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Navigating Through Rough Waters

During a school site visit in San Diego in March of 2022 at CDL5, I became fascinated by the fact that our school of interest was successfully implementing a “new to them” unique pedagogical design (Expeditionary Learning) during a global pandemic. Even though the crisis was being experienced all around, the school administration continued on their journey of implementation. While I’m sure the leadership team might have had doubts had they known the challenges of a lockdown were ahead, they remained steadfast and diligent in their focus. The analogy of a ship seems fitting to me for their journey and the lessons we can learn from them in implementing Christian Deeper Learning.

Conway Elementary is one of more than 20 public schools in the Escondido Union School District in California, and has been on a journey of implementing the Expeditionary Learning (EL) teaching and learning model for a number of years and (at the time of writing) hoping to become officially accredited as an EL school. We were privileged as a group to be one of their first site visitors and to experience first-hand the impact that EL was having on their school and in the lives of their students. The Conway case study documents the incredible results the changes have produced in their students both academically and social/emotionally. Academic achievement rose from the lowest in the district to one of the highest, and the rate of suspensions and expulsions plummeted as students became more engaged in their work and in their school.

As a model of deeper learning, it would be difficult to argue against the success of Expeditionary Learning and the work of the Conway staff and administrators. While this alone would be inspiring enough, it was how they navigated the storms of a global pandemic that I found truly remarkable. Like many schools, Conway was following through on their strategic initiatives, which included the implementation of EL. That work was unfolding and producing results in the school and for their students…. and then the unexpected came their (and our!) way, resulting in the shuttering of a school building, students learning from home, and the need to navigate the economic and political realities that followed as we all learned how to live with and through a global pandemic.

In my own context as a Chistian school leader walking into a pandemic—a new reality that very few had taken time to plan for from an operational perspective—I met with no shortage of opinion as to what we should do. For the first time in my schools’ 60+ year history, we were closing our buildings to teaching and learning partway through an academic year. Calls to “trim the sails” and “batten down the hatches” were actual phrases used for advice to me in reference to our schools’ operations. In the analogy of a ship: stop, drop anchor, and endure the storm. To carry the metaphor further, there were calls by some to cast all unnecessary cargo into the sea to preserve the ship.

Pre-pandemic, Conway Elementary had intentionally hired a new principal with the skills and motivation to continue living into the vision of implementing Expeditionary Learning. She, like every other school principal, was now faced with the challenge of figuring out not only how to do school in a new way, but also how to preserve the positive momentum of the school, and in her case, to keep official accreditation as an EL school in view. When remote learning suddenly became the primary mode of connecting teachers, curriculum, and students, their regular academic rhythms of morning meetings, E.P.I.C. (character of Excellence, Perseverance, Integrity and Compassion) themes woven in throughout the day, and especially the experience of expeditions, were disrupted. The storm had hit unexpectedly, and the captains of the ship were faced with difficult decisions. Conway Elementary, however, had a distinct advantage heading into this storm at this time: a North Star.

The benefits of having a fixed point to which a school aspires have been well-demonstrated. In his book Thrive: How Schools will Win the Education Revolution (Corwin Press, 2019), Grant Lichtman dedicates a chapter to “Finding your school’s North Star.” Lichtman argues that “Finding and clearly articulating your school’s North Star is the most impactful step of sustainable, value-rich design.” “Among other things”, he states, “a school’s North Star must be aspirational, and a point of common allegiance and judgement.” Teaching for Transformation, another model of Christian Deeper Learning, starts with a similar “North Star” idea when working with schools, both for the entire school and also at the class and sometimes even unit level, calling administrators and teachers to define and clearly articulate their “Deep Hope” for their students, in turn guiding and directing their teaching and learning.

Our student guides that day at Conway took us on a tour of their school, each guide able to clearly outline their school’s goals for their learning, how those goals came to life in what they had experienced in their classrooms, expeditions, and even in extracurricular activities. As they described what they were working on and showed evidence of their learning through the pandemic and remote learning, it was clear that the school had not only kept its mission and vision alive, but had leaned into it faithfully throughout the crisis. Was there learning loss and were there unfortunate setbacks as the school figured out how to connect and learn remotely? Absolutely. As a school they were, however, faithfully and consistently steered back into their school’s unique model of learning. Those working in schools know that this faithful and consistent tug-back doesn’t happen by accident, but comes from a staff team aligned with the goals that the leadership has set for the institution.

From my limited reading of nautical themes, the urge to drop anchor in a storm appears to be the instinct of an inexperienced seafarer hoping for the safety of standing still. This action will likely result in the opposite, however, by causing the boat to misalign and roll the wrong way with the waves and possibly capsize. Instead, the practice of “heaving to” has a sailboat or a ship face into the wind/waves (at approximately 40°) and maintain a consistent slow propulsion forward. This directional posture and continued slow momentum forward are effective in even high winds and otherwise overwhelming situations.

Although they were hampered by the pandemic, Conway Elementary School’s goals to become an EL school remained central and consistent. Students continued to be called to align character and academic goals to the school’s E.P.I.C. (Excellence, Perseverance, Integrity, and Compassion) norms and the three dimensions of learning: Mastery of Knowledge and Skills, Character, and High Quality Work.

Are you able to state your school’s mission statement, or refer to the adopted vision for learning? Are they well articulated—simple yet specific to your school’s dreams? Do you have ways to call your teachers, students, and parent community back into alignment with the mission again and again? Are you steadily moving forward, even in tumultuous times? Like Conway, is everyone on board considered Crew, and not just along for the ride?

Whatever stage your school is at with respect to a Christian Deeper Learning implementation journey (voyage?), it may be time to examine your school’s vision and mission statement, ensuring that you have a True North on which to focus, and a steady thrust forward to avoid capsizing in challenging times. A shout-out to Eugene Peterson is in order here for his book titled A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. I certainly felt this spirit and faithful focus at Conway Elementary, inspired to continue that same perseverance in our schools as we pursue our own implementation of Christian Deeper Learning.

In the spirit of the metaphor, I’ll leave you with a J. A. Shedd motivational nudge that adorned a poster I (providentially?) won in a draw at my very first teachers’ conference that has stuck with me since: “A ship in the harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships were built for.”


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