"The principals I've had here have been very
willing to say, 'Do what you need to do, be creative.' Not just
to me but to most of the teachers here. It's very supportive."
-- Peter Knowles
Peter credits not only supportive leadership but several things, including
a team of like-minded colleagues for giving him the extra boost needed
to develop new ways of structuring his classroom and courses. A nontraditional
school schedule and the larger context of school reform have also given
Peter new opportunities for focused learning.
Columbia High is small and has one administrator, the principal, with
no second-in-command. The principal is also vice principal, curriculum
director, and dean of students. In Peter's understated terms, "he
is incredibly busy." It's Peter's perception that any faculty member
with initiative and a good idea, especially if it doesn't include a big
budget, is given the go-ahead. With a small central office the door is
open for sharing the lead on change.
"Our building faculty has slowly but steadily
taken on more and more responsibilities that are often handled by a
building's administrative team. Perhaps through overburdened administration
or through overambitious staff members, we've slowly evolved into a
building with a great deal of site-based decision making." --Peter
But the freedom to try something new is only the beginning; Peter also
finds that risk-taking is encouraged and revising is normal.
Several years ago Peter served on a district Language Arts
Curriculum adoption committee from which grew an informal, self-selected
collegial team. Over the years Peter has continued to work regularly with
two teachers at the middle school: Sally Wells a 7th grade Language Arts,
Art, and Design Technology teacher and with Phil Brady who teaches a 5th/6th
blend. All three share an interest in technology and have put countless
hours into technology-related projects and committees. While each of them
also works closely with teachers at their grade and subject levels, they
maintain regular contact with each other, enjoying the perspectives of
multiple grade and subject levels.
"I feel comfortable saying, 'it
didn't work well' or 'I don't want to do that anymore.' We
are allowed to change . . . as long as we have our feet on the ground
in terms of what the curriculum should be." -Peter
"What I find myself thinking about in my
own classes is that for a lot of the time, the actual content is not
the most important part. It's the process you go through to get there.
And so, when we sit down and talk about things, Phil could be talking
about something he teaches at the 5th or 6th grade in science. But the
way he approaches it is something that I can latch onto and bring into
my social studies classes." --Peter Knowles
"In that forum of three different grade
levels working together we see how much there really is in common--setting
deeper goals for learning, knowing what your important objectives are
and constantly questioning each other about what we are doing."
--Sally Wells, 7th grade teacher
" ... you can't talk and the students
can't listen for 90-minutes. We just had to evolve into more student-directed
project work." --Peter
School Schedule and Project Learning
The adjoining campuses of Columbia High School and Henkle Middle School
facilitate cross-grade team and committee work. The schools also share
track and field space, covered bleachers, as well as a 90-minute block
school schedule. The move to four extended periods per day was implemented
in the Fall of 1993 and is now fully a part of the culture and practice
of planning for student learning.
Peter acknowledges that the extended period schedule creates a compelling
force to change classroom practice to more open-ended and student-driven
"It changes everything. It's not just a
matter of twice as much material or twice as fast through the text.
You really have to restructure how you handle education and throw out
your old notions--like your own role in the classroom. Because you can't
talk and the students can't listen for 90-minutes. We just had to
evolve into more student-directed project work. You start to develop
these different approaches to learning and different approaches to teaching
and then the students find different ways to come up with whatever is
requested of them. In time it's no longer all from you--the teacher."
At the middle school Phil Brady teams with three other teachers in self
contained, 5th/6th blend classrooms that share one 90-minute block. Phil
acknowledges the learning benefits of an extended block for students at
the lower grades as well.
"Among my team of three teachers in the
blends we have one 90-minute daily block that we hold sacrosanct for
doing larger units in science and social studies together. It has it's
advantages: you can focus, you don't have to hurry to get things done,
and students have prolonged effort in a single area. The students have
a lot more responsibility for figuring out what their schedule is going
to be, what components they put in the end product, and finding their
own direction to get to the end product. For 5th and 6th graders it's
pretty challenging to take that much control. They go to many more interesting
places before they get to the end." --Phil Brady,
5th/6th grade teacher
At the end of the school year, Peter and a couple of students voiced
the following thoughts about learning with the Global Challenge project.
Their reflections are captured on video.
"This district has
been very good about recognizing the expertise of the faculty and encouraging
them to grow professionally. I would say we have had outside people 10%
of the time or less. It's almost always someone within the district."
When it comes to professional development, Columbia High faculty look
to each other for leadership and learning. Peter works and learns among
a resourceful faculty that shares expertise readily.
"Faculty members began sharing the weekly
staff meeting responsibilities, planning, hosting, and running the meetings
on a rotating basis throughout the year. From that, more and more initiative
has come from the faculty, to reach a point where individual teachers,
departments, or the staff as a whole becomes the agent of change in
many areas of the curriculum." --Peter Knowles
Phil Brady speaks to the long-range advantage
of this "hiring from within" when providing inservice or classes
"And one really good
reason for using someone within [the district] is that it gives someone,
if they have taken a class from you, a chance to come back to you later
and ask more questions. You are a known quantity and available-- in
the district, the building, or a phone call away."
--Phil Brady, 5th/6th grade teacher
Sally Wells appreciates both recognition of the time required for leadership
involvement and the compensation the district provides.
It's important professional recognition that
in order to get substantial work accomplished, you have to provide release
time, or subs, or actually acknowledge that teachers need to be paid
for curriculum development or teaching a technology class--we get paid
for that kind of time." --Sally
Wells, 7th grade teacher
School reform in Washington State has produced academic content standards
with benchmarks that set targets for learning at grades 4, 7, and 10.
Standards-based assessments and an accountability system for results are
also part of the legislated reform system in Washington.
Peter created a set of tables that align the broad goals of the Global
Challenge project with the Washington State standards and the benchmarks
for his ninth-grade students. He also used other standards tools developed
at the national and district level.
Peter, Sally, and Phil all acknowledge that the standards are useful
for appraising their own curriculum priorities without constraining classroom
methods and teaching style.
"One thing the standards have done is get
me to think about what I'm actually doing in my classroom--on a course-wide
basis and a unit-wide basis, and even on a daily basis. I ask myself,
'Is this really what I need to be doing?' They have been helpful
with seeing when I haven't addressed something. They give you a framework,
a target to work for and there is plenty of freedom to get there."
"They give me a focus without saying you've
got to drive this road or that road, so I find them helpful and empowering,
actually." --Phil Brady, 5th/6th grade teacher
"You know the more I work with them the
more comfortable I feel. I look at my curriculum and assess what I am
already doing and see the places where I need to do more."
--Sally Wells, 7th grade teacher
"... we start off trying to get in the habit
of weekly and monthly maintenance, like rebuilding desktops and, you
know, emptying trash." --Peter
For Peter, technical support begins with prevention and instilling good
habits in both the students and himself.
"Some problems are real simple and I try
to teach the kids some self-troubleshooting, such as being aware of
what the error message was, or what they were doing when something went
wrong." --Peter Knowles
When students learn a new application Peter usually prepares a tutorial
that takes students through a content-related task while teaching the
basic functions of the new application. He keeps in a three-ring binder
beside the computers. Students can look up old tutorials and review something
they forget how to do.
The high school began offering an applied technology course where students
build and repair computers. The students provide technical support on
prior arrangements by a classroom teacher. Peter has found this service
helpful for the tedious and time-consuming things like software upgrades.
These students can also be used for an immediate response but Peter rarely
calls on them. Instead, he goes to a low-tech back-up plan--something
he recommends for everyone, always have low-tech options when it comes