Sunday, December 1, 2013

Stewardship of Resources -- a strand in excellent teaching

Recently, I wrote about the Testimony on Integrity as a means for developing a definition of excellent teaching. I believe that the Testimony on Stewardship provides a second basis for developing a Friends' school definition of excellence. Quite often stewardship has come to mean care for the earth and ecosystems we all share. American Friends Service Committee describes good stewardship as caring for the gifts given to us. Within the school context what greater gift are we given then the students we teach? Their parents entrust us with joining them in partnership to educate their children.

What does it mean to be good stewards of our students and their education? In part, I would argue that we need to be mindful of the world they live in and the context of that world for their lives. Too often colleagues (especially in the high school grades) complain the kids aren't able to concentrate or they don't have the skills they used to have or that they aren't as smart as the kids ten years ago or the admissions office has lowered its standards. None of these are true. These kids are not less able, they are differently able. They need an education that takes into account their context and that looks ahead to their adult lives. Stewardship demands we adjust our teaching to their world.

With our mission to inspire and prepare our  "graduates to be stewards and leaders of a better world" what are the queries related to excellence in teaching and stewardship?

  • Do I put my students first?  This might be the most challenging query of all. As teachers, our first response is "of course I do." I would push back and ask, how much of what we do is about us and our needs? When we complain over lunch about a less than stellar class or a student that didn't follow through are we looking to vent or seeking to improve? Do we manage our classrooms to serve our need for control or to foster a learning environment reflective of how our students learn and relate to each other and to  their learning? Do we stick to the tried and comfortable because that reinforces our sense of ourselves as the experts?
  • Have I stayed abreast of fore ward thinking educational experts who are asking and writing about the kids we teach and ways in which they construct meaning? Do I bemoan what is lost or live realistically and optimistically in my students' present?
  • Do I use my students' time with care? What is most important for them to learn? How does what happens in my class weave together with the whole of their experience? 
  • Does my philosophy and pedagogy help my students to express the school's mission through their lives in this era?

Like the queries on integrity these on Stewardship are only a beginning. However, taken together I hope they provide a means for our conversations to move forward--to unstick us from old paradigms. 

Let me know if you have queries to add or would like to challenge these or the previous set. I look forward to the conversation.

Monday, November 25, 2013

What is excellence in teaching in a Friends School Context?

  Wordle: Quaker Spices
One of the critical conversations happening at Westtown School this year revolves around what it means to be an excellent teacher at this school with its particular mission. In a recent discussion on the characteristics of good teaching I received some push back on the use of the word "excellent". The criticism was that the word smacked of elitism and furthermore if a teacher was an amazing, spell-binding lecturer did that make her a better teacher than one who crafted thought provoking problems for his students to solve. What is the standard if not excellence? And once we have a standard how do we define and name its characteristics?

I took these related questions with me to the recent Friends Council on Education Peer Network Meeting for Associate Heads and Division Heads. Our topic for the day was "Faculty Evaluation and Professional Growth in a Friends School Context: How does Quakerism inform how we go about doing evaluation and professional growth?" I explained that criticism of the term "excellence" seemed to be rooted in a strong strain of equality within Friend's schools. The first response to my questions after a collective chuckle was "what are we all supposed to be... equally mediocre?" But then two other members of the group nodded in agreement and said that this was a theme found among their faculty as well -- this conflating of excellence with elitism. Fortunately another member of the group offered a way forward from within the Quaker testimonies--To be excellent is to do one's work with integrity. Integrity is one of the Quaker SPICES (testimonies). The whole list includes Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality, Stewardship.

Integrity asks of us to give our best in every situation, to deal honestly with our students and colleagues. At its core it calls on us to have our outward lives express our inward thoughts and beliefs. So what are the queries we might ask (rather than a check list of things to do)  in relation to whether or not we are doing our jobs with integrity? I would begin with following:
  • Does my teaching in philosophy and pedagogy support the mission of the school?
  • Do my actions in the classroom, as an adviser, on the playing field, in the school community, place the needs of my students at the center?
  • Do I deal honestly and forth rightly with my colleagues and supervisors?
  • Am I open to learning new ways to do my work in the evolving life of this school?
  • Do the strategic imperatives of the school and my personal talents and beliefs align?
I'm sure this list isn't exhaustive and would welcome hearing others' thoughts.

