“What do you want to do?”

Today is back-to-school day for the faculty at PDS and today we are launching Project Innovate: Five Teams with a Mission.

The faculty were invited last June to sign up for cross divisional teams loosely organized around five major and interconnected themes:

Cultural Competency I Digital Citizenship I Learning and the Brain I Project-Based Learning I Wellness  

There was no obligation to be on a team. Sometimes teachers do so much already, are in such overload there is just no more room on the plate for another thing.  I’m delighted however, that almost all faculty have chosen to join a team. (We are a small school so this still means teams are small.)

What started it all was a series of conversations.
  • I wanted to get a group of people together to plan how our next steps with the Digital Citizenship project funded an E.E.Ford grant that we matched last year. What once seemed an out-there on-the- edge concept had become mainstream and where once the available resources were scarce they were now in abundance. I needed a team to focus on more than staying safe online and handling cyber bullying. We need to focus not only on the ever moving target of digital literacies but also the  ethical opportunities obligations to use the tools and our talents to make a difference.
  • Dr. Judy Willis came to PDS last spring and her work with teachers stirred up considerable interest. We already had a Cognitive Science elective in the high school a well as a number of faculty delving into the implication of new learning in neuroscience and how an understanding of the brain can help learning. So a Learning and the Brain team seemed a natural “no-brainer” and teachers like Jake Lahey were really interested in pursuing the implications for the classroom and curriculum.  So what stated as an idea for one group was now two.
  • At the same time I was involved in a series of conversations with trustee Hamid Azari-Rad about  a wide range of topics including what we came to term Cosmopolitanism. ( It’s one of Pat Bassett’s “Six C’s) We opened a google doc to share ideas and resources about cultural competency, diversity and global awareness. These are topics close to heart of many on the faculty.
  • So now I had three teams forming on sheets of butcher block and I started mapping out interconnecting circles. It was clear that interest in these topics crossed the usual school boundaries of division and department. They were important for all of us to grapple with and make collective and individual headway. I began trying these ideas out on anyone who crossed my path.
  • And then every time I sat down for lunch with one group of teachers or another, these themes started to weave in to their conversations and it was obvious many of them were formulating plans and fomenting ideas. I was hearing from Emma Sears and others about a new health and life issues curriculum, a school garden, nutrition and about various green initiatives. What better way to corral these into a Wellness team.  Laura Graceffa had been sharing ideas about  professional culture and evaluation so why not include the all-important issue of school health in that mix?
  • It’s funny how in education – as elsewhere – an idea comes to the fore and begins to sweep all before it. PBL – Project-Based Learning – steam-rollered its way to a high profile in the last year or so. It builds of course on time-honored progressive and constructivist principles and practice, but suddenly every one was talking STEM to STEAM, tinkering and PBL.  Many teachers were already passionate about PBL and excited to take it further. So PBL became the natural fifth team – an opportunity for teachers from different disciplines teaching different age-groups to delve into that zeitgeist, to explore, pursue and build on the existing good work and take it further.

So now I had the five teams. I created this visual to capture the big picture. It’s  an exercise in how many words, labels, slogans and topics can you squish onto one slide.


As a starter I suggested reading Pat Bassett’s column from Independent School Magazine Summer 2012: The Innovation Imperative.
… innovation in schools remains an institutional challenge. How do school leaders create the conditions that will allow innovation to thrive in their schools? How do we nurture the innovative leaders among our teachers so that their efforts leverage greater institutional change in this critical area?
I took this as a personal challenge. And here we are. ready to roll.

And here is the Mission:

To create and bring mindful change and innovation to Poughkeepsie Day School in order to improve learning and teaching.

As I see it, the idea is for these teams to delve into aspects of the topic while remaining connected with the other teams so that connections and cross fertilization become even more of the norm than they already are. The basic idea is for affinity groups – not groupthink tanks – but interconnected, cross-divisional teams interested in some of the same big ideas. And for those teams to make change within the school by identifying what matters, what we can do about it and then getting started.

It’s an opportunity to work with others to shape something that has clarity, direction and results. And the accountability is built into the mission.

Each group will create a specific mission in addition to the overall mission/ purpose. Each group will create an opening charge. And the ultimate shape and direction will be created by those in the group.

As a head, for me this is a step in creating systemic change that starts with charging the people who can handle it the best: teachers. I want to see what a bunch of creative teachers can come up with when given the charge of innovation.  I want to see teachers taking the lead, getting excited, stepping out, reaching out and reaching in to lead innovation.
I hope that my role will be cheerleader-in-chief, snack provider and promoter. There’s a lot of work to be done so I hope I can be useful in keeping the engines running and providing support.
I hope we can pull this off and that is is meaningful, productive  and makes a difference. We have an Innovate tab on our new website so reporting the results will be easy!
And as inspiration for all of us there is John Hunter. He’ll be at Poughkeepsie Day School in November and that’s another story.
But for now I’ll just take this one line from his influential TEDTalk:
“What do you want to do?”
That’s one of the most provocative questions that we can ask of any learner, including a head of school.
And here are a few post script pics of faculty at work:

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