Blog Archives: January 2012
Undeniably, those in attendance at the 2012 Children and Youth Issues Briefing on January 11th were among many of the most significant scholars, nonprofit leaders, and policy-makers aiming to improve the future for the youngest generation of Minnesotans. Aside from those with the power to make systematic changes, many nonprofit employees attended to be part of the conversation. Although important developments were discussed, I left the event wishing for more unity in next steps and clarity in vision for our state’s next few years. I left hoping that most of what was discussed was not in fact new information for many already working in youth and education fields. Frankly, I left wanting more.
News about recent funding for North Minneapolis’ Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ), St. Paul’s Promise Neighborhood, and the recent developments to replicate Ohio’s STRIVE in Minnesota were informative, but by no means should have been news to any of us. As slides describing youth health disparities, poverty levels, and Minnesota’s achievement gap were shown, I was surprised that the data drew gasps and murmurs from the tables around me. If you consume local news media or stay up-to-date on education/youth related organizations in this area, this stuff is hard to ignore. But maybe that’s the problem. Are we as well-informed about our peers working in youth-serving organizations as we should be?
In an effort to break down silos in state government, the Minnesota Commissioners of Education, Human Services, and Health (aka “The Children’s Cabinet”) have gathered to tackle, comprehensively, the issues that affect Minnesota’s underserved youth (including poverty, violence, health problems, parental health, nutrition, academic inequities, etc.). I still, however, find myself wondering how much actual time is devoted to this day-to-day. As the duplication of services continues to be alarmingly excessive in nonprofits, are similar discussions happening at the executive level in our nonprofits? Does the promise of our nonprofit community’s collective impact by working together (even if it means as coworkers, sharing an office) outshine the potential loss of nonprofit jobs, funding, and power that many of us associate with mergers and acquisitions? If so, we might be in the wrong line of work.
At NYLC we believe that engaging young people in solving issues not only can lead to the best outcomes, but also inspires and rewards leadership. We imagine young people being active parts of solutions, so the lack of youth at the event itself was disappointing. Do youth or children advise the Children’s Cabinet? How do youth have input into the planning of new nonprofit models aimed at improving their own situations? Sometimes our ideas get in the way of our methods. Going forward, I hope that we continue to show trust in our youth by giving them the active leadership roles in reforming our systems that they deserve.
Being a member of the youth planning committee has been such an insightful experience. I’ve heard countless times what the experience of the conference is like, although I have yet to experience a conference. To be part of the planning makes looking forward to conference an exciting journey.
My name is Aimee Vue and I’m a high school student in Minnesota; it has been a goal of mine to attend the National Service-Learning Conference for as long as I can remember. This year, I have that opportunity as a member of the youth planning committee for the conference. The National Service-Learning Conference has been all around the nation and this year it will be at the Minneapolis Convention Center. The conference communities have been diverse and this year it is hosted by one of the most diverse communities, the Twin Cities.
I don’t have much conference experience but I’ve had experience planning large events. Our planning committee has a diverse group of people on it ranging from a retired teacher to a plethora of youth of different ages. Learning about all the different things that need to be planned may seem overwhelming for some, but I find it an intriguing journey. People talk about the plenary emcees and the ambiance of the youth room and how it all added to their conference experience. There have been many participants at the National Service-Learning Conference and we’ve heard a lot of feedback. Being a part of a planning committee gives myself and others a voice as to what we want the conference to be like. It’s a great opportunity to hear about past conferences and to brainstorm ideas for this upcoming year.
Of all the things that make the experience of being on the youth planning committee meaningful, it is the diversity. Voices of all ages are heard and taken into consideration, for the benefit of all. The key to any planning committee is acclimating to everyone’s ideas in a cooperating and cohesive manner. It’s been an insightful experience to see the conference unfold and I’m excited as ever for April 11th to come.
Summer school programs do not necessarily result in changes across the district or even among these teacher’s practices throughout the year. It occurs to me that if professional development opportunities better aligned with summer teaching, this organized experience could enhance teachers’ depth of practice, sustain innovation and place their professional growth within district-wide change rather than simply as classroom change. When teachers participate in district provided professional development they have a chance to recreate the classroom learning environment, they can also reimagine district’s systems and therefore producing more sustainable change. The bigger the system reimagined the more practices are institutionalized. This is what I call engaging the biggest tent possible.
I have experienced numerous facets of school systems where innovation is understood as possible in “that” setting. Summer school, afterschool and alternative programs are famous for their sense of “we do things different here” because its summer school, etc. The teacher both enjoys and suffers from a marginalized state within the system. They are left alone for a period of time, generally hidden from the policy makers. Marginalized aspects of systems simply do not sustain, they eventually are cut because they are seen as not essential or are altered to better align with commonly accepted practices. Marginalized within systems is not the place to be.
