During a day-long institute at the CABE annual conference, I watched my colleague Danielle Garegnani fluidly describe multiple ways to scaffold collaborative text reconstruction — one of our keystone pedagogies — for children of all different ages, skill levels, and linguistic backgrounds.* She was able to do so only because she had, over and over again, put herself in front of classrooms of diverse students, modeling for instructional coaches and teachers while simultaneously stepping forward into a place of vulnerability, seeing what worked, then making adjustments to what didn’t. In these repeated acts of trying things out and enthusiastically sharing what helped students succeed, Danielle beautifully embodied the name of our project, Leading with Learning.
Our project’s name was chosen deliberately. One of the most powerful aspects of our approach is that team members continually practice enacting the concept behind our name when we work with teachers, coaches, site and district leadership, and, of course, one another. A key aspect of the Leading with Learning philosophy is working together with our district partners to develop a shared culture of learning and risk-taking. Danielle regularly models taking risks with new approaches, reflecting on practice based on what students are doing and learning, and working through challenges collaboratively.
Taking a risk and being willing to say, “I’m not sure if that will work or if I can do it perfectly, but I’m willing to step forward and try,” is courageous, especially when teachers and school and district leaders are so often pressured to be experts. But it is necessary. As the California ELA/ELD Framework states, “All students — regardless of circumstance — deserve a world-class education. To ensure that America regains its status as the best-educated, most competitive workforce in the world with the highest proportion of college graduates of any country, we must close the pervasive achievement and attainment gaps that exist throughout the nation” (p. 880).
I recently had the privilege of hearing Peter Senge describe a leader as someone who, literally, goes out in front of others and leads. Senge shared this image: a person stepping forward and, at least momentarily, sending himself off balance in the act of putting one foot in front of the other while advancing over and through a threshold.
Our project inspires this willingness to be momentarily off balance, to lead by embracing learning, individually and in collaboration with our peers and partners in the work. In all aspects of Leading with Learning, risk taking and even making mistakes is the norm. We practice stepping into a place of vulnerability and being willing to stumble in order to move forward.
We haven’t yet succeeded at closing the achievement gap, but we get closer every time another educator decides to embrace vulnerability, to lead through and by learning about our students’ lives, interests, and linguistic and cultural backgrounds. In taking this step, we do what we need to do to help students succeed. Indeed, we owe it the millions of emergent bilinguals and other linguistically and culturally diverse young people in California to take risks, to lose balance for a moment or two, in order to grow as teachers and mentors in our fast-paced and ever-changing world.
English Language Arts/English Language Development Framework for California Public Schools. (2015). Sacramento, CA: California Department of Education.