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Educators' Meetups: Realizing the Center's Promise

Educators' Meetups: Realizing the Center's Promise
John Warren
Head's Reflection

Our 2011 Strategic Plan, St. Mark's School: 2020, envisioned a Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning that would bring ever greater intellectual vibrancy to our School by inspiring professional growth in our faculty and by engaging St. Mark's in the broader educational dialogue about teaching and learning. I am pleased to report that Center Director Colleen Worrell, currently completing her third year in the role, has undertaken a number of initiatives to make that vision a reality.

One initiative that impressively fulfills these goals is Educators' Meetups: day-long sessions the Center hosts that bring together teachers from around New England to discuss a professional interest they share. Through dialogue about practice, and from the inspiration provided by a keynote address, participants inevitably leave the day with new strategies to try, with a broader perspective on the day's topic, and with positive energy fed by rich conversation with like-minded peers.

The Meetups have covered a wide variety of topics since they started in 2016: teaching United States history, supporting different learning styles, global citizenship instruction, community and equity work, and leading innovative practice. Meetup topics in the planning stage include ceramics and sculpture instruction.

The experience of the Meetups confirms Colleen's intuition that impactful adult learning would take place in structured interactions with fellow educators from peer schools about topics that are immediately relevant and that provide ideas which can be readily implemented. "We get so busy at our own schools," Colleen observed, "that we can lose sight of our own talents and achievements." It is important for teachers, she continued, "to be able to connect, to pause and share, to get a positive perspective on what we are doing and to learn from—and teach—peers."

Colleen was inspired to initiate Educators' Meetups by examples in Australia and Great Britain, where the practice has become common. She was also inspired by encouragement of St. Mark's faculty members who told her that "we have always wanted the opportunity of an informal conference where we can 'bring our best things' and hear the best things that others bring."

Seeing a vision become a reality is always heartening, and the Educators' Meetups fulfill aspirational goals articulated in St. Mark's School: 2020. "The Center," the 2020 report states, "will become a place where faculty go for informal discussion and mentoring on how to teach more effectively, how to motivate students and support student learning, and how to assess student outcomes." The Meetups certainly achieve these objectives for St. Mark's faculty participants. "The Center," according to the report, "will also have a public purpose, serving as a resource to schools striving for the best educational outcomes for their students." The Meetups achieve this objective too.

The Meetups have the added benefit of being "low cost and high impact," Colleen notes. We provide beverages, snacks, and lunch for participants (who we do not charge), and we consistently receive feedback, both from St. Mark's faculty participants and participants from peer schools, that the takeaways are immensely valuable.

I have attended a number of the meetups and have seen their benefit. I have been especially pleased to see the thought leadership provided at the Meetups by members of our faculty. Colleen gave an excellent keynote address describing innovative practice at St. Mark's; Assistant Center Director for Student Support Sarah Eslick explained how she conveys learning strategies with posters around the School that contain pithy phrases and memorable drawings; Director of Global Citizenship Laura Appell-Warren presented classroom strategies to build the habit of mind of perspective taking; and Director of Community and Equity Affairs Loris Adams described initiatives to empower students to lead dialogue about diversity matters.

A highlight of my year has been participating in a Meetup this spring for over twenty-five St. Mark's graduates and parents involved in the world of education—public and private--along with a number of our faculty. The energy and fellowship in Taft Hall that Saturday was heartening and the subjects covered were clearly deemed very relevant by the participants. Assistant Center Director for Student Enrichment John Camp led an excellent introductory session in which participants identified the topics they would find most valuable. Topics suggested included how to provide the most effective feedback to students, how to provide differentiated learning to meet the needs of different students in your classroom, and how to "grow" self-directed learners.

The Meetup provided me with first-hand experience about how an inspiring keynote address and discussion with like-minded peers can enrich my own thought about my work and provide practical applications. Distinguished educational theorist and practitioner Roland Barth, St. Mark's Class of 1955, began the day by focusing on forward looking pedagogy and helping us recognize that it is harder to implement effectively than one might imagine.

Asking us to reflect, both individually and in pairs, about an impactful moment we remember from our own learning, Roland helped us recognize that the best education places the student at the center of our focus. While a seemingly self-evident statement, much teaching practice remains teacher centered: lectures and teacher guided discussion, which result in limited student insight and retention of information. While brief lectures to convey information efficiently, and Socratic dialogue have their place in a comprehensive educational program, Roland noted that, according to many studies, students gain especially deep understanding, and lasting interest, from teacher facilitated team-based learning, student led individual and small group projects, and hands-on experiential learning beyond the campus walls. We were all prompted to think deeply about how to create student centered exercises, and Roland encouraged sharing among participants about exercises we employ to support this goal. I was very pleased by the number of excellent examples of outstanding student-centered learning at St. Mark's I was able to conjure up in my mind.

By asking us to reflect, and share with a partner the results of that reflection, Roland also emphasized the importance of building reflection time into our work with students. For learning to be deep and lasting, one must do and then reflect upon the doing. While this statement, like putting the student at the center of the learning, is also self-evident, organizing a class or a School schedule to foster a reflective habit of mind requires intentionality and an explicit prioritization of the time available. This focus on reflection reinforced for me the importance of exercises, like journaling, that many St. Mark's teachers employ regularly in their classes and the inclusion of reflection in what takes place during Lion Term at every grade level. I am now motivated all the more to encourage and celebrate the opportunities our faculty provide for student reflection.

One of the topics Roland emphasizes frequently is the importance of nurturing a spirit of life-long learning among adults in a school. Nurturing that habit of mind is essential because of the example it provides to students. A passion for life-long learning is essential for thriving in a world where our graduates may have to reinvent themselves multiple times, given the pace of societal change they will certainly experience.

"I like what John Dewey had to say, nearly a century ago," Roland wrote in a 2005 article: "'the most important attitude that can be formed is that of the desire to go on learning.'" [1] Dewey's observation seems as appropriate today as ever, and I am very pleased about the Center's work encouraging that desire to continue learning about educational practice for St. Mark's faculty and for faculty at schools throughout New England. The encouragement of continued adult learning provided by Center Initiatives, like the Educators' Meetups, will certainly inspire teachers to build the habit of mind of life-long learning among students. Thus, the vision articulated in the Strategic Plan is being realized now, and I am confident it will be realized all the more fully with the implementation of additional creative initiatives in the coming years.

[1] Roland S. Barth "From Book Burners Into Lifelong Learners," Chapter 6 in, DuFour, R., Eaker, R., & DuFour, R. (Eds.) On Common Ground: The Power of Professional Learning Communities (Bloomington, IN: National Educational Service, 2005)

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John Warren '74