In this video, University Prep and Rainier Scholars alumna Jerusalem Hadush tells the remarkable story of how she found success and purpose through leadership programs, college prep programs, experiential learning, and university. This will be the best eight minutes of your day!
What is student-directed learning? Academic leaders use the term freely. Do we agree on its meaning? A group of us gathered at the Academic Leaders Retreat to discuss this question. The group included University Prep, Urban School, Christchurch School, York School, Lake Washington Girls Middle School, Evergreen School, Synapse School, One Schoolhouse, and The Berkeley School.
A common principle underlies our interest in this concept. Why does some of the best learning take place in student clubs? Students show greater engagement, work harder, and learn more when they control aspects of their learning environment. Daniel Pink wrote that autonomy, mastery, and purpose fuel motivation. Some students need more control than in the typical teacher-led classroom to feel “drive.” Making learning decisions is a critical skill in our fast-moving world.
Where have schools witnessed students design their own learning? We shared the purest examples from our school. UPrep has two student-led courses, Social Entrepreneurship and Feminism: Effects of Sexism and Advocacy. For each, students propose, design, execute, and evaluate the courses, in consultation with a faculty advisor but with no full-time teacher. When class meets, the students independently decide whether to focus on long-term goals, immediate tasks, or reflections.
The UPrep Community Service program encourages students to become “service captains.” They share the inspiration for a new community service activity, and then faculty and staff then step in to identify a community partner, arrange dates, and acquire materials. In the Student Produced Works course, students direct a play, create a painting, compose music, design a dance, and more. In the LaunchPad program, all seniors design an independent, community-based project around a personal interest to end the final year in the school.
During our discussion, academic leaders from other schools shared similar examples such as intensive clubs, internships, independent research, and very project-based courses.
Must students direct all aspects of the learning experience in order to gain the engagement benefits? Not at all! As Larry Rosenstock has said about the school he founded, we do not need more High Tech Highs. We need more different kinds of schools. Only the very rare school is ready to organize entirely around student-directed learning. Many schools want students to lead some aspects of the educational program. Most schools want students to make choices within their educational program.
Students benefit from opportunities to express “choice and voice.” Even a choice between two options is better than no choice at all. Teachers and schools that genuinely listen to student voice and adjust program in response support student engagement. Students may make decisions in discrete parts of the learning process, such as setting learning objectives, designing lesson activities, defining assessment methods, or connecting concepts learned to contemporary topics. Students may have choice at some times and not others. They may share the inspiration for new programs or activities that adults then carry out.
Our schools do not all have to become High Tech High in order to support student-directed learning. Better to start small, learn from experience, respond to local context, and then scale up. Schools are providing different opportunities for students to direct their own learning, creating schools that better inspire and prepare students for the future.
Darren Donaldson, math teacher at Tuxedo Park School, is visiting Maru-a-Pula School this summer to teach for six weeks and experience Botswana. For many visitors, the story would pause there, but Darren decided to make a remarkable contribution to the school as part of his visit. Darren started an appeal to support orphan scholars at Maru-a-Pula, and this effort has raised over $6,000 so far! The school has for years provided scholarships to Orphans and Vulnerable Children, with over 30 enrolled at any given time.
What inspired Darren to take this step? Maru-a-Pula students and staff visited the school last year as part of a United States marimba band tour. This included a concert at Tuxedo Park School, an event for both sharing music and cultural exchange. It is rare not to find inspiration in the uplifting rhythms and melodies, energetic performers, and cultural story of Maru-a-Pula and its marimba band.
How did a music group from a small school in Botswana find its way to Tuxedo Park? Sue Heywood, resident of Tuxedo Park, organized the concert. A former resident of Botswana, she and her husband found the school through longtime Tuxedo resident Andy Jackson. Andy supported the school by serving and running the American Friends of Maru-a-Pula for several decades. Andy discovered the school through associate Ned Hall, who founded AFMAP in 1974. It was a true gift that Andy got to welcome the school to Tuxedo Park before passing away last year.
