TLA Stories of Learning

1 - What Will We Take With Us?: Dallas ISD's Take on Project-Based Learning, Community Connections, and Teacher PD

August 11, 2021 The Learning Accelerator Season 1 Episode 1
1 - What Will We Take With Us?: Dallas ISD's Take on Project-Based Learning, Community Connections, and Teacher PD
TLA Stories of Learning
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TLA Stories of Learning
1 - What Will We Take With Us?: Dallas ISD's Take on Project-Based Learning, Community Connections, and Teacher PD
Aug 11, 2021 Season 1 Episode 1
The Learning Accelerator

On this episode of What Will We Take With Us?, a series featuring our conversations with education leaders across the United States on how they grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic in K-12 education, Kristen Watkins of Dallas Independent School District shares with us the creative ways they developed to engage students through project-based learning, community partnerships, and family connections, as well as how they refined their personalized approach to professional development. 

Show Notes Transcript

On this episode of What Will We Take With Us?, a series featuring our conversations with education leaders across the United States on how they grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic in K-12 education, Kristen Watkins of Dallas Independent School District shares with us the creative ways they developed to engage students through project-based learning, community partnerships, and family connections, as well as how they refined their personalized approach to professional development. 

Speaker 1 [00:00:00] Welcome to TLA's Stories of Learning. This episode is part of the series, "What Will We Take With Us?" which focuses on sharing the stories of real world education leaders as they took on the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Thanks for tuning in. 

Speaker 1 [00:00:19] Over the past eight years, Dallas Independent School District has created a personalized learning team, which works closely with a select cohort of schools and supports them with their shift to personalized learning through ongoing professional development. These schools led the way when the district moved to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic and created ways to authentically engage students and families in their learning, regardless of their physical location. The PL team reimagined professional development and built opportunities for teachers to continue to innovate and adapt to the ever-changing nature of the pandemic. In this episode of The Learning Accelerator's, "What Will We Take with Us?" leadership podcast series, we're going to hear from a district leader at Dallas Independent School District about what they tried, what they learned, and what they're taking forward as they head into the 2021-2022 school year. 

Speaker 2 [00:01:15] Kristen Watkins, the Director of Personalized Learning at Dallas School District. We have been on our PL journey since the fall of 2013. We just kind of celebrated our seventh full year of innovating, and we are now up to 17 wall-to-wall personalized learning schools, and we're close to 30, now, supporting schools that are somewhere on their journey to wall-to-wall personalization. 

Speaker 1 [00:01:43] Dallas Independent School District is the second largest district in Texas, serving over 150,000 students across 230 schools. The district has a diverse makeup of students, with 70 percent of students identifying as Latine, 22 percent African-American, six percent white, two percent Asian, and one percent multiracial. 86 percent of students are economically disadvantaged and 44 percent are enrolled in ESL programs. The district seeks to be a premier urban school district and to educate all students for success. As schools from across the globe move to remote teaching and learning almost overnight and in-person opportunities for instruction were put on hold, teachers and leaders at Dallas ISD were encouraged to try new, innovative practices that allowed students to authentically engage in learning regardless of their physical location. The cohort of PL schools focused their work on community impact and working with community partners and technology to meaningfully engage students in project-based learning. 

Speaker 2 [00:02:49] Every year, we do our driving question for our cohort of schools, and every year it's kind of different depending on what we're trying to learn more about the work. So in the beginning, it was like, how do we support teachers outside of our cohort schools? Sometimes it's been like, how do we design professional development that really emulates or drives experiences? And then this year's was, "How might we design this year to have extraordinary impact on our community?" And so that's kind of been our big approach for the year and our driving question for our PL schools. So when we kicked off the school year, we put it all out on the table for our schools and said, "Here is our vision. How are we going to get there? You know, how might we make extraordinary impact on our community? How do we see that as like a student showcase? So how can we make sure that kids have an authentic opportunity to showcase their work?". 

Speaker 2 [00:03:41] And so for us, that aligns to like our appeal rubric under when we talk about authentic assessment and really get into performance-based assessments – that has been kind of where we've lived this year in the sense of really trying to think through the opportunities, whether that's simultaneous learning, in-person, virtual, or when we're distanced, how can we make sure that all of those opportunities included a chance for kids to truly authentically learn about something that really matters to them or that impacts their community? And then how can they share that with others? The big goal for the cohort this year was that at least 10 percent of students across all schools participated in some type of showcase. One example–  Hall Personalized Learning Academy – every Tuesday during their morning announcements, they do what's called Teach-Back Tuesday, and so every kid has access to this Flipgrid and they can submit videos on their own of them teaching something they learned that week to a person, an object, anything. And I like to join their morning announcements because it's on Facebook, so I joined them at 7:45 every morning. It's a nice way to start the day, and they will show on morning announcements one or two of the videos from the Teach-Back Tuesday. So, Jesus, at the beginning of the year, taught a pineapple, and it was like the cutest thing in the world. But you know, it's helping them, you know, like when you learn, you really start to absorb it more and you're able to process that and make connections to other things and build on that – when you talk about what you're learning with others. And so, whether if you have a sibling or if you don't and you have a pineapple, it doesn't matter who it is – just more giving them the opportunity to talk. 

Speaker 2 [00:05:24] The high schools have done some really high-quality work in the sense of bringing in the community and how easy it is now to bring in an authentic audience to give feedback to kids. You know, they've done like "Shark Tank"-style type things. We have some schools that are doing like project-based learning work so that they're really building and that like community partner from the beginning instead of just bringing them in towards the end to hear the pitch of the project, which has been neat, too. 

