Investing in leadership capacity: The amazing, wonderful District 59

Two years ago I had the incredible opportunity to work with the entire leadership team of District 59 in Arlington Heights, Illinois for SEVEN days. Yes, seven entire days with every central office administrator, every building administrator, and many of their teacher leaders. There were about 40 of us. We met approximately once per month from September to May. They also met for a couple of hours each month in between my visits. They labeled it their ‘21st Century Leadership Academy.’

What did seven-plus days do for us? They allowed us to go both broad and deep, to chart a progression over time that would build leadership understanding and capacity. Here’s what we discussed…

  • Day 1: The Big Picture: Start With the Why – How is the innovation decade going to change learning of, by, and for young people? (thank you Pam Moran for this question!) – Establishing our rules of play and group norms – Quick reactions to my TEDxDesMoines talk about extracurricular learning v. curricular learning – Because of digital technologies, our world today is more… – What are the implications and design considerations of what we just identified for learning, teaching, and schooling? (both positive and negative) – Organizational self-assessment – Getting set up with our new Google+ community
  • Day 2: Connecting and Collaborating – Review of last session’s evaluations and our rules of play – How connections foster innovation (Chris Anderson, Steven Johnson, and The Power of Pull) – Individual connection maps: How are we personally and professionally connected to ideas, individuals, groups, and organizations? (both analog and digital) – 5 stages of instructional evolution – Communities of interest v. communities of geography – Connected learning gallery walk – Interrogating our instruction: Are these connected lessons any good? How could we make them better? – Getting set up with Twitter and our new hashtag
  • Day 3: Problem- and Inquiry-Based Learning – Review of last session’s evaluations and our rules of play – Crowdsourcing – Understanding how Wikipedia really works – Crowdsourcing ideas for students and teachers – Essential elements of project-based learning – PBL v. traditional classroom ‘projects’ (how is PBL different from what we normally do in our classes?) – Interrogating our instruction: Are these elementary and middle school projects any good? How could we make them better? – Going deeper with the components of high-quality PBL – A PBL case study – Making sense of PBL in our own context – Getting set up with Feedly and some awesome school leadership blogs
  • Day 4: Critical Thinking and Technology Integration – Review of last session’s evaluations and our rules of play – A deep dive into The Road Not Taken and Thinking About a Lack of Thinking – When memorization gets in the way of learning – Characteristics of a thinking classroom – Interrogating our instruction: Utilizing the trudacot discussion protocol to foster richer technology integration – Challenge: Design a cognitively complex, technology-infused project
  • Day 5: The Affordances of Digital – Review of last session’s evaluations and our rules of play – Digital v. analog: Examples of the affordances of multimedia storytelling – How is writing changing because of digital and online? – Transmedia – Blended learning models – Personalization v. individualization – Interrogating our instruction: An elementary school scenario
  • Day 6: Visioning and Challenge Identification (aka Action Planning, Part 1) – Review of last session’s evaluations, our rules of play, and the past 5 sessions – Revisiting our responses to Because of digital technologies, our world today is more… (keywords and convergence) – Whereas… Therefore activity – Challenge identification: XPLANE cards – Analyzing our group narratives using Bolman & Deal and an effort-impact matrix – What are our biggest anchors that are slowing us down?
  • Day 7: Enabling Our Vision (aka Action Planning, Part 2) – Review of last session’s evaluations, our rules of play, and the past 6 sessions – What does it take to be a great leader? – Driving forces – Revisiting our responses in the Whereas… Therefore activity – Start-Stop-Continue – XPLANE cards and group narratives: Overcoming our primary obstacles – Interrogating our instruction: Using screencasting apps to address English/Language Arts, Math, or Science standards – Final thoughts on technology-infused learning

Our evaluation results reflected our awesome work together. I freely admit that, as an entirety, this was probably the best professional learning experience that I have ever facilitated. To be able to sustain this level of quality across seven days was phenomenal…

D59 Evaluations

Here are some of my favorite comments from the session evaluations:

