Approaching School Days as Architecture: An Idea Revisited


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/74943290″>Asheville School Project Connect Ross Peters 2013</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/sobriquetstudio”>Sobriquet Studio</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

In 2013 I had the privilege of speaking at Asheville School’s Project Connect.  For me, returning to this remarkable small boarding school was a homecoming as I taught at Asheville School for ten years and was the founding Chair of its integrated, interdisciplinary Humanities Department. There are some great folks on the faculty there helping to lead the way in discussions about how to think about interdisciplinary work.  In 2011, Asheville School launched “Project Connect”, a biannual summer institute for interdisciplinary studies. The Asheville School webpage identifies it this way: “Through a partnership with the E.E. Ford Foundation, Project Connect seeks to help teachers and schools start, sustain, and strengthen interdisciplinary initiatives in order to equip students with the higher order skills (critical thinking, problem solving, analytical reasoning, and written communication) they will need to succeed in college and in life.” The next Project Connect will occur this June. I look forward to returning.

I didn’t realize it (or perhaps remember it) until this morning, but my comments were filmed and subsequently posted on Vimeo. My topic was “Approaching School Days as Architecture: Building Academic Schedules to Unlock Interdisciplinary Potential”, and it has some relevance to the work underway at my current school, St. George’s Independent School in Memphis, TN where I inherited a conversation about the academic daily schedule, which had been put on hold last Winter. The faculty committee studying our use of time and leading the way forward for St. George’s has deftly moved us to a place where we are likely to be ready to move forward with a new daily schedule for the Fall of 2016.

While some of what I shared in 2013 lacks relevance to St. George’s, much of it is clearly pertinent. One thing I continue to believe is that simple tweaking of a schedule does not produce results worthy of the effort necessary to make the change. At Hawken School and at The Westminster Schools where we thoroughly reinvented our use of time, we were able to take steps that have significantly and positively transformed the learning environment of each school. I want nothing less for St. George’s.

Much water has gone under the bridge since 2013 when I spoke at Project Connect. One fascinating experience was being invited to consult with North Shore Country Day School as they thoughtfully engaged a process to reimagine their academic daily schedule. To be able to step outside of my particular school and see another group face the complex calculus of school change was a gift. As I understand it NSCDS has moved into a new schedule for the 2015-2016 school year.

Virtually everything that has happened over the last two and half years reinforces my belief that we can create smarter, more balanced, and more strategic academic daily schedules in our schools. To get there, however, we a need a smart, balanced, and strategic process to create the right individual answer for any school.

I have written more about academic schedules:

Revisiting a Guiding Idea: Creating a Progress Culture in a School

and

School Transformation: Becoming a Progress Culture 

A School Person’s Compass Points: Essential Advice to Center Our Work

Before I took a new post at Hawken School, I wrote the first draft of what has evolved into what I have included below. Initially, I did this simply as a means to articulate what is most important in my work in a school. I had been at Asheville School for a decade before making this move, and I realized that I needed to do something more than “dead reckon” my way into a new school. I had no intention at first of sharing what I wrote–it was me talking to me about the essential components of school work as I saw it. I was giving myself advice.

When I finished that first draft, I realized that I wanted the bullet-points to apply not only to me but also to the people with whom I work. It is in that spirit that I offer them here. Sometime toward the end of the summer, I will revise these again, and when we gather for our first faculty meeting at Westminster in advance of the 2012-2013 school year, I will hand them out to the High School faculty.

Compass Points–

General:

  • Trust the mission and commit to the school’s vision statement.
  • Strive to be a school that deserves the huge investment we ask others to make in it.
  • Earn the credibility we need to be a great school by handling parents, students, alums, friends of the school, and guests with respect, professionalism, promptness, and kindness.
  • Be purposeful. We should be able to articulate and support the actions we take, and all those actions should take into consideration the needs of students first.
  • Avoid trying to be all things to all people, and the things we choose to do we should do well.
  • Support the fundamental direction of the school.  Schools cannot operate well and certainly cannot be great if the professionals on the payroll act and speak at cross-purposes. It is OK to disagree, as well as desired and expected that people will voice their ideas and concerns in a thoughtful way; however, once a decision is made, I expect us to behave in a professional and supportive manner.
  • Take pride in the programs in which you work, keeping in mind that success in one facet of the job does not give one license to participate less in the other facets of the job.
  • Return phone calls and emails in a timely fashion.
  • Communicate with colleagues, parents, and students ahead of problem.  Be proactive.

