As teachers, we all have our own flavor of innovation, and we leave for summer with ideas (or, if you’re like me, a stack of haphazard notes in a drawer) to revamp our courses for next year. Sometimes there are new tools we’ve heard about that we want to test out, and sometimes we have a new course to design. Whatever the motivator, teachers are lifelong learners and we seek to grow professionally. I’ve noticed two essential ingredients that are necessary for this growth. First, teachers need time and space for expansive reflection. Second, they need a structure to guide the process of designing for a reimagined learning experience. Here’s how we’ve taken these challenges on.
Meredith Mikell, One Schoolhouse Astronomy and Marine Science teacher, has to refuel each summer because, in her words, she teaches “intellectual recklessness.” Concerned that so many good science students have a fixed mindset, Meredith spends her summers pursuing her own passions - including attending the annual Star Trek convention! - so that she can shift the learning paradigm for her students. By designing activities that allow for creative application, Meredith’s projects allow students to “discover” basic science principles. For example, the null hypothesis is a notoriously tedious topic to teach because it is so abstract. But Meredith’s Astronomy students uncover its true meaning when they are asked to determine whether their teacher is actually an alien. Far from the rote experimental design question, this crazy origin story inquiry pushes students to the brink of what science can answer, and therein lies the lesson. (Her home planet is earth, in case you are wondering). If Meredith didn’t take her own growth and rejuvenation seriously, she could never conceive of the wild ideas that promote brave discovery in her classes. Even if you have to leave this galaxy to clear your mind, make this part of your professional growth; protect it like your students’ learning depends on it--because it does.
Structure to Guide Design
Given the frenetic pace of the school year, summer is the only time when teachers have time to think. This is why we believe that the best formula for teacher growth is summer planning. Here’s an outline of what transformative summer professional development might look like:
Improve your practice this summer and register for upcoming professional development at One Schoolhouse - courses start July 15, 2019.
Building Leadership in Schools for Boys
Introduction to Boys' Schools
Introduction to Girls' Schools
Introduction to Independent Schools
Mastery Practice in Teaching Boys
Tim Fish, Chief Innovation Officer at the National Association of Independent Schools, talks about the importance of continual learning for faculty and how that happens best online.
Learn more and register for upcoming professional development at One Schoolhouse here - courses start July 15, 2019.
Once upon a time I had a summer job at a Girl Scout camp on Martha’s Vineyard, and my first season there was happiest of my life to that point. I found a community, good and lifelong friends, and an ethos of caring for an ideal, an enterprise of the heart and soul, that introduced me to the ways that “mission-driven” and “values-aligned” can shape lives.
I was staggered to discover, on the last day of the season, that the final night campfire of the final session was one of the most emotional events I had ever experienced. Later, when my late spouse and I worked together at Girl Scout camps she directed, this closing ritual, with weeping campers and weeping counselors, remained a powerful, often wrenching reminder of the strength of a community of purpose. As the last embers of the fire died out, the words of one song would hit me especially hard, and they have stayed with me: “This is so long, but not goodbye.”
For the Independent Curriculum Group, this newsletter is our final campfire. It’s a time to remember the great times we’ve had, to express our gratitude and deep affection for those who have supported us, and to make a wish. It’s also a time to look forward, to reassure ourselves that the mission and values of “independent curriculum” abide—not just in our hearts and minds, as touchstones of what the future of education ought to look like, but in the ongoing work and purposes of our new partners at One Schoolhouse.
So thank you, thank you all: to the educators and friends of education who have found resonance in our ideas; to the schools whose leaders have seen fit to join in our work; to those who have worked with us at our events and made common purpose with us; to all those whom I have gotten to know at Academic Leaders Retreats, at our conference presentations, and through our correspondence and conversations on policy, practice, big questions, and big ideas.
I also thank those who have given of their time and energy over the years first as the steering committee behind the body that became the Independent Curriculum Group and then as members of our board. Without your dedication, I would not be writing this almost twenty years after the idea of independent curriculum was born.
Above all I thank my predecessor, Bruce Hammond, whose idea the ICG was and who as executive director molded a loose bunch of starry-eyed idealists into a strong and purposeful nonprofit that has contributed much to the educational conversation. Along with Mark Salkind, our founding board chair, Bruce made the ICG a reality.
And in the spirit of looking forward, I must thank Brad Rathgeber, head of school at One Schoolhouse, and the One Schoolhouse board for recognizing our common bonds and for your willingness to help sustain our ideals into the future.
In accordance with final night campfire tradition, I offer a wish: I wish that our highest ideals as educators and their essence as expressed in the ICG’s Principles of Independent Curriculum might one day come to define the educational experience of every child, in every kind of school, everywhere.
The Vineyard Sailing Camp is closed now, but when old campers or staff get together we remember and honor what made the place and our times there so special. We can still sing the songs and feel the power of their words to take us not backward but deeply into ourselves and the sources of lifelong hopes and dreams that still energize and give purpose to our lives today and will continue to do so as long as we live.
