Upper Perk Learns: A Vision for Innovative Learning

At March’s Board Workshop meeting, Upper Perkiomen’s Education and Technology Innovation Specialist, A.J. Juliani, presented a vision for innovative learning.

The vision, as you can see in this presentation, is tied to the work staff and students have been doing over the year to build a model for sustainable innovation.

The Upper Perk Learns Initiative is detailed in this presentation, and will be followed by another presentation at the April Board Workshop.


What Innovation Looks Like at the College Level

“This atmosphere of excitement, arising from imaginative consideration, transforms knowledge. A fact is no longer a bare fact: it is invested with all its possibilities. It is no longer a burden on the memory: it is energizing as the poet of our dreams, and as the architect of our purposes.” ― Alfred North Whitehead

Last month our HS Principal Rob Carpenter took a team of teachers and administrators from Upper Perkiomen School District (where I work) to visit Lehigh University’s Mountaintop program. To say I was impressed, would be putting it lightly. I was blown away by this program Lehigh had created. It was student-centered, innovative, and unique in approach. Here’s a little bit about the Mountaintop Program:

Inside a former Bethlehem Steel research facility atop South Mountain, Lehigh is creating a vibrant and unique learning environment—a space in which students are given the freedom to pursue answers to open-ended questions while working in, and across, all disciplines. In the process, the students are challenged to increase their capacities for independent inquiry, for taking intellectual risks and learning from failures, for collaboration, for recognizing important problems and opportunities to effect constructive and sustainable change.

Video (you need to watch) Reviewing the 2013 Mountaintop Experience

The Mountaintop Program has been written about in the New York Times and Fast Company, but there was no sense of “we are done” from Dr. Alan Snyder and the rest of the Lehigh team. They were actively talking about how the program was growing and improving. Also, what they were learning each summer from the students and mentors working in the program. As we toured the facility there was a sense that the work had only “just begun” and we were watching something special unfold.

As the Lehigh University President told Fast Company:

“I actually believe that the timing of this couldn’t be better,” Lehigh president Dr. Alice Gast told Co.Exist. “This kind of work you can’t do online, you can’t do at night in your pajamas on the computer. You need to be with other people, and it involves collaboration, and the inquiry, and the open-endedness you can’t get from a MOOC—but I think [Mountaintop] is very complementary to those resources,” she added.

What We Learned About Innovation From Lehigh

Dr. Alan Snyder — Lehigh’s Vice President and Associate Provost of Research and Graduate Studies — led our team on a tour of the Mountaintop facility and program. He met with us to talk about how the program originated and what the learning looked like for students and professors involved. During the visit I took away three lessons about innovation:

1. Innovation Doesn’t Have to Be Pretty

The Mountaintop facility is old. It’s beat up. It is rusty and probably a bit dangerous. But that is what makes it so special. Students and faculty don’t need to worry about the space. They can use the space however they want. The docks are filled with whiteboards and crates and wood, all can be used for a multitude of purposes. The students make the space their own, and build on it as need be. A lot of times we think of innovation as something fancy and glitzy like a new iPhone. In schools (just like in life) innovation doesn’t have to be pretty, it just needs to support the work.

2. Innovation is a Collaborative Effort

Students work in teams on a product (with a specific purpose). They work together off-line, on-line, and cross-teams. The space is set up so there is a huge communal spot for conversations and gathering in the middle of the dock. The work is important, which leads to engaged conversations, and hard challenges to solve. We often think of innovative work being done by a mad scientist somewhere in a lab by themselves, but this program was about a group effort that was ultimately one of the most rewarding pieces.

3. Process Is Just as Important as the Product

During the visit Dr. Snyder made it a point to talk about the process. How students chose topics to study and problems to tackle; and why it was messy, but centered on learning by doing. The Mountaintop program is still debating about “grades” for this program. There are no “tests” or other traditional types of assessments. And much of the assessing is work between mentor professors and the students (as well as outside mentors). In many schools are focus is on the end result. Yet, the process (and how we tackle the challenge) is sometimes way more important than a finished product.

