Saturday, March 2, 2013

Early Reflections on #NAISAC13

I am flying home from the 2013 NAIS Annual Conference. As usual, the best part was interacting with so many other committed folks--friends from the past and new ones for the future. The sessions were mixed, and I guess that also is to be expected. The conference was the last one under the extraordinary leadership of NAIS president Pat Bassett, who during his twelve years has broadened and deepened the conversation about independent school education in vital ways. So, with a nod to Pat, in this early reflection on #naisac13, I am wondering what I experienced that is "made to stick."
  • Jim Collins gave the opening keynote, and I was disappointed because I have read his work several times and heard him speak twice previously. His remarks contained no new broad strokes. But I reveled in the passionate and intensity of his delivery, a reminder of what we owe to an audience, whether it's a few folks or a few thousand. I also loved the self-deprecating story he told about himself, when he was told to "stop trying to be so interesting and try to be more interested." Powerful, sage advice.
  • I don't know how to explain just what Sekou Andrews did/does. A former English teacher, he is now a prize-winning slam poet who also is a motivational speaker. He combined humor, drama, imagery, personal experience, idealism, and subtle digs to craft majestically sweeping calls for us to take advantage of our freedom as independent schools.
  • Alexis Madrigal shared his story of first logging on to the Internet as a way of assuaging his loneliness in a small town where he had no friends and how it also satisfied his apparently insatiable curiosity about everything. He would hear points in school, then research them online that night; he expanded his learning in various directions while creating unique nodes of intersection. In many ways he embodies the way learning really works--and the way schools need to let it happen.
  • Tererai Trent is one of the most amazing people about whom I ever have heard. It's no wonder Oprah Winfrey calls her "my favorite guest ever." Born in a small African village with no electricity or running water, Tererai showed a thirst for learning but was not allowed to attend school because she is female. But she taught herself with her brother's books. Her father married her off at age eleven, and she had four children by age eighteen. An agent from Heiffer International helped her come to the United States, and Tererai first earned her GED...and eventually her doctorate. With Oprah's help, she has started a series of schools back around her village. Tererai epitomizes belief in the possibilities of education and chasing the dreams filled with one's meaning and purpose.
  • For years, I have lamented horrific use of PowerPoint slides to display endless text. Alas, it continues. So full marks to Kevin Ruth, who in his session on "Rethinking Leadership" utilized great slides, frequently with very compelling images to drive home his points. I suspect Kevin has studied Presentation Zen. More need to. Similar to what I said about Collins, it's part of honoring your audience, not to mention being more effective with your message.
  • In his session on difficult conversations, Michael Riera (head of Brentwood School in Los Angeles) used a metaphor I will embrace and utilize as leader of pre-k--8 school. He talked about how with lower school children, parents have the job of manager of their children. The kids need and love that. But in middle school, it becomes the child's job to fire his parents, who desperately want to hold on to the job.
  • As I have written in several places, for years I have struggled with the issue of meaningful metrics, particularly for middle school students. I have heard the CWRA is working on a middle school version, and that has promise. More immediately, I was thrilled to hear about the Mission Skills Assessment. It takes a triangular approach to measure growth in six areas essential for school and life: teamwork, resilience, creativity, curiosity, ethics, and time management. I plan to contact the Independent School Data Exchange and some of the twenty or so schools using it to learn more.
  • Duke professor Cathy Davidson gave a sweeping historical panorama of the last time education went through sweeping changes during the Industrial Revolution as part of,showing why revolution needs to happen now. Towards the end she offered five things that can be done now and aren't very hard. Davidson says we should: Rethink liberal arts as the start-up curriculum to develop resilient global citizens. Move from critical thinking to creative contribution. Make sure what we value is what we count. Find creative ways to model in-learning. Take institutional change personally. I have no argument with her list, but I do wonder about the level of difficulty since each marks a gigantic shift. Also, in some ways I prefer--and will use--another of her admonitions: we need to become a "culture of makers."
While those are individual points, together they represent a larger, truly encouraging notion. For several years now, the message has been the same about how we are in the 21st century and life is so different and so we have to change know the rest of the chorus. But something felt different this time. I seemed to hear more about how things are changing and not just how they should change. Finally, we seem to be embracing our independence and creating the schools young people really need. There remains pleny of work to be done, but perhaps that is why Pat Bassett feels he can step down now. To use another couple of metaphors from one of his favorite works, there are great people in the rights seats on the bus; and after twelve years the flywheel has built enough momentum that it will keep spinning faster and faster.

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