Our Work is Worth It!
Today’s post is brought to you by Kevin Hunt, middle level generalist at
Williston Central School and PLP Pathways contributor.
It seems whenever there is a paradigm shift in education it is always accompanied by the response “give it a few years and this will pass too.” I haven’t been in the field long enough to confirm this, but I have been in plenty of meetings and have attended several conferences where I’ve heard veteran teachers mutter these disparaging words. I’ve always done my best to remain optimistic and look at change in education as something exciting and refreshing, but at the same time, I often try to empathize with those with decades more experience than I have and think to myself, would I be saying this too if I’ve lived through so much change that felt meaningless?
I’ve recently been reflecting on this and thinking about what an appropriate response would be to those who are skeptical about personalization, PLPs, negotiated curriculum etc. I believe it’s important to stop and think about why we make the changes we make, and when we are hearing those uncertain voices, how do we remain positive, and where do we start? It’s not always easy going against the grain, and it’s even harder when you feel like you are alone in embracing change. One of the most common questions I hear from educators around the state is “How do I start?” The buzz around Act 77, PLPs, personalization, PIPs, negotiated curriculum, PBL-- and every other acronym that is trending right now-- can seem foreboding and overwhelming, but if we are doing these things for the right reasons, the payoff (in the form of student engagement and love for learning) is completely worth it.
In addressing the ‘how do I start’ question, I began to look at Swift House’s structure and its beginnings over 25 years ago. I found that when a paradigm shift happens for the right reasons, with students’ best interests at its core, then it will not merely go away over years, but rather evolve into a system that best serves the learner.
I unearthed some of the original documents from Swift House’s inaugural year and in reading these documents, I felt as though I was like looking into the past and seeing the present. So many of the ideas, compromises, and non-negotiables that Swift’s founding members decided on over 25 years ago still ring absolutely true to this day and show how a student-centered culture can be sustained.
Here is a link to the meeting notes from 1990, which outlines the teachers’ visions, philosophies, non-negotiables from creating this type of learning environment; along with noting ideas about goal setting, student-led conferences, project based learning, and negotiated curriculum. These ideas that started Swift House are still at its foundation today.
Julie Longchamp, one of the original Swift House facilitators, recently conducted a survey of former Swift students who are now all out of college. Here are some things they had to say about their experiences on Swift and the lasting impact it left on their lives:
“Lastly, I remember reflection time. I had hated writing and grammar rules, and Bernie gave me the freedom to write however I'd like in my reflections. I've loved writing since then.”
“The most outstanding element of Swift House was placing the majority of the responsibility on the students. We were treated as adults; we needed to take projects and complete them as products of our personal investment.... In this manner, we were able to start creating and identifying learning habits before we got to high school... The mentality of respecting kids as adult individuals is the reason for this beneficial quality.”
“This was crucial for my success. I didn't believe in grades, and still do not. I never got any satisfaction from grades, nor did I understand what they meant. The personal plan gave me specific things to work on, and then give feedback on how I had been performing. It was a very positive experience. I think it was crucial that the parents accepted the personal plan however, else I think I may have had a different opinion of it.”
“This was way ahead of its time and it was good preparation for performance reviews at work and planning projects in general. I wish high school and college had used this type of evaluation that allowed each student to have his/her tailored goals reflective of his/her challenges and strengths. And I knew what a "scholar" meant versus "novice" because it was clearly explained, unlike an "A" versus "D" grade.”
In closing, if you are in a position of trying to figure out how to start or where to begin, the worst thing you can do is nothing at all. Start small and establish your own non-negotiables and philosophies. Think of the students first and don’t be afraid to try something new! Encourage colleagues to take part and push one another’s ideas. Be okay with failure and make adjustments whenever you can. Include students in the process- get feedback and ideas from them and try them out!
It’s okay to go against the grain and not side with the loud and intimidating voices, as long as what you are doing will truly benefit students. We owe it to them to give it our all, even if it requires changing our own philosophies or practices. The structure that the founding Swift House members made in 1991 is evidence that the work we do today will not go unnoticed or be wasted if we are doing it for the right reasons and are willing to stay the course.
“The glue that kept the Swift House system from falling apart was how much the teachers cared about and believe in the system. Their passion for teaching was never lost on us Swifties. We fed off it, were inspired by it, and are undoubtedly better people today because of it.
Thank you, Julie, Gary, Al, and Bernie, for being a part of my formative years.” -Sam 1996 Swift House graduate