As we begin our roll-out of the new and comprehensive Strategic Thinking, we also begin our task of communicating the exciting vision for 21st Century teaching and learning to all of our constituencies. We hope you will begin to see us nudge our culture toward a better understanding of how the Web and the “Cloud” can help us all transform our connections to students and to parents in this new paradigm of education.
The first step toward accomplishing this task will be to re-envision our Lower and Middle School libraries into a Learning Commons, defined as “a flexible and responsible approach to helping schools focus on learning collaboratively . . . [in which] new relationships are formed between learners, new technologies are realized and utilized, and both students and educators prepare for the future as they learn new ways to learn” (OSLA 3). Central to this re-envisioning will be the transformation of the role of librarian at the School. A new job description has been constructed for these positions, requiring TCEA (Texas Computer Education Association) 21st Century Librarian Certification. The emphasis for this position moving forward will be on developing skills to help classroom teachers successfully integrate technology into the everyday curriculum. Effective research development, understanding and application of 21st century skills, and information literacy proficiencies will also be studied and disseminated to teachers in a coaching role.
Using the new structure of the Learning Commons and relying on the new role of 21st Century Librarian, we will engage in the task of preparing our students for education and for life. To be sure, the skills needed to be successful in life, technology notwithstanding, remain largely the same. As much as ever, a learner must be able to attain the ability to think critically, to solve complex problems, and to apply thinking creatively. However, the tools to carry out this decision-making are expanding and merging with remarkable speed and subtlety. What a student will need to be able to do in a school, in a workplace, or at home is experiencing radical change; as a result, how we teach time-honored skills has to change as well. The Learning Commons provides the environment for this transformation.
Below is my summary/edit of a compelling piece called: Together for Learning: School Libraries and the Emergence of the Learning Commons by the OSLA-Ontario School Library Association. At the end of the summary is our vision for how this approach will work here at PS.
The New Learner
Recent research has been telling us for a while that when students are provided with opportunities to explore areas of their own interest, they learn better—it’s as simple as that. The search for more relevant content and experience that will pique this interest in students is what has driven much pedagogical practice in recent years. At the same time, we know that for learners younger than 25, a technologically-rich environment is a natural part of everyday life and needs to be as naturally a part of their learning environment. The interactive and social nature of digital technologies is woven seamlessly into their days (and nights). Their world is online, so for this generation of learners, education is not about the technology, it has to be about life.
Here are more facts about this generation of learners:
• They are very social and depend heavily on technology to keep in constant touch with one other.
• They are growing up in a media-saturated environment; information and ideas are accessed and shared in extremely visual, multi-media formats without concern or deliberation.
• They expect to have conversations with anyone in the world.
• They use multiple technologies to obtain and share information on an “on demand” basis.
• They expect to have access to electronic information quickly and easily. Most have never known a world where this wasn’t possible.
• They embrace new technologies readily and transfer their skill with one technology to each new technology.
• They are comfortable learning informally with their peers as the technology brings them together socially.
• They are multi-taskers. It is not uncommon to see them chatting on cell phones, surfing the Web, sending instant messages, watching TV, or listening to music, all while doing their homework.
What is a Learning Commons?
A Learning Commons is a flexible and responsive approach to the new learner described above. By helping schools focus on learning collaboratively in the information age, a learning commons approach expands the learning experience, taking students and educators into virtual spaces beyond the walls of a school.
This new approach is vibrant and encompasses the whole school, presenting exciting opportunities for collaboration among teachers, librarians, technology coaches, and students. Within a Learning Commons, new relationships are formed between and among learners, new technologies are explored, and both students and educators prepare for the future as they discover new ways to learn. Best of all, as a space traditionally and uniquely designed to facilitate this sort of dynamic collaboration, a school’s library provides the natural foundation for developing a Learning Commons approach.
The Role of the School Library in a Learning Commons
The school library, a key component of a Learning Commons, has an integral role to play in implementing this fresh vision for education. Every member of a school’s community will ultimately participate in the experience of a Learning Commons, but the concept’s early coordination and leadership rests with school library expertise. A school’s library should already be the hub for networking and information access. As the Learning Commons’ concept grows, the library’s collection-based facilities will continuously change and expand, creating access-based services suited to a school community’s needs. This process will mean changes in the operations of a school’s library over time. Resource collections will need to be reshaped even more rapidly and readily to reflect our community’s needs as well as the world at large. It is the only way a library’s access to the global, interconnected and interactive communication networks of the future - whatever they may be - can be assured.
What does this mean for Presbyterian School?
The first step towards facilitating a Learning Commons approach has to be re-thinking the spaces in the School that we call “libraries.” First of all, the metaphor created by having our Lower School library in the basement, isn’t the right one for a school that takes information, literacy, and creativity as seriously as we do. In an effort to shift this paradigm, we will move the Lower School library this summer from its current location to the second floor across from third grade classrooms and adjacent to fourth grade—where the Academic Enrichment Center is currently. (The AEC will relocate to the current library location.) This more open, accessible, and welcoming space will provide an atmosphere that is far more conducive to the sort of collaboration and innovation that we seek. In addition, the Middle School library will undergo a less dramatic transformation as we move out shelves, reallocate books, and introduce more technology in an effort to accomplish similar goals of collaboration and innovation with our older students.
