Header photo tweeted by the Maine ASCD at the conference
As someone who has gone to a lot of education conferences over the past 6 years, both in the State of Maine and in New England in general, I definitely was accustomed to seeing a lot of the same faces over and over again. Laurie Bragg from the NSF funded SEANET project once joked with me that I must be following her because we kept showing up to the same events (in that case it happened to be three different events all around the State in the same week!) and that is really the sentiment that can be extended to a lot of other people in the region who all care about education. I didn’t realize how ‘comfortable’ I had become with that crowd until I attended a conference held by Educate Maine on Friday December 9th in Portland. For the first time in a long time, MOST of the people I was seeing were completely foreign to me and at the same time other areas of my life were converging in unexpected ways (like that quick “see you at Christmas” conversation I had in passing with Shawn Yardley, the Executive Director of Community Concepts, who I know much better as the father of my best friend from my grade school years). New synapses were definitely firing in my brain as I started making a whole new array of connections to people, school leaders, and businesses that I had never encountered before.
Educate Maine is a “business-led education advocacy organization whose mission is to champion college and career readiness and increased education attainment for all Maine people.” This tie to business was the key factor driving the day as sessions were all designed with a slant on ideas and innovations to ultimately improve Maine’s economy through increasing skilled workers in the State. Of course these sessions were all led by a combination of educators and business leaders so some were more focused on developing the student as a person and a citizen and others were more centrally focused on students as future workers.
The Whole Child session I attended was much more about the ‘boots-on-the-ground’ implementation and was led by three Maine educators that had ties to the international ASCD education group. We participated in small group discussions and it was great to recognize the number of people who understand that a ‘whole child’ approach to education doesn’t end in the elementary grades, it is about the long-term development of a ‘child’ through secondary education and beyond. It made me think about the work we do on Hurricane in a different context than what I normally tout when talking to prospective schools or students. Yes at the heart of us we are a STEM based institution but our focus goes beyond “science” and extends into “sustainability and leadership”. Our programming not only centers on the sustainable systems on the island or ecosystem or even whole earth sustainability but also addresses individual sustainability and encourages introspection through art and journaling and just ‘being’ in nature. Our leadership approach focuses on those ‘21st century’ skills that are so important for long term personal and workplace success: teamwork, determination and grit, problem solving, empathy, and so forth. Through all of our programming we really are focusing on the ‘whole child’ and it was nice to reflect on that as something that we really can be using more when we promote who we are and what we do.
The other session I attended was on Experiential Education and was much more focused on the business sector as it introduced a panel of business leaders who all have internship programs for undergraduates (and occasionally programs for high school students as well). I was so impressed with the panel as a whole, not only for the internship opportunities that they were offering in a variety of fields and contexts, but for their general camaraderie with each other. One of my favorite quotes of the day came from Giovani Twigge from IDEXX Laboratory, Inc. who explained “We need to change people’s attitudes [from being competitive] to create an open ecosystem. We can’t be everything to everybody.” He was referring to the level of collaboration between different organizations that would ordinarily be ‘competing’ for the same pool of qualified intern or job applicants. These businesses are achieving amazing results by keeping that ‘open ecosystem’ where they readily refer people to each other’s postings that might be a better fit and share ideas about how to best set up comprehensive internship programs that support the interns throughout their development. That level of community and collaboration is second nature to me, especially working in the context of Hurricane Island, but it is not so common among employers so it was great to see those relationships exemplified.
The sessions were bookended by two speakers who each gave incredibly inspiring talks. Once again I walked away with some great quotes, this time in direct relation to the work that I am trying to do in my everyday life. Deanna Sherman, President of the Dead River Company shared that one of the things she constantly tells her employees is “not to let ‘perfect’ get in the way of ‘good’.” This is something that immediately related back to all the curriculum I am creating and curating for Hurricane Island to build our base of free resources for teachers. Every teacher is going to take our resources and change and adapt it for their own classrooms. I am focusing so much on “perfect” that our ability to consistently publish new material is suffering. I have to let go of “perfect” and realize what we are creating is already pretty darn good and will be helpful to people in its current form. Stay tuned for more resources coming soon!
Nicholas Donahue of the Nellie Mae Foundation offered insight after insight but one of the most basic of his take-aways was to “focus first on the ‘weight bearing walls’” when trying to change education systems. Too often we jump to fix the cosmetic or quick fixes but if the underlying structure of what we are doing has a problem, nothing is going to really change the fact that we have an ‘unsound house’ that we are building. At Hurricane we have been working on assisting schools in a variety of ways from large scale, facilitated visioning sessions to redesign entire school systems right down to programs for individual students. As an ‘outside’ entity, we are not the ones who really will fix the ‘weight bearing walls’ of schools but we can continue to support schools and offer them everything from professional development to programs that help students meet State standards. It still got me thinking about how we can have a greater influence on ‘weight bearing walls’ in the future, which I am sure you will see me muse about in greater length here someday soon.
Our participation in Educate Maine’s Symposium was about making new connections and learning new things. It was an unexpectedly rich experience for me. It wasn’t that I went into the conference thinking that I would walk away dissatisfied, rather it was all about how much more valuable the conference was for me than I had anticipated. Instead of a bunch of activities or tangible ‘things’ to take back to Hurricane with me, I left with my head spinning as I was thinking about the BIG picture of who we are and what we are doing as an organization and how we play a vital role in the development of the schools, teachers, and students we serve through all our programs. I will leave you with a final quote that was referenced again by Mr. Donahue, though it certainly doesn’t belong to him. ...“Dirigo”.... In case you don’t remember (or were never told) what that word means or its context, it is the motto of our State and it means “I lead”. As a State we need to continue to be leaders in education innovation and Hurricane Island is excited to be part of that important work.