This is how inspiration catches on. From 1974 to 2017, one person after the next experienced the school, felt inspired to learn more, and created opportunities for others. We wish Darren the best for his upcoming trip to Maru-a-Pula and know that his association with the school will inspire others in turn.
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Next month will mark the second full year of the development of Next Generation Learning at UPrep, our initiative to identify and design the learning innovations most likely to enhance students’ educational experience.
For the whole of 2015, a single Student’s Educational Experience team conducted open focus groups and workshops with families, students and teachers. We asked people to identify the greatest strengths of the UPrep educational program and the best opportunities to make it stronger. Our small team included a broad range of roles: trustees, administrators, teachers, parents, and students. Clear themes emerged as we sifted through volumes of community input.
After further intensive consideration of strategic importance and potential, these ideas were shaped into initiatives. The school announced Strategic Plan 2020 in December 2015 with three pillars: facility, faculty, and future. The third pillar, future, directly addressed educational experience in action-oriented terms approved by the board.
At the start of 2016, we reconstituted the design team under a name that better reflected its newly identified purpose: Next Generation Learning.
This committee considered how to best pursue the goals of the strategic plan. Some objectives could carry forward as expressed, whereas others contained multiple objectives that required separate teams. This spawned seven initiatives.
Five of these initiatives required new development teams. The first two initiatives, Blended and Online Learning and Computer Science and Computational Thinking, had been identified and designed early on and were well into implementation. Social Justice and Educational Equity required its own initiative, lest it be lost amidst the consideration of multiple topics under the umbrella of Social and Emotional Learning. Similarly, Interdisciplinary Learning Opportunities split into two initiatives, one focused on identifying connections among existing disciplines, and the other breaking new ground in student agency and entrepreneurship (U Lab). Finally, New Models of Time was added, as we realized that the school would need to address how we allocate time in order to support the other objectives.
The Research+Design teams then engaged in a repeated cycle of development and engagement. Small teams did the bulk of idea development, sifting through community input, identifying themes, and developing creative proposals. Team membership remained fluid over time, welcoming new interest into the group and cycling out those who wanted a break.
Like incubators, these teams were given creative autonomy, protected from premature criticism, and supported by instructional leaders and external specialists. Once they developed robust proposals ready for critique, teams broadly shared their ideas with the school community, administration, and trustees in order to receive feedback and endorsement.
Ten department heads, program specialists, and other teacher leaders were invited to chair five Research+Design teams. This act of distributed leadership caused several positive benefits. One design team multiplied into five, allowing us to make huge progress in 2016. 10 colleagues received intensive, experiential, just-in-time leadership development, broadening the school’s collective capacity for institutional leadership. The leaders also brought a diversity of perspectives to bear on Next Generation Learning, developing far more interesting, creative proposals than a single, centralized body would have developed.
The five teams were opened to the full faculty and educational support staff. Fully half of the faculty and educational support staff joined one of the five teams, enhancing the creative capacity of each team and deepening faculty investment in strategic plan implementation. The teams also invited a dozen students to join. The teams demonstrated great passion and persistence, because they represented ideas distilled from community input, volunteered to join initiatives that spoke to them, and included a variety of perspectives and interests.
From spring 2016 to present, the Research+Design teams have met during professional development days, lunch periods, after school, and during the summer to deeply explore the school dynamics in their initiative areas and design thoughtful, detailed proposals for school change.
The teams were asked to develop short-, medium- and long-term goals in their area, as well as to write specific proposals for immediate program changes. A number of opportunities had already presented themselves and were achievable, so we decided to improve the educational program and demonstrate progress right away.
As of today, some teams have delivered specific proposals to our approving bodies, whereas others continue to frame large, abstract areas of the educational program.
Here is an update on the current status of the five initiatives.
