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Fueling the fire of learning

5 min read


SmartBlog on Education will shine a light on back-to-school teaching and learning trends during July. In this blog post, education leader Fred Ende shares how an interactive professional development summit revealed regional trends and future initiatives.

As the temperature warms here in the Northeast, it’s a great time to talk about what’s heating up regarding teaching and learning for next year. After all, the Staples and Office Depot commercials have already started, so whether we’re ready or not, the 2015-16 school year is almost here.

In our region, we’ve spent the last few years focused on changes brought along by the Common Core State Standards — or Common Core Learning Standards as they’re called in New York — and the implications of changes to our Annual Professional Performance Review system, which are set to change again this coming year, but we’ll save that for another post. As these initiatives have gone from “new” to “newer” to more “routine,” districts in our section of the state have had the opportunity to move toward focusing more and more on their own personal initiatives.

This past spring, we conducted a professional development summit with our districts. During this learning session, district leaders shared with us their current PD initiatives as well as those they hoped to focus on in 2015-16. We asked them to do this on large chart paper, and then posted these up around the room. We took time for a gallery walk, and then gave our district leaders an opportunity to reflect on what they saw and what that meant for our work as a region. When we analyzed the results of the charts, and thought about the conversations we had during — and after — our PD summit, we saw overlap around a number of themes. One take-away for us was that STEM/STEAM work continues to be a high priority for much of our region.


But it isn’t just STEM and STEAM “content” that districts are interested in focusing on. Sure, this still remains important, with much work in our region focused on additional “on-ramps” to math acceleration, how New York will create new science standards, and what technology integration truly “looks” like. That being said, our districts also want to focus deeply on the thinking that exists in much STEM/STEAM work, the thinking that requires us to design, and just as importantly, to “do.”

Let me share three topics with you that kept reappearing in our analysis of the PD Summit charts:

  • Makerspaces and making
  • Computer programming and coding
  • Mindset and mindfulness

Take a moment to consider the connections between these.

Do you see a theme? When my supervisor and I took a look at the results and engaged in discussion with district leaders over the last few months, we discovered that our districts, almost unanimously, were interested in pursuing topics where students — and adults) –would be thrust into scenarios where they were actively designing with both their hands and minds. In addition, these recurring themes spoke to the emphasis our region is putting on failing forward, the idea that the only way to truly succeed is by making mistakes, and more often than not, failing in such a way that requires you to rethink your entire process.

And this is a great place for the laser of learning to aim for, right? Whether designing a makerspace, exploring the “If This, Then That” thinking process behind coding, or building metacognitive processes through an exploration of mindfulness, our districts are excited to delve even deeper into helping learners marry “thinking” and “doing.” And who wouldn’t be?

But this story doesn’t end there.

As a regional education resource organization, we’re committed to helping our districts get there by fueling their fire for learning. My supervisor, who designed the structure for our district leader gatherings a number of years back, and I have used the information gained from our professional development summit to work with districts to design a coding subcommittee to help us chart the way forward.

In our first two meetings, we’ve not only laid out goals for this initiative, but we’ve explored deliverables as well — a series of “Getting Started” workshops, a “Coding to Learn” conference and learning sessions for our district leaders tied to building an even deeper understanding of how, exactly, coding helps promote the love of failure. In addition, we’ve worked to create a makerspace support series that will begin with a number of introductory sessions. We held our first one two weeks ago and were overjoyed with the response. And later, a “Basic Training” that will run throughout the fall of 2015.

How are we addressing mindset and mindfulness? We’ve teamed up with a wonderful consultant — a recently retired educator from one of our local districts — who is deeply familiar with Carol Dweck’s work and who is a certified mindfulness instructor. We’ll be providing three workshops tied to mindset, mindfulness and connecting these ways of thinking to instruction and assessment.

What’s the big idea? Simply that when we identify what’s hot in a given region, we need to make sure we can help keep that fire burning. By extension, our needs are our districts’ needs, and the more effectively we can meet them, the more our region, as a whole, will benefit. Whether we can provide what amounts to kindling, or we can supply a much larger fuel source, we’re always better off lighting the fire of learning rather than letting it languish.

Fred Ende (@fredende) is the assistant director of Curriculum and Instructional Services for Putnam Northern Westchester BOCES. Fred blogs at, Edutopia and at ASCD EDge.

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