The journey has been long, and I might have run out of steam before visiting the 64th and last school on this remarkable trip. But my hosts made sure that was not the case. A day at Greenhill School in Dallas was the perfect final chapter, a visit packed with that combination of exciting programs and confident attention to mission that marks the best schools in America. This will be a fittingly long post, as I met with an impressive array of intellectually and pedagogically talented teachers with creative approaches to math, debate, student assessment, science, the arts, and humanities. But I want to start with my biggest takeaway from the day, something that is easy to spot by just walking around the campus.
Greenhill is a preK-12 school with 1,285 students that was founded in the late 1950’s in a north Dallas that looks very much different than it does today. The founder set out a mission of racial and gender diversity that was viewed as liberal in its day, and Head Scott Griggs says that Greenhill is still viewed as a school that is willing to try new things and buck trends. “We have always been the innovative school in Dallas. This is not coming from me; it is just who we are.” The most immediate evidence that the school is living their mission is obvious; the faculty, staff, and student body are vastly more racially diverse than most other area independent schools. Later in the day I had a chance to meet with folks from admissions and student support, and the degree of diversity is highly intentional. They really work the hiring process, not satisfied with headhunters until they have a list of candidates that include people of color. They do not spend more on financial aid than their peer schools, but they have created a leading-edge supplemental budget for financial aid to ensure that non-tuition costs are covered equitably. Scott told me later in the day that they were getting ready to go to the NAIS People of Color Conference, taking a large delegation, hosting a cocktail party, and that every member of the team had orders to mix, meet, and bring back contact information. Their commitment shows; in walking around I got the sense that this is the most racially diverse campus I had visited since leaving the northeast.
Being different extends to the areas of educational innovation that I came to see. Scott proudly says that he has “outlawed the term ‘21st Century skills’ at the school. This is just good education.” Scott set up a Teaching and Learning Vision Committee among the faculty and staff (again, the importance of naming a responsible group) to look deeply at evolving ideas about how and what we teach. The group came back with some pretty simple findings: a resistance to defining what “it” looks like in a time of rapid evolution; the need for time to collaborate, work, and learn from each other; and the need to embrace continual change. My shepherd for the day, Natalia Hernandez added: “We don’t do things because they are new; we do them as a matter of mission. We are very deliberate about asking questions and challenging each other.”
With that framework, I set off on a round of brief visits with faculty and students, and the picture is one of which any school would be proud. Lot’s to share, so read on!
Middle School math teacher Celeste Sanders is blending traditional and flipped methods in her classrooms. “Students who used to sit in the back of the class and sort of get lost can now watch the video of my teaching at home as many times as they need to. I get more actual face time with the students when they need it, after they have had a chance to see where they need some help. I see a real difference in the quality and organization of student notes, and that translates into more self-confidence, particularly for the lower-performing students.” She embeds QR codes in the textbook so students can link to supporting materials, sort of a blend of traditional and e-text. “I want the students to hear the lessons in as many ways as possible, to preview it without me, practice it with me, and then master it on their own.” I asked if her methods were scalable to a class of perhaps 25 students, as opposed to the traditionally small classes of a good independent school. “Absolutely. I have more time now in the class than I used to, so I can work with students more effectively. And I am finding that the students who ‘get it’ help others; there is an overall more complete transfer of ownership of learning.”
Greenhill has an iconic debate program, but it is about a lot more than competitive debate. (One thing does stick out, though; the debate classroom and Director Aaron Timmons’ office have more trophies and plaques that I have ever seen in one place in any program in any school. They do win!) Aaron says that the real focus of the speech and debate program has always been about expanding the nature of literacy, teaching students how to think through really difficult problems, and working as a team (just like those supposed “21C skills”, except Aaron has been doing this for decades). He teaches a required 5th grade class in communication that combines speaking and digital literacy, and this year started a Lower School speech and debate club. It has attracted huge interest, and exposes students to storytelling, debate, poetry, oral traditions, and literature. Aaron has also developed and presented a faculty in-service to train teachers on the use of civil discourse as a counterweight to the sound bites and partisanship that we all are routinely exposed to.
Like others we have visited, Greenhill has invested in a digital portfolio program that has become a significant piece of more authentic student assessment. It allows both teachers and students to post essays, voice recordings, and more; they archive video of students teaching a class and a video interview with their teachers as part of end-of-period assessments. They use QR codes to link to voice recordings of student comments on any material that is posted to the portfolio. IT Director Chris Bigenho says that creating these “artifacts of understanding” allows them to capture examples of true student knowledge. “It changes our assessment from ‘what we did’ to ‘what we know’.
On this journey I have not had many meetings with visual and performing arts faculty, but there was a reason Greenhill wanted me to meet with Frank Lopez and his photography program. They dropped AP photo when they decided “personalizing projects would allow students to explore their interests and subjects more deeply through different techniques and styles”. We looked over the shoulder of one of his students as she sorted through hundreds of self-portraits she had shot with her iPhone, and then processed through a myriad of trials, including staining with tea and printing on fabric. She is a finalist for highest honors from the National Foundation for the Advancement of the Arts. Frank is working with the science teachers on a course that combines photography and chemistry. He showed me stunning examples of his student’s portraits of Lower School students dressed in immigrant costume for an Ellis Island project. Many of his students publish hard-bound books of their work each year, that are then archived in the library. Many of the subjects are based on cultural or historical ideas, so the books become truly valuable snapshots into society as viewed through the eyes of a student artist. A student told me “we push to look at our own heritage, culture and ancestry through this medium. There is a lot of opportunity for real introspection, and that is where my strongest work comes from.” I have seen examples of outstanding student photography over the years; I have never seen anything like what the Greenhil studio is producing.
