Children at the Center of Learning
Letter to the Community
Headmaster Laurel School
August 8, 2014
Dear Laurel Community,
My vision for Laurel is to be the best at educating and developing young children. What does that really mean? It means as headmaster, faculty, board, and parents we need to be diligent in our efforts to understand children and create innovative programs that stimulate their overall development. There is a significant amount of research on how children learn and what schools need to do to teach critical skills children will need to be successful in the 21st Century. One of my roles will be to connect the Laurel community to current best practices. The board and faculty have begun this summer by reading Creating Innovators by Tony Wagner and Good to Great by Jim Collins as a community. (You can come by my office for your own copy at any time). Our new website (which will launch in November) will also provide the community with developmentally appropriate links to best practices in education.
Over the past few months, I have met with parents, the board, faculty, and students to better understand what Laurel does best and how we can improve as a learning community. I have listened and shared my views as a leader of children and schools. In this letter, I would like to share with you some of my thoughts on child development, education and exciting programs we plan to develop at Laurel.
Please contact me with any questions you may have. I am looking forward to meeting all of you at the Whole Community Barbeque on Wednesday August 27th. Bring your bathing suits and a musical instrument if you want to join the Faculty Band.
PS I realize I have included a lot to think about. Please read what you want and keep the rest for later.
PART ONE: DEVELOPING A SENSE OF COMMUITY
We will have the most impact on our children when all community stakeholders are a part of the educational process. Toward this end, I met with the board in July on a full day retreat to develop a set of core operating principles for Laurel. This summer I have worked on a daily basis with the newly formed school leadership team to further the circle. This fall we will widen the circle to include the faculty, students, and parents. All of these principles center around one key idea - Develop the whole child within the whole community.
1. A Shared Philosophy
Webster’s dictionary defines philosophy as "a set of principles that guide our practical affairs." Over the next year we will spend time clarifying our philosophy, psychology, and pedagogy of teaching and learning. Our basic focus will be children at the center of learning. Great schools share a common trait; virtually all community stakeholders believe and live in relation to a set of principles. Schools by nature can be complicated social systems. A "systems thinking organization" is driven by a set of shared operating principles that serve as the template for everything the school does internally and externally. I envision Laurel to be guided by a set of core principles that drive day-to-day operations, serve as our guide to train and evaluate all community stakeholders, guide adoption of policies, inform how resources are allocated and ultimately help differentiate our school from others in the competitive marketplace. Our operating principles need to be data-driven, specific, action-oriented and live deep within our learning organization. I would like to share a few important ideas that will guide us into the future.
2. The Whole Community
We will seek to connect people and programs as key elements in the overarching educational model that will provide us with a template, or ''big picture view" for developing the whole person within the whole community. There is less room for ambiguity when a community has a set of core operating principles that drive all decisions in the day-to-day operations of the school.
People are our most valuable asset. The Laurel School will never be better than the total sum of its people. We will always seek to put people first. Over the summer, I have asked a number of the talented faculty and staff to take on new leadership positions. Courtney Mills will begin as the Director of Operations and be responsible for all admissions and communications. Amy Carroll is the Director of Preschool and Ryann Zabielski is the Director of Elementary (K-5). In their roles as directors they will examine the scope and sequence of curriculum and teacher development. To create strong teams they will have regular meetings with staff to ensure communication and information will flow both to and from the leadership team, oversee curriculum and
supervise its implementation in the classroom through discussion with staff. I would also like to introduce Nicole Blodgett, who is incredibly excited to be making her new home at The Laurel School. Nicole graduated from Lesley University with her degree in Elementary Education, and has worked with children in the culturally rich setting of the Cambridge Public Schools since 2012. Nicole is a Cape Cod native who loves writing and performing music, traveling and distance running. She is thrilled to be teaching 5th grade at The Laurel School this coming year!
4. Sense of community
The sense of community serves as the foundation and without it any admission gains will not be sustainable. Community is a loosely used term that many schools refer to. Sometimes, a school will state, "we are like a family." Most schools have not stopped to think about what it means to be a community or how we may even lose our sense of community. Recent research suggests that the sense of community of any school trumps all other factors in influencing performance, including curriculum and school facility. Community can be defined in a way that can be seen and understood. People being known, needed, cared for, and having the opportunity to shape their environment define the sense of community of a school.
5. Respect for the individual
Respect for students, faculty, and parents is at the core of what creates a productive and sustainable community. We will strive to treat all community members with respect. In the classroom, we will employ the best educational strategies to honor and respect learning differences. We will turn to best practice research and researchers such as Daniel Pink, Howard Gardner, and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to create the best learning experience for our students.
6. Students as workers and faculty as designers
Students can only learn individually through active engagement with experiences designed by teachers. When students successfully accomplish challenging tasks, they acquire the confidence, skills and knowledge to master a lifetime of learning. Our curriculum draws student into these experiences and allows teachers to design, oversee and evaluate their success as learner-workers in a productive learning environment.
7. Dialogue and PLUS Learning Cycle
People learn through dialogue. Leaders need to design their learning environments to promote dialogue. We call this daily rhythm the PLUS Learning Cycle--a Warm-up followed by an Activity concluding with a Cool-down session. This consistent and recurring process provides leaders with continuous opportunities to gather the class, reflect on the process and set new goals. Group dialogue takes place during the PLUS Cycle.
