Carrie Symons, PhD

Education, Literacy, and Language in Multilingual Contexts

Hands-On Learning

As I scroll through this week’s Summers-Knoll (SK) newsletter, I am struck by a recurrent theme across the images of students learning in classrooms from PreK to 8th grade: learners working with their hands. In a past conversation with ArtMary (SK’s art teacher), they were sharing how they think about the importance of students recognizing how their hands can be used as tools to create. Lately, ArtMary has been thinking about how “hands are your primary way of interacting with reality. They are like antennas or feelers, a sensory organ. So they are not only for manipulating reality, they are also for gathering information and as a result, they give you a more robust experience of reality. Everything you make with your hands educates you further on reality.”

So I decided to step into the art room and ask some 5th and 6th graders for their thoughts on “hands as tools.” And here’s what they had to say:

“It helps you make the design you want to make, and maybe a tool can’t tickle your fancy. So your hands can do whatever you want because you are in command of your hands.” ~ L.L.

“You control your hands. Your hands are what you want to make, not what other people want to make.” ~ N.P.

“You have more control of your hands.You can bend down each individual finger and make them move in different ways, and they can get into places that tools can’t really reach.” ~ H.R.

“Also when you use your hands it looks more natural, more made by you.” ~ M.R.

“Working on other things and making it look like your own instead of something that a machine would make.” ~ N.C.

In contrast to images of classrooms where students are sitting in desks, arranged in rows, facing the “front” of the room where the teacher stands and delivers a lecture (a now outdated design of a learning environment), SK learners are engaged in learning through their bodies, minds, hearts, and hands. Across classrooms and grade levels, these images of engaged learners is so commonplace at SK that it’s easy to take it for granted (just like we may take our hands for granted.)

But this whole body engagement in learning through doing is not commonplace in schools, unfortunately. There are still many classrooms and entire schools where learning is conceptualized as something that happens solely in the mind, despite a robust body of research (including research specifically on project-based learning) that has illuminated how much more deeply we learn when we have meaningful opportunities to socialize, discuss, collaborate, enact, create, build, manipulate, navigate, and transfer ideas from thoughts to words to actions.

From the Singapore Math curriculum, with its emphasis on three modes of representation – concrete, pictorial, abstract – to Project-Based Learning with its emphasis on inquiry and problem-solving, SK students are actively learning through doing. You can see it in their hands.

Hey, Valentine – In case you forgot, let me remind you: I love you

“Had I been given a clear definition of love earlier in my life it would not have taken me so long to become a more loving person.” ~ bell hooks, All About Love, 2000, p. 11

Shoe boxes – decorated with pink and red, paint and tissue paper, and a rectangular hole cut in the top – receptacles for expressions of love from our classmates. Store-bought, classic notecards with the “To:” and “From:” or the homemade, construction paper versions. Heart-shaped lollipops, rock candy, chocolate.

Valentine’s Day at Summers-Knoll looks very much like Valentine’s Day from my childhood school experience in San Antonio, Texas. Some traditions hold strong. Perhaps the main difference for me now, as an adult, is the source of the sweetness. Where once it was candy, now it’s the excitement in children’s eyes as they exchange cards and candy with their peers and teachers.

Some critics of Valentine’s Day say it’s a “Hallmark Holiday,” institutionalized to generate consumerism (Bokat-Lindell, 2020, New York Times). Others point out how it reinforces limiting societal notions of romantic love. These critiques are valid and deserve sensitivity. But when viewed through the lens of a child’s day at school, Valentine’s Day engenders memories of reflecting on my classmates, how to spell their names, and picking out a type of candy I thought they’d like. While I (admittedly) couldn’t wait to receive valentines, there was equal emphasis on giving to other people.

Zooming out to consider the broader opportunity in a day like Valentine’s Day, we can think about the meaning of the word “love.” As Lin-Manuel Miranda said, “Love is love is love is love is love is love.” There are many different kinds of love.

