Big Success, Small Scale: Westminster’s JanTerm Internship Pilot

Westminster’s first experience with JanTerm was not an end unto itself. It was always part of something larger. As the final part of a two-year rollout of a new daily schedule and school calendar, the JanTerm represents the single biggest curricular step forward in the Upper School since its founding–45 new challenging and varied electives, offered over the first three weeks of January for the entire 820 student Upper School at The Westminster SchoolsThe new schedule, in addition to adding a JanTerm, includes a later start, longer classes that meet less often, and more time for teachers to work in teams. The schedule falls from the school’s Strategic Planand it is a creation of a group we called the Time Task Force, an outstanding group of six faculty members. Over the course of a Spring, Summer and Fall, the Time Task Force did deep research, listened carefully to all the school’s constituents–faculty, students, and parents–and then crafted a remarkable proposal, which both aligned beautifully with the school’s vision and challenged us deeply.

In planning for JanTerm, we recognized that there would demand for internships, but we didn’t have the staff to support it, nor did we have an immediate vision for what this program, adjunct to the courses of JanTerm, might look like. So we did not commit to creating opportunities for interships until the registration process for the JanTerm courses was complete. And when we did decide to take this step, we thought of it as a pilot, as something we might try out and buy or as something we might have to put back on the rack.

A couple of years ago I wrote a series of blog entries about how schools should pilot ideas more often before making long term commitments to any single idea. In essence the heart of the idea is that schools have often built significant curricular/extracurricular programs without the “D” of “R and D”. They have leaned into Research, but tried to skip Development. When schools make this mistake, they inadvertently raise the stakes of the bet, they increase the pain of failure, they miss an opportunity to test drive a program, and they fail to build the momentum of support a good idea needs from a school community. Links to those blogs can be found here:

In the late Fall of 2014 when a couple of our planned JanTerm courses did not have adequate signups to support them going forward (in registration talk..they “didn’t make”), we decided to try to pilot a small number of JanTerm Internships and Independent Studies for a small number of seniors who had particularly well-formed and thoughtful ideas. We could take this step only because of the fact that a couple of courses didn’t make, thus leaving us the staff to lead this pilot of an Internship Program. Also working to our advantage we knew we were likely to have just a few seniors whose ideas for what they might like to do were advanced enough to work in January. Not being overwhelmed with demand was an advantage.

The application process was fairly rigorous, and the time window for sign-up was short. This was mostly a result of deciding to take a stab at this pilot program late in the game (November for a January rollout), but it was also fortuitous as only students who already had a passion were prepared to submit an application. As a result, the applications were for the most part excellent, and in the end six students were approved to move ahead. Each had a mentor, and one faculty member was assigned the task of observing them and organizing their final presentations and assessments Their execution of those plans was even better.

I will likely write again in this blog about more of the specifics of our nascent JanTerm Internship Pilot, but sufficed to say, it was a big success on a small scale–just what we wanted. Each of the six students had a powerful experience, developed a quality relationship with his or her mentor, and represented the school well in the community. By ensuring our ability to do well whatever we set out to do in this pilot, we preserved the ability to grow the program in a steady thoughtful manner in the years ahead. We generated the momentum for the program it will need to continue on a positive growth trajectory going forward. By keeping the scale small, we did not become overcommitted to a program that has yet to define its long term placement in our JanTerm program. I am excited to see how the school moves forward in this area.


Won’t You Be, Please Won’t You Be The Helper: A Cum Laude Induction Talk

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Good Evening!

It is a pleasure to welcome parents, family, and friends to the Cum Laude Induction Ceremony.  And most importantly, it is a pleasure to welcome our honorees, accomplished members of our senior class—congratulations to each of you! The praise we offer you this evening is well-deserved. The challenges you have faced that led you here are real. And yet, this evening, at least this part of it, is really more about what you will do than it is what you have already done.

Fred Rogers once said: “We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say “It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.” Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.”

