Self-Aware and Growth-Minded: Mastership Year Three

On Wednesday evening, the third cohort of the Mastership Program will begin their yearlong professional growth journey.  Like last year, we have a great mix of educators from all divisions including one with over 25 years of experience and another going into only his second year of teaching.  In the coming weeks, they will build the bonds of trust with each other, conduct role plays, learn innovative teaching practices, receive incredible amounts of feedback from colleagues and students, and further develop their interpersonal and affective skills.  At the core of Mastership is the belief that through experiential learning and high quality feedback, an educator can become even more self-reflective and growth-minded: two core competencies essential for making strong connections with students and innovating one’s teaching.

Watch last year’s final video produced by the Mastership cohort to get a sense of what they come away with from the program.

You will see from the Core Program diagram below that Mastership is broken into layers with each layer designed and taught by different Episcopal personnel.  For instance, our Director of Communications, Drama Teacher, and Chair of Creative Writing teach the Written & Oral Communication layer.  In a few cases, an outside professional teaches sessions such as those on group dynamics.  By breaking the program into layers taught by different people, it becomes manageable to run as well as provides participants with an opportunity to get to work with others in the school community with whom they might otherwise never connect.

The program is designed to embody the same goal of self-reflection as it sets for the participants.  Two Episcopal board members are charged with evaluating whether the program is meeting its goals and providing a life-changing experience for the participants.  Their evaluation is based on extensive interviews with participants and teachers in the program.  The real proof, however, comes from the participants themselves who want to continue in the program as mentors and teachers the following year.

The Right People Make All the Difference

ImageWhen our landscape designer Julie Green and I thought about building a community garden and edible classroom on campus, we were inspired by The Edible Schoolyard Project founded by California chef Alice Waters. Waters believed that a school-based garden and teaching kitchen could enrich curriculum and we wanted to create a link between our EA Farm Direct Program and our classrooms. The idea took on increasing energy when we put the concept for the garden out to the faculty. Julie and I were not certain who would be interested and were overwhelmed by teachers in the Lower, Middle, and Upper divisions who wanted plots. We had Lower School homeroom teachers who wanted a pumpkin patch and science teachers in all divisions eager to show the whole growth process from seed to harvest. Classics teachers were ready to plant Greek herbs and English teachers wanted a Shakespearean garden they could sit in with their classes.

With the interest secured, we put the deer fence up, built raised beds, and planted in the spring. Like many start-up projects, the first year was heavy on ideas and lighter on follow through. We had not exactly sorted out summer maintenance, the garden was under a thistle attack, and we hadn’t found the right person or persons to lead the effort.

ImageAnd then we got really lucky. Joe Bayer was hired as a full-time horticulturalist and Lisa Turner was hired as an English teacher in the Upper School. A California native, Lisa shares a passion for gardening and teaching and was inspired by the same edible classroom ideas that were the inspiration for our garden. Lisa and I were meeting to discuss what additional duties she would like to take on beyond her four classes and it quickly became obvious she should be the guru of the garden. Joe Bayer loved the idea of the garden and wanted to develop part of it as a nursery for flowers, shrubs, and trees that would be planted around campus.

Joe and Lisa prove that when passion, energy, and skill come together great things are possible. The garden now has a 1000-gallon cistern to capture rainwater from the roof of the maintenance building, 16 raised beds that are all being used, a nursery area for shrubs and trees, and an herb-cutting garden for the community. Lisa, Joe and a small cadre of others are raising egg-laying chickens that do a lot of good fertilizing and eating insects like ticks. We are in the process of installing a commercial composter behind our cafeteria to capture food waste and turn it into compost for the garden and campus.

In addition to regular classes and homerooms coming to the garden, Lisa joined forces with the after-care program to provide Lower School children with an opportunity to learn about plants, plant care or gardening. Lisa told me that this summer with the help of several teacher-gardener volunteers, we donated over 20 pounds of fresh produce to local food pantries. This year we will receive donated seeds from High Mowing Organic Seed Company–including seeds that will be donated to our sister school in Haiti. Now my favorite memory of the season was seeing Lisa dressed as the Thistle Witch stirring up the young hands to dig up every thistle in the garden.

