A Multi-Media Presentation
We are in a bleak time in education: Public schools are under crushing pressure to raise standardized test scores; teachers and teacher unions are being cast as obstacles that defend the status quo for their own benefit; parents are confused about whether they are doing too much or too little to ensure their children's success; school districts are struggling with shrinking budgets and an economy that makes it difficult to pass bond issues even for basic maintenance; and policy makers are being influenced more by business interests and political ideology than the knowledge and wisdom of scholars and experienced educators. In such a time, what can one do? One thing to do is to try to make changes within the system; many public school colleagues are working to implement practices that are good for children within the constraints and pressures imposed upon them, and I admire them greatly. Another thing to do is to find, develop, grow, preserve and make visible alternate visions of what education is and what schools can be. This is one contribution to that effort.
In 2001, I became the Head of School, or principal, of Whatcom Day Academy in Bellingham, Washington. As an independent school, we do not have access to public funding, which presents considerable challenges, but what we do have is the freedom to chart our own course. It saddens me that we would not have been able to develop this school in the way that we have over the past ten years within the public school system. For all the talk of school reform, the general environment has not been supportive of true innovation. The partnerships we have with the National League of Democratic Schools and the Woodring College of Education at Western Washington University help to sustain our efforts and we are grateful for those relationships. We have become a sort of unofficial laboratory school, which many colleges of teacher education used to have, including Western Washington University, but very few still exist. So, in homage to the thousands of dedicated, caring, and persistent teachers and teacher educators who are promoting and implementing good educational practices in schools around the country, we offer these vignettes of a school our children deserve. We hope that our work on the outskirts assists you with your work in the trenches.
The videos included in these pages were skillfully
edited together, using footage from a variety of sources, by Robert
Clark, Manager of ATUS Video Services at Western Washington University,
and worked into the article by Greg Hoffenbacker, Director of Technology
Services at Western's Woodring College of Education.
Graduate students Guava Jordan, Nate Sutton, and Clay Stork filmed some
of the interviews and classroom footage. Lars Kongshaug of Vid-smith
Productions in Bellingham filmed lessons for the Doing What Works
literacy grant (see Partnerships).
Robert Clark filmed interviews and classroom footage, particularly class
meetings. The video of the graduate speeches was our own amateur
product. I would like to thank the teachers and students of Whatcom Day
Academy for graciously incorporating unfamiliar people with cameras and
microphones into their class discussions and activities. It was a
testament to the general level of comfort and trust that the children
expressed initial curiosity about these visitors, but then carried on as
usual. Much of the richness of this portrait of our school is due to the
thoughtful insights captured in the unscripted interviews with teachers,
parents, and alumni. Thank you to each of you. The teachers deserve
additional recognition for their unfailing willingness to tackle the
hard work of aligning practice with beliefs and values; it would be
simpler to teach from a set of textbooks and administer a prescribed
test. Their daily actions and interactions bring a vision to life and
give it reality here in this portrait. And finally, thank you to all of
the parents and extended family members who bring their children to the
school and contribute in so many ways from chaperoning field trips to
fixing doors to cataloging library books to fund- raising to creating a
new playground. And a final final thank you to the special
people who serve on our Board of Trustees, without whose phenomenal
dedication, perseverance, generosity, and far-sightedness this school
would not exist.
Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted, counts. (Quote attributed to Albert Einstein)
Although it was not described as a progressive school when I joined Whatcom Day Academy in 2001, many of the practices I observed fit the values identified by Kohn (2008) as characteristic of progressive education – “attending to the whole child, a sense of community, collaboration, social justice, intrinsic motivation, deep understanding, active learning and taking kids seriously." These were the characteristics that attracted me to the school. However, although these values were implicit in the visible practices going on at the school when I was hired, there was not a clearly articulated philosophy, or set of beliefs about how children learn, underlying the program. The school consisted of a number of classrooms operating independently of each other; it was not a unified program with a coherent approach to teaching and learning. The teachers were creative and dedicated, but each one made decisions independently about curriculum and assessment. Although there was a written curriculum guide for each subject area that provided some general guidelines for teachers, there were no textbooks or specific information about what should be taught. The teachers had varying levels of comfort and experience planning their own curriculum, and they were not sure how their units and lessons fit with what other teachers were doing. As a consequence, there were sometimes unnecessary repetitions, such as a dinosaur unit being taught in three different age groups, or unidentified gaps in content or skill instruction.