Fred Rogers who created and starred in Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, a children’s program that ran for decades on public television, was a significant presence in my early childhood. Even ahead of Sesame Street, which was brand new when I was headed into preschool, Mister Roger’s Neighborhood was my favorite show. I would sit cross-legged in front of the television and be absolutely ready to join him as he invited neighbors into his home, as he invited us to get on the make believe trolley, and as we arrived in the “Neighborhood of Make-Believe.”

Rogers was an impressive thinker, and he had much more to say than his children’s television program could contain. Humane, kind, and strong-willed, he had some powerful things to share not just with small children, but with all of us. While some it might sound quaint to our ears, it is often also relevant and challenging.

For instance, he provocatively challenged the power of culture when he said, “Life is deep and simple, and what our society gives us is shallow and complicated.”

He encouraged us to see the many facets of others, stating: “What’s been important in my understanding of myself and others is the fact that each one of us is so much more than any one thing. A sick child is much more than his or her sickness. A person with a disability is much, much more than a handicap. A pediatrician is more than a medical doctor. You’re MUCH more than your job description or your age or your income or your output.”

He even had something to say about keeping events such as Cum Laude Induction ceremonies in proper perspective, asserting: “It’s not the honors and the prizes and the fancy outsides of life which ultimately nourish our souls. It’s the knowing that we can be trusted, that we never have to fear the truth, that the bedrock of our very being is good stuff.”

This evening, however, I would like to focus for a few minutes on something Fred Rogers said that tends to recirculate after national tragedies. Here goes—

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”

In the wake 9/11, only a couple of years before his death, Fred Rogers appeared as a familiar and comforting voice to the very parents who had once been young devotees of his television program. This generation of adults was now struggling to explain the unexplainable tragedy of 9/11 to their children. Given the chance to speak to us once again, he told us to look for the good, to spend less time trying to make sense of what happened and more time seeking the good in others. In the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks, it was not hard to find the helpers he described. First responders by job title or by inclination were ready at every turn to help others even if it meant putting their own safety at risk.

The helpers showed up after the Boston Marathon bombing as well. Even as most were understandably running away there were plenty of people running to provide aid and comfort to the injured.

It is not just after tragedies, however, that helpers are relevant difference makers. These helpers have likely looked out for you, our inductees, at virtually every turn in your life—your neighbors, teachers, coaches, friends, religious leaders and…not to be missed this evening in particular…your parents have played this role for you in ways both visible and invisible to you. Helpers don’t often get a movie’s heroic soundtrack to announce their good work, and they come in a fascinating array of shapes and sizes, an infinite variety of backgrounds and professions. It is my belief that they outnumber, and will always outnumber, the forces that corrode, abandon and destroy.

I have been thinking a lot recently about people who have found their way to professional lives that incorporate the helper role. This should be a particularly apt moment for such ruminations as you have a universe of potential paths ahead of you, and you will have some choices to make not only about what you will do, but who you will become. There are innumerable examples we could discuss here—I will spare you a catalogue and focus on just one.

John Woolard and I were classmates at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Virginia. Yesterday morning there was an article about John in the Richmond Times Dispatch. Here is an excerpt from that article, headlined “Passion for the planet led to big gig at Google for Richmond native”:

“During graduate school, Woolard’s interests had grown to include climate change and energy conservation.

“I was really focused on how you could take the power of the free market and use it to drive environmental change,” Woolard said.

Silicon Energy, which Woolard co-founded, produced software that helped utilities and other businesses save energy.

“It was one of these companies that really changed the industry. … Just through zeros and ones, or computer software, we were able to do the equivalent of avoiding the construction of two large coal or nuclear power plants,” Woolard said.

In 2006 at age 41, Woolard became president of BrightSource Energy, which built three of the country’s largest solar energy plants in the Southern California desert. “We did enough solar to serve 170,000 homes.”

Last July, Woolard joined Google, where he is vice president of energy.

