Heidi Siwak is an award winning teacher committed to transforming education. By harnessing the power of technology and social media, she is creating brand new models of learning and teaching, and uses her Grade 6 classroom as a laboratory where her students teach her as much as she teaches them. After 20 years as an elementary and middle school teacher of Language, Social Studies and French, Heidi is developing a new understanding of what it means to be a teacher in the 21stcentury and she shares her discoveries through her blog, 21 Century Classroom: The Amaryllis at http://heidisiwak.blogspot.ca/ and on Twitter at: @HeidiSiwak
How to Provoke Innovation in Your School – A Teacher’s Blueprint
It was quite an honour to have our App Project selected for the Ken Spencer Award, particularly given the exceptional work occurring across Canada that quietly goes unrecognized. I’m still quite astounded to find my students and myself in this position and am grateful because this award will allow us to further develop innovative practices that match the possibilities of today. Many educators and parents have posed a similar question about our trailblazing work. It is often phrased as, “How were you able to get away with this?” This question suggests that those in education are feeling highly constrained and limited in their ability to develop innovative practices. I think what people are really asking is: “What needs to be in place at a system level that would allow an attitude of innovation to become the foundation of our education system?” So I’d like to take this opportunity to share how something such as our App project could occur.
Many educators and parents have posed a similar question about our trailblazing work. It is often phrased as, “How were you able to get away with this?” This question suggests that those in education are feeling highly constrained and limited in their ability to develop innovative practices.
There is no doubt that education in Ontario has undergone tremendous reshaping over the past ten years, and while much of what has been introduced has improved our teaching practices, there have been weaknesses in the implementation of the vision. One of the frustrations has been micromanagement. Use of class time became determined by those from above and focused primarily on how to improve standardized test scores. Many teachers felt disempowered and unable to use their expertise and professional judgment to develop appropriate programming for students. For a while, we focused on formulas rather than teaching thinking and creativity. This was highly frustrating and led to increasing disengagement by students and a feeling of powerlessness by teachers. While this may not have been the intention of administrators and decision makers, it was how many of us experienced the process. I will say that the Teaching-Learning Critical Pathway (TLCP) process has improved the situation, but these were conditions that existed at the time I began to innovate. My decision to become innovative was really a survival mechanism. I had reached a point where I felt I could no longer continue working in these conditions and would need to leave the profession. My other option was to take the useful elements of these new approaches to teaching and find ways to implement them that allowed richer learning experiences for my students. One of the first things that need to be in place – if innovation is to occur – is for frontline teachers to find the courage to begin doing things differently.
My decision to become innovative was really a survival mechanism. I had reached a point where I felt I could no longer continue working in these conditions and would need to leave the profession. My other option was to take the useful elements of these new approaches to teaching and find ways to implement them that allowed richer learning experiences for my students. One of the first things that need to be in place – if innovation is to occur – is for frontline teachers to find the courage to begin doing things differently.
But there were elements in place that allowed me to become innovative. Our school did have openness to technology that was teacher-driven and supported by the administration. We also had – and continue to have – a strong culture of sharing knowledge and resources amongst staff members.
My curiosity about what I might do with technology grew out of observing one of my colleagues, Jared Bennett, who has since gone on to become the 21st Century Fluencies consultant for our board. Jared was an early adopter of technological innovations including becoming an early user of Twitter when people were still figuring out how this tool might be used. Jared’s students in the gifted program were Podcasting and blogging and using Web 2.0 tools. The level of student engagement was high. I began to experiment in my own program. The lesson in this for administrators is to hire technologically skilled educators and those willing to experiment and take risks. Creating time for staff members to mentor and train each other is another system practice that would allow innovation to occur.
Staff became the drivers of technological advancement in our school. When we needed equipment to develop our programs, we did what we had to do to make things work. Our school administration was very supportive of using school funds to purchase technology. And when funds weren’t available, teachers found ways to get equipment. Scott Varady and Robert Bell became experts at securing grant money. Scott also made effective use of the Scholastic Book order program to purchase equipment. When I expressed frustration to my husband about the limited number of computers in my class, he arranged for seven discarded units donated from Humber College and then wired my classroom with a closed, but stable network. Other teachers also installed necessary equipment, including routers and cable. (Not recommended, and I’ll explain why later) I also purchased my own laptop with a built-in camera that allowed us to Skype. Indeed, many innovations in schools are funded out of teachers’ pockets. A provincial commitment must be made to adequately equip classrooms, if we are to allow all students to participate in this learning revolution.
A provincial commitment must be made to adequately equip classrooms, if we are to allow all students to participate in this learning revolution.
Going out on our own did cause huge problems for the Board. They began to experience failures in the system and had to make many service calls to our school. Rather than shutting us down, however, they made an enlightened decision. They decided to wire our school appropriately to enable Bring Your own Device (BYOD). They saw the innovation and found a way to support it. Another decision they made that was key was not to block Web 2.0 tools such as Twitter and YouTube. This gave me access to the global community driving change and innovation. I could see what others around the world were doing; I could read research as it was released; I could find new tools to enhance my program. My learning accelerated and I could connect my students with professional from outside of education such as Ian Chia, Esa Heltulla, and Cynthia Jabar, which led to our App Project.
One of the barriers to innovation is the hierarchy of communication that exists within our school systems. This means that teachers do not speak directly with decision makers. Superintendents and directors filter communication through principals and vice-principals. Messages typically travel from the top down, and rarely the other way. Those most in contact with students have the least powerful voices in our systems. Many teachers, in fact, are frightened and intimidated about expressing how they feel or sharing their innovative ideas. A wealth of knowledge and expertise and ideas sit untapped because no one has thought to ask, “What do you think?” Clearly, if we are to move forward, this must be addressed.
A wealth of knowledge and expertise and ideas sit untapped because no one has thought to ask, “What do you think?” Clearly, if we are to move forward, this must be addressed.
When I began blogging and documenting the transformation of my practice, I decided to break down the communication barriers. I sent links to my blog to my Principal, VP, Cluster Principal, Superintendent, and even our Director. I began to seek connection and two-way communication. This did not happen right away. I kept many things to myself until I felt confident enough about what I was doing to share with them what was happening in my program. This led to interest. As my work became more developed and began to receive recognition outside my board, I began to receive visits and was able to show what I was doing and how it was effective. This included visits from our cluster principal, our superintendent, principals of other schools and members of the Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat. My willingness to breach communication protocol was key to the evolution of my innovative work.
My willingness to breach communication protocol was key to the evolution of my innovative work.
By making my practice transparent, administrators were comfortable allowing me to continue. I was allowed the freedom to take risks and was never interfered with. Openness and transparency also led to serendipitous opportunities and recognition. This has given me even greater latitude and encouragement to further transform my practice, so that today, rather than being a classroom teacher working in isolation, I now feel that I am a professional with a voice of influence within our system. This is powerful. Every teacher should feel this.
Finally, my willingness to stop resisting change, to release control of the learning process with my students by bringing in outside voices, and allowing them to become innovative was necessary. I dropped every preconceived idea I had about teaching and learning because the world is different now. I think for innovation to occur, educators need to look at what habits and attitudes we have that prevent us from embracing new possibilities.
I hope that this helps create a picture of what went on behind the evolution of our App project. It was gradual and experimental and involved a great deal of willingness on everyone’s part to sit back and simply observe as it unfolded. In sharing this process, I hope that administrators, parents, educators, and learners can see how some of these decisions and practices might transform their own classrooms, schools and boards into centres of innovation.
Please, if you have more questions, contact me. Let’s broaden the conversation on how to bring innovation into our schools.