Students:

  • Serve the best interest of the child first.
  • Combine nurture and high expectations. The best educators reveal their commitment to students not only through a thousand and one warm interactions with young people each day, but also through high expectations for each student’s positive engagement in the school community and for each student’s dedication to achievement. A school should strive to enrich its students by asking students to enrich both the school community and the larger community of which the school is a part.  This balance between demand and nurture is common to great schools. 
  • Meet and often exceed the expectations we hold for students regarding school rules, as well as civility and character.  If we are going to ask students to meet these standards, we must be willing to do the same.
  • Return papers, quizzes and tests in a timely fashion and meet grading deadlines.
  • Enforce school expectations and rules.  Beyond the specific rules, I have two basic expectations for students: a) avoid endangering self, property or others; b) avoid diminishing, disenfranchising, or humiliating others.  To create a community that understands these expectations as shared values takes the work of adults working thoughtfully with students.
  • Be present in the life of the school.  It is not possible to “just teach.”


Ecclesiates 1:18 …Wisdom and Vexation, Knowledge and Sorrow: Bidding Farewell to An Essay Prompt

[In searching for some old documents related to our study of poetry in my English 9 class, I stumbled (can one stumble into an old computer file?) into an old exam question I used when I taught AP Literature. I like the question, and I used it in slightly varied ways over the course of several years at Asheville School. It is a remarkably pliable prompt—the names of the pieces of literature can vary widely, perhaps endlessly. Since I am retiring the question (it’s time!)—I thought I would share it here. In each English course I have taught I have emphasized the importance of intentionally bringing past reading experiences to bear on the works we read. We become better readers as we read more, and as we allow those experiences to inform our reading of the next work on the syllabus. This prompt is related to that emphasis in that it asks students to bring their past reading experiences to bear on a challenging idea they had not thought directly about before in order to reach both an understanding of the quotation from Ecclesiastes and a heightened understanding of the the works in the course.]

Written around the Third Century BCE, a Hebrew sage, teacher, philosopher, and writer created what we now call the Book of Ecclesiastes.  In it, this writer, whose name in Hebrew, “Qoheleth”, means “teacher” or “preacher”, attempted to find the meaning of life through reason.  Probably inspired by Greek philosophers, this author left us some of the most quotable lines in the Hebrew Bible, and he wrestled with some of the same ideas that we have struggled with this semester.

In our reading this semester, knowledge is often dangerous.  Even though Qoheleth never read Hamlet, Candide, Gulliver’s Travels, All Quiet on the Western Front, Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, or Frankenstein, he may give us some insight into the nature of knowledge:

For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow. (Ecclesiastes 1:18)

In an organized, well-planned and competently executed essay, choose three characters from our work this semester who find “much vexation” and “increase[d] sorrow” from some kind of knowledge.  I encourage you to think carefully and creatively in choosing your characters—I believe there are many valid choices you might make.  For instance, not only is Hamlet a good choice, but Laertes, Ophelia, the Ghost, Claudius would also provide fertile ground for analysis.

In your essay compare and contrast your choices.  It is important to reveal both your specific knowledge of the characters and your ability to draw conclusions and make assertions based on your understanding of their roles.  In your conclusion discuss which of your choices is the most successful (or you may choose an adjective of your own) in coping with his or her “vexation”.   (By the way, “vexation’ means ‘uneasiness’, ‘trouble’, ‘annoyance’.)

[Perhaps someday I will use a version of this prompt again; however, it is a good challenge to reinvent the wheel every once in a while, and besides, I am not sure this would be a great prompt for my ninth graders though they are up for challenges of their own. By letting go of what is familiar in order to reach for something more, teachers do what we ask students to do all the time–let go (while making sure to bring along the experience that can define our next step). Like students we are called to expand our own knowledge and make meaning from it despite the various levels of “vexation” this may cause.]

