St. George’s Non-Negotiables: Not Experiments

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Experimentation exists at the center of great learning experiences–it is inextricable from them. Students must learn to experiment—to try various approaches in order to discover what will work best. Importantly, an experiment is something a person or group DOES, not something a person or group IS. So while at St. George’s our students do many experiments, and as a school we pilot a number of ideas designed to discern the best way to serve our students and community, the school, including all its essential parts, is not an experiment.

In the headline of an article printed on-line on Friday and in a special report section on Sunday, The Commercial Appeal calls St. George’s three campus model an “experiment.” (The story was also picked up by USAToday.) The use of this word is, I am certain, well-intended, but it is inaccurate in describing our community in that it potentially makes what happens on the Kimball Avenue Memphis Campus (PK-5) and continues on our Collierville Campus (6-12) seem like something we do at St. George’s rather than something we are. To be clear, each of our three campuses–Germantown (PK-5), Memphis, and Collierville–is essential to St. George’s. Each is a part of a larger body. There is mutuality in the relationship of each campus, and all members of our community benefit from relationships with those from backgrounds different from their own.

Several years ago I started writing about an idea regarding how we should conceptualize the work of great schools operating in a quickly and dramatically changing world. I call this idea “Progress Culture.” A Progress Culture is able to name what should never change within it—what are its non-negotiable parts. Additionally, a Progress Culture is bold enough to ask hard questions about why we do what we do in the context of the specific strategic vision of the school, and it is resolute in building the answers to those questions into the fabric of the school even when they require arduous paths forward.

I believe our non-negotiables are:

  • St. George’s mission statement: St. George’s Independent School is a college preparatory school in the Episcopal tradition of education that is dedicated to the pursuit of excellence, preparing students for a life of learning and meaningful contribution in an inclusive learning community that nurtures outstanding academic achievement, relationships, leadership, and character reinforced by Judeo-Christian values.
  • Our devotion to our three campus model. Inherent within this model is the belief in the mutual benefit of bringing together students from all over the Memphis area—from over fifty zip codes and from the same wide economic and racial diversity that reflects our larger community.
  • Our commitment to the tenets of an Episcopal education:  centered in a belief that every child is a child of God and that a balance between faith and reason should be critical in the education we seek for our students. This belief is at the core of our work and makes serving students in the best way possible the alpha and omega of any conversation.
  • High standards for academic achievement, as well as school community engagement. Our collaborative learning environment is built around a belief that 2016 Salutatorian Sydney Lanyon captured in her commencement address by quoting this African proverb: “If you want to go quickly go alone; if you want to go far go together.”
  • Learning about and serving our city and area. At St. George’s we believe that the education we provide is not just for the person receiving it but for the communities and professions in which he or she will serve and lead. Their path toward playing such a role as adults begins when they are with us. In a blog entry I entitled, “Ready to be Part of What’s Next in Memphis”, I wrote, “if we want our students to become civically engaged, community leaders as adults, our schools must be civically engaged. We must demonstrate as institutions the skills and priorities we want our students to learn within our curriculum and extra curriculum.”

What is negotiable are the means by which we strive to live toward fulfillment of the non-negotiables. I am particularly interested in how piloting ideas can drive us toward better fulfillment of the non-negotiables. (I have written extensively on this blog about this topic HERE). Pilots are institutional experiments. A pilot program’s success is less defined by whether or not it is something we would replicate exactly in the future than it is by the extent to which we learn ways to improve our work in one of the non-negotiable buckets from it. For example, this summer beginning today actually is a three-week summer pilot course called, “Amplify Memphis.” Taught by Associate Head of School Will Bladt, Director of the Institute for Citizenship Jason Hills, and Giving Strategist for City Leadership Justin Miller, the course will immerse students in their city. (You will be able to follow the course blog HERE). It is a result of our desire to “learn about and serve our city and area.” Please see the course description and essential questions below:

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I am certain students will have a great experience in this unique course this summer, but I am equally certain that the course will not be exactly the same next year. The teachers who lead and the students who participate in the course are pioneers and experimenters. We will learn a great deal from their experience that will help us refine the idea, reinvent it, or even perhaps abandon it for something stronger next time. This is how we learn. This pilot is a form of experimentation. Please note, however, nothing that happens in the course will change the fact that “learning about and serving our city and area” is a non-negotiable aspect of our identity as a school.

