Welcome to my blog, a way to present ideas, reflections, and observations with the school community and beyond. I blog on a regular basis, commenting on a thought-provoking experience, a significant development in education, and news of student and teacher work here at Catlin Gabel. My goal is to make you think, provoke a reaction, elicit diverse points of view, and affirm your faith in our school's mission. I hope you'll share with me and other readers any reactions you may have to my posts.
Every moment of a Catlin Gabel education has value. Together those moments form a remarkable journey of self-discovery and mastery, which itself is an end as much as a means. Still, the journey does lead somewhere. Every year our seniors head to college, after navigating an admission process both revealing and challenging. Presenting themselves and their achievements to colleges is a culmination of the hard work, skills, and confidence they have developed here at Catlin Gabel.
These days the process of applying to college draws more attention than the experience of attending college. There are a number of reasons for this: the common application has increased the pool, which has driven selectivity to new lows; the testing and counseling industry fuels anxiety; colleges increasingly serve global communities; and graduates face uncertain job prospects. All of these developments have made accessing high-quality higher education a high-stakes process.
The good news is that students at Catlin Gabel are among the best-positioned college applicants in the world. They have deep knowledge of academic content and concepts. Small classes, talented peers, and engaged teachers have taught them to speak up. They have pursued a wide range of experiences, including athletics, clubs, service, trips, and leadership. Our college counselors, Kate Grant and Blythe Butler, are experienced and expert, and provide personal attention and information to support each step of the process. They see the process as an opportunity for students to practice research, analysis, and decision-making skills. They, and the teachers who write recommendation letters, know every student well, and advocate for them with passion and understanding.
As a result, our students find success in diverse and selective colleges and universities. At a recent Upper School assembly, young alumni currently attending Brown, NYU, Tulane, Harvey Mudd, University of Puget Sound, Hamilton, and Occidental shared their observations. They praised the preparation they received in study skills, time management, critical thinking, collaboration, decision-making, and writing. They agreed that trusting relationships they had with teachers here prepared them to be effective self-advocates in the bigger world of college. They explained that while the admission process can be unpredictable, admission officers are thorough and thoughtful in choosing whom to admit. They also argued that there is no perfect college; it is possible to create an enjoyable and successful experience in a variety of settings.
I also heard about the value of a Catlin Gabel education when I visited several East Coast college campuses. The deans of admission at Wesleyan University and Connecticut College know our school well and are eager to have more of our students apply. They endorsed our progressive liberal arts education as the best preparation for the wonderful opportunities they provide. At Princeton University, I was warmly welcomed by two admission officers, with whom I had a lively conversation about trends in education and Catlin Gabel’s philosophy and mission. Two freshman, Catlin Gabel alumni, then walked with me for an hour, sharing their excitement about what they are learning, how well prepared they feel compared to many peers, and their appreciation for the passion of their Catlin Gabel teachers. Their visible pride in both their new college and their former school was heartwarming.
Our goal for every student at Catlin Gabel is a choice of “good fit” colleges in which they will be appropriately challenged, have opportunities to pursue current interests and discover new experiences, and be themselves in their new community. A Catlin Gabel education and the college counseling team position students well for the admission process. Part of that is helping families understand that it needs to be the student’s process. As Kate reminds parents, we have had our opportunity to go to college; now it’s our child’s turn. We support our children when we cede control, trust their judgment, and remind them that their hard work and achievements have value in themselves, beyond how they factor into the college admission process. As one of our young alumni said, “College is about independence and learning to be a person in the world. Give your child space - and don’t worry, they’ll come back.”
For further reading on college admissions, check out the College Admission blog, which has great practical advice. A story from NPR’s “All Things Considered” features Wesleyan University president Michael Roth discussing why higher education - and the liberal arts - are worth the investment.
What is the future of education? What trends, tools, and concepts will challenge traditional notions of teaching and learning? Last Saturday, academically trained futurist Garry Golden (http://www.garrygolden.com/) led the board of trustees and administrative team in a compelling discussion of what might lie ahead—and what that might mean to Catlin Gabel. The session was meant to help the board and school leaders practice big thinking, as we look forward to strategic planning in 2015-16.
At the retreat we summoned our best foresight, which, to paraphrase Garry, is the study of plausible and preferable futures based on research and forecasting. We considered several examples of tools and trends: adaptive technology, civic culture, and mindfulness. As we discussed how our mission and curriculum might be influenced by these and other developments around us, it became clear that future thinking needs to be grounded in a clear sense of the present.
Catlin Gabel is a thriving school today because our mission creates confident and skilled graduates. The teachers who interpret that mission into instruction and relationships are the heart of our educational process. It is common to imagine a future in which technology will render traditional classroom learning less vital—and that may become the case, as learning becomes an anywhere, anytime experience. But at Saturday's retreat we were drawn to the inescapable conclusion that the personal presence, guidance, and expertise of a teacher will only become more important as the world changes. As we are seeing the role of librarians expand from curators of books and spaces to teachers and resources who work all around the campus, we will see classroom teachers add new layers of complexity to their role, interacting with colleagues, technology, and self-directed learners in new ways and structures.