Our second step in this effort will be to recast the role of the librarian in both the Lower and the Middle Schools. More than others on campus, our librarians will understand and foster the belief that our two Libraries are the defining spaces of the school’s intellectual identity and ethos: they must be places where people—particularly students—will want to learn, congregate, and collaborate. The Librarians will work with teachers and other school leaders to build a collection in these libraries that is multi-disciplinary and multi-media, including books (both digital and paper), music, videos, general reference items, and periodicals both for students and faculty. In addition to being the information “hub” of the school, the libraries will house the latest technologies and make them available to the various constituencies at the school. The Librarian will work closely with the Academic Dean and the Division Heads to establish and foster these values.
In an effort to help our librarians accomplish this personal and professional transformation, we are investing in them as they achieve TCEA (Texas Computer Education Association) 21st Century Librarian Certification, as I mentioned above. The purpose of this program is to provide enrichment opportunities in professional development for librarians who wish to move their libraries forward. The emphasis will be on developing skills to help classroom teachers successfully integrate technology into the everyday curriculum. Effective research development, 21st century skills, and information literacy proficiencies will also be studied.
With these two spaces and positions more clearly defined and working more directly with the Academic Dean, Division Heads, and teachers, we are confident that the first phase of moving towards a Learning Commons approach will be realized in our School.
Parents, faculty, and administrators joined me yesterday to view a provocative film called Race to Nowhere: The Dark Side of America’s Achievement Culture. According to its website www.racetonowhere.com, the film features the “heartbreaking stories of young people across the country who have been pushed to the brink, educators who are burned out and worried that students aren’t developing the skills they need, and parents who are trying to do what’s best for their kids . . . Race to Nowhere points to the silent epidemic in our schools: cheating has become commonplace; students have become disengaged; stress-related illness, depression and burnout are rampant; and young people arrive at college and the workplace unprepared and uninspired. Race to Nowhere is a call to mobilize families, educators, and policy makers to challenge current assumptions on how to best prepare the youth of America to become healthy, bright, contributing, and leading citizens.”
Yesterday, more than 100 members of the Houston community viewed the film at the Freed Auditorium of the MFAH, and at least 25 of our own parents and friends attended a lively community forum here at the School after the film was over (on Super Bowl Sunday, no less!). What I’m sharing below are my general notes and reactions to the film—some of which we talked about in the forum, some of which we didn’t. I think the issues raised in this film are important enough to encourage folks to find another showing and then participate in the conversation we’re hopefully starting here.
- The subtitle of the movie is interesting: “The Dark Side of America’s Achievement Culture.” To be sure, the filmmakers have a very clear definition of what achievement means; what is ours?
- Recent research (http://www.nber.org/digest/dec99/w7322.html) concluding that “school selectivity, measured by the average SAT score of the students at a school, doesn't pay off in a higher income over time” raises important questions about the type and extent of pressure placed on middle and high school-aged students. What’s our reaction to this?
- How true is it in our own households that the only time we really see and interact with our kids is for twenty minutes over a rushed and, sometimes, contentious dinner?
- Are we guilty of always looking at the “next step” instead of, even briefly, living in the wonderfully present moment?
- Does the education system really “roboticize, mechanize, and standardize” our kids?
- What are the most prevalent sources of pressure on our students? How many of these are we as parents or teachers wittingly or unwittingly fostering? How many of them are the natural outcroppings of an organically competitive, Capitalistic society?
- When we say, “We want what is best for our children,” who gets to define “best”?
- If we asked our middle schoolers, how many of them would say their lives are filled with joy, meaning, and purpose rather than saying they were “empty.”
- How many of us would describe our relationships with our students like one of the parents in the movie: “I am tired of being a prison guard”?
- If school is no longer about learning or cultivating a love of learning, as mentioned in the film, then what is it all about? To what degree are we as Schools or we as parents complicit in shifting this emphasis?
- What are the real purposes of homework? How much is too much? How can we engage kids in meaningful and productive academic work outside of classes without having parents do it for them and without having it consume their full and active lives?
- What are the real purposes of outside-of-school activities? How much is too much in this area as well? How can we engage kids in meaningful and productive non-academic work outside of classes without having it interfere with their studies or without having their studies interfere with it?
- To what extent is an emphasis on “teaching to the test”—whatever that test may be—inhibiting the critical and creative thinking skills in our children? To what extent would more hands-on, application-centered, project-based learning facilitate this same sort of critical and creative thinking?
- If we asked our students, how many of them would agree with this statement from the film, “Smart has many different meanings”? Or, is there just one definition of “smart” promulgated in homes and in schools?
