look like and sound like.

[00:05:27.980] – Jennifer

Absolutely. Well, I think what we see is a lot more joy from all students and a lot less inequity in the space in terms of who is getting to have voice. I think the three elements of the landscape model, the way we, and I need to make sure I name my co-author, Kapono Ciotti. Kapono and I developed the model around this idea of all students really being able to, as you said, to reach their own highest level of individual success and collective success, quite frankly. This idea of not just resting on access is the goal, everyone’s there, everyone had access, but focusing more on what each child’s success might look like and recognizing, frankly, that those levels of success that students are reaching, the kinds of success that they’re reaching, might be just as diverse as the students in the room, rather than assuming all students will reach the same standard, the exact same form of success, the model was really designed to recognize that success might look different for different students. I’ll take a second just to unpack the model, just so that listeners understand. There are three elements to the model of the landscape.

[00:06:44.590] – Jennifer

The first is the ecosystem, which is all about understanding what students bring into the classroom with them. This is a recognition that no one is an empty vessel, that the myth of the empty vessel or the tabula is not accurate, and that actually every single child walks into the classroom, no matter what their age, with some amount of identity already formed, life experiences, access or lack of access to resources, orientation, cultural orientations, religious or spiritual orientations, all these life experiences come in with them. Rather than seeing those things, such as their needs, as a nuisance or a problem, our job becomes to understand the child as fully as we can so that we understand what their starting point on the landscape really is. The child who had preschool versus the child who didn’t have preschool, the child who grew up with intellectual, educated parents, the child who didn’t. What’s their starting point? It’s not about their deficits. It’s just about understanding where they begin. The second element is the horizon. The horizon is all about goal setting and understanding the aspirations of the child, their capacities, what they’re ready for next, and working with them to co-construct the next set of goals effectively, so that they are working toward that horizon that makes sense for them.

[00:08:12.890] – Jennifer

Recognizing, for example, that the child who wants to go on to be a violinist needs a different set of skills than the child who wants to go on to be an engineer. Not entirely different, but why don’t we create more space for all those varied horizons and aspirations to matter, which is actually one of the areas, too, where career technical education comes in. The assumption that every child should go to college is finally starting to get a little bit less taboo. This idea that there are actually other options. Ideally, all students should have access to a limitless horizon. Everyone should feel that they feel seen for who they are. They have access to whatever next step or horizon they’re looking for. Then the third element is the pathway. The pathway is all about using pedagogies like project-based learning that allow students to be on slightly different pathways based on their talents, their interests, the areas that they need to work on. All of this with this idea of the asset mentality or the asset thinking in the background as opposed to the deficit thinking, really focusing on what kids are good at and what they care about, and through that, leveraging that motivation to work on their areas of weakness as well.

[00:09:28.980] – Jennifer

In In a lot of ways – sorry, Steve, it’s a long explanation, but it’s an important one. A lot of what we talk about in the first chapter is this debunking of what we refer to as the racetrack model that we’ve been using forever, similar to Ken Robinson’s industrial factory line. But in the racetrack, we have all the kids lined up at the same starting line. Even though we know perfectly well, some of them didn’t even have breakfast this morning, so they’re not at the same starting line. The idea is to get them to the same finish line because that’s what our standards say. But we know that that’s… I mean, if education worked that way, it would be so much easier, but it doesn’t work that way. We know it’s not true. We know that students get stuck along the way. We know that some kids are at the finish line in five minutes. We know that some kids barely get out of the gate. What does it look like to reframe it so that the kids who are struggling don’t feel that they’re doing something wrong and it’s all about their deficits, but just recognize, I’m starting from a different place on the landscape and I can grow, too.

[00:10:29.820] – Steve

Fair to say, the finish line isn’t the same.

[00:10:34.180] – Jennifer

No, the finish line would not be the same. Yeah, absolutely.

[00:10:36.710] – Steve

They engage the kids in setting the finish line.

