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An education problem to be solved!

September 28, 2017

This article just appeared in the Guardian, Facing Poverty, Academics Turn to Sex Work and Sleeping in Cars.  Quite disturbing to think that some schools of higher education are not looking after valuable members of their teaching community.  Adjunct professors contribute in significant ways to the teaching and learning community of our community colleges, small colleges, and universities.  Why do some say there are 9 Reasons Why Being An Adjunct Faculty Member Is Terrible?  This Huffington Post article clearly spells out why the teaching culture for adjunct professors that is far from ideal in most institutions of higher learning.  Most importantly, they are compensated poorly relative to their full professors.  An NPR story,  The Sad Death Of An Adjunct Professor Sparks A Labor Debate, addresses this problem in some detail.  For example,

After 25 years of teaching French at Duquesne, the university had not renewed her contract. As a part-time professor, she had been earning about $10,000 a year, and had no health insurance.

In the Guardian article, the author, Alastair Gee, writes:

Sex work is one of the more unusual ways that adjuncts have avoided living in poverty, and perhaps even homelessness. A quarter of part-time college academics (many of whom are adjuncts, though it’s not uncommon for adjuncts to work 40 hours a week or more) are said to be enrolled in public assistance programs such as Medicaid.

They resort to food banks and Goodwill, and there is even an adjuncts’ cookbook that shows how to turn items like beef scraps, chicken bones and orange peel into meals. And then there are those who are either on the streets or teetering on the edge of losing stable housing. The Guardian has spoken to several such academics, including an adjunct living in a “shack” north of Miami, and another sleeping in her car in Silicon Valley.

We should be so disappointed that this situation exists for some of our best higher education teachers in America.


What goes into the recipe for a good school?

September 21, 2017
Good School Guide.001

Is such a guide possible or reasonable?

What makes a school a high-quality experience for students?  (see CFT blog post entitled, What Qualities Make for an Ideal School?)

Educators and policymakers have been wrestling with this question for decades.  In fact, when we go back into the archives of school reform, we find studies, conversations and debates about what makes for a high-quality school experience for students.  Most school reform movements in the United States struggle to fulfill their objectives, which have usually been about improving the school experience for our nation’s children.  For some reason we have done a poor job of using lessons from history to align our reform efforts to the needs of schools, teachers, families and students.  Reforms have included:

I would argue that each of these reform initiatives have had an uncertain impact on the quality of schooling in America.  Over the past fifteen years, NCLB and Race-to-the-Top have put a great deal of emphasis on year-end, high-stakes tests and teacher evaluation tied to those test results.  We have little evidence either of these programs have significantly improved school quality after investment of billions of dollars.  Yet we remain focused on testing our students excessively and using these results to evaluate our teachers and schools.  Why do we remain fixated on defining a good school by the high-stakes test performance of its students?  NCLB and Race-to-the-Top have only institutionalized the mindset that test scores are the defining indicator of student and school success.  However, the research would point to the fact that focusing on test scores ignores the multitude of variables that go into defining whether a school is really good.  In addition, it is hard for educators to arrive at consensus on the factors or qualities that make for an excellent teacher.  Good teachers have a complex and unique set of qualities.  Nevertheless, we do know that good schools are built on the backs of good teachers.

With regard to good schools, look at the article published by the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) entitled, 25 factors that great schools have in common.   Let me just pull out a few of the factors related to being a successful school.

  • Create and perpetuate an intentional culture shaped by the adults, rooted in universal values of honesty and caring, and relentlessly oriented toward achievement.
  • Eclectically capitalize on the best ideas about what works in schools, those gleaned from the past as well as those deemed best for the future
  • Manifest a coherent philosophy of learning for students, be it constructivist, Reggio Emilia, Waldorf, Montessori, strengths-based, progressive, traditional, 1:1, or whatever — so long as it remains open to ongoing discussion, testing, and constant refinement.
  • Make a substantial commitment to professional development for faculty, expecting teachers to grow as learners themselves and to develop mastery in the art and science of teaching.  (good teachers are the primary ingredient or secret sauce in good schools, italics are mine)
  • Adopt and fund “3 Rs” talent strategies that position the school to recruit, retain, and reward the best and brightest teachers, school leaders, and board members. (developing teachers helps them connect to the larger vision and mission of excellence that good schools clearly articulate, italics are mine)
  • Seek data to make data-rich (not opinion-rich) decisions, embracing former Education Secretary Margaret Spellings’s observation, “In God we trust; all others, bring data.”