- If we asked our students, how many of them would agree with this statement from the film: “Cheating in its many forms has become another course in schools”?
- To what extent do we as parents believe that our children will have enough time in their young lives to “find out what it is they love to do”?
- If we asked our students, how many of them would agree with this statement from a student in the film: “If you don’t try, you can’t fail . . . so sometimes, I just don’t try”?
The purpose of this blog has always been to provide opportunities to explore the provocative issues in education. To be sure, Race to Nowhere is filled with provocative issues and compelling questions—some of which are in evidence above. I think our community benefits from many sorts of conversations about these and other ideas. Again, I recommend the film to those who haven’t yet seen it and thank you in advance for any observations you might share in this forum.
As a preface, I should probably remind folks about the reasoning behind my spending days in different grade levels this year. In an effort to stay connected to our School’s greatest assets (our teachers) and to remind myself of why I became an educator in the first place (working with children), I decided this year to draw the name of a faculty member at our monthly meetings and then take her/his place for a day, trying my best to keep up . . . never thinking I could really fill in. At this month’s meeting, I drew Gail’s name, so on Friday the 21st I spent the day trying to keep up with our intrepid five- and six-year-olds.
Kindergarten classes, like our Early Childhood sections (Alpha, Beta, and Pre-K), are staffed by two wonderful and talented teachers. Mary Pat Christou and Charlie Babers lead one class, while Gail and Jeanne Hoppens lead the other. Unfortunately for Jeanne, when I drew Gail’s name, she was not able to join her partner on a much-deserved sabbatical. No, Jeanne had to stay and be sure that the Headmaster didn’t do irreparable damage to the impressionable children in the class. My goal, simply put, was for Jeanne to say at the end of the day that I had accomplished this goal. Only time would tell . . .
As with Amy Wilkinson in Pre-K and Angie Heston in 7th grade math, Gail provided me with detailed notes (and about 45 minutes of homework) in preparation for my job with her students. She was thorough and concise, even providing me with pictures of the steps along the way. (Wouldn’t we all be well-served by having a Kindergarten teacher prepare us for EVERY day?) Needless to say, I was certainly set up for success as I arrived at school early on Friday morning.
After helping Jeanne set up the room for the day (my daughter Camille, a “graduate” of Gail’s and Jeanne’s class from last year joined in this highly important activity), I quizzed her on my duties and on the instructions that Gail had left. I could tell at this point that Jeanne’s primary role during the day was going to be that of cheerleader—keeping me positive and calm about my role in the room. (For those of you who don’t know her, Jeanne is all of these things: she is a wonderful cheerleader for our School and our students, she is positive, and she is (thankfully) calm, calm, calm.)
Once the students had arrived, it was time to begin the morning routine. Each day has a leader, and each leader has a powerful effect on the class and on the teacher. Our leader on Friday was John Banks, and I couldn’t imagine a youngster doing a better job. Each time I made a misstep in the morning ritual (and there were plenty of these), John Banks was quick to correct me in the most respectful and positive way. Every activity promoted learning, and most of the learning promoted critical and creative thinking: we were on the 92nd day of school, so students were encouraged to think about that number in terms of its relationship to numbers greater and less; it was the 21st day of the month, so students were challenged to make monetary equivalents that added up to that particular number; and (my personal favorite) we made words out of John Banks’s name on the white board.
As the day progressed, I was impressed by the thinking that was going on all around me. Not only were students able to work through difficult problems, they were also able to talk to me about them and explain to me why they were making the choices they were. To be sure, this impressed me in terms of the children’s nascent thinking skills, but it also reminded me of the powerful and transformative effect good teachers and good learning structures (both clearly evident in our Kindergarten classrooms) can have on eager, young learners.
My favorite part of the day occurred when Jeanne and I ventured into the gym to deliver our students to their PE class. As we were walking in, Jeanne encountered my first grade daughter who was walking out. In a very concerned voice, Camille asked, “So, Mrs. Hoppens, how IS he doing?” I am glad to report that Mrs. Hoppens gave me good marks . . . to my daughter.
It’s a cliché to say that we learn more from children than they learn from us, but don’t clichés get to be clichés because there is a good bit of truth to them? In the case of my day in Kindergarten, I can surely say that I learned a ton: I learned the Texas pledge (tough for a native of Louisiana!), I learned the name of every single child in the class, I learned that I was not nearly as pretty as Mrs. Kirkconnell, I learned about the three different bears of Alaska, I learned how to cut out the inside portion of a capital R, I learned about Golly and all the other Superkids, and (of course) I learned about China . . . thanks to Ms. Modrall’s presentation in Assembly.
All in all, another great day as the Headmaster of this fine school—a day filled with learning . . . and with love.