In my next post I will explore my thoughts on Stewardship as another means of defining excellence.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Taking Risks, Taking Flight

I have a colleague who spends her summers carefully planning every day of her curriculum. She is one of our innovators, one of our first adopters. But before she adopts she tests, plans, prepares-- nothing is left to chance. This year she is adopting and adapting on the fly. Her experiment is to more frequently follow the lead and interest of her students. Reflecting on this experience of "flying by the seat of her pants" she had this epiphany about how she felt and how her students must always feel. Seldom do our students (and hers are in middle school)  feel like the expert. They are always in learning mode, always to a certain degree off balance --or just taking off. How powerful for them to have their teacher model for them how to manage that experience.

I have another colleague, a master teacher who shared with his intern last year on the eve of the intern's first solo lesson, "the worst thing that will happen will be that its a failure." Just the lesson will fail, the next day you get to try again. This experienced teacher has lived a career built on experimentation in how students learn best. He is still experimenting -- his students think he is excellent.

Just last week I watched a group of our primary circle students play at the water table, a number of tube and funnel attachments were tried and failed to get the desired result. Finally, the kids figured out the combination that gave them the right sort of bubbles in the right color. Eureka! And then they started all over getting it wrong lots of times until they got the new result they wanted. Young children don't need permission to experiment, they are hardwired for it.

I see part of my role as creating the climate and support for teachers to experiment, to take risks with their pedagogy, their content, their approaches to teaching. Becoming a master teacher is an ongoing, career spanning adventure. Personally, I have come to believe the minute we are no longer wanting to venture something new we need to retire. Learning to enjoy the energy that comes from not being one hundred percent sure or  the absolute expert in the room reinforces for us and our students that we are partners in a learning community.

Creating that climate means providing resources for learning, time to be creative, and permission to try without always waiting for perfection or certainty or even an ok from an administrator. Peer coaches and mentors need to see their role as one of fostering courage. Our professional growth cycle and evaluation systems must reward risk and question stasis. We need to be involved in a process of ongoing revelation--always with our students as the focus of what we do.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Living in Quadrant 2 -- Time Management #SAVMP

For our Senior Administrators Virtual Mentor Program (SAVMP) prompt this week we were asked to think about time management. Fellow SAVMP participant Amber Teaman wrote eloquently and shared a helpful graphic that got me thinking about my days ( from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey).

One of the reasons it caught my eye was the location of email and a niggling guilty sense that I had chosen to not answer the email of someone recently. I hate the feeling of firing off an email and hearing . . . nothing. Any yet, this particular person was not a current parent of a Westtown student, not a potential parent, not a colleague, not a member of my family or a close friend. For all of these I try and reply within 24 hours.  Nor was it someone asking for a reciprocating sort of information common among independent school teachers and administrators. It was just the email I could ignore -- along with the daily announcement from Diigo, the New York Times, the Smithsonian, and our school's spam filter. Email is our chief means of communicating basic information, and like all other sorts of information, basic information has exploded in volume.

What really struck me about quadrant two was the relationship building bullet. On Friday, I had a series of meetings -- see quadrant one. But all of those meetings were with individuals, all were in the interest of building relationships and encouraging the capacity of those individuals in the chair across from me. I met with three interns, two of my independent seminar students, and a stressed out advisee. I also carved out time to complete a project (see quadrant 1). However, this project was related to continuing my relationship with our young alums. Meeting with teachers and students, observing teachers in their classrooms and working with them through their evaluations fill my days and weeks. However, I give over little time to the other areas of quadrant 2.

One of my first blogs was about closing my computer when people come to speak to me, this week I want to experiment with leaving my email turned off for some of the time I have carved out to work at my desk and while I am doing that I want to create space for quadrant two's  planning and values clarification even as I tackle the two projects with deadlines fast approaching!

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Reflection and leadership - #SAVMP

This week as a part of our SAVMP (School Admin Virtual Mentor Program) we have been asked to consider the role of reflection. I have written in other posts about my own need to think before I act and take time to listen without distraction to the person in my office. I have also written about the role of reflection in my student's self-assessments of minor and major projects/papers/presentations in my classes. I know that at the beginning of the year, most students write cursory reflections and only when asked to re-write and consider specific questions they have actually posed do they come to see the value of self-reflection.

I ask my faculty to write reflections after they have completed any major professional development activity whether its attending a conference or workshop, completing summer curriculum development, or participating in a fellowship or sabbatical opportunity. I want them to think about what they have learned in terms of what it will mean for their students. I also want to build us as a community of people who think about their own learning and share it with others.

