Sunday, September 28, 2014

A LePort Teacher's Weekend at Stanford

This weekend I drove up from Huntington Beach back to Palo Alto to work as a coach at the Challenge Success fall conference. It's a long drive, and I must admit it was somewhat surreal being back on Stanford's campus for the two days of the conference. Stanford is the kind of place that exists in a bubble, mostly out of time. The inside of the School of Education building, in particular, looks almost exactly as it did when I first arrived at Stanford in 2009, and it probably looked the same in 1979. My sense of awkward familiarity was aided, of course, by the presence of my picture on the "current doctoral students" wall and my still-extant mailbox in the basement (it even had mail in it). Since I'm technically "on leave" I shouldn't have been surprised, but I've become so invested in my new job at LePort that it's hard to remember that part of my identity which is, still, Paul Franz, Stanford PhD Student.

This dual identity was particularly in play while coaching. It is my Stanford background, not my teaching background, that brought me to Challenge Success. Being a teacher has made me a much better coach and facilitator, but it's my connection to educational research and best practice that makes me a quality - and indeed even minimally qualified - coach for CS sessions.

Challenge Success is a non-profit co-founded by Denise Pope, Madeline Levine, and Jim Lobdell. It grew out of what was at the time a very small but poignant strain of research which suggested that "successful" students around the country were actually stressed-out, unhealthy, and unhappy, and furthermore often engaged in manipulation and cheating. Denise's Doing School is an excellent ethnographic study that chronicles the problem. The goal of CS is to address this issue by coaching schools through a process which will help them implement research-based practices to reduce student stress and increase overall well being. At its core, this implies a culture shift away from a strict, zero-sum mentality in which success equals GPA and elite college enrollment to a more holistic view which includes honoring balance and non-academic (or non-traditional academic) achievements.

The suite of policy changes which Challenge Success schools have implemented over the past 10 years is expansive. For example, schools have switched to block schedules or added late days, implemented policies limiting homework, moved towards more authentic or project-based assessments, set aside more time for faculty collaboration (because it's not only successful students that can be over-stressed), started regular parent education programs, and countless other efforts.

It's truly inspiring to be even a small part of a conversation at a school trying to make radical cultural or structural change. The school I coached last year has been trying very hard to implement a test calendar and associated policies, and is now looking to start a series of regular teacher-to-teacher observations with a particular lens on how homework assignments are used in class, all in an effort to increase the quality of homework while decreasing its quantity. My new school this year already plans to pilot a block schedule, but their larger goals are deeply cultural: they want to take on the zero-sum culture of success that they feel has harmed their school community and taken the joy out of learning for their students.

Part of what is so effective about Challenge Success is that, as a coach, it is not my job to advocate wholesale restructuring on day one. Coaching is a process of gently guiding teams towards solutions that will most address their particular contexts, and which will have the largest impact while still remaining feasible in implementation. Tackling a deep-seated school culture problem starts with minor reforms, and with building a community of parents, teachers, students, and administrators who can work together to reach larger goals in the long term. Ultimately, it is the commitment of schools and the stakeholders therein (and, indeed, all of the stakeholders therein) that leads to the success of reform efforts.

As you might imagine, participating in this kind of conference required a pretty significant mind-shift for me after my first month teaching 8th graders. I was amused by how similar running a discussion with administrators, teachers, parents, and students was to running one of my literature discussions, but the content is so different, and the objectives so differently scaled. In my class, I'm trying to make a deep impact on each and every one of 13 students. As a coach, I'm trying to facilitate a process which will impact potentially hundreds (or thousands) of students, and many hundreds (or thousands) of adults, but my particular impact on any one person is immeasurably small. Both kinds of efforts - deep and narrow, and shallow and broad - are important, I think, and they are equally difficult to do well, but the concern with the individual that lies at the heart of teaching simply can't express itself in the same way in the coaching environment.

I'm satisfied that I get to experience both. I'm particularly satisfied because, after spending the weekend talking to people from schools other than LePort, I have an even deeper appreciation for how special my new employer is. Almost every significant, research-based solution that Challenge Success advocates is already in effect at LePort. We use a block schedule. Teachers have time to prepare and to plan, and are engaged in a culture of near-constant observation, feedback, and growth. Homework is minimal and always purposeful, and students have an hour-long homework period at the end of the day after classes are completed. Parent communication and education is one of LePort's greatest strengths. Above all, an emphasis on allowing each student to define their own success - rather than holding every student to the exact same, externally determined standard - is one of our core tenets. I may be the only person who has any kind of intimate knowledge of both Challenge Success and LePort, and it strikes me how much they share for two organizations with no contact. Then again, I likely wouldn't have ended up at LePort if it didn't embody the philosophies and employ the policies that I came to hold dear in my time at Stanford and with CS.

After even a month at LePort it has become easy for me to take for granted that LePort is how a school runs, but returning to the outside world - and returning, in particular, to Stanford at a conference attended by many of the best independent and public schools in California - I was reminded that, if LePort is not wholly unique, it's close. Even most elite schools still carry with them, at the end of the day, the legacy of "this is how education is done" and "this is what success means." I'm fortunate to teach somewhere that doesn't need to attend a Challenge Success conference because they got it right from the start.

On a personal note, I also took heart from a conversation I had in passing with Denise during the busy conference day. Often I felt somewhat out of place, this weekend, because I was no longer a researcher. Wandering around Stanford, it was easy to get caught up in Stanford's culture of success: high-quality, impactful, well-funded research leading to a tenure-track position at an elite institution. That's a path I've put aside, and however much I am satisfied with my choice, a part of me still wants to paint my decision to leave Stanford as a failure on my part, instead of as a healthy response to an untenable emotional situation. When I ran into Denise she sent me the message I needed to hear, surrounded as I was by the Academy writ large. In so many words, her message was that success isn't just about a degree from a prestigious university. She asked me how I felt about teaching, and I told her that I was having a blast, and loving it every day. "Good," she said, "I always knew you would. I'm so happy you found your place." I replied, with a smile, "Me too."

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