Before I recognize our honored guests today, I want to tell you a short story about my hero. Let me stop for a second and acknowledge that the word “hero” gets thrown around pretty casually these days. This politician is a hero, that celebrity is a hero, or this athlete is a hero . . . all too often, these same politicians, celebrities, and athletes who are “heroic” one week let us down the next and have us searching for another person to lift up and to believe in.
Well, my hero has stood the test of time unlike the ones I’ve just mentioned. In fact, he’s not only my hero, but he is my wife’s hero, my daughter Camille’s hero, and my son Richard is named for him . . . so his appeal transcends genders and generations; his impact on us is real, and it is lasting. My family’s hero really embodies the true origins of the word from its classical Greek roots, “a warrior of special strength, courage, or ability.”
When we talk about heroes, we often like to mention those things about them that we most admire. In terms of the definition I just read, we like to acknowledge that special strength, courage, or ability that sets them apart from the rest of the people with whom we come into contact. At the heart of my hero’s special strength and courage is really the idea at the center of our essential question this year, “Who is my neighbor.” At the heart of my family’s hero is one word: service.
- While he was still in college, our hero enlisted in the military to serve his country in a war on the other side of the world in a place called Viet Nam.
- His job in the military was that of a field medic, the person most responsible during the most difficult times of war for serving his fellow soldiers—who are almost always in pain or in distress.
- When he returned from the war, he dedicated his life to continuing this medical service as a family practice physician in Lake Charles, Louisiana, where he not only serves patients who are sick, but he also teaches them about healthy living while also teaching and mentoring young doctors new to the profession as well. (As my colleagues will tell you, the best teachers and mentors are also great servant leaders.)
- More than twenty years after returning from that difficult war, our hero made a trip back across the world on a medical mission trip to serve the very same people he had been in conflict with as a younger man; his comment to me about this trip reveals the heart of our hero, “Where we once were called to do harm, we are now called to heal.”
- Finally, the most important part of our hero’s life, which sustained him during the war, buoyed him during medical training, and still shapes his life today is service to the Lord and dedication of his life to being more like Christ each and every day.
My family and I are lucky to call Richard Edward Landry—our father, father-in-law, and grandfather—we are lucky to call him our hero. He sees neighbors all around him, and he never misses an opportunity to serve them . . . even when he knows he won’t be noticed or celebrated for doing so. While our hero is not with us today, my sense is that I am standing in front of many such heroes whose courage, passion, and service characterize who they are and how they live their lives.
The other day one of our first graders asked me with a certain amount of incredulity, “What do you DO all day, Dr. Carleton; I mean really DO?” When my serious responses about helping teachers and parents or visiting classes or working with numbers fell on deaf ears, she asked again, “I mean do you just work at your computer all day or what?” It was at this point that I just told her I took a long nap from 1:30-3:00 so that I’d be rested for playing with my own kids at the end of the day. This explanation seemed to make more sense to her, and she said, “Pretty cool. I could go for that job.”
One of the pitfalls of independent school Heads is that too few people really know, understand, or connect with what we “really DO” every day. To be sure, the more invested we become in our work as “Learners in Chief” and the more constituencies we try to connect with about how great our schools are, the more removed we can become from what truly makes up that greatness: the dedicated, creative, and passionate teachers who work day in and day out with our students to guide their minds and shape their souls. In an effort to ward this off, I decided this year to draw the name of a faculty member at our monthly meetings and then take her/his place for a day, trying my best to keep up . . . never thinking I could really fill in.
My first foray into this practice was last Thursday, subbing for Amy Wilkinson in Lindsay Manford’s Pre-K classroom. Responsible teacher that she is, Amy provided me with a detailed description of the day well in advance of my entering the classroom, and Lindsay made sure I understood that it was still SHE and not I who was the leader of our intrepid group of four- and five-year-olds. The success (or failure) of the day for our students would depend largely on my ability to listen, follow directions, and keep my comments to myself . . . hmm—sounds a little like my own Pre-K experience in 1973!
The day began a little before 7:00 a.m. as Brooke Harris, one of our second grade teachers, and I supervised the EC/LS Early Room in the mini gym. Spirits were high as our youngest students bustled into school ready for the challenges of a new day. Some played games of their own devising, while others (of all ages) gathered around a healthy supply of blocks to build houses, castles, and walls on the floor around them. The most interesting take-away for me from this brief period of time was the spirit of collaboration and collegiality among our students despite the discrepancy in their ages. Kindergarteners were talking happily with second graders while building tall towers or long roads. First graders and fourth graders were engaged in serious games of chess and groaned when we told them it was time to pick up.
Needless to say, I survived my first hour “on the job” and was gaining much needed confidence for the real work that lay ahead in the Pre-K classroom.
