Project Pitches: An (i)Project Launch

I had the absolute pleasure of participating in our Upper School students’ pitches for their (i)Project yesterday. An important component of Mount Vernon’s Upper School program, (i)Project centers on the design principle Curiosity and Passion Drive Learning. Goals for (i)Project include:

  • Developing Mount Vernon Mindsets (Creative Thinker, Communicator, Collaborator, Solution Seeker, Innovator, and Ethical Decision Maker) through authentic learning experiences;
  • Cultivating curiosity, following passions and interests, and failing up in learning;
  • Strengthening connections (or lessening the disconnect!) between “school” and “real life;” and
  • Empowering students to pursue inquiry, innovation, and impact while having fun.

Students are encouraged to seek feedback from internal and external mentors throughout their (i)Project, and a strong opportunity to do so occurred yesterday. Teachers, leaders, and external experts (many parents who participate in our Experts-in-Residence program) sat together and listened to several students pitch their ideas. This pitch was an iteration of a previous one and called on students to incorporate feedback they had received from teachers.

The breadth, depth, and variety of (i)Project pitches were noteworthy. I listened, questioned, and offered feedback to students focusing on:

  • enhancing marketing efforts of an online Etsy art shop;
  • learning more about filming and editing so that a student-led course could be developed;
  • honing investment skills in the Chinese stock market in order to give back to families living in poverty;
  • learning (or re-learning) Portugese in order to speak fluently and connect more deeply with a former nanny, among others;
  • using filming and editing to enhance golf coaching for high schoolers; and
  • collaborating on a mixed media art piece and documenting the journey.

Each and every one of these projects, and the many others that students are pursuing, connects not only to content-area skills and learning outcomes, but also to skills that some label as 21st century and others label as lifeworthy.  In a nutshell, passion was abundant, presentation/communication skills were growing, and feedback was fully flowing. I look forward to seeing where these amazing students will go in their next steps.



Remembering Psychologist Jerome Bruner

I was saddened to hear of the passing of noted psychologist Jerome Bruner recently. Bruner shifted focus away from the behaviorist view of children as blank slates towards teaching and learning occurring through social interactions. He also emphasized the need to understand how both culture and content affect learning (his groundbreaking book, The Process of Education, was written in 1959).

In 2013, he was interviewed  here: Inside the Psychologist’s Studio with Jerome Bruner. Take a look and be grateful for the work of Bruner and how it has positively impacted our work with children.


A beginning to a DEEP dive into Project-Based Learning

This summer, all faculty and staff are involved in an in-depth study of Project-Based Learning. Though nothing new in the field of education, PBL has gained a lot more caché in the last several years as direct ties can be made to college and career readiness.

For us at Mount Vernon, we have had several amazing PBL experiences for our students and teachers along the way. Yet, we recognize that a schoolwide focus on building capacity, increasing our PBL toolkit, and flexing our PBL muscles will accelerate the school’s mission. PBL is one beautiful vehicle to focus on inquiry, innovation, and impact. It enhances the preparation of our students to be college ready, globally competitive, and engaged citizen leaders. Connecting to Design Thinking, a trademark of Mount Vernon, PBL has the capacity to be even richer and more powerful.

Setting the Standard for Project Based Learning: A Proven Approach to Rigorous Classroom Instruction by Larmer, Mergendoller, and Boss (2015) grounds our focus in the Lower School, Middle School, and Upper School. I am enjoying taking a slow journey through its pages. One table stood out to me thus far as a very helpful and succinct clarification of PBL, too many times confused with projects.

Projects versus Project-Based Learning

Projects Project-Based Learning
Supplemental to a unit The project IS the unit, or a major vehicle for teaching learning outcomes within a unit
Task is based on following directions from the teacher and is repeated year after year Task is open-ended and involves student voice and choice; often differs from year to year
Typically done individually Done in collaboration with a team
Done independently, often at home Done with teacher guidance, much of it during school hours
Focused on the product; the product may even be called the project The project includes a sustained inquiry process AND the creation of a product
Not authentic to the real world or to students’ lives Authentic to the real world or to students’ lives, or both

I wonder how many of us will find that what we currently do is leaning a little too far on the left of this table. I wonder how we might make shifts in our teaching and planning so that we lean more readily to the right side.