[00:10:39.770] – Jennifer

Absolutely. Mind you, the professional knowledge of the teacher, obviously, plays a huge, huge role. We’re not talking about ignoring your standards in those places where you absolutely have to get all kids to that same level of standard. Understood, but do it in ways that are varied enough that every child can find the connections and the relevance to where they’re trying to go in life. That’s the real core because we can’t let go of the standards yet. I can get even a little bit more radical for you, Steve, and say I would love to move beyond the standards movement. I do think it’s time for us to rethink the way we think about education. I think a more competency-based model would be a smart thing to head toward. I really do think that the assumption that all students need exactly the same things is a fallacy that we’ve teaching under for a really long time and that movements like Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind, unfortunately, have made even more overwhelming. I think at one point, Kapono mentioned, I think it’s in the book, perhaps, that to actually meet all of the standards of the Common Core in a given year would take five years or something along those lines.

[00:11:53.570] – Jennifer

We all know already we’re not reaching all of them anyhow. But I think a model that’s based more on skills for life. I’m not describing this as a model that’s less academic. I’m just saying I don’t think that all kids are headed to the same things, and I don’t think that we’re in the business of cookie cutting.

[00:12:11.860] – Steve

And in the same time frame.

[00:12:15.280] – Jennifer

Right. Well, the time frame piece is really important, and I appreciate you bringing that up. One of the guiding films that really was part of the founding of what School Could Be was Ted Denter Smith’s film, “Most Likely to Succeed,” which Ken Robinson was involved in as well. There’s a really wonderful storyline in there about some students who were able to complete things on time for the celebrations of learning. This other kid who didn’t get it finished because he took on something too big and he went too far and he started perseverating too much and whatever else happened along the way. A lot of analysis of the film describe that child as having, or he’s a teenager, as having failed, but he only failed to meet the deadline. The film shows him spending his summer continuing to work on that product. What he produces is extraordinary, absolutely extraordinary. He just needed more time. The only thing he failed at was meeting the deadline. The deadline is, frankly, it’s an artificial thing that has to do with the school year and our schedules. It doesn’t have to do with the growth of the human. Yes, absolutely, pace is a big, big piece of this.

[00:13:32.040] – Steve

I spent several years as a Grade 1 teacher. I would have this common experience of parents of a kindergarten child coming to me and telling me that there had been a recommendation that the child spend another year in kindergarten. The parents’ response, their question to me is, “should my child spend next in kindergarten or in first grade?” I said, “that’s a question we shouldn’t be asking.” He certainly doesn’t need to go back and start kindergarten over again, and he’s not ready to maybe jump in. But how do we create a school that recognizes where your child is at and builds from that point instead of some deadline that June got here too quick for your child, and now we have to make this ridiculous decision?

[00:14:30.530] – Jennifer

Absolutely. Well, I think when I work with schools where you’ve got a whole team of… obviously, the system works this way right now. We do have these delineations between grades. We hold kids back when they don’t… even though that means actually, especially in the case of kids who might be acting out because they’re not enjoying class, it’s actually going to make it significantly worse because they’re repeating all this content. There’s nothing unique going on. Even if they didn’t learn it fully the first time through, it’s going to be utter boredom to go through it a second time, and you’re going to get far more behavior problems as a result. But what does it look like to rethink the way we group students? This is something we talk about in the landscape model, to rethink the grouping of students so that it’s more about where their starting point is than it is about their age in particular and what birth date they have. What would it look like even within the structures that we have right now, and this would be perhaps a simpler approach, if you have three first-grade teachers, maybe some of the time, at the very least, one of them is working with students who need more support, one of them is working with students who are in the middle someplace, and one of them is working with our high fliers.

[00:15:46.300] – Jennifer

We can even move kids between those classrooms at certain core moments to provide the scaffolding and support that each group needs based on where they are without creating a tracking system. That’s the class for the kids who are struggling, and that’s the class for the… that, I think, is potentially very dangerous, obviously. But if you have three first-grade teachers, why not split it up? That kid who struggled a little bit with kindergarten might be in one of the groups sometimes, might make huge advances, might move up to a different group. There might be all sorts of different things that could happen if we were to think differently about the classroom.

