Approaching School Days as Architecture: An Idea Revisited


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/74943290″>Asheville School Project Connect Ross Peters 2013</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/sobriquetstudio”>Sobriquet Studio</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

In 2013 I had the privilege of speaking at Asheville School’s Project Connect.  For me, returning to this remarkable small boarding school was a homecoming as I taught at Asheville School for ten years and was the founding Chair of its integrated, interdisciplinary Humanities Department. There are some great folks on the faculty there helping to lead the way in discussions about how to think about interdisciplinary work.  In 2011, Asheville School launched “Project Connect”, a biannual summer institute for interdisciplinary studies. The Asheville School webpage identifies it this way: “Through a partnership with the E.E. Ford Foundation, Project Connect seeks to help teachers and schools start, sustain, and strengthen interdisciplinary initiatives in order to equip students with the higher order skills (critical thinking, problem solving, analytical reasoning, and written communication) they will need to succeed in college and in life.” The next Project Connect will occur this June. I look forward to returning.

I didn’t realize it (or perhaps remember it) until this morning, but my comments were filmed and subsequently posted on Vimeo. My topic was “Approaching School Days as Architecture: Building Academic Schedules to Unlock Interdisciplinary Potential”, and it has some relevance to the work underway at my current school, St. George’s Independent School in Memphis, TN where I inherited a conversation about the academic daily schedule, which had been put on hold last Winter. The faculty committee studying our use of time and leading the way forward for St. George’s has deftly moved us to a place where we are likely to be ready to move forward with a new daily schedule for the Fall of 2016.

While some of what I shared in 2013 lacks relevance to St. George’s, much of it is clearly pertinent. One thing I continue to believe is that simple tweaking of a schedule does not produce results worthy of the effort necessary to make the change. At Hawken School and at The Westminster Schools where we thoroughly reinvented our use of time, we were able to take steps that have significantly and positively transformed the learning environment of each school. I want nothing less for St. George’s.

Much water has gone under the bridge since 2013 when I spoke at Project Connect. One fascinating experience was being invited to consult with North Shore Country Day School as they thoughtfully engaged a process to reimagine their academic daily schedule. To be able to step outside of my particular school and see another group face the complex calculus of school change was a gift. As I understand it NSCDS has moved into a new schedule for the 2015-2016 school year.

Virtually everything that has happened over the last two and half years reinforces my belief that we can create smarter, more balanced, and more strategic academic daily schedules in our schools. To get there, however, we a need a smart, balanced, and strategic process to create the right individual answer for any school.

I have written more about academic schedules:

Revisiting a Guiding Idea: Creating a Progress Culture in a School

and

School Transformation: Becoming a Progress Culture 

Creating a Progress Culture Through Pilot Programs: Compiled Thoughts

In the Spring of 2012, I wrote a number of blog entries about the role of pilot programs and courses in creating thoughtful progress in a school. These entries feel more relevant than ever to me. My writing in this area grew out of other thinking I had been doing around a concept of a healthy school culture called, “Progress Culture.” Given its relevance to the discussion of the role of pilot programs and courses below, I encourage readers to see my original blog on Progress Culture here: “School Transformation: Becoming a Progress Culture.”

My reason for compiling all my thinking here is that I find I am coming back to these ideas over and over again in my current work at St. George’s Independent School in Memphis, TN. St. George’s is a fascinating and powerfully diverse community with two PK-5 campuses, one in the City of Memphis and the other just east in Germantown, and a 6 – 12 campus a bit further east in Collierville. It is a school that has grown remarkably in the last twelve years from roughly a 350 students PK-6 on one campus to around 1150 students PK-12 on three.

The school remains forward thinking, entrepreneurial–it is in its DNA, thus I can feel the relevance of the work I participated in at both Hawken School in Cleveland, OH and at The Westminster Schools in Atlanta, GA, as both of those schools were steeply ambitious during the time I was on staff at each school.

