I read in a recent blog by Gary Kern that High Tech High is not really that high tech, at least by our definition, and I would have to agree. There are computers in common areas, and aside from the media arts room rocking Final Cut Pro, we didn't see anything we didn't have or couldn't get. What it looks and feels like to me is a really successful fine arts school. The whole building is packed with excellent samples of student work, and as they too have limited supply budgets, innovative use of cheap supplies like newspaper, cardboard, and scrap wood appear everywhere.
We eventually found the tiny SPED office and had a great conversation with two delightful and well-educated young ladies who conveyed the school's philosophy of inclusion. Yes, they do have SPED students, and IEP's, and support workers (recently renamed "inclusion coaches") tied to formulae that looked a lot like ours. The room was hard to find because it is small, and it is small because if kids are expected to be fully integrated, then why build a room that makes it easy to separate them? Good question. They do find nooks and crannies in the building to give kids quiet spaces when needed, and we were impressed with their thoughtful, team-oriented approach to helping their students face challenges in this evolved manner.
The school has had more than 2000 visitors this year, and now there are dedicated staff to organize the touring process. Everyone was still extraordinarily welcoming and willing to stop what they were doing and talk with the complete strangers wandering around with oversize nametags. We got face time with several teachers and most of the directoral staff, and each were able to answer our questions and help us to understand the purpose and intention in their work. The kids were especially willing to engage with us, and it was clear that the focus on communication and presentation skills had increased everyone's comfort with speaking to adults and had rocketed the students forward with this incredibly valuable lifetime skill.
What I liked the most was the value they place on collaboration and feedback, and how this drives every practice in the building. Designing quality projects that will inspire students and allow them to master learning outcomes is daunting work, and the very thought of it would be unnerving to most teachers in a conventional system. This is never done in isolation at HTH, and the support of colleagues is what makes it happen. The same goes for students, and once they get over their initial reluctance to hear what others have to say about their work, they soon come to value how a diverse collection of viewpoints can extend their learning. I think this is an attitude that already exists in great classrooms and schools. Perhaps it is this attitude that makes for great classrooms and schools.
We aren't going to be doing project-based learning all day, every day, across all areas of the curriculum. (Even High Tech High has "traditional" learning, especially in math with its extensive and challenging curriculum. Again, does this sound familiar?) However, as our interested staff members start to move with small steps to imbed more projects into their classroom learning and team with others across various curricular areas, it is crucial that we are ready to support them to take risks with their practice. We will be borrowing heavily from the HTH Project Tuning protocols, as these processes and guidelines, though seemingly onerous at first, help ensure that conversations honour and support risk-taking, and improve feedback for each staff member. My hope is that the collaboration that supports effective project-based learning will have a profound impact on the vocabulary of instructional practice and the overall quality of the conversations throughout our schools. Seeing this collaboration first hand and what it can do to benefit adult and student learning is a lesson that will travel well back to our own schools.Neil Stephenson's blog on rigour, citing HTH
Photos from the visit
Photos from the visit