Archive for the ‘Practice’ Category
I wrote a post for this blog back in February, when I was planning to open a new school in Freedom, Maine. Shortly after writing the post, I held some informational sessions at local public libraries in the area. I wanted to see how many families might be interested in this type of school. It’s really outside of the box: three days a week, half of every school day spent outside, a truly multi-age setting of 5-10 year-colds all together, two full-time teachers, preparing and eating meals together made from local, organic foods… I just didn’t know if there would be enough interest to make a go of it.
At the first information session, one person showed up.
Three came to the second, and three came to the third. I paused to reconsider the idea. I thought deeply, talked to all my people, and decided in the end to go ahead with it. Even if I could get ten children, I figured, at least I would have a wonderful school environment for my own two daughters, and I would be able to provide what I feel is the best that education has to offer to another eight local children.
Well, The Mill School opened its doors on September 10th, fully enrolled with twenty local children, ages five to ten, and another eighteen on the waiting list. As it turns out, a lot of people are interested in exactly this kind of school. And so far, things are going as smoothly as can be expected at a brand new school. My colleague and I have changed the daily schedule about five times already. But the children are relaxed and happy, the parents are so supportive, and we have time to really get to know the children, as people, and as learners. Our first place-based curricular unit has begun, our food is delicious, and we are spending a lot of time outside, building strong bodies and connecting to the natural environment. The children are learning the daily routines. It feels to me as if this outside-of-the-box school is blossoming. As one student said to me yesterday, “It’s so weird. At my old school, the teacher was the enemy. But here, you’re just not. You two, like, seem to really care about us.” I smiled, and she paused before she added, “And the food here is so good too!”
I am always interested in hearing about other schools where things are being done differently; please let me know if you have a story to share. You can contact me, and learn more about The Mill School, at www.themillschool.org
This July, I went with five educators—including Linda Kroll, Fredi Breuer, Serena Clayton and Regie Stites—to Haiti to work with teachers from three different schools supported by Sionfonds [http://www.sionfondsforhaiti.org], an NGO founded by Annie Blackstone. Sionfonds works with local communities to construct buildings for schools in locations with few, and sometimes no, educational opportunities. Once the schools are established, Sionfonds pays teacher salaries and provides medical and dental care for children and families in the school community. During the past two years, the organization has also provided professional development to improve teaching, a crucial matter in Haiti where literacy rates are alarmingly low among children and adults. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Education_in_Haiti]
We spent a week at the Sionfonds school in Cavaillon, a small rural community about four hours from Port-Au-Prince. Together with 25 teachers from the three schools, we ran a week-long summer school for about 190 children that focused on community building, reading, writing, and bookmaking. Our goal was to introduce collaborative methods while teaching the children and teachers. We first spent the first day working with the teachers. For the rest of the week, the teachers spent each morning in classrooms, teaching in teams of two and three; in the afternoons, they met with us to reflect on their experiences and learn new methods for collaboration and teaching literacy. They used this knowledge to plan the next day.
We wanted the teachers to be captured by the excitement of collaborating with one another to learn new methods of teaching. We also wanted them to learn new ways to talk about reading, writing, and making books. We knew they would learn differently if we set them up to learn with and from each other. We hoped teachers would then bring these same methods into their classrooms, so that students could learn with and from peers as well as from teachers. We also wanted teachers and students –many of whom live in homes with no books—to feel that they were readers and writers. Overall, we wanted to convey that school is much more than preparation for tests, and education can allow children and adults alike to dream and imagine new possibilities.
We were pleased to find that there was already lots of collaboration in the school. The classrooms were partitioned off by small poles and narrow strips of canvas, with as many as five classrooms in a single open space. The voices of teachers and children from all the adjoining classes mixed together, sometimes creating so much noise it was difficult to hear. Great teaching ideas traveled between classes along with and through the sounds.
We built on this collaboration as we paired teachers from different schools to teach in a single classroom and then introduced literacy practices that could be taught using collaborative methods. One more formal collaborative practice is called “collaborative mentoring,” and we introduced it to the teaches as a way they could observe and provide feedback for each other’s teaching. Teachers shared their classroom experiences and observations in powerful conversations, and over the week we saw them try out practices they observed in their partner teachers’ classes.