Everything I have included here (except section VI) I have published elsewhere on the blog. It is my hope that it is helpful to have everything in one place.

I.  OVERVIEW

RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 leaving Southampton Water into the Solent. (Photograph: Jim Champion) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:QE2_leaving_southampton_water.jpg
RMS Titanic (http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/fd/RMS_Titanic_3.jpg )

Consider the “Turning the Ocean Liner” metaphor to describe school change. I have described and have heard many people describe changing a school to be like trying to turn the QE2: “it might turn,” we say, “but it will not turn quickly.” My issue with this metaphor is that it implies that everything has to turn slowly and in perfect harmony. We should not feel confined in the same way we would be confined on a ship. Today I am making a pledge to abandon that metaphor (“Abandon Ship!”) as it seems to give us a ready-made excuse for slowing down, or giving up on, priorities we have named as being mission-driven and strategic. The metaphor slows us down because it traps our thinking—it becomes an accurate metaphor because we have chosen to believe it. From now on schools are not big ships. Schools are challenging enough without having them have to be ships as well.

I am not of a mind to mint another metaphor to replace the one I just buried (or better “sank”); instead I am interested in describing an approach to making progress happen in a non-ship metaphor loving school. The accumulation of such steps together will lead to creating sustainable progress cultures, and it will not take long to see larger impact on the school. I want to support a budding culture of piloting ideas, and my definition of what exactly this means has come into greater focus. Supporting pilots:

II.  POINTING TOWARD THE PROGRESS WE WANT TO SEE IN SCHOOLS

  • “Supporting pilots points toward the progress we want to see in the school. Piloting an idea foreshadows the direction we are trying to go (I have written about the importance of foreshadowing progress in an earlier post). Accepting the idea of a pilot course or program is far easier than making a change that purports from the start to be permanent. Pilots allow a school to test drive ambitious ideas.”

Schools have a hard time changing course in large part because the muddiness of transition to something new feels too risky, and the pressure to be perfect from day one is oppressive. Doing something new in a school can feel like skipping all of pre-season practice and just showing up for the first game…or having to know how to juggle the first time you ever try.

In an earlier blog I tried to capture this predicament this way: “There is an old metaphor for leading change in schools: ‘Leading change in a school is like needing to be the best airplane mechanic in the world because you can only fix the plane while it is in the air.’ The tentativeness this statement encourages is inappropriate for the pace of progress that will be demanded of schools in the coming years.”

Creating pilots helps us avoid that tentativeness, and it provides one way to avoid having to be perfect at something before there is ever a chance to practice and refine. Additionally, when a pilot is successful, it provides an artifact in support of the direction of the school that will help provide momentum for what is next.

III. GETTING MORE OF WHAT IS GOOD IN SCHOOLS

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  • “Supporting pilots creates opportunities to extend what is already good in the school culture or curriculum. The lion’s share of progress should allow additional space for the most strategically aligned parts of the existing culture and curriculum to flourish as unconstrained by other factors as possible.”

There are programs in our schools, often ones that have grown up organically, that reach a kind of ceiling in their progress. In order to continue to allow them to grow (or, even better, to accelerate their growth), a pilot expansion may provide a good option. I am particularly interested in this as it may pertain to augmenting a successful and strategically aligned existing program with a curricular program or course offering.

At St. George’s the best example of potential in this area may be the school’s Institute for Citizenship. As one of the marquee programs in the school, the Institute occupies a key strategic placement in the Upper School curriculum. “Grounded in the school’s mission to prepare students for a life of meaningful contribution, the St. George’s Institute for Citizenship offers dynamic academic lessons and real-world learning opportunities to juniors and seniors who are selected to participate in this prestigious program. Through coursework and off-campus experiences, students grapple with what it means to be an engaged citizen both now and in the future, focusing on the regional, national, global, and environmental interplay.”

