THE BLOG

Inside Lies Magic: Investing Time in June for Planning for Next Year

Jul 07, 2011 | Updated Sep 06, 2011

One of my favorite books is called Outside Lies Magic by Harvard School of Design Professor John Stilgoe. I used to assign it to my Harvard Graduate School of Education students who were designing curriculum because teachers tend to equate staying indoors with learning. Stilgoe's basic premise is get outside, start noticing and follow your wondering to its conclusion. For example, the book includes the fascinating history of the design of the federal highway system which was patterned after the German autobahn for military expediency first and foremost. When Stilgoe teaches, he refuses to give a detailed course syllabus. He thinks his course, which is very popular, should pursue questions posed by the students.

At our small charter high school, we joke about how much we value "reflection," because we do, but it takes so much time to be reflective! We set aside a full five days in June, and another ten in August, strictly for this invaluable reflection and planning by the entire faculty and staff. It's rare.

This past week we spent about twenty minutes celebrating our accomplishments (in fact, we did have a great year) and since 9:20 on Monday morning, we were pushing each other to think about how to make the school better for our students and alumni. We made a list of which topics we wanted to address and set to work on them. In a previous year, faculty identified a need for greater consistency around discipline and crafted the key elements which were then developed into an on line Citizenship System by school co-founder Dr. George Brackett. We need time to be inventive.

In a tradition we borrowed from Outward Bound, we begin every faculty meeting with a reading. On Wednesday, Alli Poirot, Humanities teacher, shared Brian Eno's introduction to What Have You Changed Your Mind About? , edited by John Brockman, as the opening reading. This short piece prompted a lively discussion about "becoming less wrong." It's a resonating concept for me: a primary goal of learning is to become less wrong. There's a liberating humility when learning is viewed through that lens.

The point of our hard work is to build a better school where we all become "less wrong." We have been adamantly opposed to grade inflation, but we received feedback from several college admissions officers that our hard line on grading was in fact hurting our highest performing students. Our principal Thabiti Brown found intriguing data on grading for the state of Massachusetts. This is preliminary data from a voluntary pilot study, so we can't read too much into it at this point. But it is food for thought. The data includes all subjects and all grades (1-12) for 13,593 students who completed a course: 49% received an A; 22.6% received a B; 11.1% received a C; 4.8% received a D and 3.9% failed. In contrast, at Codman, our average GPA is C plus. We don't want to hurt our own students in applying for college, but we also don't want to inflate grades. We've been puzzling and sorting out a solution. It takes uninterrupted, focused, sustained time working together to develop solutions, though.

Finland's public education system is enjoying a great deal of attention these days. One characteristic worth emulating is how much time they give teachers to plan and work together. It is very important to go outside and explore but at the end of the year, creating time for educators to work together indoors to reflect and plan can also unleash magic.