Similarly, although the children often worked together informally, we showed the teachers several formal strategies they could use to help students collaborate. In Haiti, as in much of the world, teachers ask questions and the whole class responds – hopefully with the answer anticipated by the teacher. We showed teachers how they could instead engage the students by having them turn to a partner to discuss the ideas in the book rather than by searching for a correct answer. We suggested that they ask students questions to elicit more details in their writing, rather than simply demanding that they fill a page. Further, we encouraged them to teach pairs of students to try this same process with each other. During the week, each teacher and student made two different kinds of books, one for poetry and one for narrative writing; at our celebration at the end of the week, younger and older children shared their stories with one another, illustrating another form of collaboration.
A week of literacy and collaboration was a powerful experience for the teachers and students. During the time we were in Cavaillon, we saw so much change. We saw adults and children learn the pleasure of reading stories with unexpected endings and of arguing about their meaning. We saw them experience the delight of seeing poems and stories unfold, of writing in books they made themselves, and sharing those books with their families and friends. They learned to view themselves as readers and authors. On the last day, a fifth grade teacher told us, “We know a lot of stories but I never decided to write them down. Last night I wrote a beautiful story in French. I will ask the children to make predictions when I read it in September. I think the story will go far and I am very happy.”
Our work in Haiti illustrates how important it is to create opportunities for teachers and students to work together and learn from one another. In the United States we have largely eliminated such opportunities for collaboration in our relentless push to raise test scores and close the so-called achievement gap. We forget how important it is for teachers to learn from one another and share their expertise, which reinforces the professionalism of teaching. In a world consumed by high stakes educational reform, we have become blind to how collaborative practice improves the quality of teaching. I suggest we pause, reflect, and learn from efforts such as our work in Haiti, where we saw teachers and children learning from and with each other, and joyfully and proudly changing their practices.
Katherine Schultz is the Dean and Professor of Education at the School of Education at Mills College.
In my last blog, I introduced the Inquiry into Leadership for Early Childhood Professionals Project. Now I want to take you inside one of these meetings…
Each time we gather, a presenter courageously opens up his or her professional practice for public discussion sharing a current dilemma she/he is facing in the workplace. We use the Prospect Center’s Descriptive Review (DR) of a Professional Dilemma of Practice, a structured inquiry protocol. The DR process uses thick description of “the particular”—e.g., individuals, relationships, communities, and contexts—as methods for strengthening equity (El Haj, 2003; Himley & Carini, 2000), a stark contrast with approaches that minimize human variation through top-down universalist interventions (Himley, 2000).
The DR process models how leadership can be strengthened through collaborative inquiry as new layers of understanding emerge when groups engage in sustained conversation around a shared topic. Early childhood professionals are able to put the world “out of play” for a moment with time to pause, reflect, reframe and return to their professional world to “act in it in wiser ways” (Himley, 2000, p. 200).
The dilemmas we have explored to date are wide-ranging. Two examples of guiding questions include:
- As a program manager at a family engagement non-profit agency, how can I leverage my position as a trainer/consultant to support the schools, teachers, and families I am working with to strengthen family engagement within the program?
- As a special education preK teacher in an urban school district, how do I remain true to my teaching practices when given inconsistent resources and support?
To provide a window into the types of discourse that emerge, I share brief moments of Natalia’s dilemma [2nd question above] about working in a public preK special education class in a low income urban school district. She explained the daily challenges presented by a lack of resources:
“For example, I don’t have a telephone in my room and I’m way across the field from everyone else and yet I have a child with a seizure disorder and so I have my cell phone with me in case I need to call 911. I’m supposed to have an aide but she went on break one day and never came back. I park in a parking lot that is gated and I need to leave at 3:30pm every day for safety reasons, which leaves me with no time to prep for my teaching. I’m all alone for most of the day as some days the transitions are so hard for the children to get to the playground that we don’t even leave the classroom. The bathrooms in my classroom are filthy, the window is broken and there are very few toys or materials for the children. The physical environment is INCREDIBLY challenging to navigate for children with developmental challenges. I was trained to see quality environments as the right of every child. It has been very hard to have that here.”
