The Westport Public Schools want students to think creatively and innovatively; to approach problems in ways no one else conceives of. That’s an important part of education — and crucial for success in the 21st century.
To do that, teachers must model that type of thinking.
And to give everyone extra encouragement, the district is putting its money where its mouth is.
A $50,000 Innovation Fund is available to all students, faculty and staff. The goal is to encourage exciting ideas, foster new ways of thinking, and nurture an ongoing culture of creativity.
It’s not a new concept — districts like Wilton, Trumbull, Chappaqua and Scarsdale — have similar funds. But they’re usually run by third parties, such as foundations.
But, according to director of elementary education Julie Droller and technology director Natalie Carrignan, the Westport district wanted to select the best ideas itself. Board of Education member Mark Mathias was an early proponent of the fund. Superintendent of schools Colleen Palmer was also a strong advocate.
“We’re looking for solutions to problems that we otherwise would not have the equipment, time or resources for,” Droller says. “We know there are lots of great ideas out there.”
Just a couple of weeks after the fund was created, applications are pouring in.
Proposals include new ways of using technology, novel activities and requests for physical devices.
Drones are fun. They can also be educational.
One example: enhancement to the middle school STEM curriculum by using drones and coding software to solve real-world challenges.
Another: Teachers using technology to help them reflect on how they’re doing in the classroom. It’s similar, Carrignan says, to coaches who use game film to analyze performances.
The Innovation Fund is available to anyone in the district. One 3rd grade parent asked for more information, for her child.
A committee meets this week to review the first batch of requests. To learn more, click here.
It’s one thing to teach reading, writing, science, math, world language, music and art. Westport schools do that — and they do it very, very well.
It’s another thing entirely to teach emotional and social awareness; kindness with sincerity; principled thoughts and actions, and a love of learning.
You can’t test those qualities. You can’t quantify them, or describe them particularly well. Most school systems don’t even think about such things.
Called “Guiding Principles,” they’re part of a conscious initiative to add social, civic and ethical education to the school day. And they’re being introduced system-wide, from kindergarten through 12th grade, not only in the classroom but at recess, in the cafeteria — anywhere students gather, and teachers can teach.
Last week, director of secondary education (and incoming Staples High School principal) James D’Amico and director of elementary education Julie Droller discussed what it all means.
James D’Amico and Julie Droller, in Westport school district headquarters at Town Hall.
“We have a robust social skills curriculum,” D’Amico said. “But we realized we needed to recalibrate what we were doing.”
“We’re addressing more needs than even a few years ago,” Droller added. “Society expects schools to do even more now.”
With the help of Deb Sawch (former Staples English teacher, now co-founder/director of Studies in Educational Innovation at Teachers College, Columbia University) and Allison Villanueva (one of Westport’s Teachers College partners), administrators studied how other top-performing schools — as far away as Singapore and Australia, as near as Horace Mann and as diverse as Berkeley’s Haas School of Business — handled social and civic expectations.
But D’Amico and Droller knew they could not impose any directive from the top down. They had to talk simply, without jargon — and there had to be teacher buy-in.
They worked for 18 months with a group of 45 teachers from throughout the district, to determine the best ways to give students (for example) the opportunity to connect, value and accept others; to act with integrity; to be curious, inquisitive, passionate and joyful about learning new things; to persevere, even during challenges; to view mistakes as part of the learning process, and be flexible in all they do.
It’s not enough for youngsters to work together. They also must connect, value and accept each other; act with integrity, and enjoy what they do.
They also wanted to find ways for adults to model those behaviors.
“We don’t want kids who are compliant,” D’Amico stressed. “We want them engaged in learning.”
In reading, for instance, “we don’t want kids to just flip through pages,” Droller said. “We want them to stop, talk with each other, grapple and compare ideas. We want them to ask questions, without waiting for the teacher.”
All well and good. But how does that happen in a school system — and national environment — that demands quantifiable measures, like getting through a unit and preparing for standardized tests?
“That’s a good question,” D’Amico said. “The changes can be subtle. In 8th grade social studies classes, it could mean changing an assignment from ‘Write about the American you admire most’ to ‘Write about the most principled American you admire.'”
Who would you pick as your most principled American?
“We’re naming these principles,” Droller continued. “We’re saying, ‘Here’s what being empathetic means. Here’s what it means to be persistent. Here’s what a growth mindset looks like.'”
This August, Westport hosts its 1st-ever district-wide keynote address. Dr. Marc Brackett — director of Yale’s Center for Emotional Intelligence — will talk about the ability to manage emotions. He believes that emotional intelligence can be taught. In fact, he says, it must be.
Workshops will be offered to parents too, so they can partner with teachers and administrators in the initiative.
“If we don’t have these principles in place, kids don’t learn anything,” D’Amico says. “We can’t go a mile wide and an inch deep. Kids already have access to plenty of information. We have to focus not on what you learn, but how you learn.”
“It’s a shift for our teachers,” Droller admitted. “We’re saying, ‘It’s okay to pare back. It’s okay to develop students as learners,'” not as mere receptacles of facts.
Teachers do this already, D’Amico said. What’s being added is the emphasis on it, as a district-wide focus.
“Teachers own it,” he concluded. “They’re reading books about growth, mindset, grit. This is going to come from them and their colleagues. We’re all excited.”
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