[00:16:25.200] – Steve

I had one of my personal great experiences of that catching my attention. One of the first times I worked with a technical vocational school, and I met teachers who had first, second, and third-year students all in the same class at the same time. I stood there and the instructor told me that one of his goals was never to teach anything that somebody else in the room could teach. That was his first thought. But I remember standing there and saying, isn’t this what Spanish class ought to look like? Spanish one, Spanish two, Spanish three students all in this class at the same time. The teacher being able to make those shifts and use the students versus this structure that boxes and sorts.

[00:17:18.660] – Jennifer

Well, it goes back to the one-room schoolhouse, actually, as you’re describing it, right? That idea of the mix of grades. I worked with a principal for many years who was scared of mixed grade. I think she had a fear that older students would somehow infect younger students with more mature topics or ideas. I’m not sure exactly what she was nervous about. They were teenagers, so I guess she had reason to be a little bit nervous. But what I found was just amazing. I found the older students loved supporting the younger students. Sometimes the younger students were supporting the older students. I think that the arbitrariness of grade levels disappeared pretty quickly into a collaborative environment where students were really engaging with each other as humans, based on what they were… They had this common interest.

[00:18:07.230] – Steve

I taught a fifth, sixth-grade combination for five years. Every year, half my class left, and I got a new group of younger students. It was immediately those older students stepped into not only the experience they had, but the experience they had with me. They were perfect at bringing the other students along. It allowed me for some student who needed to be getting some fifth-grade material as a sixth-grader. We didn’t have to label it. We didn’t have to say, you didn’t pass the year. The learning opportunity in groups was going on around the room.

[00:18:52.460] – Jennifer

Absolutely. I think years ago, I asked Arnie Langberg some questions about this topic. Arnie Langberg is the founder of the open school model here in Colorado, which is where I graduated from. I went there from fourth grade through 12th grade. I asked him once, what was the hardest thing about running the open high school as a leader? His answer really surprised me, but in retrospect, it makes perfect sense. He said, the hardest thing was that we really did believe that everyone moves at their own pace. As a result, we had 20 and 21-year-olds in the same building as because we really recognized that sometimes a kid needed to take a year off and work and then come back to us. Sometimes students needed a lower workload at school so that they could work outside to earn money for their families. There were any number of reasons that they were or weren’t motivated along the way. He said it was honestly just hard to make sure we were protecting the 15 and 16-year-olds and all the older kids knew they were not allowed to have relationships with the younger ones. It was a really big deal because the law was against it, and that could be explosively hard.

[00:20:06.170] – Jennifer

But he said in retrospect, he’s still glad he made those choices. He’s still glad that he gave the kid who needed seven years the seven years they needed and recognize that their trajectory was different. The ability to bring out the best in people on a timeline. Again, those are the arbitrary timelines of school, and we need them because otherwise, it might be mucky. We need to know when the school year ends, but we could play around a lot more than we do with how we mix students up and how we engage them in that sense.

[00:20:41.990] – Steve

I’ve heard you use the term, “inclusive prosperity.” I wondered if you’d talk about that.

[00:20:49.260] – Jennifer

Absolutely. There’s been an evolution, Steve, of the terms we use for inclusion today. Back in the day, if I could put it that way, I think I’m old enough to use that phrase now. Back in the day, we used to call it multiculturalism. Then we moved toward that term diversity. Both of those, I think, signaled something very similar, which was that there would be a presence of a diversity of identities in the classroom as well as in the materials that we used. But we didn’t necessarily know what we were supposed to do with that diversity. There wasn’t necessarily a lot of instruction 30 or 40 years ago about what to do with it and why it It mattered. We just knew that it was supposed to be there. Then we moved toward this term inclusion. I do like the term inclusion, but there’s a power challenge in the term inclusion from my perspective because it suggests, and this is something that was brought up to me by an inclusion specialist or a diversity specialist who said, this term is actually more problematic than a lot of people realize, because inclusion suggests that students are being included, meaning that there’s somebody in power to include them or not.