Natalia’s colleagues asked 30 minutes of clarifying questions to help everyone understand the dilemma in more depth inspiring her to reflect on her relationships, her purposes, and goals for teaching, and the agency she had to influence positive change. For example:
- How much freedom do you have to create your own curriculum?
- Could you be written up for licensing violations?
- What have been your successes? What are you proud of?
- How did you make the decision to teach at this school?
Next, the group offered Natalia 22 recommendations. She listened but was asked not to respond. This helps the presenter learn to quiet her/his habit of ‘reacting’ to feedback. It also recognizes that the recommendations could be helpful for other participants as the dilemmas are acting as collective texts that everyone can use for strengthening practice. A more experienced colleague working in the same district encouraged Nalalia to go over the IEP rights every time she met with families and encourage them to contact the district office. Others reminded her that relationships, not things, are at the heart of teachers’ work. She was also encouraged to be strategic with her ‘asks,’ to decide on two she really wanted, allowing her under-resourced district a way to meet her needs.
Natalia’s colleagues encouraged her to reframe the situation and see herself as the primary resource for her students, to focus her energy on building strategic relationships with others in her district and to focus on the successes and changes she could make. Natalia reported having new ways of considering and responding to her dilemma and a renewed sense of what she called “unity and support” to inspire her. Other participants reported that the process helped them to learn to listen to others, to value collegial relationships, and to understand the courage that leadership required.
Three years ago, I found myself completing a grant report where I became intrigued with one of the questions I was required to answer: “What are you doing to support leadership development for your alumni after they leave Mills?” After thinking for quite some time, I realized that I was unable to answer the question. As I drove home that night, I sat with the tension of the empty answer box on the report, and my knowledge of the importance of providing alumni with sustained opportunities to continue the learning and intellectual growth they started in graduate school.
After thoughtful conversations with Dean Kathy Schultz and with my colleagues, I collaborated with Professor Linda Kroll and Mills alumna Jennifer Kagiwada to launch the “Inquiry into Leadership for Early Childhood Professionals Project.” Now in its third year, we invite alumni four times each year to the Mills campus to enjoy the opportunity to engage in deep and engaged conversations about the rich and complex work of early childhood professionals over a pizza dinner. At each meeting, a presenter courageously opens up her/his professional practice by sharing a dilemma she/he currently confronts in the workplace.
The professionals who participate in the Inquiry meetings represent a very diverse group: family child care providers; infant/toddler/preschool, elementary, and special education teachers; preschool directors and site supervisors; family engagement coordinators; resource and referral specialists; subsidy administrators; philanthropists; experts in policy and advocacy; early interventionists; college instructors and researchers. Some have been in the field for decades, while others graduated from Mills only last year. Each inquiry varies according to the participants in attendance, the dilemma explored, and even the environment where it takes place. Yet common across all of the inquiries is the collaborative production of complexities that participants (especially the presenter) had not previously understood.
We have been very inspired by the rich conversations and the strengthened relationships that resulted from the first three years of the Inquiry into Leadership for Early Childhood Professionals Project. This past year, we decided to expand the Inquiry Events to include community partners beyond Mills ECE graduates. We are interested in sharing this model of inquiry with our valued colleagues in the larger field. We also had the wonderful opportunity of having one of our meetings filmed by West Ed for the California Department of Education. They plan to create a 5-7 minute video segment of the meeting included on a DVD linking the new California Early Childhood Educator Competencies (http://www.cde.ca.gov/sp/cd/re/ececomps.asp) with contextualized examples of how the competencies can look when authentically embedded in professional practice. The Mills Inquiry Event will exemplify how leadership can be developed in the early childhood field and linked to the leadership competencies used for professional development for teachers and administrators across the state. We were honored to be part of this important project.
Thinking back to that grant report three years ago, I can now reflect on what a tremendous gift it has been to work with such an engaging and thoughtful group of professional colleagues to collaborate on the development of this professional learning community. “What are you doing to support leadership development for your alumni after they leave Mills?”
The MBA/MA Huddle skipped through three continents in ninety minutes. How? Keep reading.
The idea of global citizenship is the foundation for bringing more international and comparative education opportunities to the MBA/MA in Educational Leadership program. In defining this unique type of citizenship, attendees at the first discussion on February 14th were presented with a tangible pathway to secure it; a new course set to begin spring 2014.
