Telling our Stories in School Improvement Planning

The Need for Understanding or We Are Just Staring at the Numbers!

How Can We Think About School Improvement Planning?

It is amazing to me how often Seth Godin speaks directly to where I am in a moment. The other day, he posted the blog, Staring at the numbers and it got me thinking about school improvement planning and ways we engage with it in schools.

So much of the way we do school improvement planning is like standing in an elevator staring at the numbers. We record the data that may or may not actually represent the reality of the lived experiences of our students and staff in our schools and we act as if these numbers tell our school’s story — that this is what represents the hundreds of lives that we care for each and every day in our schools.

We take direction from our system about what is the next best thing and we often get lost in the rituals and writing of school plans so that we can attempt to represent the truth of what happens in our schools. Schools are incredibly complex. We talk about raising our scores but even that has it’s problems. Those numbers represent tests that are created by certain people for certain students and test certain subject areas that are valued by those same certain people. In a blog I wrote last winter, Learning and the Brain, I shared the ideas of, Yong Zhao, who challenges the idea of “closing the gap” as a narrowing of diversity and he claims that the areas we measure are arbitrary and culturally charged.

But there is another way to think about school improvement planning…

This year we embarked on a new way to think about school improvement planning. Envisioned with my friends and colleagues, Janine Franklin and Lynne Hollingshead, we reached out to four schools to shift the thinking around school improvement towards school narratives. We created teams from our curriculum department which included one educator and one member of our Assessment Services team and we connected with the school teams to figure out what this might look like.

As a pilot project, of course, we have a lot to learn and absolutely took a learner stance when doing the work. We positioned ourselves as co-learners with the schools and were grateful for those schools who took on the challenge as co-learners with us.

Now, one of our school superintendents, Camille Logan, has embraced this idea and has invited leaders in her schools to engage in this work. So now, six more schools are on board trying to work through their school improvement planning in deep and meaningful ways.

Framing Our Thinking

With a commitment to move forward in a way that honours the communities we serve, it was essential to think about how we frame our understanding of storytelling through school narratives. We had to consider that the act of storytelling can be another form of colonization. Winston Churchill said, “History is told by the victors.” If we want to move forward and truly serve our communities, then we must disrupt this notion and honour their stories. In Every School Should Tell Its Story: There’s value in collecting and curating the stories that unfold in our schools and our students, Heather Wolpert-G suggests that these stories are best told by curating the stories of the students and teachers.

We also know the power of story to engage learners.

We used the Brené Brown quote to guide us in our thinking around what storytelling as a tool for school narratives might look like.

We know that we connect in a deeper way to stories. In Rising Strong, Brené Brown reminds us that we are “wired for story” and shares that when we listen to or tell stories we actually get a dopamine hit. Physiologically, we experience pleasure when we hear stories. But there is caution in her research. We seek clarity and that ambiguity causes angst so we make up stories that suit us. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk, The Danger of the Single Story, challenges us to question the narrative.

We framed our thinking through Chimamanda Adichie’s, The Danger of the Single Story.

When embarking on the telling of stories, particularly as educators, where more often than not we are vistors to the communities we serve, we must be cognizant of the power we hold as the teller of the story. Telling a story of a community in which you are a visitor can only be done in a respectful and inclusive way when:

  • we listen more than we speak
  • we co-create goals with students and community
  • we check our story with those who are the subjects of it.

When stories are told, we must always ask the following:

  1. Whose story is it?
  2. Who is telling the story?
  3. Is it his/her/their story to tell?

As school principals, we are the ones with the responsibility for the school improvement plan. It plays out differently in every school with the provincial testing often setting the stage for the professional learning in the school which in turn determines all improvement work. But this is a mistake. Yes the testing tells a story but is it our story? Is it the story we want to tell and is it the story that will be most effective when we consider the need to have a common vision and inspiring message that is grounded in the lived experiences of those who we serve in our schools — our students, our communities and our staff.

We need to think of our school improvement plans as the narratives of our schools and all who are part of that community.

We minimize the idea of storytelling as powerful in schools. We refer to hard versus soft data and feel that the numbers are somehow neutral but we know that there is no neutral.

When we turn to Indigenous Ways of Knowing, the practice of storytelling is one which we can learn from.

Storytelling is a traditional method used to teach about cultural beliefs, values, customs, rituals, history, practices, relationships, and ways of life. First Nations storytelling is a foundation for holistic learning, relationship building, and experiential learning. (First Nations Pedagogy Online, Storytelling: https://firstnationspedagogy.ca/storytelling.html)

The stories are best told by the voices of those they represent. We must ask ourselves how we engage those voices, check our telling of the story, ensure that it is grounded in the lived reality of the communities we serve. Critical ethnography challenges the idea that the telling of another’s story is neutral. We must consider our social locations, social identities and power structures that support certain voices to be heard while others are silenced. By recognizing our implicit bias, challenging the presumption of neutrality, and committing to the complexity of telling of stories, we engage in an inquiry approach to school improvement planning that is iterative in nature — dialogic, recursive and responsive to school needs.

Getting back to the elevator analogy

Seth Godin wrote:

Staring at the Numbers

Sometimes, you can learn a lot by watching. But not always.

An alien observing our behavior in elevators would note that most of the time, a person gets in, approaches the front corner, leaves that corner, goes to the back and then stands silently, staring at the numbers above the door.

Only one of those actions is actually required. If you don’t push the button (or have someone push it for you) nothing happens. The rest — the moving to the back, standing silently and most of all, staring at the numbers — it’s just for show, a cultural tradition.

Most practices work this way. From eating in restaurants to marketing, we add all sorts of extraneous motion to our effort. Which is fine, unless you don’t understand which ones actually matter to the outcome.

Too often, we train people in the motions without giving them understanding. Then, when the world changes, we’re stuck staring at the numbers going by, unable to find the insight to push a new kind of button.

In the process of school improvement planning we get so hung up on the template that we forget that this document is about people. We collect all kinds of data but without a narrative, what is the story we are actually telling? If we “complete” the template in isolation of the people, the students, the staff, and the community it represents, what is the value of it?

We need to develop understanding of the school improvement process. Understand how to navigate the data. Use both trailing and leading evidence. We need to monitor the theories of action through the triangulation of data — products, observations and conversations and engage with this evidence from an inquiry stance that urges us to ask deeper questions and engage in analysis that is grounded in multiple perspectives and collaborative inquiry.

We must be willing to ask ourselves what can we do better and how are the decisions we make serving the staff rather than the students in our care. School improvement planning can be an act of resistance that challenges status quo and creates new spaces that honour those we serve.

Originally published on Medium.

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