An interview with Superintendent Diana Bowers
By Pamela Doan
This June the Haldane Central School District Board of Education adopted a new five-year strategic plan that was the culmination of a yearlong effort launched when Diana Bowers took her post as the new district superintendent. More than 50 parents, teachers, staff and community members participated in five subcommittees to explore four essential questions covering all aspects of student life, from the buildings to the activities and readiness for life after high school, whatever path students chose.
Ten goals were distilled from the subcommittee’s work with the help of a facilitator. These goals will guide the district’s future choices and planning. The Paper talked with Bowers about the plan. The full document is available on the school’s website.
The Paper: What happens next now that the goals are finalized?
Bowers: When we come back in September, we’re asking the faculty and staff to focus their attention on it and launch our next process, the plan itself. We’ll be looking at the implementation and the level of efficacy that our teachers feel that they have to be able to implement it. We have a couple of new technology positions so that we have the staffing to support it as well.
The Paper: Can you share some examples of what will be implemented?
Bowers: A lot of the groundwork was laid last year in the training that our teachers had with project-based learning (PBL) and the Maker Space. We’re joining the New Tech Network, which is like-minded schools around the nation who have expertise in PBL, and they will share what it takes to bring the district to a higher level of implementation. That’s all happening.
Now we have the staffing, the training, the space and the beginning of an understanding of where to go to release the locus of responsibility to kids so that they know they have responsibility for their own education. We’re serving as the coaches and the people who introduce. We’re moving kids from passive learners to active learners.
The Paper: Can you describe what a passive learner is and the approach that’s changing?
Bowers: A passive learner comes in, sits down; they take notes. They’re just absorbing. The active participant will be given a challenge based on who they are as an individual, and they will approach the challenge in different ways and they will construct meaning as they’re going through, with the teacher sharing information as they go along. They can create their own meaning by taking these pieces and then show the level of their understanding and outcome at the end by presenting whatever it is that they’re creating. They can rise to the occasion without any problem.
The Paper: Creating versus testing? Presenting versus testing?
Bowers: It’s not even testing. There’s a theory called the constructivist model of education, and you provide the students the information and the opportunities to construct meaning for themselves, and it’s a whole different way of learning. Kids love to be part of it.
I was in some of our sixth- and seventh-grade classrooms [recently], and I walked into classrooms where you couldn’t pull kids away from what they were doing. There was energy, appropriate levels of argument; they were trying things, making decisions on their own, understanding what they needed to do.
I think the first thing we do in PBL is we have the kids activate their schema. They tell you what they already know about something and then they brainstorm what it is they need to learn in order to create meaning. It gives the teacher a template instead of teaching them things they already know; they have a good focal point of what the kids need to learn.
The Paper: Was any of this going before you came to Haldane?
Bowers: No, this was our goal this year. I’m sure people did projects and there was PBL, but this is a very systematic way to approach it so it’s well managed. The training we got this year was how to run a PBL template for any grade.
Kids get so excited when they learn this way, they go off on tangents. You don’t want to thwart their enthusiasm but you want them to stay focused. We established “must knows” and when they can demonstrate they’ve mastered that and then they can go out and start bringing in tangent-type experiences and they learn more than the “must knows.”
The Paper: Is this a trend in New York in education? Something you have been personally invested in as a style of education? Where does it come from?
Bowers: This is really about 21st-century schools and skills. We need to teach kids how to learn and collaborate to make them ready for whatever it is that they follow in college or career. Instead of it just being the learning, it’s also learning all the soft skills. Working in a group, organization, collaboration, these are things that I tell you my children never got except at home. These are the things that people are looking for when they go to college or a job.
The Paper: What are the next stages of PBL and the strategic plan?
Bowers: We’re going to introduce the goals and ask staff to think about them … to think about what we need to do as school community and make them come to fruition. It’s probably going to be small and grow and grow. We’re going to learn more about the best practices and continue to train. The two new technology specialists are going to help the teachers grow and learn and develop along with the kids into the next phases. The idea is to make a school self-sustaining so you don’t need somebody from the outside coming in.
The Paper: This contradicts what many people think about the Common Core and “teaching to the tests.” The perception is that it’s about testing and kids being drilled on certain things. This doesn’t sound like that at all.
Bowers: The Common Core, which is a template for teaching and learning that pushes kids into 21st-century learning and skills, was confused with the implementation of Common Core.
For what it is, it’s a good document, but we have to give our teachers flexibility. Instead of totally adopting the modules, if they can use the good parts of that and then supplement it, then they can move what we think the Common Core should be and implement it well. If it’s all test driven, then it’s going to be problematic.
PBL matches the goals of the Common Core, not necessarily the reform agenda, but we think if we’re teaching what we need to be teaching and kids are learning it, it’s going to take care of itself. Kids are going to have the basis for the tests. It’s how you teach it which is different. It doesn’t have to be disengaging and negative for the students.
The Paper: What do you envision the future will be like for Haldane?
Bowers: I think it’s going to be a think tank for people who are trying to upgrade the practices. The exciting thing about it is that you have an idea about it, but once you get a collective of people together it can be more different than you ever imagined. It’s going to be fun. Launching into something new, you don’t know. We have to make it work for us.