One of the most admired authors, theorists, and educators of our time, bell hooks (1952-2021), also provides a useful contemplation on different kinds of love in her book All About Love (2020). On page 13, hooks writes:

“To begin by always thinking of love as an action rather than a feeling is one way in which anyone using the word in this manner automatically assumes accountability and responsibility. We are often taught we have no control over our ‘feelings.’ Yet most of us accept that we choose our actions, that intention and will inform what we do. We also accept that our actions have consequences. To think of actions as shaping feelings is one way we rid ourselves of conventionally accepted assumptions such as that parents love their children, or that one simply ‘falls’ in love without exercising will or choice, that there are such things as ‘crimes of passion,’ […]. If we were constantly remembering that love is as love does, we would not use the word in a manner that devalues and degrades its meaning. When we are loving we openly and honestly express care, affection, responsibility, respect, commitment, and trust.”

Teaching is one way love is expressed through action. Not just love of children, which is paramount, but love of the potential they hold and the future they will create for themselves as individuals and our society. Love for the planet, for humanity, and for possibilities we have yet to imagine. Love of learning and being a part of other people’s learning journeys. Love of the creative process and creating a learning community in collaboration with other teachers, parents, and children.

One holiday cannot possibly begin to capture all of this love – it’s expressed every day across the school year, in small and big everyday ways, through our words and actions. It’s not glamorous or effusive (except for on Valentine’s Day) – it’s just who we are at our core, our very essence, and that, my friends, is worthy of remembering every day.

Cross-Grade Collaborations Provide Opportunities for Peer-Mentorship

The work of educational psychologist, Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky (1896 – 1934), has had a significant impact on the field of education and how, in particular, educators conceptualize teaching and learning. One of his central theories – the Zone of Proximal Development (aka ZPD) – helps us understand the importance of accessibility in the learning process.

The Zone of Proximal Development is “the range of abilities an individual can perform with the guidance of an expert, but cannot yet perform on their own” (Cherry, 2023, verywellmind.com). For a learner to develop their knowledge and/or ability in a particular area, they need (what Vygotsky referred to as) a “more knowledgeable other.” To be effective, this “more knowledgeable other” needs to meet the learner in their ZPD. If the “more knowledgeable other” does not meet the learner within their ZPD, the learner will have difficulty developing that knowledge and/or skill.

Educators assess each individual student’s abilities, across a vast array of domains, so that they can do just that: meet students where they are (within their ZPDs) and provide the necessary “scaffolding” for each learner to reach the next level. But sometimes peers are even better at approximating each other’s ZPDs – not because they have read Vygotsky’s work or had formal teacher training but because they are often within (or close to) each other’s ZPDs. When a peer serves as the slightly “more knowledgeable other,” they are more proximate to their peer’s developmental stages. Granted, this is a generalization; even among a group of children who are all the same age, great variability and diversity exists. But generally speaking, children are closer to one another’s ZPDs as compared to an adult’s proximity to a child’s ZPD.

Therefore, when peers have opportunities to work together on a task that requires some kind of learning (e.g., problem solving, physical activity, games, writing, reading), they learn from one another in ways that are different than how they learn from adults.

At SK, students have many opportunities to work with peers across grade levels. Each class is paired with another class for buddy time once a week: 7/8s are buddies with the 1/2s, 5/6s are buddies with the Young5/Ks, and 3/4s are buddies with the preschoolers. During buddy time, students engage in a range activities that require learning with, from, and alongside one another.

Teachers also create opportunities for peer mentorship in writing. The 3/4s, 5/6s, and 7/8s all wrote short stories in the month of January, which allowed for writing buddies to provide genre-specific feedback to one another. Although the older students might technically serve as the “more knowledgable other” in this context, it should not be assumed that they are merely “helping” the younger students.

When writers provide feedback to one another on their work, it’s a mutually beneficial experience. Reading someone else’s writing and giving feedback can often lead to a deeper understanding of what I know about writing, which then, in turn, has a positive impact on my own writing.

When structured with intent and opportunities for reflection, both the mentor and the mentee learn and grow from peer-mentorship in ways that are only possible due to being proximate to one another’s ZPDs.

Not Just Any Kind of Practice -Deliberate Practice Fosters Expertise

Teachers and parents at Summers-Knoll School are meeting for their 2nd quarter parent-teacher conferences this week. With quarterly assessments and conferences, teachers and parents regularly communicate about each child’s academic progress and social-emotional development. In my blog on October 12th (scroll down), I discussed the purposes of various types of assessments, and it’s worth revisiting and reminding ourselves: teachers are constantly assessing students, and they rely upon these assessments and conferences to inform their instruction.