The Warm-up phase of the Learning Cycle allows the teacher to quiet the chaos and direct the social and psychological attention of the class toward the goals of the day. The Activity phase is the active part of the practice or game during which teachable moments occur. The Cool-down session provides the team with an opportunity to reflect, dialogue, and set new goals, and to put the PLUS Cycle in motion once again. The PLUS Cycle allows the class and teacher to transition from one activity to another. The Learning Cycle allows the coach to be a respectful teacher and mentor. Warm-up and cool-down meetings create a learning environment that provides mentors and players with the opportunity for modeling, dialogue, and reflection.
8. Developing young leaders
As a school we need to be clear how we measure our progress in relation to our outcome goals. Let’s take leadership as an example of a desired outcome goal. How do we create a learning community where respect trumps disrespect and bullying? As teachers we need to do more than want leadership as a goal. As a teaching and learning community, we need to do more than put a leadership poster on the wall. In much the same way we teach math, we need to design a curriculum that teaches leadership and create measuring rubric that tracks the student’s progress.
We need to intentionally teach our students how to lead. There are a number of benefits to teaching older students how to mentor younger students. The obvious benefit is, of course, that the older students learn by doing. Teaching younger children requires older students to understand the skills, such as teamwork, and encourages that they create an environment where teamwork can take place. Leading second and third graders is difficult for experienced adults, let alone preteenagers. Struggling through a session with second graders who won’t sit still and listen requires a young leader to dig deep and find something that works. Yelling louder or blaming the situation does little to quiet the chaos. Another benefit is that the younger children see the older students modeling leadership instead of bullying. This process can eventually create a circle of good where leadership actually trumps bullying. The goal is to create an environment where leading and helping is cool.
In her seminal book You Can’t Say You Can’t Play, author Vivian Paley discovers the secret life of how children form social groups early in school. Paley uncovers key sociological secrets about how children come to treat one another within early social groups such as schools and teams. While much of what Pauley describes is not new or surprising, there is one point that is surprising-the concept of "who is in and who is out" begins much sooner—as early as kindergarten—than we once thought. Waiting for middle school is too late. Having older students model to the younger students that they care increases the likelihood that when it comes their time to lead they will continue the cycle of good.
Paley describes a "secret language" that children develop early on that sets the stage for more troubling period of adolescence when bullying becomes more prevalent. Waiting for middle school to address disrespectful relationships, such as bullying, is too late. The time to teach and expect respectful relations is when children enter school. Traditional ways of "didactic lecturing" will have little positive or enduring impact. Instead, we can "proactively" design curriculums to include lessons that encourage respectful relations and positively reinforce the importance of taking responsibility of oneself and respecting others. And, the most powerful and enduring force that supports this type of learning is teaching a sense of community where people are known, needed, cared for, and have an opportunity to shape their environment.
Most schools and youth programs do not intentionally teach children how to lead. We teach our children how to do math and swing a bat. We carefully plan the sequence of teaching reading. There are hundreds of books that teach baseball skills. We expect that our students will somehow learn on their own what responsibility means and how to engage in responsible acts. Some children will by chance, if they are lucky. But luck is not the way we want to assure our children’s future. Through warm-up and cool-down sessions we can debrief each leadership opportunity and what they can do to improve in the future. We can break down the larger concept of leadership into concrete behaviors the potential leaders can understand and implement.
The Leadership Ladder Rubric
5.0: Leading. At Level Five, team member leads by example and understands how to implement new programs PLUS mentors, other community members, to advance the mission and objectives of the community. Level 5.0 creates a circle of good.
4.0: Contributing. Team members implement strategies that model a clear understanding of the mission of the community. PLUS seeks new opportunities to promote the community’s mission.
3.0: Participating. Team member’s words and actions reveal an understanding of the relationship between a personal commitment to pursue a public commitment to support the mission of the program. Level 3.0 represents the minimal contribution as a positive member of the community.
2.0: Observing. Student understands the basic objectives of the community but needs external consequences in order to comply with mission and objectives.
1.0: Detracting. Student’s words and actions go against the mission and objectives of the community. Level 1.0 represents negative influence on others and includes fighting, and lying.
The Leadership Ladder Rubric includes five cognitive and behavioral levels that children can "see and do." "Coming late to commitments" for example, affects the whole group and detracts from the mission of the team. "Asking what else needs to be done after practice" contributes to moving the team forward. The first example is detracting to the team and can be "seen and measured" as level one Detracting. The second example contributes to the team goals and can be "seen and measured" as level four Contributing. When young people can engage in acts of leadership that can be understood, seen, and evaluated by the mentor and team, the children see a direct connection.
Thus, respect for and helping others, for example, are at the Level 5.0: Leading end of the Leadership Ladder Rubric. Bullying is at Level 1.0: Detracting because it interferes with the attainment of the higher goal of respect and helping others. The rubric provides an easy-to-understand roadmap for children on how they can move up the scale from disruptive behaviors such as bullying (Level 1.0: Detracting) to leadership behaviors such as mentoring others (Level 5.0: Leading). When we spend time upfront cultivating a caring community all other goals will evolve naturally.