Archive for Teaching and Learning

Redesign the Junior and Senior Years of High School


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

Academic Leaders Retreat


Curriculum is the main dish in a school, the substance of what students are attempting to learn. Why, then, do most professional development programs focus on pedagogy, assessment, and classroom climate? Without addressing course content, attempts to improve engagement and learning will fall flat. Students are highly attuned to the objectives of their learning activities.

SMALLICGLOGONOV14The Independent Curriculum Group is one of the only organizations through which independent schools directly address school curriculum focus. Originally founded to support schools seeking to drop Advanced Placement tests, ICG now attracts schools that are thinking creatively about the content and learning objectives of the instructional program. At this event, we met a school that has formed an academic department for topics in human development, another that offers eight world languages (see p. 36), a third that schedules athletics in the morning, and a fourth that provides students with “20% time” for independent projects. Nothing provides confidence in program change better than meeting the schools that have already done it!

The Academic Leaders Retreat West was the second of two personalized, interactive conferences. The location, Ghost Ranch in Abiquiú, New Mexico, encouraged participants to engage with each other, reflect about what’s important in schools, and imagine innovative potential school programs.


Peter Gow and Jonathan Martin facilitated the group sessions. Among the highlights: Martin guided us through a systems approach to school change, elegantly blending theory with practice. In one activity, we used fishbone diagrams to identify the key institutional factors underlying the student outcomes we wish to change. For example, our group looked at student reluctance to take risks and identified factors such as teacher-defined learning objectives, grading practices, program fragmentation, and high student workload as key systems factors that inhibit student risk-taking.


ICG knows how to empower conference participants to personalize and maximize their experience. The retreat included three “unconference” sessions, in which we all proposed topics and led discussions. This allowed us to hone in on questions that were particularly on our minds and learn more about practices in other schools.

UnConference Board

The evening events were just as significant as those in the daytime. The first evening, we watched Beyond Measure, the follow-up to Race to Nowhere. The film profiles a handful of schools, and specific students within them, who have succeeded in creating instructional program with meaning and purpose. I was struck by the stories of students who were dutifully attempting to meet their school’s expectations, but without passion. Their learning really took off when their schools launched new learning environments that featured student-defined learning objectives and authentic purpose. The second evening, Gow led a storytelling conversation about schools that have succeeded in shifting faculty culture toward program innovation.

Team professional development typically leads to program change much more than individual experiences. Three U Prep department heads joined me at this retreat, allowing us all directly feel inspired by the conference, meet all of the other participants, and then huddle with each other to discuss implications for our school. The momentum continued after the retreat, as we plugged lessons learned from the retreat directly into our ongoing strategic planning work on next generation learning.


Read the #ALRWest15 Twitter feed for more detail about the work of our three days.

Making Thinking Tangible

The U Prep Maker Space has provided teachers with new resources to help students develop their logical thinking skills and learn in all disciplines. Teachers have collaborated with Academic Technology Director Jeff Tillinghast to make student thinking tangible and support conceptual understanding.

calculus projectMath teacher Ian McInerney faced a challenge in the teaching of Calculus. Students were having difficulty understanding how functions behave when extended into three dimensions. Although graphing software could represent a 3D object in two dimensions, students had to rotate a virtual object on the computer screen, and they weren’t fully understanding the underlying concepts. Ian and Jeff designed a way for students make physical models of these functions that they could actually hold in their hands. Students calculated the shape of 2D slices of their functions using Microsoft Excel, cut the slices out of craft foam using a laser cutter, and then assembled the slices into 2D objects.


3D model emerges from a pencil sketch

Middle School stagecraft students were building Japanese Oni masks for the fall production of In A Grove: Four Japanese Ghost Stories by Eric Coble. These masks needed to fit the actors’ faces and yet also transform their  appearances, combining linear measurements with hand illustrations. 3D printing offered the opportunity to blend measurement with art. Students Julian and Nathan used AutoDesk Maya modeling software to build simplified facial structures from basic geometric shapes and then manipulate these models to match actor faces and drawn artwork. They then 3D printed the models and painted them for the production.

