Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Today, I Took a Chance...

Today, during Team Leaders, I took a chance and did something a bit different.

As a means of a back story, we have "Team Leaders" every Tuesday morning at 8:05 to 8:25. Each of our seven teams has a "teacher leader" who attends the Tuesday morning session. These teacher leaders are provided with information about the Wednesday 8:05-to-8:35 Staff Collaboration and then lead the Team Collaboration from 8:35 to 9:10 in their respective groupings. In past years, Team Leaders has served as a time to share Wednesday's information, to gather input from these staff members, and look ahead at some bigger staff projects in the upcoming weeks. Many of these elements are already captured during Wednesday's Staff Collaboration, so I've been trying to use Team Leaders as more of a brainstorming session for "big picture" issues at our middle school.

Today's experiment actually began the previous day, hinted at in the Team Leaders email with the word "Brainstorming" highlighted and standing alone on the usually-filled list of topics we're scheduled to cover. I made sure to arrive early into the conference room where we hold our Tuesday morning meeting and began to arrange the furniture. Luckily, our district office recently provided us with tables and chairs that can be easily wheeled, folded, and stacked. I eventually settled on three table groups with four chairs at each set -- a perfect number for our twelve members of Team Leaders (all seven teachers, a special education teacher representative, our tech guru, the school counselor, the assistant principal, and myself).

On the white board at the front of the room, I mapped out the tables and assigned seats (!) for the staff. I attempted to have every grade level represented at each of the tables while factoring in various prior knowledge amongst the staff regarding the idea we were about to discuss. To the right of my tables sketches, I listed the following three questions: "What is the problem? What led to this problem? What ideas do you have to solve the problem? (be creative - no limits)" I also distributed pens and post-it notes to all of the tables for the staff members' use. I then left the room.

Upon my return, all of the Team Leaders were sitting in their assigned seats and looked eager to see what we'd be discussing. I accidentally slammed the door closed as I entered the room. This mistake actually provided some levity to the physical and visual changes of what Team Leaders had been in previous weeks. I then called upon two expert teachers (both of whom I've met with many times over the past few weeks) to explain what we believe the problem to be. The problem is our incredibly successful and well attended Homework Center.

At our school, we open up our library for an hour and a half at the end of the school day for students to study, read, and complete their nightly homework. We call it our Homework Center (HWC, for short). In past years, we have had two teachers "own" the program. They are responsible for hiring the tutors, of which we have two for each day. They also oversee any student or parent concerns with the program. These staff members also help log in and log out all of the students every day from HWC. Somehow, these teachers also find time to assist students with their work and manage the student crowds we often experience during HWC.

These two teachers also happen to be part of our current Team Leaders group (Surprise!) and shared out what they believed the problems to be. Simply put, HWC has grown in the number of students served from recent years and is in need of adjustment to continue to be the successful program it has been. With an additional twenty kids attending each day, noise and on-task student management has been increasingly challenging for our adults assisting during this time. We have also upgraded our library lab to include a full classroom set of 32 computers for student use. While it's great to have more students using these digital devices, we've found that students collaborating on these iMacs are quite loud and difficult at times to supervise.

I did want to take a moment to acknowledge what has led to our current predicament. I would like to begin by saying that I think these two staff members have grown a successful HWC program and have fine-tuned the program into a productive place of study for all students to address their homework concerns. HWC has been the saving grace for many students over the past few years and continues to serve this purpose for many kids at our school. That said, there have been some substantial changes to both the program and our school over the past year that may have influenced the larger number of students and increased noise levels.

First, based on feedback from our previous Team Leader groups, there was a request to open up Team Leaders to more staff members this year. We now have four additional teachers running certain days of HWC. Additionally, we have more students this year, both at our school and currently taking advantage of HWC during the week. We also lost three of our tutors from last year and have been working to train our talented but new tutors in the problem. Furthermore, an after school program added to our school this year, while very successful, is slowly building membership whereas the program from recent years had more students involved based on its familiarity and longevity at our school. All of these factors have contributed to the current predicament we now face in HWC.

After hearing the problem and some of the back story, I then provided the road map for the upcoming exercise. Describing it as a psuedo-Design Thinking experiment, I asked the group to work alone at first, coming up with their own ideas on how to creatively solve the problem. As I looked around the room, I saw frantic scribbling on the post-it notes by the participants. I was very pleased to see everyone taking advantage of this opportunity to have shared input. After a few moments, I asked everyone to get into pairs and share all of their ideas. Again, after 2-3 minutes, I asked each table to share and then select their top three ideas from their quad partnership. Finally, and running slightly short on time, each group had the opportunity to share out their main ideas on how to improve the program. As teachers rushed out to their first period class, I asked for and collected all of the post-in notes to review and share with our HWC leaders.

Do I think we solved the issue just from one twenty minute Tuesday morning meeting? Definitely not.

Did I gather lots of great ideas by our staff with some outside-the-box creativity on how to help solve our overloading of HWC? Absolutely.

Did everything run smoothly? Don't be silly -- there were a lot of flaws with our first brainstorming session. That's ok. It doesn't have to be perfect to find the best answer.

But did this morning's meeting involve key stakeholders in the ground-level thinking on how to work together to address the HWC issue? Definitely.

Today, our Team Leaders tackled a bigger issue on our school campus and worked together to brainstorm solutions. It felt like a big risk, but something taking that chance is what can make the difference.

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