An assessment is just a snapshot of what a learner can do at a particular point in time. Some skills are fixed constructs (e.g., learning the alphabet, memorizing multiplication facts); once you have learned it, you know it. Other skills are growth constructs (e.g., reading comprehension, learning a new language) – you can always get better at growth constructs over time because their difficulty varies depending on content and context. Overall growth and development are not a fixed constructs; they are dynamic.

Therefore, when parents, caregivers and teachers are in communication, they can all work on providing opportunities that are enriching and supportive of the child’s ongoing, holistic development. Identifying areas for growth enable targeted instruction, and targeted instruction inevitably involves regular practice – perhaps even regular deliberate practice.

What is deliberate practice?

Think of something you know how to do well (e.g., baking bread, performing a surgical procedure, playing a musical instrument, skateboarding). How did you learn how to do it?

I’ve asked many groups of learners this question and the answers are always similar:

I observed someone else who was really good at it. A teacher (or coach) walked me through it step by step and gave me feedback as I worked on it over time. I have had mastery experiences (e.g., “I won an award for the best sourdough loaf at the county fair.”) I practiced a lot…

…but people who develop expertise in something don’t just practice for the sake of mere repetition. They engage in deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice is both improving the skills you already have and consciously choosing to work on skills that you have not mastered, working on things you are not yet good at, and doing so with focus over a sustained period of time. “Research across domains shows that it is only by working at what you can’t do that you turn into the expert you want to become” (Ericsson, Prietula, & Cokely, 2007). Developing expertise takes years, 10 years (or 10,000 hours) of intense training (Ericsson et al., 2007).

So, join me in a thought experiment: Imagine a child begins playing piano at age 5, and they practice for 30 minutes a day every day. How long will it take them for them to become an expert piano player? In one year, they will practice piano for a total of about 182 hours. At that rate, it will take them about 55 years to become an expert piano player and that would depend upon the quality of their practice, on whether or not it was deliberate. Granted, if they decided to pursue music professionally, they would practice much more than 30 minutes a day, and as such, they would most likely develop expertise much sooner.

The purpose of this thought experiment is to highlight the time it takes to become an “expert.” But maybe becoming an expert in some area isn’t even a reasonable goal. Let’s say becoming an expert is not the goal, but instead, becoming good at something is the goal. Maybe we don’t need 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, but it’s safe to say that we will need time.

Children need to time for their minds and bodies to develop, to build stamina, to go through the process of learning and continually expanding what they’re capable of along the way. They need meaningful, timely feedback as well as mastery experiences and opportunities to fail. They need adults to believe in them and encourage them to take risks. Assessments and parent-teacher conferences infuse specificity into the conversation about each child, and with this specificity, caregivers and teachers can keep nurturing each child’s growth.

I Would Have Written Less If I’d Had More Time

Crafting a concise, clear piece of writing is arguably harder than writing languid prose that read more like a stream of consciousness. Creating a clear, concise piece of writing with a point requires revision. Lots and lots of revision.

Our 3rd – 8th grade students are currently in the midst of writing short stories and many of them will submit their stories to the annual Ann Arbor District Library short story writing contests. Sixth through eighth graders at SK have the opportunity to enter a piece in the It’s All Write contest for Michigan students in grades 6th – 12th. The third through fifth graders have the opportunity to submit to the Write On! kids’ writing contest.

To learn more about the Short Story form, over the winter holiday, I read A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life) by George Saunders (2021). In this brilliant book that illuminates both life and the writer’s craft, Saunders walks the reader through short stories written by four Russian writers: Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol. Each short story is followed by a meticulous, witty analysis in which Saunders helps us, as readers, understand what these authors, as writers, are doing with language to create these heralded short stories.

George Saunders is, himself, an award-winning author who has written collections of short stories, essays, and novels. He is also a professor of creative writing at Syracuse University. So reading A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is like being in class with a humble expert on the subject of writing prose, and short stories in particular. He speaks to the reader as a fellow lover of the written word, a fellow writer, and a student of writing, so his text is at once educative, heart-warming, and enlightening.