True to the dedication Mills has to their students, we were given a direct line to voice our opinions, and leadership answered—on the first ring. The Huddle hosted a discussion with Dean Deborah Merrill-Sands of the Graduate School of Business and Dean Kathy Schultz of the School of Education. The deans shared their international history in their fields, and ping-ponged plans for future coursework.
Dean Schultz described how her partnership with the International Rescue Committee led her to teacher education initiatives in Southeast Asia and curriculum development in Lebanon. Collaboration with the existing culture was paramount to the group’s learning and development. Dean Merrill-Sands spoke to the importance of the “deep dive”; practical and principled immersion in another culture to help understand your own. As an agricultural scientist in Mayan villages to countries in West Africa, Merrill-Sands emphasized leading by inquiry and participatory action.
Both narratives echoed a complete reframing of how each work in the world today. The new international course will encourage the same transformative critique on how we work in relation to others.
International and comparative education encompasses a wide variety of points in education and humanities, but especially in business. It is neither limited to studying abroad, nor confined to exchange, but is synonymous with one of our favorite phrases at Mills, “multiple perspectives”. Participation in international discourse enhances soft and hard skills promoted in any career field. For MBA/MA students, many of these educational entities are looking for astute financiers and program managers to strategically advance their global mission.
The proposed course will include anthropological insight, case studies on key issues (foreign and domestic), and perhaps a trip for field experience, which garnered the audience’s applause. This course, matched with others currently offered by the GSB, like Multinational Business Strategies and International Finance, may eventually become a concentration in International Education or Relations.
During the huddle, we started with a definition. “A person entitled to the rights and privileges of a free man, loyal to the state or nation to which he was born.” A citizen.
In recent exposure to Michael Foucault’s ruminations on power, I fell upon his description of a “free man” or, the state in which one is free. Freedom, he says, is a “field of possibilities in which several ways of behaving, several reactions…may be realized.” Foucault sees freedom and power in mutual existence, that where possibilities abound, action does too. Now think of where you live, of where you have lived, and where you would like to live. Did you consider yourself a citizen of your home address, or of a city in the Bay Area of California? Did you consider yourself an entitled free (wo)man who had a field of possibilities to behave in a way that was loyal to herself, as well as her larger zip code? Did you consider yourself a tool in a box of Pandora proportions, where the way the mundane choices you make in life directly affect your next door neighbor?
Today, we find that we are increasingly interconnected and must address different realities in the world around us. We are free women and men engaged in power relations that require us to talk, think, and act with multiple, global perspectives in mind. To build bridges and fill gaps across national borders, creating a more culturally-competent, socially just, and economically equitable world. To be global citizens, a seemingly cursory term, that has true meaning to students here at Mills who plan to take that meaning around the world and back. Join our class in the spring 2014 and stay tuned for more updates on our efforts!
Are you a global citizen? Tell us more about your citizenship here: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1MJtKoQcGZbqo5QRDsu2ChrjJL8HSUbQwlmWLdCx8i9I/viewform?pli=1
The MBA/MA Huddle is a graduate group that offers a platform for action-oriented exploration of the intersection of business management and education, with a focus on innovation and reform.
In the fall of 2012, a group of students in the MBA/MA in Educational Leadership Program (a joint program of the School of Education and the Lokey Graduate School of Business) came together and realized an opportunity for an ongoing space to discuss the intersection of the worlds of business and education. Thus the Huddle was born, providing joint degree students with resources and opportunities to learn and participate in this emerging field.
The Huddle met and formed three Tiger Teams to take on the specific tasks necessary to expand the scope of the Huddle. The Career Tiger Team presented a mind map of the education industry, highlighting the vastness of the industry while recognizing the sectors in which the joint students were interested in working. The Huddle Tiger Team invited in a professor from the Graduate School of Business and a professor from the School of Education to debate the topic of opportunity costs in education. They also heard from Professor Tom Li, who shared his experience of sitting on a school board to which he brought his knowledge as a CPA in order to address school- related issues. Students’ opinions and thoughts regarding the both the Huddle and the MBA/MA joint program are also welcomed and valued.
