Monthly Archives: June 2014

GS Rising Sophomore Summer Blogging Prompts: Week 2

Synchronous Blog Prompts: Week 2 (June 30) — Respond to one or more prompts. The bonus prompt doesn’t count towards your ten-prompt minimum for the summer, so only respond to the bonus if you feel like it. Posts should be a minimum of 200 words. You are welcome/encouraged to write more than that. Proofread before posting!

Poetry Prompt : Read the Elizabethan period poems on pages 4-9 (Spenser through Shakespeare; stop before Donne). What do the poems of this period have in common? What are the basic aspects the Elizabethan poetry style based on this sample? Consider, rhyme, rhythm, line length, meter (if you know how to analyze meter), and subject matter. Which poem did you enjoy the most, and why?

Novel Prompt : What seems to be the central conflict of the book you are reading? Which characters are in conflict with each other, and what do they want? Are there specific passages you can cite in which the conflict is laid bare?

Bonus Prompt : Write a review of something. It could be a movie, a TV show, a video game, an article in a magazine (or online media site), or a restaurant. [Don’t review a book since you are blogging about a book already.] Provide a link to the thing you are reviewing (or its web site). Your blog is a legitimate vehicle for your opinions that can be read by anyone on the internet, so be thoughtful about your criticism; it can impact the real world!

Review of Evans’ The Human Side of School Change for the GS Adaptability Project

The Adaptability Project is comprised of a group of George School faculty members who will come together over a two-year period to study the new landscape of secondary education. We will share readings, discuss vision and strategy, and engage the community in a larger conversation about how the school can adapt as we strive to remain vital and relevant.

The first reading for the Adaptability Project, The Human Side of School Change by Robert Evans (original copyright 1996), won me over with its emphasis on realism and its convincing understanding of the obstacles that face those who seek educational reform. By focusing on issues of school culture, process, and authentic leadership, it is a worthwhile primer if one hopes to avoid repeating the mistakes made by school reformers in the past. Although I admire the book, I found that much of it was dated, more relevant for public schools, or aimed at problems that we don’t have.

The Adaptability Project was at one time intended as a vehicle for midcareer teachers, and Chapter 6 (Staff: Understanding Reluctant Faculty) makes one good point after another with a very astute characterization of that demographic. Much of this strikes me as common sense, but Evans articulates the position of people in the middle of their teaching careers with great accuracy. He writes, “All professionals in midcareer are prone to two kinds of tendencies that limit their readiness to innovate: demotivation (boredom, a loss of enthusiasm, diminished job interest) and a leveling off of growth and performance[.]” (p. 103) I find that these words hit home with me, and I’ve been fighting hard against these tendencies through the embrace of a permanent beta mindset.

But Evans is now out of date when he explains in Chapter 6 that the graying of the faculty is going to be a challenge for school change. The graying he described 18 years ago was very real, and now it’s coming to an end. Instead of scanning the horizon and seeing two decades that will be defined by an aging Baby Boomer cohort, we are facing the opposite situation. The Boomers are retiring rapidly, and the mean age/experience/tenure of our faculty will plummet like a stone in the next few years. The book makes no mention of Generation Y or Millennials; they weren’t on anyone’s mind in 1996. This younger cohort brings with it greater inherent adaptability and openness to new things. They grew up in a world shaped by the lionization of Silicon Valley and the tech industry, not the culture of the 1960s.

Evans rightly targets school culture itself early in the book as an important element of school change. He cautions that, “Culture [. . .] serves as an enormous conservative force, the collective expression of the conservative impulse within individuals.” (p. 44) Indeed, I have witnessed this collective conservatism in our faculty’s response to proposals for change, but our school culture is far more balanced and vital than the stereotypical public school districts that Evans describes. In fact, it is this point that makes me think that much of the book is beside the point for GS. More than anything, we are trying to preserve our outstanding school culture in the face of a wave of retirements and rapid technological change in our field. Whereas many schools or districts may be quietly counting the days until their change-resistant veteran teachers leave, we are trying to figure out how to maintain institutional memory and retain our cultural DNA. This is consistent with a focus on midcareer faculty: We are the ones who have spent five to fifteen years working alongside our long-tenured veterans.

Much of the final half of the book is taken up with the issue of authentic leadership. Here we see why Earl Ball chooses to use this book with the Penn GSE students. The author recommends consensus-based decision-making, servant-leaders, “followership,” binary leadership, etc. Explaining the latter, Evans writes, “[T]rue participatory leadership is “binary” (Thompson, 1991, p.26); it enables ideas to move up and down the organization.” I think we already do a satisfactory job in permitting ideas to come from both the bottom up and the top down, but the Adaptability Project represents an opportunity to do more brainstorming from the bottom up.

