Yesterday I had the opportunity to visit John Swett Elementary School in Martinez with my friend and colleague Jennifer Kloczcko (check out her post on the visit). John Swett Elementary is the home of Adam Welcome (@awelcome) and a team of innovative teachers who live the hashtag #teamkid. The original plans for our visit stemmed from a MindShift blog post illustrating creative ways for bringing music education to elementary students. However, as we scheduled our visit and got to know the school better we quickly realized that the school’s music program was just one piece of the school’s highly successful overall academic program. Reading through the notes and pictures I took with my iPhone yesterday I walked away with five distinct messages.
- It’s All About Engagement – We spent a huge chunk of the day touring classrooms with Adam. I am pretty sure we visited nearly every grade level and pretty much every classroom. During all of those visits I observed kids who were fully engaged. Why? They were given meaningful tasks. Fifth grade students were blogging about their upcoming genius day projects, students in music class were learning music theory using found instruments and body parts, and TK students were creating their own pieces and often reminded that they are in fact writers during Writer’s Workshop. Throughout our visit I rarely observed a student off task and in the hours we spent with Adam he was never asked to come to the office for disciplinary issue…never…once. Just think about that.
- Engagement = Visionary Leader + Thoughtful Teachers + Quality Resources – Touring the campus it was quickly apparent that student engagement isn’t something that just magically happens. John Swett Elementary is a perfect example of engagement being the byproduct of thoughtful teachers and quality resources working in harmony with a visionary leader whose passion for kids and learning are contagious. Are all of the kinks worked out? Of course not, but the school is a community of learners constantly reflecting on their practice and working together to make changes that best serve the needs of all students. In terms of resources it might actually be surprising how simple they are – lots of high interest books, chart paper, journals, and technology…but simple technology…things your school can easily implement too.
- Technology – Yes, students and teachers have access to technology at John Swett, but what might be surprising is how seamless that access is. Students have Google Apps EDU accounts and maintain blogs on Kidblogs in some classes. Some classrooms have netbooks, while others (mainly in the lower grades) have access to iPads. What makes the technology transformational is that it is seamlessly blended into the instruction. We didn’t observe special technology time. Instead, kids grabbed a device when they needed it. However, it is important to recognize that there are key components at work behind this seamless access – wireless, unblocked sites, and a trust of teachers and students to demonstrate positive digital citizenship. The school also lived a motto we have at Natomas Charter – use technology to minimize the transactional and maximize the relational. More than once I heard Adam and his teachers tell a student “Share that with me” with the full intention of providing meaningful feedback to the student on their work.
- Connect…Connect…Connect – At John Swett every teacher is on Twitter. Don’t believe me? Check out this list. Adam and his teachers described Twitter as a powerful tool they use to connect with teachers and schools across the country. They have also found Twitter to be a great tool for making every day Open House – sharing photographs, quotes, and links to amazing student learning. Twitter connects their school to the greater world and pushes the learning occurring on campus by both students and teachers. And Twitter isn’t the only tool the school uses to connect. Google Hangouts are another way teachers at John Swett are sharing and learning with educators outside of their campus. As we were leaving yesterday the school was preparing for an afternoon “PD Party” where John Swett teachers were connecting with teachers from another school in Martinez to collaborate and exchange ideas.
- Tending to Your Garden – It’s always easy to visit a school (or read about it in the case of this blog post) and think, “Well, that’s just some special school. It could never occur on my campus.” Here’s the deal…as with all things in life the grass always appears greener, but it never really is. Every school site has things to work on. As Adam said, “Our school is not perfect. We’re constantly improving, looking to make changes, working with the district office for access to resources, and planning for the future.” However, with a clear focus on students and meaningful learning outcomes the John Swett staff is refining their practice with the support of families by connecting with other schools and trying on new tools and practices. And that is something any school can do.
If you have the opportunity to take a field trip to Martinez to visit John Swett Elementary I highly recommend the visit. Also, get on on Twitter and connect with Adam and the teachers at his school site. It was great to meet another group of educators connecting with students and preparing them for the future or as the staff calls it – #teamkid.