It is an important part of the Upper School Program, yet as it stands it is limited in the number of students it is able to serve. An area where we are likely to explore the use of pilots is in trying to determine ways we might expand the reach of the Institute. The guiding question is: how might we find ways to get the work of the Institute to touch more of our students? This does not mean simply expanding the number of students who apply to the original course. It more likely means thinking about the purposefulness of the program and finding different means to accomplish some of the same goals.

IV. CREATING A SAFER SPACE FOR EXPERIMENTATION

  • “Supporting pilots encourages experimentation and mitigates the damage that may occur when a new idea falls short. If we are trying to push the boundaries of what we can make happen in a school, we are likely to take a bridge too far from time to time. A pilot course or program creates a safer space for trying something new.”

Part of what we are trying to encourage in a moment of cultural and curricular transition in a school is a kind of entrepreneurial spirit. We want faculty members to experiment and to try new things in order to find a better way forward in our work with students. In the business world this approach, when thoughtfully and creatively applied, pays off in increased profit and market-share—in schools our “profit” is deepening and enriching student learning.

Experimenting and trying new things is difficult to say the least if everything happening in a school must operate constantly as if we have been doing it that way forever. Working with a pilot course or program places experimentation in a safer and more exciting place—there is a remarkable pay-off for success, and there is not lasting damage done by falling short.  It gives a school the rare ability to learn from both success and, importantly, from failure.  Interestingly, this also places the school in the position we seek for student learning—we want our students to learn the same way, and thus in working with pilots we model the approach we want them to take in their own education.

Another advantage is that when faculty members design and teach pilots, they are in the position to lead the school toward strategic outcomes. Designing, teaching, and reflecting on a pilot course places the faculty member at the center of the action where they should be. Such opportunities are important levers to impact faculty culture and thus student learning.

V. SHOWING THE WAY FORWARD

  • “Supporting pilots creates opportunities for the school community to see the efficacy of the school’s direction. We need chances to demonstrate success in the specific context of our school. Just having examples from other schools is not enough. Just speaking in the abstract has an even shorter lifespan.”

Particularly when the direction a school has chosen may seem abstract, piloting programs can help a community develop a definition of the components of the plan and a vocabulary to describe those components. It may not be overstatement to assert that, without such early artifacts of the strategy, getting people to commit to the bigger picture of progress may be impossible.

During the early stages of any significant initiative, communities vacillate between arguing that the progress the school seeks is not really progress at all (but rather only the latest sound and fury representing nothing) or that it is a dangerous veering from core aspects of the school’s mission, tradition, and identity. A school needs stories to counter these equally inaccurate ideas of the steps the school is taking and the purposefulness of them. Piloting courses and programs can be the basis for that effort by creating institutional campfire stories.

Pilot courses and programs allow for some students and teachers to benefit first hand, but importantly, if the story is told well, they also allow the larger school community to share vicariously in success. In this way the school begins to build what is new into the school identity, and at this point the legacy of the strategy begins to set-up on firmer and firmer ground.

VI. FINDING THE RIGHT WAY TO ENFRANCHISE MORE VOICES IN MAKING THE SCHOOL’S VISION REAL

  • Pilot courses and programs have another advantage in that they offer individual members the school community the opportunity to lead and to drive forward key progress in the school. When change is driven up from faculty members and students, it has a far greater chance of success than if it is simply driven down from leadership.

School leadership–the Board in partnership with the Head–can and should create the strategic framework for progress, but how the school fills in that vision forward should have many people leading individual components of work within the context of the strategy. In this way pilot programs and courses provide a way of positively flipping the coin on strategic execution from the Board and Head side over to the faculty and student side. It is all the same coin but each side has a different role to play and a different moment to play it.

I believe independent schools have created an array of valuable and necessary strategic goals over the last decade. Schools have increasingly prioritized Experiential Learning, Service Learning, and Collaboration, and they have worked to create curricula that better connects students to real world learning not only by renovating course work approaches, but also by generating and stewarding partnerships within the communities in which they operate. However, school leadership has only rarely been able to get communities to flip the coin–to move from leadership-driven progress to community held responsibility for moving a school toward serving students in the most relevant and powerful ways possible. In short, we will have to do better if we are to remain vital and necessary.

