Great meeting today of the very fine Tucson Area 21st c. skills initiative group, an excellent informal consortium of educators in the greater Tucson area working to advance 21st c. skills at their schools.   Four or five school districts seem to participate; St. Gregory is, to my observation, the only independent school participating.

The conveners are the fine folks from P-21, the Partnership for 21st c. Skills (hq’d in Tucson), and this afternoon I sat next to P-21’s fine President, Ken Kay; it is really great how this national organization is offering support to local educators in very collegial collaboration.    At today’s meeting, the 12th of this network, half a dozen educators from three different systems offered good, even excellent presentations (3 described after jump).   I am very happy to report here that St. Gregory will host the next meeting of this group.

Three presentations stood out to me, although all were fine; these were also the first three presentations, (and it may be they stood out because my concentration waned after 45 minutes, I am afraid to say).  All three were from the Amphi school district, here in Tucson, and all three spoke at some length of the inspiration they took (it changed my life!) from visits to New Technology High School in Sacramento, a school at which I too was greatly inspired.

First was a ninth grade teacher, Ms. Corrigan,  who explained how she infused 21st century skills into the freshman foundations course at her school.    I appreciated her discussion of project based learning.  She spoke of its challenges, of the importance of “front-loading” by putting in much advance planning, and she explained that she found the Buck Institute PBL Handbook enormously valuable.    I also appreciated her emphasis on narrowing and prioritizing: she said that in her program she has selected adaptability, collaboration, information literacy, and critical thinking.   Good stuff.

Next up were a pair of High School Science teachers, Cris Robson and Chris Glenz, presenting on a fine collaboration they had set up between an Engineering class and an AP Environmental Systems (APES) class. First off, I am intrigued by how often excellence in 21st century teaching comes as a result of collaboration.   Second, I really liked the way they described the interaction of the two student groups– the environmental systems group first evaluated different alternate energy options and selected preferred approaches, then commissioned the engineers to design proposals for development, in a competitive process whereby the APES students reviewed and chose the best proposals.  Real world dynamics here.

Then the two groups comes together and build sub-teams, for detailed blueprints, for cost estimates, for fundraising, for construction, and for presenting their completed projects.   Among the most interesting discussions was the effect this unit had on the AP students: “this was challenging for the typical AP student, because AP kids typically like to come in, ask for (insist upon) the information/content/knowledge of the day, memorize it, take the the test, and then move on.  This is totally different, and hard for some AP students.”   An observing administrator spoke out: thank you for demonstrating that an AP course can be different, that it doesn’t always have to be about transferring content.

The third fine presentation came from an Assistant Principal, Kevin Corner (who has his own blog at Corner’s Corner).   He gave a very interesting talk– and very personal, very impassioned, very thoughtful.   He was the one who said that visiting New Technology HS changed his life, and that he saw it as a model for the future and an inspiration for the leadership he seeks to provide in educational administration.  He explained coming back to work and jumping into implementation, only to find that it is harder than he had thought.   This work requires us to confront the thinking of teaching– that to adopt and put into practice, we all have to think MUCH harder about our practice, and at a much higher level.  He noted the parallelism: that to demand of our students that they think at a higher level, we must think at an even higher, and challengingly high, level.    Kevin though also modeled perseverance, and explained his many strategies for advancing his cause, making an especial point about consistency and universality.  To really make the transformation, we must embed every meeting, every class meeting and every faculty meeting, with the work of learning 21st century skills and related themes.

It is humbling, to this blogger, seeing the dedication, hard work, and excellence in 21st century teaching these and many other teachers at my school (St. Gregory) and these other schools are demonstrating.