[00:22:03.810] – Jennifer

In most classrooms, that person in power is the educator. I get to decide whether you’re included or not. That means that there’s an inherent power imbalance in that word inclusion. It’s like, I built this house and I’ll let you come as far as the living room. Inclusive prosperity is actually a term that comes from investment banking, strangely enough, has to do with something to to do with the distribution of profits. But an educator who at the time was the head of middle school, I believe, at the graded school, Roberto de Rizzo, at the graded school in Brazil, used it in reference to education. What he said was, inclusive prosperity suggests, number one, that all students are capable of prospering, that all students are capable of thriving and growing and doing something extraordinary. And further, it suggests that the whole community or classroom or group will prosper when all students are included and everyone is successful. It’s a really interesting way of shifting our thinking away from the power imbalance and toward another term that we use in the book, which is rightful presence, which comes from the work of two extraordinary researchers who applied it to education, this idea that every child has an inherent basic right to be seen as a whole human being, to be educated in all regards, to feel safe and supported in school, and to reach their highest level of success, whatever that thing is that drives them.

[00:23:48.820] – Jennifer

I think those two terms together really capture this idea of shifting away from an, I’ll let you join, I’ll include you, and towards something that’s much more equitable where there’s a baseline assumption that we all belong. There’s a baseline assumption that we all have the right to be here and that we all have the right to succeed and to be seen for who we are.

[00:24:12.520] – Steve

As I’m listening, I’m almost thinking in my head that it’s rather than I’m including you, I need you.

[00:24:19.040] – Jennifer

Yeah, that’s a great distinction, Steve. I appreciate that.

[00:24:23.830] – Steve

If you look at teams, the greater diversity of people that I can bring into a team team, the stronger the team is going to get. It’s really not that we’re including you. We need you.

[00:24:37.100] – Jennifer

We need you. Absolutely. We make the connection in a couple of points in the book to the biological world. In biology, we know that diversity is an asset. We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for human diversity. The birds wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for species diversity. We absolutely, we need it not just in an intellectual in a very basic survival sense. I feel like humans have lost sight of that. We are part of the biological world, but for some reason, difference has been what’s divided us as opposed to what’s united us. For me, that’s a big driving piece of the work that I do, Steve, and the reason that I’m a writer and the reason that I believe in education as a key to something better in the future of humanity is because I really do believe we could get to that or ourselves as well and recognize that, as you said, when we form a diverse team, we make better decisions. It’s not just the beauty of having that diversity, it’s the way that that diversity serves us for something better. It’s the reason that I ran Model United Nations at my school for years and years and years, and didn’t want to do debate club because I didn’t want it to be about who wins.

[00:25:54.410] – Jennifer

I wanted it to be about students learning to come together with a wide variety needs and priorities and try to come to decisions that would benefit the most groups possible in the best way as possible. That’s the skills that I want to see people have.

[00:26:14.260] – Steve

Before we close out, I’m wondering thoughts that you’d have for school administrators and coaches regarding ways to encourage teachers who haven’t stepped into this area to make some of those initial experiences, experimentation?

[00:26:35.470] – Jennifer

Absolutely. Well, the first thing is just to say within the book, within The Landscape Model of Learning, we actually offer anywhere in the neighborhood of about 10 strategies for each of the three elements. The book is designed very much to be a useful guide, to be a practical guide to how might you try to do this. Both Kapono and I believe that small steps can lead to big change. I think even something as simple as getting to know your students a little bit more deeply at the beginning of the school year, understanding what their interests and talents are, trying to stay focused, most of all, especially in your interactions with them on their assets, which is not to say that we would be ignoring their deficits or the things that they need to work on, but that we would be trying to motivate them through what we know they’re good at and that they care about. I think even small steps like that can be really helpful. We offer really small… I mean, lots of really different strategies. Some of them are much more complex than others, like project-based learning for the pathway and the ability to offer multiple pathways.

[00:27:41.140] – Jennifer

But I think in a lot of ways, it really is about being able to communicate with your kids more. I think some of the strategies that we offer are simple ones. For the horizon, a letter to myself that I write at the beginning of the year about what I want to be able to accomplish this year, that I open up again at the end of the year and reflect on how much did I grow or didn’t I grow. That’s something I’ve seen used at classrooms, even the most traditional classrooms, as a motivator for growth and achievement. I don’t think it has to be massive steps. When it comes to the leadership, I would say, too, I think the way we designed the book, part two is all implementation strategies for the classroom, and part three is all the big picture stuff, like how do we group students? How do we change the that we’re evaluating? What are the other things systemically that we need to change so that all students feel successful? At the beginning of the book, we talk about what I consider to be one of the most famous sad stories, but not so sad stories, and that is Mae Jemison.

