Fostering Positive Change in Schools

Our plane touches down in São Paulo and I feel—at home. At what moment did Brazil shift from being somewhere I visit to somewhere I return to? In the following article, I explore a question we kept coming back to during our most recent trip to Brazil: When does change happen and how?

                    Student conducts in an ecology experiment at Rep Lago (Lemme, SP)

Earlier this month, my colleagues and I had the great fortune to spend two weeks in São Paulo and Brasília. On our first day, we took a walk through the Jardim Botânico de São Paulo. It was a crisp winter afternoon; the overcast skies made the flowering trees seem even more saturated in bright pinks and reds. We were tired from travel and thankful to be breathing fresh air in this beautiful place together. A teacher called me over to a small pond where hundreds of tadpoles were swimming. I had walked by the same pond a few minutes earlier and missed them. I crouched down low and a whole world of organisms opened before me. In a few months these tadpoles will be frogs, their environment less contained, their trajectory completely altered.

In some ways, this was a theme for our week in schools. In our conversations with students, we asked them about the moment when an idea becomes action. In dialoguing with teachers and administrators, we explored the conditions that transform our relationships. And in every classroom, we were reminded of the simultaneous processes of learning and change.

  • A 12th grade student tells me, “I am a completely different person now than I was when I started high school.” I ask him for examples. He reflects, “Well, I didn’t know how to study or what I liked or who I wanted to be. And now, I do.”
  • Our counselor asks a group of seniors if there was a time when a task or assignment seemed impossible. A young man laughs immediately, “Every single time we had to record a speech, especially that first time when the camera is right there.” He holds both hands up indicating the space directly in front of his face. “But you did it!” I interject. He leans back and considers, “Yes, I did.”
  • We are standing in a circle with a group of middle school students challenging them to think about a positive difference they could make in their school. One student introduces an idea, “There is a problem in our cafeteria of students not bringing their plates back to be washed. People just leave them on the tables.” Another student jumps in, “You’re right. We could start a positive change movement of getting everyone to bring back their plates.” The students nod, committing to the idea.
  • Outside on the patio, students are tangled into a tight knot of hands and arms. The task is for everyone to work together to untangle themselves without letting go. It looks impossible. And then a student twists around; another two lift their arms over a tangled cluster of teenagers; more twisting; a row of students duck under some arms. I watch this change choreography as the knot untangles and the students face each other in an open circle cheering.
  • We are visiting with a group of recent National Honor Society initiates and they are telling us about their upcoming graduation. “We’re planning an American football game.” says a boy with bright eyes. A petite girl interrupts. “And dancing!” she adds. I ask the girls to show us their routine. We laugh and try the steps together. Change is not always an either/or proposition. Sometimes we are both/and. For example, these students are beaming with school pride for both of their high schools (Brazilian and U.S.). When did that happen?

Change is part of the fabric of the natural world. I think about the tadpoles at the Jardim Botânico de São Paulo, the moon that swelled to full and red during my visit, the days that are getting just a bit longer each evening in São Paulo and just a bit shorter each evening in Columbia. These changes we have little control over. We hope to teach students (and remind ourselves) to pay attention to them, to not walk by the pond full of life, to appreciate the stars in the countryside, to notice the way the light makes everything glow an hour before dusk.

Other changes we can control; these changes often start slowly, even invisibly, and then, at a certain moment—a moment that is often impossible to pinpoint—communities are transformed, relationships solidified, lessons applied, and ideas put into action.

Visiting with our students and partner teachers reminded me that the catalyst for positive change is almost always (1) great ideas and (2) strong relationships. However, like most good things, they have to be nurtured to grow.

What makes ideas grow and relationships stronger? I believe these conditions include: innovation, influence, and love. We have to show up for each other, be open to new ideas, and commit to helping the really good ones grow and stick.

The students and educators in our global learning community have the capacity to create change movements, to build new programs and products, and to help the world become a more accepting place one friendship at a time. And what a privilege—in this spinning world which, is constantly influx blooming and rebuilding—that we get to be part of this journey together.

