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Westminster: Pioneering a Culture of Connection, Challenge, Control and Commitment

The ISAS Visiting Committee’s first recommendation after its ten year reaccreditation visit to Westminster last year was this:  “Westminster enjoys an enviable stability and has captured a unique position in the local educational market.  As an institution, the School exudes a level of confidence about its core values and the way in which they drive instructional programs.  At this moment in its history, Westminster is uniquely positioned as an institution to take some risks, embark on new initiatives, and move in bold directions.  We were surprised to discover that, despite the School's encouragement of students to take risks and embrace failure, the institution seems reluctant to exhibit this same quality.  The visiting team strongly encourages Westminster to be a pioneer for the local, regional, and national independent school community.”

Over the last year, we’ve thought about what it would look like to be an educational “pioneer” and whether we have the passion, ability, and support to do so.  We concluded that not only do we have the opportunity to pioneer, we have the responsibility to.  And so in December the middle school became our first division to embark upon a renewal. 

Over the last half century, American education has struggled.  In the 1950’s when Sputnik propelled us to reform our schools, win the Space Race, and defeat communism, American education took off.  Benjamin Bloom introduced his taxonomy of educational objectives for both the cognitive and affective domains and provided the framework for teachers to improve the thinking of their students.  In the 1960’s Jerome Bruner put forth the idea of the spiral curriculum explaining how any subject could be taught in an intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development.  By the end of that decade, Hilda Taba had refined Bruner’s spiral curriculum specifically for the social studies creating a template for improving teaching across the curriculum.  Bloom, Bruner, Taba, and Dewey, those are the educators whose ideas and research I thrived on when I became a teacher in 1969. 

Since the 1970’s other scholars have produced important work, especially psychologists like Edward Deci with his theories on intrinsic motivation, Martin Seligman with his work on positive psychology, and Carol Dweck with her documentation of a growth mindset.  Brain research has also helped immensely, but how to teach children—basic pedagogy—has been eclipsed over the last forty years by debates over poverty and integration, charters and vouchers, self-esteem and bullying, by identity politics, safe spaces, and trigger warnings on the left and high stakes testing, common core, and federal encroachment on the right.  We’ve convinced ourselves through grade inflation and improved graduation rates that education is improving, but it’s not.  It’s stagnating…and hungrier kids in other countries have worked harder and passed ours by.

So where are we four months into our renewal?  We began by reviewing what ISAS referred to as the “core values that drive our educational programs.”  These core values include our mission (“challenge students to solve problems as cooperative, confident, and responsible learners”); our portrait of a graduate (“confident and connected people who work hard, think well, and work well with others”); our hedgehog principle, i.e., what we do better than others, (“get kids to express opinions confidently and comfortably”); and our overall educational goal for each child (“to develop a growth mindset”).  I’ve written and talked about these core values for years, and most people know this is who we are and how we do school.

After reaffirming our core values, we began to focus on curriculum where we’ve emphasized three questions: What do we teach?  What do they learn?  What do they understand?  We see each academic discipline in our middle school as a long and separate track with station houses along the way.  In some of the disciplines like math and modern language, kids need to master the material before leaving one station house and moving on to the next.  In an English or history class, though, if a student fails his assessment on World War I, it doesn’t mean he can’t understand the Depression.  So understanding these differences in disciplines, math and foreign language classes will become more individually paced while English, science, and history will remain more group paced. 

After reaffirming our core values, we began to focus on curriculum where we’ve emphasized three questions: What do we teach?  What do they learn?  What do they understand?

Let’s see, for example, how this will work in math where we envision three components.  In our first component, teachers will identify where each child is on the track and that is where the child starts working.  Based on the station house they are in, children will then complete sets of problems, watch videos, work with other kids on skills, discuss in small groups, and work one to one with the teacher.  Each child will reach different station houses on the track at different times and will be assessed to show he has learned the material, for example, on how to divide fractions.  If he does not pass the test, he needs to spend more time learning and practicing this skill.  If he does pass the test, the second component kicks in.  Even though he understands HOW to divide fractions, does he understand WHY he is flipping the second fraction and multiplying the two fractions together?  Can he draw a picture of what he’s doing to illustrate this process?  It’s not just about memorizing HOW to do math and moving on to the next station house.  The second component is about WHY.  It’s about understanding.

 This metaphor of a track probably surprises some of you because Westminster has always been known as the school that does not track students….and we still don’t.  Historically, tracking classes simply meant that there were two parallel and distinct tracks.  On one track was a small group of quick kids who were pushed lockstep up the track at the same faster speed.  On the other track were the slow kids who moved all together up their easier track at a slower speed.  The tracks never merged and this created a problem.  The kids on the slow track always knew that they were, well, slow.  They were the “dumb” group, and since self-fulfilling prophesies really are real, they struggled in school. 

