Capstone Course – Synthesis of Digital Learning and Leading
When I joined the Digital Learning and Leading program at Lamar University 17 months ago, I never imagined I would be signing up for a learning journey that would transform my life in the way that it has. I anticipated challenges and opportunities to be enlightened, but for the first time in my life I felt like school was relevant. My first class Concepts in Educational Technology sounded like I would be learning technology tools to implement in my classroom, however, it was my first experience with being in a significant learning environment and my mindset regarding my own beliefs would be challenged. The courses in Lamar University’s DLL program are designed to open up the learner’s mind to questions; questions about their teaching, learning, beliefs, and mindset. These questions were not necessarily meant to be answered, but to open up the space for more questions to erupt (Harapnuik, 2016). All of my prior learning experiences in grade school and even undergraduate school had conditioned my thinking to be exactly what that specific teacher wanted rather than teaching me how to challenge the status quo or learn how to learn. I knew what needed to be done in order to get the “A,” but it didn’t necessarily set me up for a love of learning. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Learning felt more like a checklist, and like Ken Robinson (2006) has said “schools have effectively “educated us out of creativity.” What I have discovered throughout my journey in the DLL program is my creativity wasn’t only welcomed, it was encouraged, cultivated, and accepted through authentic projects and collaboration with peers.
Like mentioned above, my first class Concepts of Educational Technology provided the foundation for the courses that followed. We read Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, which radically changed the way I thought about my own growth and abilities I had previously thought were fixed. The word “yet” (frequently revisited throughout the book) provided hope and the chance to view future failures that come with learning anything new as an opportunity to grow. I am so thankful we began with this course because it provided the foundation for what would be introduced as CSLE + COVA (Harapnuik, n.d.). CSLE stands for “Creating a Significant Learning Environment” and COVA is a learning approach that offers students “Choice, Ownership, and Voice through Authentic learning opportunities.” These ideas are inspired by the writings of John Dewey, Jean Piaget, Seymour Papert, and others (Harapnuik, Thibodeaux, & Cummings, 2018).
Although I was excited for this new opportunity to participate in school with this new freedom, I often found myself rereading the rubrics to find bits and pieces that I could answer directly rather than considering my message as a whole. After my first few courses which focused on developing a growth mindset and creating an ePortfolio for all future assignments, I found myself submerged in what our professors had previously introduced as COVA through Dr. Harapnuik’s Disruptive Innovation course. I have never been the student that speaks up or emails professors to get clarification or any guidance. However, this all changed when I was given this type of freedom and didn’t know what to do with it. In a way, I felt as though it may be a trick. I thought, perhaps they’re just saying we need to provide authentic work related to our context, but what they really want is for us to answer their questions. I was somewhat suspicious, and met with Dr. H several times to make sure my passion behind why I do what I do would be acceptable and was worth the next year and a half. It felt validating to know that I was not alone in these feelings. Something clicked for me in that course, and it brought me to tears. I truly believe that all of those years I had wanted to quit teaching, all of the moments I felt invisible as a student, and the numbness I felt when I felt there was little creativity left in teaching or learning had brought me to this very moment. My passion for learning and surprisingly teaching had been reignited. Discomfort signals a need for growth. We can easily blame that the need for growth is on others, but often it means that growth starts with me. There’s rarely significant change without uncomfortable conversations. Conversations that won’t move an audience unless we have these conversations with ourselves first. If we want to see change in our organizations, it starts with us. I remember thinking, if not me then who? If not me, then why?
At this point, I realized this is what learning should have been all along. By providing choice, ownership, and voice through authentic learning opportunities, my professors had created a significant learning environment that invited each of us to bring our own, unique ideas to life. One of the most fascinating aspects of this program is that my cohort was comprised of more than just educators with backgrounds anywhere from the military, medical, or business professions. We each were given the opportunity to develop an Innovation Proposal that was specific to our organization. This innovation plan provided the context for every class that followed. Without this context, it would’ve been difficult to know which questions to ask when conducting research. The research supported our call to action and why this plan was urgent to implement. It also helped us discern who our audience is and how to connect to their hearts. Throughout this process, I often found that I had more questions than answers. The more I learned, the more I realized I didn’t know, and I suppose some could say this is the emergence of wisdom. The COVA approach opened up my eyes to the freedom of learning in a completely new way. It encouraged introspection and articulation. Dr. Harapnuik (2015) often reminded us “your head won’t go where your heart hasn’t been.” This statement was my guiding force throughout the program because it continuously reminded me that there is no faking it like in traditional schools. To connect to the hearts of our learners, we must first learn how to connect to ourselves. COVA transformed how I learned, which in turn humbly transformed my teaching. “People often need love and acceptance a lot more than they need advice” (Goff, 2012). It is a gentle reminder that leadership is more about connecting to the hearts of others and lovingly guiding them to our vision.
