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A Handbook for Independent School Change

When I learned that Denise Pope had published a new book (with Maureen Brown and Sarah Miles), I immediately thought that it would continue the story of Doing School, exposing the personal trials of high performing students in high performing schools. To my surprise, Overloaded and Underprepared reads more like a handbook for leading change to improve student well-being in high performing schools. It has immediately become an indispensable resource for schools that are engaged in change processes.

Pope, Brown and Miles stand with one foot in the world of education research and the other in practice, a welcome but uncommon place to be. Education research tends to be inaccessible or impractical to teachers, and teachers lack the time and structural imperative to stay abreast of education research. As a result, much school change happens without the benefit, or in opposition to, education research. Work that actively connects research to practice is therefore invaluable.

As Pope so clearly identified in Doing School, student compliance with school programming may mask severe stress and disengagement. When students meet school expectations, leaders and teachers may feel a general sense of satisfaction with the design of the school program. However, schools are complex organizations that rarely function at their potential in all areas!  High performing schools may unknowingly leave much student potential on the table. Pope et al help schools ask what they can do to keep improving. As the world never stops changing, schools that do not keep pace rapidly fall out of step with the needs of their students.

Overloaded and Underprepared focuses on the pressing issues facing high-performing independent and public schools: the process of school change, schedule, homework, engagement, assessment, Advanced Placement, social and emotional learning, communication, and professional development. Each chapter summarizes education research on that issue, describes school case studies from the authors’ consulting practice, and lists research references. A school practitioner may read a chapter, learn about schools making intentional changes, and find many references for further study. The book therefore serves a vital role in helping school leaders understand the issues that other schools are addressing and the research base that informs the accompanying changes.

While the opportunity gap facing urban and rural public schools has great national importance, dozens of research studies and books address that problem. Pope et al therefore fill a literature gap for independent schools. At the same time, independent and high performing public schools still face issues of social justice and educational equity, and Overloaded and Underprepared does little to address them. Do students of color receive an equally high quality experience as their white counterparts? What stresses do students of color and sexual minorities face every day? How does a school address issues of differential inclusion between majority and minority cultures within its walls? Does the school curriculum reflect mostly dominant culture perspectives, or do teachers teach multicultural and critical content across all subject areas? Pope et al miss an opportunity to address these questions in the book.

What other books inform the individuals and teams seeking to lead change in independent and high performing public schools? We regularly refer to the following.

Future Wise and Playing the Whole Game, two books by David Perkins

#EdJourney, by Grant Lichtman

Raising Race Questions, by Ali Michael

Loving Learning, by Tom Little and Katherine Ellison

What resources have you found most useful in your strategic planning work, particularly when designing new forms and supports for learning?

Leading With a Small Rudder

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First published on Medium

In seventh grade, I began a brief career as a coxswain for our school crew team. I had hardly been on the water in my youth, and yet the spectacle of an endurance sport on a river appealed to me. I was encouraged to coxswain, as I was not particularly endowed with size or musculature. It was an amazing experience. I learned to count strokes, call for surges, and most importantly, steer the boat.

Steering the boat was relatively simple at first. Beginners used the thickest boats, with heavy, wooden hulls and a big rudder. Pull the cord, and the boat would instantly swerve in the desired direction. It was an easy way to get started. I just had to keep the boat on the right side of the river and steer clear of collisions and clashes of oars with the other boats. Occasionally, the boat would run aground due to shallow water, but the team would quickly push oars into the mud and free the boat without much fuss.

The next year, in addition to coxswaining eighth grade boats, we began to sub for the junior varsity when needed. Leading the older boys felt a great honor and responsibility. And the shell! It weighed much less, shone brilliantly in the sunlight, and cut sleekly through the water. However, I gulped when I realized that the rudder was similarly sleek … and small.

The first time I saw a curve coming, I pulled lightly on the rudder as usual. Nothing seemed to happen. I pulled harder, and the boat started to turn, but too gently. Desperate not to hit the bank, I called for a hard left-hand pull from the rowers. When we ran aground, the older boys voices their displeasure, and I was embarrassed. This scene repeated itself over the course of the week, as I struggled to master the tiny rudder. I steered the boat through a series of emergency maneuvers, constantly interrupting the rowers’ efforts to pull us through the water.

