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The incredible value of school visits

Our host approach us as we passed the school entrance. “Would you like to come in and put your things down?” “Actually we would very much like to watch students arrive to school,” we replied. Our host gazed at us with a puzzled look. “Why?” she asked. “Some in our community are concerned that students won’t use time before the start of school productively.” “You’re welcome to look around, but all you’ll see is students working, chatting, or having a snack.” Sure enough, students and teachers milled about with little concern.

Visiting other schools is a powerful way to encourage flexible thinking about change. It is human nature to stick with the status quo, as the known feels safer than the unknown. The perfect antidote is seeing a new idea working perfectly well in another school. If they can do it, why can’t we? Staff at other schools have put in the time, thought, and energy to design and implement change. We can benefit from each others’ good work.

Travel is expensive. How may a school fund such visits? One key is to frame them as a form of professional development. A school visit is like a conference minus the registration fee! Schools that demonstrate a commitment to professional learning often have success raising PD funds.

Travel is energizing. One of the benefits of being an education professional is the lifelong pursuit of one’s own learning. Visiting another institution is a rich source of new ideas, perspectives, and feedback. One can gain new contacts and expand one’s professional network.

The institutional value of school visits is tremendous. Schools that conduct visits learn from their hosts successes and mistakes and can implement new programs faster and smarter.

Engineering project at another school

 

Science project at another school

New Courses for 2017-2018

UPrep has a strong tradition of new course development. Each year, teachers consider what could enhance students’ experiences in the academic program. What needs exist, and what concepts and skills have emerged as important? After peer feedback and revision, course proposals are presented to our Academic Council for approval and inclusion in the Course of Study for the following academic year. Here are our the new courses that we will offer in 2017-2018.

Learning Pathways
Language Training, our signature, individualized educational program for students with language-based learning disabilities, has been renamed to better reflect the diversity of needs of students in the program. Students may now take Learning Pathways for one year or two, and instruction may include a broader set of activities in addition to Orton-Gillingham.
Feminism: Effects of Sexism and Advocacy
Proposed and led entirely by Upper School students, this course explores advocacy strategies to combat sexism. Our student-led courses each have a faculty advisor but no full-time teacher. Students enrolled in the class determine the learning objectives and class activities and report to a faculty and staff audience what they accomplished. Last year, another student launched our first student-led course, Social Entrepreneurship. This class enrolled 14 students last semester and met most of its goals, including the design, production, and sale of a product to meet a social need.
Latinx en Los Estados Unidos: Living in Between
Justicia Social en el Mundo Hispano
Introducción al Análisis de Literatura y Cine del Mundo Hispano
We have replaced Spanish 5, 6, and 7 with three topically-focused electives that satisfy language graduation requirements and may be taken in any order. Language learners typically acquire functional fluency by the end of level 4. This change makes existing themes from Spanish 5 and 6 more clear and allows students to study topics of interest to them. It also allows heritage students to take Spanish for language credit, particularly if they are interested in studying Latinx history and culture. With this change, heritage students can now limit their study of French or Chinese to two years and complete their graduation requirement in advanced Spanish classes.
Innovation and Design Studio
A product of the U Lab portion of our Next Generation Learning strategic initiative, this Upper School course provides students the opportunity to design their own semester projects focused on research, advocacy or entrepreneurship. It provides a different option for student-directed learning than student-led courses and independent study, for those students who want to conduct independent projects but need some structure and support to succeed.
An Intentional Media Diet
This course expands our English options in 11th and 12th grades. It focuses on changes in communication technologies over time and critical examination of digital media. Students explore what it means to be a socially responsible media consumer and content creator in a digital, globalized world.
Current Events and Media Literacy
Similar to the previous course but offered by the history department, this seventh and eighth grade elective course examines issues involved in contemporary news production and consumption to empower students to become informed, critical consumers and producers of information.
Digital Storytelling
This course explores the art of storytelling through various digital media projects and provides a second English elective course to seventh and eighth grade students. Students apply knowledge and vocabulary connected to existing digital media analysis to articulate their own design ideas from conception to execution. Project work covers a range of rhetorical modes including personal narrative, informative, and social critique.
Advanced Topics in World History: The FIFA World Cup 2018
This course examines the key issues themes surrounding the FIFA World Cup in Russia to be held in the summer of 2018. Students develop an understanding of the social, economic, and political forces that have shaped the modern world and given rise to this global phenomenon. Through case studies, the course explores how football became a truly global pastime and how this specific international competition became a multibillion dollar event. This elective course is available to Upper School students.

