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Educators Find Strength in Numbers at Project Zero Classroom

"It's exciting because we are starting to plan together," said Christine Kunkel, principal at Key Learning Community School in Indianapolis, who brought 15 educators from her school.

For dozens of educators attending the Project Zero Classroom (PZC) last week from New Mexico and Indiana, it was a chance to add more tools to their education toolkit and to work as a team on creating a vision for the future of their schools.

"It's exciting because we are starting to plan together," said Christine Kunkel, principal at Key Learning Community School in Indianapolis, who brought 15 educators from her school to the PZC. Kunkel noted that after days filled with program activities during the weeklong institute, the group spent time meeting informally to reflect on what they learned and share ideas for applying their learning back home. "A lot of this [experience for us] is about trying to tackle student learning in teaching for understanding."

Now in its 14th year, the PZC, offered in collaboration with HGSE's Project Zero and Programs in Professional Education, is an intensive summer institute designed to help pre-K-12 educators create classrooms, instructional materials, and out-of-school learning environments that address a range of learning styles and promote a culture of deep thinking to build complex knowledge in the arts and other academic areas.

With 322 participants this year, Lecturer Steve Seidel, chair of Project Zero Classroom, remarked that it isn't uncommon to see large teams of educators at the PZC. "We encourage it," Seidel said, noting the importance of building relationships with classroom educators and also meeting in person. "I am all in favor of distance learning but it is so enjoyable when people get to meet each other. When we meet people working with our ideas, we get to learn and it is incredibly satisfying."

Having attended PZC just three years ago without much knowledge of Project Zero approaches to teaching, Shelly Norris, principal of Arts Academy at Bella Vista in Clovis, N.M., said she spent much of her time engrossed in strategies for her school, while trying to keep notes and relay the information back to her faculty. "I spent more time [after sessions] calling the teachers," she said regarding her first experience at PZC. This year, however, she attended with 11 other educators from her school, which created a much more relaxed experience. "This experience is a spiritual journey. I love hearing the teachers from the school talking together and getting to hear [all the information] straight from the horse's mouth," she said.

The trip to Cambridge was made affordable for the Arts Academy's staff thanks to being awarded New Mexico's fifth highest state allocation for the tremendous gains in standardized test scores this year. Norris said the school decided to spend the funding on "perfecting the art of teaching" and sponsored its teachers' trips to the PZC.

Similarly, Kunkel, who was also attending the institute for the second time, decided to bring along the entire faculty of Key Learning Community School with remaining funding from a grant. This created one problem, however. Since Key Learning is a year-round school, they needed a plan for the students for the week. They solved this by designating it a "community service week," so that the staff could attend PZC.

As the first multiple intelligences school in the world, the Key Learning Community School has a long history with Professor Howard Gardner. "It was especially moving for me to reconnect," Gardner said, "in a few cases with people whom I have known for 20 years. It's always great when a group of significant size [come] together to an institute. They have a chance to digest and review and share after the institute, something far more difficult to do when you fly solo."

Although the Key Learning Academy has a graduation rate of almost 100 percent, Kunkel said education is not just about getting students through, but ensuring that they can go on and lead successful lives. She believes PZC provides an opportunity for them to step back and think collaboratively. "It's always productive looking at the organization, but it's also very enjoyable," Kunkel said.

Norris believes that PZC provides learning that the participants can use beyond their individual classrooms. "They will be a toolkit of great information and able bodies who understand not only what we are doing but why," she said. "They will provide a catalyst for those teachers who could not come."

In the future, Norris hopes to bring more staff to the institute. "It's an amazing experience that continues to impact on a professional and personal level."