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Making Time for Collaboration

October 5, 2018

The edusphere is abuzz these days about school schedules. You likely have seen articles about the need for high school students to begin school later in the morning. Another popular study focuses on teacher schedules–that is, the time teachers have to plan and collaborate compared to their classroom teaching hours.

According to a February 27, 2017 article in Education Week, “U.S. educators spend far more time teaching lessons and less time planning them than educators in other top-performing countries.” The report concludes that this discrepancy deprives teachers of benefits that come from observing other teachers, collaborating as teams, and doing individual planning.

At Gardner, homeroom teachers spend roughly 87% of their school-week teaching or actively supervising students. The rest of their time is deemed Prep Time, but this often is misnamed because these precious minutes are devoted to classroom chores, responding to email, or even attending to personal necessities. At times, prep periods are erased completely because of the need to cover for an absent teacher or deal with an emergent situation involving students.

In my view, we can do better. In many ways, our relatively small size and limited resources challenge our ability to improve this situation. Still, some changes have been put into effect this year; and we look forward to studying this matter further.

This year’s academic schedule was written with the objective of providing full-time teachers at least one prep period a day (among other objectives, of course). In the past, some teachers have had no preps on some days and then an abundance of preps on others. We sought to spread out prep periods more equitably over the week.

Another development focuses on our early-release Wednesday schedule. Rather than hold all-staff meetings every week, a new meeting calendar has been implemented that provides time for team meetings and opportunities for homeroom and specialist teachers to meet for planning and reflection. Each of these meetings is preceded by a 20-minute All-Staff Huddle, which provides a weekly opportunity for all of us to share with our community. A longer all-staff meeting occurs once a month. We also seek to use these meetings for professional development.

By revising the Wednesday meeting schedule, we have significantly diminished the need for meetings during the school day. Such meetings further reduced teacher prep/break time, and they often were not very effective because of time constraints (35 minutes) and the difficulty of scheduling around a variety of teacher schedules.

School-day meetings also limited my ability to be in classrooms, working with students and teachers. With this new meeting schedule, I’m in my office less and with students and teachers more. As such, this move has been an important part of the school’s focus on relationships this year, which I wrote about in a previous newsletter.

Teacher burnout and well-being also are on my mind–as it is on the minds of school leaders around the country. Teachers are leaving the profession in record numbers in part because of the amount of work they have to bring home with them at night and over weekends. This situation hasn’t been helped by how email and texting have turned teaching into a 24/7 occupation.

But a more significant issue than burnout may be demoralization. The study I referred to earlier noted that the lack of collaborative time has resulted in increased feelings of isolation among teachers. The focus on improving teacher schedules and opportunities to collaborate is in large part motivated by a desire to improve how teachers enjoy their chosen profession.

Schedules are as much a pedagogical tool as a logistical one. How a school organizes its schedule largely determines how students learn and how teachers teach. A schedule can promote some learning and cultural values while limiting others. We will continue to study our schedule to ensure it is promoting our educational and cultural objectives for our students and enhances teacher collaboration and well-being.

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Reaching Back, Looking Forward

September 7, 2018

How well do you remember 2004? Britney Spears married Kevin Federline. Janet Jackson suffered a wardrobe malfunction at the Super Bowl. Friends aired its final episode. And all but a few current Gardner students had yet to be born!

2004 also is the last time The Gardner School started work on a strategic plan. A lot has changed since then, hasn’t it? The population of Clark County has grown by nearly 100,000 residents, and with it a dramatic increase in educational options—including online schools, unheard of in 2004!—available to our current and future students. Where does Gardner fit in this landscape? What shall be our unique contribution to our community in the next decade?

The time is right for Gardner to take stock of its strengths, assess its challenges, and plan its future as a destination school in SW Washington and Portland. This is why the Board of Trustees has elected to complete a Strategic Plan during the 2018-19 school year. Strategic planning enables independent schools to evaluate their vision and mission within the competitive landscape. Through this process, we will identify those facets of Gardner most essential to our excellence and that truly set us apart from other schools in our region. We will emerge from this process with a unified and compelling narrative about who we are, what we do, and where we are going.

As part of our Strategic Plan process, we will identify Big Questions around those substantive challenges and opportunities that will influence Gardner’s long-term success. For example, a Big Question might be “How do we maintain affordable tuition levels while also providing competitive salaries for teachers and staff?” At the end of this endeavor, we will determine those priorities requiring immediate attention while establishing other strategic priorities to be addressed in due time. In addition, we will construct our Strategy Screen during this process. The Strategy Screen is a tool used to evaluate decisions against important and meaningful criteria. Using this Strategy Screen, current and future school leaders can assess not only the fiscal and strategic reasonableness of future actions but also ensure they are aligned with and supportive of Gardner’s mission, values, culture, community, and heritage.