Short stories have specific features. As stories, they fall under the category of narrative fiction, although they can certainly be based upon real people and actual events. Short stories are more concise, word count-wise, than a novel. Their existence is compressed. The writer has to do a lot with fewer words, which makes choice a critical aspect of the writing process. What a writer chooses to do – with words and punctuation – matters even more when there are fewer words with which to play.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been working with Erika (3rd/4th), Eddie and Matt (Upper School) on their teaching of short stories. To share some of the inspiration I gleaned from A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, I provided them with a collection of quotes that I thought might be relevant for a teacher of writing and maybe even – with particular quotes – for a young writer. I’ll share those with you as well below. They provide insight on the craft of writing from a very Saundersian perspective – he invites you, as a reader, to join him as a co-constructor of meaning.

Impact on the Reader

“We might think of a story this way: the reader is sitting in the sidecar of a motorcycle the writer is driving. In a well-told story, reader and writer are so close together that they are one unit. My job as a writer is to keep the distance between motorcycle and sidecar small, so that when I go right, you go right. When I, at the end of the story, take the motorcycle off the cliff, you have no choice but to follow.” (p. 56)

“But the true beauty of a story is not in its apparent conclusion but in the alteration in the mind of the reader that has occurred along the way.” (p. 56)

Relevance – Honor Efficiency

The pace of a story versus the pace of real life: “the story is way faster, compressed, and exaggerated–a place where something new always has to be happening, something relevant to that which has already happened.” (p. 19)

“A story is not like real life; it’s like a table with just a few things on it. The ‘meaning’ of the table is made by the choice of things and their relation to one another.” (p. 46)

“Everything is connected and purposeful. If you give a character a particular trait and show the reader how that character has that trait, but that trait is not used somehow later in the story, then it is slightly wasteful.” (p. 23)

“One of the tacit promises of a short story, because it is so short, is that there’s no waste in it. Everything in it is there for a reason (for the story to make use of).” (p. 25)

“Every structural unit needs to do two things: (1) be entertaining in its own right 2) advance the story in a non-trivial way.” (p. 40)

“That’s really all a story is: a series of things that happen in sequence, in which we can discern a pattern of causality.” (p.224)

Honesty

“A work of art moves us by being honest and that honesty is apparent in its language and its form and in its resistance to concealment.” (p. 34)

“When we ‘find our voice,’ what’s really happening is that we’re choosing a voice from among the many voices we’re able to ‘do,’ and we’re choosing it because we’ve found that, of all the voices we contain, it’s the one, so far, that has proven itself to be the most energetic.” (p.104)

Character Development

Characterization through specification – as the story progresses, the character becomes more specific, more unique, just as human beings are unique. “The story form reminds us that a human being is never static or stable.” (p.38)

“Specificity makes character.” (p. 87)

“We sometimes say that what makes a piece of writing a story is that something happens within it that changes the character forever.” (p. 49)

“Why do we even need descriptions of characters in the first place? For that matter, why do we need characters? […] so that they can fulfill the purpose required of them by the story” (p.94)

Revising – Be Specific

A “good writerly habit” is to be “continually revising toward specificity” so that specificity can appear and then produce plot or meaningful action (p. 140)

“You don’t need an idea to start a story. You just need a sentence. […] We’ll find our voice and ethos and distinguish ourselves from all the other writers in the world without needing to make any big overarching decisions, just by the thousands of small ones we make as we revise.” (p. 112)

Escalation – Always be Escalating

“What transforms an anecdote into a story is escalation. Or, we might say: when escalation is suddenly felt to be occurring, it is a sign that our anecdote is transforming into a story.” (p. 135)

“What is escalation anyway? How does a story produce the illusion of escalation? One answer: refuse to repeat beats. Once a story has moved forward, through some fundamental change in the character’s condition, we don’t get to enact that change again. And we don’t get to stay there elaborating on that state – not, as in this case, for two full pages.” (p. 151)

“The preferred, most efficient, highest-order form of energy transfer is for a beat to cause the next beat” (p.226)

“A story means, at the highest level, not by what it concludes but by how it proceeds.” (p. 334)

How Project-Based Learning is Akin to Comprehending Text

On Wednesday, January 17th, Summers-Knoll School hosted a virtual PreK – K Open House for prospective PreK – K families. Amidst the subzero temperatures, families attended from the warmth and comfort of their homes. Open Houses provide an opportunity for SK admin and teachers to describe SK’s culture, instruction, and curriculum, and I always appreciate hearing Johnathan and SK teachers’ articulation of what we and our students do and experience on a day-to-day basis.

