Illustrative Use Case:
A Return to Eisenhower High

Ted’s book What School Could Be describes Eisenhower High, a ‘composite’ school based on his visits to numerous conventional schools.  The Use Case below is also illustrative, describing ways the Playlist might have been used at the fictitious Eisenhower High. We don’t expect you to copy what’s described below, and we recognize that a change process will have hiccups that Eisenhower didn’t encounter in this use case (a big advantage of being fictitious!). Please note, though, that the Innovation Playlist’s impact isn’t just fictitious — this new documentary shows you how it’s already supporting change in schools across the entire state of Hawai’i, and this documentary (directed by a student) shows its impact in the state of Virginia!

If you had visited Eisenhower High School in February, 2020, you’d have observed much that looks familiar. Knowledgeable and dedicated classroom teachers, all hard at work covering the content of required textbooks. Most kids dutifully taking notes, although several were staring off into space. Some students excelling, and most getting through respectably. There was concern about those who checked out, or even dropped out. But with plenty of graduates getting into selective universities, Eisenhower was viewed as successful.  

Eisenhower’s Music teacher (MT) had harbored doubts for some time about her school. Many students who soared in her class had dismal overall transcripts. These kids hated much of school, but MT’s class let them run with their creative talents — talents not valued by ‘normal’ school. At a gut level, MT had the sense that all was not well at Eisenhower. But she felt alone in holding that view.  

In March when the pandemic struck, Eisenhower High shut its doors, and faculty scrambled to patch together distance learning. Despite extraordinary effort, it proved impossible to instruct students on Zoom for hours each day. Fatigue and frustration were everywhere — students, educators, and parents. Most hoped for a speedy return to ‘normal’ school.  

Amidst the chaos, though, MT’s class was an outlier. She challenged her students to compose music that captured their emotional responses to unfolding crises. Her students blew her away, with compositions that cut across genres — rap, rock, classical, and jazz. Two teams produced evocative music videos. A couple of students produced a fabulous documentary, with an original music score. 

While most of her colleagues were exhausted by the daily grind of trying to keep kids on task over Zoom, MT and her students had never been more energized. She had numerous meaningful interactions with her students — answering questions, offering suggestions and encouragement, and connecting their work to adjacent disciplines (the power of language, the physics of percussion, the math of beats, the history of the music genre). She even had time to just check in with her students on the emotional toll of the pandemic.  

A highlight was a call from her principal describing the many students and parents offering positive feedback about her class. A big “Wow!” for MT who, for the first time, felt like a respected leader at Eisenhower. 

But MT wasn’t alone. During Eisenhower’s  “Lost Spring,” a few other teachers pivoted in their approach, sparking remarkable learning during an otherwise-lost spring. A science teacher challenged kids to lay out a “Safe COVID Protocols” for their community, and their work influenced the Mayor’s Task Force. The track coach asked team members to design a safe routine for practice, and to prepare guidelines for district-level competitions. A History teacher challenged students to capture and analyze what was unfolding in their community. As MT heard about these other bright lights, she was convinced that they were onto something big.  

In August, Eisenhower fully reopened, hoping things would be ‘normal.’ But within weeks, cases surged in the community, and several tested positive at Eisenhower. Chaos returned, as Eisenhower oscillated between 100% distance learning, a hybrid approach, and being fully open. The community was experiencing off-the-charts levels of fatigue, frustration, and grumpiness.

One day, MT heard about the What School Could Be’s Innovation Playlist, and took a look. With low expectations formed over years of reviewing dreary professional development offerings, MT watched two videos and was blown away. This resource was speaking her language.  She zeroed in on the “Mobilize Your Community” playlist. As a first step, she approached her principal with a constructive offer:  “I think this resource could rally our community to a much-needed aspirational goal — making sure our kids really learn this year. Would you be supportive if we explored this?” Facing a daily deluge of complaints, the principal quickly agreed.  

MT used two Build Momentum videos (The Future of Work and Do Schools Kill Creativity? to spark discussion and recruit Eisenhower’s core change-agent team. Her request? Would you help our school explore ways to reimagine learning, and bring energy and purpose to this challenging school year? She recruited eight volunteers —  the principal, an innovative teacher, a more traditional teacher, a high-performing student, a student who hated school, a school board member, the district’s Director of Instruction, and two parents (an auto mechanic and a medical professional specializing in mental health challenges). A great group, representing a wide range of perspectives.  Calling themselves “Eisenhower’s Committee of Nine,” these volunteers were excited to move forward with the Innovation Playlist change model. 

Next, the team organized an Eisenhower community-wide (virtual) screening of the acclaimed film Most Likely to Succeed, followed by a community-wide zoom session to discuss their Portrait of a Graduate — the skills and mindsets they want their students develop.  This discussion was energizing and illuminating. A few took the lead in refining the language, but within a week the community had reached consensus on their “North Star” of essential competencies for Eisenhower graduates.

The following week, each member of Eisenhower’s Committee of Nine shadowed a student for a day — nine students representing a cross-section of Eisenhower’s student population. Much of the shadowing was virtual, with some in-person observations. Shadowers looked for experiences that reinforced the competencies of their portrait of a graduate. By finding bright spots, they put a positive — even uplifting —  tone to collective efforts to transform learning at Eisenhower.

The principal then brought Eisenhower’s faculty together. They watched the Why Not Now keynote talk as a call to action. They reviewed their Portrait of an Eisenhower Graduate, and discussed insights from their shadowing exercise — careful to highlight effective practices, not praise or blame teachers. The principal then asked for faculty volunteers to dive into two essential playlists — Student-Driven Learning and Caring and Connected Communities.  The principal was clear — “We’re looking for a few volunteers to try an easy first step and share insights. No one has to do this.” A dozen volunteered to try Curiosity Time, setting aside time for students to come up with thought-provoking questions.  Another six volunteered to convene a one-hour pop-up advisory to better understand its potential for supporting kids during these challenging times. The principal’s ask was simple. Give this a try, and share lessons learned with your colleagues.  

Well, innovation proved effective . . . and contagious.  Early pioneers went further with their playlists (e.g., Curiosity Time led to Genius Time, Socratic Seminars, and Students Managing Their Learning). Most others joined in, with encouragement and advice from the early sprinters.  Some faculty members simply observed, which everyone was ok with. After two months, Eisenhower added a third playlist — Real-World Challenges — again starting with a small number of volunteers, and planting seeds for future advances.  

By the end of the school year, Eisenhower High had realized remarkable progress despite the pandemic. While this was far from a panacea, faculty morale was up, and most students were engaged and learning. Parent anxiety had largely morphed into relief, even excitement. On balance, Eisenhower’s 2020/2021 school year wasn’t a dreaded ‘lost’ year. In fact, most viewed it as the year Eisenhower ‘found’ its true purpose.