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).

Taking an Online Course Together

Yesterday, Lori Hébert from College Prep (Oakland) invited BAISNet subscribers to take an online course with her, and as of this morning, 14 BAISNet members have signed up! This is the first online offering from an education school that I have seen in any of the new generation of social, free online courses from major universities.

Stanford Online: Designing a New Learning Environment
INSTRUCTOR: Paul Kim
Chief Technology Officer and Assistant Dean, School of Education, Stanford University
October 15 – December 20, 2012

The Course

What constitutes learning in the 21st century? Should reading, watching, memorizing facts, and then taking exams be the only way to learn? Or could technology (used effectively) make learning more interactive, collaborative, and constructive? Could learning be more engaging and fun?
We construct, access, visualize, and share information and knowledge in very different ways than we did decades ago. The amount and types of information created, shared, and critiqued every day is growing exponentially, and many skills required in today’s working environment are not taught in formal school systems. In this more complex and highly-connected world, we need new training and competency development—we need to design a new learning environment.

The ultimate goal of this project-based course is to promote systematic design thinking that will cause a paradigm shift in the learning environments of today and tomorrow. Participants are not required to have computer programming skills, but must have 1) a commitment to working in a virtual team and 2) the motivation to help people learn better. All of us have been involved in the learning process at some point in our lives; in this course we invite educators, school leaders, researchers, students, parents, entrepreneurs, computer programmers, illustrators, interface designers, and all those who are interested in working together, to create a new learning environment.

After the completion of this course, students will be able to:

  • Identify advantages, disadvantages, limitations, and potentials of at least 10 interactive learning models and solutions.
  • Describe how online communication, collaboration, and visualization technology play a role in the behavioral, cognitive, constructivist, and social dimensions of learning.
  • Describe the major components and processes involved in development of interactive education systems.
  • Communicate rationales of learning technology design approaches through team-oriented collaborations.
  • Evaluate the value of ideas, principles, and techniques used in educational media or systems.

As a Final Team Project, students will design a new learning model catering to 21st century environments and learners. Each self-formed team will design and develop an application or system that combines team interaction activities and learning support features in ways that are effective and appropriate for today’s computing and communication devices. Students must consider potential idiosyncrasies with various learning devices (e.g., tablet, phone, PC), infrastructure requirements (e.g., cellular network, wi-fi, Bluetooth), and any special hypothetical circumstances if relevant. In addition, each team must create and defend a business model (non-profit, for-profit, or hybrid) for the launch and scale up their solution.

Additional consideration will be given to teams that come up with system feature ideas presenting meaningful learning interaction and performance analytics.

More online offerings than ever before

In related news, I sent the following list of online course offerings to our faculty yesterday, and one colleague added to the list.

Coursera
https://www.coursera.org/
198 courses from 33 universities, including Stanford, UW, Princeton, Berklee, and U. Michigan.

Stanford Online
http://online.stanford.edu/
Some courses offered via Venture Lab, a new online learning platform designed specifically for group collaboration [3]

EdX
https://www.edx.org/
7 courses from MIT, Harvard, and UC Berkeley in science, programming, and public health

Udacity
http://www.udacity.com/
Started by the former director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory
14 courses, mostly in programming and math.