The second reason we don’t track is that it goes against our core values.  Westminster has always focused on getting kids to work together to solve problems because when kids with diverse abilities, talents, and personalities work together, it benefits everyone.  This philosophically leads into the third component of our math program, problem solving, which focuses on practical math and is taught in heterogeneous groups.  Practical math assignments could be designed by the math teachers or they could be interdisciplinary in nature.  For example, calculating household budgets for a family to see if it qualifies for TANF, SNAP, ACA, or EITC during a community service learning simulation on poverty is practical math and so too are the calculations for science labs.

We are committed to developing a math curriculum that allows children to move at their own pace through math skills, focuses on the WHY as much as the HOW they do math, and challenges heterogeneous groups of students to work together and use math to solve real problems.  Our math teachers are busy designing how this will work in practice.  It’s hard, it’s important, and there is no roadmap.  We are pioneering a new math program.

Pioneering our new humanities curriculum is equally complex as we try to integrate English, history, and the fine arts.  It begins by deciding on essential questions to unify our curriculum.  Essential questions are open-ended, lead to more questions, and encourage a transfer of understanding.  They require analysis, synthesis, and evaluation—the development of Bloom’s higher order thinking skills.  These essential questions are what allow our humanities classes to flow logically from last year to this year to next year as well as from subject to subject within the same grade.  Essential questions build bridges and break down silos so that our English, history, and fine arts teachers are all aware of and can connect with what their colleagues are doing.  The history teachers have read the literature being taught in English, and the English and fine arts teachers know the story their students are learning in history.

Designing a renewal encourages collegiality and reflection.  It is exciting and invigorating.  It’s full of hope and opportunity.  There is the promise of transformation.  And then the reality sets in, or as T.S. Eliot wrote nearly a hundred years ago, “Between the idea and the reality…between the conception and the creation…falls the Shadow.”  Our renewal will challenge deeply held beliefs of teachers and students, but its goal is to have passionate teachers and conscientious learners working together to develop deeper understanding.  What we don’t know is what “Shadow” will fall on us as we seek to turn this idea into a reality, but that’s what pioneering is all about.

Our renewal will challenge deeply held beliefs of teachers and students, but its goal is to have passionate teachers and conscientious learners working together to develop deeper understanding.

Aside from curriculum, the other major theme of our renewal is to create a middle school culture that will support it.  This culture is characterized by four things.  First, kids need to feel connected.  They have to believe they belong at Westminster, that they are a part of our community, and that they feel safe and comfortable here.  Twenty years ago I would have said that every one of our middle school students felt connected to Westminster.  Our goal was always to be inclusive, and to that end we never elected class favorites or class officers.  We never published GPA’s, honored MVP’s, or tallied PPG’s.  We never sold privilege, big or small, from naming rights to buildings to headmaster circles to reserved parking places to seats at graduation.  We never had A and B athletic teams or valedictorians.  We’ve always been an inclusive environment, untracked, first come first served, a place where everyone was welcome and financial aid was distributed, confidentially and solely on need, to children of any age.  We still are, but kid connection has suffered in the middle school.  Maybe it has suffered because while we are a more inclusive, group-oriented place, the general culture is more egocentric, more narcissistic, more “me, me, me.”  Maybe it has suffered because our school is more expensive and affluent than it used to be and our kids have more activities, opportunities, and responsibilities than ever.  Maybe it has suffered because kids are more connected than ever before through social media without every having to leave their bedroom and interact face to face with another human being.  Maybe it has suffered because kids are meaner, but as I suspect we all remember, middle school kids have never been thought to be particularly nice.  Maybe it has suffered because there are more helicopter parents hovering and ready to pounce, but parents have always worried about and protected their children.   Maybe it has suffered because our administrators and teachers are less willing to get involved, somehow less concerned with the kids, or less committed to the school, but the energy of this renewal belies that.  We don’t know the cause and we don’t know the solution, but we are going to try some new things to improve student connection next year because it’s essential to a successful renewal.  And besides, that’s what pioneers do.