No matter how efficacious the goals of a strategic plan are, without growing support for it within the community that will live with its results, it is doomed to fail or, not much better, doomed to settle in mediocrity. Pilot programs and courses can be a catalyst for enfranchising the widest possible swath of a school community in the direction of the school.

VII. AN EXAMPLE: BIG SUCCESS, SMALL SCALE: THE WESTMINSTER SCHOOL’S JanTerm INTERNSHIP PILOT

Westminster’s first experience with JanTerm was not an end unto itself. It was always part of something larger. As the final part of a two-year rollout of a new daily schedule and school calendar, the JanTerm represented the single biggest curricular step forward in the Upper School since its founding–45 new challenging and varied electives, offered over the first three weeks of January for the entire 820 student Upper School at The Westminster SchoolsThe new schedule, in addition to adding a JanTerm, includes a later start, longer classes that meet less often, and more time for teachers to work in teams. The schedule falls from the school’s Strategic Planand it is a creation of a group we called the Time Task Force, an outstanding group of six faculty members. Over the course of a Spring, Summer and Fall, the Time Task Force did deep research, listened carefully to all the school’s constituents–faculty, students, and parents–and then crafted a remarkable proposal, which both aligned beautifully with the school’s vision and challenged us deeply.

In planning for JanTerm, we recognized that there would demand for internships, but we didn’t have the staff to support it, nor did we have an immediate vision for what this program, adjunct to the courses of JanTerm, might look like. So we did not commit to creating opportunities for interships until the registration process for the JanTerm courses was complete. And when we did decide to take this step, we thought of it as a pilot, as something we might try out and buy or as something we might have to put back on the rack.

In essence the heart of the idea is that schools have often built significant curricular/extracurricular programs without the “D” of “R and D”. They have leaned into Research, but tried to skip Development. When schools make this mistake, they inadvertently raise the stakes of the bet, they increase the pain of failure, they miss an opportunity to test drive a program, and they fail to build the momentum of support a good idea needs from a school community.

In the late Fall of 2014 when a couple of our planned JanTerm courses did not have adequate signups to support them going forward (in registration talk..they “didn’t make”), we decided to try to pilot a small number of JanTerm Internships and Independent Studies for a small number of seniors who had particularly well-formed and thoughtful ideas. We could take this step only because of the fact that a couple of courses didn’t make, thus leaving us the staff to lead this pilot of an Internship Program. Also working to our advantage we knew we were likely to have just a few seniors whose ideas for what they might like to do were advanced enough to work in January. Not being overwhelmed with demand was an advantage.

The application process was fairly rigorous, and the time window for sign-up was short. This was mostly a result of deciding to take a stab at this pilot program late in the game (November for a January rollout), but it was also fortuitous as only students who already had a passion were prepared to submit an application. As a result, the applications were for the most part excellent, and in the end six students were approved to move ahead. Each had a mentor, and one faculty member was assigned the task of observing them and organizing their final presentations and assessments Their execution of those plans was even better.

In the end the Internship Pilot was a big success on a small scale–just what we wanted. Each of the six students had a powerful experience, developed a quality relationship with his or her mentor, and represented the school well in the community. By ensuring our ability to do well whatever we set out to do in this pilot, we preserved the ability to grow the program in a steady thoughtful manner in the years ahead. We generated the momentum for the program it will need to continue on a positive growth trajectory going forward. By keeping the scale small, we did not become overcommitted to a program that has yet to define its long term placement in our JanTerm program.

Deep, Thoughtful, Engaged Lives NOW for our Students

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St. George’s Independent School –A view of the Collierville Campus, affectionately called “The Lodge” by the student body.

