Relevance Permeates the Learning Experience at Baylor School, Chattanooga

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Relevance Permeates the Learning Experience at Baylor School, Chattanooga

It is always tempting to say that we can’t afford to do what other schools can because we don’t have their resources, and you will have that temptation today. The Baylor School sits on more than 600 acres, high above the Tennessee River, and even on a day when rain made it tough to stroll and enjoy the campus, it is hard to ignore that the school has an enviable position as one of just a handful of large independent schools serving a revived Chattanooga region.  But I took away some key lessons that are highly transferrable to other schools, regardless of size or prominence, and mostly independent of resources: lessons of organizational permeability and connectivity, questioning how and what we teach, developing a growth mindset, science literacy, embracing leadership in the community in a remarkable way, and creating time.  Each of these is key to our sense of educating our students to become self-evolving learners, and none of them cost all that much.

Baylor is a 6-12 school with about 1,050 students, 200+ of whom are boarders in the Upper School.  Scott Wilson has been Head at Baylor for five years. “Despite 120 years of tradition, we are not shy about innovating.  We are not stodgy; we are willing to ride the fast horses in the faculty who want to take risks.” I have heard that a lot on my journey, but as you will see, this school is taking risks in ways that most schools shy away from.  “We want the students to see the practical applications of classroom learning.  I love this generation of kids; they are asking great questions and not taking the rote answer.”  Scott says they hang their hats on the relationship between student and teacher in order to promote this understanding of relevance. “Technology is a tool to get to information, but the most important element in engaging students is great teachers who are willing to look at the next good idea.” During the recession, which hit the region hard, Baylor made a point of not cutting a penny out of the professional development budget.

Here is low-cost lesson number one for the day.  Scott may not be completely unique, but he is in my experience.  Scott almost never goes to conferences and national meetings, yet he visits more than 20 other schools every year, and frequently takes along other members of the faculty and staff. “I have never walked into a school and failed to learn something useful and new.” Many of the schools Scott visits are within a few hours drive, so the cost is low. He visits both public and independent schools of all grade levels.  Several of the faculty I met at Baylor had accompanied Scott on these visits, and said it was an invaluable experience.  What if every school leader in America followed Scott’s lead on this?

I followed Academic Dean and my mentor for the day, Scott Dering over to the Science department.  We poked our heads in the class of veteran teacher Alice Evans, who has a standard lab classroom, except along one side there are about 20 of those big plastic ball-chairs of various sizes and colors, and she proceeded to tell and show me how a three minute break from lab work, when students can move around, sit on balls, get noisy, and roll around for a bit “keeps them in the palm of my hand for a 75 minute class.”

Science chair Dr. Dawn Richards proudly told me she had never had formal training in education before coming to teaching (her background is environmental science). Baylor has started a 1:1 iPad program this year (more on that later) that she says has jump-started a real flipping of classwork.  “Students who are doing well, continue to do so, and the students who are struggling, improve.  In particular, if students have a hard time focusing when they are at home on their own, the fact that I have provided them a video podcast or links to something they can watch means they are less likely to stray and play a video game.  I find them coming to class more prepared, and during class I can be more engaged in a personal way that makes class time more efficient.  We are engaging more in the class which leaves less time or opportunity for students to mentally wander off.” Dawn also uses the iPads for quick feedback via rapid quizzes and polls.  “This is the most effective tool I have seen in a decade; I can put my finger on the pulse of the whole class, one student at a time, in rapid fashion.”