Cultural Competency Through Literature

Current events demand that we teach students the skills and habits of mind of cultural competency. Development of a positive cultural identity, appreciation for other cultures, and the ability to move gracefully through a different culture are required in order to function within contemporary society. Our work to teach for cultural competency throughout the school began years ago and continues today. The school curriculum is one area of focus among many.

monkey king

Gene Luen Yang’s Monkey King

“List three groups to which you belong. What is the identity of each group?” With these prompts, sixth grade students begin to explore the concept of cultural identity. During the week, Carl Faucher and Eric Huff guide the students through an examination of Native American creation myths, the risks of cultural stereotypes, and the Chinese myth of the Monkey King. Connecting personal experiences to the study of literature helps students develop deeper understanding of these topics of cultural identity, stereotype, and conflict.

One week in October, ninth grade students read short stories by Langston Hughes, Audre Lorde, and N. Scott Momaday and worked together to analyze how the authors constructed their arguments and evoked emotions. While the Foundations of Composition and Literature course teaches critical reading and analytical writing, literature selections reflect a wide range of contemporary topics, including cultural experiences and transitions. The new 11th and 12th grade electives provide further opportunities to study how ideas of masculinity and femininity have shaped Western culture, how culture shapes our relationship with the environment, and how Americans understand their own identities through history and current media.

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?

Challenge Through Inquiry in Physics

“I have always been drawn to the idea of challenge for students.” Physics teacher Moses Rifkin has known for a long time how to assign difficult test questions. At the same time, he has increasingly come to feel that different challenges are needed to support all high school physics students in learning. Rifkin has begun to develop experiential learning challenges built around student inquiry.

Over a span of two years, Rifkin has noted which topics could be taught in an inquiry manner. This year, he dramatically reorganized the physics curriculum, inverting conventional unit structure. Instead of learning a concept and then applying it to a project, students first explore through observation, identify what they need to know, and then learn the relevant concepts. Students exhibit greater motivation to learn physics concepts that are situated within an applied context rather than the dry, hypothetical scenarios typical of textbook learning.

Early this fall, physics students completed three inquiry learning projects. In the first, students were challenged to design virtual robots that could stand up and move about, using the simulator SodaPlay. Students quickly learn that staying upright and walking involve complex, constantly changing forces! Through trial, error, and reflection, students develop creativity, thoughtfulness, and resiliency.

In the second project, students were asked to think about the traffic signal in front of the school. “Where can you be when the light turns yellow and stop in time? Where can you be when the light turns yellow and make it through before it turns red?” Through experimentation, student groups worked to identify the relevant variables and equations, calculated responses to the questions, and then created a presentation to explain it all.

The third project flipped the classic “egg drop” activity. Students were presented with only the basic parameters of the egg drop: “you will be raised 25 feet up in a crane lift. I will walk by below, unaware. You will determine when to drop an egg in order to hit me squarely in the head.” Students worked to identify helpful physics principles and apply them to answer the question, and (only) then did they attempt to drop the egg and hit their target!

Students had the option to present their work on a poster or through a video. One student has connected the study of physics to his passion for filmmaking and animation, producing professional quality videos for his groups’ projects.


What is next for U Prep physics? Rifkin comments that these projects are more “open-roaded” than open-ended. Students learn how to apply conceptual study to real-world situations, but in reality these problems have a limited number of possible solutions. Rifkin would like to explore how to support students in to ask thoughtful questions and then design inquiry methods to study them, while still mastering foundational physics principles. This could make these projects truly open-ended, with a variety of possible outcomes.

Supporting Student Curiosity Through Online Learning


“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

Stanford’s Thoughts on the Future of Learning

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Stanford University held an event yesterday to share ideas about where teaching and learning are heading.

First in a series of events celebrating Stanford’s 125th anniversary, “Thinking Big About Learning” brings together Stanford professors and leaders talking about what they are doing and learning today in the humanities, computer science, medicine, education, behavioral science, neuroscience and more.

I watched the live broadcast and found that portions speak directly to our school’s strategic planning work on Next Generation Learning. I was also impressed at the similarities between trends in higher ed and secondary education. See below for a list of talks with time codes, so that you may jump directly to the desired presentation as you wish.