The good news is that Catlin Gabel teachers already are stepping into the future. Across the school a team of teacher experts is training peers to design curriculum driven by compelling questions and relevant assessments. In the Upper School, science and arts teachers have developed interdisciplinary courses on structural design and engineering and the chemistry of art. In a Middle School class, students are reading about civil rights, equity, and justice, and writing expository "problem-solution letters" to Portland urban planners. In the Lower School, teachers and tech colleagues are looking at new ways for students to use technology to record and show their understanding of concepts. From northeast Portland to the Oregon coast, teachers across the grades are challenging children to answer political, social, and environmental questions by integrating skills from traditional disciplines.
No one knows what the future holds, including Garry. But we have an obligation to look ahead and decide how we can best enhance the value of a Catlin Gabel education. In the next year, we will renew our commitment to our mission and to curriculum and activities that we know serve children well. We also will begin to identify the most promising directions for our school, pursuing with vigor the charge Ruth Catlin gave us in 1928 to be an "educational laboratory." As we approach the exciting opportunities that lie ahead, we do so knowing that caring, dedicated, and skillful teachers will always be at the center of what makes this school great.If you are interested in learning more, here are two resources that Garry shared with us: a reading on innovation in education and a compelling video.
Last week I joined eight students and five colleagues from Catlin Gabel in a memorable journey to Indianapolis. Along with 3,600 adults and teenagers, we attended the 28th annual People of Color Conference, held by the National Association of Independent Schools. The event aims to create a safe and inclusive gathering where educators of color and white allies can leverage racial, ethnic, and cultural differences for educational excellence in our schools.
I attend this conference because it is important for me to be reminded of the privilege I have in society as a white male, and because I am a school head with political authority and visibility. Teacher colleagues attend to connect with friends and allies, explore ways they can improve their communities, and learn about leadership. Students attend to join a larger conversation about equity and social justice and learn how they can be change agents in the world. We all attend to deepen our commitment to others.
This year's conference was especially meaningful, as it took place during nationwide protests over race and justice. While we were in the Midwest, colleagues back on campus made plans to respond to the tragic events involving Michael Brown and Eric Garner, among others. As assistant head and Lower School head Vicki Roscoe stated, "We want our children to be curious and aware of the world around them; we want them to think critically and consider multiple perspectives; we want them to be compassionate; we want them to know that there are ways changes can be made when things need changing. We also need to honor their stages of development."
In the past week, Lower School teachers engaged with children around themes of fairness and kindness, inspired by the Teaching Tolerance Anti-Bias Curriculum already in use. In the Middle School, teachers devoted class and advisory time to establishing a baseline of knowledge with students, and provided opportunities to share what they think and feel about recent news. In the Upper School, a team of teachers led a divisional assembly, explaining the legal system, statistics on crime and race, and the complex job of law enforcement. Teachers and students then gathered in small groups to share reactions.
We understand that inequities in society will not be solved by discourse alone. How do we embrace the challenge of being an elite institution committed to social responsibility? We acknowledge that achieving educational excellence requires diverse perspectives and life experiences. We teach our students history and cultural competence so that they can navigate local neighborhoods and college campuses with respect and curiosity. We seek to create powerful community-based learning experiences. We establish the institutional infrastructure to sustain our focus on equity and inclusion. We seek authentic partnerships between Catlin Gabel and the greater Portland community. With each step we take, our students are more prepared to lead us toward the promise of equity and opportunity for all. That's leadership.
I felt very fortunate to be at the Open House student panel last month. Over thirty minutes, I listened with pride as Catlin Gabel seniors interacted with the audience of hopeful and attentive prospective families. The questions touched on school culture, courses, friendships, time management, extracurricular interests, and college. The cheerful panel eagerly responded, sharing their knowledge and personal experiences with warmth and humor. I marveled at their ability to share detailed, focused answers and to reflect on what they have learned at Catlin Gabel and how that will shape their lives in years ahead.
The confidence and poise of our seniors at the Open House certainly counts as one measure of our school's (and their) success. What other measures have value and validity at Catlin Gabel—and to whom? What outcomes matter most in our school community? What is distinctive and better about a Catlin Gabel education—and how do we know we are providing that?
As I begin my first year as head of school, I have been posing many questions to our community. Our school is thriving, and I want to understand why and how. I also want us to articulate the implicit assumptions and beliefs we have about the mission and purpose of Catlin Gabel. A key area has to do with outcomes and measures. Being explicit about these will be essential in developing a shared vision for future success.
What matters most to us? High performance on cognitive measures such as SAT scores and exams? Demonstrable student improvement in noncognitive skills such as collaboration, leadership, resilience, and confidence? A college list with high-quality schools and a high percentage of first-choice acceptances? The many individual honors and awards earned by Catlin Gabel students? Beyond student learning outcomes, what measures are most important in assessing institutional quality? Our ability to attract the best professional talent? High levels of family satisfaction and support? Admission selectivity? Financial sustainability?
Great schools align curriculum, hiring, resources, and assessments to achieve their mission. They foster a culture of professional and personal growth, and equity and inclusion. They invite stakeholders to share their perspectives in the pursuit of improvement. They have a strategic orientation. They measure what they do to provide focus and feedback. Like each student in our care, the school is in a constant process of becoming. I look forward to sharing with you what I am learning and working with all of you to ensure that a Catlin Gabel education is mission-driven, distinctive, and powerful.
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