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Designing the Next Generation Learning Strategic Plan

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.

Next Gen Learning timeline

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.

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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.

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At the start of 2016, we reconstituted the design team under a name that better reflected its newly identified purpose: Next Generation Learning.

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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.

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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.

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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.

blended and online learning

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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!

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.

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.

Our NAIS Annual Conference Game Plan

Originally published on the NAIS 2016 Annual Conference Online Community

Screen Shot 2016-02-22 at 12.40.50 PM14 members of the University Prep faculty and staff will attend the NAIS Annual Conference this week. Why bring so many? In recent years, the Annual Conference has shed its old reputation for serving just the needs of administrators. Keynote addresses, workshops, and networking opportunities now satisfy a wide range of teacher leader and program director interests. Themes of innovative teaching, educational equity, and co-curricular programs appear everywhere. As we increasingly distribute leadership responsibilities among our staff, it makes sense for bring more people to the year’s preeminent independent school showcase and networking opportunity.

Here is a sampling of the activities of different members of our team.

  • Present a Speed Innovating session
  • Cosponsor Cultural Competency by Design workshop
  • Attend and discuss big ideas from keynote presentations
  • Attend workshops that connect to our new strategic plan
  • Attend Global Online Academy and Leadership+Design networking events
  • Attend SPARKplaces event on the future of learning spaces
  • Visit with Independent Curriculum Group retreat attendees
  • Visit the Interactive Maker Space
  • Identify potential future professional development workshop facilitators
  • Interview candidates for teaching positions
  • Lead a candidate recruitment roundtable discussion
  • Hold a U Prep team dinner to support our internal connections
  • Meet connections made at previous national conferences
  • Reconnect with former colleagues from other schools
  • Visit Bay Area schools

It’s going to be an enriching couple of days! We look forward to seeing you there.

Say “Yes” As Often As Possible

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Some years ago, I discovered that it’s my job to say “yes” as often as possible. A school administrator is a gatekeeper whose support teachers seek for permission to try a new idea or change a policy. I used to think that my role was to evaluate a new idea and decide whether to support it. Now, I start from the assumption that we can do it and proceed from there. Saying “yes” imbues teacher leaders with confidence and trust and lays the groundwork for school innovation.

Do I shun responsibility by saying “yes?” Hardly. For one, if a teacher or program director brings forth an idea that lies far outside the mission and norms of the school, then I say so. However, the message is not that I personally disapprove of the idea but rather that it does not have a strong chance of success given the nature of the school. Most people take such feedback well. If they persist with their idea despite such feedback, then either they are right, or their idea will ultimately not pass muster with others.

If a person like me does not pass judgment on an idea, then do all ideas get approved, leading to organizational chaos? Not at all. Rather, I fulfill my role to design and lead institutional processes that thoroughly consider, refine, and approve ideas. When groups of people, working from considered norms, review ideas, then the process is higher quality and more inclusive. Groups possess more collective wisdom than individuals, and any one person possesses personal preferences and blind spots.
Two kinds of institutional processes, natural and structured, may be used to consider an idea. Natural processes include trial, error, and correction, similar to what design thinkers call “iteration.” A person with authority can simply say, “Why not? It seems like you have thoughtfully considered this idea. Go ahead and try it, and let’s see what happens.” This works well when the barriers to entry are low. Starting small is another common design thinking strategy, designed to keep barriers low until an idea begins to show value.
Structured institutional processes usually take the form of a committee. Effective committees include thoughtful members committed to the school mission.Clear norms are essential, so that all participants are operating from common principles. Cultivating teacher leaders through training and practice develops a strong pool of candidate committee members. Administrators in the room must share their opinions only sparingly or else risk making decisions de facto by influencing the decisions of teacher leaders.

“Yes” is a powerful motivator and “no” a powerful demotivator. If the success of a school depends on the collective ingenuity and hard work of everyone involved, then collective motivation helps … a lot. It is practically impossible for a single or group of administrators to come up with all of the good ideas that will help an organization succeed. I have seen many good institutions stagnate due to overly directive leadership and faculty discord. On the bright side, a motivated, confident faculty becomes a wellspring of thoughtful, strategic ideas, the foundation for a culture of innovation.
According to a popular refrain, leadership comes in four styles: autocratic, consultative, consensus, and delegation. Saying “yes” means that one makes autocratic decisions only infrequently or for minor matters that may also be defined as tasks. “Yes” means that we are going to use more inclusive decision-making methods when people come to us with ideas. Perhaps we will solicit a lot of input and then decide whether to support the idea. Or perhaps send the idea to a consensus-based decision-making group. Or perhaps the individual who brought the idea will decide how far to pursue it.
The response, “yes, and” has become a popular way to support free and open sharing of ideas in conversation. “Yes, and” is certainly preferable to saying “yes, but.” However, why not just say, “yes” and stop there? Even when well-intentioned, adding “and” to a colleagues’s idea partially appropriates it. The person has only just expressed a thought, and we’re already improving on it? Better to respect the person’s thoughtfulness and trust later peer processes to further develop it. Say “yes,” as often as possible and design systems processes to support school innovation.
Photo credit: Kai Friis on Flickr

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