Forging Ahead, Fearlessly

On a recent sunny morning in Schauff Circle, students and teachers kicked off the school year with song, laughter, and not one, but two Eagle mascots. Inspired by my predecessor Lark Palma’s annual reminder to “take risks,” I challenged students and adults to be fearless. We all fear failure and the judgment of others, and it’s tempting to avoid change.

Overcoming those fears is what learning is all about. Learning happens when we reconcile the new and unknown with what we previously experienced or believed. Being fearless is as important for the school as it is for every student on our campus.

This fall, teachers in all four divisions are learning more about how to embed challenging academic skills and noncognitive skills such as leadership and resilience into experiential learning. In the Middle School, teachers are practicing new ways to collaborate and design curriculum as they rethink “Breakaway” week. They aim to bring a new sense of purpose, clear learning objectives, and cross-discipline connections to these traditional weeklong adventures, while sustaining the joy and choice which students have appreciated.

The teachers are being guided in this effort by Middle School head Barbara Ostos, and educator Grant Lichtman, who describes how to transform education for the 21st century in his new book, Moving the Rock. In Lichtman’s education future, we change the operating system of schooling, including where and when learning happens, how students and teachers work together, how we measure and report on achievement, how we think of a “campus,” and how we interact with our communities. As I peruse Grant’s observations and prescriptions, I find ample reason to be proud of who we are and where we are going at Catlin Gabel School. The direction he advocates aligns closely with what we concluded in our 2016 strategic planning process.

Innovation is not new to Catlin Gabel. Over two decades, Lark and her colleagues, with the support of the community, demonstrated a fearless approach to school improvement. Signature innovations include Global Online Academy, the PLACE program in North Portland, an expansive Global Trips Program, and the Palma Scholars Program. In addition to new learning experiences, they unified and expanded the upper school campus, designed and built a remarkable Creative Arts Center, and embraced environmental stewardship.

Today, we have a new strategic road map, and it’s time to forge ahead, fearlessly. Students will more effectively develop academic and character skills as teachers apply new expertise in experiential learning. Our school schedule and calendar will support how students learn best in the 21st century, not the 20th. Students will find relevance and value in applying what they learn in the Portland community. Students will understand and embrace new environmental responsibilities. Teachers will collaborate to deepen their learning and to benefit students across all grades. Research and evidence will inform best practices in our “classrooms” and the impact of changes we make. We will work with universities and schools to overcome the limits on innovation imposed by the college admission process. We will continue to define and enroll the ideal Catlin Gabel student body. New and improved facilities will address current needs and enhance our “one school” community.

The challenge that lies ahead is to sustain what makes Catlin Gabel special and successful, while we tackle systemic change. We will do that by staying focused on our strategic goals and seeking ongoing feedback from all stakeholders in our community. Teachers and staff already are hard at work on designing what education can be, keeping students at the center. Lark, Grant–and you–will be proud of who we become.

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The Future of Education?

This spring’s pivot to full-time remote learning sparked many questions about school, from the profound and challenging to the mundane yet urgent. The most fascinating question to me during this time has been: What will this mean for the future of education?