Monday, March 24, 2014

Process and Product Are Not Mutually Exclusive

"When one concentrates on engaging deeply in the learning process, the product generally reflects a high quality. Thus, neither process nor product are separate, but closely linked entities that feed each other."

                                                                --Pat Wolf, HMS Middle Years Director

Our advanced band at High Meadows is pretty extraordinary. Having heard many bands of different ages in my time, I can tell you confidently that ours, made up of fifth through eighth graders, sounds like an outstanding high school band. They were recently awarded across-the-board “superior” ratings—the highest possible--in the city-wide Large Group Performance Evaluation program.

But how did they get to be this good? Some kids are born with a natural sense of rhythm and tune, but many are not. They work hard to earn their excellence. In that process of hard work, they attend countless rehearsals, receive individual and group coaching, and engage in hours of independent practice. And they have fun. This process teaches them self-discipline, perseverance and humility. And they are rewarded by the joyful experience of working with their peers to create beautiful, soul-lifting music—a product that is superior.

Our theatre arts program is another example of how an intentional, child-focused process yields an outstanding product in which our performers feel great pride. Teacher Danielle Wright tells me that it’s a three-fold process that leads to a high-quality performance: having clear curricular objectives, encouraging problem-solving, and setting a path for success. And if you saw the multi-age play this weekend, you will understand that our actors and stagehands felt a deep satisfaction about the incredible production they presented. See below for Danielle Wright’s expanded thoughts on process and product in theatre arts.

Of course, many pursuits are heavily process-oriented, even after the product is “complete.” By the time you read this, I will have gone over it at least ten times and made changes both big and small. Once this piece is published, I will still go back and tinker with it. When we teach our students about the writing process, one important element they learn is that words on a page are living things. They can continue to improve upon their writing if they rework, rethink, and review. They learn that the best “finished” pieces are the ones that are invested with sweat-equity, that intentionality in each step of the writing process yields eloquent, beautiful essays and stories.

Progressive schools such as High Meadows continually reflect on the balance between process and product. Some believe that the journey is more important than the destination. We believe that a beautiful and successful journey allows for taking unplanned scenic routes and encourages stopping at interesting way stations. Such a journey makes the arrival at the destination all the more rewarding. 

Theatre Teacher Danielle Wright's take on process and product:

When it comes to process vs. product, theatre education will always be a conundrum. Here at High Meadows, we have two process-oriented teachers who focus on learning but still have an expectation of a quality production. It is challenging to say the least. It's taken some time to really formulate how we focus on process. We can narrow that down to three techniques:

Curriculum mapping: In our map, our content areas are Acting, Directing, Technical Theatre, Playwriting, and Theatre and Society. Most classes address at least one benchmark from each content area. The key is determining when we are simply exposing students to the concepts and when we expect them to master the concepts. That is where our vertical (across different grade levels) and horizontal (within the same grade level) alignment comes into play. It really dictates when we can just be the guide on the side and when we have to be more hands-on.

Encouraging problem-solving: Asking the right "what if" questions allows students to see why a specific idea might not work, but it also encourages them to find a solution and be happy with a Plan B. This works with acting, directing, playwriting--you name it! Find a kid who is a problem-solver and you've found a kid who's gained a dose of confidence and independence.

Setting a path for success: We are all about challenging our students at all levels and setting high and always visible expectations. The challenge for us as teachers is to find material and develop classes that are stimulating but still within reach of the appropriate grade level. If the program is too hard, students will feel like they failed, the end-result suffers and we lose the trust that we have worked so hard to develop. Once again, the vertical and horizontal curriculum comes into play. If we are exposing students to a certain concept, then we have to be ready to give hands-on support to ensure their success. If the expectation is mastery, then we are ready with the "how" and "why" questions that probe critical-thinking and creative problem-solving.

So the conundrum still exists--process vs. product. It always will in arts education. What a pleasure to work in a setting where the expectation of the end product is high because the students successfully rise to the challenge on so many levels!

