Staying Alive: Embracing Curricular Change and Collaboration
The entire first floor of The Weber School is a Women’s Gallery, displaying the lives of close to a hundred women along its art-lit hallways and alcoves. These are not the photographs of donors or past presidents. Rather, the lives we celebrate along this floor are ordinary Jewish women who have led often unheralded lives, each interviewed by individual students who then translated their lives into the vocabulary of conceptual art—using metaphor and juxtaposition, texture, color, and symbolic object, using the mixed media tools of the conceptual artist. The teen concept-artists animated sepia-tinted lives of 80 or 90 or 100 years into color, teasing out their textures, exploring them with whimsy or poignancy, always looking toward meaning. From the minute you enter our building and make your way down our hallways, you know you are in a different kind of school: a place where curricular innovation is prized, shared and given a prominent place, a school where ordinary life and narrative can inspire art, an environment where curricular iconoclasm is the language of discourse.
Curricular ideas are not hard to dream up. Implementing them with insistence on maintaining their integrity, both initially and over time, takes fierce determination. Convincing colleagues, who may bristle at, or be afraid of, change is the biggest hurdle to substantive new initiatives. What if an idea is so big that it promises to—threatens to—upset “school as we know it”? What if the risks are real and the rewards uncertain? What if it bombs?
I will share two of the many initiatives that have propelled us this year. Each is big, each game-changing for our school; each is at a critical stage of its development—one in the early stages of design and implementation, the other at a key moment for honest review and revision.
The first initiative is Haskalah Term. Here’s the premise: take a month off midyear, put a cold stop to whatever you’ve been doing, fire it up with wild, team-taught, interdisciplinary never-before-offered courses, reconstruct time to fit the course, not the other way around—blast off the doors of the school to include the entire city, bring in “adjuncts” to teach hot-button courses we aren’t trained for—and from the get-go, insist on seamless integration of general and Jewish studies that we all acknowledge is the missing connective tissue of day school education.
There are huge hurdles to clear. This idea challenges many sacred notions of day schools, presents teachers with the challenge of creating additional curricula beyond what they teach the other eight months of the year, and asks that they team up across disciplines to push past their comfort zones for a full month’s unvetted experiment. They will be losing a month’s instructional time in “regular” classes, stopping AP courses cold for a month, and substituting substantive broad learning instead. Will teachers feel competent to face down long-held assumptions and overcome resistance to challenging the status quo?
Clearing Hurdles: Energized Pole-Vaulting or Measured Bridge-Building?
Pole-vaulting is a solo endeavor, stunningly glorious when successful. Bridge-building is slower, requiring a plan and group of skilled builders working in concert, but the result is a permanent entryway to somewhere new. For Idea 1, we opted for bridge-building.
The first pylon we set down acknowledged the difficulty of what we are asking of our entire faculty. Then we faced down its inherent cons: four weeks less for the semester courses, but in its place new month-long and decidedly interdisciplinary courses. The pros? An ambitious opportunity that supports and furthers our mission, that reinspires faculty and students, that provides a vehicle for defining ourselves—as innovators, as interdisciplinary big thinkers that have the power to break down curricular silos—and a real invitation for intense schoolwide interdisciplinary commitment to JS/GS integration.
Our inspired head of school, who loves to fan the flames of innovation, and does it with vigor and intention, gave us the go-ahead for January 2017.
And go we did. First we targeted the early adapters, those teachers undaunted and exhilarated by initial out-of-the-box conversations, to form The Design Team. We designed early iterations of a calendar and schedule and talked through problems of credit and sports participation and grades and GPAs. Our next step will be in early spring when we will roll it out to the faculty and take time to unpack and digest and consider the issues that will emerge. By April we will call for first drafts of proposed courses for Haskalah Term’s debut.
This “month off” will be a “month on,” on long curricular expeditions into uncharted territory—part project-based learning, part true interdisciplinary collaboration and cohesion, part pure nervous experiment—but all reminding us that we, who spend our lives in the classroom, crave curricular complexity and collegiality to keep us alive. The support structure of the bridge is up; now we’re designing the cars.
