Lenses for the Invisibles by Elizabeth Hubert, Bixby School Elementary Director

Welcome to my first contribution to the Bixby School blog – Inside the Classroom. The contributions thus far have been a wonderfully enlightening way to get to know and appreciate Bixby through the voices, experiences, and explanations of our amazing teachers as they give you their unique “over the shoulder” views into their classrooms. I hope you have read them all!

My occasional contributions will be equally individual, and will have a different perspective, which I am calling “lenses for the ‘invisibles’” – a phrase that came up during a recent conversation about the foundational, but often unnoticed, aspects of school history, culture, beliefs, and methods that impact the more visible aspects of day-to-day school functioning. In other words – we come from “somewhere,” we are philosophically and theoretically grounded, and we do it “this way” for a reason, we are pedagogically intentional. If I do it well, you will come away from reading my blogs with a new view of the “somewhere” and “this way” aspects of what makes Bixby, well, Bixby!

Today’s blog on innovation will be followed by a blog about assessment and another on environment and physical spaces. If there are other topics of interest, do let me know; and, as always, thoughts and comments are appreciated.

Innovation at Bixby

There are two observations that visitors, especially those who have spent a bit of time here, have consistently noted about Bixby: We are innovative and intentional.

It may seem odd to be considered innovative (in more au courant jargon – disruptive) 45 years on, but we are. Why is that?

Let’s begin by looking at the concept of innovation. It isn’t just about novelty, it also includes this idea – introducing something as if it is new. More than just an interest in the new and the now, genuine innovation requires a continuous cycle of experimentation, reflection, and change along with a set of attitudes, habits, and practices that supports that cycle.

Pat and Bart, Bixby School’s founders, began Bixby with a set of assumptions. Among them: all children are learning all of the time, curiosity is innate and motivating (and boredom and frustration beyond certain limits are demotivating), all people (children and adults alike) seek meaning and purpose in their lives, individuals being known and accepted creates the safety from which strong relationships and healthy communities can develop. They also had questions, including: What have we observed about what is and isn’t working for children and teachers in schools now? What can we do to structure our school setting, school day, and classes differently and how will we know it is better for children and teachers? What can we learn from other professionals who work with children that we can use in creating/sustaining a school that both inspires a love of learning and instills empathy, respect, and responsibility?

As you can see, these assumptions and questions are as relevant and important today as they were at the beginning. They are the profound questions of innovators, as they must be asked, reflected on, and responded to over and over as if they are new. In its “bones,” Bixby School is about thoughtful experimentation, deep reflection, and purposeful change.

This was brought to light recently when I welcomed eight teachers from the Denver Public School Innovation Lab program called, imaginarium. The teachers in the group travel to other schools in order to seek out “best practices” or different paradigms and structures for education based on questions they have or changes they have identified for implementation. One of the program leaders found Bixby via a Google search, and upon reading our mission and core beliefs, she decided their group should investigate further. The group was particularly intrigued by the notion of “promoting independence,” which has come up as one of the changes they are interested in implementing. One member remarked that in all of the schools they had visited they had never seen it so plainly stated. “How can you promote independence and maintain any semblance of order?” asked another.

Using their “design thinking” model as a guide, they fanned out throughout the school, watching, listening, and asking me questions. Then, they allowed me to listen in on their debrief session. Here is what I learned about Bixby that day: 1) At all levels, faculty, administration, and staff (including the chef it was noted!), there is trust in children’s capacity to think and act on behalf of themselves (agency) and others (community). 2) Teaching and expecting responsibility for people, spaces, and objects is consistent and ongoing. 3) Movement matters – arrangements of furniture and people within classes, transitions between classes, the ways we have created a variety of appealing outdoor and indoor spaces where children feel comfortable and challenged, time in the schedule for swimming, sports, music, preschool/kinder play yard and Lower, Bridgewalk Pond walks – all support movement. The benefits show not only in the ways children remain engaged for longer amounts of time during a class than might be expected, but also in the independence and competence with which they navigate. 4) Bixby feels more like a workplace than a school, and that is a good thing. The emphasis on doing individual work, each person taking on his/her own assignment and it not being exactly the same as one’s classmates was noted as promoting more effort. “You may or may not try your best, but you can’t just copy and be done. You have to think, or admit you are stuck, and then (with the teacher’s support) think,” noted one teacher. 5) Teachers create opportunities to try something, make mistakes or succeed, and figure out what happened – it’s part of the school’s DNA so it happens all the time. 6) Bixby doesn’t have to have the most up-to-date technology to do some powerful things in the classroom. By approaching technology as a useful tool among tools, we use it for things that matter. The children are less “wowed” and more productive with the technology we do have. 7) Teachers use their autonomy to create responsive, “just in time” learning for their students. The small class sizes support this in a powerful way as the teachers can observe, monitor, and make adjustments for each student within the class period. 8) The children don’t seem to realize how much freedom and access to resources (books, manipulatives, school tools, outside spaces, teacher’s attention) they have. The group’s “take aways” were: 1) What are the developmental and cultural biases that keep many educators from seeing all children as capable? What can we do to productively challenge those biases within our buildings and classrooms? 2) How can we more strategically use physical space and time in the schedule to support the development of independence and competence in our students? 3) How can we empower and support our teachers to recognize and use their autonomy on behalf of their students so that more personalized learning (and less managing) happens? What are the possibilities for and impediments to this shift?

As we were leaving the conference room, one of the teachers said to the others, “Isn’t it amazing, we have traveled all over the U.S. and one of the most innovative schools around is right in our own backyard?!” “Oh, that’s Boulder!” said another. “No, no!” chimed in the woman who contacted me, “It’s just Bixby. I’ve checked it out. Bixby is truly unique, an N of 1.”

These visitors did not come on an unusual day with perfectly well behaved children doing everything that was asked of them. It was a typical Bixby day with the variety of children and teachers in the variety of situations that make Bixby what it is. I was left pondering too: In addition to making sure that as a staff we work with our founder’s assumptions and questions on a consistent basis, and balance “holding fast” with “visioning ahead,” what other contributions can I make to the tradition of innovation at Bixby School? I don’t fully know, but it is a question that excites me, and I hope this blog is a beginning to figuring it out…