Wednesday, March 2, 2011

An NAIS Conference Journal

An NAIS Conference Journal
February 22-26

This past week I attended the Annual Conference of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) in Washington D.C. Actually, the conference was held at the Gaylord Convention Center in National Harbor, a gated area near the capitol that reminded me of something out of a weird Jim Carey movie. Notwithstanding a very non-public venue, the NAIS conference was boldly themed Advancing our Public Mission, and one of the best educational conferences I have ever attended. With five thousand independent school educators in attendance, the conference allowed me the chance to learn from, interact with, and present to other heads of school, and educators from around the country. With a main focus of cultivating among schools a sense of civic engagement and community partnership, I also created my own conference strand best characterized by disruptive technologies, open source learning, hole in the wall experiments, the future of knowledge, and (whoa, get ready) the Khan Academy. Read on for more.

Wednesday Day I – Park Day School in the News

The first day of the conference offers 3-Hour workshops and I was a presenter on the topic of Creating and Sustaining Partnerships Between Public and Private Schools. This was one of the keynote themes of the conference and an area attracting a great deal of interest among independent school educators around the country.  

I was invited to present by Jacqueline Smethurst and David Drinkwater, co-directors of Wingspan Partnerships (Wingspan is a national organization, supporting and advocating for partnerships between public and private schools; I am on the board of Wingspan. David and I were fellows at the Klingenstein Visiting Heads program in 2001 at Columbia TC.)

Park Day School has become a national leader in this area, and I had the opportunity to share the model that has been created over the years by Community Outreach Coordinator, Laurie Grossman (Laurie is on long-term leave from PDS). The session was well received and attended by Jack Creeden, Vice Chair of NAIS. I discovered later in the day that PDS was spotlighted in Jack’s feature article in the latest issue of Independent School (not yet available online). This is the second time the magazine has featured PDS in an article about public purpose.  After the session, Michael Brosnan, the editor of Independent School stopped me to discuss the possibility of submitting an article expanding on the topic for a future issue of the magazine. My particular focus would be on how schools with limited resources can sustain pubic-private school partnerships.

Later that day, I had a long conversation with my colleague Paul Chapman, the former Head of School at Head Royce. Paul is spending his first year in retirement as a visiting scholar at Stanford and his current work has taken him around the country visiting green and sustainable schools.

I also spent time with my good friend Gareth Vaughan, the Head of Indian Springs School in Birmingham, Alabama. Gareth and I were classmates at The Leadership Academy at Colombia Teachers College.  One of the great joys of attending the national conference is running into folks from my two Klingenstein cohorts.

Day II

My first session of the day was presented by Dave Michaelman, Head of the Duke School, on the topic of Reducing Attrition. David heads a progressive school in Durham, N.C., and told the story of how his school reduced its attrition rate by 50% in just a single year while streamlining its re-enrollment process.  One of Duke’s key strategies is to be sure that the faculty and parent body is fully engaged in the effort to retain families in the school from year to year. Communicating as openly as possible about retention strategies means that the community is working together to strengthen the school’s enrollment. Little did I expect to take away so many practical ideas and strategies that I will be bringing to the next meeting of the PDS board’s Retention Committee.

The first plenary session of the day began with NAIS Executive Director Pat Bassett. A strong, responsive, and visionary leader, Pat has made a tremendous impact in his years at the helm of NAIS. Everyone at NAIS tells a story about Pat’s 30-second response to emails, no matter the time of day (Ok, just a little exaggeration, but he is amazing). Pat encouraged me in the early days of our appeal to the California Association of Independent School to drop their requirement that schools administer standardized tests in order to become members (CAIS dropped its requirement in 2009).

Pat framed the topic of the conference in the context of a boomer generation legacy of wanting to have an impact on a greater cause. He noted that independent schools have historically paid lots of attention to IQ, (Intelligence Quotient) but not enough attention to EQ (Emotional Quotient). He asked questions about how we justify the privileged status of independent schools. Reminding the audience of 5000 educators from around the world that students in independent schools in America represent less that 2% of all students in the country, he asked if schools will claim a public purpose sufficient to make a difference in the education of America?  Are we “dithering at the cost of the community,” or can schools  “take a lead in bringing education and society back together?”

