Making the Transition: No Teacher is an Island

James Bellanca


“Deeper Learning? All kids thinking critically and creatively? Collaborating? Applying digital literacy? “It would never happen in my school with the kids we get.” “I’m lucky to get them to finish my daily reading worksheet.” “ Half of my thirty-three students speak almost no English.” Those words are just another dream that some college professor writes books and makes speeches about. Get real.”


These words are not a common commentary, but it’s a tone I hear often. We understand that it’s especially difficult for a teacher in a school environment where too many students speak too little English and other problems overwhelm the best of teachers. I also have heard, even in schools with a minimum of such issues.


It takes extraordinary effort for a teacher to make the transition from shallow learning with its emphasis on memorizing information, test preparation, and scores, scores, scores. Certainly there are teachers who manage this on their own. Mostly, however, it occurs when a whole school, lead by a strong principal, ends the practice of each teacher locked in her own classroom, her own island. “No man is an island” wrote the poet John Donne. Teachers shouldn’t have to be either.


An All Together Transition


Let’s examine a primary school example. We consider Katherine Smith Elementary in Evergreen School District, San Jose, to be the best elementary school I have visited.


I could describe any of this schools K-6 classrooms, the many outside of classroom events, the faculty, the school leaders, the parent program, or the many faculty meetings that occur to illustrate why this underfunded school tops my list. With its most poor Hispanic students starting from scratch to learn English, it defies the common low expectation that these youngsters can handle anything more than rote learning.  


What makes the difference? It is the one hundred percent commitment to deeper learning outcomes for each and every student. Commitment encourages each teacher and school leader to come out of typical classroom islands and work together . This commitment is announced on the school’s home page and is visible every day.


Deeper Learning: Looks Like, Sounds Like


In the 2nd grade classroom, students live deeper learning as they engage in daily project-based units. On my visit, I caught them focusing on the whale they found on their city’s beach. One group was wondering about the whale’s heart. How big was it? Is it as big as ours? How does it work? After reading, watching videos and discussing the blue whale, they later elected to make a replica, paper-mache whale’s heart.


This multi-discipline study immersed students into standards-aligned content.


  • Reading: Ask and answer questions to find details about the blue whale’s heart.
  • Writing: Organize information in sentences.
  • Math:  Measure and find ratios to build the model heart.
  • Science: Name the parts and their functions of the whale’s heart.
  • Art: Know what paints and materials to sketch and build the model.
  • Technology: Search information about the blue whale’s hearts and how to use an app to sketch the heart.                                           


To help “master the core content” and more importantly to develop their deeper learning competencies, the teacher had identified and aligned each outcome.


  • Critical Thinking: In each part of their work plans, students had to comprehend, analyze, apply, synthesize, and evaluate how details fit the model.
  • Collaborating: Students had to work together in order to combine what each learned about the whale and present their team’s ideas to a public audience.    
  • Communicating: During their research and the model construction, teammates had to share ideas with each other. They also had to prepare an email to their parents and make a formal presentation speaking to an audience.
  • Creative Problem Solving: Although they had images of the whale’s heart, they had to make sketches and build a model of their own design. There were many “how do we do this?” Questions as they created the whale heart.
  • Respecting Cultural Differences: Students from different backgrounds had to show respect for each other’s views in how to create the heart. As the teams worked, the members enriched their belonging mindset by collaborating.
  • Transferring: After reading stories and articles about the whale, viewing images of the heart and showing they knew what parts to include, the students transferred their knowledge into their model. The teacher used a rubric to assess what they learned about teamwork and how they would improve the insights into future teamwork
  • Student Agency: Students made the decisions about what and how they would make their “products”. Products ranged from the giant heart, to a giant floor sketch with scaled mathematical measurements of the whole whale.


It is Possible


A Project Based Deeper Learning unit like this whale unit requires daunting effort. When the classroom is geared to similar projects with deeper learning outcomes every day all year, the challenge increases. Yes, I do know one or two teachers who have tried this alone. For the most part, this challenge is best managed in quality and quantity when teachers, such as those in this school, are enabled to work together week in and week out to plan, implement, and assess their innovative units.


Although school principal Alan Brengard provided the initial vision when he arrived at Katherine Smith five years earlier, it was clear that his emphasis on collaboratively developed deeper learning outcomes and units of study vetted among the faculty was the water that would drive  the school’s mill wheel. At this point, it was the principal’s job to facilitate teacher team time and provide the resources for the teams to succeed.


Seeing is Believing


During my multi-day visit, I saw the evidence of serious collaboration in every nook and cranny of the school. In every classroom,  I saw variations of Project Based Deeper Learning (PBDL) in action. Guided by a 4th grade “Genius”, I not only watched teachers facilitate PBDL units, I saw models and samples of completed projects, observed a grade level team work as “Critical Friends” to review a proposed project, met with the team leaders to plan and conduct an all faculty session which would develop “looks-like/sounds-like” rubrics for essential learning-to-learn skills, and gave feedback on the faculty’s plan to heighten parent engagement. I sat with a grade level team introducing the school’s new STEM lab teacher to PBDL and joined the all faculty Friday Night celebration at a local restaurant.


At Katherine Smith, no teacher, no student is an island. What kids and teachers say and do is not fake news nor an academic’s pipedream.


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