Google uses a lot of energy in its data centers and other facilities, “so we try to make sure we are doing it efficiently,” and the company also buys a lot of renewable power, Woolard said.”

John is living the life of a helper—his own brand of that species. His is a life that creates a synthesis of both his professional ambition and skill, as well as his devotion to energy conservation and environmental sustainability.

So, Cum Laude Inductees, the question you and all of your classmates will have to work out in the coming years is this: what are you going to do with your remarkable gifts? You have them, oh my goodness but do you have them. Tonight we name that for you. You are going to know enough, connect enough, excel enough. But how are you going to become the helper? The most valuable things you do in your life, the things that will most clearly define you, will be what you give and how you help.

Fred Rogers can provide us one more insight before I close this evening. For me, it reveals the beauty of the helper most simply:

“There was a story going around about the Special Olympics. For the hundred-yard dash, there were nine contestants, all of them so-called physically or mentally disabled. All nine of them assembled at the starting line and, at the sound of the gun, they took off. But one little boy didn’t get very far. He stumbled and fell and hurt his knee and began to cry. The other eight children heard the boy crying. They slowed down, turned around, and ran back to him–every one of them ran back to him. The little boy got up, and he and the rest of the runners linked their arms together and joyfully walked to the finish line. They all finished the race at the same time. And when they did, everyone in the stadium stood up and clapped and whistled and cheered for a long, long time. And you know why? Because deep down we know that what matters in this life is more than winning for ourselves. What really matters is helping others win, too, even if it means slowing down and changing our course now and then.”

If the members of this group of unique sprinters in a race choose to be helpers, you, my friends, you can be helpers as well, and you should be, and you must be.

Thank you.

JanTerm Debrief #3–Smart Logistics and Keeping the Temperature Low

IMG_1280In three weeks…

  • 370 separate buses traveled off campus as part of JanTerm and traveled more than 17,000 miles.
  • Westminster students visited Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, California, and Guatemala.
  • Westminster students enjoyed 790 cupcakes, 690 snow cones, and 500 ice cream sandwiches.

Logistics. Success in any complex step forward in a school requires a thoughtful and flexible approach to logistics. The primacy of making the trains run on time is not simply a cliche–it is requisite to garner the support necessary to move forward.

Our first experience with JanTerm was not an end unto itself. It was always part of something larger. As the final part of a two-year rollout of a new daily schedule and school calendar, the JanTerm represents the single biggest curricular step forward in the Upper School since its founding–45 new challenging and varied electives, offered over the first three weeks of January for the entire 820 student Upper School at The Westminster Schools. The new schedule, in addition to adding a JanTerm, includes a later start, longer classes that meet less often, and more time for teachers to work in teams. The schedule falls from the school’s Strategic Plan, and it is a creation of a group we called the Time Task Force, an outstanding group of six faculty members. Over the course of a Spring, Summer and Fall, the Time Task Force did deep research, listened carefully to all the school’s constituents–faculty, students, and parents–and then crafted a remarkable proposal, which both aligned beautifully with the school’s vision and challenged us deeply.

The challenges of changes this significant were and are vast. One of those challenge areas, and the area most relevant here, is visible only when something goes awry–logistics. We were extraordinarily fortunate to have an amazing team who both planned for and then executed management of all logistics during JanTerm.

Key characteristics:

  • An early start on planning.
  • A team sized appropriately to the task ahead.
  • A team that has a good sense of humor, an investment in the success of the project, confidence to handle issues autonomously or to process challenges together.
  • Division of labor, but not so a rigid division that the team cannot process confounding issues efficiently and well.
  • Inventing new organizational systems when necessary rather than trying to stick regular school year systems as square pegs in round holes.
  • A customer service approach that strives to take logistical pressure off of teachers who are in the midst of intensely demanding teaching tasks by greeting everyone warmly, keeping the temperature low when something goes wrong, and solving as many problems as possible before the teacher has to spot them.