Classroom Assessment for Student Learning: A Collection of Notes

This summer, our deep dive professionally centered on assessment. Faculty read five articles from various authors to prime the pump for our continued conversation. In addition, I partnered with my colleague Marie Graham to dive a little deeper in order to work with Middle School teachers. We read Classroom Assessment for Student Learning: Doing It Right–Using It Well by Chappuis, Stiggins, Chappuis, and Arter (2012). What an excellent resource!!! I highly recommend this to all teachers as you will find provoking questions and practical suggestions to further your work on assessment. Here is a link to my detailed notes, including some personal editorials. I hope you find this helpful!

Classroom Assessment for Student Learning Notes

A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life–Notes and Ponderings

Summer reading is a mainstay at many schools, and I always enjoy digging in when I have just a bit more time to read and think. One book is never enough, so I take turns reading a chapter a day in different selections. I find that each reading informs another in some way. My stack this summer included several books on assessment, one on research and design, one on leadership, and A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life by Brian Grazer and Charles Fishman. In this book, Grazer outlines his curiosity conversations which have inspired him in his personal and professional life. I offer a summary of quotes and thoughts here, and I encourage you to pick up this quick read. You will enjoy Grazer and Fishman’s perspective and conversation-like prose.

“Life isn’t about finding the answers, it’s about asking the questions.”  pg. xv

ME- This fits so seamlessly into what many educators have been asserting that school should be more about problem finding than about problem solving.

“In the well-ordered, obedient classrooms of the Eisenhower era, it [curiosity] was more like an irritant.”  pg. 6

ME- Is curiosity still viewed as in irritant in many classrooms or schools? How Might We design our work and relationships with children– correction, all learners, young and old– so that curiosity is revered and fostered?

“The quality of many ordinary experiences often pivots on curiosity.” pg. 8

ME- So curiosity is a prerequisite for empathy. Or is it synonymous?

“…curiosity has to be harnessed to at least two other key traits. First, the ability to pay attention to the answers to your questions…The second trait is the willingness to act.” pg. 9

ME- This reminds me of some of my other reading on formative assessment. Assessments are not formative by design or intention. They are formative by action that occurs as a result of them. How Might We learn more about quality assessment through the lens of curiosity?

“Curiosity is itself a form of power, and also a form of courage.” pg. 15

ME- I think this may make some uncomfortable as power can have negative connotations. Yet, if you think about curiosity as powerful courage, then this opens doors to how we might avail ourselves to curiosity as a form of momentum in learning.

“The truth is that when I was meeting someone…what I hoped for was in insight, a revelation.” pg. 25

ME- Again, the connection between curiosity and empathy is palpable! Imagine if we were to design school around learners’ curious quests for insights and revelations.

“…you are much more effective asking questions than giving orders.” pg. 28

ME- Woah! Imagine a leadership training course or retreat revolving around that!

“Yes, asking questions builds confidence in your own ideas.” pg. 33

ME- Yes, and asking questions builds confidence in your capacity to devise solutions. How Might We focus our attention on developing learners’ question muscles?

“…storytelling and curiosity are natural allies.” pg. 35

ME- This reminds me of my DT training, where we try in Discovery mode to have users tell stories to gain better insight. Keeps coming back to curiosity = empathy?

“…he completely disrupted my point of view.” pg. 44

ME-This is a poignant statement and alludes to the power of transformation! Asking questions and being curious are the rocket launchers for learning.

Following the idea of disrupting points of view… “Some of this disruptive curiosity relies on instinct…Some of this…relies on routine…Some of this…relies on systematic analysis.” pgs. 55-56

ME-So the sweet spot in learning lies at the intersection of instinct, routine, and systematic analysis? What could that look like?

“We live in a society that is increasingly obsessed with ‘innovation’ and ‘creativity.’…Curiosity is the tool that sparks creativity. Curiosity is the technique that gets to innovation.” pg. 59, 62

ME- Creativity and innovation are not functional constructs without curiosity. I would rather view curiosity not as a tool or technique, but as a habit of mind.