As I left The Westminster Schools this summer after serving as Upper School Head, I found myself refining my wishes for high school students in this particular moment in history. In an interview about my departure for the school’s magazine, I said:

“It’s not what our students are going to do ten years from now; it’s what they’re doing now. We spend too much time worrying about what students will do next when what really best paves the way forward is to live our lives richly, deeply, and thoughtfully now…”

When I look back on that statement from my new post as Head of St. George’s Independent School in Memphis, TN. I am more convinced than ever that we owe our students opportunities for deeper engagement now in life of the body, mind and spirit, as well as the life of civic engagement we need for them to lead. While the answers can, will, and should vary widely between schools, the priority should be clear:

If we want students to live creative, passionate, and civically engaged lives as adults, they must go about living toward those priorities now, and we must go about the work to support them in this effort.  

If we want them to contribute to the communities in which they will live and work as adults, they must contribute now. In order to accomplish this, our schools, places of business, and non-profit institutions must go about modeling the same priorities we wish for young people.  

…And most importantly we must model the priorities in our lives as individual community members. To do less risks creating a generation passive and cynical about the positive role they might play in the world.  

As I have been going about the business of learning my new town, a number of factors have conspired to keep the topic of this blog front and center for me:

  • The Memphis area has explicit needs that should demand all hands on deck—young, old and in-between. The community doesn’t simply need them at some future date–it needs them now.
  • The seniors at St. George’s are so clearly ready to live toward the priorities named above. St. George’s is fortunate to have a great senior class who lead in myriad ways. They are deeply engaged in the life of the school and the life of the community.
  • Meeting people in the Memphis area who are leading lives toward the priorities I named are making a real difference everyday. I want our students to know them and to learn from their example, so that before they head to college they can see clearly that such lives are not only necessary to the success of our communities, but that the lives of these role models is achievable and rewarding.

Ready to be Part of “What’s Next” in Memphis

Poster from TEDxMemphis 2015
Poster from TEDxMemphis 2015

Several years ago, I wrote a piece entitled, “Preparing our Students to be Community Leaders: An Initial Brainstorming.” After attending TEDxMemphis this weekend, I remembered the piece because I was reminded again and again during the TED talks of the vital importance of developing an interest in civic engagement and community leadership in our students. My thinking crystallizes in this thought: 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.

Here in part is what I wrote in December 2011:

“If we want to prepare students to be community leaders with qualities such as humility, decisiveness, passion, vision, and empathy, what should schools do to place their work developing those skills in greater relief? If successful leaders need skills such as the ability to take an unpopular stand, mobilize support for a shared goal, and remain undeterred by setbacks, what do schools need to do to develop those abilities in students?

First thoughts:

  • Help students learn about the larger community in which they live.
  • Balance opportunities for students to serve, study, learn and contribute in their own communities with similar opportunities in environments that are different than their own.
  • Engage students in learning that connects them to real-world issues.
  • Identify areas in the curriculum where connections to real-world issues already exist implicitly and make those connections more explicit.
  • Put students in the position to apply their intellectual abilities to discover issues facing their local community (or the world community).
  • Put students in the position of finding and proposing solutions to those issues.
  • Give students demanding and ongoing experiences working in groups facing complex tasks.
  • Hold students accountable for their ability to express a cohesive, articulate, and knowledgeable viewpoint to a group of people.

I just had lunch with a colleague from another school, and our conversation circled this topic and how we might be able to push our respective schools toward better and better work in this area. The last National Association of Independent Schools Conference focused on public purpose in private education, and I have struggled ever since with how to envision what a big step forward might look like. That said, I believe we need to be bold in this area—our students need to know the central issues facing the communities in which they live (beyond the narrow confines of their own particular zip code), and they need to learn the skills that will allow them to exert their voices in the conversations about those issues.”

After TEDxMemphis I find myself renewed in my commitment to this vital area of work in schools, and I am particularly inspired as I take my first steps in a new community–the St. George’s Independent School Community–which has such a relevant role to play in this work in a city that needs all good hands on deck. 

It is going to be an exciting time to be a part of this school and a member of the Memphis community.