This is so long from the me at the Independent Curriculum Group, but this is in no way a goodbye to the community of purpose we idealists have been and will ever be.
You will hear from us (and from me) and our ideals again, through One Schoolhouse surely, and perhaps even in the songs from your own past that still bring you hope and joy.
When we began our work online, we saw it as an opportunity to expand opportunities for students. Instead, we learned early on that it was possible to use this new medium for faculty, too.
We quickly found five major benefits to doing so:
As we started to get involved in PD, we learned how many great partners support the independent school community. They wanted to build the skills necessary to bring great content and learning experiences online. So we partnered with them. Over the years, we’ve built courses with NBOA, NCGS, the Independent Curriculum Group, Folio, the IBSC, NAIS, and many state and regional associations. We’ve even helped bring schools’ PD programs online.
The connections we make with independent school educators every year have grown into a rich and rewarding web of relationships. We’ll continue to expand our professional development offerings over the next number of years because we’re committed to supporting the worldwide community of independent schools.
Boost your experience, connect with colleagues and learn from nationally recognized mentors this summer! With courses designed for new faculty, classroom teachers, administrators and department chairs, and topics on leadership, "big picture" school finances, goal setting, and relational teaching - this is your chance to learn something new:
I spent a good decade of my career differentiating instruction for students with learning differences. Drawing on the wealth of research, I dutifully created lessons with a range of learning modalities and designed units where all students had at least a few activities that suited them best. I’ll bet every teacher has done something similar. Here’s why this isn’t the best approach: every student learns differently so differentiated instruction is highly inefficient.
We all know the problem with differentiation: all students -- regardless of whether they have a diagnosed learning difference or not -- still have to do a lot of activities that don’t all meet their needs, and the teacher exhausts herself to create a range of activities in the hope that there will be something for everyone. But in reality, every student is unique. Even creating a robust station rotation won’t enable a teacher to meet every single student’s needs. Differentiation is a recipe for both student and teacher fatigue.
This challenge is exacerbated by the reality that sometimes what we label as “learning styles” are not even innate, but are actually learned survival tools. Lisa Damour, in her new book Under Pressure, describes a student making 50 flashcards for a test when she actually only has 10 words she doesn’t know; still, she reviews all 50 repeatedly because this is how she has learned to do school and because it earns teacher praise. (This example gets even more frustrating when you consider the research on the relative uselessness of flashcards in general!) There’s nothing innate about flashcard studying. What is actually innate is the way we are hardwired to learn most effectively and efficiently; for most, it isn’t flashcards, but in a differentiated model, we honor difference by teaching every student to use every tool, regardless of usefulness to their unique learning needs.
While well intended, ineffective activities (i.e.: flashcards) are compounded by the inefficiency of the learning routine in the differentiated classroom. Some students need to read an overview to understand the context of a new skill, while others are better served by diving right into an activity and then learning the skill by trying it out, failing, and trying again. Why should the student who likes to read or study first and then do problems have to do 20 problems to show she knows the new skill? After reading and studying, maybe she can show mastery with just five problems. And why should the student who would rather work through a problem set -- getting it wrong and reverse engineering the answer until she masters the skill -- have to read the chapter in the book before starting the problems? Because, as dutiful differentiators, we do all things for all students and in return we ask all students to do all things we’ve designed.
The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. Teachers can create pathways where students access new content and skills in the way that is most effective and efficient for them. And a side benefit of these personalized pathways is that all those differentiated lessons transition nicely to optional pathways in a personalized paradigm, so this will be a housecleaning exercise for teachers making the shift.
Learning Pathways -- where teachers design alternative pathways for efficiency, acceleration, and remediation -- motivate learners because they prevent stagnation, plug holes, and minimize inefficiencies. They do this by giving students choice in what they learn and by inviting student voice into how they learn. (It’s not as scary as it sounds.) This keeps students engaged in their learning, ultimately increasing mastery, because they aren’t wasting time on things that don’t help them learn. Pathways allow teachers to meet a range of learner needs because they give students multiple onramps to new content and skills.
Any teacher with some basic edtech knowledge and access to the Google Suite or a LMS can create personalized pathways that leverage all the tools that the teacher has in her differentiation toolbox to make the students do meaningful, useful work via learning pathways. Want to try it out? Take a stale lesson, write every single activity on a separate sticky note, stack the sticky notes that essentially accomplish the same things (for example, listening to the lecture and reading the textbook), and let students choose just one activity from each of the stacks. By personalizing instead of differentiating, you’ll gain 30 minutes here, 45 minutes there -- for you and for the students -- that you can now reallocate! The first time you do it, use that time you gained to ask the students to share their thoughts on the change.
Differentiation had its place - it taught us to recognize that all students learn differently, and it helped us move away from the sage on the stage model. But it’s time to move on from differentiated instruction. When you stop differentiating and start creating personalized pathways for learning, you will infuse new life into your curriculum.
Brad Rathgeber, Head of School & CEO