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ExploreSRQ’s New Realities — Part 2: Experimenting, Evolving, and Embracing New Platforms

Posted on May 13, 2021 by Wendy Katz, consultant EdExploreSRQ
"Among the types of thoughts that affect action, none is more central or pervasive than people's judgments of their capabilities to deal effectively with different realities." – Bandura 1986

During Part I of this blog, EdExploreSRQ's New Realities, I highlighted some of the phenomenal silver linings – the unexpected findings and treasures that occurred with EdExploreSRQ as organizations and teachers had to pivot, adapting to a virtual platform. Another fortuitous phenomenon that emerged out of necessity was the harmonious, ambitious, and highly successful collaboration of several local provider organizations.

George Hemcher, Youth Opera Coordinator, explained that when the pandemic caused the sudden shutdown last March 2020, his colleagues, incredibly talented Providers, realized that they collectively were not well versed in the technical skills or technology required to utilize virtual (remote) learning platforms. "We needed a crash course!" They quickly decided to come together informally to create a forum for learning from and with each other. They all acknowledged the virtual platform would never be a comparable experience to having students interact with live art forms, but they were open to exploring possible substitute opportunities.

Kelli Maldonado, Education and Community Engagement Director at Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, and George Hemcher, took the lead, giving birth to the idea of sharing practices and learning together. Kelli commented, “We realized that virtual learning was not going away, so we needed to redesign programs from the ground up.” She sees arts educators as natural collaborators. She felt confident that as a group, they could be successful if they remained committed to their primary focus on solving problems together, so all the EdExploreSRQ Providers could continue to offer highly engaging experiential learning experiences. “It was never about “our program” but instead to help each other.

Ben Jewell-Plocher, Education Director from Embracing Our Differences (EOD); Katie Nickel, The Ringling’s School and Teacher Program Coordinator; Brad Tanner, Senior Schools Program Coordinator at Mote Marine Laboratory; Karen Bell, Outreach Education Manager for The Circus Arts Conservatory; Sarah Brunow and Tiana Turner, Asolo Repertory Theatre; Tracy Calla, Marie Selby Botanical Gardens as well as Teaching Artists: Kuniko Yamamoto, Andy Salgado, Deb Lombard, Laura Courter, and Judy Levine participated weekly with this informal group that they named Lessons Learned. This network became an open forum for discussing what worked well and what did not. “We were accustomed to playing well together, and we realized we were not alone. They made us think differently and forced us to step out of our comfort zone.” Karen Bell

Many researchers have characterized the challenges that educators face as both technical and adaptive (Heifetz, Grashow, Linsky, 2009), (Donohoo, 2003). Technical challenges are often the easier ones to tackle because the problem is clearly defined, the knowledge and capacity to solve already resides in the expertise of individuals, and the solutions and implementation are readily understood. Adaptive challenges are ones, however, where the necessary knowledge of the problem does not yet exist (VanderArk, 2006). Tackling the shift to virtual Explorations required implementing new platforms for learning, experimenting using new strategies and tools, being open to adapt, and pushing aside the past ways to allow for innovation so novel methods could evolve.

By examining collectively what works and what does not, the Providers dedicated themselves to learning new ways of engaging students based on their own experiences. We learn to do the work by doing the work! (City, Elmore, Fiarman & Teitel, 2009). Coffee hour quickly turned into productive, almost weekly sessions where they began sharing resources and tips they had found successful. They were motivated simply because they needed to learn a different teaching method to be marketable and ready for students in the fall. They began to draw from the expertise within their group, discovering the power of collective efficacy. John Hattie (2016), one of the most highly regarded international researchers in education, ranks collective teacher efficacy as the greatest factor impacting student achievement. It is the collective self-perception that teachers in a given school can make an educational difference to their students over and above the educational impact of their homes and communities.

Despite a bit of angst, they agreed to help create Explorations together, practicing together, offering candid suggestions, sharing and leveraging strategies or techniques that were and were not successful. They took risk-taking and support to an even greater level by actually watching each other teach to get meaningful feedback. Without being aware, these Providers were engaged in a modified version of truly exceptional research-based practice for professional learning called lesson study.

Lesson study originated in Japan (2007-2021), whereby teachers collaboratively select a topic, plan, and prepare a lesson together (called a research lesson). One teacher enacts the research lesson, and the others observe the students in class, and finally, teachers discuss their observations. The focus is not on the teacher but on whether the lesson's design was successful for student understanding.

Phenomenal things happen when individuals share the belief that they can achieve collective goals by embracing new possibilities through collaborating, not competing.

Special gratitude to the 18 entrepreneurial Providers who invested their time and talents reaching over 40,000 students by recreating more than 80 highly engaging digital learning experiences. Given the success of this professional collaborative model, I predict that this collective work will live on long after the pandemic.

"One of the cornerstones of Sarasota is the work environment is so healthy. That's why I stay here." Katie Nickel.

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