Last week was a whirlwind. I met Mrs. Becky Troodler, the incoming founding principal of Yeshiva Lab School at the San Diego airport and we immediately headed out to the first of six schools we'd be visiting over the next four days. Our goal was simple: get a good look at educational institutions that are challenging what has become the traditional American paradigm for schools and determine what can be learned, adopted, or adapted to move the Orthodox yeshiva day school world forward in its pursuit of educational excellence.
Our first stop was undoubtedly the most radical departure from traditional schooling we'd encounter on our trip. The Leeway Sudbury School is a small, still evolving, democratic school modeled after the Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Massachusetts. Evidently, I wasn't the first visitor to a Sudbury school who left questioning my operating definition the word "school," and whether this model can fit within it. With no classes, no curriculum, and no teachers, it is initially hard to find any common denominators between the place these children, ages 4-18, spend every day and the places I attended as a student and now guide as an educator.
Yet, beneath the surface, I do believe there is something there. The committee system, which governs everything from budget to field trips to school suspensions and in which children and adults act as equal participants, teaches children at the Sudbury school a great deal about community, responsibility, and justice. The hours spent in uninterrupted imaginative play must certainly be developing deep capacity for storytelling, creativity, and out-of-the-box thinking. The fact that children in Sudbury schools learn to read without ever being taught (the intern we met is a Sudbury graduate who got her degree in Philosophy at UMass) has to be a voice in our decades-old debate on the most effective approaches to literacy instruction. And, the half hour I spent just listening in on the conversations between Sudbury school friends, was a poignant reminder of just how much children can learn from their peers. For more pictures from Leeway Sudbury School click here.
Stop number two was National University Academy's Sparrow Charter School,and my first real-world look at the Waldorf approach to education. While not thoroughly convinced that the theories of child development which inform their practice are completely aligned with what contemporary cognitive science has to say on the matter, the very fact that child development stands at the core of their approach was in and of itself a source of inspiration. The integration of arts into all areas of the curriculum and the way in which they use it to promote deep learning rather than superficial "coverage" of material was similarly eye-opening. The spiritual dimension of a classic Waldorf education (rather than the more secularized charter-school version), as well as their emphasis on introducing complex texts at a very early age made me wonder if there might be untapped potential for collaboration with the Jewish Day School world. Perhaps the most surprising element of my visit to NUA Sparrow, though, was the degree to which the education - even the arts education - was heavily teacher-directed and teacher-centered. In that sense, it couldn't have stood in starker contrast to our previous day's visit to the Leeway Sudbury School. For more pictures from NUA Sparrow click here.
Our third stop was the San Diego Cooperative Charter School. Before ever stepping foot on their campus, I was taken by their mission statement:
The San Diego Cooperative Charter School supports a progressive, developmentally-based, child-centered community for active and collaborative student learning where shared values of family, diversity, creativity and academic excellence flourish.
I can't help but wonder what our country would look like if every public school adopted that statement as their credo.
Once we arrived, though,it was more about energy than ethos. There was a palpable enthusiasm and joy which permeated the school, from student to teacher and from administrator to parent volunteer. The success with which they have instituted intentionally mixed-age classrooms (PreK-K, 1-2, 3-4, 5, and 6-8) and their passionate belief in that model's educational superiority; the excitement they have created around class-wide semester long projects culminating in public exhibitions; and the way in which they are empowering children to take ownership of their learning through student-led conferences and portfolio presentations were all powerful examples of what is possible when we shift the educational paradigm. For more pictures from the Co-op, click here.
