Retreats: Bonding and Much More

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It’s often said that off-site retreats promote social bonding, and they do. Students form new friendships, particularly important in a class drawn from 45 different elementary schools. Yesterday, I drove out to Fort Flagler State Park to join the new sixth grade class for their retreat activities. I saw the students interact in ways that help develop additional skills that will serve them well in their classes and community life at UPrep.

The genius of a retreat lies in the unique combination of structured and unstructured activities. To a student, a school day is largely structured, with objectives, activities, and outcomes largely designed by teachers. Time outside of school is either structured like school (soccer practice or dance rehearsal) or completely unstructured (going to the park or the mall with friends).

A full retreat day consists of only a handful of time chunks: breakfast, group activities, lunch, choice time, dinner, and evening activities. This contrasts starkly with the many divisions of the shorter school day. At a retreat, the adult presence is always there but in a role much less directive than a classroom teacher. Retreat chaperones set the guardrails for student activities, and then students are left to themselves to move activities forward.

At the retreat, these semi-structured activities provided the ideal training ground for the development of interpersonal and reflective thinking skills. I saw students work together to solve collaborative challenge activities. They communicated, supported, questioned, thought creatively, celebrated successes, and grappled with failures. At other times, students together figured out how to erect tents, protect picnic tables from the rain, cook dinner, assign cleanup duties, and more.

During choice time, groups organized activities like pickup soccer on their own, with just a little support from nearby adults. Assigned groups worked together to design, practice, and deliver skits in the evening. Teachers led individual reflective activities, and students were always free to find an introspective spot in the forest or on the beach during choice times. Informal groups decided to comb the beach for jellyfish, crabs, and skipping stones. I have never before been asked so many questions about ocean life!

Students experimented with different friend groups, using the socially conducive spaces of walks through the forest, collaborative games, and choice time to get to know a good number of their new classmates. Compared to the rest of the school year, these groups were unusually fluid, loosely structured by campsite but encouraged to mix and reform over the course of the three days.

On Monday, students will return to the regular school schedule of classes, clubs, rehearsals, and sports. The relationships and skills developed during the retreat will carry over into math groups, science projects, and dance performances, among others. The memory of interactions at the state park will encourage them to approach school life with confidence, knowledge, and an open mind.

 

Moving Up and Growing Up

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Credit: PixelBay

In most schools, when you finish the highest grade, you graduate. Graduation, even in elementary school, signifies the completion of a phase of education and a progression to the next one. Even multi-division schools have adopted the phrase “moving up” to describe the completion of one phase of education without graduating.

Whether graduating or moving up, students grow enormously during these transitions from one division of education to the next. Fifth, eighth, and twelfth grade students are clearly the masters of their domains. They skillfully navigate their school communities, serve as role models to younger students, and naturally assume leadership roles and responsibilities.

Come autumn, these same students pour themselves into their new schools (or divisions), senses on high alert as they learn the routines, social cues, and personalities in their new educational environments. In just a few months, maturity, capabilities, and independence leap forward.

Why are these transitional moments so powerful for many students? Common sense suggests that students respond well to being treated more like adults. Each division brings new levels of independence. Middle school students are freed from direct supervision and make their own way from one class to the next. High school students gain off-campus privileges and either drive or take public transportation to school. Expectations for self-sufficiency in academics and social life increase. The markers of adulthood become increasingly common, and markers of childhood fade away, as students progress through school.

A more subtle effect also exists. Novelty is a powerful trigger for learning. Our brains are wired to pay attention to differences from the norm. As a results, students tend to fully engage themselves with the new educational environments in which they are suddenly immersed. Sadly, this effect is impermanent, though it seems to last longer for some students. The same may be said for the last months in the previous division. Culminating events such as the last play, the last playoff, and graduation leave lasting memories for their novelty and uniqueness.

These moments of transition and novelty may also inspire introspection and reflection. Our college office frames the search process as a personal journey of self-identification and then finding a match from among the thousands of colleges out there. Capstone projects and student presentations provide a stage to showcase one’s strengths and identity.

Teachers of these newly arrived students tend to exhibit a curious paradox. Staying in place while students move in and out, teachers view incoming students as the youngest and newest of the bunch, relatively unskilled and immature compared to their older peers. This effect is subjectively exaggerated beyond what is objectively true.