The T-chart on p. 7 of The Human Side of School Change interests me because it reminds me of a similar T-chart on p. 19-20 of The End of Competitive Advantage by Rita Gunther McGrath (2013). Evans’ chart contrasts the Rational-Structural paradigm of change (bad) on the left with the Strategic-Systemic paradigm (good) on the right. McGrath’s chart contrasts the sustainable competitive advantage strategy style (bad) on the left with the transient advantage strategy style (good) on the right. Both T-charts serve as outlines for the material that each book will cover. There are interesting similarities, as Evans contrasts the stable environment (bad) with the turbulent one (good). He contrasts objective, linear planning (bad) with pragmatic, adaptable planning (good). These ideas anticipate McGrath’s worldview of transient advantage quite well. However, Evans’ book is rooted firmly in the world of schools and their change-resistant, cynical faculty cultures. As a result, his book, while trying to be explicitly hopeful, is ultimately cautious and grim. McGrath, focusing instead on a model group of ten large, for-profit corporations which have surfed the waves of transient advantage most successfully, delivers a book that is visionary and inspirational. I hope my fellow members of the Adaptability Project will read The End of Competitive Advantage to see where I’m coming from. (There is a copy to be borrowed in Nancy’s office.)

We were asked to provide a star rating for The Human Side of School Change. Were I reading it in 1996, I would give it four-and-a-half stars (dinging it half a star for its outline-y “four subcategories for every major heading” format). Reading it as a GS faculty member in 2014, I can only give it two stars. Too many of the problems it addresses are not relevant to the landscape we face today or to the superb school culture we are lucky to possess.


GS Rising Sophomore Summer Blogging Prompts: Week 1

Synchronous Blog Prompts: Week 1 (June 23) — Respond to one or more prompts. The bonus prompt doesn’t count towards your ten-prompt minimum for the summer, so only respond to the bonus if you feel like it. Posts should be a minimum of 200 words. You are welcome/encouraged to write more than that. Proofread before posting!
Poetry Prompt: Read “When I was fair and young” by Queen Elizabeth I (p. 3-4). Analyze the form and content of this poem. What is the structure of the poem? How long are the lines, how are the organized, and how is the refrain used? Is there rhyme? What is the message of the poem? If you wish, you may research the poem and its author online and then explain how the poem relates to the author’s life. Make sure to link to any sources that you cite.
Novel Prompt: (It helps if you have read a couple of chapters!) Describe and analyze a character from the novel you are reading. It could be the protagonist or any other character that appeals to you. What have you learned about this character so far? How does the author use descriptive language to bring this character to life? What does this character want? Consider using a few quotations from the novel to illustrate your points. (You may use parentheses to cite the page number.)
Bonus Prompt: Pick a current event that interests you (e.g. The World Cup, the violence in Iraq, the situation in Ukraine, the defeat of Eric Cantor, etc.). Read some respectable online sources on this topic (e.g. New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, etc.). Then express your opinion on the topic. Link to your sources if you refer to them specifically. Make sure you argue your point of view respectfully and civilly.
Want to make sure Eric reads your posts? Email him a link ( or Tweet at him with a link (@EricAfterSchool).

“The Disruption Machine” and education

The timing of Jill Lepore’s New Yorker article “The Disruption Machine” (6/23/14) seems almost intentionally planned to mock my summer work for the GS Adaptability Project. I’m spending my summer reading books about school change and disruption, and along comes Lepore to argue, especially in regards to schools, that the whole innovative disruption concept is harmful and overhyped. She writes, “Disruptive innovation is a theory about why businesses fail. It’s not more than that. It doesn’t explain change. It’s not a law of nature. It’s an artifact of history, an idea, forged in time; it’s the manufacture of a moment of upsetting and edgy uncertainty. Transfixed by change; it’s blind to continuity.”

So is the entire premise of bringing together a team of teachers at our school to study how disruptive innovation might affect our institution a foolish notion? I don’t believe so. Lepore mocks the silliness of trying to apply some aspects of business strategy to educational institutions, but we are a business, and businesses can fail. They are especially vulnerable when rapid technological change reshapes the landscape around them, and I think it behooves us to survey that landscape carefully. Lepore criticizes Christiansen and Eyring’s “The Innovative University” (2011) for creating a fad for MOOCs and blended learning, but not only have we not participated in that fad, our school has largely been blind to its existence. We are in no danger of jumping on that bandwagon too soon. We’ve already had time to see the big disappointment that MOOCs have been. Any aspects of online teaching that we might choose to embrace will have been thoroughly vetted before we join in.

I am in total agreement with Lepore’s criticism of the whole Enlightenment idea of progress and its contribution to the pro-disruptive innovation pseudo religion. That said, a lot of money is being thrown at innovation in the areas of healthcare and education right now, and it is crucial to America’s future that those two areas of the economy show improvement. We need to get better results for a lower cost in both areas, and there is opportunity for innovators to move in and shake up staid, overpriced, under-performing providers of both healthcare and education. From where I sit, it seems like 98% of the online educational offerings fail to improve upon the traditional classroom experience, but oh that two percent! In the cloud computing era, those offerings that succeed can scale so quickly that they can become available to every school in the country as rapidly as those schools choose to adopt them.