Of course, Pat’s comments were music to the ears of an old progressive educator such as myself. One of the fundamental tenants of progressive education is that schools must be agents of social change and must cultivate in our students a sense of agency and commitment to society.

Pat yielded the podium to the conference keynote speaker, Sheena Iyengar, the author of The Art of Choosing. Sheena’s work and research has been focused on the relationship between choice and control, and the choices effective leaders make. She has discovered that effective leaders have the ability to see and capitalize on choice when others do not. She defines effective leaders as self-assured and controlled without being threatening; able to relinquish or distribute control. I am intrigued by her concept of “informed intuition.” While some leaders rely more on either gut or reason, Shena says the most effective leaders bring both to decision-making. Good leaders cultivate shared informed intuition and realize that the group will always outperform individuals.

I had a fun lunch on Thursday with a group of heads from the Bay Area (Eric Temple of the Carey School, soon to be head of Lick-Wilmerding, Abby Koss from Aurora, Virginia Paik, from Live Oak, Mark Silver from Westbook, and the incoming Head of Redwood Day School, John Loeser). Funny that it takes a trip across the country to find time to have a relaxed few minutes with local colleagues.

After lunch we rushed to spend an hour with Sugata Mitra. A past recipient of the Klingenstein Leadership Award, he is a professor of educational technology at Newcastle University in the UK. His studies, which insprired the book Slumdog Millionaire, and often referred to as “Hole in the Wall” experiments, focus on children and the Internet. His hypothesis is that the Internet, computers and children are “made for each other,” with cognitive processes so similar that children need little or no instruction to master computing at the basic level. His current research, which he shared, is leading toward an alternative primary education, using self-organized learning and assessment environments.

Next up was a fast-paced presentation by Mike Walker from Punahoe School in Hawaii on the latest trends in Neuroeducation, which bridges education with neuroscience. Neuroeducation studies brain based learning and reinforces developmental understanding of students. Much of the work is presented in the book, Brain Rules by John Medina and Brain Compatible Classrooms by Robin Fogarty.

The research reinforces concepts that progressive educators have long supported: that students need to be moving around and actively involved in their learning; that play is a pre-requisite for learning; and that mindfulness practice helps students focus. (One of Mike’s slides introduced a packed audience to Mindful Schools, the program launched at Park Day School by Laurie Grossman and her Mindful Schools colleagues). Again, PDS on the cutting edge! 

BTW, I would like to appreciate PDS Learning Specialist Pam Nichols, who for the past few years, has been exposing the staff to similar research and findings.

On the way to the next session, I crossed paths with old friends Anne and Rick Clarke (Anne is the former Head of the Julia Morgan School for Girls and is currently an interim Principal of the Upper School at Fieldston Ethical Culture in New York City; Rick, the former Head of Redwood Day School is fresh off an interim headship in Seattle). Anne and Rick are on their way to Ireland this spring – I’m so jealous.

Dan Heath (Author, with his brother Chip, of  Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die; and Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard). Heath frames his theory on change with a delightful and engaging lesson distinguishing two systems of the mind: one rational, conscious and deliberate, and the other emotional, unconscious and automatic. His metaphor for the two minds operating together is an illustration of a human (representing the rational mind), riding atop an elephant (representing the automatic mind). His 3-way framework for change would have one first direct the rider, then motivate the elephant, followed by shaping the pathway. Yes, it loses something in the translation – you had to be there – or better yet – check out his books!

Following the sessions on Thursday, I attended a reception hosted by Pearl Kane, the Director of the Klingenstein Institute at Columbia Teachers College. The Klingentein Institute supports independent school educators and Pearl annually gathers alumni from her programs. I am a double-alum from Klingenstein having participated in the Visiting Heads program in 2001, and then the Leadership Academy over the summers of 2006 - 2007. Hundreds of "Klingons" crammed into a restaurant catching up and spending time with Pearl, everyone's favorite all-time teacher.

Thursday Evening, Gareth Vaghan and I spent time with another of my Klingenstein colleagues, Amani Reed, the Head of the Middle School at The University of Chicago Lab School, Brian Thomas, Head of the Upper School at Bentley, and a new friend Josie Holford, Head of Poughkeepsie Day School in New York. Josie exposed me to the vast world of tweeter dialogue about progressive education (troglodyte, dinosaur that I am) – I’ll do better tomorrow.


