Deborah Ellis engages students in rigorous learning by harnessing their enthusiasm
“Sitting in silence, surrounded by students and teachers at the start of our community meeting, I listen to the birds chirping and the wind rustling through the trees. Then I suddenly refocus and work on being present in the moment. Mindful listening and breathing is still difficult for me. I find myself preoccupied, thinking about how we can ensure that every child receives an education in which a diverse and multilingual population of students are actively engaged and enthusiastic about their learning like the students surrounding me at La Paz Community School in Flamingo, Costa Rica.”
When people ask me about my decision to leave Costa Rica to accept a position in the U.S., they are often surprised that the most difficult part was not leaving the warm beach behind but leaving La Paz, an International Baccalaureate-authorized, nonprofit preschool through high school which offers a bilingual experiential education to the culturally diverse youth of Guanacaste. Of its 300 students, 40% are Costa Rican, 40% are North American, and 20% are from 25 other countries.
Schools today are expected to prepare students to develop 21st-century skills and be college and career ready, but what does that really mean? With current advances in technology, no one knows what the workforce will look like when our kindergarteners graduate from high school in 2028. Business leaders have prioritized skills for success in the 21st century such as collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, and communication in multiple languages, yet schools are still finding it incredibly challenging to create classroom and school cultures that cultivate students ready to be successful in the global world. Providing a dual-language education that develops cross-cultural awareness and emphasizes socio-emotional learning, as La Paz does, would be one helpful step towards ensuring that students are prepared to be inspirational leaders in the future.
A Learning Community for All
How do we nurture and grow ourselves as educators and leaders in a global world?
While La Paz offers many attractions, like monkeys passing through the trees and the option to participate in the surf club before school, it is the learning community that draws innovative educators. The energy of the learning community is contagious, and the collaborative nature of the staff, students, and families creates an environment for growth. The professional learning community (in the true sense, not just in name) is what has made La Paz a model for developing lifelong learners who are equipped to fundamentally transform their lives, communities, nations, and eventually the world, into a better place.
Collaboration, Not Just Collegiality
In order to effectively create collaborative learning environments in which students are stretching themselves as risk takers and problem solvers, school educators and leaders need to model collaborative, risk-taking, and problem-solving behaviors.
While there are certainly weekly staff meetings, professional development, and intentional common planning, the informal and consistent collaboration that regularly occurs models for students 21st-century skills. Teachers, assistants, parents, and administrators all work in common spaces, celebrating successes, running ideas by each other, and collaboratively addressing challenges. Whether it is simply checking someone’s grammar in a second language or improving schoolwide structures and events, there is a true sense that everyone’s expertise is valued and we are a better learning community as a result of collaboration. The community examines problems of practice together and collaboratively identifies and implements solutions. I have recently begun to think about the difference between collegiality and collaboration. Merriam-Webster Online defines collegiality as “the cooperative relationship of colleagues” and collaboration as “[working] jointly with others or together especially in an intellectual endeavor.” Pleasant cooperative behavior is often confused with collaboration, preventing many communities from moving beyond having professional learning communities in name only rather than really in practice.
Freedom for Innovation
Creating chicken coops, building a greenhouse, launching rockets, organizing community projects, sharing quotes of the day, and planting vetiver grass to prevent erosion are just a few of the innovative projects implemented at La Paz. With a safe environment for taking risks and a culture of active learning, the curriculum is constantly evolving based on the expertise and interest of the staff, families, and students. While the Common Core State Standards and International Baccalaureate learner profile are woven throughout the curriculum, the staff is consistently finding new, innovative ways to encourage critical thinking and creativity.