Heritage and tradition are important components of this process. We cannot look forward without reaching back to what has made Gardner what it is today. Nor can we look forward without engaging with our present community, including alumni. In collaboration with our Strategic Planning consultant, Alexa Carver, we have crafted a process that ensures participation from key populations in our community.

During our August In-Service Week, our consultant spent an entire day working together with our Board of Trustees, faculty, and staff. A strategic planning committee–comprised of two staff members (Jared and Jackie), two parents (Rebecca Kendrick, Tahoma; David Wilhoyte, Loowit), and two Trustees (Maida Sussman, Cody Goldberg)–will continue to work throughout the fall and early winter on major components of the strategic plan. On December 5 (early evening) and December 6 (morning), Alexa will moderate parent focus groups in which you are invited to participatealumni also are invited.

Our goal is to publish our Strategic Plan this spring. Between now and then, we will continue to communicate about the value of strategic planning and the nature of our Gardner-specific process. The participation of our community is vital to this work and we look forward to your contributions.

 

 

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In Defense of Boredom

June 8, 2018

Twenty-seven years ago (yes, that’s right), the poet Kurt Cobain summed it up nicely when he sang, “Here we are now. Entertain us.”  Whether speaking about Gen Y or Millennials or the I-Generation, Cobain captured in six simple words what many have written endlessly about for the past three decades.

Children today don’t know how to be bored.

And it’s MTV’s fault.

No, I mean it’s the fault of video games.

Actually, it’s the fault of smart phones.

Or maybe children have never been very good at being bored. Before MTV and long before portable entertainment, I remember going out to eat with my parents, being dreadfully bored, and hoping like mad they wouldn’t order coffee after dinner so we. ​could. finally. leave.

I’m skeptical that children have changed all that much. I think what has changed is how adults today value boredom. Part of this could be nostalgia . . . nostalgia for days when teens spent hours lying on their bedroom floors listening to records and scrutinizing album covers (something CD’s and then Steve Jobs ruined perhaps).

Guilty as charged. While I’m quite sure my parents thought I was not using that time wisely, science now is on the side of that teenager who was endlessly fascinated by the cover of The Who’s Quadrophenia or The Clash’s London Calling. So says Tony Wagner of the Harvard Innovation Lab: “Downtime is up time. The brain needs time off to synthesize, to integrate.” Similar to when we sleep, moments of wakeful inactivity allow our brains to process the day’s stimuli, providing essential cognitive and emotional connections and cleansing.

If this seems counterintuitive, think about those times you’ve had a great idea in the shower or while driving to work, moments when the hamster-wheel in your brain could turn and turn and turn.

In her book Beyond Measure, Vicki Abeles argues that we must leave space in our children’s lives for “daydreaming, quietude” because such downtime supports creativity and psychological growth. Downtime is essential for our children’s brains to process what they’ve learned. This also is essential to memory; children remember content more deeply and with less effort at recall when they have quiet moments to process and reflect.

Abeles cites this research to advocate for a change in how school’s assign homework (or perhaps not to assign it at all). Referring to Wagner’s research, she also notes that diminished time for brain rest and daydreaming also inhibits key skills such as curiosity and imagination, reflection and refinement, and assessing and filtering.

Abeles poses a bit of a Catch-22. Children are less able to assess and filter stimuli because their brains are continually active. And as we well know, all too often their brains are continually active because they are immersed in digital environments. This is not a recipe for success.  Digital spaces are precisely where our children must assess and filter stimuli and content.

Which is why building opportunities during the day when students can rest their brains is vital. Free, unstructured opportunities to play are one way to provide this downtime. This is especially so when play is outside in natural environments, where their eyes and minds have opportunities to take in stimuli at medium and long distances.

Another way is to build time during the school day for quietude-opportunities for the mind to engage less active stimuli so it can drift. ​Such moments may include brainstorming, free-thinking, and mind mapping activities where ideas can flow freely and unfiltered; open-ended puzzle and mind-games that allow students to engage in imaginative and speculative thinking; doodle or sketching activities where students express ideas visually rather than verbally; quiet opportunities where students exercise independent choice in their reading; or maybe just time to rest the brain and daydream.

​The title of this piece is purposely facetious. Of course we don’t want school to be boring. Teachers should be engaging, content should be meaningful and informative, and student activities should be challenging and stimulating. We know that learning interesting content and acquiring new skills can be extremely fun and enjoyable for learners of all ages. And we know that boredom usually is in the eyes of the beholder, so to speak. Often, students can be encouraged to find meaning and connection to activities or subjects they initially find boring.

But boredom also gets a bad rap. In the end, teachers and parents should be okay if their children/students ​are bored sometime. Should it be our responsibility to endlessly entertain our children?

​Children benefit from cognitive downtime. Downtime (what children might call boredom) provides their brains with valuable time to filter, process, and synthesize what they had previously learned. And because their brains will ​have opportunities to scrub away the non-essential stimuli, they will return to active learning activities with brains refreshed and ready to make new connections.

 

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