Over time, I began to pay more attention to the shape of the river, anticipate upcoming curves, and plot gentle turns for our shell. I learned that the sleek boat went faster when guided in this more gentle manner. Our rowers’ energy propelled the boat forward efficiently, instead of fighting the lateral resistance of water against a turning hull. I learned to steer with a small rudder, to thoughtfully exert tiny pulls that added up to grand, sweeping curves and a fast boat.


According to legend, strong leaders steer with a large rudder, moving their schools in whatever directions they see fit. The myth of the heroic school leader persists, despite all evidence to the contrary [paid link, also see this]. Authoritative school leaders may hold a big presence in the school community, chairing decision-making meetings, writing for publications, and speaking at events. Authoritative leaders may find success with non-instructional projects, such building and fundraising. However, they rarely improve the student experience in meaningful ways.

Every school has a strong culture, whether intentionally or not. Teachers and student support staff do all of the work that moves the boat forward. Effective school leaders understand that their actions only cause small shifts to school culture as it is felt by students from day to day. They realize that they only have a tiny rudder at their disposal. And yet, they also learn that the consistent application of small shifts can fine-tune a school and lead to a more powerful learning community over time.

What are the signs of a well-tuned school? Teachers express that they feel supported and can realize their full potential as teachers. Students say that they can clearly see a path toward mastery and success. In a high functioning school, teacher support systems and classroom norms are intentionally designed to support progress toward learning. Teachers and students find reinforcement, rather than obstacles, as they strive forward in their work. This is not to say that challenges no longer exist, only that those challenges are naturally part of the learning process rather than artificially caused by poor learning environment design.

From the coxswain’s seat, a school leader may read the race and the river, set timing and tempo, anticipate turns, and pull on the tiny rudder when needed. School leaders play a vital role in successively shaping many small aspects of a school to consistently support a vision for teaching and learning.

Photo credit: “Oncoming Eight” by EightBitTony

Senior Spring and Student Time

3376949154_13eb28eaf8_zAs the pressure of college admissions disappears, those senior who were primarily externally motivated may suddenly find themselves without purpose. It’s understandable! Students who have pursued a demanding schedule of college prep classes for for college admission may lose their will to work with passion. At the same time, educators may be discouraged to see seniors slide out of high school rather than finishing on a high note.

Happily, we also see counterexamples, students who have developed strong internal motivation and see senior spring as an opportunity for exploration and experimentation. By senior year, many students have figured out which topics excite them the most and are interested in designing independent study in these areas.

What obstacles do such students encounter? The typical high school schedule is not so friendly to independent study. In most schools, seniors still attend classes from 8:00 AM to 3:00 PM. It is difficult to immerse oneself in a meaningful project within 45 to 80 minute pockets of time. If travel time or the setup of complex equipment is required, then it is pretty near impossible.

Some schools run a senior project term, in which students design and pursue independent projects for the last few weeks of the school year. The school excuses these students from regular classes so that they may do this. However, the scope of these projects is limited to that short timeframe. The longer the senior project period, the more such students may accomplish.

One of our students has developed a creative way to create more flexible time within a typical school schedule. He deliberately chose three classes that have flexible time structures: an online class, an independent study, and a projects class. The online class is offered through Global Online Academy, a consortium of independent schools to which we belong. The independent study is on the Great Lakes region of east Africa. Advanced Topics in Math, while a regular course, is built around individual, student-designed projects. On some days, this student may have large blocks of flexible time in order to study topics in depth and work with adult mentors both inside and outside the school.

As we continue our strategic planning work, we are considering what type of school schedule could offer larger chunks of flexible time by design, in order to reduce obstacles to independent, project-based, or off-campus study. How much flexible time is best? What support would students need to make the best use of such time? Can we give classes the option of meeting more or less frequently without overly fragmenting the flexible time available to students? We plan to ask these and other questions about time, research what other schools are doing, and propose changes for the school schedule.

Photo credit: “Broken Clock” by cacophonyx on Flickr

Faculty and Staff Openings for 2016-2017

Middle School Science Teacher – primarily sixth and seventh grades integrated science

Visual Arts Teacher – primarily middle school, to include painting, drawing, sculpture, and possibly photo and video

Counselor – works with individual students, develops school programs for wellness and emotional climate

Our faculty is growing! This is our second year of adding new teaching positions in order to reduce teacher course loads. This is allowing our teachers to devote more time to work with students, collaboratively develop curriculum, and pursue individual teaching improvement projects. We are transitioning our teachers to a standard load of four courses each semester (five each semester in physical education), as well as further reducing the loads of our teacher leaders (department heads and grade level deans).

