Patterns of my Conference Experiences:
A Process Post
The contours of floodplains from torrents long ago . . . The taut threads of highways sustaining fragile connections between remote towns . . . The gleam of sunlight reflected off the cars of the isolated drivers in the Arizona desert . . . The perfect squares and circles of the geometry of farmlands from 30,000 feet. . .
It’s on the plane back from the conference that you usually start preparing yourself for the opportunity to share what you’ve learned — and while you might prefer to have a long conversation with everyone in your circle, you know there won’t be opportunity or time. Inevitably someone will ask “what were the big takeaways?” or you’ll seize the opportunity to do so. Here at school, our team of attendees won’t have the opportunity to ‘report back’ officially to faculty and staff until April, so I’ve been meaning to jot down a few notes about the patterns of my experience during my incredible four days in Philadelphia, for the NAIS Annual Conference and EdCampIS.
The themes of the conferences began to take their shape for me on Thursday morning, when outgoing NAIS President Pat Bassett drew from his list of “25 Factors Great Schools Have in Common” to isolate two commitments in particular: “to create and perpetuate an intentional culture” and “to demonstrate the public purpose of private education.” These for me were the twin lenses, through which I experienced many of my NAIS and EdCampIS experiences:
1. AN INTENTIONAL CULTURE OF TEACHING AND LEARNING
At past NAIS conferences, the creation of a culture of innovative teaching and learning was represented as an opportunity for nimble independent schools to explore in order to prepare our students for their futures, rather than for our pasts. At this conference, beginning for me with Nishant Mehta‘s “A Window into 21st Century Leadership,” I heard this represented as an institutional obligation our schools bear, in a culture of continuous improvement, to refine our models of deeper learning. This swelled, for me, to a crescendoed Call-to-Arms in Grant Lichtman‘s “Schools of Today” session, in which Grant alluded to the “professional and moral obligation to provide the very best learning experience possible.” I appreciated Grant’s willingness — driven on by Bo Adams and Jill Gough — to say in a packed room what some of us reserve for the hallways and parking lot: that transformational change is not just an idea, or an abstract possibility, but an ethical imperative for every one of us. (For more on this, see this firey recent post from Grant’s blog.)
2. PUBLIC PURPOSE AND PUBLIC-PRIVATE PARTNERSHIP
I was excited to attend the official launch of NNSP (The National Network of Schools in Partnership), a national organization designed to support and advise independent schools in their development of more effective partnerships with public schools. This was one of several workshops at the conference explicitly devoted to supporting private schools’ commitments to their public purpose (what, in my favorite quote on the subject from Pat Bassett, is the obligation to “make the waves that raise all boats”). A variety of speakers — highlighted, for me, by the great Tom Little from Park Day School — emphasized the principles on which effective partnerships should be based. NNSP board members discussed opportunities for private school stakeholders to provide an important service to public schools, for private and public school stakeholders to collaborate together, and for public school stakeholders to support private schools. It was on this last point — frankly and respectfully — that I felt the least effective evidence of common practice was provided: I heard the words ‘reciprocal’ and ‘voice’ used sincerely and authentically with reference to public school stakeholders, but learned about examples that, honestly, we used to define as ‘service learning’ experiences for private school students on public school campuses. I have been a little obsessed with this in recent weeks (and writing about it here and here), so I’ll admit to a bias past which I might not be seeing clearly.
INTERSECTIONS: INTENTIONAL CULTURE & PUBLIC-PRIVATE PARTNERSHIP
I enjoyed these framing conceits for so many of my experiences at NAISAC13 and EdCampIS, both because they gave me a variety of opportunities to learn, and because they gave me a variety of opportunities to serve. During a three-hour pre-conference workshop on Wednesday, a group of us who’ve had the opportunity to collaborate in a variety of contexts — Ken Kay (EdLeader21), Clif Mims (Martin Institute), Paul Miller (NAIS), and I — facilitated conversations about “Public-Private Partnerships for Systemic Educational Change” which, in my opinion, helped identify some of the intersections between new visions of transformational teaching and learning, and partnership efforts devoted to their collaborative development.
NAIS gave us the green light, in what I think might have been a first, to ‘flip’ our workshop by letting us offload the ‘stand and deliver’ content for participants to view in advance, as a framework for more engaging conversation and collaboration in the workshop. All of those resources, and more, are available through the workshop-related website, including–
- 1. PAT BASSETT & PAUL MILLER | NAIS Public Purpose & Schools of the Future Initiatives
- 2. KEN KAY | EdLeader21: Pre-Conference Primer on 21st Century Education
- 3. CLIF MIMS | About the The Martin Institute for Teaching Excellence
- 4. CHRIS THINNES | CFEE: An Introduction
–as well as a range of secondary sources, contributions from workshop participants, and more.
On Thursday evening, a few of us gathered to host a reception for current and prospective members of EdLeader21, to encourage NAIS independent school leaders to consider joining the country’s first professional learning community for public and private school leaders devoted to school- and district-wide integration of deeper learning practices.
On Friday morning, Ken Kay and I were joined by Bill Taylor, President of St. George’s Independent School, for a panel workshop called “Leading Schools into the Future: Strategies for 21st Century School Leaders.” I felt, it some ways, like it was in this session that we provided our most useful contribution to the continuing, conference-wide discussion of ‘intentional culture’ and ‘public purpose.’ In the examples of incredible public schools’ practices we provided to private school educators, I think we helped identify some of the answers to the questions we’ve been asking in ‘our’ schools about intentional culture. As the amazing Jeff Leitner from InsightLabs shared with me weeks ago, “Everyone assumes that private schools have something to offer public schools. What nobody asks is what public schools have to offer private schools.” I’ve learned the answers from some extraordinary public schools and districts, and their senior leaders: some examples can be identified in our slide deck from the session.
It was also my honor to meet the incredible Peter Gow, recently contracted by Education Week to write the “Independent Schools, Common Perspectives” blog, and to co-facilitate an EdCampIS session on “Public-Private Partnerships: A Collaborative Dialogue?” in order to dig down more deeply into questions about the reciprocality and authenticity of ‘partnership’ he and I had both been asking throughout the NAIS conference. If you don’t follow Peter’s new blog, get on it. His is a singularly important voice drawing private and public school stakeholders into a common conversation about the future of our schools. I look forward to opportunities to work with Peter Gow (or for him, or near him–whatever!) in the months and years to come, in the service of that mission.
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I have written elsewhere that “we now understand the wisdom of Sir Ken Robinson’s call to action: ‘Reform is no use anymore, because that’s simply improving upon a broken model. What we need… is not evolution, but a revolution in education. This has to be transformed into something else.'”
As stakeholders in vibrant learning communities — both in private and in public schools — we must together consider a perhaps more dire warning still. As NAIS President Pat Bassett put it not too long ago: Schools that are not schools of the future… will not be schools in the future.
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You can follow Chris Thinnes on Twitter at @ChrisThinnes