While incoming students clearly have yet to learn the ways of their new division, they have just come from a grade in which they were regarded as highly capable. Follow these students from one grade to the next, and see what I mean. Exacerbating the effect, teachers tend to receive students from multiple, different schools in their classes, meaning that the group as a whole possesses an even smaller set of common skills and knowledge than the teacher might prefer.

As you welcome new students this fall, just remember: each was likely regarded as very capable, mature, and reflective just a few months ago, and they now arrive highly attuned and eager to figure out their new school environment and be treated more like an adult. Relate to them accordingly, and you will likely get the most from them in these early months. Onward!

Teaching the Structure of a Discipline

In this TED Talk (courtesy of @mdlev), Benjamin Zander describes and demonstrates the “transformative power of classical music.” David Perkins would be proud! Without explicitly saying so, Zander revels in one of Perkins’ favorite educational principles: that teaching should reveal the structure of the discipline to students. Zander finds in classical music the power to elicit human emotion through chords and melodies and argues that this is what makes classical music relevant to important to all. In this brief talk, Zander hones in on a “big idea” in the discipline, one of the principles on which classical music rests, which should be taught in any course on classical music!

Strategic Plan 2020 and the U Prep Mission

Originally published in Happenings, University Prep’s community magazine.

The school’s mission continues to light the path toward the future of teaching and learning at U Prep.

Since 2004, University Prep has been “committed to developing each student’s potential to become an intellectually courageous, socially responsible citizen of the world.” As the world has changed rapidly, the nature of excellent teaching and learning have evolved in response. The U Prep mission, written with a changing world in mind, remains as vital than ever. University Prep’s new strategic plan upholds the mission and sets a course for the design of our students’ future educational experiences.

Developing Each Student’s Potential

Since the school’s founding, we have understood that students thrive in a supportive community based on relationships. Belonging and healthy self-concept allow a student to strive for intellectual courage. Today, we now have a more detailed understanding of why relationships and introspection matter. One student remarked, “I was nervous at first to complete group work. Once we began to understand how each other worked, I really genuinely enjoyed it.”

So-called “soft” skills have also found “hard” evidence in neuroscience and educational research. Empathy, communication, and collaboration help students work more effectively with classmates and establish strong relationships with teachers. Interior skills such as emotional self-awareness, self-regulation, and growth mindset help students navigate challenges that they encounter. Students who possess these skills think more positively about their school experience. “The activity at the senior retreat helped break down stress. People seem more human this year.”

What motivates students to fully engage with learning? “Really interesting topics motivate me to do the work.” “I trust my teachers, because I see them every day.” In a landmark 2001 study, researcher Denise Pope found that many high performing students were just “doing school,” performing reasonably well but without true engagement and at a high cost to emotions and health. We continue to develop our student support and counseling programs and will train teachers to integrate social and emotional learning within classes and advisory meetings. We have also begun a process to reimagine the school schedule and calendar year.

Intellectual Courage

What is intellectual courage today? U Prep has long engaged students with advanced subject matter, abstract concepts, and public speaking. Today’s world demands new skills, in addition to these essentials. The challenges that our society face — among them global conflict, climate change, and economic turbulence — will play a large role in the future. In addition to academic mastery, skills and habits such as versatility, creativity, initiative, and purpose will allow our students to thrive.

The real world is not neatly divided into distinct subject areas such as English, math, and fine arts. Contemporary problems benefit from different perspectives and the recognition of their interconnections. Historical, scientific, cultural, linguistic, computational, artistic, and kinesthetic thinking are required to understand our increasingly complicated world. Strategic Plan 2020 calls for increased opportunities for interdisciplinary study by emphasizing collaborations among different subject areas and a multidisciplinary approach within existing classes. “We loved Art and Social Change and learned more than we could have imagined,” one student wrote.

Individuals who recognize opportunities and take action to seize them have “agency.” This year, a group of interested students encouraged the history department to offer a greater variety of course options, one student successfully proposed a student-led course in social entrepreneurship, and many students completed action projects in courses such as Civics, Physics, and Environmental Ethics. As part of Strategic Plan 2020, we plan to grow our programs for independent projects, mentorship, design, and community connections.