This week I want to reflect on an experience sharing a concept for a new program with our high school faculty. This is a faculty that has had to absorb an extraordinary amount of change in the past two years -- after years of incremental, barely noticeable change. Some have become weary of change and understandably want time to become expert at what is new -- and not take on any new initiatives. On Wednesday I went before them with an idea that was disruptive in how we think about that most precious of commodities -- time (I am asking them to innovate and change again) -- giving over regular course/class time for two weeks of problem based learning.I worked with a great partner on the presentation (our faculty clerk) and began by reminding the faculty of how I had come to be standing in front of them -- I provided context.

This is what I want to think about some more, the importance of providing context. I hadn't arrived at this proposal on my own or gotten the idea from some alien visiting from Mars, instead this was an idea that had its roots in several years of self-studies and side conversations around other related projects and discussions. Furthermore, the concept was developed by other teachers working with me. While it had the backing of administrators, the leading committee bringing the idea forward was made up of teachers and administrators. One of my teacher partners in this work helped with the presentation and finished by tying the concept to our school's mission.

Once the context was established, I sat down and our faculty clerk asked the teachers to turn to a partner and consider the wonderful possibilities arising from this concept. What followed was 5 minutes of creative, open, positive imaging and brainstorming. We then shared out with the entire group.

What I have learned from this is to remember that in all change, at any given moment I need to remember that leadership includes building consensus through reminding folks of how we got to where we are, how it fits with our vision and at least initially focus on what is possible. (Later of course, we will have time for others to voice their concerns and help us find solutions to challenges). But context and focus on creative possibility (rather than allowing a single grumpy voice to shut everyone down), opens up space for the creativity that is at the core of my faculty; it makes space for us to collectively imagine the ends we wanted all along. It helps us realize our mission in this century.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Critical Conversations #SAVMP

This week's prompts for our #SAVMP blogging were questions about encouraging Critical Conversations.

  • How do we create a culture where "pushback" is encouraged?
  • How do we know when to stick with the minority over the majority?
  • How do you create a team that will give you honest feedback?

It put me in mind of Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals. Certainly, Lincoln created a team where group think was never going to be a problem! At schools, I suspect leadership teams are not put together the way that Lincoln's cabinet was. Certainly at Westtown, leadership positions were not awarded as favors to political allies (or rivals), as rewards for roles played in one's election or for one's ability to hold a difficult border state in the Union. Indeed, at schools leadership teams are constructed one hire at a time and evolve with each new hire.

For me, these three SAVMP questions of the week turn me back upon myself and my own aversion to providing difficult feedback, to having difficult conversations with colleagues. When I first stepped into my new role, I knew this would be my greatest challenge. I participated in our school's peer coaching program and asked for a specific colleague as coach with the intention of leaning into this discomfort. Over the school year my coach and I worked through Difficult Conversations. He helped me explore the reasons for my dis-ease and we role played several different sorts of conversations. We also kept a log of the conversations I was having with colleagues and how they fell on a continuum from easy to difficult and challenging. What I found was that I need to always keep four things in mind when approaching any conversation I anticipate might be difficult: assume the best from the person I am speaking with, remember that the needs of our students come first, and that the well-being of our school comes second only to that of our students. Finally, and not least, never forget there is a person sitting across from me in this conversation. Not surprisingly, I generally have to remind myself of these givens before I have a difficult conversation. 

But this isn't what the original prompt was about, Creating a culture for promoting critical conversations is  about both leadership teams and faculty teams; about encouraging the realization that truth can come from any corner of the room and that not all truth is easy or convenient. In debriefing our relatively new 360 faculty evaluation process, teachers evaluated in the second year of the program reported that they had felt uncomfortable receiving difficult feedback and recommendations for growth from a peer. They had all enjoyed being commended by peers and having their successes celebrated. But they felt the more challenging recommendations for growth should be handled by a supervisor.  I believe the true power in this process is that the message is delivered by a peer. I believe that we all need to become if not comfortable at the very least adept at offering and receiving the criticism of our peers as well as their commendations. I know I am in the minority in this position (though it is shared by my evaluation clerks and Head of School). Needless to say, the peer evaluation teams will continue to give recommendations for growth that will sometimes be challenging.  In this way, I believe that teachers create a culture in which they both support and challenge each other to be excellent educators. I think an extension of this process will be a willingness to engage critically with any discussion before us and a willingness to give honest feedback. If we learn to do this with peers, we will be better able to do it with grade, division, and school wide initiatives. This is a learning edge for all of us, most especially me. 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Excellent Teachers Don't Just Happen

In his book the Intentional Teacher, Peter Gow writes that there are three characteristics teachers must have to be great educators: Affection for Children, Joy in Learning, and Commitment to Student Success (Gow pp 19-26). Teacher's Joy in Learning is the focus of my work at Westtown School. Whether they are fresh out of college or seasoned educators, excellent teachers are committed to their own learning and to seeing positive results from what they learn in their classrooms.