Dawn also showed me an extensive body of work that highlights the “need to prepare science students with content, but more importantly with science literacy.”  They use a series of publications by the prestigious American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), “Project 2061”, a teacher resource that goes through, in enormous detail and clarity, what students actually need to learn in science.  It aligns and maps content by subject, grade level, and literacy, and includes specific recommendations about what students need to learn at each grade level.  It highlights relevance and the accretion of concepts over time.  Dawn: “I was teaching stuff that I knew was irrelevant, and now I have let those things go.  It has completely streamlined my teaching.”  She showed me one of the impressive master K-12 maps in the book.  I have enough background in science to be stunned at how much we are currently teaching that this important group of professional scientists feel can be left off the curriculum list. Baylor has not fully adopted the entire protocol, but they are moving in this direction.  As new faculty join the department, this is now a starting point for them.  Dawn: “Students won’t remember the facts if we don’t engage them first with the big ideas.” With the logarithmic increase in the expansion of human knowledge, this “pruning” of what we teach is increasingly critical. This series is an inexpensive way for critical review of content by every K-12 science department.

Back to iPads for a moment.  Baylor never had an extensive laptop program, as they did not feel that 1:1 had achieved a critical mass of relevancy.  They changed their mind when the iPad 2 came out and in six weeks, went from proposal to adoption of a 1:1 program.  Teachers got their iPads after that rapid review and approval, and they will be at full implementation 14 months from first discussions.  They have more than 80% of texts in electronic form and several teachers are developing their own iBooks and other customized digital materials.  I visited a freshmen English class where the teacher and students were all collaborating and building responses to a shared reading, and the teacher is able to see in real time which students are sharing material and contributing.  Side note: backpacks are lighter by 20 pounds.  Pay out: parents will save the cost of an iPad on textbooks in less than two years.  My repeated suggestion: take what your community is paying for textbooks, allocate a big chunk to pay teachers to create their own digital materials over the summer, and set a goal of 90% digital course materials and books in the next three years.  You will replace a large annual expense with a smaller, one time expense.

Here is a link to how Baylor Upper School Spanish teacher Elijah Barrera is using the 1:1 iPad resource effectively in just the first few months.

Over lunch I learned about the Baylor Leadership Program, a mandatory course of study over four years that culminates in a senior capstone project.  Other schools are also incorporating the concepts of leadership training as a way to truly embody a mission focus on character development.  Baylor allocates about 12-14 hours a year of specific training in leadership character, communication, conflict resolution, and evaluation of personal leadership styles.  A dozen faculty are involved in teaching the course so it is embedded as part of the school culture while not taking a lot of time away from any one adult. The school brings in guest speakers and alumni to talk about how this type of training is relevant in the adult world. Seniors choose individual or group research, service, action, or fundraising projects to work on over their final year.  There is a clear rubric and set of expectations, so while the school resisted trying to do objective pre-and post-training assessments of leadership quality, they do hold the students to a high standard in terms of putting their training into real practice through the capstone projects.

Two younger faculty shared their ideas on professional growth with me.  “I hope my practice of teaching will evolve over my entire career.  As a new teacher I had a great mentor with 30+ years of experience and he expressed that is how he has been successful. That one lesson was more powerful than what I learned about teaching during my masters in college.” “I am trying to teach mathematical ways of thinking rather than focusing on just solving the problems. I need to teach them the significance of mathematical results, not just the results.”  Baylor has completely revised their post-calculus class, recognizing that advanced math students will get all the differential equations and multivariate calculus they want in college.  They now have a course that focuses on logic and “what you can see with math” as a way to instill a greater level of understanding and relevance.

If you think your school is embedded in your community, or provides service, or learns from the community, well, I could write for a week on this program alone. Housed in her office off of the student center, Joli Anderson tells me about the program she started more than 17 years ago.  I will summarize here, and you can link to their page or call her.  Joli: “If we want to change the world, we need to live that change; that is what Gandhi taught us.  We need to introduce kids to a world beyond their own, remove the blinders, and increase our vision.”  For 17 years, Baylor students have gone into some of the least served areas of Chattanooga every day, to areas of high crime, poverty, gangs and “wonderful people”.  They tutor youngsters in partnership with a number of community non-profits.  This year they have 105 Baylor students tutoring at five sites.  Joli is starting to see the second generation of client/friends in the community.  They track progress on every student they tutor every day.  “Yes, we are helping the students academically, but the most important thing is that we are building relationships and experiences that will last a lifetime.  It is not a matter of use helping them; they help us by allowing our students to share with them.  This is the only way our students are going to understand some of these critical issues.”