I should stop here and say that there were two important conversations I had on the day before my work in Miss Manford’s class that helped to prepare me for the work ahead. The first of these was with Miss Wilkinson and Miss Manford in my office when Amy delivered the “cheat sheet” she had created. Half motivational speech, half ultimatum, my conversation with these two talented teachers left me wondering what I had really gotten myself into. However, any fears I may have been harboring were dismissed (sort of) when Lindsay told me on her way out of my office, “Don’t worry, Mark, I’ll be there evaluating you every step of the way!” Great confidence booster, let me tell you. The second conversation occurred later that evening at the Pre-K parents’ annual Grade Level Dinner. Let’s just say that the sentiment in the room was pretty overwhelming that I was about to get a bit of an education—a different sort of 21st Century learning, if you know what I mean.
Whatever fears or insecurities I may have been harboring, disappeared when I entered Miss Manford’s room soon after escorting our Early Care students to their classes. The Pre-K students were genuinely excited to see me, and their parents seemed a bit less skeptical than they had the previous evening. As Lindsay greeted each young boy and girl at the door personally and enthusiastically, I began to settle in for what I just knew would be a fantastic day of professional growth for me.
And grow I did! During the course of our time together, my Pre-K friends and I were able to accomplish the following amazing things: we read five books, asked critical thinking questions about them, and then chose which of the books we liked the best and why; we learned that pumpkins are actually fruits because they have seeds, we scooped out the insides, roasted the seeds we found there, and then ate the roasted seeds—not too yummy, I’m afraid; we measured the heights and circumferences of various pumpkins, counted their ribs, and drew pictures of them . . . all the while recording our observations and practicing our fine motor skills through writing very carefully; we ran, we talked, we sang, and (of course) we played freeze dance—I was NOT very good!
After a day like mine in Pre-K, it’s hard to sit back and say what my “favorite” part of the experience was. There are simply too many fantastic moments. My sense of the children and their teachers at the end of the day is that they very likely had (and have) the same difficult experience. Did we prefer the intellectual stimulation of the books and the critical thinking questions or did we like the artistic stretching of our time in Mrs. Chaltain’s room painting a scarecrow? Did we like the mathematical exercises of measuring and counting or the technological activities on the iPad? Did climbing and running with our friends in the morning excite us the most, or did motor skills in the afternoon give us more joy?
Actually, I will admit that I do have a favorite moment from my day in Pre-K, which I haven’t until now shared with anyone. In the middle of the day on our way back from recess, one of the little boys in the class ran up to me from his place near the end of the line (for no apparent reason), hugged my leg very tightly, and told me, “I love you, Dr. Carleton.” Pretty sweet, I’ll admit . . . I don’t know many of my friends who are lawyers or engineers or bankers who get that kind of unsolicited adulation in the middles of their days, I can tell you. What happened next is even better, though. Every student in the class, upon hearing this sentiment from their friend, stopped, attacked me with even more hugs, and said (in succession), “I love you more . . .”
So, the next time anyone asks me what I “really DO” as a Headmaster, I’ll just tell them I’m a professional hugger and leave it at that.
What if . . . we organized learning in schools around big, important ideas central to living and leading in the 21st Century?
What if . . . those big ideas were unpacked every day by asking essential questions and then returning to those essential questions again and again over the course of the year?
What if . . . content, knowledge, skills, problem solving, and assessment in those schools all related to the big ideas and posed creative answers to the essential questions?
What if? Well, school would look like this:
Big Idea: Servant Leadership
Essential Questions: What is service? Who are leaders? How and whom do we lead? Who is my neighbor? How do other cultures define service? Leadership? Who are great leaders in history? Why are they great? Who are terrible leaders in history? Why are they terrible? How do we act like servant leaders?
Content/Knowledge: Thorough study of leadership across the globe and throughout history—could be surveys, great works, or biographies/autobiographies
Skills: Be able to write about great leaders and great leadership; identify the bad/good/great leaders in history and articulate their successes and failures; lead something worthwhile in your career at PS
Problem Solving: If you were the leader of ___ group and ___ situation arose, what would you do and why? Retreats, class meetings, advisor discussions focused on leadership and /or service.
Products: Projects, presentations, community action . . . etc.
Big Idea: Nature in the Balance or My Connections to the Sciences of Life, Matter, and Motion
Essential Questions: What are the responsibilities of the individual and/or society in regard to the health of the environment? How do different world views lead to different views toward nature? Why has nature inspired so many artists over time? In what ways are all living things connected to each other? What is our responsibility to the natural world and to the universe—both individually and as a group? What relationships exist between and among motion, matter, and energy?
Big Idea: The Human Condition
Essential Questions: In the face of adversity, what causes some people to prevail while others fail? As Christians, how do we articulate the meaning of life and how does that meaning shape us? In what ways are we governed/guided by fate, free will, a greater power?
Big Idea: Language and Literature or Verbal Reasoning
Essential Questions: How is our understanding of culture and society constructed through and by language? How can language be powerful? Is it possible to have culture without language? How does language influence the way we think, act, and perceive the world? What is literature/art supposed to do? How does literature reveal the values of a given culture or time period? Where does the meaning of a text reside (i.e., within the text, within the reader, or in the transaction that occurs between them)? Are there universal themes in literature that are of interest or concern to all cultures and societies? (If so, what are they?) What distinguishes a good read from great literature? Who decides the criteria for judging whether or not a book is any good?