Below is a video of of this spring’s “Herb Schwerb,” a kind of treasure hunt for spotting (and tasting) different kinds of garden savories.

Do We Need to Change the Way We Teach Math? A Hypothetical Exercise

The scenario is straightforward.  The online school, K12.com, is doing a better job at teaching math than your school.  Their outcomes on standardized tests are better, the retention of skills is better, and K12.com students are doing well in national math competitions.  This reality has been verified by a recent University of Pennsylvania study.  The secret to K12.com’s success is that their learning technology provides all students with their own differentiated path to success in math.  The technology adjusts itself to each learner in a way that a classroom teacher is simply unable to do.  In addition to the problem that your school is not teaching math as well as K12.com, your parents are beginning to ask uncomfortable questions as K12.com provides their education for free.  How will you respond?

This is a hypothetical scenario that I use as part of a workshop on innovation for graduate students in the School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. The exercise challenges the group to think about innovation in the curriculum, as well as the challenges and opportunities created by new technologies like online learning.  The main point of the exercise is for participants to sort out how their school can innovate without losing what is core to their mission and culture.

Since I started doing this exercise four years ago, this hypothetical scenario has become increasingly more realistic.  Independent tuition-charging schools justify their relevance by employing great teachers, having small class sizes, offering great programs, and providing quality interaction between students and teachers.  As the product of an independent school education and an employee of one, I can attest to these qualities being true.  My own children benefit from the quality of their interaction with their teachers every single day.  The danger that lurks out there, however, is the possibility that new teaching technologies will finally live up to the hype and perform at a comparable level to traditional bricks and mortar institutions.

In the K12.com scenario, the graduate students often struggle with the idea that an online school could be better then a traditional classroom.  Their reactions mimic many of the same concerns expressed by school administrators and teachers everywhere.  Teachers, they say, have the unique ability to read the emotional cues that students give.  They point to the fact that most parents are not equipped to have children at home.  They talk about the benefit of being in the same room as other students, learning the social skills necessary for living in our world.  The idea that students would be sitting in front of computer screens is anathema to everything they believe education to be about.

While the current iteration of K12.com and websites like khanacademy.org provide nowhere near as good an education as a great independent school, the underlying learning technology is improving rapidly.  At the heart of the improvement is the ability to tailor lessons and approaches to different kinds of learners.  And, there is a huge economic incentive to make technology-based online learning really good.  K12.com is one of the leading online schools with a market cap of over $800 million dollars.  Online schools and colleges represent the fastest growing segment of the education market.  There is a lot of money being poured into developing better ways to assess, tailor, and motivate students to learn in an online environment.  The moment these online schools begin matriculating students in any numbers at top colleges, independent schools will have another hurdle to overcome in convincing families to pay their high tuitions.

Clayton Christensen, Michael Horn, and Curtis Johnson make just this argument in their book, Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.  They argue that technology will offer “the potential for customized learning in student-centric classrooms” and will alter every aspect of the way we teach and learn. (P.38) Schools that are able to “implement this computer-based technology in a disruptive fashion,” will thrive. (P.90)  Using the example of how the personal computer destroyed Digital Equipment Corporation, the authors believe that many schools will fail to see the disruption coming and will simply become irrelevant.

So what does the threat of online learning mean for independent schools?  In my view, independent schools can thrive in this new environment provided that they recognize the opportunities that new learning technologies offer and are willing to rethink the traditional classroom.  The best ideas to come from the graduate students and others who have been part of my workshop do just that. They take advantage of the differentiated learning possibilities technology provides, combine that with the best of what teachers are able to do, and wrap it in a great school community.

