Faculty Encouraged to “Dream Big” at Providence Day School, Charlotte

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Faculty Encouraged to “Dream Big” at Providence Day School, Charlotte

Here is a sign of the times: in a meeting with about 14 senior administrators yesterday, the ink in my pen ran out. (I can still write faster on a yellow pad than I can type.) I asked for someone to lend me a pen. One person, Paul Ibsen, the business officer had one.  No one else in the room had a pen; most were taking notes on iPads.

Providence Day School in Charlotte is a TK-12 with about 1,550 students. They have grown dramatically over the last 15 years and a great deal of their focus has been on just keeping up with the building programs and increased enrollment.  Paul showed me around a marvelous athletics center, a two-story library with an array of special meeting rooms and a really fun storytelling space, and both older and new classroom complexes.  It is important to note that when PDS begins to think about new buildings, they put together a Dream Team of faculty and staff to go out and see what is possible and working at other schools, colleges, universities, or in the corporate world.  The results are truly impressive.  We should not rely on consultants to tell us what is “out there”, in terms of educational space or program.  We see through the special filter of an educator’s experience and when people go outside their own schools they always bring back good ideas.

Before I get to the large discussion with the senior staff, here are a few links to work that PDS is doing with an iPad pilot.  We stopped in to watch a Middle School class investigate the parts of the human heart, both on their iPads and then immediately afterward as teacher Bonnie Wright led a cheer/dance number to help students remember those key parts of the heart. Bonnie mentioned that she had read student reflections on what they had found when just poking around the anatomy app, and she had learned both content and where to take the instruction from those readings. Afterwards she sent me the following link to a slide show of the 8th graders working with iPads in their science class: https://sites.google.com/a/providenceday.org/8-science/

We also met quickly in the hall with science chair Derrick Willard who has been piloting iPads with older students, including on a trip to Costa Rica where they left all paper behind.  Here is a link to the Costa Rica iPad Pilot class blog http://pdsblogs.org/costarica/ and a link to Derrick’s blog with more examples from the pilot: http://pdsblogs.org/derrickwillardblog/.

In the admin team meeting, we first touched on the PDS Global Education program, a flagship program for a decade.  After 9-11-2001, PDS felt they needed to do something to broaden student understanding of the world that was focused on skills and problem solving.  They created a diploma program that now has about 80 students who take a rigorous course of study, travel, and independent work.  PDS has taken a leadership role in developing protocols and best practices for global engagement programs with other schools, and are talking about how to expand the diploma program internally to allow more of their own students to participate. They offer a Global Educators certification program had hold major conferences for schools to share what they are doing in global education.

The school community is undertaking a number of conversations surrounding the meaning, role, and implementation of innovation.  They recognize that change is difficult, sometimes is slower than some would like, and influenced strongly by existing organizational culture.  In some ways they are “going through a phase of grief” regarding the loss of what was traditional and safe, which is actually a critical part of organizational change. Head Glyn Cowlishaw said, “we want to be on the leading, not bleeding, edge”.  They don’t want to get caught up in high-amplitude, low impact bells and whistles, so they try to filter and focus through a lens of “what does good teaching look like and what are the desired outcomes for our students”. They used the example of one of the high school English classrooms I had poked into earlier.  They replaced the regular desks with rolling desks of different colors.  The castors allow the class to re-form and re-group instantly, and the colors allow teachers to group students in a variety of ways that help eliminate the stigma of self-selected groups.

In the Lower School, they noticed 4-5 years ago that students were coming to school with different levels of readiness, more fidgeting and less comfort with sitting and focusing.  They brought in a licensed occupational therapist and now have a fully stocked arsenal of wiggle balls, squeeze toys, lap pads, and the like.  The faculty have been trained in now to recognize when an occupational or environmental aid like this will help a student to get more comfortable in the learning setting.  It has dramatically improved the dynamic in the early childhood classrooms and the ideas are spreading and being used throughout the Lower School.

In their annual faculty goal setting and assessment protocol, teachers are asked to articulate a “big dream”, and PD funds are generous in support of pursuing those dreams.  They feel they are in the process of “becoming more intentional” as they filter all of those dreams.  One member of the team stated that “competition for that support has increased our collaboration and sharpened the rationale that we need to provide.  It has broken silos between people who now want to participate together to pursue common interests.” Departmental and divisional collaboration is “not 100%” but that is not what they are shooting for right now.

I asked who was responsible for keeping track of the nodes and progress of innovation.  Glyn pointed squarely to himself and said that he is not only tracking these, but also working to incorporate a tool into his board-level dashboard report.  The board is interested and supportive of teacher innovation. As self assessment of innovation is clearly one of the frequent obstacles we have uncovered on this journey, we will be interested in watching for ideas that Glyn and his team can share as the dashboard develops.

A final comment and a cap to my morning at PDS: Paul had boasted that they have “the finest dining experience of any elementary-secondary school in America”.  He may or may not be right, but their cafeteria lunch set-up and offerings were definitely the best I have ever had at a K-12 in my career, no disrespect intended to my great friends of the Francis Parker School Food Services!

And I stopped in Charleston today and bought some more pens.

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  1. Paul Ibsen October 31, 2012 at 9:40 pm - Reply

    Grant – Thanks for dropping by and stimulating discussions. You did a great job facilitating and drawing out great ideas from our team. We’ll continue to follow your travels and look forward to your next book!

  2. Lisa Montgomery November 2, 2012 at 8:33 pm - Reply

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading about your day. I am proud to be an alumni and trustee of Providence Day School. I look forward to following your blog and hearing about what the future of independent education is going to look like!

    Lisa Montgomery

    • glichtman November 2, 2012 at 10:39 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Lisa. I greatly appreciated the hospitality and learning at PDS; you have a lot to be proud of and it looks and sounds like Glyn has things headed in a great direction. If I can ever be of help with anything, please let me know. This is a bit of a crazy trip I have taken on, but I am learning more than anyone else, and that can never be bad!

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