Joli tells me about the phone call at night from a student whose brother had been falsely arrested on murder charges, but had given up hope because he did not have money for an attorney.  She goes on police ride-alongs and is in touch with the gang unit.  Baylor students now put on an annual cookout in the neighborhood that is attended by families, police, and members of the city government.  She teaches the students how to write grants; they can apply for internal seed funding and then go out to external sources if they wish.  They have to research, write, present, and compete for resources, just like in the real world.  Students have taken their work all the way to the City Council, resulting in real action.

Students grow with what they learn.  Joli takes groups to North Carolina and now to New York City during fall and spring breaks to live and work in homeless shelters.  Those who stick with it apply to go as juniors and seniors to work in Kingston, Jamaica in squatter’s communities with families whose sole focus is survival.  Alumni of the Jamaica trip go through the long list of applicants for this journey and help select those with the grit to go the next year.  Students raise money to support Jamaican students in school.  Students run the service learning board, meeting around the Baylor board table and learning what it is to run an organization. Student leaders run the daily sites in downtown Chattanooga, meet with parents of their client children, track progress, and set learning guidelines.

This is the most remarkable service-learning program I have seen; if you know of others like this let me know and I will report on the great work they do.  Joli: “I wanted to go where others won’t; people won’t even deliver pizza to these places, but we can go there because we go every day.” The cost of the local and regional programs are minimal, the impact on Baylor students enormous.  It is long-term and sustainable, not dependent on one group of students who want to “do good” their senior year.  It works because the school has gone all-in with their commitment to community. If you are serious about embedding your school more deeply in your community, I suggest you call Joli and share ideas!

At a staff meeting I learned an interesting and important tidbit on the crucial problem of time.  Baylor has manufactured time in the day by aligning an optional Help Hour four days a week in the Upper School and three days a week in the Middle School first thing in the morning.  Teachers are required to be in the classrooms, like a university office hours, but attendance for students is optional unless the teacher feels the student must attend for some special work.  On average, 20% of students attend on a given day.  For Upper School this means that the normal class day starts at 8:45 AM and may extend to 3:30.  They have worked out the conflicts with athletics, and the side benefit of matching adolescent sleep cycles has not gone unnoticed.  This is just another example of a school making a choice, and thereby creating time in an apparently inflexible day.

Finally, I met with Tim Williams who runs the Walkabout program, started in 1976 to offer local, regional, and international Outward Bound-type experiences to Baylor students.  The goal of the program is the same now as it was then: making students uncomfortable, or, perhaps better put, making students comfortable with uncomfortable situations.  For one student that may be going for a hike in the forest in the Tennessee hills; for another it might be kayaking a class-3 river in Panama.  (Tim tells me that even Head Scott Wilson did not fully appreciate the power of these experiences until he went on a kayak expedition in Panama with the students.) Every afternoon some group is doing something near campus.  All of the adult supervision on their expeditions is covered by internal faculty, not hired guides. The reason I mention this program is not that such a program is affordable or doable for all schools; it is not.  What surprised me is that the school is willing to take some risks to offer their students something that is truly outside of their normal purview and experience.  In the current risk-averse environment, this is becoming increasingly rare, yet Baylor believes the benefits outweigh the risks, be they in downtown Chattanooga or a rock face in New Zealand.  I encourage other schools to think about our ability to meet our mission when we focus so much on eliminating risk, which sometimes lies at the heart of learning.

Baylor does not require a particular path of innovation from their faculty; they do not have the laser focus on mission-driven innovation that we have seen at some other schools.  They hire strong teachers who want to grow and change; provide good mentoring and professional development that gets teachers off campus to see what is possible; question themselves; celebrate risk-taking; commit to their community in the most real ways. The total package is a clearly differentiated value that, in my humble opinion, puts relevant student connections at the top of their profile.

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