Successful professional development for teachers begins with a thoughtful and ongoing induction program. Spring 2012 we formalized a new three year induction program for all new teachers whether they are just starting out their careers or are seasoned teachers accepting a new position at Westtown School. Feedback from previous years had helped us refine our new teacher orientation program and mentor program. Good mentors are critical to new teacher success. Every new teacher at Westtown has a mentor. This seems so central to our process that I was taken aback when a colleague was telling me about his son who is in the second year of his Teach for America assignment in New York City. When he asked his son about his mentors, his son told him he had none and his supervisor had made it very clear that all questions should come back to him, the supervisor. He should not be asking other teachers  for help or advice. My colleague's son said he feels very alone in his class with his students.

At Westtown, mentors serve as guides to school culture, provide practical answers to questions, and facilitate understanding of all the various technologies and processes at our school. In the first year, this is invaluable work. A single, known, wise friend insures new teachers never feel alone. Through out the year, mentors meet as a group to compare notes and see how best to support their mentees. Mentor relationships continue into the second year. Different teachers will want different things from their mentors in the second year. Generally, the differences fall out along lines of still new to teaching folks and those with more years of teaching. Increasingly we are finding that teachers want peers to observe them teach, read through lesson plans, and offer feedback on what the mentor sees of the teacher's practice.

In their third year at Westtown all teachers have a peer coach. The difference between mentor and coach is subtle but critical. A mentor is someone who has answers, who knows how to find the answers, who serves as a guide. A coach assumes that with help the coachee will  find the answers for him or herself, will achieve his or her own goals. Coaching is a process of active listening and thoughtful questioning.  By their very nature coaches and mentors are leaders within the school. Our school culture is becoming one in which everyone is invested in realizing educational excellence across the school. Mentors, mentees, coaches and coachees see themselves as sharing responsibility for creating an excellent educational experience for all of our students.

Alongside this culture of peer support and development we have increased the support and feedback department chairs, the Athletic Director, Dean of Students, and divisional principals provide to new hires. Every new hire should expect to receive constructive feedback from her supervisors after the first month, the first quarter, the first semester, and the end of the first year. In this way, new teacher success, support and evaluation is treated as a top priority by school administrators. We believed in these new people when we hired them now we must insure their success.

Our induction program is resource, time, and people intensive. This investment in new teachers up front guarantees success and longevity in the lives of our students. Young teachers make a commitment to careers in education at Westtown, more experienced teachers see Westtown as a place to build their professional lives. Parents and students know that excellence is the expectation and not taken for granted. Anyone who really doesn't have what it takes is counseled out in the first year. The second and third years are all about striving for excellence and establishing patterns of continuous learning and commitment to student success.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Developing Leadership--one inspired colleague at a time #savmp

At Westtown School we have embraced a peer coaching model for individual teacher development. While not every teacher aspires to be a school dean, principal, department chair, every teacher has the potential for true leadership in her classroom or with her colleagues. Our peer coaching program helps to develop these individual talents -- including those of leadership. My own trajectory to my current role as Westtown's Director of Teaching and Learning has benefited from such mentoring by supervisors and coaching by colleagues. Early in my teaching career I was encouraged by my history department chair to take on a new course in a subject area I hadn't really ever studied -- Chinese History. Furthermore, he told me to trust my instincts and adapt that traditionally political history course to my existing background in social and women's history. His confidence in me liberated me to experiment throughout the year and to know that I could share ideas with him and other members of the department. That was one of the most exciting and rewarding years of teaching I had experienced to that point. Over my 19 years of teaching my own experiences as coach, coachee and mentor to new teachers has confirmed for me that school transformation takes place one teacher at a time, that leadership can come from any one of my colleagues, that visionary school leadership means nurturing leaders from within the faculty, that teachers as leaders in striving for excellence in education makes for a strong school. 