Big Idea: Past, Present, and Future
Essential Questions: Why do we bother to study/examine the past, present, or future? How is memory of the past shaped by our present experience? How is the present shaped by our experiences in the past and our hopes for the future? How is the future shaped by the past and the present? What are the recurrent motifs of history and in what ways have they changed or remained the same? What role does bias play in the study of past, present, and future?
Big Idea: The American Dream
Essential Questions: What is the American Dream and to what extent is it achievable for all Americans? In what ways does the American Dream mean different things for different Americans? How has the American Dream changed over time? What is the perspective of a given nature, culture, or region in regard to the American Dream and what factors create those perceptions—in other words, how does where we live affect how we live? What are the responsibilities and consequences of being a “world superpower”? Are independence, dependence, and interdependence separable or inseparable?
Big Idea: Freedom and Responsibility
Essential Questions: What is freedom? Is freedom ever free? What is the relationship between freedom and responsibility? What are the essential liberties? Is liberty and justice for all attainable? Should people sacrifice freedom in the interest of security? When does government have the right to restrict the freedoms of people? When is the restriction of freedom a good thing? What sacrifices should people make for freedom? Can something be “fair” and not be “right”? Can something be “right” and not be “fair”?
Big Idea: The World and Me
Essential Questions: How do we know what we know? How does what we know about the world shape the way we view ourselves? How do our personal experiences shape our view of others? What does it mean to be an insider or an outsider? Do you believe that our actions can change the course of our lives? Have the forces of good and evil changed over time? What turning points determine our individual pathways to adulthood?
Big Idea: Quantitative Reasoning
Essential Questions: Can everything be quantified? When is the correct answer not the best solution? What are the limits of mathematical representation/modeling? What kind of problem is it? What do the best problem solvers do? What should we do when we’re “stuck”? What is a pattern? What can patterns reveal? How can numbers/data mislead or lie? How does what we measure influence how we measure? How does how we measure influence what we conclude? How sure are you? What is proof?
What if . . . this was the list of high school graduation requirements? What impact would the adoption of a set of requirements like these have on our own curriculum here at PS?
- 3 years of health, wellness, fitness, and nutrition
- 2 years of English emphasizing speaking, reading comprehension, writing, and media literacy
- 1 year of psychology with special emphasis on child-development, learning styles, family relations, group dynamics, conflict resolution, and leadership
- 1 year of math focusing on probability and statistics
- 1 year of US history focused on these essential questions: “What is justice?”; “What should government do/not do?”; “Who is American?”
- 1 year of global studies reflecting current problems (“What in history explains 9/11?”)
- 1 year of economics and personal finance
- 1 semester each of law, engineering, programming & web design, philosophy, and foreign language taught and learned in immersion
What if . . . the folks charged with leading this renaissance in education were passionate and energetic professionals who embrace the following perspective from author Robert Fried: “Passionate teachers convey their passion to novice learners—their students—by acting as partners in learning, rather than as experts in the field” (The Passionate Teacher, 23)?
What if . . .
During our Board's first meeting of the year on Tuesday, our yearlong process of assessing and articulating the vision for our school's future culminated in the unanimous adoption of Strategic Thinking 2010, our collective response to the dynamic and interesting times in which our students find themselves. At the heart of this initiative is a fundamentally different approach to the entire strategic planning process, which I thought I would share with you here in advance of our release of the document itself at the beginning of November.
Here at the beginning of the 21st Century’s second decade, traditional strategic planning runs the risk of being passé. Economic uncertainties coupled with information available at the speed of light make following yesterday’s monolithic, five-year “strategic” checklists a poor substitute for confronting the real and dynamic challenges facing our schools.
In light of this new context, the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) has articulated five “continua of sustainability” along which it advises all strategic thinking and planning must operate, or independent schools run the risk of becoming “elitist, unapproachable, and financially and socially inaccessible”:
- Financial sustainability: becoming more efficient and less costly
- Environmental sustainability: becoming more “green” and less wasteful
- Global sustainability: becoming more networked internationally and less parochial in outlook
- Programmatic sustainability: becoming more focused on the skills and values that the marketplace of the 21st Century will seek and reward and less narrowly isolated in a traditional “disciplines approach” to teaching and learning
- Demographic sustainability: becoming more representative of an area’s school-age population and less unapproachable financially and socially
Indeed, NAIS makes the powerful and provocative claim that unless schools plan for sustainability across these five continua as they did for diversity in the last generation, schools like PS will struggle to “keep up” and “prolong” our very existence.
Working hand-in-glove with this context of sustainability is the reality that the core function of strategic planning is to secure certainty and relevance for our institution in an increasingly uncertain world. As a result, we must embrace the idea that the product of our collective thinking will be a journey rather than a destination and an outline rather than a blueprint.
