Outside the learning box
School district ponders a more innovative future at summit
Imagine there's no textbooks. It isn't hard to do. No letter grades or linear class periods. No florescent lights, too. Imagine all the students, video Skyping with counterparts across the world.
You might say Alex Carter, Montezuma-Cortez School District Re-1 superintendent, is a dreamer, but he's not the only one.
Some 40 people gathered at First National Bank of Cortez Thursday to brainstorm and exchange ideas about a fundamental question: what should the school district look like in 2020?
"What does being a 'beacon of excellence' mean in the real world, not just on paper in the vision statement?" Carter asked. "The future is blurry."
Tasked with offering suggestions were a cadre of teachers, administrators, parents, students and community members - among them Cortez City Manager Shane Hale, Ute Mountain Ute Executive Director Troy Ralstin, and Mitchell Toms, chairman of the Montezuma Community Economic Development Association. Former Re-1 interim superintendent Mary Rubadeau emceed the discussion.
The outspoken Carter pledged to remain mostly silent after opening remarks to let conversation flow and ideas incubate. One of his goals was to craft the vision by consensus, not a top-down mandate.
Carter began by praising the dogged efforts of educators across the district. While their gumption was admirable and to be respected, he was concerned it lacked cohesion.
"We're always busy, always focused on 'doing.' I've yet to see somebody being lazy. (Our staff) is constantly working," he said. "But I don't know if our work is leading to something meaningful."
In his preamble, Carter invoked Martin Luther King, Jr. and Steve Jobs as two exemplars of effective messaging. Both men galvanized followers because they defined their missions clearly and with words that resonated with the public. They preached a consistent message of why.
"Why did (King) come to symbolize the civil rights movement? Why did people show up to his speech at the Lincoln Memorial? This was before the Internet. Newspapers weren't advertising it," Carter said. "He appealed to guts and emotion. Asking 'why aren't we fair (as a society)?' And saying 'I've got a dream for something better, for equality'."
While a starkly different figure, Carter said Jobs, too, grew Apple Inc. into a technology juggernaut because the company represented "challenging the status quo."
"Now," he continued, "Why do our schools exist?"
Participants paired off to mull it over.
"To acquire the knowledge to do life," Manaugh Elementary Principal Donetta Dehart offered. "It should stimulate the mind."
Sharon Englehart, a veteran art teacher at Montezuma-Cortez High School, thought the district's purpose was to "surpass the boredom of obligation and to inspire lifelong learners."
M-CHS Career Technical Director Ed Rice wanted to equip students for a "globally competitive environment."
To parent Becky Brunk, schools set the tone for a town's vitality - or malaise. She didn't want pessimism about the system to become contagious. She recalled a recent encounter at a grocery store check-out line with a 20-something man, who cynically told her "schools are there so kids are forced to go eight hours a day, five days a week to a place they don't like."
"Not to cast aspersions," Brunk continued, "But he will pass that message along to his own kids. We need the community to be invested in this."
It didn't achieve 20/20 clarity, but over the seven-hour "Vision 2020" summit, a general guiding framework emerged.
Participants wanted curriculum that prioritizes project-based learning over lectures and tests, field trips over confined classrooms, practical skills over random dates and facts, proficiency standards over letter grades, and global connectivity to escape the remoteness of Southwest Colorado.
Rubadeau saw nods of agreement when she lamented the rise of standardized testing since No Child Left Behind was enacted by Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush in Jan. 2002.
"National attempts at reform were done in the name of accountability," she said. "What does (accountability) look like when it hits the street? Funding and assessments. We assess, we assess, we assess. Revenue trickles down to the states and districts based on results. We (instead) need to direct that funding to help teachers develop and change their craft.
"Farmers know you don't get a heavier pig just by weighing it every day," she added. "What's the nutrition?"
Preparing for and taking standardized tests now occupy weeks of the academic year. Critics have long said the tests narrow the scope of curriculum taught and siphon the creativity out of students. While Colorado districts now breathe a bit easier after receiving a NCLB waiver in February, educators present Thursday still considered learning too regimented.
They floated a number of ideas to change that. Some were minor. Others challenge decades of ingrained assumptions about how teaching is done.
Most proposals hinged on the premise of kinetic learning: acquiring knowledge and skills by actively working on a project.
In a video TED Talk, Pat Bassett, president of the National Association of Independent Schools, offered examples. Stage a crime scene and teach students forensics to find the culprit. Use a national forest to view rock layers or collect botany samples. Visit a farm or cattle ranch to see the food system at work. Create prototypes with a 3D fabricator.
Exploring the outdoors more often was a popular idea, given the area's biological and archaeological riches.
Another recurring theme was "student-centered learning," in which the teacher introduces a topic but students discuss it among themselves in small groups. Make them grapple with tough problems instead of spoon-feeding answers, the idea goes.
This learning style is "messy and noisy," said Dan Porter, principal of Lewis-Arriola and Pleasant View elementary schools, "but it doesn't mean you don't have control."
Rubadeau added that group collaboration strengthens teamwork skills students will need as adults. Very few professionals work in isolation, she said.
Allowing more space for trial and error won widespread approval, too.
"Students need to take risks, fail and try again. We are quick to penalize failure and the result is risk-averse students," Rubadeau said.
People suggested more crossover between subjects so students don't compartmentalize their knowledge: integrating geometric angles and concepts into a painting class, for example.
They should learn to ask the right questions, compare many possible explanations for a problem and be able to synthesize information - understand why it's important - over just regurgitating it for a test.
"Instead of memorizing all 50 state capitals, why not explain why there are state capitals? Instead of knowing every element in the periodic table, understand what elements are and why the table is organized that way to begin with," Brunk suggested.
Teachers said conventional, defined class lengths don't make sense because kids' brains are simply wired differently. Some students pick up on a concept instantly, and others need far longer than a 60-minute period. The implication was that class enrollment should depend on proficiency, not strictly age.
Rubadeau noted that once kids finish school, they must interact with people of all ages, so it can't hurt to start early.
"It shouldn't be about moving kids through as a batch," said Matt Keefauver, a middle school math teacher and city councilor. "Master a skill and then move on, regardless of time constraints."
Hale agreed: "Why would you force someone to stop and move on to reading Tennyson when they're on the brink of a mathematical breakthrough?"
For all the newfangled ideas, elementary teachers cautioned against neglecting the basics.
"Understanding reading and basic computation, in kindergarten to second grade, are fundamental to all that follows," Dehart said.
Any drastic changes should be phased in incrementally, participants suggested, and with wider community involvement.
"Parents will need to be educated. Their kids' homework will look different. The school day will be structured differently. It won't look the way it did when they were students," Ed Rice said.
Brunk thought intensive outreach during the fall helped the community "buy-in" to the 3B bond measure. To convince people that a sweeping overhaul of curriculum is wise, a similar effort will be needed, she said.
Amid the grand plans, several people frankly acknowledged the challenges faced by Cortez. Socioeconomic and fiscal realities will inevitably get in the way of idealism. M-CHS Principal Jason Wayman reminded everyone that half his students are eligible for free or reduced lunch. Poverty and disengaged parents can sap motivation. Field trips are expensive. Colleges still consider the GPA scale for admissions criteria. And can scores improve if daily assignments aren't "taught to the test?" Obstacles to innovation remain.
But, as Carter observed, obstacles didn't stop King or Jobs.
Sam Green/Cortez Journal Mitchell Toms gives his input for improving schools at the Re-1 education summit Thursday. By the afternoon, brainstorming posters plastered the conference room walls.