Taking Teacher-Led Projects to Scale

Teaching 25 kids is incredibly hard work. Impacting 2,500 is even harder. The reason teacher leaders can have that impact is that we never work in isolation.

Transforming our profession from within requires courage, perseverance, and plenty of midnight oil. It also takes one hell of network standing beside you.

I wanted a pat on the back, but I got a look in the mirror instead.

I was talking to an educator I greatly respect about the home library project I had started that year with my 2nd graders. I told him about the project’s impact on family literacy, accelerated reading growth, and love of books.

I told him about Melinda, the courageous 7-year old who became the only literate person in her family, who made two years of growth in one year and, when I asked how she had done it, said,

“Well, you know those books you gave me? Now when my mom and little sister and I are watching TV at night, they say, ‘Melinda, read to us!’ So I do.”

I finished my story and the educator said, “This sounds like an amazing project. But I see a lot of amazing projects. They almost never get taken to scale.”

Damn.

Teaching is hard. Teaching while being a good father, husband, and friend is even harder. But doing all that while impacting kids beyond the boundaries of my classroom walls can feel almost impossible.

Still, that conversation got me thinking. What would it look like to impact 250 kids instead of my own dearly beloved 25? What about 2,500 kids? Or 25,000?

Working alone, my project had moved fast. From a pilot with 8 kids to a two-year project with 25, from a handful of books to 1,000, from an Action Research question—“What impact would it have on reading growth to help each child in my class build a home library of 40 books?—to vivid reality.

But to go far, you have to go together. Just ask Frodo Baggins—he wouldn’t have made it far without the Fellowship, and without Sam he’d be a pile of charred bones in Mordor.

A teacher at my school helped take the home library project to a school level, involving 13 teachers and over 250 kids. She gave it a better name—“Build A Library, Build A Life”—and added family literacy nights to more fully involve families.

This summer, we wrote a grant proposal together that became one of 15 finalists in the nation for $100,000. Receiving the grant depends purely on the number of online votes we receive, and readers, we’d be deeply grateful for your help. You can watch the 90-second video, which includes my 1st graders getting their first book of the year, at the link below. We’re in the South Central zone, and you can vote every day between now and November 30th.

Farmers Dream Big Teacher Challenge

If we receive the grant, we’ll be able to put about 30,000 books into the hands and homes of 1,800 kids. 70 teachers will be involved at three elementary schools in our district, which all feed into the same middle school.

We just might prove that when you put great books into the hands of great kids who need them, the impact does more to transform struggling readers than summer school, remedial tutoring, or an additional dose of the same worksheets that didn’t work the first time around.

We might be able to implement home libraries as a district initiative with Title I funding behind it, to convince the Arkansas Department of Education that home libraries are a worthwhile intervention for at-risk readers, and to create a district case pilot that could serve as a national model.

If we do all that, we won’t be able to do it alone. To make this grant happen, we’ve had the support of multiple communities of teachers, far-flung and right at home.

To name two:

*Bloggers with Twitter followings that dwarf the populations of most towns in my home state.

Bill Ferriter (@plugusin), Larry Ferlazzo (@Larryferlazzo), Dan Brown (@DanBrownTeacher) and others have generously tweeted out our project without expecting any direct benefit to themselves or their students.

One of the things that separates teacher leaders from other skilled teachers is that they look well beyond their own walls. These three teacher bloggers don’t just think at a school or district level; they’ll do anything to bring a better experience to kids, whether those kids live in East L.A., rural Arkansas, or southern China.

 

*Members of the CTQ Collaboratory.

The generosity of spirit in this digital tribe of kindred spirits, not to mention the raw talent and brilliance, is staggering.

Tech guru and leadership maven Jennifer Barnett (Alabama) first gave me a systematic way of taking projects to scale at a cross-community retreat a few years ago, with a simple graphic for mapping out potential collaborators.

ESL teacher Wendi Pillars (North Carolina) made me realize the kind of resonance this project could have, inviting me to speak about lessons learned to two cohorts of Teacher Leadership Institute participants that she leads.

Dozens of members, including Brianna Crowley (Pennsylvania), Val Brown (Florida), and Megan Allen (now a professor at Mt. Holyoke who has designed a teacher leadership program for pre-service teachers) have spread the word about the home library project through their personal and professional networks on Facebook, Twitter, and digital platforms I’d never heard of before joining the Collaboratory.

When it comes to taking teacher-led innovation to scale, it doesn’t just take a village. It takes a national network.

 

Teacher-Led Transformation

As teacher leaders, we live in two worlds. We love the classroom, and we know that all the research and reform in the world doesn’t mean a thing without the teachers who work directly with students to help them live the lives they dream.

Yet we also know that doing right by our students means more than long hours of preparation, constant compassion and patience, and talented teaching. It means not just valiantly struggling against the system (think Dead Poets Society, Freedom Writers, and pretty much every movie ever made about teaching), but working in partnership to transform that system.

We can’t do that work in isolation. We sometimes need the brilliant colleague across the country just as much as we need our brilliant colleague across the hall.