As a part of our holistic approach to teacher development and by extension leadership development we ask teachers to write goals for themselves each year. While our school has strategic goals and we ask teachers to attend to these as they think about and write their goals, the emphasis is on individual direction in recognition of its power to unleash great creative energy. Just as good teachers try and connect student passion, interest and strengths with their learning so too should teachers as they set their own learning. The goals teachers write become the focus of the relationship between peer coach and coachee.

My work as an administrator is to nurture teacher talents and connect their strengths with those of others. The more that I can hand off tasks to others better suited than me to lead a study, develop a new program, clerk a particular committee, the better I am doing my job as a school leader. Then my task becomes providing support, a sounding board, and occasional guidance to these many leaders within our school. With so many practicing leadership in so many roles we become a community well practiced in leading, collaborating and knowing when to trust someone else to take the lead.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Fourier was right!!

As you may recall from earlier posts here, I enjoy the time I have in the summer to read widely and haphazardly. By way of disclaimer I do recommend all the books below. I no-longer bother to finish books that I haven't managed to engage with by 50-70 pages in no matter how well-recommended by my friends.

This summer my picks included South of Superior by Ellen Airgood. I picked up Airgood's book at one of my favorite independent bookseller's Mclean and Eakin in Petoskey, Michigan where I vacation with my family. Wherever I travel I try and read based on where I am located. Airgood's book set in the Upper Peninsula didn't disappoint me for thoughtful summer reading well tied to its/my location. And interestingly, it fit in well with one of the unexpected themes from the books I read-- finding solutions/building our lives by looking outside our hidden assumptions. The other fiction books included  Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Plan, Louise Erdich's Round House, and Patrick Rothfuss' What the Wise Man Fears. Kingsolver is a master of setting, especially in her books set in Appalachia. The main character Dellarobia, like the butterflies she loves is transformed and by the end of the novel well on her way to her own metamorphosis -- all because she was saw wonder in her own backyard. By the way I especially loved the scene in which the northern eco-warrior shows up with the top ten things to save the planet and she makes short work of his list as impossible for her family or anyone in their economic place. This summer I returned to poets I already loved taking Mary Oliver's Why I Wake Early and Seamus Heaney with me on vacation. For my soul I worked through the Book of Romans and the corresponding chapter in The Women's Bible Commentary. I also read Henri Nouwen's Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life.  For my non-fiction choices I started with Mary Cowhey's Black Ants and Buddhists and have begun but yet to finish Doris Kerns Goodwin's biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson ( this president was featured very colorfully in the movie The Butler) moved to Cathy Johnson's Now You See It: How Technology and Brain Science will Transform Schools and Business for the 21st century and finished with Roz and Ben Zander's the Art of Possibility. While I read Now You See it my son sat on the couch across from me reading The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brain by Nicholas Carr. We had a great time comparing notes and eye catching titles aside we found many things in common.

So what does the French philosopher Francois Marie Charles Fourier have to do with my summer reading? Whenever I have taught World History I tend to keep my students thinking and working at a 10,000-20,000 foot level focused on human interactions with the natural world and with other human populations. However, we do a couple of dives into more detailed looks at human ideas. One of them explores the trajectory from Jean Jacques Rousseau to Karl Marx. Fourier is one of the steps along the way. For those of you who aren't familiar Fourier is best remembered for his ideas on how to create harmonious, cooperative societies and for his thinking on feminism and human love. For him the greatest harm to the human psyche was separating our passion from our productive work. In his utopias people would choose what work they wanted to do that the society needed or wanted accomplished. One of his ideas that my students always enjoyed was the idea that because little boys like getting dirty they would be natural rag and trash pickers. Fourier recognized that for this society to work you needed a sufficiently diverse population to insure that all of the jobs got done. For him that number was 1620 individuals. As I read Cathy Davidson's discussion of the genius of Wikipedia and its truly democratic nature, I was struck by Wikipedia and other wikis and moocs as proof that Fourier was correct. Wikipedia thrives on the way it connects individual passions for any topic imaginable, to other people's love of editing, with those who want to improve the functionality or take on any number of the other hundreds of tasks needing doing and getting done through the Community Portal. All of this happens because people choose to engage. Twenty first century technology created the scale necessary for Fourier's ideas on harmony, collaboration and mutuality to thrive.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Leading inspite of myself #SAVMP

I am the oldest of three siblings . Birth order does matter. I have an engrained take charge reflex. Sometimes taking charge is not the right course of action! Sometimes leaders do have to take charge. Certainly, this was my experience as a first time department chair. Our department had experienced a challenging personnel situation the previous year and had lost our ability to work together for the benefit of our students. In this case, I was clear that there were issues we needed to tackle and work on together. I set an agenda for the year, first rebuild trust and relationships, second agree on standards for reading and grading essays, third develop our student's capstone research project. By the end of the year we had regained our collegiality and trust and done real work to strengthen our program. Then we got to the second year. What was the agenda going to be?At first, I again tried to set an arc for us for the year. But as I listened to my colleagues gamely work through what I thought was the next important thing to tackle, it became clear that group didn't all agree that this topic was where we needed to focus our energy and talent.  In listening and reflecting back what I was hearing we arrived at a new sense of where our students and our program most needed our focus. In this case, re redesigned our course offerings.

