Try Something!

This post is part of a continuing series by Ellen Perconti, superintendent of Goldendale School District in Washington State.


Students’ success stems from system capability. Over the years, our education system has been built for low engagement, one-right-answer questions, a focus on completion, and compliance. These are the system values that breed “success” on knowledge-based, summative tests. They also exclude students who don’t “fit” into the box that we have created for them. As we start to define success differently, individuals change––and, therefore, the system does too.

We have been grappling with the concepts of deeper learning. Administrators have provided time and space for teachers to think about the 6Cs (character, citizenship, collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking) and ways to deepen learning and engage students. Our staff, like many others, responded with questions and concerns about time and expectations. What will happen if they don’t cover all their content? What will happen if students’ test scores go down? How do they implement deeper learning when student behavior doesn’t meet expectations?

Teachers have asked what exactly I want them to do. And I find that responding with the question, “What do your students need from you?” isn’t effective.  Recently, when asked this question at a book study, I responded––out of some frustration, honestly­––“just try something.”

At our next book study, I set our book aside and asked what teachers had tried. They began sharing about open-ended math problems, creating shelters for pretend lizards that change colors in the sun or when wet, research projects that asked students to connect animal traits with inventions, and connecting with our local observatory. All awesome celebrations of willingness to “try something!”

As the teachers described what they were trying, a new theme emerged: our students didn’t just jump right in. Our students struggled to get started, they waited for help, they asked, “Is this right?” Younger students engaged in these more open activities more quickly. The older the student, the more the teacher expressed that the students were hesitant and almost resistive.

One teacher at the end of our conversation looked at me and said, “We really are like our students. We are not sure how to try new things and are hesitant that we might get it wrong.” A very insightful reflection.

We are trying––we’re not perfect, we don’t have it all “right,” and we’re not moving as quickly as a lot of us want to. But we are taking action, we’re seeing real progress, we’re trying for our students––and we’re celebrating that!