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Dynamic Learning Environments

A conversation with Lisa Michel, Director of Secondary Education


I was a professional musician for many years in New York. I wanted to substitute teach to pay bills and immediately I got hired as a long-term substitute teacher. I was completely caught off guard by the excitement of what was possible in a classroom of teenagers. I spent the next few years alternating between my two passions—music and teaching. I finally left the music business and moved out to California after teaching at an alternative public school in New York City that was specifically for ballet dancers. It was a very exciting place to start my career.

My master’s program was very progressive at the time. We spent time deconstructing our school experience and looked at both the positives and negatives.  I had a horrible experience in school. Though I successfully navigated through school, I hated it—felt no connection to what we were learning, nor did I develop a sense of myself. The first time I felt engaged was in the master’s program, which was built around the learner. It was the first time I experienced a classroom where I was at the center of my learning, and I was pushed to make connections through reading logs, collaboration, courageous discussions and individual reflection.  We had a course named “inquiry institute” centered around the development of curriculum regardless of the subject matter. 

I taught math for 8 years and was pushed into leadership positions at the high school, and at the District Office. I left to do research for the STEM division of WestEd, a nonprofit educational research, development and service agency to help figure out my next steps. I came back to L.A. when I got accepted UCLA’s Educational Leadership doctoral program and got hired back in Culver City USD as assistant principal over curriculum and instruction at the high school—a job I did for 5 years.  I have been the Director of Secondary Education for the past two years and it has been fun getting to know the middle school leadership and working to align the middle school with the high school among many other things.

What makes CCUSD unique? When I interviewed at Culver City High School, I looked out on the campus and saw a level of diversity I had never seen before. It wasn’t just people of different races, but also people of different religions, languages, cultures. I was struck by the warmth and feeling on the campus. We are good at relationships because we are a tight-knit community. CCUSD is a small district, and we are working on doing better to use that small size to unify our vision.  

What is your vision? I am a practitioner that likes to get my hands dirty—working collaboratively with sites and understanding every aspect of what contributes to a child’s education. My hope is that students will have everything they need to grow in the way that they want to.  Words like “school” and “classroom” have the connotation of a power struggle. It is very hard to escape a turn-of-the-century picture of what school is, but it shouldn’t be.  I want to transform the culture of the school and blow it apart because of the siloed nature of school. We need to move away from the thinking “this is MY classroom”.

How do you initiate the transition away from “this is MY classroom”?


Lay out some of these structures for us. Teachers own their classrooms. It is not easy to break down that wall and share resources. Instead of “my” students, it should be “our” students.  Teachers are beginning to transform their role and we want them to be facilitators of learning--engaging students in conversations not only based on teacher knowledge, but also through side by side learning. The teacher’s expertise should be in questioning and figuring out what the student needs to go from here to there. Of course, we still do need to know content as teachers.

Describe this dynamic system: The concept of accountability and feedback is that teachers have different ways of giving students immediate feedback. The system is making it difficult to give feedback quickly. It is not the teacher's fault. How do we decide what everybody needs to know? It is often unclear what they need to know. Maybe it is not to memorize the exact years of an event in history. We still have not agreed on what they need to know. It’s changing all the time.

Instead of the current teacher classroom ownership, the counter point would be to have shared spaces, team teaching, students and teachers developing curriculum, negotiating the curriculum, access to fluid technology, choice, and no institutional feel. All of this would support a vibrant learning environment.

What is the vision for content areas with project-based learning (PBL)? We are currently stuck in this structure in which colleges want to see on the transcripts what is required.  The vision is for students to participate. For example, in the parameter of U.S. History, the framework would be to have an experience as a class and there needs to be a lot of choice and accountability.  Differentiated learning is important. We must challenge students and get them out of their comfort zones. This also goes for teachers.

Talk about the time issue. There is a charter network of schools in Northern California that has much more embedded teacher time in the day. Another way to calculate section time is needed so that students are not having to all sit at the same time.  We need to deconstruct the schedule.  The amount of hours of seat time with students is a state educational code requirement but it does not necessarily need to be in the same classroom.  It is important to give teachers space and time to work together.

What are the lines of access, in terms of opportunity considering the concepts of inclusivity, equity and meaningful connections?  Inclusivity is about all of us taking responsibility for all the kids. We need to get out of the “my kids” mindset. A mind shift is needed to break out of the traditional role of schools. I am bothered that we still track students (‘regular’ and ‘honors’ students), and that not all students are represented in our AP/Honors courses. If we had more open classrooms, then you could push that AP student in the same class as the other kid. You're either in it or not.  We got rid of weighted grades for honors courses because that is not a good reason for them to do it. We have boot camps in the summer for students who may never have taken an AP or Honors class. This helps challenge them and give them more access.

Pull back from the future to now. You referenced overall more openness, greater connection and empowering relationships. Could you move to this culture in the current school environment? No, we cannot move to that in this existing physical context. Student-centered space is missing.  We only have libraries for that presently. We need more beauty, a sense of care, and the murals have helped a lot. We need multi-tiered systems of support. 

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