Social Responsibility

Through our community service program, the full student body dedicates three days each year to direct service across the region, from food banks to bike repair. We devote equal attention to the health of our internal community, particularly through the school’s values of respect, responsibility, and integrity. Strategic Plan 2020 asks the school to extend its work for social justice and educational equity. A number of teachers have led the way, introducing social justice units in all subject areas, from human rights in English classes to cultural identity in visual arts. Thirty-three Rainier Scholars are enrolled at U Prep (next year, we will have a record breaking thirty-seven), and we are comprehensively addressing how to provide the highest quality educational and social experience to all of our students.

Global Citizenship

While globalism is hardly new, both the world and U Prep continue to grow more global every day. Our Global Link students learn cultural competency through cultural immersion experiences overseas (and in the case of Middle School students, a very different part of the country). This year’s students remarked that they learned to “keep an open mind,” “try new things,” and “observe without judgment.” Sixth grade geography students have shared presentations with students in other countries, and Upper School Global Online Academy students have collaborated and studied with students in other states and countries. “The diversity of perspectives in our own country really surprised me,” one student remarked. Our strategic plan calls for continued emphasis on global and cross-cultural topics.


This past school year, Strategic Plan 2020 emerged from the wisdom and experiences of faculty, students, staff, parents, and trustees. This coming year, the faculty will identify the best, next evolutionary changes that uphold the mission and enhance learning opportunities for our students.

Faculty Summer Reading

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The faculty summer read promotes the sharing of fresh perspectives on education among us when students are away, and classes are not meeting. The book supports next year’s professional development work: to create program proposals for year 1 of our new strategic plan. During opening meetings, we will meet to discuss the books and identify promising ideas.

U Prep purchases these books and provides them to all faculty members and those staff members who would like to participate.

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— Citizen: An American Lyric —
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2014, by Claudia Rankine

“Marrying prose, poetry, and the visual image, Citizen investigates the ways in which racism pervades daily American social and cultural life, rendering certain of its citizens politically invisible. Rankine’s formally inventive book challenges our notion that citizenship is only a legal designation that the state determines by expanding that definition to include a larger understanding of civic belonging and identity, built out of cross-racial empathy, communal responsibility, and a deeply shared commitment to equality.”—National Book Award Judges’ Citation

Claudia Rankine’s bold new book recounts mounting racial aggressions in ongoing encounters in twenty-first-century daily life and in the media. Some of these encounters are slights, seemingly slips of the tongue, and some are intentional offensives in the classroom, at the supermarket, at home, on the tennis court with Serena Williams and the soccer field with Zinedine Zidane, online, on TV—everywhere, all the time. The accumulative stresses come to bear on a person’s ability to speak, perform, and stay alive. Our addressability is tied to the state of our belonging, Rankine argues, as are our assumptions and expectations of citizenship. In essay, image, and poetry, Citizen is a powerful testament to the individual and collective effects of racism in our contemporary, often named “post-race” society.

More information: https://www.graywolfpress.org/books/citizen
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— Brooklyn Dreams: My Life in Public Education —
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2015, by Sonia Nieto

In Brooklyn Dreams, Sonia Nieto—one of the leading authors and teachers in the field of multicultural education—looks back on her formative experiences as a student, activist, and educator, and shows how they reflect and illuminate the themes of her life’s work.
Nieto offers a poignant account of her childhood and the complexities of navigating the boundaries between the rich culture of her working-class Puerto Rican family and the world of school. Brooklyn Dreams also chronicles her experiences as a fledgling teacher at the first bilingual public school in New York City—in the midst of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville strike—and the heady days of activism during the founding of the bilingual education program at Brooklyn College and later in establishing and running an alternative multicultural school in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Along the way, Nieto reflects on the ideas and individuals who influenced her work, from Jonathan Kozol to Paulo Freire, and talks frankly about the limits of activism, the failures of school reform, and the joys and challenges of working with preservice and in-service educators to deepen their appreciation of diversity.

Brooklyn Dreams is an intimate account of an educator’s life lived with zest, generosity, and warmth.

