Sunday, February 21, 2010

Coherence making

How can school leaders effect culture change in these incredibly difficult times?  Budgets are stressed with a number of districts anticipating bankruptcy in a few years if the recent pattern of eroding state and local support continues.  Pressure to improve student achievement and to close the achievement gap continues to increase expectations in spite of the difficult financial times.

What is a school leader to do?  Michael Fullan talks about coherence making in "Leading in a Culture of Change."  According to Fullan, the complexity found in the challenges facing public education also provide opportunity for creativity.  However, if chaos is too severe, staff can become overwhelmed.  Balancing chaos and coherence is a key characteristic of successful leaders.

Successful leaders recognize that they do not have the control leaders may have had in the past.  Instead, today's leaders are successful when they create conditions so staff take the vision of the organization as their own.  When staff collaborate to work through the ambiguities and challenges of difficult-to-solve problems, they are best able to meet the challenges facing public schools today.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Why we need to get better at dialogue

Recently, I have taken on the responsibility of assisting with the planning of a large-scale community engagement summit here in Wisconsin.  One of the first things I have learned in the less-than-two-weeks that I have been involved in this project is that community engagement means different things to different people.  Last week's post included a description of a number of models that people think of when they use the term "community engagement."  There is clearly some confusion about what we mean when we use this term.

I am concerned that before we can have community engagement dialogue, we need to have a dialogue to define what we mean by community engagement!

Successful community engagement values the input of all who come to the table.  AND, successful community engagement works to include all voices, no matter how disagreeable they may appear to to the conveners.

Successful community engagement also reaches out beyond parents.  Parents continue to make up a smaller and smaller percentage of the community.  Focusing only on parents ignores the concerns of a majority the citizens in our communities.

Finally, our society has diversified considerably over the last thirty years.  New ethnic groups now make their homes in our communities.  We have a responsibility to make a concerted effort to welcome these new comers into our communities.  Their customs and ideas may be different from long established practice and thinking, but it doesn't mean there is something wrong with them.

This TED Talk, Weird or Just Different, illustrates this concept and gives us something to think about as we consider how to successfully initiate community engagement activities.

Social reformers have a history of acting like they have the answers; that all the "clients" have to do is take their advice and all will be well.  This paternalistic attitude has never worked.  It didn't work during the Progressive Era.  It didn't work in the 1960s.  And it won't work today; even if we dress it us as community engagement.  The experts have to remember that community members have an expertise that is as important to the conversation as their own technical expertise.

I welcome your thoughts about community engagement.  Also, I'd be interested in learning more about your experiences, especially with successful community engagement practices that encourage dialogue among diverse groups.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Community Engagement: What Does This Term Mean?

I've been thinking more about this term since I last talked about community engagement and extending genuine invitations a few weeks ago.  I've decided that I was a bit too definitive in describing community engagement; that others have different definitions than I.  Below I list other ideas about community engagement that go beyond the deliberative model to which I am drawn. This is hardly a definitive list, simply a place to start thinking about the various aspects of community engagement.

For example, Joyce Epstein's Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships categorizes involvement activities as parenting, communicating, volunteering, learning at home, decision making and collaborating with the community. Part of Epstein's model focuses on parents and the role they can directly play in their own child's educational development, work that I would categorize as important but not necessarily community engagement.

Others would point to advocacy work as community engagement.  Groups like the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools and Parent United Network work to educate citizens on important education issues and encourage citizens to form local parent groups to advocate for policy changes at the state and federal levels. I see advocacy as a persuasive model, whereby parents work to encourage policy makers to include parent perspectives in their policy decision making.

I think these are important components of the community engagement continuum.  For me, however, at the end of the day, I am drawn to models that encourage conversation and relationship building. Models like  World Cafe and Study Circles provide opportunities for dialogue that might lead to developing a better understanding of others' positions.

We live in a time of perpetual change.  In fact, I think it is safe to say that change is the new status quo.  How can we cope with the pace and pressures of change?  Our ability to build relationships is a key component of the solution.

In her book Turning to One Another, Margaret Wheatley writes:

 "I have learned that when we begin listening to each other, and when we talk about things that matter to us, the world begins to change."

It is this idea, the power of dialogue to make a difference, that draws me to more deliberative models of community engagement.