We dream big and we remain ever hopeful, but we know that hope alone is hollow. Transforming our profession from within requires courage, perseverance, and plenty of midnight oil in the witching hour when your own kids are finally in bed.

It also takes one hell of network standing beside you.

In the words of Thoreau, “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost. That is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

It may take a lifetime. But we won’t spend one minute of that lifetime alone.

UPDATE 12.5.14: THE HOME LIBRARY PROJECT WON!!! THANKS TO ALL WHO VOTED!
Please vote for The Home Library Effect and help spread the word between now and November 30th. People can vote every day at this link: Home Libraries

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  • DeidraGammill

    Thanks for the reminder!

    Justin,

    Thanks so much for sharing this – how quickly I forget these things in the business of day to day life. I created a very basic post in Canva that I shared on FB and on Twitter about your project. Hopefully it will help get the word out to even more people. I’m rooting for you and your kids. 🙂 I’m also taking notes. One of these days I may have an awesome idea that needs help expanding beyond my classroom walls. When that day comes, I know whose example I’ll be following.

     

  • Val Brown

    It Takes More Than a Village

    Justin, 

    You are doing the right work and you inspire me with your passion and commitment. We are only a few days from the end of voting. Let’s do it! 

     

    • JustinMinkel

      Thanks, Val!

      Val, your generosity of spirit has a buoyant effect on everyone fortunate enough to know you. Thank you! I hope our paths cross in person again soon.

  • JustinMinkel

    Expanding our tribe

    Deidra, thank you so much for the generous words and the incredible graphic. I love it, and I made copies of it at school today to post on our lounge door, the Fayetteville Public Library, and around town. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    It’s so easy to get immersed in our own immediate circle without going beyond it, and the kindness of far-flung colleagues like you reminds me how big our tribe is. It includes teachers everywhere, from Shanghai to Chicago.

  • JasonParker

    Voting is now over, yes? How’d y’all do?

    Justin! How’d you do?! 

    This post had everything I love… reading materials, LOTR references, how to ask for $$s, and shout outs to some amazing CTQ folks. 

    If I can help in any way, please let me know. 

    • JustinMinkel

      Thanks, Jason!

      Jason, LOTR has been on my mind lately, especially Gandalf’s quote to Frodo in the Mines of Moriah about “All we have to decide is what to do with the time given us,” and Gimli’s, “Certain death…small chance of survival…what are we waiting for?” (I quoted both in a keynote in Little Rock a few weeks back.)

      Frustratingly, we could find out the results for the project anytime between the next few days and mid-December–all we found out at the two updates over the two-month period is that we were in 2nd place in our zone of 3, but not how many votes we trailed Texas, so I’ll be a wreck until we hear. The odds are long against us because we still trailed just 10 days ago or so, but I’m so grateful for the surge of support in the past few weeks, so much of it from CTQ affiliated kindred spirits, so we’ll just have to wait and find out.

      Thanks for the support and interest!

  • DaveOrphal

    I love this project

    Justin – you hit the nail on the head – teacher-driven change is rarely taken to scale because we are exhausted at the end of a long workday.  

    I’m glad you’ve gotten an opportunity to push your project to the next level.  I’m excited to see what happens if you win the grant and what happnes after that.

    I wonder what it would look like if Oprah or some other powerful celebrity knoew about your work an dadopted it as a cause to promote.  Would you still be able to teach while the program grew?  Whould you end up quitting the classroom to head the non-profit?  Would someone else take the ball you’ve got rolling and run with it?

     

  • JustinMinkel

    The need for hybrid roles

    Dave, thanks for the kind words and incisive insights. The obvious obstacle to teachers taking on a greater role in designing–not just implementing–policy, programs, PD, curriculum, and research is how busy we are teaching.

    Hybrid roles are gaining traction for good reason. This year I teach half-time, mostly so I have more time to be a stay-at-home dad to my 3-year old (I pick him up at noon 4 days a week from nursery school), but also so that I have time to blog, serve on a board and a steering committee, and try to take this home library initiative to scale.

    The attrition in our profession troubles me. The reason for it troubles me even more–so many good teachers I know simply felt they couldn’t continue to grow professionally or have the systemic impact they wanted to have while remaining a classroom teacher.

    • WendiPillars

      Fingers are crossed…

      (which is making it really hard to type!) I’m so proud of your efforts, your push, your drive, and hope-timism. They are all founded in such a very good place–in your students’ best interests. Which are in turn, centered in your heart.

      I know that whatever happens, you’ve already inspired so many teachers with your ideas and “simple” goodness. You’ve managed to make the tremendous goal into a bite-size, achievable one for others. They have also learned to look at their own classroom contexts with fresh eyes, to see just how to take what they have and make it better. No policy needed. No bipartisanship concerns. Just the students’ best interests and your drive to make this all happen. And you know, Justin, these are the stories that can turn a teacher “back” when they’re ready to go. They remember the passion and caring that brought them into the profession in the first place–it’s like the ultimate snowball effect. 

      Just. So. Wonderful. 

      A true gift.