More information: http://hepg.org/hep-home/books/brooklyn-dreams
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— The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness —
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2016, by Todd Rose

Are you above average? Is your child an A student? Is your employee an introvert or an extrovert? Every day we are measured against the “average person,” judged according to how closely we resemble the average–or how far we exceed it. The assumption that average-based yardsticks like academic GPAs, personality tests, and annual performance reviews reveal something meaningful about our ability is so ingrained in our consciousness that we never question it. But this assumption, argues Harvard scientist Todd Rose, is spectacularly wrong.

In The End of Average, Rose, the director of the Mind, Brain, and Education program at Harvard University, uses the new science of the individual to reveal the remarkable fact that no one is average. Not your neighbors, not your co-workers, not your kids, and not you. This isn’t hollow sloganeering or ivory tower esoterica—it’s a frank mathematical fact with enormous practical consequences for your chances for success. Our schools and businesses are all designed to evaluate and promote talent based upon the mythical notion of the average person, a one-size-fits-all model that ignores the true nature of our individuality. But in The End of Average, Rose finally provides the tools to break free.

Weaving science, history, and his own experiences as a high school dropout, Rose offers a powerful alternative to the average–three key principles derived from the science of the individual: The jaggedness principle (talent is never one-dimensional), the context principle (personality traits do not exist), and the pathways principle (we all walk the road less traveled). These “principles of individuality” unveil our true uniqueness, long obscured by an educational system and workplace that relentlessly judges our value by weighing us against the average.

An empowering manifesto in the ranks of Drive, Quiet, Mindset, and The Power of Habit—Dr. Rose’s book will enable you to reach your full potential by leveraging what is truly distinctive about you.

More information: http://www.toddrose.com/endofaverage/
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— Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance —
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2016, by Angela Duckworth

In this instant New York Times bestseller, pioneering psychologist Angela Duckworth shows anyone striving to succeed—be it parents, students, educators, athletes, or business people—that the secret to outstanding achievement is not talent but a special blend of passion and persistence she calls “grit.”

Why do some people succeed and others fail? Sharing new insights from her landmark research, Angela explains why talent is hardly a guarantor of success.

Angela has found that grit—a combination of passion and perseverance for a singularly important goal—is the hallmark of high achievers in every domain. She’s also found scientific evidence that grit can grow.

Angela gives a first-person account of her research with teachers working in some of the toughest schools, cadets struggling through their first days at West Point, and young finalists in the National Spelling Bee. She also mines fascinating insights from history and shows what can be gleaned from modern experiments in peak performance. Finally, she shares what she’s learned from interviewing dozens of high achievers—from JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon to Seattle Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll.

Winningly personal, insightful, and even life-changing, Grit is a book about what goes through your head when you fall down, and how that—not talent or luck—makes all the difference.

More information: http://angeladuckworth.com/grit-book/

People of Color Conference 2016 Proposals Accepted

We are delighted to receive the news that the NAIS People of Color Conference accepted two of our faculty proposals. It is encouraging to receive affirmation of our ongoing efforts to revise course curricula for cultural competency and social justice. We will see you in Atlanta in December 2016!

¡No más!: Integrating Topics of Social Justice into the High School Spanish Classroom

Elena Tello and Ciara McGrath

Session participants will learn specific strategies to incorporate topics of social justice in the language class. Some topics include: Afro-Latin Identity, Argentina’s Dirty War, Pinochet’s Dictatorship, Bolivia’s Water War, and Immigration Routes to the North. Two presenters will share techniques used with students to enhance their understanding of past and current world events and lead to successful culminating projects and creating cultural experiences in the target language.

What About the Content? Revising Curricula For Social Justice and Educational Equity

Richard Kassissieh and E-chieh Lin

Has teaching for social justice and educational equity penetrated core secondary school curricula? Students spend three quarters of the school day in classes, working to master the knowledge and skills in discrete academic subjects. While diversity programs have made progress in improving classroom climate, launching new elective classes, and running special social justice programs, the content required of all students cannot remain unchanged if we are to fully serve our students. Participants will analyze selected independent school curricula for principles of human and civil rights, address questions of student inclusion and access, imagine an alternate vision of what their own school might teach in the future, and identify points of access to the process of curriculum revision.