Implemented from 2013, this initiative is currently in a growth and evaluation phase. Inclusion in the strategic plan recognized the importance of this new work to the student’s educational experience and Next Generation Learning. UPrep adopted Schoology in fall 2013. Teachers and students use the system in all classes and as a private social network. One may say that our entire program has become partially blended (face-to-face/online) over that time, as interactive, differentiated, and personalized learning takes place through Schoology.
We adopted Global Online Academy in the fall of 2015, with 30 enrollments last school year and 15 this school year. GOA instantly added 60 new courses to our elective program, in subjects that exemplify contemporary topics, inquiry learning, interdisciplinary study, global perspectives, and rich relationships among teachers and students. Students have explored their passions and interests, valued the independence of online work, enjoyed interacting with students from across the country and around the world, and created outstanding project exhibitions. The school has also benefited from professional connections with GOA staff, faculty development opportunities, and the opportunity to provide teachers to GOA.
In spring 2013, we conducted a study of computer science programs and decided that computational thinking, foundational principles of computer science, and connections to other disciplines would drive our new program. We hired our first full-time computer science teacher in fall 2014, and she has developed the program into five semester courses, with 51 semester enrollments, three student clubs, and support for physical computing in the Maker Space. We continue to maintain the capacity to respond to student interest in the subject and will eventually consider the possibility of a graduation requirement in the subject.
This team started by creating an inventory of existing SEL practices in the school, since it already gained momentum as a grassroots initiative as well as received the attention of administrative leadership. The group selected the CASEL SEL framework out of many possibilities and partnered with consultants Janice Tobin and Rush Sabiston Frank to begin to develop an implementation plan. At the same time, training for mindfulness, empathetic listening, gender diversity, and suicide prevention continued apace.
Over the past couple of years, the number of teachers integrating cultural competency and social justice topics into their courses has increased considerably. This group, therefore, conducted an inventory of current and emerging classroom practices, studied institutional supports and barriers to equitable educational experiences, consulted with Wayne Au from the University of Washington, Bothell, and began to draft a set of program recommendations and suggestions for the school.
Disciplinary thinking has great value, as it represents long-developed, deeply held ways of making meaning of the world. However, organizing a school exclusively by discipline has some negative consequences, as the world is not neatly organized into seven academic categories. Contemporary challenges require hybrid thinking, the application of multiple disciplines to complex problems. This also prepares students better for university, where interdisciplinary departments are burgeoning, and schools offer up to 100 majors. This team has asked the school community to suggest opportunities for interdisciplinary courses, both in the required and elective parts of the program.
U Lab is the team that organized around student agency, connections with the city, and entrepreneurship. This group tackled the longstanding question of the culminating senior experience at UPrep. We have now approved the UPrep Launchpad, an individual, student-designed, two-week senior project in the Seattle area. The U Lab has also supported the student-led Social Entrepreneurship class, which has designed a social venture called U Box, a “give one, get one” care package program that serves families of college students and the homeless population.
This group has undertaken to redesign the school schedule and calendar in order to reduce student stress, support deeper learning, and use time more effectively. Our current schedule does not fully support the way we teach today, never mind the aspirations of our Next Generation Learning initiatives. The team collected masses of input from families, students, teachers, and staff members, examined the schedules of 25 peer schools locally and nationally, and received a customized analysis and report from Roxanne Higgins of Independent School Management. 30 teachers, staff members, and students serve on this team. We plan to announce schedule finalists for community consideration in the first week of December.
As we reach the end of the first year of Strategic Plan 2020, we are proud of accomplishments realized to date, anticipate the closing reports of Year 1 Research+Design teams, and look forward to kicking off Year 2. The teams have been designed to last for one year at a time, providing the opportunity to retire, reconstitute, replace, or divide teams at the new year. Team leaders have the opportunity to continue or cycle out, so that others may assume and exercise leadership. We also look forward to fleshing out the five-year plan for each initiative, determining a sequence for major rollouts, and developing evaluation metrics in collaboration with the board. It’s been a fulfilling journey so far, and we anticipate equally significant steps in the future.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.