Embracing an Agile Mindset
by Greenfields parent, Beth Mankowski
I arrived late for the first parent meeting of the school year last October. This day was also my son’s birthday, so I’d been out for a family dinner first. I tried to slip quietly into the back row. I listened as the school’s director recounted the students’ progress through forming committees, setting goals, choosing project topics, and adjusting to the rhythms of a new school year. My hand shot up when he asked “Has anyone heard of a kanban board?”
A kanban board is a visual representation of tasks, or discrete units of work, to be done, each with its own “card” or ticket, that moves from left to right through columns with titles like “To Do”, “In Progress” “In Testing” and “Ready to Deploy.” Over the last ten-plus years, I’ve been scrum master or product owner for many different agile teams, producing software solutions in various industries. The kanban board is the focus of our daily check-in meetings, the tool by which we track completion and timeliness of work. This topic came up at the parent meeting because Greenfields was using a popular digital kanban board tool, Trello, to assist the older Griffins in tracking their own goals and accomplishments. (Side note: The school uses the term “Griffins” for their students in reference to the Greenfields mascot!)
A kanban board is also the means by which we hand off units of work for review. Our rule of thumb is, if you built it, then someone else must review or test it, so the ticket is assigned to another team member. For Griffins, peer review may consist of reviewing a goal on a Trello card to confirm it is SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, timebound), or preparing an assignment (for example, a pitch to adopt a unicorn as a class pet) and presenting a draft to one’s peers for feedback. My son’s pitch-a-pet presentation needed to cover all areas of the pet plan, from care and feeding, to costs, to who takes care of the pet on the weekends and school breaks. His peers gave him feedback, such as encouraging him to include more pictures in his slide presentation, and look out at the audience more while speaking.
During the Griffins’ efforts to organize themselves into committees, I heard the echoes of my years of agile software experience. Take Studio Maintenance as an example: all the kids participate in keeping their school clean. There are crews grouped into zones, and within each zone, specific tasks. The bathroom zone has a sweeper, mopper, spray & wipe, etc. The kids in this zone sort out among themselves who does which task; there is no teacher telling them who will do what. They must self-form their team to accomplish the work of cleaning the bathrooms each day. Similarly, a software team must decide amongst themselves who will take on more testing today, while someone else prepares for an upcoming deployment.
Self-organization, goal setting, peer review: this type of collaboration takes a lot of mental, emotional, and social energy for adults, and even more for children who are still figuring out who they are and how they operate. When expending so much effort, regular retrospectives (either group or self-reflection) are highly valuable in both school and software environments. Sometimes things go wrong, you don’t finish on time, tempers run hot, or something unexpected happens. Taking time to sort through these alternative outcomes allows a team to solidify learning, transforming what might have been judged “a mistake” into a growth and learning experience. Retrospection is incomplete without celebration, giving credit for persistence, increased skills, and milestones accomplished. While I may treat my software team to a happy hour after work on Friday, the Griffins celebrate with a ceremony at the end of each session, adding pins to a sash where achievements are displayed for all to recognize.
Using an agile mindset as a framework has helped me adapt and understand my son’s learning environment this year. While the transition to Greenfields felt like a huge stretch for our whole family at first, we’ve found common ground. Finding similarities across our days’ activities makes our dinner table conversations more relatable. Seeing my child build life-long skills like those I’ve mentioned above has provided the type of outcome I was hoping for when enrolling him at Greenfields Academy.