Beyond Good vs. Bad

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Most education debates reduce the question of teaching methods to a good/bad argument. Are lectures good or bad? Technology? Homework? While a common rhetorical tool when attempting to win an argument, overemphasis of a simplified position undermines productive discourse and program development. Educators must move into the space between extremes, into nuances and complexity, in order to have constructive conversations that advance teaching practice. A constructive perspective eschews good/bad arguments and embraces relativism.

Of course, a good lecture can provide students with a terrific cognitive experience. However, the vast majority of direct instruction is not high quality lecture but rather a comparatively low-level summary of facts and conclusions. Emphasizing active learning opportunities for students creates more chances for students to engage in productive modes of thinking during class time. Most schools do not call for a ban on teacher talk but rather include high quality teacher presentation as one teaching method among a handful that should be used in classes. As always, effective teacher coaching depends on individual circumstances, which is why teacher observation and feedback is associated with improvement in teaching practice. With one teacher, we encourage less teacher talk and more student leadership in class. With another teacher, we endorse teacher talk, because it’s high quality and just one part of the learning environment.

The same can be said for other polarizing topics such as technology use, homework, class seating arrangements, and curriculum standards. For each, the practice is neither pariah nor panacea. Visit many schools, and one will see both good and bad educational practice along the spectrum of each topic. It is easy to find both effective and disastrous implementations of educational technology, productive and counterproductive homework practices, and thoughtful and thoughtless implementation of state content standards.

Several factors determine the effectiveness of a particular instructional practice in a particular context. The teacher should understand the key qualities of the instructional technique, what makes it effective in the best circumstances, and how it might exist within and interact with the existing learning environment. The school’s mission and values are critically important. The teacher should know how the instructional technique relates to institutional values or could be shaped to better complement them. Teachers should always be attentive to the student experience with teaching practice, through subtle methods such as accurately reading student engagement and depth of thinking during the activity, as well as more formal methods such as soliciting student feedback and examining student class work and assessments.

Ongoing professional conversations about teaching practices, institutional values, and student experience lead to the development of a recognizable culture of instruction in a school. Collaboration, professional development, and examination of qualitative and quantitative data bolster school identity and practice.

While good/bad arguments make for good headlines, nuanced, complex work leads to better instruction.

(Image by Natesh Ramasamy on Flickr)

Do Students Find Their Cultures In the Curriculum?

Brooklyn DreamsIn Brooklyn Dreams: My Life In Public Education, Sonia Nieto describes her experience at Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn, where she attended from 1958-1961.

As in elementary and junior high school, there was barely a mention of Puerto Rico or Puerto Ricans in the curriculum. I learned US and European history, American and English literature, French language and literature, art history (of course, primarily European). We learned nothing about Jews, even though Erasmus Hall’s student body was overwhelmingly Jewish, or the other White ethnics who were then the majority of the population in Brooklyn. We heard nothing about African Americans and little about immigration. At Erasmus Hall, I never learned that Puerto Ricans wrote books, created art, or did anything else of public significance. That knowledge took many years for me to discover. No surprise, then, that I felt invisible. I learned that identity was something you didn’t talk about. If you were not completely assimilated, your culture remained behind closed doors; at best, it was a source of embarrassment, and, at worst, a source of shame. This cultural invisibility surely had something to do with my sense of alienation. On the bright side, the invisibility of my culture in those years, and my ultimate acceptance and embrace of it, also had a lot to do with the focus of my chosen profession. [my emphasis]

This lack of representation caused Nieto embarrassment, shame, and alienation. Though she was ultimately stronger for it, Nieto took years to unpack and embrace her cultural identity, and other students might not succeed the way she did.

Although we might ascribe “cultural invisibility” to the era of the late 1950’s, would Nieto have a much better experience today? What attention do contemporary high school curricula give to Puerto Rico, a United States territory, or to the many other countries and cultures from which our students hail? Most schools now teach world history in place of European history, and Nieto’s critique of immigration and Jewish history may no longer apply.

Some schools adopt a critical perspective on United States history, and English novels have diversified. However, our student population continues to evolve at a faster pace than our course content. With a public school population that is already majority minority, instruction in all subject areas continues to lag behind the reality of our classrooms.