At the Lower School I met with a group of both veteran and younger teachers to talk about how their teaching style and substance has changed over the last five years. One veteran science teacher: “We have completely changed how we go about teaching; we teach through inquiry. I have been teaching for 26 years and giving up that control has been a struggle.” Another: “We are putting the process back on the students, seeing what questions they can ask instead of creating those questions for them.” They are shifting to more formative assessments that do away with “paper and pencil answers”; “we have not figured it all out yet but we have faith that we are getting it right.” Report cards often run to 15 pages of narrative from 8-10 teachers per student, summarized in a bulleted list of recommendations and commendations. “It is all messier, less clear cut, but I like becoming more comfortable with that.”
Over lunch with the division leaders I asked what drives them in hiring decisions today. They said they are creating an environment where “positive peer pressure creates a place where people want to always get better, to see what others are doing, and put what works into practice”. When they interview they are looking for candidates who are:
- Current in best practices.
- Informed on content.
- Collaborate, share resources, and generate new ideas.
- Good listeners and watchers.
- Deliberate about the next steps they want to take in their profession.
- Will bring something that the school can draw from
From a series of meeting in the afternoon:
- The Mandarin program has 450 students in the school, due in part to a unique approach at the lower grades. Students in 1st and 3rd grades are exposed to Spanish, and in 2nd and 4th to Mandarin. In 5th grade they take a trimester each of Spanish, Mandarin, and Latin, and then pick a language focus in 6th grade. Mandarin teacher Warren Frerichs is passionate that students not see the world wholly through a “Euro-American colonial lens. Language is important; it is where metaphysics becomes explicit. We meditate in my class; this kind of deep thinking advances people along their developmental path. With that comes moral development. Coming in contact with a different syntactic structure requires you to expand your perspectives; this is why language and moral development are closely linked.” (Apologies to Warren if I got this a little skewed; I could have sat and listened to him all day. Do you have a language teacher who thinks about these issues and connections?)
- Senior rhetoric teacher Joel Garza’s trimester class is one of self-discovery for the students, a “meditation on their past, present, and future”. He has students forecast a self-portrait at age 28 and contacts school alums who graduated 10 years ago to visit back to see how those predication came out. He has the students write an essay that starts with the prompt “I want to learn…”
- Spanish teacher Mary Tapia helps her students to develop their own personal learning networks, use them in classwork, and then continue them after they complete her course. She connects older and younger students to enhance learning through teaching.
- Latin teacher Trevor Worcester has pushed his students to shift their focus from grades to skills. He has instituted a Google-like freedom to his syllabus: 1/6th of class time the students are free to work on anything that is related to the subject but is not classwork. Grades are by presentation, not knowledge of specific content.
- Scott Cotton teaches a trimester course on human rights; we sat in on a REALLY high level discussion on the Cambodian genocide, all student led, starting with questions to the group, not a lecture on research findings. Scott is also working with students on building a potential partnership with students in Israel to learn about and work on issues related to Middle East affairs.
- The science department is starting to break the subject boundaries of traditional curriculum. They offer a course in biotechnology research that will prepare students to work at a commercial biotech lab. They are proposing a new bioinformatics elective, and the physics teachers brought in an English teacher to discuss the poetry or Lucretius when they talked about the structure of atoms. “I do so little providing them information now. We serve as a filter, but they access the information on their own. They key is that they become intelligent consumers of information. The students really take quickly to this self-directed mode; it makes a big difference in the level of their engagement and interest.
I left my time with students for the last, as this will be my last post of the journey, and it is fitting that students get the last word. As we have seen at so many other schools, they “get it” even when the adults struggle. The group I met with at Greenhill are in the process of completing year-long, real world, independent study capstones on which they spend “hundreds of hours”. The projects are all student-derived and driven; they have faculty mentors and often an off-campus mentor as well. Here are the topics they are pursuing:
- Writing, directing, and editing an original film
- Creating and marketing a fashion museum
- Neuroscience research on gene pathways of higher cognition in conjunction with a lab at UT
- Shark conservation
- Evolution and mutation of proteins
- Clinical studies and patient interactions in conjunction with dermatology department at Baylor
- An original TV sitcom pilot
Clearly they are all passionate about what they are doing. They are spending a ton of time and energy on these projects, and it is not to check off a box on their college applications. This is passion at its best. I asked the students to reflect for a few minutes on what skills they gain when they are allowed to own their learning like this:
- Openness to the process of learning
If I were a head of school, or superintendent, or member of a board of trustees, I would do nothing more than look at that list and decide that it represents the future of education. Thirty years ago those were the traits that many of us thought should be at the core of education; we were outvoted by the inertia of an industrial age model. The students in my Falconer seminars ten years ago identified these same keys to success; we are finally listening. The world has shifted. We worry that our students can’t compete with the millions of Chinese or Indian students and workers who score better on objective tests. We are playing on the wrong field in that case; we always have been. Listen to the students. I walked out of that meeting feeling optimistic about the future of American education, at least if we have the courage to just get it done.