by Julia Nora
We work in a variety of roles and disciplines, and we live in all four corners of the continental United States, and some in between: Sasha is the Founder and Director of the Milagros Charter School in Los Angeles; Michael—a math teacher at an independent school in NY; Valerie—a New York-based coach who works across the country; Amy—an English teacher in an independent school in Louisiana; Lisa—a coach in Minneapolis; Jessica—a fifth grade teacher in Skokie, Illinois; Lorilee—a coach in Springfield, Massachusetts; Kate— a second grade teacher at an independent school in Seattle; and Tami—a principal in Montana. This is my second year as a member of this reflective and talented group of educators, the first cohort of the Heinemann Fellows.
“This experience has provided me with so many opportunities for growth.” “I have learned to honor my own expertise.” “We have learned so much from each other.”
These are just some of the comments I hear at our tri-annual face-to-face meetings—all of which resonate with my own experiences. At this point, I wonder, what has contributed to the magic of these experiences?
It is a reflective process.
We are all conducting action research in our settings, delving deeper into our daily work and considering what changes we can make to improve our practice. As an administrator, I have been able to consider how to meaningfully integrate Information and Communication Technology (ICT) into teaching and learning at my school. Last year I co-taught three classes of ICT each week, giving me the opportunity to plan with my co-teacher, read and evaluate student writing, and better appreciate the challenges and opportunities facing teachers.
It is self-guided.
We each chose the focus of our improvement efforts. We are therefore invested in the outcomes. I chose to focus on the integration of ICT because I am truly committed to doing this to advance teaching and learning at my school.
It is for an authentic audience.
We are sharing our work with each other, with our mentors—in many cases with our colleagues in our settings—and with a larger audience through our blogs and social media presence. Whether it’s during our regular video conferences, our meetings at Heinemann, or at local and national conferences, we are motivated to maintain quality, knowing that we have an authentic and rapt audience.
It frames mistakes as opportunities for growth.
Moving away from the binary construct of failure and success, the Fellowship welcomes our mistakes as opportunities of growth. I set out to have students blog at home, wanting to help reduce the digital divide. I quickly learned that I was exacerbating the problem. Those who had access to the internet and technology at home were benefitting much more than those who did not. Therefore, I adjusted and used class time to provide opportunities for blogging. This was not a failure, but a chance to provide much needed opportunities for students who did not have access at home.
It is expertly led by those who value our work.
I realized quickly upon starting this work that our mentors truly value educators. You will often hear them saying things like, “That’s brilliant,” “Nobody is talking about that,” and, “The world needs to hear about your work.”
It allows me to make small, lasting changes.
As Thomas Newkirk writes in The Teacher You Want to Be, "[Thinking small] is a virtue of human reality. We are all, by nature, conservatives, holding on to much of our current practice, beliefs, and habits as we can. The big changes, the BIG NEW IDEAS, especially those imposed from above, come and go. Teachers hunker down, as in a storm, and assume they will pass by. It is the small changes that last." (p.217)
As I embark on the latest waves of reform with standards and new assessments that are not necessarily my choice, the Heinemann Fellows program provides me with a much-needed opportunity to be reflective—something that is sorely missing for many administrators.
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Heinemann Publishing is seeking applicants to become part of our newest class of Heinemann Fellows, a small group of educators who exhibit exceptional promise for concentrated, enhanced pedagogy.
Julie Nora is the Director of the International Charter School in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Her action research seeks question is, "How will having an authentic writing task for global audiences impact student engagement in writing and the quality of their writing in a Two-Day Immersion setting?"