All students deserve to see themselves in their school’s curriculum and learn about their culture’s history, literature, luminaries, and accomplishments. Schools should adopt fully multicultural curricula that truly reflect the American student population in all of its diversity and prepares students to understand and participate in the world.

Redesign the Junior and Senior Years of High School

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In many independent schools, most students are ready for college-level work by the time they reach junior year. Why, then, do we make them conform to the same time and curriculum structures as our younger students?

Students who study away during junior year know this well. Popular study away programs develop curricula connected to their place in the world, set students to real-world challenges, have more flexibility in their daily schedules, and ask students to present their work to experts in the field. When they return to school for senior year, students often find a conventional schedule confining and learning goals abstract (at best).

Two such students have visited me several times this year, to the point that I have invited them onto one of our strategic planning committees. Their requests: place-based education, interdisciplinary learning, and real world projects. They would like studies to connect to the city of Seattle, draw upon multiple academic disciplines, and to work toward meaningful outcomes.

Junior and senior year are ideal times to develop and test new models of curriculum and instruction. Students take many elective courses during this time, having completed most graduation requirements. Many design a course of study that allows them to more deeply investigate the subjects that interest them most. Junior and senior curricula already have quite a lot of flexibility.

As students prepare for the next step in their educations, they could follow a weekly schedule that supported independence and flexibility. Each class could meet just twice per week, reserving substantial time for individual and collaborative work on open-ended projects, including travel into the city.

Such a schedule would also create space for innovative programs in education. Internships, independent research, senior projects, service learning, and online learning are all promising new forms of study, but they cannot ultimately be effective if constrained by the fragmented time chunks of a conventional high school schedule.

A program centered on student designed learning experiences deserves equally innovative school architecture. Such a school would include spaces to work independently, meet with a mentor, collaborate with a small team of students, build and leave long-term projects, prototype and iterate, and identify resources and partners. This part of campus would support hybrid thinking, housing both disciplinary experts and specialists in community engagement.

Could such a program also benefit students and younger grades? Of course! This center would be available for innovative learning in all grades. The center would field test a model for active learning that could subsequently be adapted for all grades.

Photo by nicolastathers

Sharing Guest Speaker Presentations

Gene Luen Yang at U PrepGuest speakers can deliver some of the most powerful learning moments in the life of a school. Authors, scientists, politicians, nonprofit leaders, and others may share compelling stories of intellectual and personal challenge and triumph, not to mention a peek into life outside of school. In the past year, U Prep has hosted Gene Luen Yang, author of American Born Chinese and writer for the Avatar books, Carl Wilkens, the only American to stay in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, and John Sage, founder of fair trade coffee company Pura Vida.

I have often wished that we could share such presentations with broader communities: parents and alumni of the school, prospective families and employees, the public at large in the Seattle metro area, and our national network of educators interested in educating students for social responsibility. The benefits to the school would be numerous: sharpening the school’s identity locally, building name recognition nationally, attracting families and teachers to our mission, maintaining a presence in the life of alumni, and more.

Many obstacles exist to sharing such presentations online. The speaker may decline to grant the school permission to record a talk or publish it online, so that they protect their earning potential as a public speaker. Someone at the school must capture high quality audio and video from the presentation. AV infrastructure must allow tech staff to tap audio en route from microphone to speakers and connect it to the video recording device. Someone must invest time time to prepare the video for web site publication. When a live audience is the priority, it can be a challenge to consistently organize high quality capture and publication of such videos.

Taft School has found a way to overcome these obstacles. They capture most, if not all, of their “Morning Meeting” presentations and publish them on their web site. A 120+ year boarding school has an enormous parent and alumni network. Publishing community presentations online has tremendous potential value. The following newsletter note brings attention to the collection of talks.

Morning Meetings – Online!

Taft Vimeo ChannelThe 2015-16 year started off with a powerful group of Morning Meeting speakers. So far this year, Taft has hosted an artist (Jessica Wynne ’90), an activist (DeRay Mckesson), an African debate team (iDebate Rwanda), an astronaut (Rick Mastracchio), and an author (Hillary Jordan) as Morning Meeting speakers. Assistant Headmaster and science teacher Rusty Davis also gave an inspiring presentation about imagination and technology. Videos of most Morning Meeting speakers are available on Taft’s Vimeo channel.

