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For Educators - K-12 Promising Approaches
Grade level: 7-12
‘Community Dialogue’ is the name given to a large-scale, future-planning event held for stakeholders from the Falmouth Public Schools in Falmouth, Maine. The day-long event was held on October 8, 2004. Those participating included students, parents, faculty members, staff, school leaders, community members and elected town officials. In all, approximately 200 individuals participated in the event.
Prior to the Community Dialogue, the Superintendent of Schools conducted a series of approximately 70, one-on-one interviews with stakeholders representing all groups previously mentioned. Three (3) improvement ‘themes’ emerged from these interviews; these themes seemed to best identify the areas where improvement efforts should be focused: Student Learning; Emotional & Physical Well-being of Students; and Teacher Learning.
Using a modified Open Space Technology (Owen, 1997) design for the Falmouth Community Dialogue, stakeholders created the agenda. As each theme was in turn introduced, participants were encouraged to offer topics for dialogues which would immediately follow. In doing so, they were also indicating a willingness to take responsibility for facilitating the dialogue with other participants who chose to join that dialogue group. As each dialogue topic was introduced, it was added to the agenda of dialogues. Any and all topics related to the theme could be placed on the agenda as long as someone present took the responsibility to introduce the topic and facilitate the dialogue. Agenda-building continued until the group indicated that there were no more topics to add to the agenda.
Each dialogue was assigned a ‘break-out’ area. Participants selected the dialogue of their choice, but were advised that they were not obligated to stay at a particular dialogue – they were free to move on to second, third (or more) choices of ongoing dialogues. In each break-out area there were laptop computers. Each dialogue group assigned a note taker who, using the laptop and a note-taking template, would capture the important considerations (“proceedings”) that came out of the dialogue. Each laptop was equipped with a “pen drive’ to which the proceedings were downloaded. At the conclusion of the dialogue session (generally lasting about an hour), the pen drive was taken to a central technology area and the contents were added to the proceedings for that theme. Proceedings were then, spontaneously, posted to a link of the Falmouth School District’s website making proceedings available to any interested stakeholder. Agendas were created and followed immediately by dialogues exploring each theme, in turn, in the following sequence: Student Learning (1st), Emotional & Physical Well-being of Students (2nd), and Teacher Learning (3rd).
Sixty-plus pages of proceedings were generated during the Community Dialogue. The Leadership Team of the Falmouth Public Schools synthesized the data and, from that analysis, they identified 5 future-focused Goals for the District. An analysis of the proceedings also allowed for the identification of key target areas for the district’s work (priorities) that would guide the development of an 18-month Action Plan. Specific initiatives and projects (which matched with target areas and which aligned with the organization’s goals) were identified by the leaders and faculty at the local (school) level. Each school leader then created an individualized performance plan to ensure clear action steps for accomplishing the work committed to by their school; a component of the performance plan looked at professional development support needed to accomplish the local plan.
Young people (students from Falmouth Middle and High Schools) actively participated in the dialogues in multiple ways—by suggesting topics for discussion, hosting dialogue groups, and participating in dialogues. In this manner, youth voices were included in school decision making and professional development processes. Moreover, some teachers then integrated the Community Dialogue experience with their academic curriculum.
Social and political networks for making change, such as voluntary associations or local organizing
In order to successfully implement a ‘community dialogue,’ planners need to have a solid understanding of how Open Space Technology works; Harrison Owen’s Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide (1997) is an essential tool. As well, the technological know-how required for a ‘community dialogue’ is fairly sophisticated. In this example, proceedings from each dialogue session were collected and uploaded to a link off of the district’s website. The Community Dialogue link allowed visitors to the site to search proceedings by ‘key word’, to review proceedings from any and all dialogues, and to add input or comments.
The one thing I thoroughly enjoyed about that day was the fact that even though there was quite an age difference between the adults and me, they thought of me and treated me like an equal, listening intently to what I said. Hopefully we can do this sort of thing again in the near future, where we can check in on the progress of issues and address new ones, so little by little, Falmouth Schools will become a place of learning, comfort and enjoyment.
When listening to the many opinions in this conversation, I concluded that having a relationship with a teacher to the point where you feel as though you are on the same level, benefits on both ends equally. Each topic exudes a ripple effect, when combined they justify that even if the subject doesn’t relate to you directly, in the long run, it impacts you in the whole picture. So if you don’t help, even it it means just listening, you are only hurting yourself. That is what the Community Dialogue was all about.
October 8th was a day that changed my entire concept of having a voice to make a difference. At the Community Dialogue it seemed as though my opinion mattered and was taken into equal consideration as those of the adults surrounding me. I was listened to by open minds that valued and trusted my opinion to represent the feelings of the entire student body. In return, I contributed my sincerest concerns and honest opinions to each dialogue, and mimicked their respect by listening whole-heartedly and with an open mind. After attending the three themes…I knew that I had just made a difference: a difference in my peers’ school, a difference in my teachers’ career, a difference in my future.
George Entwistle, Superintendent
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