The Huddle has recently added the Business and Education Action Team (BEAT). BEAT will be an outward facing component of the Huddle, with students volunteering with schools and educational organizations, and providing business consulting and supplemental workshops to students.
The Huddle is a great resource for the MBA/MA joint students at Mills. It offers a motivating site for students to synthesize their classroom learning with real life situations. The group also allows students to explore career paths which align with the joint degree.
For me, the Huddle is a meeting place for my peers and me to reflect and examine the new connections being forged within the areas of education and business, as well as the challenges that may arise from that relationship. To be a part of something that is creating a significant impact is empowering, and it is amazing to be able to bring that to Mills. I hope that we can carry this conversation into action, especially through BEAT. I look forward to the continuing progress and ripples of success we will make, not only at Mills, but also within the Oakland community.
Jessica Lahey, a high school teacher and writer, argues in the Atlantic magazine (February, 2013) (that introverts should be required to speak in class. She claims that classroom participation grades are not only fair; they are necessary. Drawing on recent work on introverts (e.g., Susan Cain’s popular new book, Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking), she suggests that in order to be successful in today’s world, it is imperative that introverted students be taught and coerced through grades and expectations to participate in class.
I disagree. Lahey paints students who are quiet in her class with a broad brush, calling them all “introverts.” The truth is that there are many reasons students may choose not to verbally participate in school. Some students are painfully shy and perhaps even introverts. Other students choose their moments to speak carefully, participating in silence for long periods before they decide to speak aloud. Some are quiet in school and loud in other contexts. Sometimes a student’s silence protects her from ridicule or bullying. In many cultures, silence is a sign of deep respect and more highly valued than talk. I would argue that Lahey’s advocacy for grading or counting classroom participation ignores the value and uses of silence in the classrooms, overlooking the myriad of other ways students participate.
Lahey also locates students’ silences in individuals rather than understanding them as a product of group interaction and situations. The students she worries about are ones she labels as “introverts”, assuming it is a characteristic of the student rather than the circumstance that creates the silence or reticence. I would suggest, instead, that it is useful to look at how classrooms and other contexts create silences in youth. Rather than punishing the so-called introverts for their silence or forcing them to speak by grading their classroom participation, teachers like Lahey might inquire into the silence of certain students in their classrooms, looking into the reasons for their silence, the places where are they more vocal, and imagining other ways they might be encouraged to participate.
In my own work, I suggest that we redefine what we mean by classroom participation. Teachers often define classroom participation as a verbal response that fits into a routine that the teacher has established. (Typically, the teacher asks a question, the student responds and the teacher affirms the correctness of the answer. Students are then said to participate.) But can students participate without speaking out loud? Should teachers consider the times that a student gives silent assent to a question or thoughtfully jots notes for a future essay as participation? Are these useful forms of participation? It is important to note that one student’s silence can enable another student to speak. Do students have a responsibility to contribute to the silence of a classroom so that others can talk, along with a responsibility to contribute verbally to the discussion? How might silence be re-framed as a “productive” or useful contribution to classroom classrooms? Finally, how to we create other contexts for participation such as multimedia projects where students “speak” through recorded text.
Lahey claims that she wants to prepare her students for the future where verbal participation is critical for their success. I suggest instead that we rethink how we understand students’ silences. I want us to remain cautious about labeling children as introverts, rather than understanding the larger contexts of how and why they choose to participate in certain ways. Otherwise, the particular contributions these students make to the classroom community may be unheard, unrecognized, and discounted. The absence of talk might lead a teacher to assume the absence of learning. It may be difficult for a student to escape the label of the “silent” student or the “introvert.”
There are potentially grave consequences for students when teachers do not understand their silence as a form of participation. Narrow interpretations of the meanings of silence can lead to false assumptions about student participation in classroom activities. For instance, students who are silent might receive low grades for classroom participation, when in fact they are actively engaged in learning. Rather than working to fix or change “introverts” I suggest we understand the various reasons students choose to participate verbally in classrooms or to refrain from such participation. Shouldn’t our goal as educators be to rethink our classroom as places that support all students to learn?
