A couple weeks ago I got the opportunity to go visit the new Charles City Middle School and take a hard hat tour (not kidding, check out the official selfie I took). The tour was incredible – the new building includes not only state of the art facilities, but the district really took time to think about the type of teaching and learning they wanted to provide for their students. In addition to the energy efficient design with tons of natural light and a balcony, the students have access to an “information commons,” indoor fitness trail, fully equipped sound booths, and flexible learning spaces, the building also boasts a tree house. They thought about the psychology of color, about the needs of a 21st century classroom with retractable walls, white board walls, and wet/prep spaces for experiments, and about how they could really reimagine the physical spaces for kids.
The building is incredible, and I can’t wait to see the finished product this fall.However, what’s even more impressive, and something we can all do without passing a bond issue, is probably the most important part of the process that Charles City undertook. They knew they had to rethink professional development. It’s not enough to just give students and teachers a new space to think and learn, you have to change the WAY you think and learn. Teachers are digging into what it truly means to work in collaborative classrooms, STEM environments, and project-based learning. They’ve embraced the whole child, from community inclusion to physical fitness to academic needs, and are pushing the envelope not just with their physical design, but with their approach to learning, not just at the new middle school, but in the high school, as well. Kids who have a transformed learning experience in 8th grade will move up into a high school that may not be new, but practices the same shifts in teaching and learning that they experienced previously.
New buildings are great, but I truly applaud Charles City for embracing the learning first, and I challenge all districts to be innovative with how they think about moving their schools forward. It doesn’t need to be a new building, often a shift in mindset and in culture go a long way. To steal a phrase from George Couros and his book The Innovator’s Mindset, how can we “innovate inside the box” when new facilities aren’t always an option? How can we make innovative teaching and learning the catalyst for change? As we close out the 2015-2016 school year and begin to look ahead to 2016-2017, I challenge you to think about learning shifts that could occur to make learning more experiential, authentic, and messy!