During the past decade, we have been involved in an ongoing process to articulate our beliefs about education, to ground those beliefs in current research about learning, children, and brain development, and to develop a coherent set of practices informed by those beliefs that encompass all aspects of the school program. This has been a very complicated process that has frequently challenged us to uncover and re-examine long-held assumptions, to re-orient our relationships, and to work collaboratively across age levels and disciplines to make changes in the midst of all the activity and busy-ness of a school full of energetic and curious children. It has often felt akin to renovating a ship while sailing through a hurricane.
In this multi-media presentation, I try to give you a sense of the challenges we have encountered during this process and the current issues we are working on. This is not intended to present a finished product, as if we have discovered all the answers and are advocating that all schools should look like our school. As John Goodlad (Goodlad, Mantle-Bromley, & Goodlad, 2004) says, a school should be in a continual state of renewal, guarding against complacency and inertia. Education is learning, and learning is growth and change. Schools must embody that process. By this I don't mean that schools should adopt every new textbook or pedagogical fad just for the sake of change; but that educators should be involved in a constant process of learning about their students, examining what they are doing, and modifying their practices as needed to support the growth and learning of the unique individuals they have in their classrooms during a specific time in a specific place. This presentation will give you an idea of what our school looks like now. It is different from what it looked like several years ago, or even 12 months ago. In fact, as I write this overview, we are spending three days in a faculty retreat, taking a deeper look at some of our practices, including assessments (Are we assessing what we want to know?), inquiry (How is inquiry different in different subject areas and at different age levels?), and the alignment of our learning outcomes with our mission and beliefs.
This site is designed to let you explore the many facets that make up our school in whatever order you like. There is no chronological or linear order to follow. All the dimensions weave together like a web to create a holistic experience for the children who attend the school. Throughout this site, you will find cross-links to other areas of the site because of the web-like nature of the various components. Any one facet is not more important than another. And we are working to improve all of them simultaneously, though in any one year, some will receive more emphasis than others. In addition, as we develop our thinking and practice in one area, we realize that we need to make changes in another area. We are constantly working to bring all of our practices in line with our beliefs. As we do that, our understanding deepens and we revisit earlier areas of endeavor to apply what we have learned.
Before you begin exploring, however, I suggest you take a look at the topics in this section, as they will give you background information that will help you as you explore the rest of the site. The School Beliefs about children and how they learn form our core values that determine everything else about our school from class organization, to curriculum planning, to assessment, to management and discipline. The School Profile gives you some basic information about the school that provides context and background. It also explains how our classes are organized into multi-age groups rather than traditional age-based grades; this type of organization profoundly affects how we think about curriculum, instruction and assessment.
Throughout the site, you will find video collages that include interviews with teachers, parents and alumni, along with classroom activities. None of these were rehearsed or scripted. They are intended to give you first-hand accounts, a variety of perspectives, and unpolished windows into the classrooms and practices of our school.
I hope that these important themes are evident in what you see, read and hear:
And, did I mention that a safe social/emotional environment is critical to learning? This is seldom mentioned in discussions about school reform or in articles about how to improve test scores. Yet I believe that the efforts we have made in this area, to be extremely intentional and consistent about fostering a safe, supportive environment (and it does take great effort), is the most important work we have done to nurture learning. I believe it is among the top reasons why our students now excel on basic skills tests and why over 80% of them are receiving high school credits while attending our middle school. You can have highly qualified teachers, research-based curriculum, cutting-edge technology and common core standards, but children who are not thriving will receive modest benefit, if any, from all that investment of time and money. The coercion, fear, shame, guilt, anxiety, aggressive competition, and various systems of rewards and punishments that characterized the schools I attended four decades ago are still prevalent in far too many classrooms today. Many children come from neighborhoods and families that are violent, dysfunctional, or minimally supportive, but schools can be places of belonging, support, encouragement, and love, places where children can heal, learn to trust, and develop confidence in their own strengths. In such an environment, learning happens (Boykin & Noguera, 2011). Whether our students do well on tests or not, our goal is that they emerge as whole people who think creatively and critically, are compassionate and helpful towards others, take responsibility for themselves and their learning, and communicate effectively. Children deserve no less.