How BCPS Lighthouse Schools Changed the Conversation

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Go the education section of your local newspaper. Watch the local news or check out the station’s website for stories about education. How many stories deal with controversy and shed a negative light on the state of education in your community? Now look again for the other perspective. How many stories highlight the accomplishments of students and teachers in your school or district? I am confident you will find that the negative articles and stories surrounding education will far outweigh the positive ones.

I don't blame the media for this imbalance. Newspapers, TV stations, and news websites are businesses trying to earn a profit. Let's be honest here: controversy sells.

However, teachers and administrators are no longer living in a time when the mainstream media must dictate their story. Through social media and other digital tools, educators can share with their community the hard work, challenges overcome and achievements from inside their classroom walls.

In Baltimore County Public Schools, we are working hard to tell our story and document the journey of our 10 elementary Lighthouse Schools. These schools are the first in the district to pilot a personalized and blended instructional model. They have 1:1 digital devices and focus on creating a learner-centered environment.

The Lighthouse Schools are pioneers in a larger district wide conversion. This conversion, branded Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow (or S.T.A.T.), centers around building learner-centered environment where every school has equitable, effective digital learning opportunities.

Our Journey Begins

Our journey began in January 2014, when the 10 Lighthouse Schools were chosen as pilot schools through an intensive application process. Shortly after the announcement of the schools, the Lighthouse School principals were invited to hear Eric Sheninger, author of Digital Leadership, speak about his personal leadership story.

The Lighthouse principals were energized by Mr. Scheninger. I wanted to capture this excitement and work with principals and their staffs to tell their own Lighthouse Schools stories.

Defining Our Path

Over the next several months, our initial vision for telling the Lighthouse story evolved into a multi-faceted plan driven by the changes at our Lighthouse Schools.

After extensive professional learning opportunities last school year and during the summer, Lighthouse teachers began to think differently about their classrooms. The classroom spaces looked much different to allow for student choice. It was common to see stability balls, bean bag chairs, standing desks, and creative arrangements of furniture that allow for flexible spaces and student choice. Many teachers did not put student name tags on desks and left walls, which used to have pre-made posters, blank. With fluid spaces and flexible grouping, why should a student be assigned to one desk? Why fill the walls with purchased posters when students could help co-create the space with student work and anchor charts that support independent student learning?

From the beginning of the school year, it was becoming clear that we needed to communicate these changes to our stakeholders. Parents, who were used to coming to Back-To-School night and sitting at their child’s assigned desk, would need to be educated on why the classroom looks different. There were many misperceptions of the transformations that were occurring and it was important that we communicate these changes to parents and educators at other schools who will be following the Lighthouse Schools in the coming years.

Bringing on the Ambassadors

As professional development continued and classroom environment changes started to take shape, we better organized a comprehensive communication plan.

Each Lighthouse School principal designated an ambassador from their staff to tell their story. I facilitated a meeting with the ten ambassadors from each Lighthouse School to go over their responsibilities and brainstorm new ideas. The ambassadors left the meeting with clear goals:

  1. Recruit and encourage staff members at their school to share their successes, challenges, and ideas in public.
  2. Collect artifacts including pictures, reflections, and videos that will help document the journey as a Lighthouse School and tell our story.
  3. Filter and share the artifacts collected through the appropriate avenues.

Filtering artifacts to the right outlet can be challenging. Schools have been encouraged to create a specific Lighthouse School page on their school website. Additionally, each Lighthouse School has a school Twitter account and many are using other social media outlets like Facebook and Pinterest. Finally, there is the district Lighthouse Schools website which brings together the highlights from each Lighthouse School.

As teachers share photos and video clips, the ambassadors decide where to share these artifacts. Does this picture belong on the school website, should we Tweet it out, or should it be sent to be published on the Lighthouse Schools website? This can be a bit messy but ambassadors are getting adept at deciding what to share with the school community, what’s appropriate for social media, and what needs to be highlighted on the district Lighthouse Schools website.

A positive by-product of this work is that many teachers in Lighthouse Schools have set up Twitter accounts and tweet ideas and pictures of what’s happening in their classrooms. The #BCPSLH hashtag has been used extensively to showcase what a learner-centered environment looks like. It is exciting to see that teachers are becoming comfortable with and proud of sharing the hard work and learning that students are experiencing in their classrooms.

The Lighthouse Schools Website

The Lighthouse Schools website has been the foundation of this project. The page that receives the most hits on this site is the blog where any administrator, teacher or student from a Lighthouse School can submit a written or video reflection about their experience at a Lighthouse School. I have also worked with the schools to create a journey page. This page features one representative from each Lighthouse School who submits regular updates throughout the school year. The perspectives are varied: administrators, teachers, students, and parents all share.

The blog and journey pages are vital to our story because they give teachers and administrators from non-Lighthouse Schools both the highlights from these new models, as well as a glimpse into the challenges.

Our S.T.A.T. initiative is a huge undertaking and we have and will continue to hit bumps in the road. The Lighthouse Schools are going to hit the most bumps since they are the pilot schools. But the honest reflections from the stakeholders at these schools can help ease the anxiety for the schools that are next in line. The committed stakeholders at the Lighthouse Schools have shown through their writing and videos that bumps are not barricades. We get past the challenges, learn from them, and become better teachers and students as a result.

The learning page on the Lighthouse website is another key component for demonstrating what learner-centered environments are to the 160+ BCPS schools that will follow this path in the coming years. BCPS has a plan to let staff in other schools visit Lighthouse schools to learn from them. However, it is logistically impossible in a district our size to get over 8000 teachers to physically visit a Lighthouse School. The learning page, consisting of picture albums and video clips of Lighthouse School classrooms, serves staff who can’t visit in person so they still get a glimpse of what a learner-centered environment looks like.

A Call to Action

So I end with passing along a call to action that Lighthouse School leaders and I heard at the beginning of our journey from Eric Sheninger: “If you do not tell your story, someone else will.”

Educator colleagues, I call to you: Document your journey, share your triumphs and challenges, tell your story!

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