All Together Now: Re-Engineering the Scholastic Manual

By Linda Cunningham and Jessica Day for Deerfield Magazine Spring 2012

Dean of Faculty John Taylor seats himself in the conference room before anyone else arrives and quietly sips his mate. Many believe that drinking yerba mate is good for the soul, and can actually be a form of meditation or reflection—simultaneously resting and stimulating the mind. If this is true, then it’s a perfect time for mate, as one by one department chairs join him around the table for their weekly symposium, which is sure to include some intriguing conversation.

In years past, to be a faculty member at an independent school quite often literally meant working independently in one’s own classroom, and as for “chair,” that title was sometimes more honorific than substantial. These days, however, isolationism has become defunct on a global level; it is the same at Deerfield, and Taylor and the chairs agree, that’s a good thing. Today, an interdepartmental sharing of ideas, methodology, and pedagogy is taking shape.

AllTogetherNowp35“We bat around ideas,” Taylor says modestly. “We talk about how to make the teaching at Deerfield better but we don’t necessarily set policy—I think of our team as providing software to the institution as opposed to hardware.” “Batting around ideas” is a bit of an understatement though, since chairs are leading the charge for some innovative projects that are underway, in addition to other new responsibilities.

“I see chairs as ambassadors and translators between the administration and the teachers,” Taylor says. “Historically, being a chair could be a lonely endeavor; now we are shifting the focus, and asking our chairs to be instructional leaders and work together as a team. It’s a challenging job,” Taylor adds. “Chairs are playing a critical role, and providing a link between faculty and administration, but sometimes it’s difficult to be in the middle.” 

Responsibility for supporting the chairs and enabling them to be as effective as possible falls to Academic Dean Peter Warsaw, but he is not alone in the effort.

“The work we do in our weekly symposiums and the advances we facilitate are people focused,” Warsaw explains, but Warsaw and Taylor also provide input from a programmatic standpoint, and equate the weekly symposium to a classroom for adults. “The symposiums give us an opportunity (and time) to explore what’s going on outside of the ‘Deerfield bubble,’” Taylor says. “Chairs are discovering that the best professional development is often colleague to colleague, while simultaneously acting as ‘antennae’ for their departments.”

Warsaw draws on a familiar mechanical metaphor to explain his curricular goals: “Think of a school as a vehicle powered by a program, its internal combustion engine. Faculty are the pistons moving up and down—working hard—within their departmental cylinders, with ideas and pedagogies acting as spark plugs. But if the pistons aren’t attached to the crankshaft (i.e. the school’s mission), then the vehicle won’t move. Conversely, if all systems are linked—faculty, pedagogy, mission, and program—then we can move forward and further the work of the school, to the benefit of our students.”

Firing on All Cylinders

For the past five years Ben Bakker has served as chair of the Science Department; before that he was a ten-year veteran of the Deerfield faculty. Bakker remembers the detached cylinders that departments functioned in, and he’s happy to step away from that model. Today, he is instrumental in moving forward educational initiatives such as the paired classes biology teacher Andy Harcourt and English teacher Mark Schloat will begin teaching this coming fall. Odd bedfellows? Not really. 

Harcourt and Schloat’s classes will highlight a topic that has been featured in the news recently, and is sure to become even more prominent in the future: water. A science teacher and his English counterpart might just be the ideal team to teach this subject: essential for the living world and the global economy, the Earth’s supply of uncontaminated water is in danger of disappearing. In order to have any chance of solving this problem, we will need people who have been trained to think critically and creatively, to communicate well, to collaborate, and who are comfortable with inquiry and research. Where better to learn those skills than in classrooms where students will be required to read extensively, present, complete lab work, and conduct research “in the field”? 

“It’s not ‘just’ a science course,” Bakker points out. “And it’s not ‘just’ an English course, either. We want our students to carry specific skills from one class to the other—from one discipline to another—and to feel comfortable creating an entirely new skill set by merging them. I’m happy to support a faculty that is working together to become a more powerful teaching force for the preparation of Deerfield students.”

Peter Warsaw echoes this sentiment, and sees the collaboration between departments as an important step in the Academy’s evolution. “Individual department chairs can help promote a culture of growth and reflection—a culture that values collective professional development within and across all the departments,” he explains.

However, Schloat and Harcourt’s “H2O class” is for juniors who have completed a year of chemistry . . . what about those “foundation” classes all students need? Chairs are gathering their departments to examine those, too. “It’s a matter of consistency,” Warsaw says. “We are constantly looking at our students’ workloads, and considering common texts, units, and exams for ‘multi-section’ classes.” 

For example, all juniors take US History but logistics and Deerfield’s commitment to small class size require more than one history teacher to teach multiple sections of US History. So historically, all juniors were studying US History but there wasn’t necessarily anything cohesive to link one teacher’s class to another’s; now, a shared vision has emerged, which includes common units with common texts and a common assessment; shared essay questions at the end of a unit; and primary source documents and secondary readings that have been agreed upon by the history teachers as critical to the teaching and understanding of US History. 