As I have taken on other leadership roles within Westtown School, I find myself doing an interesting dance along this continuum from taking charge to listening and facilitating. On my bulletin board I have a Canada Fisheries and Oceans navigation chart of the Benjamin Islands (#2207-1), a tapestry my daughter brought me from Tibet, a papyrus our exchange student brought us from his home in Egypt, a chart on managing complex change, and two reminders. One is a quote from Peter Drucker that I first heard while attending the 2011 Hathaway Brown Innovation Summit, the other is an expression common among, though not exclusive to Friends(Quakers) "Way Opens". The Drucker quote is "The task of leadership is to create an alignment of strengths making our weaknesses irrelevant." This was particularly apropos for the Innovation Summit as the workshop leader was Ronald Fry at Case Western helping us learn about and employ Appreciative Inquiry in our work as change agents at our various schools. Both of the reminders push me towards facilitated leadership. They both also encourage me to ask a few questions of my work:

  • Does this task/project/problem advance the mission of our school?
  • Does this task/project/problem build on existing strengths (conversely am I overly focused on fixing a problem)
  • Do I have the right people around the table?
  • What are my blinders and assumptions that might get in the way of the best way forward?
  • Is there someone else on staff who might want to do this work, might be better skilled for this task, feel passionately about assuming the leadership for this?
My dual responsibilities for faculty professional development and curricular review and innovation are predicated on a growth oriented model for staff and program in the service of our students. With 110 teachers on staff, all at various stages of their professional lives from teachers with 30+years of experience to fresh from college interns, a collaborative approach to leadership is a necessity to my ability to thrive. As such I have two more reminders hanging on my walls. Both were created by lower school students working with  visiting artists. Both are greater and more stunning than the sum of their parts. What you see of the lizards is only a portion of the six foot piece of drift wood stretched across my wall with 19 basking lizards. The rain forest water color is the work of first graders. An art teacher colleague pointed out to me that very young children understand instinctively how to best fill a space -- an understanding lost before adolescence and not regained without effort. Both works of art provide daily reminders to look for and cultivate leaders from within my faculty for all of our professional development and curricular development programs: peer coaches, new faculty mentors, 360 evaluation team clerks and members, curricular review facilitators and the list goes on and on. Its thrilling to have lived through this transformation from a one person Dean of Faculty and three divisional principals to one in which we all see ourselves as leaders sometimes and team members always.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

What happens in Las Vegas comes back to school!

Next week five of my Lower School Colleagues will travel to Las Vegas for the National Conference on Singapore Math Strategies. In responding to advice on how to track spending and budget for meals, I jokingly ended my email with a directive to ignore the Las Vegas advertising campaign that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. After all, I want this investment in our teachers to come back to serve our students.

Faculty at Westtown School benefit from several different programs to promote summer professional growth. We are sending three teachers to Ghana to work with and learn from the teachers at our sister school at Heritage Academy. One teacher has a grant to visit Alaska and develop a new relationship with a school there. Another teacher will spend a month in Italy deepening her understanding of the Renaissance. While she is there she will be corresponding with her students from last year, all of whom did reports related to the Italian Renaissance. For these students, their teacher will be bringing their interest in a topic to life in a a personal way. We have sent our Diversity Director and 11th grade English teacher to Eastern Europe to better understand the Cold War and how its vestiges continue to impact this region. Her students this upcoming year will directly benefit when they read How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed and other stories and poems from Eastern Europe.

Along with school funded travel many faculty are attending conferences. Along with the trip to Las Vegas teachers as Westtown will attend the Exeter Math Conference, ISTE, conferences on counseling, Admissions Boot Camps, and others. More targeted than travel, these conferences, scheduled as they are in the summer, allow teachers time to prepare for the experience, focus more completely on the conference while there and most importantly, provide time after the conference for teachers to digest and integrate what they have learned into their own practice. While conferences during the school year are excellent, upon return the immediate demands of our students often prevent time for the reflection necessary to truly draw on the new learning to inform our teaching.

