I was recently asked to reflect on the installation of the new Valley Torah I.D.E.A. Lab and why now? Below is what I shared.
This summer I spent more time inside my school than I did in the warm California sun, and I could not have been happier. I was working with a designer, some fantastic students, a few amazing teachers and dedicated parents in creating an innovation lab for the school. We call it the I.D.E.A. Lab because it is a space designated for Innovation, Design, Entrepreneurship and the Arts. It is an environment where students have the opportunity to create, produce, build, program and design. The space will house 3D printers, laser cutters, video equipment, power tools and more. The technology is going to allow for an increase in technology skill-building as well as creative exploration and expression. However, the space itself was designed to spark creativity and laid out to naturally support collaboration. As I wrote in my weekly email to the school community, one parent who walked into the lab said, “It looks like a startup.” I chose this as my artifact of reflection because it represents not only my philosophy of teaching and learning but also my view on school culture change.
I believe that learning must be social, creative, hands-on, personally meaningful and assessed in ways that allow for multiple illustrations of learning. This is why the courses taught in the lab use a Project-Based Learning (PBL) model, which is a hands-on approach to learning with meaningful activities and real world applications. As one of the instructors, my role includes direct instruction when needed, but more often than not I am there to support the students trying out new skills and creatively solving problems. In fact, the space does not have a teacher’s desk. I spend most of the class walking around the room to the various collaborative teams that are working together on a project. However, it is important for me to remember that this lab is just another step in our educational transformation, and by no means is student creativity intended to be isolated to this space. The goal is that the methods used in the lab become a model for the classrooms, which is why it also represents another step in our school’s overall culture change.
I had the idea for this lab before I accepted my current position as General Studies Principal in 2014. I knew a space focused on student creativity and innovation would be substantial for the students and act as an effective model for teaching and learning in the classrooms. What I also knew was that I had to be sensitive to the current school culture and work together with the staff if changes were to be meaningful and long-lasting. So, I did not start with a lab. I began with conversations, creating a collaborative working relationship with my team and building trust. I increased our professional development and started working with all of our staff on understanding PBL. I encouraged experimentation and was highly supportive of learning from when we failed. Outside of the classroom, I expanded the student clubs, allowing students to try new things that interested them, and designed an independent research project called the “Principal Project” that gave students the opportunity to explore what they were passionate about. All of this was in the service of building a student and staff culture that welcomed creativity and passion in learning, which I am pleased have been developing nicely.
We all pushed ourselves out of our comfort zones to grow and discover ourselves as educators in what we have come to all understand as not the same field many of us started in. Teachers transformed the way they thought about and practiced their craft, and the administration charted a new course for meaningful education. Students began expanding their interests and expressing their creativity in ways unseen previously. With my full support, my staff dared greatly, learned from what failed, built upon what succeeded, and in the summer of 2016 we were ready for the design and installation of an entirely new learning space that embodied much of what we had been discussing for the last two years. It was time for the I.D.E.A. Lab. I am confident that had we not laid the groundwork together as a team for this space it would not have been as well-received as it has been. Now my hope is it that it becomes obsolete as the classrooms become innovative learning spaces like the lab.