So, what did I do on Friday morning? I succeed in missing the early morning in-person session on blogging, presented by Josie Holford, Michael Ebling, Head of Summit School in North Carolina, and my friend Jonathan Martin, Head of St. Gregory’s School in Tuscon, Az., (formerly head of Saklan Valley in Walnut Creek). Never fear -the power of technology allowed me to pick it up on a you tube clip. Jonathan is an inveterate blogger and tweeter, and has been very encouraging of my new blog. He and his wife Carmen attended the conference and I enjoyed seeing them.

The morning plenary session featured speakers across the generational spectrum: Benington College President Elizabeth Coleman, Educational futurist Anya Kamenetz, and Salman Kahn, founder and sole faculty of Khan Academy.  The presentations were moderated by Katherine Dinh, the bright, terrific young Head of Prospect Sierra School in El Cerrito.

With great depth and intelligence, Elizabeth Colman’s talk and work centers around the broad questions: What kind of world are we making? What kind of world should we be making? And, What kind of world can we be making? She boldly places civic mindedness at the heart of education, and reminds us as educators of the serious responsibility to the health of our democracy, and of our mandate to bring ethical depth to our work. She laments the accelerated failure to educate the vast majority of children and youth in our public schools, reminding us of Jefferson’s admonition, "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be." Her “new curriculum” for our time is centered on six broad areas: equity, health, education, the environment, the use of force, and governance.

Anya Kamenetz, author of Generation Debt: The New Economics of Being Young, and DIYU: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, followed with a brilliant and inspiring talk addressing the questions “What do learners want? What do learners need? And, What do learners deserve?" She introduced the audience to a new millennial generation lexicon: personal learning networks; online symposia; web-based peer learning; open accreditation; portfolios and networks; and data-driven career planning. Whew!! Fundamentally, her message resonates with the a primary goal of the progressive model of education: self discovery. How does an individual craft an education and establish goals to achieve success. And, how does this occur in the context of change, innovation, technology and newly emerging talent?

Salman Khan, managed to bookend this session with a knock-your-socks-off demonstration of his open-education internet resource, the Khan Academy. Over 200,000 students per month use his you tube videos to learn basic skills from arithmetic to finance to chemistry to vector calculus. Khan’s goal is to create a free school, accessible to anyone in the world, and his methodology is transforming the educational environment.  Teachers at Park will greatly benefit from knowing about this resource, and Khan made the connection to progressive education. He describes his efforts as “humanizing the classroom and leveraging the teacher as a resource for projects and interaction.” I couldn’t wait to come back and show the staff.

Finally, the capstone event of the conference on Friday afternoon was an electrifying presentation by Jeffrey Canada, the founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, one of the more compelling speakers on the circuit today. Canada’s message is captured in a simple question: “If not us (the independent school educators in the room) who will save the underprivileged, and undereducated children of our nation?” He points out that the absence of a “master plan” to save the children from the current national educational crisis means that there is no moral or practical compass guiding the way to real recovery and reform. He called upon the independent schools to become aware of the issues that are confronting our youth and to not turn a blind eye to the public schools.

Editorial Comment: For Park Day School, this message drives a major part of our effort to partner with public schools. Laurie Grossman long ago brought this mission to PDS, now a part of our DNA. We cannot ignore the plight of the public schools; we cannot be blind to the major budget cuts that will devastate the teaching profession. More than 90% of the students in America attend public schools. Less than 2% of the country’s students attend independent schools. Our privilege would make it easy to pay no attention to what is going on next door at Oakland Tech, or down the block at Emerson. But we are part of a larger educational community, and we must stand in support and solidarity with all schools.  

The conference was a great success for NAIS, and a personal “best conference” for me. I’ve taken much that I can carry back to Park Day School, and plenty of inspriration.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the report, Tom. Lots of exciting ideas, many of which we can already see at Park Day, and others I hope will infiltrate into our school.

    I hope you keep up the blogging -- and perhaps even leap into Twitter. The occasional 140-letter idea from you would be very welcome in the Park community, I suspect.