After the Open House concluded, I was reflecting upon project-based learning (PBL) and why it is such an effective pedagogy. As a literacy and language scholar, I often conceptualize phenomena through a literacy and language lens, so perhaps it should not be surprising that a comparison between PBL and reading comprehension began to formulate in my mind.

Reading comprehension, specifically comprehension of a written text, is a complex, socio-cognitive process in which the reader constructs meaning through their interactions with the language in a text (Kintsch, 1998; Palincsar, 1998). This meaning-making process involves multiple cognitive processes that occur simultaneously, such as connecting prior knowledge to the ideas presented in a text; connecting ideas presented across a piece text (imposing coherence upon the text); and inferring information that is not explicitly stated.

But before a reader can make these connections and inferences, they must undergo a process of deciding which bits of information are worthy of being held onto and which bits can fall by the wayside. (The brain’s working memory space is limited.) Because this deeply subtle, rapid-fire, decision-making process occurs automatically for proficient readers, it is difficult to even recognize that our minds are doing this work. But they are. The reader’s mind is making hundreds of decisions as it works to impose coherence upon the text (i.e., decide what’s important, hold onto each important bit, and connect it to the next bit of important information).

It is, perhaps, easiest to recognize what the mind has to do to comprehend a text when meaning breaks down. What do we usually do when meaning breaks down? Reread. Slow down. Attend to the meanings of individual words and phrases. If we decide the meaning of a word or phrase is essential to the continued understanding of the text, then we have to figure out its meaning if we are going to comprehend the text as a whole.

So, how is reading comprehension like PBL? PBL is a meaning-making process. Throughout a project, learners are making connections among the knowledge they are building, the questions they are posing, and the problem(s) they are addressing. They are reflecting upon what they’re learning along the way so that the “whole” they are constructing actually hangs together. They encounter and navigate road blocks and engage in productive struggle when meaning breaks down or when things fail to make sense right away or when the solutions to a problem aren’t obvious. Through iterative reflection and problem solving, learners’ learning of content – and engagement in the learning process itself – deepens. They make meaningful connections among disciplinary concepts and vocabulary, information gleaned from field trips, and the hands-on experiences their teachers provide. They are actively and constantly working to impose coherence on their project through stringing together all the various parts. Through making multiple connections among ideas, learners store new knowledge in their brain’s long term memory, which supports the reinforcement of prior knowledge and the building of new neural networks. This is deep learning.

Today’s post echoes my October 5th post in which I discussed Freire’s conception of the relationship between reading the world and reading the word and how these two types of “reading” feed one another. The similarities between reading comprehension and PBL highlight the centrality of the meaning-making process in our daily existence as human beings, as we consume and digest a world full of information and navigate life with its inevitable challenges.

In our educational experiences, if we are given opportunities to develop the tools necessary for critical reading and thinking, learn how employ discernment in our decision-making, draw connections across disciplines and ideas, and reflect upon how we solve problems so that we can be more strategic in the future, then there’s a good chance we’ll be well equipped to make meaning – and seek meaning – from our experiences in and out of school; with such opportunities, we can cultivate a curious, meaning-making orientation toward the world: written text, the arts, science, nature, the human body, health and healing, the creative process, religion and spirituality, culture, language, technology, relationships, politics, history, and the inner mental and emotional terrain. Project-based learning, as a pedagogy put into practice by highly-skilled teachers, gives learners the opportunities to become life-long seekers and makers of meaning.

Reflections on “Happy New Year”

As the clock struck twelve midnight on December 31st, 2023, I was on an airplane flying from Atlanta, Georgia to Detroit. It was the last leg of our return travel from Colombia (South America) where my husband and I had spent the winter holiday with his family. (The photo above is of a mural in Parque Pueblito Paisa in Medellin, Colombia.)