Adjusting to this style of learning took quite a bit of grace for myself and grace for my students as I began implementing COVA within my own classroom. The reason I went back to grad school was to learn how to provide an innovative learning environment for students, especially students who had experienced trauma and were often in and out of my classroom depending on the space at our children’s shelter. We had a social-emotional program, but I knew there could be more in terms of providing an education more tailored to their needs through frameworks like Project-based learning. I wanted to learn how to guide my students to apply their unique experiences to the learning environment. They needed an outlet and a distraction from their lives, and I was determined to make the most of the time I had with them. Education sets people free, and little did I know that I had just signed up for a graduate school program that provided the very freedom I had hoped to ignite in the lives of my students and their families. Within a month of transitioning the learning environment to one that encouraged choice, ownership, and voice, there were less escalations and the students began holding one another accountable as though the classroom became a sacred meeting place. I was honest with them about transitioning my own learning and that I needed their help to transform our environment into one they had probably never experienced before. It was truly beautiful to see the progress students made both academically and socially-emotionally whether they were with me for one week or two years. Although my class, coworkers, and I noticed the significant change, my leaders were unfortunately still not on board with retiring the traditional approach and considering how my innovation plan to fully shift traditional bell to bell subjects into a blended, project-based learning environment. My plan proposed implementing social-emotional learning and trauma-informed practices within every project. I wanted my school to become so connected with the surrounding community that our message would break barriers and create a strong-knit community. After three years of fighting for change, I decided to resign and work for another school district mid-innovation implementation.
Because I began a new teaching journey at a new school district mid-innovation implementation, I found it was difficult to feel at ease voicing my grand plans I had created with a prior school in mind. Although outgoing, I can be very slow to trust and prefer to observe and learn my audience for years before I feel comfortable sharing a plan that is near and dear to my heart. Put more simply, I want to know more about the organization I hope to help before trying to implement a plan that could use revising to fit this context. After working for my current organization for the past year, I am pleased to know they encourage innovation, project-based learning, and any idea teachers aim to implement (almost to the point that there are several “innovative pots” in the fire). It has taken me all year to unlearn the trauma that comes with answering to poor leadership. My current leadership has been nothing but supportive and encouraging and I no longer feel as though I am walking on egg-shells. I now feel as though I could come to them with my innovation plan and they would back me up one-hundred percent. I do not plan to revise my plan due to the need I see for every school to implement trauma-informed approaches through Project-based learning. Just because a school is not housed within a shelter, does not mean there are not homeless kids, foster kids, and kids currently experiencing abuse at home that come into our classrooms each day. I still see a need to not only personalize the learning environment by implementing more social-emotional learning consistently, but for teachers to be more aware of the role trauma plays in their life, their students’ lives, and the relationship barriers it can create if it is ignored. Ignorance isn’t an excuse to ignore, so I hope that within this next year if schools are back in session, I will be able to pick up my innovation implementation action plan where I left off.
It has taken countless meaningful conversations with other thought leaders, my cohort, professors, my students and their parents to learn that the work we are doing is truly making an impact. It has helped me validate my own voice and gain confidence and urgency to continue the journey toward creating an education system that changes the world one learner at a time. All of these discussions allowed me to share what I had learned, and rather than regurgitating the information, this experience allowed me to borrow these ideas and make them my own through thoughtful reflection and collaboration. All of our great ideas (and sometimes not so great ideas) are borrowed whether we’d like to admit it or not. What makes them our own is through experience and reflection on how this idea applies within our own lives. The COVA approach encouraged us to choose what information we found most meaningful, own it, and demonstrate why it is important to us through authentic projects and discussions with others. There are so many unique ways COVA can be applied to transform any space into a learning environment.
One of the most meaningful forms of reflections we are often asked to do regarding new ideas is to critically consider what worked, what didn’t, and what could be done better and why that was important when leading organizational change. In retrospect, I should’ve seized every opportunity to converse with my fellow DLL students and professors on what change on a district level could look like at my current campus. As I began implementing the changes I had been experiencing as a learner in this program within my own classroom, I realized it wasn’t theoretical change, it was real change. I watched my students take ownership of their learning, remind each other of their potential with “yet,” and connect their attempts and mistakes with their own learning path. Seeing these “wins” and changes in real life opened my eyes to the possibility of bringing my Innovation Plan to life on a larger scale.
