Monday, November 10, 2014

How Might We Reimagine the K-8 School Experience? Collaboration with Design 39

Last week a small team from LASD had the opportunity to visit Design 39, a brand new public school located in the Poway Unified School District.  The school is currently a K-6 with 840 students but will grow to a K-8 over the next two years.  Our visit down south was triggered by a desire to learn from other educators who are also on the path to revolutionize learning.  Design 39 is especially interesting as the school was built with a new paradigm of learning in mind.  A core team of educators, including the principal, Sonya Wrisley and a few lead teachers, spent over a year learning from leading educators around the country and planning for their new school.  

We had the opportunity to meet Design 39’s core team last fall during their EdJourney and spent a day collaborating in LASD around professional learning models, STEM education, learning management systems and a variety of other topics.  While we have continued the relationship and collaboration since their initial visit to LASD, it was extremely exciting to visit Design 39 while school was in session and see their vision realized.  

When you arrive at Design 39, you can’t help but be impressed by the building itself - a magnificent new multi-story building, but the real WOW happens inside.  Here are a few of our key take-aways from our time at Design 39:

  • Language Matters - “The School Office” has been renamed “The Welcome Center,” “Teachers” are referred to as “Learning Experience Designers” and “Noon Duty Aides” are referred to as “Motion Managers.”  These may seem like small shifts but they are intentional shifts that communicate the beliefs of Design 39 and highlight how the language we choose contributes to the overall culture of the school.  
  • Space Impacts Learning -   Learning spaces around campus are designed with what is best for students in mind first, as a result teachers don’t have their own classroom. Teachers may teach in a variety of classrooms within their pod depending on the groupings of students within a multi-age span.  Multiple teachers share a “Design Studio” - think collaborative office space - where they store their personal belongings and collaborate with their colleagues during planning time every morning from 7:45-8:45.  Learning spaces are large relatively uncluttered and varied depending on the learning activity - large group spaces, interactive screens to display student work, makery spaces, etc.
  • Learning Flow Matters -   Students at Design 39 have the opportunity to be truly immersed in what they are learning.  The day is structured with fairly large chunks of uninterrupted instructional time. In the morning, students are working on integrated learning (think Language Arts, Social Studies, Science) then after lunch depending on the day they will either have 90 minutes of math, or a deep dive (an elementary version of electives) followed by an hour of “Minds in Motion” (a new take on PE, think kids crossfit, dance, basketball… It doesn’t matter what class students choose, what matters is that they engage, get sweaty and have fun!).   Learning isn’t ever disrupted by bells, even body breaks (aka recess) are taken when it makes sense for that particular group of students.  This -ish type of schedule requires much more collaboration on the part of the adults at school, but results in a much better day to day learning experience for students.
  • Kindergarten Reminder List
    Question Everything - Why do we require students to respond to bells, walk in straight lines and raise their hands to speak?  What do these routines communicate to students about our belief in them?  Design 39 has reimagined many of these of practices.  Students know it’s time to head to class when a song is played over the intercom (Songs are dedicated to particular grade levels) and students still eating or playing enjoy the music.  Students are taught how to respectfully get from point a to point b on campus but are never required to walk in a straight line.
  • BYOD Can Work at Any Grade Level -  Design 39 is a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) school beginning in Pre-K.  All students are encouraged to bring a device from home to use a learning tool.  Students without devices may check out a chromebook to use for the year.  We saw a variety of devices in use throughout the school, it doesn’t really matter as all instruction & instructional tools are web based and device agnostic.  
  • Are Report Cards & Grades Necessary?  Student progress is being reported via “Growth Guides” instead of formal report cards.  Growth Guides are a definite work in progress, and aren’t fancy (currently an elaborate shared google doc between student, teachers, and parents) but they communicate actionable feedback about learning in a timely way.  
  • Change is Hard, Personal Flotation Devices Help - Teachers are engaging in a very different way of planning and teaching.  Most of the teaching staff has previous experience as a teacher which is sometimes helpful but can also be challenging as they consciously don’t want to fall into comfortable traditions or patterns.  With so much change at hand, their principal encourages the use of a “Personal Flotation Device” when needed. This may be a personal practice not entirely inline with the new direction of learning but one that is helping the teacher stay afloat for the time being.  The personal flotation devices are only temporary and provide teachers a way to say, “Hey I’m working on this, but am not quite there… yet.”

School Vision in Student Language
Those were a few of our big take-aways from the day of learning, but what personally impressed me most was the dedication of the staff.  It is clear that the entire staff is working with a lot of ambiguity, they are out on the leading edge doing work that hasn’t necessarily been done before in public education. It is uncomfortable for the staff, but necessary as they learn a different way to work.   Leading author and business leader, Liz Wiseman suggests, “We have to get comfortable asking people to be uncomfortable. Don’t ask people to do more work, ask them to do harder work.”  It is clear that under the leadership of Sonya Wrisley, the Design 39 team is being asked to do harder work as they reimagine learning for their students.  

While there were a lot of ah-ha moments for our team, we also recognized that much of the work we are doing in LASD has helped pave the way for a new learning paradigm in LASD.  With our new Learning Principles, we are actively engaged in questioning practices and reimagining learning for all LASD students.  We look forward to continued collaboration with the Design 39 team and other innovative teams of educators on this journey.  For more information on Design 39, you can go to their website at

Contributed by Alyssa Gallagher, Director of Strategic Initiatives and Community Partnerships

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