The second and third things kids need are challenge and control.  The school should promote a culture not only of hard work but also of meaningful and challenging work.  Meaningful work, both inside and outside of school, is work that kids can do without the help of their parents.  It’s work that moves them up the track toward greater understanding.   Challenging work is work that pushes kids, sometimes beyond their comfort zones, to think.  Challenging work accepts that kids will make mistakes, but also believes that mistakes are our best teachers if we acknowledge and learn from them.  Meaningful and challenging work, however, go hand in hand with giving kids more control over when they do their work, how they show their learning, and what they understand.  Control is as important for kids as it is for adults plus it teaches kids how to make decisions, use their timely wisely, and be prepared for the increased freedom they will soon enjoy.  Engaging kids with challenging work, however, does not mean they need more work for the sake of working more; they don’t need thirty problems if they grasped the concept after doing ten nor do they need to always do formal essays when outlines might serve learning just as well. 

There is a belief that our middle school is too demanding, that there is too much work, that it’s “Stressminster.”  I don’t believe that’s true.  The reality is that our eighth graders will work harder in middle school than most of them will work as ninth graders in high school, but that reality needs to be put in perspective.  First, high schools with a lot of new freshmen are concerned about the adjustment of their students to the high school social scene.  Second, high schools are tracked; the higher the track, the more challenging the work.  At Westminster, we only have one track.  Sometimes kids move along it at different rates, sometimes altogether, but the work we ask them to do is always on a very high track.  So it is important that kids and their parents understand that Westminster values challenging and meaningful work, that it wants kids to have some control over when and how they do that work, and that making mistakes is both understandable and helpful.  Most of all, they need to know that if their children are willing to engage and try their best, they will be successful at Westminster.

This leads to the fourth thing kids need—commitment.  Commitment ties the other three C’s together.  Commitment implies shared purpose, something that kids believe in and strive for; it’s something more important than themselves.  In religious schools and military academies, commitment is to God or country, but in a school like Westminster, especially in an age of high tech individualism, it’s harder to define and develop commitment.  The question we have asked is this:  Is there anything in our community, any common story, any shared belief, any overriding principle, that defines and commits us to the purpose of our community?

To answer this question, we have to go back to the beginning.  The middle school was grounded on three values—inclusion, responsibility, and freedom.  I’ve given examples in this article of how all three of them have been and continue to be emphasized, but it seems like an even better example is simply our “Westminster Song.”  It was written by members of the Class of 1980, our first graduating class, and their teacher, Louise Goldberg, and has been sung by every student who has ever graduated from the middle school.  Here it is, in part, 37 years later:

We are the people of Westminster. You can hear our voices loud and clear.
Come and listen as we sing about our living working dream
A place we come to learn, to learn to live to grow,
A growing living learning place where spirit shines on every face.
We are just people, come on in and see, in this place we gather every day.
A place we come to learn, to learn to choose a way,
To live and learn to choose a way out of the many ways.
Thoughts form in every mind, to be shared with friends and grow with time,
Remembrances of yesterday and hopes and dreams for future days.
Yes, sometimes troubles make us weary and thoughts of quitting come,
But survival is a learning thing, together we are one, yes, together we are one.

Our three founding values come through clearly.  There’s inclusion – “We are just people, come on in and see…” No pledging, no testing, no qualifying necessary.  All are welcome.  We all belong because, “Together we are one.”  There’s responsibility – “Sometimes troubles make us weary and thoughts of quitting come, but survival is a learning thing…”  Everyone struggles, everyone has bad days, but no one gives up.  Your classmates and teachers won’t let you quit.  There’s freedom – “A place we come to learn, to learn to choose a way, to live and learn to choose a way out of the many ways.”  Freedom to look like you want.  Freedom to roam where you want.  Freedom to eat what you want.  Freedom to think what you want.  Freedom to say what you want. 

Developing a culture based on connection, challenge, control, and commitment is not only important for our renewal to succeed; it is important for each individual in our community to succeed as well.

But as we all know, freedom and responsibility are opposite sides of the same coin.  In other words, kids are free to express their opinions at school, but only if they express them responsibly. This, however, is where the Shadow falls….between their right of responsible expression and the reality that sometimes their opinions, often unintentionally, hurt others.  What is meant to be funny or provocative comes across as mean or hateful.  This is why the four C’s of connection, challenge, control, and commitment are so important to any school culture.  As psychologist Suzanne Kobasa has shown, these characteristics are the foundation of stress hardiness and resilience in adolescents.  Kobasa’s four C’s (shown in parentheses) echo Edward Deci’s requirements for developing intrinsic motivation—connection (connection), mastery (challenge), autonomy (control), and purpose (commitment)—which lead to a growth mindset.  This is why the culture of a community built on these characteristics will develop resilient, intrinsically motivated, young adults.  Developing a culture based on connection, challenge, control, and commitment is not only important for our renewal to succeed; it is important for each individual in our community to succeed as well.  Pioneering together, we can make this happen.