Upon returning to school or work after the winter holidays, “Happy New Year” is a common greeting among colleagues, friends, and acquaintances. As I say those words with the genuine intention of wishing someone well in the year of 2024, I’m also aware of the fact that the (Gregorian) calendar’s turning from one year to the next is just one type of “new” year.

The Gregorian calendar, with 365 days/12 months in a year, measures a year based upon the completion of yet another one of Earth’s trips around the sun. But members of various faith traditions and cultures may celebrate new years in accordance with their faith or culture’s calendars, which are not necessarily aligned with the Gregorian calendar’s demarcations of time. So, despite my good intentions, I recognize that the ubiquitous greeting of “Happy New Year!” at the beginning of January is full of assumptions, and as such, it may fail to recognize and honor when the person with whom I am speaking celebrates their New Year.

Although the onset of 2024 may not be cause for celebration, returning to school after the winter holiday is a truly happy occasion for me. All the kids seem taller and excited to see one another. They have settled into the school year, had some time away to play and rest, and returned with energy and focus. Getting back into the swing of things always takes a little bit of time, but it’s fun to do so when you genuinely enjoy the people with whom you work. We reconnect with our community with a renewed sense of purpose.

Like the person portrayed in the mural above, SK students are planters of seeds, seeds that feed their dreams and visions of what they are in the process of becoming. May the remainder of the 2023-2024 school year be a fruitful, creative time in which moments of peace and joy occupy ever greater space in our minds, hearts, days, and nights.

The Arts & Humanities: Essential Parts of Project-Based Learning

Summers-Knoll is Ann Arbor’s premier project-based and place-based learning school. When people ask me what “project-based” means, I begin by defining the word “project.” A project is an undertaking, often defined by a specific end-goal or purpose, that involves a collaborative journey from point A to point B. The result of a project is usually some kind of creation or product. The journey taken during each project depends upon the paths forged in the process of building knowledge, asking questions, problem solving, overcoming obstacles, leveraging various resources, and arriving at the destination.

SK teachers draw upon content area standards as well as their assessment of individual students to design four main projects each year that engage students in learning through inquiry and learning through doing. Lending themselves naturally to the integration of content areas, the arts and humanities are woven throughout projects as either the main foci or as a mediums through which students express and communicate their learning.

In addition to the myriad ways homeroom teachers integrate the arts into project-based learning (e.g., visual art, music, film, poetry, performance), SK students’ schedules also include formal instruction in visual arts, music, French, and Latin. SK’s art, music and language teachers also approach teaching and learning through a multimodal lens so, for example, in French and/or Latin class, students learn about ancient myths, traditional folk dances, and classical theatre. In art, students learn about synesthesia and the relationship between the five senses in the artistic process. In music, students compose using pencil and paper scores and instruments as well as digital software.

Not only do the arts and humanities stimulate the growth of neural networks and expand a learner’s repertoire of communicative tools, they deepen students’ awareness and appreciation of cultural and linguistic diversity; they provide entry points for understanding global history and cultures; they broaden students’ opportunities for intercultural communication and recognition of varied ways of knowing, being, and expressing; and they increase students’ attention to aesthetics and beauty in the formed as well as natural world.

“So we need to cultivate students’ ‘inner eyes,’ and this means carefully crafted instruction in the arts and humanities – appropriate to the child’s age and developmental level – that will bring students in contact with issues of gender, race, ethnicity, and cross-cultural experience and understanding. This artistic instruction can and should be linked to the citizen-of-the-world instruction, since works of art are frequently an invaluable way of beginning to understand the achievements and sufferings of a culture different from one’s own (Nussbaum, 201, p.108).

Additionally, when learners cultivate a habit of regular practice with a language, an instrument, or an art form, they learn how to persevere, experiment, fail, take risks, and get better at something over time. Ideally, they learn to enjoy the creative process, regardless of the product or how an audience receives their work.

Granted, I’m biased. I grew up in a family with a father who was a professional actor, a professor of theatre, and a director. I started performing at the age of 5. I cannot imagine my life without the influence of the arts. But my support of, and advocacy for, the arts in schools does not just come from my own personal experience. Decades of research, sound pedagogical theories, and evidence from my own integration of the arts in my teaching have affirmed the importance of the arts and humanities in a child’s education.