The example of the Amplify Memphis experimental/pilot course paired with the non-negotiable “learning about and serving our city and area” illustrates the difference between an experiment and identity. Because what The Commercial Appeal‘s headline indicates is an experiment is as essential to St. George’s DNA as any other non-negotiable component of our identity, a different headline would have better captured the full significance of St. George’s bold three campus story.

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To hear about the St. George’s experience from members of the Class of 2016, follow these links:

To learn about our unprecedented partnership with City Leadership and Serve901 through the new St. George’s Bunkhouse, follow this link:

To keep track of the good work taking pace at St. George’s, follow these links:

Mutuality and Ascendent Partnerships

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“We recognize what has always been true, if often dismissed–that is, that we exist in a web of mutuality.”

[Several years ago, I wrote about the role of partnerships in schools. Below the brackets is part of what I wrote. I am struck with the ongoing relevance of this kind of thinking and of the strategic necessity of creating and maintaining partnerships. On Saturday, St. George’s partnered with the Wolf River Conservancy and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation to provide a family day on the Wolf River hosted at St. George’s. It was great to see so many people experience for the first time our outstanding setting along the Wolf and our unique access to Mid South wetlands. We have also developed an unprecedented relationship with City Leadership and Serve9o1 in a space we are calling the St. George’s Bunkhouse in the Vollentine-Evergreen neighborhood–you can read about that partnership HERE

What is happening through such partnerships pulls our school into the community from which it draws families, and it pulls the community to us. Through partnership we become a good neighbor, and we become aligned with the best ambitions of our city, county, and area. We recognize what has always been true, if often dismissed–that is, that we exist in a web of mutuality. For too long independent schools risked becoming artifacts of separation, virtually stiff arming the outside world–in so doing they risked underserving both students and the community. That coin can and should flip.

There are many institutions and non-profits thinking in similar ways about the importance of partnerships in the Memphis area. A couple come to mind first for me though there are, of course, many more. Rhodes College has made a priority of being a valuable neighbor through the Bonner Center for Faith and Service. In this work Rhodes has become a national leader. In a different context the amazing redevelopment of the old Sears building into the Crosstown Concourse, is at the forefront of creating connections between everything from housing, healthcare, wellness, retail, education, and office space. The most exciting forces–in education, in the non-profit, and in the for-profit world–are thinking big about how partnerships can weave the fabric of the city into something stronger, more inclusive, and more sustainable. Notably, the areas largest banks, First Tennessee and Regions, are focused on this work as well as expressed through their thoughtful deployment of Community Reinvestment Funds. In short, they recognize the power of betting on Memphis and Shelby County. They too realize that we are in a web of mutuality and that the generations to come will be at risk if we allow the constituents parts of the community drift too far apart now.]   

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Design Rendering of the Crosstown Concourse from http://crosstownconcourse.com/design

From 2012…”Partnerships. Local ones, international ones, public-private ones, online ones.  Partnerships between schools, between teachers, between academic departments, between students, between teachers and students, between the school and students, between the school and parents, between the school and the community in which it exists.  More and more the value of partnerships is finding its way into the identities and the realities of schools. Some partnerships are making their way from the co-curriculum into the curriculum, while others are pulling our schools and some of our students’ learning out of the classroom and into the world.

I have written often in “Ross All Over the Map” about the importance of creating a Progress Culture in schools, and of late I have been constantly reminded that partnerships will be a cornerstone of establishing, maintaining, and expanding such a culture. I am struck with the realization that the schools best able to nurture these partnerships (rather than just accumulate them) will be positioned to give their students the most meaningful and sustainable experiences.”

A Senior Prefect’s Helpful Insight

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“[At St. George’s] I HAVE learned not WHAT to think but HOW to think, and not just HOW to think but HOW to think WITH OTHER PEOPLE.”

I have been meeting with my advisees to discuss their upcoming student-led teacher/family conferences. I met with four of the seven of them yesterday, and two more today. My first meeting was with our Head Prefect Sope Adeleye who was telling me about her recent college visit to Harvard. She has a tough choice to make in the next couple of weeks, and while not yet resolved, I was witnessing her thinking about what she wants out of her college experience gelling. While she was talking about her different college visits, she pointed out that her understanding of the value of her experience at St. George’s Independent School in Memphis, TN was coming into focus. I asked what that meant, and she said: “[At St. George’s] I HAVE learned not WHAT to think but HOW to think, and not just HOW to think but HOW to think WITH OTHER PEOPLE.” The first part of the quotation was not original to her (she heard it from a “new friend she met during her visit”), but the last part–“[I have learned] not just how to think but how to think with others–was all hers.