  • I like the vast amount of resources that can be shared with staff
  • The active engagement and modeling was very nonthreatening [but] challenged my thinking
  • It wasn’t just a sit and get. We used different tools without them being ‘taught’ to us.
  • Loved the entire discussion about ‘connectedness’
  • The chance to discuss and ask hard questions about where we are at was great.
  • Having time to work DEEPLY with colleagues – the time to really start to wrap our minds around what all of this actually needs to look like within the classroom setting
  • It was great to look at some sample units and critically evaluate them
  • The Whereas… Therefore exercise was difficult for me until the very end. Hearing the thoughts of all of my colleagues was powerful when it all came together.
  • Taking the time to dig through some difficult conversations
  • All the interaction and discussion with my table group. Lots of laughter and rich discussion.
  • My favorite part was the focus on ‘What exactly are kids learning as a result of this process?’ v. ‘Look! A project!’
  • Teachers keep asking us what 21st century learning looks like and we now have many examples to share with them
  • Scott was a model for how to teach
  • Challenging our thinking and beliefs is a wonderful experience
  • Looking at a teacher’s lesson and coming up with appropriate talking points to help the teacher think about how to improve it
  • [We have had] LOTS of opportunity to do the hard work – these are not easy conversations
  • Is there a number higher than 5? Great information on creating and evaluating PBL projects
  • So powerful to work collaboratively with table mates to plan a unit of study. Really helped with my level of understanding of how we want our staff to plan.
  • Working with apps to demonstrate and apply our understanding of what we know and have learned
  • Very concrete in terms of identifying the specific problems and potential solutions and then writing that narrative to describe that landscape
  • You made a very complex topic much more palatable. It was a challenging topic with many pieces, but due to your careful planning, the flow seemed more natural.
  • The continuing a-ha!
  • Thank you. I am really enjoying these times to learn and grow.
  • Thank you for yet another enlightening day. They are always exhausting but I learn so much.
  • I have learned a lot during this time together but, more important, I have learned a lot about the other leaders in the district
  • It’s amazing to see how far we’ve come as a group since September. Our progress is faster and more significant every time we’re together.
  • We are more cohesive and in alignment with our thinking than we were at the beginning of the year. We also had fun as we learned.
  • Best PD ever – applicable, engaging, empowering, collegial, just AWESOME!

Our work got a shout-out in Will Richardson’s new book, From Master Teacher to Master Learner, which is pretty cool:

It goes without saying that for many, finding the time to do their own PD is a real problem. No great answer to this is apparent other than a cultural reframing, one that is already underway. And that means schools should consider a reframing of their own learning time. For example, last year the Community Consolidated School District 59 in Arlington Heights, Illinois, was able to create sixty-three hours of professional development for administrators around modern learning contexts in an effort to begin real culture change. . . . We in schools need to make the time to understand these shifts for ourselves.

Two years later District 59 is in a significantly different place than before. They have continued learning, talking, and implementing. They are ROCKING OUT.

This is absolutely, positively, without a doubt my favorite kind of work. When we engage in sustained, extended discussions over the course of multiple months or years, we can see shifts in thinking and capacity occurring over time. We can see folks getting excited about the possibilities. We can build shared understandings and commitments. And we can build on all of that to start implementing new instructional and leadership paradigms in schools and classrooms.

Not every district is fortunate enough to have an amazing superintendent like Art Fessler, who recently was named as one of the National School Boards Association’s ’20 to Watch.’ Not every district is fortunate enough to have an amazing assistant superintendent like Ben Grey, who planned and co-facilitated the seven-plus days with me. But, like District 59, every school system can make a sustained, strategic commitment to investing in its leaders’ ability to learn and grow so that they are able to better create and support school environments that foster deeper learning, greater student agency, authentic work, and richer technology integration.

This year I get to work with two different districts – one in Iowa and one in Minnesota – to do this again. Each is doing a 5-day Innovation Academy with their district, building, and teacher leaders. Like in District 59, I’m guessing that it’s going to be awesome because the districts have made a significant commitment to learn and grow together and to build their leadership capacity in this area. I can’t wait…

What is your school system doing to build its leadership capacity to foster 21st century learning environments?

3 Responses to “Investing in leadership capacity: The amazing, wonderful District 59”

  1. What a fabulous overview of what looks like a very, very powerful process. As I prepare to embark on a new position in a new district, this post is very timely; and it shows that good work takes time & is messy – but WOW – where you can go and what you can achieve . . . when the focus for ed leaders is to learn and grow together to examine powerful practices that will lead to meaningful and relevant learning for ALL kids.

  2. Love that they are in a different place and implementing. What data, information, or evidence might District 59 share regarding implementation and results that could be shared with other districts as a way to encourage them to engage in this type of sustained learning and work?

  3. Scott, this is an awesome example of how leadership should work. At some point in my life I would like to be a part of something that works so well. I can’t even get my school to support me to attend/present at conferences without having to pay for over half the cost myself. I have experiences and research I would love to share with others but many just don’t want to hear about it.

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