Kaitlin Orfitelli, Taft’s Director of Marketing and Communications, asks the speakers in permission for permission to publish their talks. “I have found that bringing it to speakers in person, introducing myself, and explaining how we will use the video often helps in obtaining permission.” The Video Arts teacher and his student crew record and produce the videos for the Communications department.

Sharing the great work of your school with the broader community has great potential value and takes both effort and organization. Does your school publish guest speaker presentations?

Coaching Innovation Online Course

9c0aa2dbf6021419f530af5f_209x280Global Online Academy’s two week course, Coaching Innovation, will be offered starting on November 4. Learn the thinking and techniques behind effective mentoring of faculty members. Learn how to coach teachers to think differently and to innovate their practice. This course is ideal for technology specialists, teacher leaders, department chairs, curriculum coaches, and other faculty members that work closely with teachers to help implement new practices. 

Register today!

Supporting Student Curiosity Through Online Learning

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“The Face of Poetry” exhibit (Minneapolis, 2008)

What does the future hold for online learning in schools? Will schools of the future offer a mixture of fully online, face-to-face, and blended courses, or will e-learning instead largely live within online providers that compete with schools? While predictions abound (and conflict), we deepen our understanding of online learning by participating in it.

Global Online Academy enrolls students from over 60 leading independent schools across the country and abroad. Classes are fully online—students never meet in person. Teachers from member schools assign both individual and group work and get to know their students well. The courses are at least as challenging and time-intensive as U Prep courses.

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Students in one class mark their locations on a map.

15 U Prep students are taking GOA courses this semester, exceeding our expectations for this new opportunity. Why did so many students elect to take online courses? For one, GOA offers subjects designed to extend and enrich our curriculum. With the addition of GOA, our elective catalog instantly expanded from 60 to 100 courses. Second, online courses have gone mainstream—the choice no longer seems unusual or risky. Finally, offering Global Online Academy courses as part of the U Prep program increases the expectations for independent school culture and student support.

We also reduced barriers to entry as much as possible. GOA courses were included in every step of our course requests process, from new course announcements to course signup and approval. Even though the school pays student enrollment fees to GOA, students take the courses without additional charge.

Our students are very clear: they take GOA courses in order to study contemporary topics that interest them. Ancillary benefits include experience taking a fully online course and meeting students and teachers from other states and countries. U Prep students are currently enrolled in eight of GOA’s 40 courses:

  • Applying Philosophy to Modern Global Issues
  • Arabic: Language through Culture
  • Contest Mathematics
  • Genocide and Human Rights
  • Global Health
  • Graphic Design
  • Medical Problem Solving I
  • Poetry Writing

The courses exemplify interdisciplinary study of contemporary issues in a global society. Students take courses that reflect their intellectual curiosities and have obvious relevance to their lives.

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Some anecdotes:

Annie and Matan are paired up with online buddies at King’s Academy in Jordan. Twice a month, they chat online via Skype to get to know each other and practice Arabic.

When Tseion’s Genocide and Human Rights class was asked, “what human right is most important to you,” she gained a new appreciation for political diversity as classmates from around the world shared their responses.

Kei wanted to take an additional semester of math in the fall, but none fit into his schedule. Having participated in math contests before, Contest Mathematics was a great fit.

Claire took Global Health because she had always been interested in social justice and wanted to learn how she could apply that interest in an academic setting.

Grace and Michelle share an advisory, a free period, and an interest in medicine. In Medical Problem Solving, they work with classmates from different schools to propose a diagnosis from a set of symptoms.

Katherine found a GOA that perfectly matched her passion for writing poetry. Each week, she submits her writing to the course’s discussion forum and both receives and gives feedback to her classmates.

Zack reports that Graphic Design is his favorite course. Why take a course online that we offer on campus? It can be hard to get a spot in our spring semester course, and GOA places more emphasis on digital work.

Rwandan Hutu refugees with as many possesions as they can carry trudge along the tarmac near Benaco Junction after being turned back by Tanzania soldiers after they tried to flee deeper into Tanzania. Several of the refugees said they would walk all thw way to Kenya or Malawi just so they could avoid returning to Rwanda. PG Photo by Martha Rial Dec. 1996

Rwandan Hutu refugees, PG Photo by Martha Rial Dec. 1996