Witnessing SK students in their creative processes, and witnessing the pride they feel when sharing a piece of artwork or performing for an audience of their peers and parents, the educational benefits of the arts and humanities is affirmed yet again. If project- and place-based learning provides the framework for instruction at SK, the arts and humanities provide the colors, textures, flavors, sounds, music, light, and language with which students formulate, create, and express meaning.

Gathering in the Midst of Winter

Temperatures have dropped, the first snows have come, and students are bringing their snow pants, hats, boots, and gloves with them to school so that they can go out and play during recess despite the chill in the air – Michigan’s winter season is upon us. But even with the best outdoor gear, we can only stay outside for so long before our need for warmth draws us back indoors.

In October of this school year, Summers-Knoll hosted their annual spaghetti dinner, and we had a great turn out. In November, we held our first quarter parent/teacher/student conferences with 100% participation. (Thank you, SK parents!) Today (Friday, December 1st), we will host a movie night where SK students and parents will come together to watch Pixar’s Ratatouille. Then on Tuesday, December 19th, every student in the school will perform in our Winter Concert.

Regular opportunities for meeting and socializing enable us, as a community, to get to know and appreciate one another as people, beyond the roles that define us or our work. It has become easy, once again, to take such opportunities for granted, but not long ago, gathering together posed serious risks.

When the COVID-19 pandemic ensued in March of 2020 and everyone around the world was forced into isolation for months, being with other people in public places posed a serious health risk. As vaccinations were developed and rolled out starting in the spring of 2021, the risk lessened. During the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years, Summers-Knoll classes were “podded” to reduce the chances of the virus spreading if, in fact, someone contracted COVID. Social events that had traditionally brought the school community together, such as our Friday morning meetings (aka Dragon Time), were held remotely; people came together via digital devices from their respective isolated spaces. Starting in fall of 2022, Summers-Knoll classes were no longer podded. Cross-grade buddies, multi-grade lunch/recess, and in-person, whole school events began again.

Conflict resolution and dialogue facilitator, Priya Parker, sheds light on how to make gatherings more meaningful. In her work, she talks about the importance of purpose when we gather together and how to leverage a clearly defined purpose to inform what we do when we spend time together.

In her talk, How We Meet and Why It Matters, Parker states, “Having a purpose for your gathering need not make your gathering formal. When you are wanting to have a more meaningful gathering, there are ways to increase the level of meaning and that’s to increase the level of focus.” Her work amplifies the value of gathering and how we, as hosts, can create a shared experience that engenders a sense of belonging, connectedness, and renewal. She suggests to give our gatherings a purpose, a name, and a rule. Parker poses the question: What is a need we have right now around which we can gather to create something new together? Given our relatively recent emergence back into in-person gatherings, perhaps it is fair to say that some of our needs, and our children’s needs, are to (re)connect, strengthen our sense of community, and just enjoy one another’s company.

It’s a chilly, cloudy, wintery, rainy day in Ann Arbor, Michigan today. I’m really looking forward to the warmth of our SK movie night this evening where we can delight in the joy of children being together, watching a movie together, snacking on popcorn together. It’s simple and uncomplicated, and yet we know, all too well, being able to be together is truly precious.

Leading, Coaching, Directing: Taking a Peek Behind the Scenes

Last school year (2022-2023) was my first year as Executive Director of Teaching and Learning at Summers-Knoll School in Ann Arbor. My position was new to the school and so was I. Due to the newness of my role, there was a suggestion to have one of our weekly newsletters feature my role and the work I am doing. Jinny, the Communications Director at the time, and I discussed what we might include in such a newsletter.

“If people are wanting to know what you’re doing, a blog would probably be a better venue,” Jinny suggested. I agreed.

Unlike the titles of “teacher” or “coach,” the title “Executive Director of Teaching & Learning” does not explicitly communicate what I do, so it’s worth unpacking.

