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Keeping a good thing going: can innovative programs in education be sustained?

In one of my recent posts, I described a large-scale project that I worked on with students at my school this year. Today I turn to a burning question that I have whenever I experience an exciting school initiative: is it sustainable? All of us who have worked in schools for at least a few years are familiar with the waves of innovation that come through our buildings and districts every one to three years. How can we keep a good thing going instead of moving on to the next shiny opportunity?

I have led a school-wide program the past three years called World Water Week. The original idea for World Water Week was born through a few powerful experiences, including a trip that Molly, a former student, and I took to Guatemala with Global Visionaries in 2009. Molly, who is now a sophomore in college wrote about her experiences with Global Visionaries the following spring when applying for the Bezos Scholars Progam. She won the scholarship that allowed both of us the privilege of attending the Aspen Ideas Festival. After an incredible week in Aspen of attending panel sessions, meeting notable speakers, and getting to know the other eleven scholar/educator pairs from around the country, we were charged with returning home and creating our own local ideas festival.

In March 2011, after six months of planning, we held our first World Water Week festival. It was a great success. It felt like our whole school community really came together for that week around global and local water issues. The following year, with Molly off to college, some of the younger students from the first year stepped into leadership roles. World Water Week 2.0 focused on the relationship between water and food. More students and teachers got involved with the planning the second year and we had another successful festival. And this year, when we called our first World Water Week student meeting, we were shocked to find that eighty students had shown up to the library ready to be a part of the leadership team.  I wrote about some of the exciting results of our third festival in my last blog post.

It takes a tremendous amount of energy and time to coordinate a program like World Water Week. Creating structured time for planning during the workweek is essential. In the first year, I strategically hosted a student teacher during the two months leading up to the festival. This year and last year, I had extra time built into my hybrid role to work on it. This has made the work (meetings with students, fundraising, emails, etc.) much more manageable.

In these (first) three years of World Water Week, I have learned what it takes to create a transformative school experience. And with time, I have discovered a few tips to make the process easier for anyone considering starting large-scale projects of their own:

●      If they experience it, they will come. Sometimes it is difficult to get colleagues to buy into a new initiative or program during the first year. As teachers, our plates are overflowing and the thought of jumping on board yet another initiative can be a turn-off. Find simple ways for people to be involved the first year without having to do too much extra work. In our case, the all-school assemblies, a synchronous all-school lesson that we wrote, and a conference for students and teachers provided the introduction that motivated several people to volunteer to help the following year.

●      Dream big, keep it small.  Sometimes we feel the need to start small and scale a program up more each year. With World Water Week we did the opposite. In year one, we brought an out-of-state keynote speaker for a public evening lecture. In year two, we decided to keep it simple and focus more on the in-school programming. We have kept the same structure that we developed in year one without adding too many new elements. Doing more and more with each reiteration can make the project feel overwhelming.

●      Accept criticism and make adjustments. It’s important to get feedback from your biggest critics in any big project. Our goal has always been to engage our entire school, and if there is a group of naysayers, we need to find out how we can bring them on board. This year, a few hundred students did not show up for our student conference. Student leaders were disappointed and a little offended that their peers didn’t see value in their hard work. We surveyed students and received some tough feedback. Some said that they “did World Water Week last year” and didn’t see the need to come to school for another round. Next year our biggest challenge will be making the festival feel new and relevant to students who have experienced in past years.

It can be difficult to stay focused on a single project for multiple years, especially when other exciting opportunities present themselves. Another way to move toward sustainability is to learn from other educators who are also implementing large-scale projects. I’m interested in hearing how some of you out there have overcome your own challenges. Please share your tips for keeping a good thing going. 

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