Their list of 25 factors is in no way exhaustive.  For example, one factor that does not appear in the NAIS list is that good schools give serious attention to develop and nurture students’ social and emotional needs.  Good schools care deeply for their students and understand the value of providing SEL (social emotional learning) programs aligned to our understanding of human development,  They comprehend that unless they meet their students’ social-emotional needs, it is less likely that they can successfully meet students’ intellectual needs.  Also, the list does not address schools that find themselves situated in more underserved population centers in the United States.  In these schools, the definition of a good school includes an organization that integrates itself into the larger community.  A good school networks with community resources to provide wrap around services to families so that students come to school ready to learn.

Another factor that has led to the failure of some school reform initiatives has been the inability to gain empathy with families, students and teachers.  Have any of these programs asked students whether their school experience is high-quality or what factors lead to school being an interesting and relevant place to learn?  Not that I am aware of!

In the most recent edition of Education Week, there was published interview with Jack Schneider, Assistant Professor of Education at the College of Holy Cross, entitled, What Makes School Good? It’s More Than Test Scores.  The article is an excerpt from an interview with Dr. Schneider (click here for the interview).  He points out:

Most of us in our hearts know what a good school is and does, but we don’t have the language ready and we haven’t conceptualized it as a broader community.  The way I tend to think about school quality these days is shaped by the future.  Who are the kids I want to meet 10 years from now?  That is not a world that is going to be made by drill-and-kill instruction in math and English.

Good schools will be defined by organizations that provide a vision that allows its students to flourish in an environment designed to meet their social-emotional, intellectual, kinesthetic, and spiritual needs.  If a school is not faith-based, I would argue it still has an obligation to promote a learning environment that allows each student to explore his or her spiritual intelligence, a way of thinking rooted in values, morals and ethics, and beliefs.

Putting it all together, I would project the following set of characteristics that all good schools possess:

  1. A set of shared goals tied to a compelling vision.
  2. Appropriately challenging standards and expectations for all students.
  3. Effective school leadership that focuses on supporting a collaborative culture.
  4. A strategy for designing and implementing a culture of collaboration and good communication.
  5. Curriculum, instruction, and assessments aligned to a set of standards adopted by the school.
  6. Evidence of deeper learning and effective teaching.
  7. A culture that supports high quality professional learning for faculty.
  8. A supportive learning environment that takes into account students’ interests, learning profiles, and readiness.
  9. A school culture that values and promotes family and community involvement.

What are your thoughts with respect to this recipe?  Are essential ingredients missing?  We do have a responsibility to take the pulse of students, families and teachers about what makes the school an interesting, rewarding and exciting place to be.

@WestminsterATL Upper School students shopping in #Janterm17_W for an ideal course experience

September 21, 2017

Westminster School kicked off its JanTerm 2017-2018 experience with a fair showcasing the 40+ courses that will be offered in January 2018 for our three-week alternative learning experience.  Here is the JanTerm description that illustrates the programs goals.

JanTerm is an intensive, three-week course of study allowing Upper School students to focus on a single topic in great depth and at an accelerated pace. This immersive learning experience offers unique, cross-disciplinary experiences in the classroom as well as off-campus field trips and opportunities for overnight travel. These classes foster collaboration and provide venues for students to create, innovate, and problem solve.

Faculty, usually in teams, create, organize, and facilitate these unique offerings that dovetail with an interest, expertise or compelling topic that they believe students will gravitate towards.  There is an elaborate process for communicating the courses, selecting options, and enrolling into the course of your choice.  While students often get their first or second choice, they need to be open to multiple possibilities.

Figure 1 shows the scope of what the Upper School is trying to accomplish as it places 820 students into the 40+ courses.



Figure 1


JanTerm is a place where faculty get to experiment with ideas, innovate the delivery of a curriculum, and incorporate a project-based approach to teaching and learning.  You can explore the course offerings from JanTerm 2017, some of which will be the same for 2018, and you can watch a video and see other visuals that give a taste for what students experience.

At Westminster School, JanTerm has been one part of an innovative approach to reimagining school while maintaining the traditions and excellence that has defined us through our 66 year history.