Department Chair Joe Lyons comments, “Summer symposiums and retreats where we establish essential questions for our students and develop common units and assessments as well as sharing resources are always great opportunities for collaboration, and my department and I look forward to them.”  

“Students deserve a consistently good experience from class to class and year to year,” says Peter Warsaw. “The foundation for that is built when colleagues talk to each other about teaching and learning—when we engage each other on a meta level.”

Generating the Spark

Clearly it’s not all talk, and sometimes learning new methods requires a.) open minds, and b.) a teacher for teachers: Enter Ainsley Rose, of The Leadership and Learning Center. Rose, a 30-year veteran in the field of education, designs learning structures. He hosted a retreat for the department chairs, and at the top of the agenda was a lesson on developing protocols for examining student work.

alltogethernow1“Professional learning communities such as Deerfield need to follow certain steps if they want to gather data about teaching and—in particular—learning, in order to achieve meaningful results with students,” Rose explained. “But the focus has to be on the learning, not the teaching—it must be student-centered.” Rose then ticks off the steps for inquiry: “What do we want students to learn? How do we know they have achieved that learning? What do we do if they haven’t? What do we do if they already know what you’re teaching? And the ‘big’ question: How do we teach in order for students to learn?” 

Rose acknowledges these are tough questions, and there are no immediate answers, but adds that if teachers aren’t willing to look more critically at themselves and their peers, then there will be no answers down the road, either. “This type of collaboration is so important—learning itself is a collaborative affair,” Rose points out. “The more teachers work together, the better they will be able to analyze how in a perfect world they would want their subjects to be taught; then, once they assess the gap between the way things are and the way they can become better, that’s when learning achieves a higher ground.”

Chairs came away with a philosophical view of Rose’s process, agreeing that education remains the subtext of all teaching, and that they need to be conscious of how their minds work and how their students’ minds work—in short, taking the time to think about what they think about. Put mundanely, the hope is that chairs will become more deliberate about curriculum, and in turn, more supportive of each other across departments. 

In philosophy class, Deerfield students learn that Socrates proposed that an unexamined life is not worth living; Ainsley Rose proposes that an unexamined curriculum might not be worth teaching—that’s a statement Peter Warsaw can get behind, too. 

“My ‘north’ is growth,” Warsaw says with a smile. “We should be teaching and modeling lifelong learning, and that requires constant reflection, which is essentially what we’re doing when we take the time to examine our teaching. We need to ask what our graduates will need to succeed in the 21st century, and whether our curriculum reflects a world that has changed a great deal over the last 60 years. This kind of reflection shifts our focus from teachers teaching to students learning, and it ensures that what we’re doing here remains relevant to our students and to the world.”

The Road Ahead

Self-examination, gathering data, weekly chair symposiums—all this important work takes time, and time is a precious commodity at Deerfield. Collegial summer sessions have yielded good initial results among departments—unified multi-section classes are an excellent example of this—but what about growth during the school year, when time is at a premium and schedules are already full? Taylor, Warsaw, and the department chairs looked to the Harvard University Graduate School of Education and Professor Richard Elmore for guidance. 

Professor Elmore advocates Instructional Rounds, which is a program of sharing for educators that translates the familiar medical model of doctors sharing knowledge in “Grand Rounds” to the academic world. The key to Instructional Rounds, much like Ainsley Rose’s checklist for self-evaluation, is to remain student-centric. “In contrast to individual faculty evaluation, classroom observation is designed to gauge how the institution is doing: What do we want our students to learn, and how well are they learning it?” Warsaw says.  

Back in the conference room, John Taylor has finished his morning mate, and his colleagues have dispersed to their individual classrooms. He sits quietly again for a few more minutes—a thoughtful expression on his face. “The job description for ‘chair’ is more complicated than ever before,” he comments. “We’re asking for a sophisticated kind of leadership that will include professional development plans, student questionnaires, and curriculum reviews for each department. Essentially, we’re asking our chairs to become academic stewards, ambassadors and translators between the administration and the teachers, and the antennae that keep us tuned in to the world beyond the Pocumtuck Valley.” Taylor admits there are challenges to fulfilling this mission but firmly believes the new initiatives are the set-up for a richer student experience.

Peter Warsaw echoes his colleague: “As ‘trustees’ of Deerfield Academy, we have an acute responsibility to create the structures  necessary to keep us abreast in a rapidly changing world. Obviously our past performance has been extraordinarily effective but the world is changing exponentially; Deerfield must progress in a balanced and responsible way in embracing that change—preserving the best of our past, while weighing what might become the best of our future. With coherent institutional growth, we will further the mission of our school and our students—and our faculty will move this vehicle down the road, metaphorically speaking.”••