As I wrote in my post “New Beginnings” earlier this year, I support teachers in the work of teaching and learning. Supporting teachers encompasses a wide range of responsibilities, including (but not limited to) previewing and selecting curricular resources and materials across subject areas; working alongside teachers to figure out how to optimize the use of new curricular materials; co-constructing curriculum; collaborating with homeroom teachers and specialists to vertically align coursework between grade levels and document this alignment; coordinating as well as facilitating ongoing professional development for the faculty as a whole; and working with each teacher individually to determine their particular needs (e.g., being a thought partner for instructional planning; providing observation and feedback on a particular instructional practice; incorporating content standards into project planning; analyzing assessment data and designing instruction based on that analysis; brainstorming ideas for how to identify and address individual student needs).

And what does this look like in action on a weekly basis? It changes from one week to the next depending on where we are at in the quarter. For example, last week, teachers held their first quarter parent/teacher/student conferences. In preparation for conferences, teachers completed a written assessment for each student.

This year’s assessments are significantly different (and improved) from last year’s assessments, a revision that I undertook starting in the summer, which continued into fall. Designing assessments is a dialogic and iterative process of research, drafting, revising, editing, and finalizing, which yields a final product. Each teacher and I create the assessment templates for their grade levels through our shared study of national as well as state content standards and teachers’ curricula. Prior to sending completed assessments to students’ parents, I read and review each individual assessment. Just as with any piece of writing, the process is not evident in the polished final product, and such is the nature of my role as an executive director – many aspects of my work are behind the scenes or on the sidelines.

My spouse and I recently watched The Last Dance, a documentary about Michael Jordan’s career as a basketball player with the Chicago Bulls. Through watching the documentary, I learned a lot about Michael Jordan, but I also learned a lot about other esteemed basketball players and the Chicago Bulls team’s dynamics. At the helm of the Bulls during Michael Jordan’s career was Phil Jackson, “the winningest coach in the Bull’s franchise history.” As we watched the documentary, I became increasingly interested in how Jackson’s work as a basketball coach is similar to, and different from, the work of instructional coaches.

Much like directors or choreographers in the performing arts, a coach of a team sport lives on the sidelines. A director’s work is somewhat invisible to a general audience because the attention during a performance is on the performers. Similarly, a coach’s work is hard to detect because, during a game, the spectators’ attention is on the athletes. But without a director or a coach, the group of people who comprise the ensemble or team would function very differently. This is not to say that they wouldn’t function, but how an ensemble or team functions is a direct reflection of the director/coach.

I’ve thought a lot about leadership and have participated as a fellow in several fellowships focused on leadership: Michigan State University’s Lilly Fellowship (2020-21), The Witness Institute Fellowship (2022-23), and Washtenaw County’s Champions for Change Fellowship (2022-23). Through these fellowships, I’ve thought about leadership through different lenses: galvanizing change within educational systems; moral leadership; and fostering racial justice and equity through our work as leaders within our communities. As leaders, one of the greatest influences within a collective, an ensemble, or a team is who we are – what we bring from our experiences and backgrounds – and how we foster and sustain collaboration. As such, one of the constants in conscious leadership is self-reflection and discernment.

Leaders are constantly making decisions about which various pieces of knowledge, research, and/or resources to leverage in any given circumstance to take informed action and provide guidance and support toward shared goals and a shared vision.

The work of Margaret Wheatley, a scholar of leadership, is one place I turn for insight and inspiration relative to leadership. In her book, Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World, she writes:

“Seeing the interplay between system dynamics and individuals is a dance of discovery that requires several iterations between the whole and its parts. We expand our vision to see the whole, then narrow our gaze to peer intently into individual moments. With each iteration, we see more of the whole, and gain new understandings about individual elements. […] We keep dancing between the two levels, bringing the sensitivities and information gleaned from one level to help us understand the other. If we hold awareness of the whole as we study the part, and understand the part in its relationship to the whole, profound new insights become available” (Wheatley, 2006, p. 143).

Leadership, directing, coaching – it is a dance, a seemingly invisible one, taking place on the sidelines or in the audience or sitting among a group of teachers at the end of school day after the students have gone home. When questioning the nature of a leader’s role or work, perhaps it is best framed not as, “What are they doing?” but rather “How is what I am witnessing influenced by the leaders in this organization?”

Featured image (above): ArtMary and Carrie in the art room at SK. Photo cred: Shelby Parker

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