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Saying Yes to Summer Spark!

"Do you have time for a meeting at three?," he asked.  When the Head of School asks, no matter how laid back he is, you answer.

"Sure," I replied uncertainly.  He doesn't usually ask for an impromptu meeting.  What could this be about?

Later, I learned that the Director of the Summer Program had resigned.  I was asked if I could fill in.

I hadn't taught summer school in 15 years.  A few weeks ago at a faculty meeting, I had volunteered and I was hoping just to "teach."  But good opportunities present themselves on their own schedule.

I said yes - after about only two hours of deliberation.  In the middle of winter, it seemed like an easy thing to do - organize the program, create the schedule, hire people.  The program only runs for five weeks.  How hard could it be?

As it turns out, it was significantly more demanding than I had imagined.  It was hard to staff some of the positions.  Two former summer school employees begged off.  Our enrollment was lower than expected.  Not all of the students were angels.  Not all of the parents were happy with the decisions made.

In spite of the challenges, I learned a great deal more in those five weeks than anyone would have expected.  For some of my lessons, I was able to rely on easy things, like time and observation.  Those were the straightforward and uncomplicated ones to learn.  For others, I sought expert advice from trusted colleagues and mentors willing to provide insight and guidance.  I thoroughly enjoyed these lessons, as the back and forth exchange of ideas was often lively and productive.  The third group of lessons were the most challenging.  For these, I was often on my own, having to draw upon instinct, hunches and hope that I was making the right decisions.

Whichever category of lesson, I was fortunate to walk away from summer program a more observant educator.  Working in this different, more administrative role, made me believe that all teachers should seek out this sort of opportunity - if only for a short while.  The benefits to being in the classrooms and bus lines as an administrator were innumerable and on-going.  However, the most important and lasting lessons, the ones that all teachers need to know, I've listed below.

Appreciate and celebrate the value of other teachers.  Sure, teachers collaborate all the time when planning.  Sometimes, we even co-teach.  But how often do we get the opportunity to just watch our colleagues teach?  Scheduling issues and time constraints prevent this from happening on a regular basis, but
having the opportunity to casually observe other teachers is both humbling and empowering.  Witnessing the practices and successes of other teachers enables one to improve their own craft.  In her 2011 article for Responsive Classroom, Babs Freeman-Loftis sums it up perfectly:
When teachers spend time in one another’s classrooms, the benefits can be tremendous, not just for teachers and students, but for the whole school.  Colleagues who observe one another strengthen relationships and pick up new teaching strategies. When they see their students in other contexts, teachers gain insights about what those children need to thrive. And students also benefit from getting to know the adults in their school better.
Sometimes I was called in to help a struggling student.  Other times, I was there collecting forms or asking a question.  No matter the reason, each time I visited someone else's class, I was rewarded.  I learned new techniques and strategies, but most importantly, I was able to behold the impressive gifts of my colleagues - their passion, expertise, creativity, skill and patience.

Appreciate the non-academic features of a school.  As teachers, we often think that the magic of learning happens largely in classrooms.  While there is much truth to this, it undermines the essential contributions of the non-academic offices and staff.  Acting as administrator, I was required to lean on the school secretary for all manner of unexpected things.  In addition, the business office kept us afloat and on target with our spending.  While we can conceptualize this reality, I believe this is something most of us take for granted.  Working in the role as director, I was able to better appreciate the contributions of all who work for the success of a school, not just the instructors.

Experiment.  When I was asked to direct the summer program, I was told that I could make any changes that I wanted.  This was both exciting and terrifying.  I had some ideas that I really wanted to implement, but was afraid they might not work.  Modeled after the Genius Hour, I wanted each student to engage in an independent study.  We could call the program Summer Spark.  Students could select a topic, become an expert and share their knowledge at the end of the program at a Spark Forum.  I presented this idea to a few people and then a few more.  They liked it.  Turns out the kids and the parents liked it, too.  The results were gratifying for all involved.  But how would I have known this is I did not try it out?

Learn to revise as you go.  When things are experimental in nature, there will be challenges.  Such was the case all summer.  I learned that the expertise of others could help provide clarity and resolution.  When teachers or students hit a road block, someone would have an idea that would spark a solution.  (No pun intended).  Some parts of the program ran smoothly, others were too labor-intensive to be worthwhile.  Being open to change enabled us all to be successful and to ensure a quality experience for the students.

Be more student-centered.  The phrase "student-centered' gets thrown around a lot these days.  I am fortunate to work in a school where teachers become part of the learning process, rather than being merely directors of learning.  Still, there is always room for growth.

Our goal for Summer Spark was to empower students to be self-directed learners.  I was worried that completing an independent study would be overly difficult for the younger children.  Boy, was I wrong.  In fact, it was some of the youngest students who selected the most interesting topics and found the most engaging ways to share their expertise.  One student learned about China and had the entire audience at the Spark Forum get up as he taught us to play a game that Chinese children play.  Another young student made a poster about Killer Whales and was able to give a long, accurate and interesting lecture about his findings.

By authorizing students to learn about something that interests them, we made them directors of the learning environment.  They searched for information in relevant and sometimes unlikely places.  They outlined their facts and determined what they still needed to learn.  They decided how best to share their knowledge with the broader community - by giving demonstrations, making short films, creating models, or having people play games.  Their finger prints were all over their work - and as a result, all over our Spark Forum.  Their ideas and enthusiasm were palpable throughout each presentation and the audience (made up of our not always patient students) was engaged and captivated.

"Will you do this again next year?," the secretary asked one afternoon in July.  It had been a hard day and it was tempting to say no.  After all, I had missed out on many sunny pool afternoons and my garden was embarrassingly weedy.  Plus, there were two teenagers at my house who were supportive of my endeavors, but missing our carefree summer days.

But given the opportunity I had to grow and learn along with the students, how could the answer be anything but yes?