We also provide curriculum development grants. These funds support the creation of new courses or significant redesign of current courses or units within courses. These grants are targeted towards supporting strategic initiatives. Priority is given to grants which are collaborative in nature. Often in writing the reports about their work, teachers reflect on the professional learning they experience as they take the time to think deeply about the work they have undertaken.

In all half of our faculty will be involved in the programs described above. And what of the other half? What is the expectation for teachers in the summer months? Many of them will spend significant time on their own reading, revamping, and planning for their classes next year. But for a few reading for pleasure will be the focus. Can a teacher in this century take the summer off? Disconnect for two entire months? The folks I work with most closely on professional development are discussing what we as professionals should be doing in our two months of time away from our students. What is expected of us as professionals and what is beyond the expectation and deserving of compensation or other recognition. (Certainly, I am a big believer in disconnecting. I try and spend at least two weeks each summer someplace where wifi and my cell phone are at best unreliable). Turning our minds to things other than curriculum, grades, or students, can be incredibly generative and beneficial to us in our professional lives. And yet, we want our students to read over the summer, to do some math to keep their abilities sharp, speak their second or third language to maintain their fluency. What do we need to do to sustain our growth through the summer months?

Friday, April 26, 2013

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Risk of Creation

I love vacations, for time apart--what Henri Nouwen might call renewal in solitude. I have read new books by favorite authors Louise Erdich and Barbara Kingsolver and discovered a writer I will read more of, Nicola Griffith. This is also a time for cleaning house - reclaiming my space-- and visiting with friends. Throughout this time two questions have been percolating in the back of my brain --What is excellent teaching (and can you measure it) and how do we foster creativity in our students? I will let the teacher question season some more before I pursue it here. However, the second question has taken an unexpected turn today. This morning I read a short piece by Janet Scott in Daily Reading from Quaker Writings Ancient and Modern. She writes that "As we act in obedience to the Light Within, we may become mediators through whom God's love is known. . . it means that we join ourselves to the risk of creation, to the authentic human being."

This phrase "risk of creation" has stuck with me all day, as I watched the snow (on March 25th!),  graded late work, folded laundry, read Griffith's Slow River and cooked for my family. What is so risky about creation? Is creation the same as creativity? As I visited with my daughter, home from her music rehearsal,  I found myself thinking about an interview I recalled in which Ravi Shankar, the late sitarist, talked about his long years of learning to master the traditional sitar technique and traditional sitar music before he ever attempted to create something new. His years of practice, memorization, study, and imitation had been necessary first. I recall a similar story about Izak Perlman traveling in China and listening to a young student play with great technical accuracy a challenging violin piece then Perlman played the same piece and the two were as different as night and day as he bought a life time of experience to creating something new from the score-- the difference between being accurate and authentic. How much mastery of craft (obedience) is necessary for creativity?

By this time in the year, I am actively encouraging my students to push through the boundaries of what they think I want them to know, to pursuing what they want to learn. But how do they share the new meaning and understanding they are gaining for themselves if they are still learning how to replicate and manipulate the forms and medium we use for communication -- essays, class discussions, on-line forum, blogs, debates, movies. Shouldn't it be enough for tenth graders to master skills and forms (and learn some history) and build a foundation for creation when they are older? I have respected colleagues who believe that high school must remain the place for skill and content mastery while college is the place for experimentation and individualized pursuits. I suspect Shankar's teacher would agree.

Teenagers are risk takers, its inherent in their unformed brains, so why not have them take risks within their learning? Why not encourage them to makes leaps from knowing one thing to conjecturing about another. Why not reward risk in the name of creativity. I have always looked at history as a means of teaching a set of skills. Why not create something new within the limits of the forms needing mastery? In recent years, I have come to look on history as a means of moving students from knowing to doing. I don't have an answer for the question I posed myself above except that I keep asking my students to think new and original thoughts and to adhere to the limits of the formal essay or the public blog or the round table discussion.  And sometimes out of this complexity they do venture something new and exciting. Perhaps obedience is about practice and over time practiced creativity leads to a courageous willingness to risk creation.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Focused Skiing

I have just returned from a wonderfully exhausting and renewing three days of skiing with my family.  For me, the beauty of down hill skiing is that it requires a high degree of focus. To not focus is to risk getting hurt. The past few days, every time my mind has wandered to something at work, I have found it very easy to push that thought aside and refocus on my body hurtling down the mountain on two skis. I am only an average intermediate skier with a healthy interest in NOT falling.