“If you only get the answers you anticipate, you’re not being very curious.” pg. 63

ME- LOVE this! Are we short-changing our children when we design school to get anticipated answers?

“I’ve learned to rely on curiosity in two really important ways…to fight fear…to instill confidence…You have to learn to beat the no…First, I listened to the ‘no.’ There was information in the resistance that I had to be curious about.” pgs. 100-04

ME- Sounds like a growth mindset to me– Fail Up!

“It [curiosity] does that by getting you comfortable with being a little uncomfortable.” pg. 124

“But familiarity is the enemy of curiosity.” pg. 158

ME- Grant Lichtman, you are being channeled here!

“The real benefit of asking rather than telling is that it creates the space for a conversation, for a different idea, a different strategy…questions can quietly transmit values more powerfully than a direct statement.” pg. 144

ME- Here it is again- the connection to empathy!

“Curiosity equips us with the skills for openhearted, open-minded exploration.” pg. 181

ME- Empathy!!!

“Curiosity looks like it’s a ‘deconstructive’ process…But, in fact, curiosity isn’t deconstructive. It’s synthetic. When curiosity really captures you, it fits the pieces of the world together.” pg. 191

ME- Synthetic? Yes, AND Symbiotic.

“Curiosity–asking questions–isn’t just a way of understanding the world. It’s a way of changing it.” pg. 195

ME- And sadly, perhaps this is why it is not encouraged and fostered…sigh…

Expressions in abundance! The authors are masters at using metaphors and phrases that help us visualize curiosity so that we can literally see it in our mind’s eye. What connections and insights do you gain about curiosity by the following?


1) is the spark that starts a flirtation.

2) is the path to freedom.

3) is the flint from which flies the spark of inspiration.

4) connects you to reality.

5) leads to storytelling.

6) rewards persistence.

7) creates the moment of surprise (and before that the moment of respect).

8) is a state of mind.

9) is a kind of receptivity.

In the Shoes of a Teacher: A Real-Time DEEP dive into Empathy for a School Leader

Confession (#2 on my blog): I haven’t blogged in almost a year. Why, you might ask? When you have the blessing to have a year of reflection and decompression, you are afforded a vast opportunity–if you so choose to take it!–of digging into professional learning through reading, writing, networking, and building your PLN. This is exactly what I did during the 2013-14 school year. But one thing I have internalized in my learning and leading journey is that you consider each and every door and window opening and closing.  So when my now friend and colleague, Chip Houston, called me last August and expressed that he needed my help at my sons’ new school (Mount Vernon Presbyterian School), it didn’t take me long to jump at the chance. My experience in independent schools spans three states and four administrative roles (Director of Admission, Director of Studies, Division Head, and Head of School). Chip’s offer, and my acceptance of it, may seem odd to some, particularly those who assume that educators aspire to move “up the ladder,” never to climb “down” again. Chip’s offer: to fill in and teach 6th/5th grade math. And so the 2014-15 school year commenced, and I never looked back. I offer here some lessons that I learned (translate re-learned) throughout the year that will continue to impact my partnering with teachers and learners. Spoiler alert: I LOVED IT.

Lesson #1 Teaching is a calling, an art that is all-consuming.

When I take on a new adventure, I jump all in. Some might say I can be consumed by my work. I prefer to view it as being immersed in my play. My husband commented that I was working the same number of hours as when I was a head of school. Why yes, I did. I thought about teaching all of the time. I thought about my students all of the time. I thought about my colleagues all of the time. I thought about the impact I was having/could have all of the time. Hence, some other things took a back seat, such as blogging and tweeting. I struggled with this lack of connection when just the previous year I had worked so diligently and purposefully to establish and deepen such connections.

Oh…I loved it.

Lesson #2  Teachers are asked to do a lot of things of which they don’t necessarily see the value and purpose.