Teaching Openings – Update

Upper School Science Teacher

Middle School Math Teacher

Middle and Upper School Spanish and French Teacher

Middle School History and Geography Teacher

Upper School Civics and History Teacher

Middle and Upper School World History Teacher

New Courses Feature Next Generation Learning

University Prep has conducted a strategic planning process for the last year. One of our three focus areas, Next Generation Learning, concerns the design of learning opportunities to prepare students for a rapidly changing world. Initiatives in this area include:

  • Further implement a blend of face-to-face and online learning to personalize the educational experience for students and underscore University Prep’s commitment to intellectual courage
  • Extend and deepen instruction for computer science and computational thinking, both as a distinct field of study and integrated across the curriculum
  • Develop and implement a social and emotional learning program to build self-awareness, social awareness and cultural competency so that students may realize their full potential and contribute as socially responsible citizens of the world
  • Design more interdisciplinary opportunities in areas such as research, advocacy, and entrepreneurship in Seattle to promote student agency

A Next Generation Learning leadership team comprised of trustees, faculty, parents, staff, and students worked for a year to develop these initiatives. All parents were invited to provide input in after-school meetings. All faculty members contributed to the ideas during professional development days, and students provided feedback during our meetings period.

The new courses proposed for next year already support these strategic planning initiatives. How did this happen so quickly? We tapped department heads and other teacher leaders to serve on the leadership committee. Therefore, teachers who were likely to revise curriculum also reviewed and synthesized community input together. As a result, we are off to a fast start in the first year of our new strategic plan. Not only will students get to take these courses right away, but we will also get the opportunity to pilot prototype versions of these strategic planning initiatives before making larger scale program changes.

New and Revised Courses for 2016-2017

Middle School
Game Design
The Other Story of Math: Foundations and Social Justice
The Presidential Election: from Convention to Inauguration
Topics in Geometry

Upper School
Computer Science IIB
Digital Music
Environmental Ethics, Civics, and Advocacy (blocked class)
Global Online Academy (new offerings)
History of Cuba
M.A.T.H. – Math in Art, Technology, and History
Mathematical Finance
Science Olympiad
Social Entrepreneurship
Topics in United States History: War
Topics in United States History: Current Events
Topics in United States History: Race, Ethnicity, (Im)migration
Topics in United States History: Women in US History
Topics in United States History: The American Dream
Visual Art 123

How are these courses innovative?

Game Design, Digital Music and Mathematical Finance explore essential concepts in each discipline through relevant, contemporary applications. Students will study real-world topics using core academic concepts. With The Presidential Election, History of Cuba, and Current Events, these topics concern contemporary events. Students who want to devote time in their academic programs to applying disciplinary concepts to the news of the day will find a place in these classes.

Computer Science IIB adds a new course to the Upper School computer science sequence, bringing the program to seven courses total. Students who have completed CS I and IIA (or equivalent) now have a third course to deepen their study. Like our other courses, the emphasis lies on developing understanding of key computer science principles by grappling with well-designed problems and building small applications. Computational thinking (featuring logical and sequential reasoning) is both integrated within required courses in other subject areas and featured in these elective courses.

Global Online Academy has expanded their offerings to 55 courses. In particular, GOA’s new Learning Studios feature student choice and project direction through subjects such as Entrepreneurship in a Global Context, Water: from Inquiry to Action, and Power: Redressing Inequity Through Data. 30 of our students took a GOA course this year. The new offerings will allow our students to pursue their passions, learn with students and teachers from other parts of the world, and develop the skills of independent study and online communication and collaboration.

Interdisciplinary study is strong with these new courses. Two new math courses explore applications of math in history, the arts, social justice, and finance. Environmental Ethics is now a blocked double class that satisfies graduation requirements in English and Civics. Visual Art 123 has merged the study of drawing, painting, and mixed media into a single sequence that will better support advanced study in the visual arts. These courses increasingly address subjects of personal identity, culture, and social justice.

Student agency is alive in these curriculum revisions. An enterprising student wrote the Social Entrepreneurship course proposal. This innovative class will not have a full-time teacher. Rather, students in the class will study social issues in Seattle, design a social venture, and invite parents and teachers to contribute as guest speakers and course consultants. In history, students came to us this year and asked for more opportunities to find their histories in our courses. The new Topics in United States History options provide more options to a student body with diverse backgrounds and interests.