Opening Conversation

John Etchemendy, John Mitchell, Daniel Schwartz, and Caroline Winterer (00:00:00)

The Art & Science of Learning

Carol Dweck – Teaching a Growth Mindset (00:22:30)

Bruce McCandliss – The Neuroscience of Learning (00:38:00)

Jeremy Bailenson – Immersive Science, Learning in Virtual Reality (01:00:00)

Carl Wieman – Finding New Ways to Learn Science (01:15:05)

The Learning Landscape

Piya Sorcar – Overcoming Cultural Roadblocks to Education (01:48:00)

Linda Darling-Hammond – New Learning Landscape (02:03:10)

Esther Wojcicki – Empowering Students (02:19:38)

Travis Bristol – Reimagining the Classroom for Boys (02:35:25)

The Future of Learning

Scott Doorley – Learning in Context (02:46:25)

Philip Pizzo – Aging & Lifelong Learning (03:05:35)

Sebastian Thrun and Petra Dierkes-Thrun – Computer Science & Humanities (03:17:40)

Student-Led Study Skills Workshops

Today, Upper School students led a series of discussions about study skills. The student-inspired topics addressed areas of work that students most consider when figuring out paths to academic success. As I sat in on the science discussion, I got to observe students share their understandings of course learning objectives, discipline-specific types of thinking, memory techniques, and stories of success and failure.

Topics included:IMG_4478

Overcommitment, Busy Schedule, Prioritizing
Balancing Expectations
Stress Management
Long Term Project Management
Dealing with Tech Distractions
Good Tech Habits/Computer Hygiene
How to Improve Focus
Using Music to Help You Work
How to Write Formal Emails
Foreign Language Study Skills
English Specific Study Techniques
History Specific Study Techniques
Math Specific Study Techniques
Science Specific Study Techniques

Mindfulness Defined Broadly

7am, Waptus Lake

The mindfulness movement is growing in schools. A number of articles in the popular press have described meditation activities that happen in classes or co-curricular programs. Mindfulness has been positioned as an antidote to technology, distractibility and stress. Through meditation, students may develop their capacity for self-control and attention in a society rich with distractions and performance pressure.

In recent years, we have studied mindfulness and organized meditation activities at U Prep. Two years ago, David Levy visited to share his research and perspectives with our faculty. Last year, a group of ten faculty and staff members organized an affinity group to generate program ideas. This year, we have included within the socio-emotional strand of strategic plan development. Each year, our mindfulness work becomes more nuanced and oriented toward action.

Can mindfulness become a mainstream practice in schools? About a dozen faculty/staff members and 40 students currently participate in meditation activities during advisory and after school. While the program is still young, we hear anecdotally that the idea of meditation may not resonate with a majority of the school population. While some schools have made it, I would expect that many schools would require a broader definition of mindfulness in order to build support for it schoolwide.

This August, I learned that one can frame mindfulness much more broadly than just meditation. This fall, ten of us completed an online course through Mindful Schools. Though the course is geared toward developing one’s own mindfulness practice, it also serves as a prelude to mindfulness instruction training and certification. Although it may have seemed ironic to study mindfulness online, the course featured readings, audio lessons, participant discussions, and individual practice.

While breath exercises featured throughout, the course also included various applications of mindfulness that one might not immediately associate with meditation. These include:

  • Movement
  • Emotions
  • Gratitude
  • Compassion
  • Communication
  • Eating

Although “study” and “discussion” are not in this list, it does not require a lot of imagination to make the connection. If one can intentionally direct sustained attention to compassion, communication, or eating, then one should be able to think mindfully about intellectual inquiry and project work.

The course also embraced perspective and refrained from dogma in general. Sometimes, the “wandering mind” inspires creativity and reflection. We may benefit from distraction by environmental stimuli. Situating mindfulness within human experience makes it a lot easier to integrate within whole child education.

Mindfulness enthusiasts are on to something. Whether through formal meditation or just sustained, thoughtful attention, training oneself to intentionally ride the rapids or find a quiet boulder is increasingly becoming an essential 21st century skill. We are likely to incorporate mindfulness into our school’s next strategic plan. It’s just a question of how strictly we will define mindfulness and correspondingly, how broadly we will adopt it.


Why It Takes More than Unplugging to Solve Modern Stress | Mediashift | PBS

Harvard art historian Jennifer Roberts teaches the value of immersive attention | Harvard Magazine Nov-Dec 2013

Age of Distraction: Why It’s Crucial for Students to Learn to Focus | MindShift

You’re Distracted. This Professor Can Help. – Technology – The Chronicle of Higher Education

Mindful Schools

Driven to distraction: How to help wired students learn to focus | eCampus News

The Mindful Revolution | Kate Pickert | Time Magazine | Feb 03, 2014

3 Reasons You Should Let Yourself Get Distracted | FastCompany

When You Care About Everything, It’s Hard to Think About Nothing: Is the mindfulness movement due for a correction?​ by Taffy Brodesser-Akner | GOOD