Due diligence matters when institutional change is at stake. We looked at models of other schools that have taken some version of this road. Two are here in Atlanta and we’ve had repeated conversations and visits with both. The first, founded in the 1970s, incorporated two months of curricular exploration as part of their founding vision. The second, founded in 1878, with the largest endowment of any non-boarding school in the United States, took several focused years and six out-of-state visits to progressive independent schools to study the idea, plus two years of stakeholder focus groups to test the water. This January, they moved forward with a 3-week experiment. Both schools shared with us cautions and encouragement. And both helped us understand that our template must be designed to reflect who and what we are.
There are budgetary issues. We envision classes after lunch to be “expeditionary.” Imagine, for instance, a class called Atlanta: Past, Present and Future: Civil War excursions, the sites of early Jewish settlement and 19th C. Reform and Orthodox synagogues, the living history of Leo Frank, the chiseled gravestones at historic Oakland Cemetery documenting early Jewish Atlanta settlement, trips to the Capitol Building and conversations with current legislators and policy makers, city planners and transportation moguls looking to our future. That would be a month of learning and traveling that leaves students with whole cloth learning, not scraps pinned together. And this was just one of thirty interwoven big course ideas that emerged from our very first Design Team meeting. Once the curricular straitjacket is off, teachers can levitate.
The Design Team is alight with nervous energy at the size of the initiative but also the potential we feel at what might be unleashed. Stay tuned.
The second idea is long discussed in new day school thinking: to offer Jewish studies course credit in general studies electives by re-configuring the general syllabus to inject Jewish studies texts and connectors at key moments. While this may seem less radical than beginning with a blank slate for integrating courses, it is also more cumbersome. Meaningful, seamless connections are hard to anticipate and choreograph so that students have seen one performance when the curtain goes down on the class, not two disconnected acts that leave you puzzled about what you just saw.
Here we chose to pole-vault instead of bridge build. The run-up to the high bar can, potentially at least, propel you skyward. So, several courses ripe for the challenge were targeted, each taught by teachers willing to give it a try. Six popular electives were selected, ranging across three departments: English, history and science. Teachers agreed to rework their curricula and create Jewish Studies connections using texts, materials and knowledgeable colleagues outside their department. The electives selected were six popular and successful ones: Astronomy (Science), Dante (Humanities), Rebels, Freaks, and Fools in Literature and Film (English), The Salt Life: A Voyage in Nautical Literature (English), Down the Rabbit Hole (a core philosophy course), and American Humanities, a cross-disciplinary course looking at America 1654-1950. We are nearing the end of its first semester of implementation and now ready for the critical next step: evaluation and revision.
Clearing the Hurdles
One hurdle was that of the 5 teachers teaching those 6 courses, 4 were not Jewish (3 Christians and one Hindu). They all shared an investment in the value of Jewish/general studies interdisciplinary connections and were particularly excited about their own learning as the term unfolded. To assure intellectual integrity, deeply important to all the participants, the initial proposal guaranteed a safety net of resources and Jewish studies colleagues’ help finding fertile moments of connection and serving as guest teachers.
Teachers agreed to look at existing syllabi and locate cohesion points at those organically ripe moments. That works best if a Jewish studies colleague sits with you as the course is developing and is also willing to be the expert in the room at predetermined times during the course. Logistical arrangements can be the sticking point, and in interdisciplinary curricula, timing matters.
Initially there was plenty of nervousness and understandable reluctance but also a healthy, “if not now, when” willingness to trailblaze. Now at midpoint in the year, we take a healthy pause to look back, evaluate, tinker and tune and rethink and revise based on what we learned.
The outcome of the individual evaluation conversations had common threads. They all agreed that the authenticity of all interdisciplinary learning rests on the seamlessness of the connections you are creating, because in that seamless weaving lies the elegance of deep learning. In mid-year evaluation discussions, participants propose the elegant, foolproof and expensive model of two teachers in the room together. It is no coincidence that is the model for next year’s Haskalah Term. We’ll be able to see if that model is the ideal we anticipate.
Teaching can be repetitive and predictable. Fighting the proclivity for safety and sameness can be surprisingly hard: change is filled with risk and even failure.
Yet change also creates disruption to charge our creativity, challenges us with unexpected obstacles to fire our imaginations and locates and privileges colleagues who are unafraid of everything but complacency. In fact, the worst outcome is not failure—it’s stagnation.
The two initiatives I’ve described are not for the professionally fearful. And these are but two of half a dozen large-scale initiatives that are charging our imaginations at school this year. We are poised and even hungry for creative disruption. That’s our mindset of staying alive—institutionally, individually, intellectually and spiritually.