My Innovation plan revolves around creating personalized learning environments through blended learning within Project-based learning. However, before I can successfully implement the former, I have to make sure my students social-emotional needs are met through a trauma-informed approach. This is where I tie in “personalized.” It is not enough to attempt to implement blended learning and PBL. I decided to take the core piece of this plan and break it down into actionable steps. My students had to first learn how to develop empathy, self-management, and self-efficacy skills so that they could fully benefit from the amazing environment PBL provides. My research began with blended learning within a PBL environment, but as I began to learn more, the answers to my questions became more questions. These questions demanded clarification so that my message would fully connect to the hearts of my audience. In my previous Action Research course, we were encouraged to take one part of our innovation plan and break it down into actionable steps. Through COVA, we were given the opportunity to choose, own, and share our voice through the research we conducted and the steps we planned to take to make our innovation plan come to life. The basis of my research involved how social-emotional learning and meditation impacted student and teacher relationships and the learning environment. After extensive research, I decided to implement meditation within my classroom and restorative circles to help elevate the social-emotional learning experience. These practices not only impacted the classroom. I began getting calls from parents asking for the music and guided meditation strategies I used in class to help their children’s anxiety about falling asleep and further process the current news that has been circling the media. Now that I have seen with my own eyes and experienced the results of how mediation and SEL impacts the classroom and my students’ home lives, I plan to implement this piece of my innovation plan by bringing data and student/parent interviews to the rest of my team. I also plan to help them implement these practices with the COVA framework in mind within their own classrooms through ongoing training and then further share these practices with the entire campus.
Like I had mentioned previously in this post, I began the DLL program while working as a teacher at another campus, therefore I had the opportunity to implement the COVA approach with a classroom full of students straight out of traumatic situations as well as at my current campus that can be deemed as a “traditional” public charter school. Both instances of implementing choice, ownership, and voice through authentic within the classroom was well-received by my students (even if there may have been occasional whining, weeping, and hiding in the corner). At the beginning of the year, I exposed my students to COVA and the Growth Mindset so they can begin coming to terms with the fact that they are first and foremost the owners of their own learning. One of my yoga teachers once said in class “I am not your teacher unless you choose me to be your teacher.” I have shared this sentiment with my students. I cannot teach them anything, but I can set an environment full of authentic opportunities to learn IF and WHEN they are ready to learn. This one statement clarified for many of my students who struggle with behavior that I am not here to trick them. I am here to help guide them to the reality that they are in full control of their learning and cannot give this responsibility away to someone else. As we have worked through projects in class, they slowly begin to realize that their voice matters and there is no right or wrong way to participate in their own progress. Of course, this progress is slow at first especially for my third graders, but after a few months, it is so rewarding to watch their mindset transform from a “have to” in learning to a “get to.” My goal for both myself and for the rest of our campus is to show it is never too early to implement COVA.
Although there were many predicted and unpredicted challenges that arose while transitioning my class with COVA, it validated what I already had been doing in many ways due to my time working at my previous campus housed within the shelter. I had to be flexible because of the extreme behaviors and the inconsistency of the students coming and going from my classroom. I wished I had known that COVA existed in my first year at this campus because it would’ve validated years of fighting for another way of learning. Part of the challenge was releasing my control of what I expected to my students setting their own expectations. For many of them, they had never had any control or expectations modeled within their home. Therefore, this responsibility of creating their own expectations was both frustrating yet freeing. They often looked to me asking what I wanted them to create, but I had to remind them (and myself) that I don’t want to receive what I would do but what they would do. Now I understand what my teachers were trying to say when they would tell us “I’ve already completed 3rd grade, it’s your turn now.” My students wanted to know what to do to “get it over with” at first and receive whatever grade I had to give them. However, after coaching and experience through true choice, ownership and voice, they began understanding that what I was encouraging wasn’t a perfectly completed project, but that this project was one of many opportunities to grow. Learning is liberty. They each had a story to tell, and nobody else could do that for them. Their experiences were and are their own, and there is strength that grew out of each of their stories. If they learn how to embrace future challenges and see that life is about learning, it could be the catalyst in changing both their lives and the lives of their families. As a person who grew up in a Christian family, the following quote summarizes this idea simply. “Jesus never promised to eliminate all of the chaos from our lives; He said He’d bring meaning to it” (Goff, 2012). I want my students to come to the classroom as they are, discover healing and that their lives serve a purpose in this world regardless of their background. Learning how to learn, making meaningful connections out of experiences, and owning their purpose is what will truly set them free.