Note: I elaborate these ideas in my book, Rethinking Classroom Participation: Listening to Silent Voices, Teachers College Press, 2009.
This originally appeared on the Washington Post’s education blog: The Answer Sheet on 2/12/13.
“What does a successful science journal look like in second grade?” … “What do I hope this partner reading conversation sounds like?” …
“What data would indicate that my students have really internalized the science concept we are studying?”
These are the kinds of questions that our teacher scholars grapple with in their collaborative Mills Teacher Scholars work sessions. On the surface, these questions may seem straightforward. But in practice, seeking thoughtful answers to questions about student understanding of content involves delving in to messy issues. Perhaps the most common struggle our teachers scholars face is teasing apart evidence of student understanding from evidence of a student’s ability to follow directions. Upon looking closely and reflecting with colleagues teachers discover that an assignment with very clear and complete directions may yield more data about students’ ability to follow directions than about their understanding of the key concepts. So how can we figure out what students really understand?
In a Mills Teacher Scholars session facilitated last month by teacher scholar leaders from Oakland Unified, I listened as teachers went around the circle sharing the focus of their inquiries and what data might provide useful information as to how their students were, or were not, progressing towards the learning goal each teacher had established.
Several teachers shared that they changed their routine data source from their initial idea. In each case, the teacher wanted to know what the students were thinking, and which concepts the students understood. And they realized that when their assignment provided teacher-created sentence frames, and teacher-designed structures for thinking, the results didn’t show student thinking. Rather, they showed successful completion of a carefully designed task. But whether the student really understood the ideas they were expressing was not at all clear.
One second grade teacher initially used, as her routine data source, student science journal entries written using teacher-designed sentence frames. This teacher changed her routine data source to be interviews with focal students in which they talked about the conclusions they had drawn and the evidence they had used that supported those conclusions.
Another teacher began her inquiry by using, as her routine data source, information about how many students had completed their learning center written work. Now she has moved to using recordings of partner conversations at the reading center to find out what kind of learning conversations partners are (or are not) having.
Yet another teacher began by looking at Accelerated Reader test scores. (Accelerated Reader is a computer based reading assessment widely used for monitoring reading progress.) She realized that the scores were not telling her much about how the students were interacting with the text, and she changed her routine data source to book talks with her focal students.
Each of these teacher scholars went beyond checking for completion and recording numerical scores to implementing practices that allowed them to find out how their students are thinking.
Through their Mills Teacher Scholars work, teachers consistently create new opportunities for students to express their understanding of the key concepts. Teacher scholars then use these powerful data to guide their classroom instruction. Creating time and support for teachers to collect, analyze, and share these real-time data is an essential component to transforming classrooms into places where a diverse group of students find opportunities for deepened learning.
Thinking Outside the Box: How One School Is Going To Do Things Differently | Laurie Grassi-Redmond ’02
When I was taking graduate classes at the Mills School of Education over ten years ago, Anna Richert challenged me and my colleagues to “imagine schools otherwise”. Our student teaching placements left us with many questions, and when we met with Anna on Wednesday afternoons, our frustrations and concerns often bubbled up and out. We questioned standardized tests, teacher to student ratios, school schedules, moral dilemmas, content standards, prescribed curriculum, assessments, and more. Anna would listen to us, facilitate our discussions, and then push us to imagine what schools could look like, if we took the time to imagine them otherwise.
Years later, having taught at the Mills College Children’s School and in public elementary and middle schools, and having stepped outside of the classroom for five years to raise two daughters, I am now in the process of founding a school. Holding in my heart and mind what I know to be best for children, I developed The Mill School.
The Mill School will help children tap into their capacity for learning so that they are confident and successful while maintaining a true sense of self. Located in Freedom, Maine, The Mill School will serve children ages six to ten in a three-day program. Academics will be taught through integrated projects. Assessment will be on-going and authentic. Through place-based learning, The Mill School will advance environmental stewardship and foster the growth of children who view themselves as participants in the life of their community. The Mill School will prepare children to be valued members of society by emphasizing critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, adaptability, initiative, curiosity, and imagination.
At The Mill School, children will spend half of each school day outside. The outdoor environments will provide the roots for the curriculum at The Mill School and they include the falls, stream, pond, forest, wetlands, and adjoining family farm. Snacks and lunches will be made from whole, local, organic foods and served family style.