OpenCulture: 530 Free Online Courses from Top Universities
http://www.openculture.com/freeonlinecourses

iTunes U
http://itunes.apple.com/us/genre/itunes-u/id40000000?mt=10

Carnegie Mellon Open Learning Initiative
http://oli.cmu.edu/learn-with-oli/see-our-free-open-courses/

 

Laptops and Tablets for Academic Purpose

University Prep is working to design the details of its RYOD (require your own device) program for the next academic year. Central to the process is clear identification of the pedagogical and curricular purposes for requiring each student to bring a computing device to school every day.

Schools implement student computing programs to varying degrees. At some, students come up with effective uses for the devices, but the overall instructional program changes little. Other schools make fundamental changes such as fully adopting eTexts or shifting instruction toward 21st century skills.

Whether related to technology or not, school initiatives have a greater chance of successful implementation when they align well with other activities at the school. By this reasoning, a new 1:1 student device program will have a greater chance of significantly improving student learning if it complements one or more other instructional initiatives at the school.

If a school simply introduces more technology without a corresponding change in the learning environment, then a very good chance exists that the technology initiative will not reach its full potential. Technology initiatives have the potential to underwhelm when introduced separately from other school changes.

Here is first stab at a roadmap, or menu, of changes in the learning environment that the introduction of student devices could complement.

  • Electronic organization of learning materials
  • Collaborative notetaking
  • Peer review and writing process
  • Differentiated instruction
  • Self-paced learning
  • Formative assessment
  • Project-based learning
  • eTexts, flexbooks, and other electronic resources
  • Multimodal instruction
  • Unified assignments calendar
  • Unified course web site system
  • Hybrid/blended learning
  • Flex weekly timetable
  • Information literacy curriculum
  • Education for 21st century skills (creativity, collaboration, communication, etc.)
Do you know student laptop or tablet programs that fit this model? That differ? That complement an instructional initiative not on the list? I’d like to hear from you.

Another Special Senior Art Gift

Last year’s seniors gave a beautiful math-based painting to the school. The Class of 2012 just unveiled these two marvels, creating for science what math received last year. Yes, that’s a strand of DNA in cat’s cradle form. Click the photo to take a closer look.

Global Online Academy

Catlin Gabel is one of ten schools that has founded the Global Online Academy, a new not-for-profit school. Teachers from member schools teach fully online courses that are available to member school students. Students take these courses for different reasons, for example to access subject matter not otherwise available in our program and to take a language class despite an off-site, afternoon dance commitment.

GOA aims to preserve the unique qualities of independent school education: small class sizes, close teacher-student relationship, an inquiry focus for instruction, and a challenging curriculum. So far, courses are living up to expectations. The teacher-student relationship is particularly rich in the online format. Most of the teachers hold a weekly Skype chat session with each student. This quite possibly creates more one-on-one attention than a student receives in a face-to-face class. On the other hand, students report having a harder time building relationships with other students, given the absence of common time together.

One of our own faculty members is a founding teacher in the Global Online Academy. His course, urban studies, immediately became comparative urban studies when it went online. Previously, students studied the city of Portland and collaboratively designed an urban improvement project for a specific neighborhood. Now, each student designs an independent urban improvement project for her city. The huge added benefit: students get to represent their own city in comparisons among the members of the class!

It has been exciting to participate in preparatory meetings and the launching of this new consortium. I cannot recall in my career ever witnessing such a close, creative collaboration among ten independent schools. Our schools are notoriously independent, yet we created a new, joint teaching and learning structure together. From our school’s point of view, we represent GOA course work as a full transcript course, because we helped to shape the program. We do not represent in this manner courses that students take through other online schools.

Will GOA grow to the point that most Catlin Gabel students take an online course, or will it remain a small niche option for specific circumstances? Each semester that passes will bring a new opportunity to monitor the popularity and effectiveness of this form of schooling.