The Haywood Gap Stream Discovery

View from Tennent Mountain of Black Balsam, Mount Hardy and Little Sam’s Knob (Ross Peters)
In the summer of 2000 I drove into Pisgah National Forest almost everyday. Living in Asheville, NC at the time, I decided I would focus 6-12 mile walks in those parts of Pisgah that I either hadn’t been in a number of years or had never been at all. Having suffered a back injury a couple of years earlier that made it difficult to sleep on the ground or rock climb, I resorted to long walks. I had simple rules, the most central of which was to avoid walking the same route or even more than a half-mile of the same route twice. I carried a map roughly worn at the edges on which I traced my routes with a blue ballpoint pen, and I carried a compass so that I might bushwhack my way in order to avoid retracing previous approaches when necessary. I was always back home by dinner.
I rested in places like Pea, Squirrel, Butter, Bennet, Cat, Club, and Coontree Gaps; struggled up Perry, Pilot, Horse, and Saddle Coves; wandered along creeks such as Slate Rock, Clawhammer, Avery, and Buckeye. I saw a small bear after making a wrong turn, which led me toward Yellow Gap instead of back toward Turkey Pen Gap, and I saw a large rattle snake headed out of Picklesimmer Fields toward Long Branch. For the first time in a long time I spent a great deal of time alone, and I was fully entertained as well as often out of breath and somewhat sore.
View of Pisgah National Forest from Tennent Mountain (Ross Peters)
I initially thought that these hikes would provide me with time to reflect on a school year that challenged me in new ways and offered reward and frustration in remarkably unpredictable rhythms. I even carried along a ratty old composition book just in case I decided to jot something down. Instead of profound revelations about my life in general and specifically my life as a faculty member at Asheville School, however, I found I did stunningly little thinking at all. I stopped thinking and started observing. I watched my step. I made no plans for my classes—I created no agendas for my department meetings. I clearly needed this time—this summertime, and I felt fortunate to have it.
My final walk that summer was near Mount Hardy, one the few peaks over 6000 feet in Pisgah and probably the least visited (the others in the vicinity are are Black Balsam, Sam’s Knob, Tennent Mountain, Black Balsam and Cold Mountain). After hiking about three miles down Buckeye Gap, I came to a perfect campsite next to a beautiful stream. It struck me as a great place to take a group from school someday. The Haywood Gap Stream was replete with outstanding places to soak and wade and explore—enough in fact that it could easily entertain a group for an entire day. As I was thinking about the possibility of returning there with students, I realized that for the first time in many weeks my thoughts were turning back to school, and given that it was already early August, it was time.
After eating lunch I started up Haywood Gap. The walk was rigorous and technical, and at times it was so narrow and overgrown that I could imagine being the first person ever to scramble up those rocks. The spell was broken as I stepped over some of the rusted two-inch cable that is not an uncommon sight in that part of Pisgah. Several steps beyond there was an iron rail wheel in the ferns and between chair-sized rocks ten feet or so above the trail. Both the cable and the wheel are artifacts of the extensive logging that ravaged those mountains a century ago. I clearly was only one of many that had gone up this trail, but this fact does not negate the fact that I was a discoverer that afternoon.
The idea of discovery fascinates me, whether it is the discovery of a beautiful place or it is the discovery that appears wherever vibrant discussions of literature take place. I love the feeling of discovering something, and as an educator and administrator, I wonder more and more how we can best create that powerful feeling of discovery in our students, knowing that some traditional pedagogical approaches are more apt to dull the spirit rather than to enliven it. Perhaps, given the fact that my hikes took place during the first summer of a new century, it is appropriate that the idea of discovery feels so relevant to me in the context of 21st Century learning. It strikes me that there is much work to be done in in schools in order to provide the richness we seek for our students’ education. It also strikes me that it will be worth it. Here’s hoping the view we find at the turn around in the trail will be good!
View of Mount Hardy and Little Sam’s Knob (Ross Peters)