SSam Chaltainam Chaltain is a DC-based writer and education activist. He was a keynote speaker at our 4th Annual Convening at the beginning of November. After the event, we had a chance to ask Sam some questions about the future of education.

Q: What were your impressions of the work being done in Southeastern Wisconsin to personalize learning?

The reality is that in a lot of places across the country, folks haven’t begun to have these sorts of exciting, difficult conversations. So I’m very encouraged that this network is being so proactive.

Q: As a leader and nationally-known expert, what do you see as the critical components to scaling this work?

The three things I’ve noticed are common across every great school are the following: a) a clear vision of the ideal graduate; b) a clear understanding of the systems and structures that can support work towards developing those kinds of young people; and c) a clear culture of openness, trust and transparency.

For me, the ultimate end goal has to be about the specific skills and dispositions the ideal graduate of your school should have — which three, or which five, or which ten, etc. — the number doesn’t matter per se, but each school needs to consider, of all the skills and dispositions a young person could acquire at our school, which constellation of those skills do we feel our graduates MUST have. Each skill and disposition should then be broken down in a way that demonstrates the progression required to develop real mastery. A great example of this can be found at the MC2 school in New Hampshire (see mc2school.org).

Then the systems and structures should all be designed to ensure that educators are allowed and encouraged (even incentivized) to cultivate these skills in their students. The way a school assesses its students and teachers should reflect this as well, as should the way learning opportunities are shaped (from the curriculum to the enrichment or afterschool programs). Finally, it comes down to culture (I’m a big believer of the saying that “Culture eats Strategy for breakfast”), and the best cultures I’ve seen are the ones that are high-trust, high-transparency. The best example I’ve seen is the Mission Hill School in Boston, but you can see for yourself at ayearatmissionhill.com.

Q: What are some things our members can do to start changing the stories about education?

I think educators have a responsibility to make their practice and their thinking much more public than we have in the past. A great example of this are the educators who attend the Educon conference in Philly every year. Most of these teachers have active presences on social media, and they find time to write regularly. A few good examples are Bill Ferriter (@plugusin) and Jose Vilson (@TheJLV), but check the people who use the #educon hashtag on Twitter and watch how they create an active network of ideas and support for one another. THIS is the future we need to create together.

Q: In your presentation you asked us to think differently about the question, “What do you teach?” How important is it for teachers/schools to have an end goal?

Absent an end goal, anything goes. The best schools don’t just have mission statements; they also have vision statements and a clear sense of purpose. This allows a community to maintain the creative tension between having a distant goal (the “one day” vision) and an up-close focus (the “every day” mission). A great example of this is the Blue School in NYC — see how they describe it at http://www.blueschool.org/values/.

Q: What was your most powerful K-12 learning experience and why was it so powerful?

I didn’t have many powerful learning experiences in K-12, and I think that’s true for a lot of us.

For me, I didn’t really discover my own voice or interest in learning until I flunked out of UW-Madison, and then, when I did, as is always the case, there was this teacher — Craig Werner — who ignited in me something that has not been extinguished since.

Q: “A Year at Mission Hill,” the 10-part video series that chronicles a year in the life of one of America’s most successful public schools, ended in June. What other projects do you have planned?

I have a new book coming out in April, about school choice and our changing notion of community. It’s called Our School: Searching for Community in the Era of Choice. Check it out.

Currently, I’m working with a team of folks to produce “Hartsville,” a film about a town in South Carolina that is trying to transform its community by transforming its schools. Expect that to make its debut on PBS sometime in early 2015.

And I’m always trying to share new ideas or good examples of other people’s work on my blog at samchaltain.com. Stop by and share your thoughts. It’s always open!

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