By Beth Goins
LEXINGTON, Ky. (May 2, 2017) — The dynamic group behind the University of Kentucky College of Education’s Next Generation Leadership Academy isn’t known for taking baby steps. Seasoned educators from a variety of educational perspectives, they tend to dive right in, take a new approach, turn things over, and look at them from new angles. They’re more of a “why not?” than “why?” group.
So it’s not surprising that they would take on the state’s largest school district, and one of the largest in the nation, Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS), as the first district to work solo with the academy.
For the past seven years, school leaders from districts across the state have come together in central Kentucky to attend the Next Generation Leadership Academy and explore ways to make learning more meaningful in their districts, and they’ve seen inspiring results, from increased graduation and college-going rates to intangibles such as learners of all ages feeling excited about their work. With JCPS, the academy is piloting a district-specific program.
It began in February with 50 district leaders. The academy focus is on deeper learning (innovative teaching that encourages students to ask questions, make discoveries and apply what they learn) as a path to equity, ensuring that all children have access to education that prepares them for success in college and careers.
“Our theory of change with this group is that the more they learn about how to implement deeper learning, the better prepared they will be to support their teachers and schools as they, in turn, implement deeper learning in their classrooms and schools,” said Lu Young, director of Next Generation Educational Partnerships.
They met again in April and will continue to meet every other month, continuing into the 2017-18 school year.
On the first day, the district leaders got a taste of the way in which the academy tends to flip the script, as they became the students of a group of fourth and fifth graders.
The Brandeis Elementary learners-turned-teachers shared their thoughts about teaching and ways in which learning could be more interesting and fun. Collectively, the students wanted more hands-on activities as part of the learning experience. As for how to make that happen, they offered creative ideas, such as updating an old greenhouse on the Brandeis Elementary property. Some of the children wanted to keep it and bring it back to life. Others wanted to create more open space by removing the greenhouse.
The educators, who are specialists in areas such as English as a second language, technology integration, special education, world languages, math, science, social studies, English, language arts and reading, music, art, and physical education — enthusiastically responded to the opportunity to talk to students.
One person wrote in the day’s evaluation: “I feel empowered to start this work, but not overwhelmed. I loved getting to work with the students. Hearing straight from them was very powerful.”
Subsequent sessions involved diving into Next Generation learning principles, including a “grown-up field trip” to see these practices in action in Boone and Kenton County Schools. The Jefferson County cohort visited the Summit Personalized Learning Platform at Conner Middle School and saw examples of high-quality student performance assessment at Kenton County’s Academies of Innovation and Technology.
They also tapped into a practice once used by Google to inspire employee creativity. The “20% Time” initiative, which allowed software engineers to spend 20 percent of their work time on individual projects, is credited with producing some of Google’s most successful ventures, including Gmail and AdSense. The academy fellows at JCPS were asked to identify projects that would contribute to the collective learning of the group.
Their ideas ranged from high-tech to hands-on: taking virtual-reality expeditions, implementing the “Genius Hour” concept (which is essentially the “20% Time” practice translated to the classroom) with English-learner-newcomers, using the Literacy Design Collaborative model to empower students, and engaging elementary school principals to model deeper learning for adults.
The projects are more than a brainstorming exercise; they will implement them this semester and exhibit them on the last day of the academy this spring.
During a debriefing at the end of one of the academy sessions, the district content specialists were asked to formulate a “how might we” question that captured their reflections on the trip to Northern Kentucky. One participant asked, “How might we replicate the student experiences we observed in Northern Kentucky in our elementary schools, ensuring that JCPS students experience deeper learning early on in their school careers?” Another leader asked, “How might we implement these same student-centered strategies in our schools with more challenging populations?”
The UK Next Generation team will also work with principals and teacher-leaders from schools across the district, building further capacity to implement deeper learning in classrooms.
“We are very optimistic and excited about the impact we can have in Jefferson County based on the feedback we have received this spring,” Young said.
She noted the words of one member of this first JCPS academy cadre: “(The Academy) challenges me to think about teaching and learning in a new way. I have enjoyed talking to the students and definitely look forward to seeing actual classrooms in action.”
Participants also took to social media to tout their positive experiences. As one educator said: “The work never fails to push my thinking as an educator. Glad to be taking part in our #uknextgencohort.” See more discussion of this work by searching the #UKNextGen hashtag on Twitter.
More information about the UK College of Education Next Generation Leadership Academy is available at https://education.uky.edu/nxgla/.