@WestminsterATL educators presenting on #designthinking @nuevaschool conference 

September 17, 2017

Tinker Space.LS.#1Lauri Jones and Julia Myrick, Westminster Lower School art and design thinking teachers, are presenting at the Innovative Learning Conference at Nueva School in California.  Julia and Lauri are members of a team of teachers that built a robust and innovative design thinking program in our Lower School.  We introduced our program about 5-6 years ago and have been perfecting it ever since.  All pre-1st through 5th grade students have design thinking built into their curriculum.  In addition, design thinking and makerspace time is integrated into some of the project-based learning units designed by classroom teachers.  Check out innovation at Westminster (click here).  Both of Julia and Lauri have engaged in professional development on the Reggio Emilia philosophy for educating our young children.  Our pre-1st program is a Reggio Emilia inspired program that includes integration of design thinking.   You can follow them on Twitter and Instagram at: @CuriosityCats_W (Twitter) and curiositycats_westminster (Instagram).
The title and abstract for their presentation at the Innovation Learning Conference is:

Design Thinking and the Reggio Emilia Approach: Finding the Sweet Spot for Supporting Young Innovators

How do the mindsets and methodologies of Design Thinking and the Maker Movement intersect with the philosophy of the Reggio Approach, and how can those connections support young innovators? In this workshop, co-presenters Julia Myrick and Lauri Jones will share a series of student experiences that highlight possibilities for this blended approach. Join us in a conversation about how these three approaches combine to impact our students’ capacity for critical creativity.

If you want more information about our Westminster program contact Julia or Lauri at:

Working to meet the learning needs of all students!

September 10, 2017

If we are serious about meeting the learning needs of all students, then don’t we have to know how our students learn best?  This question is batted around in educational circles all the time.  We discuss the need to know students’ learning styles, but how much effort and resources does a school or teacher put into learning how students learn?  I don’t know the answer to this question, but I can say that observing many teachers’ classrooms and knowing something about the budgets of different schools, few resources are allocated to unraveling the learning profiles, learning interests, and learning readiness of each student.  It isn’t sufficient to know just one area of a student’s learning preference, we have to know all three before we can expect to fully meet that child’s needs.   So what can schools and teachers do?

Dunn and Dunn modelDrs. Rita and Kenneth Dunn carried out extensive research in how students learn differently.  They developed the Dunn and Dunn Model for understanding the different ways students learn that can inform a teacher’s design and implementation of a lesson.  There are other models for understanding a student’s learning profile.  Using one or a number of them to gain insight into how students learn best can enrich the classroom experience for students.  Here are some links for other models to explore.

The above models look at different aspects of students’ learning preferences or profiles, intelligence frameworks, or ways they approach thinking and problem-solving.  While no one model answers all the questions educators might have about their students, any one or combination of them can give us insight into our students’ learning profiles, helping us plan the classroom experience to best meet students’ needs.

Once we understand their learning profiles, we also should hold ourselves accountable for identifying our students’ interests.  When learning is connected, meaningful, and relevant to a student, he or she is more likely to engage with the learning activities we design.  Design the curriculum with the user, the student, in mind.   Here are some resources for thinking about meaning and relevance when designing lessons:

Another simple way to learn about our students’ interests is to ask them to complete learning interest surveys.  Check out this post on Edutopia’s website, Fire Up Your Class With Learning Interest Surveys.

The final aspect of knowing our students well is to understand the level of readiness they bring to the classroom.  Once essential way in which teachers can construct knowledge about readiness is through the use of pre-assessments tied to lessons.  On the Assessment Network, a website devoted to reporting on assessment practices and listing resources on research-based practices, they write the following in a post entitled, Pre-Assessment: Where Teaching and Learning Begins.

Much of the emerging research on effective teaching and assessing confirms the value of starting where the students are in their sequence and cycle of learning as this is most likely to increase their success. John Hattie, in his research on Visible Learning, found that formative assessment has an effect size of .9, nearly at the top of the list.

Students develop knowledge, skills, attitudes and beliefs as they move through their schooling and lives.  It is important for teachers to assess prior knowledge, skills, attitudes or beliefs because they can impact whether students are ready to learn the material in the lesson.  In some cases, students may already have sufficient baseline knowledge or skills to go beyond where the teacher wants to begin the lesson.

With these three aspects of getting to know our students well in hand, all teachers can meet the needs of all their students, helping them reach their full potential.


Physical education leads to enhanced academic performance!

September 9, 2017

benefits-of-exercise-for-children-with-adhd-blog-767x510One of the negative outcomes of our commitment to No Child Left Behind, as well as our fixation on test scores, is that physical education programs in many schools have disappeared, especially in high schools.  This is true whether you are looking at public, charter or private schools.  From a study completed in 2009 by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, they write:

In schools across the United States, physical education has been substantially reduced— and in some cases completely eliminated—in response to budget concerns and pressures to improve academic test scores.