Appreciatively, Dr. KFW

What We Measure

Thinking differently about interpreting “big” datasets in schools

Dr. KFW works with middle school students at Colégio Dante (São Paulo, SP)

Like city traffic at 6:00PM, the flickering lights that line Paulista Avenue seem to extend indefinitely. I am standing on a rooftop overlooking a slice of the São Paulo skyline just as it begins to rain. Despite the precipitation, groups of friends pose for selfies. I wrap my arms around two friends and do the same. We are all trying to measure ourselves against this city that has unfolded before us. It is impossible though, it’s simply too big. Thinking through the nuanced differences between big and small, what counts, and what we measure, is a theme that stays with me all week while we visit our students across São Paulo.

whether you are working with one student or one thousand…

As a global school district, what we are venturing is huge: programmatically, ideologically, and logistically. We are building new models based on big ideas in international and blended education.

We need large data sets, but we need to interpret them through context. To make sense of achievement trends, we need both quantitate measures and qualitative measures. We don’t want to count all the buildings only to realize we have missed the lights.

Like taking photos of the São Paulo skyline, my focus flickers between the vastness of our program and small, simple moments with students and teachers. Each day, we take copious programmatic notes, yet in the evenings when we reflect on our day, I find we start by remembering small moments, brief interactions, individual student (and teacher) breakthroughs.

  • A teacher is reading over the shoulder of one of her eighth-grade students. From across the room, I hear her exclaim “Great work, Dear!” I turn around as they share a hug. Then I read the student’s reflection on acceptance and inclusion. The teacher is right, it is great work.
  • An administrator shows me photos of students writing nature poems by the lake. You can almost feel the tranquility as you scroll through the photos.
  • I am sitting in the hall with a group of middle school students, helping them record a video on the water cycle. One of the group members is very nervous. His peers, tell him, “You can do it! Let’s practice first.” We go through his lines a couple times together. When we push record he nails it. “Ótimo!”I tell him and he beams.
  • A small group of students literally put their heads together during a writing task. You can see them drawing on their collective wisdom as they respond to our questions on hope.

Whether you are working with one student or one thousand: students, teachers, language, reflection, purpose, and compassion, are elements that matter in education.

the greatest predictor of student success

Like the more complicated infrastructure of larger cities, the bigger the program, the more moving parts. Educational programs include curriculum, grades, assessments, logistics, differentiated lesson plans, etc. However, during our school visits, I was reminded that the greatest predictor of student success isn’t any of these things. What matters most is relationships.

During our school visits, we met with administrators, parents, teachers, and students. All of these people have the potential to build students up and support learning. We saw countless ways a caring teacher (or friend) could transform a student’s (or peer’s) frustration into engagement. Regardless of the size of the program, the heart of great teaching still lies in that critical relationship between student and teacher.

I’ve written before about teaching with courage. The root of the word comes from Latin, meaning, heart strength. A related word I saw practiced during our school visits was encouragement, meaning to make strong or give hope. In our schools, we saw students and teachers living this out in countless small, important ways. I saw how quickly students reached out to help each other academically and personally. At one point, a colleague told me, “we just have really, really, kind students.” Just then a group of seventh graders came barreling down the hall to give us a hug.

We also saw the importance of teacher relationships. At several schools, we saw an organic commitment to Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). In a PLC, small groups of teachers work together around student achievement. They engage in common planning, collective support, and strengths pooling. Teachers meet usually weekly to plan, share, and problem-solve around teaching and learning. They take a look at all the work that goes into teaching and try to divide it among themselves, to work smarter. The schools who had developed this practice, and particularly the schools who had clearly defined roles/identified strengths within their PLCs, are thriving. They felt like they had discovered the secret to more effective and happier teaching because in a way, they had.

approximating a circle

This brings us back to my first evening in São Paulo and my initial quandary: what counts. Shaking the rain from my hair on that first night on the roof, I learn there are 12 million people living in São Paulo and 20 million if you count the larger metropolitan area. Much like 7,000+ students in our school district, I wonder how to track and make meaning of numbers like that. The erratic flash of cell phone photos lights up the night silhouetting groups of friends against the cityscape. I am struck by the juxtaposition of these micro-moments next to the magnitude of a huge city.

There are so many points and intersecting straight lines glittering on the map below me. I remember a math lesson from years ago, and wonder, if we connected all those different points, might we approximate a circle. We make sense of big ideas (or big spaces) by breaking them down into smaller pieces, tethering existing knowledge to new knowledge, finding ways to connect one point to another. Each dots the way to bigger constellations of meaning. I look out at the city one last time. The rain blurs my focus–all the lights run together. Just then a friend calls me inside.

Warmly, Dr. KFW