Monday, March 3, 2014

Our Program is More Structured Than You Might Think

When I talk to people about High Meadows and our progressive model of teaching, I am typically met with one of three responses: 
  1. “Yes! I love and get progressive education! John Dewey, Maria Montessori and Alfie Kohn are my heroes!”
  2. “Hmm, interesting. Sounds different than the way I learned in school. Tell me more.”
  3. “Sounds like an unstructured, disorganized mess to me. I am picturing dancing hippies and kids running wild.”
OK, so those aren’t actual quotes, but that’s the spirit of what people say—or what I see in their eyes. Of course, I especially enjoy responding to #2. But the third one is almost as fun to address, because I get to disabuse people of such nutty notions.

Too many folks believe that “structure” is synonymous with “academic rigor,” since it implies order, predictability and compliance. In traditional schooling, those are virtues because they are what most of us experienced ourselves—and look how successful we are now! I’m being a bit cheeky, I know, but such a perspective is baffling to me. Times are changing. The world is asking for more of our kids than ever before. And if we do not attend to re-shaping the structure they experience in school, they will not be as well prepared to face the future’s uncertainty.

A High Meadows education is not unstructured in the least--it is differently structured. What looks like chaos and disorder to the untrained eye is often an exercise in collaboration and choice. Our teachers make specific, research-based plans that are aimed at giving kids exciting, meaningful experiences that often require movement and productive chatter. But there are always clear goals to each of their activities, whether they are about developing strong negotiation skills or learning to build consensus. Such skills are always at the top of the list of what employers are looking for in the next generation of employees; never will you see “sitting down,” “being quiet,” or “completing worksheets” on any job description.

I like to describe High Meadows as a school that does a superb job at balancing what psychologist Rob Evans calls the “three elements of a successful learning environment:” nurture, structure and latitude. Seeking a balance is what the best schools do; too much of any one element could be detrimental to a child's development. We know that High Meadows is exquisitely strong in the nurture category. We also do well with offering kids lots of latitude, both in the classroom and on the meadows. But we also do a great job offering that latitude within a clear structure. Systems like Positive Discipline, the IB PYP program, debate and band are all terrific examples of how well we balance nurture, structure and latitude.

So the next time you hear someone accuse High Meadows—or any progressive school—as being a free-for-all, have them talk to any one of our teachers or observe any one of our classes. I think they’ll get the picture pretty clearly.

An Elegy for Neil Gibson

This post is based on a letter I wrote last week about Neil Gibson's passing.

Last week, longtime High Meadows maintenance staff member Neil Gibson succumbed to the cancer that had taken hold of him over the last few months.

To say that Neil was an important part of the High Meadows community would be an understatement. For 19 years, Neil was a beloved institution at High Meadows. He was much more than a dedicated employee. He was a loving, creative presence who shared his gifts of poetry, photography, art and philosophy with everyone who knew him. Neil had a significant hand in building revered structures around our campus, including the woodworking castle off the lower meadow and the maintenance shed next to the caboose. His beautiful photos of High Meadows, all pine-framed lovingly and hand-colored meticulously, grace the walls of our campus. Many treasured trees were planted by Neil, none more beautiful than the loquat in Memaw's Garden, which bore fruit that Neil would turn into lovely preserves that he would give away to all who appreciated a good jam. Speaking of jam, Neil loved music. He never missed the opportunity to join his colleagues and friends in a good session of guitars, banjos and soulful vocals.

It's a cliché, I know, but Neil really did love life. And life loved him back, gracing him with two beautiful children, Luna and Jake, and his longtime friend and partner, Kelly, all of whom had been faithfully at his side as he came to terms with his illness and began to say good-bye to this life. Neil was a man blessed with great love.

Three weeks ago, more than fifty of us who knew Neil (including several folks from High Meadows' past) threw him a gratitude celebration next to the loquat tree. Though Neil was unable to join us physically, the magic of technology enabled us to "Skype" him in so he was able to experience the many fond stories and remembrances his friends shared about him. It was an extraordinary way for us to say thank you to Neil, and he was deeply touched by the tributes.

There is so much more to say about Neil, but I would like to yield to his own words which he wrote several years ago in a collection of his poetry called Inwood Eyes.

Oh, to be at sea again
To feel the surge of the great ocean.
Carry me off to far away lands;
I will respect you always.

Let me be like the sea
To be fluid and strong.
Let the salt bathe my body;
Let me be free.

Oh, to be at sea again,
Dealing with the elements,
And knowing God.
I can hear you calling me.

Neil MacDonald Gibson II, 1952-2014