With this in mind, the approach that we have embraced during our year-long approach to this process is embodied in Robert Evans’s recent article in Independent School (Fall 2007) magazine entitled, “The Case Against Strategic Planning”:
Even with good leadership, no strategy can succeed if it overreaches, promising — as so many mission statements do — all things to all people. Given schooling’s 10 percent window on students’ lives, it is vital to concentrate energy and resources, especially when these are scarce. The question is not, “What are all the worthy goals we embrace,” but, “Which few goals matter most right now?”
Being truly strategic means being clear about . . . purpose and conduct. Purpose can be summarized as “what really makes us us”: it captures the essential core values that define the school. Conduct can be summarized as “the minimum non-negotiables of membership here”: it captures the ways the core values apply to all the school’s constituents [as well as] the norms and expectations that make the school a community. Purpose and conduct require clarity about what the school is and what it isn't, about whom it’s good for and whom it’s not good for, about what it can — and can’t — become.
Nothing could be more strategic.
What does this mean for what you will see in November? How will our responses to these challenges differ from others the school has offered or that our peer schools may be following today? We draw from Evans again for these answers:
True strategic thinking favors pragmatic, flexible approaches to key challenges, approaches that acknowledge the non-rational and “un-plannable” aspects of the world and of organizational life and the importance of being ready to respond to rapid change in both . . . It favors plans that are simple and that concentrate on a very few targets over a relatively short period of time. It anticipates the likelihood that changing conditions may call for changing targets.
In the end, our Strategic Thinking 2010 is deceptively simple: we are discovering new and authentic ways to affirm or clarify who we are (Mission and Identity), how we operate in unpredictable times (Governance and Financial Sustainability), and why delivering a distinctive and challenging program to all of our constituencies assures our relevance moving forward (Academic Challenge and Servant Leadership). The approach we will put forth does all this in the context of lifting our institution higher in terms of performance and esteem.
Here’s what you will see when we release our Thinking in October:
- Key functions of the school outlined and articulated in meaningful and enlightening contexts.
- Challenges for the future addressed in collaborative and inclusive ways that seek lasting and sustainable outcomes rather than quick and fleeting fixes.
- Big ideas for the future of our school captured and unlocked by means of provocative essential questions that engage and uncover the big ideas; that are transferable to other areas of the school or of education in general; that require serious, analytical thinking; that raise other questions; and that keep coming up year after year.
- Compelling opportunities to address the five continua of sustainability throughout.
Here’s what you won’t see:
- Timelines presupposing that time will stand still while we implement our predicted course.
- Checklists that force us to focus on means rather than ends and on “how come” rather than “why not?”
- Binary answers to multi-faceted questions resulting in a mere “plan” rather than a dynamic “strategy.”
The Board of Trustees at Presbyterian School has unanimously adopted this outline for our future with deep appreciation for the tradition of excellence embodied in past and present families, teachers, and leaders of this fine school and with unique confidence that the future will—and must—be bright for Presbyterian School.
Please Pray with Me: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, Oh Lord, my strength and my redeemer.” --Amen
First of all, I have to say welcome back to Presbyterian School for the 2010-11 school year. I am very excited about the year ahead, and I am just as energized to see all of the wonderful things each and every one of you will do over the course of the next several months. As I look out today, I see so much talent, so much intelligence, and so much potential. To be sure, the Lord has richly blessed our school with you and with your families.
For my talk today, I’ve asked my friend Akshay Jaggi to come up and help me as I begin. Many of you may know Akshay because he is a tireless worker, he is intelligent, and he is a gifted critical thinker. He has been at the school since he was a wee, little Alpha and will certainly be a leader this year among his classmates and in the future wherever his path leads him. You may not know that he is also an accomplished chef, able to whip up tasty meals in the middle of nowhere. I appreciate his willingness to help me out, and we should all show him how much we appreciate his leadership this morning.
Here’s what I want you to do, Akshay. Please squeeze this tube of toothpaste as hard as you can and try to get all that’s inside out into this bowl here . . .
Good work. I had no idea you were so strong! Now, using all of your intellectual powers and all of your creativity, I need you to do one more thing for me. Please put all that toothpaste back in the tube.
As I make my talk this morning, I want you to remember the impossible task of putting toothpaste back inside its tube when we discuss the impact our words—whether they are the “words of our mouths” OR the “meditations of our hearts . . .”
Fences and Bridges—Who is my neighbor?
Good fences make good neighbors.
Let me say that again: good fences make good neighbors. Ever heard that before? Well, it’s the last line of one of Robert Frost’s most famous poems called, “Mending Wall.” Set in the countryside, this poem’s speaker who questioning why he and his neighbor must rebuild the stone wall that divides their land. The line that I’ve quoted serves as the ambiguous resolution to this question. In a sense, it is left to us as the readers to judge whether, in fact, good fences DO make good neighbors.
Well, do they?