While sipping hot chocolate slope side I was reminded of Thomas Kelly's call for leading an integrated internal life as the best means for simplifying our lives.  Somehow or another skiing feels for me a bit of a metaphor for this. Skiing is a dynamic activity that demands coordinating a whole host of activities beginning with deciding what to wear and then over the course of the day constantly checking equipment. There is a constant feed back loop from my feet to my legs and torso to my brain.  Are my hips and shoulders pointing down the mountain. Is my right foot cramping (and why never the left foot?)? How are the Charley horses in my thighs? In the physical world there are the slope conditions. Is there ice on the trail ahead,  moguls (I hate moguls), sharp turns, or precipices to avoid (cliffs make me queasy)? On top of this there are the other people on the mountain. Where is my family? Who is moving around me? Is it a child? A teenage boy or other young male who may or may not have had a second beer on the chair lift? How is the visibility--there are few things as blinding when your are heading down a slope as skiing through a line of blasting snow making machines! Are my toes cold? I find I go from comfortable to cold in a heartbeat and once my toes hurt, my skiing becomes less effective --hot chocolate is always the solution so where is the nearest lodge?

Meanwhile, another part of my brain is reveling in the pleasure of being outdoors, enjoying the quiet and the natural world. The mid-westerner in me delights in the cold, the frosty trees, and icy creeks as I go whooshing past.  My spirit is focused and finds it natural to rest in gratitude in the present with my Creator. Though I have described all of these as separate and distinct thoughts, in truth, on the slopes this is all one singular state of being as integrated and natural as breathing. Now as I reflect on my skiing and because I am an educator, I am left considering how to lead my students to this place of simplifying their complex, dynamic external lives through focusing and integrating their internal life?

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Children Are Watching

This morning I woke to snow and fog. By lunch time, the snow was largely gone and the temperature had risen into the high 40s! All of a sudden every bicycler in the tri-state area was cruising down the road below my house. My teenage daughter said it made her wish for spring! She went for a four mile hike with a friend and two Bernese Mountain Dogs at Ridley Creek State Park. I went for a more sedate walk in the neighborhood. While I was out I noticed a little boy, probably three or four years old, pushing his bubble mower around the yard. He was happily mowing the bit of snow that remained on the north side of his home. He reminded me of my own son, now 23, who loved his bubble mower. He thought nothing of working over an acre of our yard as he helped his father "cut" the lawn. The boy I watched today wasn't making bubbles but he was fascinated by the way he created patterns in the wet grass. As I watched he stopped mowing and started to head in, then he stopped, came back for his mower and put it into the garage, next to his parent's lawn mower ! I would like to think he has watched his parents cut the lawn and then put their machine away. He might have left his own toy outside, but he knew that wasn't the way to finish the job.

How often we forget that our children, our students are watching. At our house, we have a rule that cell phones are not allowed at the table for any meal or in the living room when we are visiting, relaxing or playing games. We don't even answer the house phone when it rings (this drives some of our extended family batty!) At Westtown School, our dining room is a place where mobile devices are not permitted. Instead, this is a space where the people present are the focus. Were the adults in the community to ignore this rule, pull out their phones to check appointments, texts, or emails our dining room would quickly become a place where nurturing relationships would be replaced by what Sherry Turkle calls seeking validation. We model for our students, electronic disconnection in favor of personal connection. Meals are about more than consuming calories!

In our classes our students are watching too. Are we comfortable with all of the technological changes constantly coming our way? More importantly, are we able to navigate these changes? In my most recent project, my students created films on the amendments to the US Constitution. Because we operate as a BYOD school, my students were using at least three different video editing programs. I only know the most basic features of the technical aspects of creating films. And yet just as I can help my daughter with Calculus -- a subject I have never taken. I always begin by asking her what she knows. She talks me through the problem and often arrives at a solution or a resource to help her find the solution--I am still able to help my students produce better films. For instance, one group showed me their film in draft form. I found it hard to hear two of their narrators over background music. I asked them to show me their editing program and then I asked them how to adjust sound levels. By walking me through what they knew, they were able to extrapolate to what they needed to do to create a more understandable film. I also consciously and publicly go out of my way to ask for help from colleagues in this and all of my students' projects. I want my students to see me asking for help, stepping out of the "expert" role into to "learner" role.