A Model at Upper Perk for an Innovation Academy

After our visit to Lehigh we began to discuss plans to expand our Makerspace and xLab into a full blown Innovation Academy.  Our vision of an Innovation Academy is very much like a school-within-a-school approach. Rob and the HS administration have already discussed what it would look like to build out career pathways for our students, and seeing the work Lehigh was doing at Mountaintop solidified some of the reasons behind this type of transformation.

Right now we are in the planning and building phase of what an Innovation Academy would look like at Upper Perk. Here’s where we need your help. As an avid blogger and believer in student choice, I’ve came across many resources about innovation, inquiry, design-thinking, and maker examples–but we need more. Do you know of any schools that have taken the ideas behind 20% time and Genius Hour and devoted an entire set of classes to this type of innovative work? Please share any resources in the comments (or any thoughts on the program you might have)!

Check out all of the student projects at Mountain top here, and I want to leave you with the second Mountaintop video (from 2014). If you liked the first one you’ll love this:

Photo via FastCompany

Honest Thoughts From My First Twitter Chat as an Administrator by @AllisonStephen1

This is a guest post from Allison Stephens, our HS Assistant Principal at Upper Perkiomen SD. It’s so great to see all of our building level administrators on Twitter engaging, but this is an honest post on what it’s like navigating a twitter chat for the first time. Enjoy!

So I have been thinking about trying out a twitter chat for some time now. I have been lurking on different hashtags to see which ones peak my interest. Browsing through the monthly NASSP, I came upon #APchat. This chat takes place every Sunday night at 8:00 pm. Perfect!

Of course, I had to start by observing from afar. I couldn’t bring myself to jump in with both feet. I lurked on #APchat last weekend. The topic was RtI, which is interesting to me, but not exactly applicable to me at this point in my career as a high school assistant principal. This week the topic was school safety. Score! There isn’t a day that goes by in my position that I don’t think about the safety of each and every student and staff member in the building. We also had a recent incident in the community in which an active shooter was on the loose, thus necessitating a building lock down. The timing of this twitter chat topic couldn’t have been better.

One of the reasons why I have never participated in a twitter chat before was because I didn’t think anyone really cared to have a conversation with me. I was wrong.

Ready, set, go…..introduce yourself! Allison Stephens, Asst. Principal @UpperPerkHS, Pennsburg, PA #APchat. Made sure to tell them that it is my first chat. What if no one responds? What if the hashtag is wrong? Oh geez! I see the moderator respond, “Welcome @AllisonStephen1, good to have you here. I wish we had prizes for first time participants.”

Ok, I am in, this is happening. People want to share and collaborate with me. Someone even thinks we should have prizes for people like me! Immediately, I have five new followers. I am surprised that there are a few people who want to follow me, they want more than a one time interaction over one Twitter chat. The questions start and educators from across the country share their viewpoints instantaneously. Pretty amazing stuff. Coincidentally, at the same time, my three month old son begins to scream from the bedroom. I can do this. I can engage in meaningful PD with educators from across the country all while getting my son to go back to sleep. Multi-tasking is one of my talents 🙂

I began to share my ideas on school safety and began to get feedback on my viewpoints. Respect and communication are essential to safe schools. I grabbed some tid bits about how to improve school culture. Actually talk to students and see if they feel safe. What a novel idea. I shared an idea with a fellow educator about creating an anonymous google form in order to discourage the mentality of “snitching”. Really awesome stuff.

My son is crying because the light from my cell phone is keeping him awake. I am beginning to panic because I missed answering a few questions, but it’s all well and good because Twitter is cool like that and you can go at your own pace. I can go back and review the questions and answers when he is calm. As fast as it started, it is over and I have ten more followers.

I needed to do this not only for myself, but for the staff at my building. I need to share and get feedback and collaborate because that is what I expect students and teachers to do. No matter how busy I am, I need to make time to engage in professional development in order to improve my own practice and support the professionals around me.

Meaningful PD, that I chose to engage in, at my own pace, on a Sunday night, all while getting my son back to bed. I might try a Twitter chat again. Thanks for the collaboration and conversation #APchat!

What are some other good Twitter chats that I can engage in?

Welcome to the UPSD Blog!

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Thanks for stopping by the new Upper Perkiomen School District blog. We are using this space to share all the great things happening in our schools with the community. We’ll post weekly updates, and have posts from teachers, students, administrators and many more!

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We look forward to connecting and communicating with you!