The Mill School will partner with families to educate children. Constructivism and place-based learning will guide the curriculum. One day we may offer a five-day program so that we can try to become a “school of choice” – that means that families in the surrounding area could attend the school for free. For now, we will actively work to keep tuition as low as possible while still valuing our teachers and providing a safe and enriching learning environment where children can thrive.
I would like to thank all of my Mills professors for preparing me for this venture. Collectively, they planted a seed ten years ago that has now blossomed into one school where things will be done differently: a school rooted in what is best for children.
To learn more about the school, please visit www.themillschool.org
In The Principalship, Thomas Sergovanni defines culture as the beliefs and values that underlie and direct the actions of faculty. Ideas such as “all children can learn” and “the whole child should be educated” fall into this category of thought. The importance of cultivating a healthy school culture cannot be understated in school leadership. The ability to effect positive change in the program, operations, and political dimensions of school structures rests on having a strong, coherent culture that supports faculty in modeling the foundational values, and holds them accountable when they move away from those. This is why I identified improving the culture of the elementary division at The Berkeley School, where I am Associate Head of School and Elementary Division Head, as one of my foci for the current school year, and made it the topic of my project for my NAIS Fellowship for Aspiring Heads of School.
Because school culture rests on abstract ideas such as beliefs and values, changing it requires surfacing those values in ways that can then be directly applied to the curriculum, traditions, and other facets of school life. While I would have loved to set aside time for faculty to discuss their core values and beliefs about education in the abstract, to do so would take their most precious resource – time – without providing a pragmatic connection to their work, and my experience is that teachers prefer their time be spent talking about substantive matters, rather than process-related ones. My approach, therefore, has been to identify ways in which the values and beliefs in our culture can be named within the context of specific program-related work.
One way in which I have worked to shift school culture is through a year-long examination of our curriculum. One strand of this has been to begin a curriculum mapping process that gives teachers time to plan, reflect, and revise their own curriculum, as well as significant opportunities to work with faculty at other grade levels to understand the knowledge, skills and understandings that are being taught to students throughout the school. Another strand has been working closely with our Curriculum Coordinator to implement a design thinking process for examining our balanced literacy program. This initiative has involved defining the components of the program, training faculty on implementing a consistent word study program across the grades (since one was missing), providing regular opportunities to implement the Looking At Student Work Together protocol developed by David Allan and Tina Blythe at Harvard’s Project Zero Institute, and more.
My second approach has been to increase the role of teacher leadership in defining specific aspects of our program. I formed small working groups to examine our shared traditions, such as holiday celebrations and our curriculum sharing events, and I pushed those small groups to be explicit about the values behind our work. For example, one such group at the beginning of the year met to rethink our assemblies, which were previously bi-monthly sing-alongs of old folk songs. By starting with sharing the reasons we value assemblies, we were able to then move on to identifying the goals we wished the assemblies to meet, and thus come up with a structure that could achieve them. When this group of teachers suggested a structure to the event that involved students sharing their learning, and the reporting out of the work of our newly-formed student council, the faculty as a whole was excited to take on the added burden of preparing their kids to present, precisely because their peers had taken the time to ground the approach in their values.
I have used one other strategy to increase the coherence of our division’s culture, and that is to attempt to become a better cheerleader and recognize what is going right in our classrooms. I have found several avenues for this, including offering a sincere and authentic appreciation to a different faculty or staff member each day for some aspect of their work; being sure to notice, comment on, and inquire about the new displays and documentation that appears on the walls of the classrooms each time I enter a room; and to publish an internal division newsletter in which I pick one thing from each class, and write about how I see it connecting to our mission, learning outcomes, or pedagogic approach.
Peter Drucker, an influential scholar of management theory and practice, once wrote that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Understanding the history of a school site, the personal narratives of the faculty and staff, and the context, constraints, and conditions that a school faces are essential in effecting culture change. It is time-consuming work, and one that I find presents me with new and exciting challenges every day. I share my approach in the hope that it provides others with a foil to consider their own critical work in this area, and I welcome anyone who would like to have a dialogue on this topic at to contact me at email@example.com.