Here is an example using math instruction in middle and upper school.  Currently, math is taught following the Carnegie Unit, or time-based method of curriculum design, with each year defined by a specific curriculum.  Between September and June, an eighth grader taking Algebra 1, for instance, will complete a specific curriculum and, provided the student passes, will move on to Algebra 2.  So a student that gets an A moves on with the student that gets a C even though each student’s level of mastery is nowhere near the same.  A good Algebra 1 teacher is able to differentiate instruction to a certain point, but there will often be big differences in the outcomes.

By taking advantage of new learning technologies, math instruction can become untethered from the traditional Carnegie Unit method and instead each student can progress at the appropriate rate for him or her.  Instead of going to Algebra 1 during math period, students go to the math center where they are grouped according to where they are in their own progression.  The technology provides students with problems to work on and constantly assesses their progress, tailoring the lessons depending on the students’ individual needs.  The teacher will frequently gather students in groups to teach and reinforce, while also circulating around to help individuals.  The teacher gets constant feedback about student progress and can anticipate where individual and group lessons would be appropriate.  As soon as class is over, the students continue on with their day.  The hypothetical independent school that takes this approach has not necessarily changed either its mission or culture, but it has redefined how it teaches math, the role of the math teacher, and how technology is used.

There are certainly a number of issues that arise from a change in the way we teach math or any subject for that matter.  At this point, the learning technologies have not matured to the point where a wholesale shift is even viable.  What this lesson teaches, however, is the need to be open to the possibility of what may be coming very soon, what it might mean for our programs, and what it says about the viability of independent schools’ business model.

Notes:

Christensen, C. M., M. B. Horn, and C. W. Johnson. Disrupting class, how disruptive innovation will change the way the world learns. New York: McGraw-Hill Professional, 2008.

The Power of Conversations

A recent article in the New York Times Magazine entitled, “The Flight From Conversation” by Sherry Turkle, raised more concerns about the impact that technology is having on our ability to actually converse with each other.  To be honest, the work that Tim Fish and I are doing on professional growth has convinced me that we may never have been very good at having honest conversations and technology has made it even worse.  Robert Evans, the school consultant, says that conversations between educators  “…are almost always congenial—cordial, friendly, caring, supportive—but rarely collegial—willing to talk frankly about their practice and their professional interactions, willing to disagree openly or to risk criticism.” Evans believes that educators are by nature conflict averse and therefore reluctant to be critical to each other.

This is a big problem.  Without honest conversations, we miss the opportunity for self-improvement and growth.  We do not really have a sense of how other people perceive what we are doing and how we are doing it.  We are not taking advantage of the expertise that surrounds us and could enable us to be even better at what we do.

In my files, I have dozens of teacher evaluations that bear this sad truth out.  I am blessed to be surrounded by very talented teachers who demonstrate great skill in the classroom.  These evaluations clearly show this to be true.  But every one of these teachers has areas where they can grow and improve and that is what is missing from almost all of the evaluations.  Sadly, this has been true at every school I have worked at, and I believe it is true at most others.

I believe there are several factors at play.  The first is, as Robert Evans suggests, a real avoidance of conflict that prevents high quality conversations from occurring.  The second is a fundamental lack of trust between teachers and administrators that stifles honesty.  The third is a lack of recognition that there is great power in conversations that can deepen relationships, foster self-discovery, and promote real lasting growth.

As teachers, most of us are very good at giving honest feedback to our students.  Ironically, when it comes to giving constructive feedback to our colleagues we avoid it like the plague.  It takes tremendous courage and trust to have these conversations.  It also takes a willingness to listen to the feedback and reflect on ourselves.

This is not just an issue between teachers, it is endemic to conversations between teachers and their administrative supervisors.  To these relationships we have to add the issues of job security and pay raises.  The fear of losing one’s job makes honest conversations complex and difficult even when there is a high level of trust.

We know through our own experience that conversations can help us grow and develop.  The teachers, coaches and mentors that have taught us along the way prove this to be true.  What we need to figure out is how to develop the skills and emotional readiness to engage in honest conversations and make it part of our school culture.