Service-learning practitioners can fall into the same problem of being marginalized with systems. They find themselves and their work isolated, perhaps placed into marginalized programs, hidden from policy makers. These programs may sustain due to the amazing and charismatic efforts of one or a small group of teachers, too often the programs are eventually cut. If these teachers were to organize themselves aiming to shape larger aspects of the school system the likelihood of this practice being sustained and expanding to other classrooms could grow.
If we in the service-learning field target summer learning programs as an excellent opportunity to organize change in classroom practices, we must think, plan and engage with the biggest tent in mind. Helping summer school teachers explore new practices in summer must also coincide with helping teachers understand how these practices can be employed throughout the year. Help teachers engage their peers, their building and district administration. Summer and after school programs while historically have been a common target for district cuts, have recently become a more significantly valued component of a district’s improvement plans.
Influence of the Achievement Gap
The importance of summer school at the district level is often understood as a vital component to the districts’ goals to address the needs of struggling students. Many in school systems identify the need for more time to be given to those students who have not yet mastered basic skills, those seen as left behind in the achievement gap. While time is indeed vital, many teachers also feel that simply doing more of what wasn’t working is a less than hopeful option. These teachers are looking for new ways to engage their students, new ways to help their students learn academic outcomes. This is the opportunity for service-learning and for those that would like to see more systemic changes in school districts.
I have come to believe that the impetus for change will come from those aspects to schooling that are less inundated with the recent and still expanding tsunami of educational obligations. Teacher’s time or choices during the standard school day is severely limited. It is tough to institute change in what appears to be a paralyzing environment. Summer, afterschool and alternative education programs provide an excellent way for innovation to take root into school systems. It can take root as long as we keep the big tent as our target for such change, change just might sustain.
Over the last few months I have been thinking more and more about what exactly are the key factors that lead schools towards significant change and district-wide application of high-quality service-learning. Those thoughts, along with my recent attendance at the Summer Learning Conference this last November have further clarified my thoughts on the matter.
It is clear that there are brilliant advocates for service-learning all across the world, our National Service-Learning Conference highlights that fact each year. I have, over the last 20+ years, met so many knowledgeable, hardworking and charismatic teachers who are passionate advocates for service-learning, yet I see little evidence that their practice expands into the classrooms of their peers. These teachers do not as a common practice, organize their school environment to be increasingly capable of institutionalizing high quality service-learning. This is, in one sense, surprising as service-learning practice organizes systems; by its nature it engages others in the shared work of building meaningful learning experiences for its students.
Service-Learning is Systemic Thinking
It is just this system thinking that provides service-learning with advantages over so many other innovations or school change models. One of the really unique aspects of service-learning is that it is organizes what may seem as disparate aspects of the learning environment into more interrelated body of resources. These resources can help the teacher and students map out how to know what is worth learning and then how it can best be learned. Service-learning like any systems thinking effort recognizes that deep understanding and deep changes require an organizing of numerous interests to find a new sets of knowledge, a new way of organizing understanding. This might remind some teachers of thematic instruction.
I remember when my peers would experiment with thematic instruction – blending learning outcomes from more than one curricular area into a single theme. We created a learning environment that was more than the sum of its parts. What that experience taught us was some of the most meaningful educational outcomes we could imagine were somewhere in the spaces between our perceived academic domains. Each year Bruce, the science teacher, and I would wait for summer school to come around – excited for the freedom this time provided us to rethink how to run a classroom, how to organize what was worth learning. I feel certain that my most innovative teaching practices were formed in summer programs. These times sustained as I revised and then reapplied these courses throughout the school year. It was in summer school teaching when I first stumbled upon what I later learned was service-learning. Summer teaching was great because there was more time, more ability to explore new ideas.
It is common for teachers to express one great hindrance to the quality of their professional life – a lack of time. When we state that we do not have enough time, it may be another way of saying we lack choice with our time. As the lists of what must be taught when and where is ever growing, there is precious few choices (time) for teachers to explore new practices, to add depth to student’s learning experiences, to individualize learning, or to engage community-based resources to enrich learning. It is not that these choices can’t align with core standards, current teaching obligations, or to be honest –the hours of grading, it is simply hard to imagine adding any “new” ideas to that world, even good ideas.
This is where summer programming provides the opportunity that is lacking in other aspects of teacher’s lives. Summer programs often are times where teachers try something new. I have heard from many teachers, “Why do the same thing with students if it didn’t work the first time?” Teachers find teaching in summer school programming to be freeing. I am increasingly convinced that the richest opportunity for professional development in service-learning lies with helping districts apply innovative practices in summer and afterschool or alternative programs. I believe, just as it was for me, there continues to be flexibility of time for teachers in summer school or afterschool programs.