Providing true choice, ownership, voice through authentic learning opportunities may be difficult for teachers who have many years of experience with the traditional model of school. The education system has been built around the industrial age in which teachers are the “content masters” and the students are expected to comply and regurgitate information. Teachers and administration need to move beyond the myth that learning is quiet, clean, perfect, and gradable. Learning is messy. Good ideas can be referred to as “hunches” combined with other “hunches” (Johnson, 2010). “Good ideas may not want to be free, but they do want to connect, fuse, recombine. They want to reinvent themselves by crossing conceptual borders. They want to complete each other as much as they want to compete” (Johnson, 2010). Another way to summarize this idea is coined by Mrs. Frizzle from one of my favorite childhood cartoons, The Magic School Bus. As in the words of Mrs. Frizzle, “let’s take chances, make mistakes, and get messy!” We have to release the need to do things the way we have always done them simply because we are either afraid of change or we bask in mediocre comfort.
I believe one important aspect teachers must understand is revisiting how and why they learn in order to further connect to their students. In the DLL program, we discussed the many learning philosophies and reflected on which resonated most with us. This took careful introspective work through a humble lens. Did we teach the way we were taught even though we didn’t believe it was the best practice? Did we teach the way we learn? Perhaps it was a mix of both, even though we knew there had to be a better way? And if so, what was working, not working, or could be done better regarding how we connected our students to learning? After extensive research and observing my own patterns, I found that I subscribe to a constructivist philosophy of education. I believe learners’ experiences provide a context in which they connect with what they know and what they are learning. They synthesize and construct their own understanding of their world through experience. This constructivist philosophy harmonizes well with Dr. Harapnuik’s (2009) Inquisitivism which “shares many of the same active learning principles found in minimalism and constructivism. The principles like guided discovery, collaboration, and real-world assignments help learners deal with the fear of technology and change.” Constructivism paired with Inquisitivism invites learners to develop a mindset that isn’t afraid to ask questions, build upon experience especially in a rapidly changing, web-based world, and be prepared to creatively solve problems that don’t yet exist. Both approaches create space for COVA to elevate the learning experience and encourage the questions to be the answers. It is vital that we know why we do what we do, and one of the first steps we can take as educators is to connect to how and why we learn. Only after we understand how we learn can we guide our students in reaching their goals.
It’s always about the learning. Life is learning. My hope is that everything I implement in my classroom results in helping my students become life-long learners. My why behind why I teach is to help guide my learners to self-efficacy that results from owning their own learning. I want to set my students free. The learning environment I have created invites students to come as they are, ask difficult questions, and engage in meaningful conversations with their classmates. My hope is that this environment has become such an integral piece of their lives that they can see how every environment yields an opportunity to learn if they’re open to it. Education is about learning and setting our students free. Although my job roles may change, I can’t imagine teaching any other way. I have fully embraced CSLE + COVA, and have a new outlook and hope on what it means to be a teacher. Here’s to a life-long journey of creating authentic environments that change the world one learner at a time.
Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Ballantine Books.
Harapnuik, D. (n.d.). CSLE + COVA. It’s about learning. http://www.harapnuik.org/?page_id=6988
Harapnuik, D. (2009). Inquisitivism. It’s about learning. http://www.harapnuik.org/?page_id=104
Harapnuik, D. (2015). The head won’t go where the heart hasn’t been. It’s about learning. http://www.harapnuik.org/?s=the+head+won%27t+go+where+the+heart+hasn%27t+been
Harapnuik, D. (2016). Opening up spaces for answers. It’s about learning. http://www.harapnuik.org/?s=open+spaces
Harapnuik, D., Thibodeaux, T., and Cummings, C. (2018). Choice, ownership, and voice through authentic learning. Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND.
Johnson, S. (2010). Where good ideas come from: The natural history of innovation. Riverhead Books.
Robinson, K. (2006). Do schools kill creativity?. TED ideas worth spreading. https://www.ted.com/talks/sir_ken_robinson_do_schools_kill_creativity?language=en
The Magic School Bus Quotes. (n.d.). Quotes.net. Retrieved June 5, 2020, from https://www.quotes.net/mquote/905906.
Feature Image created by Unsplash.