We look forward to offering these new courses to students next year and learning from these experiences in a way that will inform further curriculum development and revision.

The Metreon’s Lessons for Innovators

San Francisco MetreonOriginally published on the NAIS Annual Conference Online Community.

I experienced an inspirational story of innovation at the NAIS Annual Conference last week that filled me with optimism about the future of educational change in our schools. Doris Korda and Scott Looney (Hawken School) described an alternative high school program built around entrepreneurship and then unveiled an ambitious new project to reinvent the high school transcript and convince colleges to learn how to use it. I left feeling that we are indeed experiencing a moment of significant transition in independent schools that will help more students fully realize their potential. Then, I walked across the street to the Metreon.

Moscone Center’s giant, floor-to-ceiling east windows face the Metreon. You are forgiven if you think that it is just a Target, but the giant company only recently arrived. In 1999, Sony opened the Metreon in order to reinvent the urban mall as an entertainment/education center. It was a bold, unique pilot project. Original tenants included the first Sony Store, the first Microsoft store, an educational exhibit titled “The Way Things Work,” and a theme park-esque food court and play area based on the Sendak book, Where the Wild Things Are. The architecture was modern, and technology was everywhere. Kids danced on an interactive game projected on the floor, and kiosks sold the latest tech gadgets.

Despite much fanfare, the project stumbled out of the gate. Within a year, some stores left and were replaced. In 2006, Sony sold the building to Westfield, and in 2012, the mall company remodeled the space into a more recognizable form. An upscale, international food court and the aforementioned Target swallowed up the spaces formerly devoted to technology showcase stores, and the Wild Things gave way to a plainer, rentable, event space. Only the multiplex movie theater on the top floor and two of the food court options survived to this day. The building exterior now features red bulls-eyes, marking Target’s current experiment in downtown retail spaces.

Where did the Metreon go wrong, and what lessons can schools take away for their own innovative projects? Though my expertise lies in schools, not urban retail, I can see likely reasons. Sony invested huge dollars, $85 million according to SFGate, in the high stakes gamble. This must have led to massive pressure for the project to bear financial results right away. Successful innovations start small, with low-cost, low-risk pilots, to protect the innovation in its early stages and allow it to flounder, improve, and mature.

The financial model was apparently flawed from the start. In 1999, showcase stores did not make money (at least not until Apple Stores broke through). The added entertainment value of educational exhibits and storybook restaurants work in venues that charge admission, such as theme parks and museums. While design for innovation must welcome creative ideas, it’s equally important to confront practical realities later in the process and have a viable business model.

Sony attempted to change deeply embedded cultural habits of people wholesale and quickly. Even if Sony had protected the innovation longer, and the project was based on a better financial model, people’s shopping and entertainment habits still would not have changed in a short time. Successful innovations take a more personal, and longer-term approach to cultural change.

Will Hawken’s entrepreneurship program last? Will the mastery transcript consortium redefine the college application? We have learned a lot about innovation in education in recent years. I suspect that they have a better chance than that mall across the street.

Sources

Metreon’s shattered dreams (SFGate)

San Francisco Metreon 2.0: ‘Mall Of The Future’ Gets A Face Lift (Huffington Post)

“What happened to the “Where the Wild Things Are” interactive play space that used to be in the Sony Metreon in San Francisco?” (Quora)

Puma Talks On “What’s Next” March 5

Our student-organized speaker series has held past events on school day evenings. Next Saturday, they make the leap to a big stage, the school’s 40th anniversary community celebration! I am honored to join students and colleagues in presenting short talks on future directions we are considering for the school’s program. We look forward to seeing you there.

PUMA TALKS ON “WHAT’S NEXT?” MARCH 5

You won’t want to miss some serious intellectual discourse before all the fun of next Saturday’s celebration! Puma Talks will focus on the future of University Prep in honor of the 40th Anniversary and take place at noon in Founders Hall. The topics and speakers (students and administrators) will include:

Brian Gonzales – The Future of Global Programs
Ema Bargeron – The Future of Community Service
Sarah Peterson – The Future of Inclusion
Richard Kassissieh – Rethinking Senior Year
Claire Mao – Social Justice at U Prep
Christina Serkowski – Education for the Anthropocene