“Compass Point” Priorities To Guide Reflective Change at Sidwell Friends

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“Compass Point” Priorities To Guide Reflective Change at Sidwell Friends

I had a pretty high opinion of Sidwell Friends School before I visited this week, and was not disappointed.  Head Tom Farquhar freely admits they are not “the most progressive school”, but I brought away some important lessons regarding both process and product.  I had put this school on my visit list not due to a reputation for dramatic innovation, but for the important Friends traditions surrounding the importance of community quiet and reflection, an aspect of education that I think we fail to prioritize.

Sidwell Friends has 1,120 students in PreK-12th grade; I visited the Upper/Middle School campus and must say that I was utterly impressed by the facilities additions and improvement they have accomplished in the last decade.  The athletic complex underneath the new ball field rivals many college facilities and the many new arts and music studios are the most expansive I have ever seen at a secondary school.  I was most impressed, however, buy their sensitive and thoughtful use of natural and recycled materials in the construction, and the elements of sustainability everywhere.  There are food gardens on the roofs, and a terraced water purification garden that cleans both storm water and on-site sewage.

As with all Quaker schools, they have a weekly meeting, a time for quiet reflection, and one of my hosts told me that for many graduates, this is their most vivid memory of their education.  But reflection is not just a once-a-week exercise; they try to work in the practice across grade levels and in a variety of ways in order to teach life-long habits.  The Middle School begins the day and most special events with five minutes of silence, and also has a few minutes of silence at the end of lunch in order to refocus back to a learning mind. (Anyone think that is a bad idea?  No, I did not think so!). The Upper School is experimenting with yoga, and as they review their schedule they are trying to find time for more aspects of reflection and mindfulness. Lee Palmer, Upper School principal: “The kids get it; they race to get here in the morning, they have hectic lives, and they know it is really nice to just stop and breathe”.

There is tension (and I do NOT use this word in a negative way) between a highly rigorous, college prep program for a select student body, and ideas surrounding what we refer to as 21C skills.  The faculty have undertaken PD and exposure to a wide range of teaching and learning styles, both on their own and arranged by the school.  As with many schools, the lower grade levels feel more free to experiment with non-traditional programs, while the upper grades run into the obstacles of placement, tracking, and accelerated courses.  Sidwell actually only teaches a handful of AP courses, but they feel constrained by the highly competitive college admissions profiles, and many students sit for the AP exams even if the course did not carry an AP label.

Sidwell has a long tradition of extensive autonomy for the faculty, and innovation has largely been a process of “gradual forward progress” according to Associate Head of School Ellis Turner.  Teachers tend to be passionate and dedicated, and highly expert in their respective fields.  I met Anna Tsouhlarakis, one of the art teachers and a highly respected professional artist, with recent shows in Santa Fe, Miami, and New York.  Change happens, but it has largely been up to individual faculty members or departments to decide the direction and pace.

Tom is now leading an interesting strategic planning process that will provide some “compass points of direction” to change in the classroom, while still respecting the authority and autonomy of the faculty.   It is a process that others should consider as we recognize the weaknesses of the traditional five-year cycles. We all recognize that the difference between rigor and “21C skills” is a false dichotomy, but it is real in many schools.  It is perhaps even more real in a Quaker setting where, as Tom says, the traditions honor both the individual and the community in such strong ways. Tom pointed out that many cite Dan Pink and others for pointing to the personal passions of the individual as a major driver of innovation, and certainly this is a focus of modern mass and social media.  However we also know the power of group connections, networks, relationships, and dynamics, and this is particularly powerful in the Quaker traditions.

After extensive discussions and input, Tom and the Board defined a set of Long Range Priorities as a guide for further discussion about how to evolve classroom programs.  This method of “planning for the plan” reflects Quaker tradition where members of the community will pose critical questions from time to time that drive community reflection and consideration.

Tom says that the school, having completed their impressive facilities upgrades, is ready to “imagine what today’s pre-K students need to learn so they will be able to contribute in the meat of the 21st Century”.  He wants his faculty to ask how to offer “experiences that will prepare students for their future, much of which we can’t even imagine.” By creating the list of long range priorities, the school provides a template to frame future discussions around several key priorities:

  • Service
  • Rediscovering the Quaker traditions
  • Engaging technology in new ways
  • Interdisciplinary learning
  • Global engagement
  • Opportunities for “deep dives” in learning

The plan calls for faculty to respond on how they will implement these priorities in the classroom, and Tom expects a number of inputs by the end of this year.  It will be, however, and open-ended and evolutionary process. My sense is that this approach, while probably not one appropriate for a school that wants to innovate rapidly, is a great example of the more constant, sustainable thinking that is successful for long-term innovation.

Tom’s focus for Sidwell Friends is one of enhancing the mindset of the community on personal growth, as it always has, but with somewhat of a more unified set of themes.  This is not a school that has to innovate quickly; they get pretty much the cream of their applicants and have an international reputation.  But that does not mean the thinking is shallow or the school does not intend to change with the times.  It seems they will do so at a pace that, as is a strength of their tradition, is thoughtful, reflective, and takes time for quiet.

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  1. Jonathan Martin October 19, 2012 at 5:28 pm - Reply

    Grant, thanks for sharing this view of my alma mater, Sidwell Friends (class of 1984); it is fun for me to read you write about Tom (my Dean of students when I was a student), and Ellis (my history teacher and adviser).

    I’ve visited Sidwell twice in the past two years (the Wisconsin Avenue campus; haven’t been to the Bethesda lower school), and have been very excited about Tom’s educational vision and leadership, and, like you, impressed with his willingness (“not the most progressive school”) to be open and transparent about the work they have ahead of them.

    I agree with your observation that it is easier to experiment in the lower grades; when I visited I was especially impressed with the innovative leadership of Sally Selby in the middle school– they are doing great things with 1-1 laptops, web 2.0 integration, and interdisciplinary learning in the MS.

    • glichtman October 19, 2012 at 7:07 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Jonathan. I also met with Sally, and she was the one who filled me in on the reflection time they are building in. Great school.

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