I guess the truth is that I want to agree with Lepore, and I sympathize with her very well argued stance, but schools simply can’t make the dangerous choice to ignore the developments in the world of technology that could threaten our business model in the very near future.

Classroom First — Classroom Everywhere

How to respond to the disruptive threats heading in the direction of the unsuspecting independent secondary school world? What should be our philosophy in coping with a world full of MOOCs, blended learning, gamification, appification, Twitter, Voxer, Duolingo, Edmodo, etc.? How do we embrace technological change in order to stay relevant without losing our identities and our souls? A year spent thinking about this problem has led me to a new motto: Classroom First — Classroom Everywhere.

The idea is to acknowledge the primacy of the physical classroom. This is a place where a real, human teacher interacts with students (hopefully in small classes) in a way that reaffirms the value of community and the face-to-face. The classroom allows for discussions in which we can read verbal cues and body language. We can do group work in which we can hear our partner’s breath come up short when a flash of insight occurs. The teacher can read the flagging attention of her pupils from a million little behaviors. There isn’t a web-based interface between the participants in the class, and that means that students are learning important social skills at the same time that they are learning content and academic skills.

Of course on the back of the traditional classroom comes extension via technology and experiential learning. A class might be supplemented by a back channel, or a Twitter chat during homework hours, online video, or web-based exercises. “Classroom Everywhere” also reminds us that the athletic field is a classroom, and your service-learning trip brings you to an unfamiliar locale that is also, in its way, a classroom. The group of friends studying together at Starbucks after dinner make that space a classroom. Walking through a museum on a field trip (or vacation) can turn that space into a classroom, either via a docent or a smartphone.

I’m not sure where my “Classroom First — Classroom Everywhere” mindset is going to lead, but at least I have found a way to articulate one possible approach to the challenges of these times. In the coming days, I’ll try to flesh out more of what this slogan is saying to me.

Summer vacation has finally begun

The exams are all graded, reports (and advisor reports) written, closing academic meetings done, so it must be summer. As usual at this time of year, I feel a bit like a traveler arriving in a post-apocalyptic landscape, unclear as to what to make of all the rubble.

What are my professional development plans for the summer?

I’m currently participating in two book clubs. The George School faculty book club met a couple of nights ago to discuss Verghese’s Cutting for Stone. It was a treat to have a conversation about a meaty work of contemporary fiction with so many English teachers, former English teachers, and just plain book lovers. Our next book, which we won’t discuss until late August, is James Lee Burke’s Jolie Blon’s Bounce. I haven’t read any Burke before, so it will be fun to discover a new author.

Meanwhile, #TABSchat is running a book club this summer, too. The first conversation will be this coming Wednesday night at 8pm. We’ll be discussing Daniel Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School? Apparently the Foundational Skills Committee here at GS read it several years ago, but that was after I rolled off of FSC, so it’s new to me. I’m three chapters in now, and I’m finding it to be excellent. I hope that #TABSchat continues to pick texts that expand my educational horizons. I find #TABSchat to be the most high-brow Twitter chat among educators each week, so I anticipate that the conversations will be intriguing.

I’ve also made a commitment to use Duolingo this summer to try to learn a little German. Duolingo is a popular app for foreign language acquisition, and it was one of the ones mentioned by Mary Meeker in her most recent Internet Trends presentation. I’m curious about technological threats to my industry writ large, and this seems to be one worth investigating. Will Duolingo kill high school classroom language instruction? No, it doesn’t look like it. But could a fourteen year old spend the summer before ninth grade using Duolingo every day to learn enough Spanish or French to place into Spanish 2 or French 2 in September? I asked that question of my colleague Laura, who has also used Duolingo and who is involved in our testing/placement process, and she thought the answer might be yes. What are the implications, then? Could we effectively eliminate level 1 classes in those languages and insist that students entering in ninth grade use Duolingo during the summer?

Meanwhile, a big part of my summer will be devoted to running the giant summer reading and blogging assignment for our rising sophomores. I’m going to need to log on every morning and see who has posted to their blog, give them responses, advice, make connections, and so forth. There will be student and parent emails to respond to, and who knows what problems will crop up. Fortunately, my colleagues are providing lots of support and encouragement, and I’ve already received roughly 80% of the student blog URLs that I need. This assignment might just fly!

Invisible Cities Project

Here begins the chapter of fourteen new cities written by the students in my 2013-14 Sophomore Literature and Composition class for Italo Calvino’s novel Invisible Cities. The cities are hyperlinked together from blog to blog to create a continuous path for the reader.

You will find the first city HERE.