Leading with Love and Centering Student Voice: Big Picture Leadership Conference 2019

Internship mentor & two student mentees during school/internship site visits.

Imagine being a leader shaping a place of learning where all the adults respect and love kids. A school with students at the center, personalized with clear distinguishers. What would an education leadership conference look like, if this type of learning environment was the outcome? Big Picture Learning (BPL) is facilitating leadership conferences centered on that call to action and we had an opportunity to join the learning for #BPLEADERSHIP2019. 

The Big Picture Behind Leadership Conference 

Currently, Big Picture Learning is composed of approximately 65 Big Picture Learning schools in the United States and supports more than 100 schools internationally, The network includes schools in disparate geographic regions, with 90% of its schools in urban areas, 5% in rural regions, and 5% in suburban settings. BPL supports school cultures grounded in relationship-building, personalization, and student voice.

BPL is part of a newly released research report by the Learning Policy Institute on networks taking student-centered learning and equity to scale. Co-founders Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor discuss the roots of BPL. Washor stated, “We really are a takeoff of a John Dewey phrase [in which] he talked about learning through occupations. He talked a lot as well about starting with students’ interests, although nobody ever really did that. They left it at the level of a group of students or a class. We said we could get it down to the student.” Littky explained that “equity was fostered in their schools by emphasizing relationships, relevance, and rigor. He stated, “It’s about finding a kid’s passion, finding their interest—someone who knows them well and stays with them for 4 years. Then we put them out in the real world.” 

BPL’s current Co-Executive Directors, Carlos Moreno and Andrew Frishman, who assumed full leadership of the network in 2015 after a deliberatively phased 2-year leadership transition, maintain this vision as they grow the network domestically and abroad.

The 2019 Leadership Conference showcased multiple threads in BPL that are weaving a tapestry for student access and opportunity, including:

Learning and Leading in Big Picture 

Leadership Conference 2019 included core components of the Big Picture model including Leaving to Learn and Advisory. The conference kicked off and closed out with students from two local Big Picture Schools. Conference participants learned from Seattle venues in an evening scavenger hunt. Along with an array of conference session offerings, relationships were built, action items were developed, and leaders were renewing their energy to continue their work. 

Internship mentor & two student mentees during school/internship site visits.

This conference environment created a generative learning experience where leaders co-created ways to lead, with love being the priority. Keynote speakers pushed participants into the day holding questions like, “how are you leading new-form in education?” Advisory groups created immediate community and thought partners to help reflect on, “what do you need for your leadership actions?” “Who do you need as allies in your work?” School visits invited the beloved community to see, learn and share. With experiential learning, community building and generative tasks, BP Leadership Conference get to the heart of leadership and learning. 

Big Picture Leadership

As a leadership team, BPL stands out in its dedicated focus on personalized learning, for students and for adults. The BPL founding leadership team of Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor are still key BPL leaders and supporting the tone of courageous leadership.  Elliot opened the second day with a strong statement of standing by what you believe in, “When you know you are not in compliance – you are doing good work.” Dennis led a breakout group on the end of the first day, Lead With Your Heart. He shared self-reflection questions he asks himself, like “Was I someone I like to work with this week?” and if not, how can I improve? He emphasized how leadership is all about the start and where we spend our time. Review your weekly schedule, where are you and does this align to your focus?

Dennis is also known for a few mantras. Some that stood out –

  • Leaders don’t create followers, they create leaders
  • It all depends (The challenge of remaining flexible to be personalized)
  • Leaders make meaning
  • Reward excellent failures, reward mediocre success 
  • Always have a sense of urgency – keeps you on the edge
Dennis Littky

Honoring the community of practice, BPL is a community that cares for each other and acknowledges the complexity and necessity of leadership experiences. Participants received wrap around leadership support, with resources like the Leadership Framework, encouragement from Elliott and Dennis, collaboration with fellow leaders in the network in advisory and a closing to the conference that wrapped up their work in love. Our leadership, our work at its core is absolutely about love, said Carlos Moreno, Co-Executive Director of BPL. And he ended the conference with this ask, “my ask of you, either on your flight home or destination is that you find your own intentional ask of vulnerability – please share them if you feel comfortable and appropriate, and we will help support you in your acts of courage.” 

Elliot Washor and Carlos Moreno.

Equity in Big Picture

Big Picture Learning is explicit about prioritizing equity as evidenced in their leadership framework and conference context. There were sessions to support leadership development in areas of equity, such as Liberating Learning: Creating Anti-Racist Schools, Creating and Sustaining Schools for Deeper Learning and Equity, Breakthrough Leadership, Strategic Plan: Building, Leveraging, and Sustaining. These sessions built upon the focus points and resources shared with participants before the conference in addition to the focus on the BPL Leadership Framework: 

Love: Leading a school in the context of dis-equitable social constructs. Sense of self in relation to community. Compulsion toward equity, and the moral courage to speak and act against dis-equitable systems and structures. 

Breakthrough Leadership: Skillfully breaking rules and positively disrupting the status quo; shifting the systems around you

Leading and Sustaining a Learning Organization: Attending to the learning needs of individual adults as well as the school as an organization. Culture-building. Creating shared ownership and distributed leadership among students and adults.

School Design and Implementation: Beyond interest-driven, compelling, real-world-connected, and lasting student experiences what else does the school seem to prioritize?

Centering the work in students and leading leadership development with these explicit references to equity and inclusion, BPL is leading the field in student-centered, equity-driven systemic support. 

BP Leadership is setting the standard for student-centered learning and leadership. It embraces place, grounds learning in the work, listens to students and empowers a community. This learning experience walks the talk of network core values and gives time to leaders to reconnect to each other and to their work. Without losing sight of the significance of the work and the importance of every student, BPLeadership reinvigorates leaders and sends them back to their schools ready to continue their task of reshaping the learning environment so that all kids can thrive. 

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Rebecca Midles

Rebecca Midles is the Vice President of Learning Design at Getting Smart and is an innovator in competency education and personalized learning with over twenty years of experience as teacher, administrator, board member, consultant and parent.
Kelly Niccolls

Kelly Niccolls

Kelly has been an educator for fourteen years. She began her career teaching in Southern California and has helped schools and systems reimagine teaching and learning, as well as serving as a school administrator. She is a Deeper Learning Equity Fellow, driven by the relentless belief in the possibility of social justice within education systems. Kelly focuses her education leadership on re-imagining structures for teaching and learning in order to empower all students for the future. Kelly is also a member of the Getting Smart Advisory Board.

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