Thursday, December 06, 2007

Getting our minds around Good to Great – November 27th Gathering

We gathered on Tuesday, November 27th, to discuss the monograph Good to Great and the Social Sectors: why business thinking is not the answer, by Jim Collins. We ate a delicious dinner provided potluck-style by many attendees. There were four Upper School faculty, two from Middle School, seven from Lower School, and the Lower School Principal in attendance. This made a good crowd to huddle close to the fireplace and talk.

We opened with a discussion of the story about the Cleveland Orchestra’s rise to prominence. The process included deciding that “artistic excellence” would be their lofty (audacious) goal. Then they had to define it, and find a way to measure it. Since there is no reliable way to measure something as qualitative as artistic excellence, the leaders decided that they would create measures that they could track over time and stick with them, in spite of the question of reliability. They created a chart entitled “Greatness at the Cleveland Orchestra” and set out criteria for three categories: Superior Performance, Distinctive Impact, and Lasting Endurance. Since, Collins points out, no quantitative or qualitative data is completely reliable the field is wide open to defining goals that make sense for a situation and creating one’s own criteria for measuring success. (Collins, p. 6)

Don’t Be Satisfied with “Good”

While we do not doubt that we teach at a “good” school, Collins reminds us that in his research in the business world and the social sector he found that: “No matter what you have achieved, you will always be merely good relative to what you may become…The moment you think of yourself as great, your slide toward mediocrity will have already begun.” (Collins, p. 9) Doug Heath, the Quaker educator, put it another way; he suggests that we remain “divinely discontent”.

Our Audacious Goals

This raised the question, what are the audacious goals we have for our school (and school community)? How do we define them, and what evidence could we assemble that proves we have achieved them? If we review the criteria from the Cleveland Orchestra, we could consider evaluating our school and community according to:

  • Superior Performance
  • Distinctive Impact
  • Lasting Endurance

Or what are the categories for criteria that we would choose? The following is a synopsis of the many thoughts shared by those present at our gathering:

  • Is our enduring impact our environmental focus?
  • Is it our community’s perception of Sidwell as a Quaker school, as a place where faculty stays a long time?
  • Is our measure of success based on the colleges our students get into?
  • What about what jobs our students have ten years out of Sidwell? Do they go on to be people still dedicated to service? Is that how a Quaker school measures success?
  • We could create ways to measure our “core values” as they are posted on our website: environmental stewardship, academic excellence, prizing diversity, and Quaker values. What evidence would we collect to determine if we have attained these goals?
  • Perhaps we measure our success based on the community we build among our colleagues,
  • Or perhaps we look at the families of our students and their choices,
  • Or by our own students’ self-images – are we building self-confident learners who feel good about themselves and able to be positive with each other about their successes?

Our Goals for Our Students

How do we measure success in terms of the experience our students have in our school? Is the only measure of success the list of colleges they are accepted to? This topic brought out a range of interesting views and experiences. Some of the thoughts about success for students outside of college admission included:

  • That our students come to school every day with the passion for learning that matches the faculty’s passion for teaching
  • Students are motivated by their own internal drive to learn, and are rewarded with praise for effort as well as success
  • Students have a passionate feeling that the school enhanced their own sense of who they are
  • Students come to appreciate their strengths and feel recognized for them- that they have found their unique talents are of value here
  • Students feel good about themselves (high self-esteem) as students and as people
  • Students feel supported at all levels of achievement and do not feel stigmatized for needing or receiving help – they are empowered to seek teacher support and are rewarded with the time and encouragement of the faculty
  • Students are met at their developmental levels and allowed to make mistakes, try again, and even resist in appropriate ways according to their age.

Faculty and Staff

What are the ways we could measure success for our school as a workplace? We thought of a few criteria, some of which apply to teachers, students , and staff:

  • Do students, teachers, and staff feel good about coming here every morning?
  • Do we keep questioning everything – not afraid to try something new, not afraid of change
  • Can we find the passion within the child, beginning in the earliest years and continuing throughout their school experience?
  • Do we make sure that every student feels successful in some area?
  • Do we all practice “right speech” while in the workplace (no gossip, practice kindness)?
  • If we didn’t give grades, would we know our students well enough to accurately evaluate them? How would this change the students’ experience and motivation?
  • Do we constantly seek ways to broaden our craft as teachers, not just within our specialized area, but in light of new ideas and thinking about the craft of teaching itself?

