Wednesday, August 10, 2011


Every spring my youngest daughter and I plant sunflower seeds in the garden by our deck. Sarah loves that these tiny seeds will grow into 12-14 foot plants with bright yellow petals and hundreds of new seeds for next year. Normally, sunflowers track the sun. If planted in an unobstructed field the yellow flowers will point towards the east in the morning and by late afternoon they will face west.  Our sunflowers are planted on the side of our house that faces west. They get no morning light. They face the house in a generally southern direction. Even as the sun comes over the house and heads west through the afternoon, our sunflowers refuse to turn. And yet they grow and thrive and I get to look right at the flowers, covered with bumble bees from the kitchen window while I do the dishes. Sarah says the sunflowers are confused and think the bright light reflecting off our house and deck is the sun. I would say, the seed planters have set the sunflower up to point in the wrong direction.

I have been thinking about our sunflowers as I do the dishes and contemplate structures that will support the direction and vision we have for Westtown School. One of my projects this summer has been to develop structures that will continue the process of preK-12 curricular cohesion and integration—work we have been involved in for a decade.  I have been talking with peers at other independent schools about their structures and processes for curricular review, program innovation and implementation, and faculty development and evaluation. Each school has different structures and like us many are in the process of making adjustments or complete over halls of existing systems. There are intriguing and impressive elements in each school’s effort to insure their program makes sense as children progress through the grades and that the program supports the school’s mission.

Each school began with questions to answer and in some cases problems to address. I have come to believe we have three questions. One of the questions we want to answer grows out of our current curricular review process. Faculty engage with the process and finish the year long review asking for a regular means of supporting ongoing cross divisional discussions. Faculty members within the review process have gotten to know and appreciate their colleagues in other divisions. Valuable conversations were begun and promising directions for program were identified. Ten years ago teachers in different divisions would not have said that meeting across divisions was of any value. Indeed, one of the goals of the program area curricular review process was that faculty would come to know and learn from colleagues in other divisions.

Another question has to do with the vision we have articulated for our students to be engaged in collaborative learning and ethical leadership in a connected world: Quaker Education at Westtown School. This vision—the actualization of our school’s mission—requires a highly motivated faculty actively engaged with each other across divisions and across disciplines. How do we break down program area silos and enable creative collaboration among faculty and students?

The third question has to do with professional development. How do we empower faculty to innovate, to experiment, to learn, even to fail from time to time in order to realize our vision within their classes and interactions with our students? 

As I think about these questions, our answers will not come from replicating the system of one of our peer schools. Indeed, we need to start with our three questions, turn them into statements and design backwards from there. Our own school culture and context will require its own system, something different from what we have now. To get there we will have to be willing to ask additional and divergent questions (what ifs and why nots) and be willing to explore unsettling answers to those questions. In the end we want our systems to point us in the direction we have chosen for ourselves.