Post-Semester Teaching Reflections

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From Getting Ideas Into Action (Bryk, Gomez, Grunow, 2011)

A week before this semester began, I was asked to teach ELPA 875, Theory and Practice in Educational Planning. This post is a summary and brief reflection of this experience and how I might improve the course in the future. The image above was a focal diagram that we returned to throughout the semester. The PDSA image comes from

Course Theme

Broadly, this is a class about planning for and effecting change in an organization. Through the lens of trying to impact change, we considered

  • Scale – district, building, classroom, learner. For example, we explored how defining problems at a large scale, such as the achievement gap, can make them feel unsurmountable and consequently disconnected from daily work. We worked to define problems in a way that was connected to our daily work and aligned with organizational goals.
  • Design – we talked about a design strategy of starting with small, iterative testing rather than large-scale changes all at once; seeing the system that produces undesired results; and considered the importance of including different perspectives – not just to be “midwest nice” – but because no one person can see all the pieces of a system,
  • Change as relational – bringing people together to solve common problems can be the work that builds a positive culture where people trust and support each other.

The readings drew from

  • Design-based School Improvement, by Rick Mintrop
  • Learning to Improve, by Tony Bryk, Louis Gomez, Alicia Grunow, and Paul LeMahieu
  • Strategic Planning for Nonprofit Organizations, by Michael Allison and Jude Kaye
  • The New School Rules, by Anthony Kim and Alexis Gonzalez-Black

Semester Projects

Each student used the PDSA – plan-do-study-act – cycle to structure work on a problem of practice they face in their context.

  • Each student selected a problem of practice that they identified in their daily work. This was a problem that was urgent, actionable, feasible, strategic, specific, and proactive.
  • Problems included: disproportionate behavioral referrals, supporting student-teacher partnerships, building a sustainable technology budget, inclusive teaching in higher education, teacher perception of a district policy, among others.
  • They then developed a plan and pitched it to a classmate for feedback
  • They then implemented the plan, gathered data, and have created these posters to share their findings
  • They presented a research poster of their projects in a final structured poster session to each other and 8 “special guests” from the community. This was their authentic audience.
  • They got three points of substantive feedback from me: conferring about their problem of practice, written feedback on their pitches, and written feedback on their poster drafts.

The class was well received by students, overall 4.47/5 and some comments:

  • “Julie did a fantastic job with this course! I especially appreciated the connections she provided by bringing in regional experts to speak to the various topics. I also appreciated the timely relevance of the readings. She didn’t assign anything that wasn’t on target with the topics in the syllabus. She also made sure that the assigned readings were current. That hasn’t always been the case in other ELPA courses.”
  • “Julie Kallio was an EXCELLENT instructor. She made the concept of improvement and change personal and meaning to each one of us. She was able to connect small changes to larger system changes and bring experts in to discuss this with us. She was outstanding to learn from.”
  • “I was very impressed with this course, I thought that the guest speakers Julie brought in were very valuable. I’ve gotten more out of her course than any other course I’ve taken these past two semesters at Madison.”

And they liked the poster session:

  • The format for yesterday’s class [the poster session] was GREAT, and I would highly recommend doing that again the next time you teach the course. Thank you for a wonderful course. I hope you consider being a professor in the future, I think it really suits you.”

Guest Lectures

I was fortunate to be able to draw from my network of amazing educational leaders in the state and we had five guest lectures from people who are making change happen in Wisconsin. These included

Improvement Games

I learned about the NQC Game Guide at a Carnegie Foundation presentation couple years ago, but I finally got to put a couple of their games into practice. We played the peg game and butterfly effect, both of which generated great conversations. I will definitely be incorporating more of these in the future.


I really enjoyed teaching this class. Much of what we studied is really at the heart of where my research on research-practice partnerships is – solving problems together through design.

This was a picture (captured from a tweet) that I put up in class one day: “There isn’t one problem in a school that cannot be solved by the people already in it.” This really resonated with the students in the class. I feel like a big part of our discussion was rekindling belief in their own expertise.

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In future iterations of the course, I will work on having key questions for each week’s readings and linking these more explicitly to activities and discussions. I know that I have also learned more about coaching students through the PDSA, such as knowing that “abandon” is a perfectly acceptable conclusion for the project.

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