Harnessing the Joy of Learning
There seems to be a misconception in some educational circles that a rigorous curriculum is incompatible with a joyful learning environment. I have also personally spoken with many educators who are unsure about how much time to dedicate to developing socio-emotional skills, when the demands for teaching content knowledge appear so monumental. However, La Paz has shown that the two can and should coexist if we want to nurture lifelong learners. We need to develop socio-emotional competence not only in our students but in our teachers as well. In many educational settings, fun is associated with nonacademic tasks, which results in students who do not enjoy learning and identify the only purpose of learning as being able to perform well on a test. Joyful learning is contagious and begins with the educators. Anyone who came of age in the ’80s (or who has Netflix) can recall the mind-numbing classes that Ferris Bueller and his friends had to endure. And while Ferris Bueller might be a bit dated, unfortunately too many students are still sitting for too long in classrooms and tuning out the teacher because the teacher is not actively engaging the class. And while we know that learning is joyful when one is engaged in meaningful, authentic, and challenging learning experiences that have a greater purpose than studying for a test, I personally have sat through too many educational courses or professional development sessions that took an ineffective lecture format. One of the most popular forms of professional development that has recently sprouted are edcamps, where educators come together for the joy of learning and challenging themselves in new ways. Whether trying on new learning by observing each other and giving feedback or revising the curriculum as a result of real-world learning, when educators find joy in engaging in cognitively challenging tasks, they model a growth mindset and love of learning.
Place-Based Teacher Education
Realizing the need for experiential professional development experiences, Growing Global Educators (GGE) launched a professional-development organization that brings educators from around the world together to foster their own global awareness and develop their teaching of 21st-century learners. In partnership with La Paz Community School, GGE has created a week-long professional-development institute where educators can challenge themselves to be risk takers and push their limits as global citizens and educators. Participants will explore La Paz as a case study for how we can successfully develop a growth mindset and promote global citizenship among our students. The week-long professional development in Flamingo, Costa Rica, will explore three essential questions:
How do we nurture and grow ourselves as educators and leaders in a global world?
How do we help our schools promote the development of cross-cultural competency, intrinsic motivation, socio-emotional learning, and experiential learning?
How do we integrate experiential learning, authentic assessments, thematic planning, and other best practices while meeting the demands of standards?
Last month, I joined over 2,000 educators in Albuquerque, New Mexico, at Dual Language Education of New Mexico’s annual conference, La Cosecha. Our focus was on how to improve dual-language education in the U.S. and other countries. As I was preparing to give my presentation, “Developing Language Skills and Cultural Competence through Cross-Grade-Level Opportunities,” two educators approached me and asked if I spoke Spanish. After I responded affirmatively, they informed me, “Esta es una buena idea, pero necesitamos ir a otra sesión porque nuestro distrito no lo permitirá.” (“This is a great idea, but we need to go to another session because our district will not permit it.”) I was shocked. The core purpose of the conference was to help teachers grow as educators, yet in an effort to create consistency, districts have set expectations that are often viewed as limitations and restrictions instead. As a result, teachers are not receiving the support they need to meet the rigorous goals necessary for their students to be successful in the 21st century.
Some educators may want to focus on the key curricular structures and methodologies being implemented in order to replicate the success at La Paz. And while the innovative instructional practices such as common problem-solving strategies, cross-grade-level meetings, and place-based learning are all key to the development of 21st-century skills in students at La Paz, the effectiveness will be limited if collaboration and joy of learning among both the staff and students are absent. Teachers and administrators must be global citizens, willing to take risks and engage in cognitively challenging discourse, if we want our students to be influential leaders both today and in the future.
Deborah Ellis, EdD from University of Southern California, joined the La Paz Community School staff and returned to the classroom as a first-grade teacher after serving as a principal and earning her EdD from University of Southern California with an emphasis on K–12 educational leadership and a dissertation focused on skills for success in the 21st century. She recently returned to the U.S. to become assistant principal at Hilltop Elementary School in Highline Public Schools in Washington, helping to expand the dual-language program from a strand to a schoolwide program. Ellis has led professional development in various formats including in-services at schools, workshops at conferences, and as a curriculum specialist for incoming Teach For America teachers. She launched Growing Global Educators to provide educators with an opportunity to experience place-based education first hand, while reflecting on their practice and challenging themselves to improve as educators of students in the 21st century. For more information, visit growingglobaleducators.com.