Our fourth stop was undoubtedly the best known of our destinations: High Tech High. Here we joined a cohort of yeshiva day school educators from around the country organized by Tikvah Weiner, Eliezer Jones and their I.D.E.A. Schools Network for a full-day, behind-the-scenes look at this world renowned mecca of Project Based Learning. It doesn't take long to discover why what started with one high school in 2001 has now become a network of twelve schools, grades K-12, and a graduate school of education, with over 3,000 visitors from across the globe sitting in on classes and walking the halls on an annual basis. More impressive to me, though, than the stunning products designed and created by HTH students, the innovative approaches to the classroom taken by their teachers,or the overwhelmingly high level of student engagement and motivation, was the degree to which High Tech High has skillfully built the structures that allow for such to flourish. From a daily schedule that features large blocks of focused time (one hour of math, two hours of science, two hours of Humanities) to a physical plant that encourages constant collaboration (e.g., movable walls between every Humanities and Science class to promote cross-disciplinary projects, open meeting spaces that dot the hallways in place of student and teacher lounges, etc.), and from daily collaborative planning time for faculty teams to a culture that empowers teachers to empower students, High Tech High has mastered the art of atmosphere and the learning which results is nothing short of remarkable. For more pictures of High Tech High, click here.
Our last day in San Diego began with a visit to Innovations Academy, a school that proves that outstanding environments for student learning need not have the glitz and glamour of a High Tech High. Instead, they need the vision and passion of an educational leader like Christine Kuglen.
Like many of the schools we visited, Ms. Kuglen insists that the school she founded treat student social and emotional growth with the same seriousness, dedication, and thoughtfulness as student academic and intellectual growth. What sets them apart, though, is the execution. Whether it was the Kindergartners peer editing a novel with 7th graders, a class of third graders "centering" themselves in absolute silence during a morning meeting, a mixed-age K-1 class discussing the real life implications of the fact that "the wrinkles never fully come out" of the paper drawing of a child they had "crumpled"and then tried to straighten out,or a group of three children on the playground who voluntarily sought a "check-in" with the closest adult (it happened to be the school's Director of Admissions) because one was "bossing around" the others, the evidence of deep social and emotional learning was hard to miss. When coupled with some outstanding teachers, a focus on inquiry-based and project-based learning, an approach to discipline that emphasizes intrinsic rather than extrinsic reward, a thoughtful plan for technology integration, and what seemed like an energized and engaged parent base, Becky and I both left feeling that had we done nothing more than spend a morning at Innovations Academy our trip would have been most worthwhile. For more pictures,click here.
Our final stop took us close to the Mexican border as we sought to learn how High Tech High was applying its brand of education both to new locations and to new grade levels at High Tech Elementary and Middle School Chula Vista. Much like the mother institution, HTE Chula Vista is a feast for the educator's eyes: stunning architecture, innovative use of space, and magnificent student-created art are visible at every turn. Once again, the structures for maximizing student learning, creativity, and innovation seem to be clearly in place. Following the model of the original high school, every class engages in a multifaceted trimester-long project that drives much (though definitely not all) of the learning and culminates in a public exhibition. In order to emphasize the student's role in his or her learning, parent-teacher conferences at HTE have been replaced with SLCs - Student Led Conferences - in which the child leads the parent, in the presence of the teacher, through evidence of their successes and their challenges to date. By the time students get to Middle School, POLs are added to the SLCs. In a POL, a Presentation of Learning, students engage a panel consisting of a peer, a teacher, and an adult member of the larger community in an interactive demonstration of material they have learned and ways in which they have grown.
Impressive as this was - and it truly was - there were times on our visit where we wondered whether the influence of the high school may be a bit too pervasive, particularly in the youngest grades. After all, young children are not simply miniature versions of their older peers. They are wholly different both developmentally and cognitively and to maximize their growth they need learning environments and pedagogical approaches tailored to best meet their needs. Nonetheless, we walked away from HTE Chula Vista with yet another set of ideas and insights into how the paradigm of schooling as many of us have come to know it, may be challenged to produce more impactful and more effective results. For more pictures from HTE Chula Vista click here.
We returned last Friday morning both exhausted and exhilerated. It's only now, though, that the real work begins. It's now that we as Yeshiva Day School educators and thought leaders across the country need to unpack what is out there, decipher what can and cannot work for our set of educational goals and objectives, determine what our unique contribution to the world of educational innovation might be, and, most of all, identify where we might begin challenging the educational paradigms of today in order to create a stronger, more vibrant, and more passionate Jewish community for tomorrow.