It was a great way to start the day. In direct and clear language, Sope expressed my hope for great learning at our school. There is always a bit of tension between the reality of the school and its ideal vision for what it should be. This is a constructive tension, and its existence defines how a school challenges itself to get better at its work for the students who populate it. Sope’s statement is a poignant reminder that remarkable and rare things are going on in this school right now, every day. As we move forward to live toward the vision of St. George’s, it is vital to preserve the value already here. This is a core tenet of what I call “Progress Culture”. I believe it is true that students who become awake to the power of their education learn “how to think with other people.”

To impact positively the issues that define Memphis, our country, our world, leaders will have know “how to think with each other.” There is no other option that can possibly work. All of us regardless of political, economic, or religious affiliation, can cite far too many examples of leaders failing to think with each other. The generation of leaders graduating from high school late this Spring and those that will follow them in the years to come will need to have this skill at the ready. It is our ongoing work to make sure St. George’s students will.

Like so many of her classmates, Sope wants to change the world for the better. Some of them like Sope will tell you so. After you meet this crowd, you’ll have little doubt that in ways large and small, they’ll do it.

[I have written extensively about the idea of Progress Culture. You can find links to all of that writing HERE.]

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Student Engagement: It has to come First

Looks Like at SGIS

In response to the question, “What does outstanding academic achievement “look like” at St. George’s?“, faculty members responded with a resounding emphasis on “ENGAGEMENT”. They should. There can be many priorities in teaching and learning, and given different moments in the life of a school, those priorities can, should, and will shift. However, engagement, student engagement, comes first. It is Alpha. Without it, there is no traction for learning. With it, everything becomes possible.

I am writing this from Gate 66 in the LAX Delta terminal after catching a shuttle from San Francisco on my way to Atlanta on a red-eye, followed by an early morning final leg back to Memphis. Memphis generally, and my school specifically, have been much on my mind over the last few days as I have attended three gatherings. On Wednesday I represented St. George’s at its Winter INMAX meeting. INMAX is a consortium of twelve relatively large, and certainly complex, independent day schools. Over the next two days I attended the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) Annual Conference.The top highlight for me was seeing Sarah Cowan, our Director of Communications, present alongside Patti Crane about school marketing and branding strategies. Starting Friday evening and wrapping up this afternoon, I finished my time in San Francisco by participating in a unique design gathering called SPARKplaces, led by Carla Silver of Leadership+Design, Christian Long of Wonder, By Design, and Howard Levin of Convent and Stuart Hall Schools.

View from the library of the Flood Mansion, hone to the Convent and Stuart Hall Schools and location of SPARKplaces
View from the library of the Flood Mansion, home to the Convent and Stuart Hall Schools and location of SPARKplaces

It has been a remarkable week, and I know of a number of takeaways that will likely at some point find their way onto this blog. However, the thought I have this evening–as a the chaos of a busy international airport slowly shortens my temper–is that, within all our talk of thinking about schools of the future, we can not  lose sight of the primacy of student engagement in setting our teaching, learning, and design compasses for the path ahead.

Some relatively unpolished thoughts about engagement:

  • engagement begins with teachers building trusting relationships with students. In order for students to lean into the discomfort of great learning, there must be faith in the adult creating the context and driving assessment–both formative and summative.
  • students will not be engaged in the intended learning if the teacher is not.
  • deep engagement is not comfortable. It is born of curiosity and a need to know more that outweighs the desire to stay comfortable in pre-existing knowledge or belief.
  • engagement is a gateway to vital components such as collaboration and critical thinking. Once a student feels a need to know and to understand, the necessity of reaching out to others becomes natural. Efforts to create collaborative environments where critical thinking is central hinges on student engagement.
  • without engagement, academic experiences are only that–academic. Without engagement, classroom experiences are empty calories, a virtual skimming across the surface of learning. Most dangerously, such experiences can become cynical exercises in jumping through hoops for academic rewards.
  • we will fall far short of our responsibilities to our students if we are comfortable with passivity.

So much of what I found compelling this week has a direct relevance to engagement. It has to come first. Alpha.

View from my hotel room on the final morning of my visit to San Francisco
View from my hotel room on the final morning of my visit to San Francisco

[In future blog entries I plan on writing about several other ideas inspired by my various commitments in San Francisco this week. There is a lot to digest. I am perhaps most interested in this statement by the John Chubb, former head of NAIS who died late this fall: “Education is the civil rights issue of our time.”]