Photo source: iStockPhoto

Learning Through Accreditation

The accreditation process serves as valuable professional development for both the members of the visiting team and the faculty and staff of the school itself. I recently returned from a school accreditation visit in Seattle. I read the school’s thoughtful, 200-page self-study, visited classes, interviewed teachers, discussed observations, and co-wrote the visiting team report with 10 colleagues from different schools. Within three days, I had gained a pretty detailed understanding of the internal workings of a school. How else can one do that?

Certain school traits are nearly universal. High schools generally follow a liberal arts curriculum. The teacher-student relationship is highly valued. At the same time, no two schools are identical. Schools have different measures of success, and they use different methods to get there. Understanding many different schools helps one learn that there is no “one best system” (Tyack). Staff who work in a single school for many years run the risk of concluding that their model of a successful school is better than others.

One school may have a laptop program and a Smart Board in every classroom. Others may rely on laptop carts, tablets, or few computers at all. One school may consider athletics a premier program, another school puts it on the same level as community service, outdoor programs, and global trips. Schools differ in the lengths of their terms, administrative positions, block schedules, academic departments, advisory structures, and so on. How the program is executed is more important than the configuration of these structural components alone.

Accreditation also provides one of the few formal accountability measures of an independent school. Of course, independent schools are ultimately accountable to their families, who can express satisfaction or displeasure with their feet. A board of trustees also provides high-level accountability in the form of school governance. Accreditation is more comprehensive and direct in its observations than any other method. While losing one’s accredited status is unlikely, the school formally presents its program to an external body for review and gains an opportunity to reflect in a manner that may inform future decisions.

This year, our school is writing its own self-study, and next fall we will host a visiting team. We have begun our process of validating the mission and explaining how we organize the program to embody the mission every day. This winter, our IT Team and Co-curricular Innovation Council groups will write two sections of the self-study, summarizing key program aspects and identifying opportunities for improvement. We should emerge from this work with a more coherent sense of who we are and specific strategic directions for the future.

Image source: iStockPhoto

A Paradox of Plenty

Interviewing a teacher candidate last year, I asked how she felt about collaborating with me to integrate my technology periods with her classroom periods. She replied, “It would be fine. I have been teaching technology to my students all year.” Of course. Not all schools are lucky enough to have a technology specialist provide students with dedicated instructional time. It is quite usual for homeroom teachers to both teach technology skills to students and determine how to use new technologies to support instruction.

Specialist instructors are a hallmark of independent schools. Tuition payments supply generous budgets, funding teaching positions in the arts, technology, and co-curricular programs: instrumental music, vocal music, painting and drawing, drama, ceramics, film, graphic design, animation, technology, library, outdoor education, global education, urban studies, community service, diversity studies, and more. Students experience a wide array of course work in many disciplines, enriching their education and broadening their horizons.

Schools with many specialist classes must work especially hard to achieve program coherence. Homeroom and specialist teachers must form strong grade level teams so that students experience a reasonable degree of consistency in purpose, values, instruction, and assessment, or else risk confusing students with contradictory expectations and rules. Teachers must regularly exchange information about students, so that each teacher understands the whole view of each child. Administrators must take care to maintain equal emphasis among programs, as specialist teachers work hard to develop events, seek community recognition, and justify their positions.

Specialist courses can only be good for students, right? Not necessarily. Providing students with such a number of classes and teachers can shortchange the development of core skills and fragment the student experience. The demands of scheduling specialist classes reduces homeroom instructional time for younger students and encourages older students to carry a heavy course load. Passing periods fragment the weekly schedule, as students travel from one building or classroom to another.

Most importantly, teachers in all disciplines must teach reading, writing, math, and higher-order thinking skills. If they do not, then students in the best-funded schools will receive less instruction in these foundational skills than their public school counterparts.

The school that does these things can create the ultimate instructional program, rich in a full range of intellectual pursuits while also intently focused on the child’s development of essential skills and habits of lifelong learning.