In Frost’s day, some thought good fences kept neighbors happy because a good wall could, for example, serve to keep one neighbor’s animals from straying where they didn’t belong. Perhaps this is the reason why the speaker is “mending” his wall; perhaps this is also why he continues to force the question: do they really? Do good fences REALLY make good neighbors?
While we’re at it, what is the opposite of a fence? For the sake of time, I’ll suggest the image of a bridge as the opposite. Fences and bridges . . . let’s get pictures of each of these in our heads.
As Mrs. Smith has already said, this year we’ll look closely at who our neighbors are, and we will consider the role of mercy in our relationships with those neighbors. At the same time, though, I think we ought to look just as closely at whether we are building fences that separate us from our neighbors or bridges that connect us to our neighbors when we communicate with them, whether they are sitting right next to us in the Sanctuary today or whether they are on the other end of a wirelessly connected “conversation” on Facebook or in a text message.
Speech—The Words of My Mouth: Fences or Bridges?
Have you ever been in really thick fog? It’s disorienting, isn’t it? You can easily lose your way or become confused about where you are.
In Mark Twain’s novel (and one of my favorite stories) Huck Finn, Huck and Jim become separated from each other in fog near the beginning of their journey. Jim calls and calls for Huck in the thick darkness, worried that his friend is lost forever, drowned in the river. Finally, Jim cries himself to sleep on their raft, convinced that he will never see Huck again. All the time that Jim has been calling out, Huck has heard him only a short distance away; he didn’t say anything to answer Jim because he decided it would be funny to play a trick on Jim, his best friend. Huck returns to the raft while Jim is still asleep, and when Jim wakes up, Huck tells a tale to Jim to make him believe that he imagined the whole thing. Though he takes some convincing, Jim finally believes Huck . . . only to have Huck then say (very cruelly) that he has been playing a trick on Jim all the time.
As you can imagine, Jim does not take kindly to Huck’s joke and tells him so in these famous lines, pointing at some trash on the raft that has been left over from their night in the fog:
"When I got all wore out with work, and with the calling for you, and went to sleep, my heart was broken because you were lost, and I didn’t care any more what become of me and the raft. And when I woke up and found you back again, all safe and sound, tears came, and I could have gotten down on my knees and kissed your feet I was so thankful. And all you were thinking about was how you could make a fool of me with a lie. That stuff there on the raft is trash; and trash is what people are who put dirt on the heads of their friends and make them ashamed."
Now don’t get me wrong, I like a joke as much as the next guy . . . and I have been known to think things are funny that no one else does—just ask your teachers! In fact, this incident with Huck and Jim reminds me of something I said just about a week ago. Luckily for me, I have friends who remind me when I speak before I think . . . when my spoken words (or, my jokes, perhaps) are putting up fences instead of building bridges.
In the end, this event in Huck Finn does sharpen Huck’s understanding of his own fences and bridges. He says at the conclusion of the scene—after he has “humbled” himself to Jim by apologizing, “I warn’t ever sorry for it afterwards, neither. I didn’t do him no more mean tricks, and I wouldn’t a done that one if I’d a knowed it would make him feel that way.”
Are our spoken words serving as bridges or as fences? Are they connecting us to our neighbors or separating us from them? How often do we wish we could put our “word toothpaste” back into our “mouth tubes”?
Technology—The Meditations of My Heart: Fences or Bridges?
Ahhh, technology: I really love it, don’t you? Just this summer I got a new MacBook laptop and a new iPad along with several new “Apps” for each. Too often I find myself walking around the house with one of these completely unaware of what’s going on around me. When my wife or my daughter attempt to engage me in a brief and cordial conversation, I usually do one of two things: (a) make absolutely no acknowledgement whatsoever, continuing to walk straight ahead, mindlessly worshipping the almighty technology in my hand OR (b) I will make brief, annoyed eye contact with the person interrupting my important work for the duration of exactly one nanosecond.
Good fences make good neighbors. Is technology a fence, or is it a bridge? I want desperately to believe that text messages and email and FaceBook can be powerful bridges that bring us closer together with our “neighbors”—and that they are doing this amazing feat almost ALL THE TIME. But, then I spend the better part of a day hunched over my am part of an encounter like the one I’ve just mentioned, and I have to admit that technology may just be pulling us all further and further apart. We are in constant and instant contact with anyone we want from the moment we wake up in the morning until after we fall asleep with our iPhones on our chests at night, and we use these powerful mechanisms to say and do some really mean and hurtful things. We have all of the ability to connect positively, but too often we lack the WILL to do so.
Again, technology—is it a fence, or is it a bridge?
In the end, we all possess the power to help each other forge a better life by connecting with each other in authentic and meaningful ways, by recognizing the force and the wonder of the diversity that surrounds us, by sacrificing what we want for what others need . . . by building good bridges instead of good fences . . . by being good neighbors.
So, here’s my question for all of us this year: Will we build fences or bridges with our words and our thoughts? What sort of neighbors will we be?
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