At the end of 2017, Assistant Head of School Alicia LaMagdeleine posed this question: What is something you really know, something you understand deeply?
The concept of understanding and the ways in which our students achieve understanding lay at the heart of the work the University High School faculty has done throughout this school year. Discussions have been inspired in part by the experience a small group of teachers – Tasha Barger, Chris Morrison, Kirstin Northenscold, and Wes Priest – had last spring when they completed the online Teaching for Understanding course, run by Project Zero and the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
This spring, a second group of University High School teachers – Assistant Head of School David Vesper, history teacher Maggy Dean, computer science teacher Peter Laliberte, English teacher Maggie Beckman, and Director of College Counseling Lade Akande (a yoga teacher) – is also taking the course. For some, it was the experience of the first group that inspired them to sign up.
“I personally signed up because I’d heard so much from Tasha and Wes about how the course was beneficial for them as educators,” said Beckman. “They said it changed the game for them as far as thinking about how they construct curriculum. And because half of the time I’m at University, I’m sitting in other classrooms watching people teach, I saw the results of the course too. I saw Wes implementing techniques that were different and super interesting to me.”
“For me, being new to teaching, any chance I had to learn about being a teacher was good for me,” said Laliberte. “My expectation coming in was that it would just kind of accelerate the process of learning to teach effectively.”
For Vesper, in addition to the teaching benefits offered, he saw value in gaining a full understanding of a model that the school is pursuing adopting on a grander scale.
“One, I just enjoy teaching, and this was an opportunity to do some professional development I haven’t done much of since the 90s,” said Vesper. “Also as the school is looking more at teaching overall and specifically the Teaching for Understanding framework, this was an opportunity for me to understand it really well.”
The online course itself is taught through the Teaching for Understanding framework, so University teachers experience being students of this model. Each unit takes two weeks, and University’s group meets every week during a shared prep period to discuss what they are learning. In addition to the group project they are completing (which is one of the course’s performances of understanding, or assessment opportunities), group members are also required to involve their students in the topics of each unit.
“Part of our assignment each week is to engage our classes with the ideas that we have learned in this course,” said Beckman. “The very first thing we did was something we did in a faculty meeting recently. We asked students, ‘What is something you feel like you understand really well?’ then pressed them on why they feel like they understand it, and we collected their responses.”
“I think our students have appreciated this because we talk about questions like the difference between getting an A and actually understanding content,” said Akande. “I think it’s refreshing for them to know that we are trying to frame their experience in this way and that what we value isn’t just taking the hardest classes and getting A’s to get A’s.”
“One of the things I’ve been getting out of this class is that the first day of school for me is not going to be the same experience of standing up and saying, ‘I want you to double-space your papers’ and so on,” said Dean. “Maybe I have a list of expectations in my mind, but how do I get the students to create this list themselves? I want to ask what they think a good paper is, what they think is needed, and that’s how I’ll get student buy-in.”
In addition to weekly assignments, the group has been working throughout the course on a collaborative project, a lesson plan for one of a group member’s courses. This group’s lesson is one that bridges technology and economics. In the lesson, students learn to use Instagram location tools to gather data about and analyze the economic conditions and concerns of a particular city or town.
“Maggie and I are a little closer to social media,” said Akande. “Peter and Dave are closer to the technology. And we used Maggy’s Economics class as a way to bring this into the classroom. Even though we all come from pretty different places, we were able to merge it all together so that we all could participate.”
“Part of the idea was that with any learning goal you should be able to apply that outside of class,” said Vesper. “If you don’t have a good answer for how a specific learning goal applies outside of class, maybe you should refine that goal. This project was the opposite. We asked, ‘What is something students are doing in their everyday life that doesn’t seem academic? And how can we use that to enhance their education?’”
Like last year’s group, this group has truly valued the time they’ve spent together. From discussions to project work, the opportunities to learn from one another have been countless, and some of the lessons are even a little unexpected.
“The thing I’ve valued most is the time that we’ve spent together in the room, just learning from one another,” said Beckman. “Lade and I have shared that we learn something new about the Balkans each time we’ve met. Learning from one another is just something that I’ve really valued being in this space.”