In education we made the false assumption that scheduling more time for reading and math instruction will help students become better readers and problem-solvers.  Asking students to spend more time within their structured learning environment doing activities liking reading, writing, and math does not necessarily translate into higher student achievement in those areas.  I don’t mean to suggest that students shouldn’t spend time reading, writing and doing math.  However, we should ask the question what is the appropriate balance of intensive minds-on activities linked to classroom learning versus time spent inside and outside in structured and non-structured physical activity and play.

The study also discovered that:

Yet the available evidence shows that children who are physically active and fit tend to perform better in the classroom and that daily physical education does not adversely affect academic performance. Schools can provide outstanding learning environments while improving children’s health through physical education.

The Center for Disease Controls reports in 2017 that:

The percentage of children with obesity in the United States has more than tripled since the 1970s.  Today, about one in five school-aged children (ages 6–19) has obesity.

Physical activity, recess and physical education classes, should be an integral part of every child’s educational experience.  Clearly, as students move from kindergarten to high school the ratio of recess to physical education should decrease.  All high school students should be expected to be in some physical activity every day.  It is important to note that not all high school students participate in sports, which we assume can substitute for physical education.

How would students’ academic achievement, engagement and interest in school increase if their minds and bodies were challenged through physical activity?  Neuroscience would support the relationship between brain health and physical activity.

Neuroscientists around the globe agree that physical activity is the best medicine to maintain brain health throughout your lifespan. Why is physical activity so good for your brain? (Psychology Today, 2014)

There are many reasons why this correlation is supported by scientific research.  Some of which are:

  1. increased blood flow, which improves cerebrovascular health
  2. the release of neurotrophic factors like BDNF (Brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which stimulates the growth of new neurons
  3. benefits of glucose and lipid metabolism which bring nourishment to the brain.

Therefore, schools need to pay close attention to whether they are giving students sufficient time to recharge their batteries through recess, physical education activities, or other kinesthetic outlets that honor the connection between mind and body.

Transformational Coaching with Atlanta educators!

August 29, 2017

Fifty educators from Atlanta, Omaha and Kansas City are engaged in learning and conversation regarding the topic of transformational coaching using Elena Aguilar’s, Art of Coaching.  Our facilitator for two days, Noelle Apostol Colin, is discussing and modeling what the “art of coaching” looks like in practice.  Teachers, administrators and coaches from Howard Kennedy Elementary School in Omaha, Kansas City Neighborhood Charter School in Kansas City, Purpose Built Schools Atlanta (Thomasville Heights, Slater Elementary and Price Middle School), Drew Charter School and Westminster School comprise our group of educators at the institute.

Day 1 was a deep dive into the meaning of transformational coaching, which Elena Aguilar describes as:

doing, thinking, and being: doing a set of actions, holding a set of beliefs, and being in a way that results in those actions leading to change. These are the three things that can make coaching transformational.  (Art of Coaching, Elena Aguilar)

transformational coaching graphicNoelle Colin presented the model with a graphic that illustrates transformational coaching as “coaching from the inside out.”  This phrase captures the model’s core belief that coaching has to start with centering on the person’s core values.  Encouraging and supporting teachers as they articulate who they are as a classroom teacher.  I think of this as the teacher identifying the real self or the real teacher who shows up to the classroom every day.  What are the skills, content knowledge, and caring and understanding the teacher brings to their work with students?  During the workshop, I particularly enjoyed the values exercise, a way to get in touch with who we are.  We picked 10 core values from a list of about 100 and were asked to hone the list down to our top three.  After sharing our three core values with partner, we then reflected on how these values get manifested in our teaching (click here for an example of the values exercise).

The coach’s role is to support the teacher on a journey to get in touch with their real self, as well as discover the ideal self or ideal teacher they want to be.  From what I’ve learned, the coaching process seems to be about closing the gap between the real and ideal self.

Throughout the workshop, we were introduced to protocols we could use in the coaching process and given time to practice them.  Practicing the protocols was particularly well received by the participants.

Noelle shared the following quote, which generated some interesting dialogue and questions.

Coaching is a form of professional development that brings out the best in people, uncovers strengths and skills, builds effective teams, cultivates compassion, and builds emotionally resilient educators. Coaching at its essence is the way that human beings, and individuals, have always learned best.  (Art of Coaching)

As we closed Day 1, we were asked to reflect on this quote from Viktor E. Frankl.

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose
our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.



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