Getting the Passionate People on the Bus

In the business world, Jim Collins encourages organizations to get “the right people in the right seats on the bus”. He says the challenge in the social sector is getting the “passionate people on the bus”. In our environment there are many questions about this:

  • How does this concept fit with our Quaker mission to see the light in everyone? How do you select people and uphold this tenet?
  • Do we apply this students as well as employees? If we select for the passionate students, can we offer them the freedom to follow their passions?
  • Do we encourage all teachers to engage in regular professional development and keep the conversation about how we teach open?

More on this subject at the next meeting

After a fascinating discussion it seemed we had just begun to approach the question of how we would define success for our school. We have therefore decided to continue the discussion, based on the thoughts listed here and continued consideration of the Collins monograph. We hope to hold our next gathering in early January. We would be happy to have anyone participate through this blog in the meantime.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Habits of Mind – October 25th gathering

Our first gathering of Conversations in Education began with a delicious meal of lasagna, homemade bread, and salad. We ate together, then began our discussion. There were twelve members of the Sidwell community present.

We opened by reviewing Arthur Costa’s 16 Habits of Mind. His concept is to understand the habits of mind that lead to “having a disposition toward behaving intelligently when confronted with problems, the answers to which are not immediately known: dichotomies, dilemmas, enigmas and uncertainties.” They are:


Thinking and communicating with clarity and precision

Managing impulsivity

Gathering data through all senses

Listening with understanding and empathy

Creating, imagining, innovating

Thinking flexibly

Responding with wonderment and awe

Thinking about thinking (metacognition)

Taking responsible risks

Striving for accuracy

Finding humor

Questioning and posing problems

Thinking interdependently

Applying past knowledge to new situations

Remaining open to continuous learning

We talked about encouraging our students to pose ideas, take risks, to not be afraid of being wrong. The challenge to create a climate in which a child can be his authentic self, and not be concerned about being just like those around him.

Risk Taking

How do we demonstrate the value of risk-taking in an environment where everything is measured? How do our assessments deter students from taking risks, knowing that they will be graded on the outcomes that they perceive their teacher is looking for. Assessments are often as much a measure of how well we are teaching as they are a measure of how well a student is learning.

How do we find the time to develop these habits?

All the “habits” on the list require a long time to develop. An example is listening with understanding and empathy. This isn’t done quickly, but over a long period of time. If one is to truly listen with understanding one must be patient, attentive, and willing to explore the subject in depth. Several people shared places in our school where this habit is cultivated and developed:

  • In the Middle School Quakerism in the Arts course, a student is assigned the role of “conductor”. This person listens to another’s story, then repeats the story back to show that they truly understood it.
  • Quaker Meeting is a place in which our students and teachers listen to one another and learn the value of being open to the thoughts of others.
  • The third grade partner readers are trained to listen to their partner’s response to the reading with comments that extend what they hear their partner saying, rather than chiming in with their own thoughts.
  • The second grades have started a tradition of half hour class meetings once a week in which students know it is safe to bring up thoughts and concerns they want the whole class to know about. This tradition has paved the way for third grade classes to hold the same kind of meeting, building on the listening skills and respectful responses they learned the year before. This weekly lesson in empathy has changed the equation in the classroom – students are more aware of each other’s feelings and teachers can take on the role of healers.
  • Drama classes, plays, role-playing activities, and classroom skits are exercises in empathy. Students must try to imagine the thoughts of another person, try on their skin, so to speak.
  • Our Founder’s Day pairing of older and younger students has the potential to develop empathy and create bonds between students. There would be more to be gained by having the Upper School students pair with the youngest, as they would be stretched more and probably learn more about themselves and their younger partners.

Habits of Mind in the 21st Century

Daniel Pink, in A Whole New Mind talked about the six qualities of mind that will be the most important in the future: design, story, sympathy, empathy, play and meaning. (Note: he will be the keynote speaker at the AIMS conference on November 5). He argues that the traditional skills taught in schools are not the skills that will be required of our children in their future jobs. Ironically, the policy makers who have created the testing environment in schools are creating a climate of fear that has educators focus on the short-term results, and ignore the long-term future of our students.

Building Community by Listening and Responding

Developing habits of mind is about the whole community. We are fortunate to be working in a community that wants to take part. We are not just educating children, we are educating the parents as well. We should continue to build our whole community. Listening with understanding means listening and understanding everyone in the community. How can you listen to every constituency? How do we make time to hear what parents think the school should be providing? Parents hunger for community, too. We reflected on the meeting held recently at Lower School to talk about the Quaker values of the school. At the meeting, queries were discussed about being in a Quaker school and fostering Quaker values at home and at school.