Though we never formally named them as such, there was a team of folks that addressed the logistical challenges, large and small. That group had good partnerships with the school’s Business Office, as well as with the other key divisions of the school, including the Office of Institutional Advancement and the Communications Office. Our JanTerm logistics team was made up in alphabetical order:

Gwen Andrews (Director of Administrative Computing), Rick Byrd (Director of Studies), Beth Downes (Assistant to the Upper School Head), Jim Justice (Associate Head of Upper School), Erin Morrison (Upper School Assistant), and Laura-Hill Patton (Registrar).

I learned a lesson from our experience with logistical planning and execution: a kind, smart, and generous logistics team dramatically raises the ceiling of possibility in a moment of school change implementation.

A Signing Day Talk–The Stubbornly Counter-Cultural Athletic Program

Signing day

[I gave the comments that follow as part of the Signing Day Ceremony at The Westminster Schools in Atltanta, GA on February 4, 2015]

Let me add my welcome to the 2015 Signing Day Ceremony and my congratulations to each of our signees today. I am honored to have the opportunity to share this moment with you.

At Westminster, just as we lean into the value of academics and the value of the arts, we also lean into the value of athletics, the value of teams, and the value of competition as the ground upon which character is built. According to this way of thinking, we learn many things from sports. On the field, court, track, pool of competition we learn to be shoulder to shoulder with those different than ourselves; we learn to see that a good team allows us to be part of something greater than ourselves alone; we learn success and failure; we learn about sacrifice and commitment. We learn calm under pressure, and importantly we learn enough about humility to demonstrate grace in both victory and in defeat.

To read our national sports headlines, however, points to other lessons … ones that can make the ones I just mentioned seem trite, anachronistic, or misguided. Whether it is deflategate, or evidence of a blind eye turned to domestic violence, or some collegiate programs that have lost their moral and ethical compasses in an atmosphere of booster dollars and demands for short cuts to success, our national sports story is not always an inspiring one, and at times it is simply a very sad story of wasted human potential and squandered opportunity.

Against this national backdrop, our voicing of Westminster’s priorities regarding character must seem quaint, anachronistic, perhaps even naïve to much of the world…that is, if the world notices us at all. I know, as I hope you know, that our priorities are anything but quaint, anachronistic or naïve. They are instead vital and inseparable from our mission as a school.

All this brings into focus for me the significance of our gathering today, for today, signees, we celebrate you, yes, of course, but we also celebrate something more, and it is this…

We are intractably counter-cultural in our approach to athletics. While it would be the height of arrogance to think that we are alone—we can each summon example after example of individuals and schools that share our point of view and put it to the test in competition—we are rare, and today we mark a rite of passage for each of you that includes taking the best of this rarity of your athletic experience at Westminster with you to the colleges, the universities, and the teams on which you will leave your mark.

At Westminster we like winning, and led by many of you, we have had our share, if not far more than our share, of winning during your tenure here. We are proud of the fact that Westminster is consistently in the conversation of the best High School athletic programs in the country. But more, much more importantly, we graduate students who are positioned to contribute far more than an impressive stat line. It is our request and our expectation that you, each of you, will help make and help lead the teams on which you participate meet the highest standard of sportsmanship and competitive spirit rather than sink toward a diminished cultural common denominator.

So today is a perfect moment to express our appreciation for all that you have done as athletes, Westminster athletes, and it is a moment for each of you to express deep gratitude to all those who have helped bring you to this point—parents, coaches, teammates. It is, however, also a moment to look ahead and set your personal compasses for the challenges ahead. My two cents: hold on tightly to the important things, for so much is about to change in your lives that it will be easy to lose track of what is truly valuable. The valuable things I am thinking of include: commitment, fair play, sacrifice, humility, and grace. I, just like so many gathered her this afternoon, am confident that you each have ample strengths to rise to whatever occasion the future holds. And on this big day, I am excited for each of you, and I am excited for the schools fortunate enough to be able to have you wear their name and colors.

Thank you.