As we have seen before on this journey, schools are at different places on the path toward a new learning paradigm, and it is not so much where they are, but the fact that they are on the path that labels them as innovators. Alexandria Country Day School is in this category. They have a team of really bright and focused leaders who are mapping out an intentional, process-driven path that starts with clearly understanding and communicating their value proposition.
ACDS is a 30-year old K-8 in Alexandria with about 220 students. It is a challenging area for independent schools with a lot of transient population due to come-and-go government jobs and people on foreign assignment. They have also been through some recent leadership transitions, but that has not kept them from laser focus on how they can and should adapt their teaching style to keep pace with changes in the world and also create demand amongst their customers.
I spent the morning hosted first by Assistant Head Nishant Mehta and then by new Head Scott Baytosh. Over the last five years, Nishant has led the school through a series of faculty discussions and decisions that have centered on new technology adaptation, but are all steps that align with 21C teaching and learning objectives. As these discussions unfolded over a period of several years, the school has supported them with extra PD days for faculty, and increased teacher-to-teacher afterschool peer PD workshops. A faculty Steering Committee created a guiding “portrait of a graduate” that they use as a yardstick against which to measure other policy and teaching decisions.
In 2011, they dug deeper to ask what they wanted as outcome “skills and dispositions” of 5th graders, and decided they needed to shift how they teach and assess. Nishant gave his 5th grade team a goal of creating one new teaching unit each semester that aligned with the “portrait” and issued stipends for summer work to get it done. Much of the new curriculum design was done to work within evolving technologies, and this is where I found some really important lessons we can learn from ACDS.
Where most schools who are engaging new technology rely on the Tech Team to teach teachers how to use technology in the classroom, at ACDS the lines of teachers, tech specialist, media specialist, and learning support specialist are blurring with great results. A teacher showed me the binder that she and another teacher had put together with a ton of instructions and ideas about how to use technology in the classroom. This might not seem unusual, but a year ago this teacher was a tech neophyte. Their team just decided to plow in and create user guides from the teacher viewpoint. At the same time the aptly named “Information and Communication Literacy” folks (they don’t call them technology coordinators), are morphing to take on a role that does not end with things you plug in. They are true learning specialists who can take a holistic approach to the needs of students and teachers. I can’t do a better job than they can, so I am pasting in a section of material that David Carpenter emailed me this afternoon, with a wealth of detail about some of their innovative practices, and a link to several of their blogs.
- The Adaptive and Innovative Practices at ACDS blog: This is where we documented the pilot last year while also including innovative practices in other grades. The blog continues this year for the entire school. Your readers could go back to the start of the blog to follow how the year went.
- A Review of the Pilot: The two Fifth Grade teachers who participated in the pilot were Margi Weaver and Michelle Cook. Here are two podcast interviews which offer their reflections from the year of the pilot. Episode 1 and Episode 2 These recordings originate from the Edtech Co-Op Podcast.
- The following information is provided to support some of the topics we spoke about today. I share them to hopefully help you in your synthesis effort as you build your list of “take aways”. I mentioned that I was an international educator working in American international schools. My wife and I (she is the library media specialist at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology) spent the past 10 years in Asia where the schools, many would say, are up to a decade ahead of their US independent school counterparts. The 1:1 efforts, LMS adoption, blended to virtual learning, instructional technologist/librarian partnership, curriculum mapping, UbD concept-based curriculum focus, etc. started at various Asian international schools several years ago. Looking at where Shanghai American School, Hong Kong International School, the American School of Bangkok, etc. could provide a great deal of information for US independent schools looking to develop their vision statements. I can provide a listing of international school bloggers who share great ideas that are on the cutting edge.
- Building a Collaborative Curriculum Review System: Here is an article documenting how one international school built a curriculum review system that we are working to emulate here at ACDS. As I said today, building in a system that engages teachers in developing the curriculum is key to shifting a school. As you noted today, the other half is the leadership from admin to hold every accountable for follow through and continual professional development. The article contains information about the Information and Communication Literacies that we are trying to develop here at ACDS as well as the instructional technologist and librarian partnership. Technology is just one portion of our effort to skill students in finding, validating, and curating information to be processed and used for creative thinking to be communicated in effective ways. Here is a link to one site describing the many literacies we work with our students to attain.
- And here is a blog post from my blog that I put together before we did a podcast interviewing two other instructional technologists. I cannot say enough how important a well-trained instructional technologist is in providing the leadership and skills to help partner with administrators to guide the change process in a school. We speak a lot about having the right people on the bus to help transform a school. The IT and librarian can be key leaders in the change process.
Thanks, Dave! ACDS has busted an important set of silos that in the past separated the responsibilities of teachers and “other” specialists. This is an important step in broadening the effective use of new pedagogies, and also in evolving a mindset that constant updating, at an appropriate pace, is both OK and expected.
Process is extremely important at ACDS, as they have gone from initial faculty discussions to pilots, implementation decisions, and expansion of program changes from a single grade to other grade levels. They pay attention to the details; we all know that one bad decision can wreck a lot of good decisions. Process has also been key as they sustained progress through leadership transitions. As Nishant said “Doing the planning and prep work ahead of time takes a lot of potential failure points off the table”, and when you are asking faculty to take risks, that is critical.
Two notes about classroom specifics:
- I loved seeing their daily Circle of Power and Respect, 25 minutes at the start of every day with advisory teachers, where every student is welcomed and recognized, and the students work on short but important enrichment products. The class I saw started by standing, eyes closed for a quiet moment, and then greeting each other in Spanish. What a nice way to start the day.
- The 5th graders lead their own teacher-parent-student conferences with a “Portrait of Me” that allows them to reflect on how they have done within the context of the “portrait of a graduate” that they all know and learn. They use some digital post-up software, so it is all archived.
All of this work is going to feed into a strategic planning process that Scott will be starting in the next year. He sees the school with a more global and community focus, and a faculty coming together around coalescing themes that differentiate the school. The ground work has been laid; they have availed themselves of external knowledge, created a strong mindset of teacher-as-learner, and will now wrap that into a planning process for long-term intentional value development.