The discussion of community brought us to the broader issue of where our community begins and ends. We wonder about how much we can influence the behaviors and choices of families and students in their off- campus time, from choices at parties (drinking for instance) to their behavior at non-school sports events. Although our handbook states that behavior off-campus still reflects the school, it is difficult to consistently enforce. Parents are likely to defend their child’s behavior no matter what they’ve done. There is a tendency to “circle the wagons” when your child’s behavior is questioned, even if you wouldn’t tolerate the same behavior from another child.

If we hope our students will become risk-takers, then they must be allowed to take some risks! We wondered if we are too concerned with sheltering our kids from bad or unwise behavior. We should show that we trust them – everyone has to learn from their mistakes. They are good kids who may make some bad decisions, but they deserve our support and respect. As adults we must show that we believe in them and let them learn in the process.

On the other hand, there is information and guidance we could be providing our younger middle school students about their changing bodies that will might help protect them from risk-taking behavior at too young an age. The 5-6 curriculum could include more direct instruction related to sex education to help them understand the changes they are experiencing.

The group is interested in reading Good to Great for the Social Sectors by Jim Collins. We will order copies to be distributed to the current list of interested group members and a few extra for those who might like to join us next month.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Our Conversations Can Start With Questions

Nothing shapes our journey through life so much
as the questions we ask.
Greg Levoy

What are the important questions teachers, schools, and leaders in education should be asking themselves?

Are we “preparing” students as life long learners or merely “preparing” them for future schooling in “higher” institutional settings?
If we believe that:

The object of education is to prepare the young
to educate themselves throughout their lives.

Robert M. Hutchins

Are we doing the work we need to do as teachers?

I, honestly, spend a lot of effort “preparing” my students for future grades in hopes that my efforts and more schooling will cumulatively fuel their growth as lifelong learners. While it is clear to me that “preparing” students for future grades inherently includes preparing them as learners, I am not sure how their future teachers will envision their roles.

There is a neurophysiologic basis for constructivist teaching and yet many teachers persist in teaching as if it is their job to “impart knowledge.” How do we shift teachers’ view of their role to one that supports students in learning how to think and to one that helps students’ learn how to learn?

How is it that eons ago schools decided upon “reading, writing, and arithmetic” as areas of focus and haven’t changed that much!? Perhaps we have really shifted how we teach reading, writing and math, and yet, are we limiting our thinking and approach by using the same old categories designated in the days of imparting knowledge?

If our goal is to prepare students as life long learners, there are lists of the skills positively associated with the process of learning. Arthur Costa’s 16 Habits of Mind could all be labeled lifelong learning skills. Here is the list he developed with Kallick:

· Persisting
· Thinking and communicating with clarity and precision
· Managing impulsivity
· Gathering data through all senses
· Listening with understanding and empathy
· Creating, imagining, innovating
· Thinking flexibly
· Responding with wonderment and awe
· Thinking about thinking (metacognition)
· Taking responsible risks
· Striving for accuracy
· Finding humor
· Questioning and posing problems
· Thinking interdependently
· Applying past knowledge to new situations
· Remaining open to continuous learning

When I go over that list, I realize which “habits of mind” I try to foster subject by subject and yet, am I giving students the feedback they need and how am I assessing their “progress” and my success? If we value these habits of mind, how do we hold ourselves accountable to fostering their growth? Are there ‘habits of mind’ that are missing from this list?

Many of these habits of mind inherently demand slowing down, taking time, and pausing to be reflective. Deep listening takes time and full presence. Creativity and imagination usually suffer with a tight time schedule. While we practice silence in Quaker Meeting, are we finding times throughout the day to bring that calm back? Do we ourselves take time to pause and reflect?

Our lives and the current lives of our students and parents seem to be running at a faster and faster pace. Not only that, it seems to me as a teacher today, the times demand that I expose kids to moral issues, ethical questions and spiritual ideas as well because I am old enough to see the shadow side of the competition, consumerism and technology, all of which can get ahead of deeper thought.

Aren’t gratitude, kindness, hope, grace, forgiveness and compassion all basic to being human? And are these cultivated or learned ways of being that school can influence? Don’t we all need to work for justice, a free and fair world, where oppression and inequality no longer exist, and for peace? Service certainly is part of thinking interdependently and it has to include developing a deep sense of reverence for the interconnectedness of all life on this Earth.