[00:28:48.480] – Jennifer

Mae Jemison, of course, was the first black woman ever to enter space. She is an extraordinary woman. She has at least one doctorate. She started a foundation for young women of color who want to go into the sciences. But when Mae Jemison was five years old in kindergarten, they were going around saying what they wanted to be when they grew up. When it was Mae’s turn, she said, “I want to be a scientist. I want to be a doctor.” And her teacher said, “oh, no, sweetie, I think you mean a nurse.” When I think about that story, it’s both funny and heartbreaking. Mae Jemmison had the strength of character in that moment to stand up, put her hands on her hips and say, no, I said doctor, I said scientist, I know exactly who I want to be. You can see by her trajectory that she had the strength of character and the parents and the family support to do that. But think about the way that that educator could have derailed her in that moment. Think about the millions of young people who at some point along the way are told their aspirations are unrealistic.

[00:29:51.380] – Jennifer

I believe education should be striving for the opposite. I think leaders can cultivate that culture culture and context where we really see every child, where we validate every aspiration, where we help them to reach success as they see it. Even a success that’s named by a five-year-old is just as valid as the aspirations of the 18-year-old. I think so much of it is about culture. So much of it is about letting go of some of those systems that in their essence are inequitable that we’ve been continuing to follow along with for years and years and recognizing that there is a better way and that really we’re in the business of human development. We’re not in the business of stuffing brains with standards. We’re in the business of human development, and that means seeing all parts of the child and supporting all parts of the child.

[00:30:44.650] – Steve

I’m big on modeling being a key leadership element. As soon as you started your first example there about students writing that letter to themselves at the beginning of the year, all I could think of, it sounds like a great first faculty meeting.

[00:31:03.450] – Jennifer

Absolutely. Yes, actually, Steve, thank you for saying that because we actually make that point very consistently when we show the strategies, the table of strategies to say these can be used with teachers. It’s not just teachers should use these with students. These can easily be used with teachers. It’s a wonderful way to help teachers to see the power of this work. When I started as a head of school in Bogotá, I spent my first month basically almost entirely with meetings with each of the teachers, and we had a conversation about their goals as opposed to my telling them what their goals needed to be for the year. They established or we co-constructed their goals together. Yeah, absolutely. It makes a really big difference in terms of what people will step up and do and what teachers will try. If they’ve felt the power of it themselves, they’re much more likely to try it with young people.

[00:32:02.610] – Steve

Well, it’s been great spending this time with you. I’ve really enjoyed it. Tell listeners the best way that they can follow up with you and find some of the writing that you’re doing.

[00:32:13.990] – Jennifer

Thank you for asking. I do have a website. The website is principledlearning.org. It’s where I house everything that I’m doing, podcasts, publications, blogs, all of that stuff. There are pages there for each of the books that I’ve written so far. I do want to mention, and of course, there’s a contact page on there, so leaders who might want to reach out, please do. I will mention specifically, that my third book is on leaders who are facing resistance to things that they know are good for learners. I am actively right now looking for new case studies, leaders who are willing to let me interview them and talk to them about what resistance they’re getting, whether that’s to innovative pedagogy and instructional approaches or inclusion initiatives or whatever it might be that’s getting people’s hackles up. I know in some places it’s litigation, it’s legal and policy challenges, but in a lot of places it’s just local culture and context and what flies and what doesn’t. I’m always interested in connecting with leaders who are being faced with those kinds of challenges and who want to share what kinds of strategies they’re using that are allowing them to move that work forward because we know that what’s best for learners is really what we should be doing.

[00:33:33.770] – Steve

Well, do get back to me when that third book is ready. That’s definitely a topic I love on the podcast. You got it. We’ll put your website into the podcast lead and make it easy for folks to find you.

[00:33:48.050] – Jennifer

Excellent. Thank you so much for this great conversation, Steve. It’s been lovely.

[00:33:53.570] – Steve [Outro]

Thanks for listening, folks. I’d love to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter or LinkedIn at Steve Barkley, or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.

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