Speaker 1 [00:05:52] The PL schools also authentically engaged families by involving them in different aspects of students' lives where families could learn about and celebrate the successes of their children. Coming up with creative ways to share learning experiences with families demonstrated that parents, guardians, siblings, and other family members can be involved on an ongoing basis, not just a few times a year. 

Speaker 2 [00:06:16] They have done grade-level exhibitions. I think every month, it's a different grade or something like that where they do Facebook Live, and they get on and they have their kids pre-record their presentations, then their families are able to join and watch them. And so they premiere the videos. You know, the teacher – a couple of the teachers get on and moderate the evening, if you will, and share and play the student video So then the kids are at home watching themselves and getting to see their work and celebrate that with their families. And so it's fun to see the chat and all of the support that the kids are getting. And it's like such easy little things like that. Our hope is that they're keeping kids engaged and their kids are really excited about doing the work or joining the Zoom or coming to school. And also, families are feeling like that sense of connection too, as there is a role for them, too. One example at Gonzalez Elementary, Gonzales did student-led conferences, and so while being on Zoom 24/7 is really exhausting. There's also some really bright spots that come out of that in the sense of families, guardians, everyone that supports a child can join those experiences. It's not always having to be in-person to do that. 

Speaker 1 [00:07:34] The PL team at Dallas ISD also had to rethink professional development and offer a model where teachers could connect virtually and continue to share their learning across a large district in a flexible and focused manner. To do this, they built in opportunities for synchronous and asynchronous learning to emulate what the students were experiencing. The team also guided teachers around rethinking their use of data to figure out the right blended model for teaching and learning. 

Speaker 2 [00:08:01] We were going to do these summits throughout the year on Fridays, the five Fridays that we had for PD days, where we were going to bring all the PL teachers together, and each one was going to be about a rubric and, you know, that type of thing. And we entirely shifted and we created these PL camping trips. I don't know if you've heard it or followed any of them, but I mean, for us, it was super important. Instead of designing professional development that we shifted to, like, how can we build a community of practice to where teachers had structured and unstructured opportunities to learn and share with each other? 

Speaker 2 [00:08:37] The camping trips, I can walk you through all of it if you want, but like high level, they got into school and we gave them two pieces of inspiration based on the rubric grow that they were wanted to focus on for that trip. We gave them a plan to help them build that and try it. They tested it out and then they came to the campfire at the end. And it's like making s'mores around the fire and like telling stories here. It worked, or this was a complete flop. Campfires are after school on Thursday, and everyone hops on a different Zoom based on what rubric they're working on. And then we bring them together and do a few like connections, and then we put them in breakout rooms and let them talk and share. And that has been really powerful in the sense of like, we're all learning this together instead of us saying, like, you should try this and it's like, "What? I've never done it before, so I don't know if it's going to work." So that's kind of how we really kind of tried to shift a lot of our professional development and support in terms of the PL school. 

Speaker 2 [00:09:36] Kids that are successful right now in this distanced, hybrid, in-person – sometimes I'm home, sometimes I'm at school – situation is like, they have to be truly self-directed. They have to know how to learn on their own, and they have to know how to learn. And so it's been hard for teachers to experience that, too, and that's the whole part of the camping trips is all rooted in like, how can you become truly self-directed or how do you build the habits for self-direction? Because once teachers start to learn that, then they can build those opportunities or know what to scaffold for kids so that our kids are ultimately successful learning on their own because that's what they're having to do in many situations right now. 

Speaker 2 [00:10:15] We now have to equip our teachers for using their data to determine what model they use versus – I think there's this perception when we only talk about a station rotation that they think that's the only thing that they can do. And I think early into the work, that's what we thought it was like, OK, you pick your model that you're going to do on campus. So it was like everyone started with the station rotation or something else and it was like, you only do a station rotation. And like now with this realization of: no, if your data tells you you have three trends in your data, you do a station rotation. You know what we're seeing now and what we've seen before is like when data doesn't always show – it's not always pretty in three little buckets. If you have kids everywhere, an individual rotation or a flex model is more appropriate for that. So we are really trying to transform our approach to professional development. And next year's kind of like vision for the work is that we move more towards – let's make sure that our teachers know the different models so that they have those in their back pocket to where then when they're looking at their data and they're determining how they're going to plan their week or the unit or whatever it might be that I can say, "Oh, well, this standard – I've got three trends, right? So I'm going to do a station rotation on Tuesday for them. But then on Thursday or Friday, I'm going to do a flex model to where my kids are going to be able to do a lot of self-paced or self-direction in like building up, you know, where they may not have mastered yet or their individual goals, in more of an environment that fits the data and what we're learning from our kids, versus always trying to take – well, this is the only thing I know right now. So that's kind of where we're really trying to think about it for professional development. That's our whole vision is – we want to figure out how to build the fitness plan where you piece together all these different things, where you're doing like yoga one day, but then maybe you need to do strength training one day, and then you run, and then you cycle – like you can't just do the same thing every single day. 

Speaker 1 [00:12:14] The COVID-19 pandemic forced nearly every school to pivot to a new model of teaching and learning. Teachers at Dallas ISD came up with creative ways to authentically engage their students through project-based learning and community partnerships, while also establishing strong home and school partnerships by bringing families into the fold often. The personalized learning team continued to build on their personalized approach to professional development by creating self-directed learning experiences for their cohort of schools and realigned on how to choose blended learning strategies to best meet the needs of all students. 

Speaker 1 [00:12:50] Thank you for listening to this episode of The Learning Accelerator's "What Will We Take With Us?" leadership podcast series. For more resources and leadership stories, visit