‘The “salvation of this human world,” Havel once said to the US Congress, “lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and in human responsibility.” All is not lost if we will resist the forces that conspire to disabuse us of what we know to be right and human and true. Hence the works of educators is no less than the salvation of this world.’ Diana Chapman Walsh (college president)

It is no wonder that the job of being a teacher feels overwhelming! And yet, this is the calling many of us are trying to answer. There are many dimensions to growing our hearts as individuals and as global citizens. Simply stated, becoming a teacher is a lifelong process of growing ourselves to be whole for the “work” at hand.

At a good school teachers and students are jointly engaged in a search for truth, in what Quakers call continuing revelation. Students greet the school day with enthusiasm. Teachers and administrators are there to guide, to respond, to teach, and to learn. They hold high expectations for their students, knowing that students work toward expectations. And as good teachers grapple with improving the intellectual abilities of their pupils, they also work to provide a climate of sensitivity to the human condition, to ensure that our most personal gift, the gift of our minds, is used in a generous spirit for worthy goals. A good school’s overriding aim is to help each student respond to the best that is in him or her. Robert Smith, Former SFS Headmaster

How do we keep striving towards the best?

We teach by being life long learners ourselves. We can serve as role models of continuous learning- by staying relentlessly open to ideas in search of the truth to make learning come alive for our students.

I look forward to continuing our conversations over dinner at monthly meetings and I also hope many will feel inspired to contribute their thoughts to this collaborative blog.

It Is I Who Must Begin

It is I who must begin.
Once I begin, once I try –
here and now,
right where I am,
not excusing myself
by saying that things
would be easier elsewhere,
without grand speeches and
ostentatious gestures,
but all the more persistently
– to live in harmony
with the ‘voice of Being,” as I
understand it within myself
– as soon as I begin that,
I suddenly discover,
to my surprise, that
I am neither the only one,
nor the first,
nor the most important one
to have set out
upon that road.

Whether all is really lost
or not depends entirely on
whether or not I am lost.

-Vaclav Havel

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Research Process as Lifelong Learning

When I was teaching second and third grade (combined) I began to develop a research process that focused on the mode of inquiry, that is the “how to do research” part while engaging the students through a variety interesting Social Studies topics. As a graduate of Hampshire College, I believe that the most valuable lessons we teach are those that prepare us for lifelong learning. Therefore, research at all levels is not just about finding out more about a specific topic, but it is an experience in learning how to learn more in an area of discipline.

Since I taught a 2-3 combination class, I had the luxury of teaching these student for two consecutive years and thus build on the work we started in second grade so that, by third grade, they were able to take charge of much of the process. I stepped away from the typical method of doing research in elementary school in which a teacher hands out an outline with topics and questions already prepared and students fill in the blanks. Or another popular method, in which the topic is handed out at school, but the research and writing is done at home leaving the family to take charge of the process, for better or worse.

To help students understand research as a process we wanted them to feel in charge of their topic. We chose a general topic (e.g., the Lewis & Clark Expedition), which we had studied and read about at length before starting our research. Students knew enough about the general topic to be able to list a wide range of possible smaller topics to focus on (e.g. Sacagawea, Fort Clatsop, Nez Perce Indians). Their next job was to generate all the information they already knew about these topics and then to ask a series of questions about things they would still like to find out. Once they knew what they were looking for the teachers and librarian help guide the discovery of sources that were appropriate to the student’s reading level. Throughout this time the teachers read aloud from a wide variety of research-based books and the class discussed the style and presentation of the material in each format, from picture books to journal articles to historical fiction. As the students became more aware of the many ways research can be presented, we encouraged them to decide on an audience and a writing style for their own project. This literary analysis of the texts also kept the question of whose creative work we were reading and how the author’s unique perspective is stamped on their work. This, in turn, made the discussion of plagiarism straightforward: the author you are learning from spent a lot of creative time and energy producing this unique set of materials. You are also spending time creating your own unique work. You wouldn’t want to claim their hard work, nor would you want anyone else to claim yours. The result of the project was a wide range of research presentations, some written in first person, some written as a travelogue, some to a younger audience, etc. We hope that the experience helped out students develop a lifelong perspective on the process of research and the process of creating uniquely personal projects.

While approaching research from this, perhaps more constructivist perspective students have learned to research now and in the future, rather than seeing the project as a brief focus on a series of facts which are soon put aside and forgotten.