Teachers mostly wish and desire to spend time with their students. To connect. To inspire. To love. To grow. But there are so many pulls on their time– from faculty meetings to lesson and unit plans to professional portfolios to carpool to you name it.  I am not suggesting in any way that any of these things are unnecessary or trivial. Indeed, my years as an administrator allowed me the opportunity to share with colleagues why we were asked to do such things. Still, I wonder what would happen if teachers had a better understanding of the whys behind the administrative asks. Do the administrators have a good understanding of them?

By the way, I loved it.

Lesson #3  Teachers can knowingly and unknowingly isolate themselves from their colleagues and community.

I spent too much time in my classroom by myself, and I am a people-person who thrives on connection and relationships. Still, the pressure I placed on myself to give my students what they needed and deserved drove me to hunker down and “get ‘er done” in my classroom. I had hoped to partner a bit more with colleagues in interdisciplinary work, and although we are able to accomplish some of this, I should have done more. Yet, I felt a constant responsibility to get my students where they needed to be in my own area. I should have committed more to finding the connections throughout the students’ experience and beyond my content area.

Once more, I loved it.

Lesson #4  The feeling of trying something new is simultaneously exhilarating and worrisome.

I truly saw this foray back into the classroom as an opportunity to try some new things– some of which I have encouraged my teachers in years past to attempt. Every teacher should be trying new things, conducting action research in their craft and particularly in those areas of passion and high interest. I feel very successful in the trying of it and failing up. I believe the actual experience for my students was enhanced. At the same time, I also fumbled with worry pulling me away from my walks out of my comfort zone. Will my students get what they deserve? Am I giving them my best?

Which brings me in a roundabout way back to… I loved it.

Lesson #5  Every school leader needs to systemically return to the classroom in some fashion.

What better way to truly understand what our teachers experience and gain empathy for their journey? What lessons would we learn that should inform our work and play with our greatest asset, truly the life blood of any learning environment? What better way for us to remind ourselves why we do what we do? What a blessing to remember– I loved it!

There are undoubtedly many other lessons that I will be reminded of in my continued collaboration with teachers, especially as I shift back into an administrative leadership role this year. I conclude with some questions that deserve ongoing reflection and dialogue, and I encourage you to add your questions and thoughts as well.

  • How Might We foster the artist in a teacher who needs to be immersed in her craft, while at the same time, fill her bucket so that her energy and passion are not depleted?
  • How Might We build and reinforce a culture that values a growth mindset and collective experience yet understands the individual pull of responsibility and service to students?
  • How Might We better communicate and share the purpose and why behind all of the other components of a teacher’s life beyond what she loves the most?
  • How Might We not be fooled by the idea of “there is not enough time in the day” yet understand the underlying assumptions behind this sentiment?

Restoring Life to Learning

I’m a sucker for analogies and metaphors! I must say I hated them when I was in high school as my logical-mathematical brain craved “just tell me what it is and what it means!” Yet, as I matured as a learner and thinker, the value of analogies and metaphors (yes, even in math) steadily increased. To that end, please indulge my thinking and pondering on schools and learning using the idea of CPR (yes, I am also giving in to educators’ love of acronyms and alliteration!).

CPR- cardio-pulmonary resuscitation. How might this connect? What comes to mind? Immediately, I think of someone in trouble or crisis. Some would say that is where schools are. I also think of someone needing the help of others who are trained to help. Some would say that is where schools are. I also think of someone not surviving without it. Isn’t that where schools are?

Cardio-pulmonary resuscitation is defined as an emergency procedure for reviving heart and lung function, involving special physical techniques and often the use of electrical and mechanical equipment. Are you beginning to see the connections? It brings life back to someone who has stopped breathing and whose heart has stopped functioning. So, CPR revives the breath and the flow of blood of a body using a connection between one and another, a process, and tools.

So what kind of CPR do schools need? Schools themselves may not need CPR (I think they do), but what happens in schools is in dire need. Those of us who work in schools need to be well-trained in CPR. Without going into an in-depth review of all of the writing out there about learning and schools, I offer the following. Life can be restored to learning through:

C: Creativity, Curiosity, Collaboration, Curation, Critical Thinking, Communication (the blood flow)

P: Passion, Purpose, Play (the breath of life)

R: Reflection, Relationships (the art of reviving)

Have you had your CPR training yet? How will you use it?