All posts by Steve Roushakes

A Thoughtful School of Dialogue, Decency, and Trust

  • by Steve Roushakes       

    Dear Friends,

    If there is one thing I have learned in my twenty years as an educator, it’s this:

    To learn, grow, and be happy, students need to feel safe.

    I remember, during the weeks after 9/11, many of our Muslim and foreign-born students felt uncertain, and downright scared, by what they perceived as a general hostility towards them among the American public. One of our parents went so far as to wear a baseball cap to cover her headscarf while driving.

    But during those dark days there was never any question that The New School was, and will always be, a thoughtful school of dialogue, decency, and trust. We are an inclusive community where all of our students feel safe and thrive.

    This year’s presidential campaign has been ugly and shocking, with xenophobic, anti-Semitic, misogynistic, and Islamophobic rhetoric; and with the election of Donald Trump, people again – especially our foreign-born and Muslim citizens and residents – feel unsafe and uncertain about the future.

    The feeling is not lost on children and young adults, and already we see students feeling anxious, which can only inhibit their social, emotional, and academic growth. Such a state of fear is unacceptable, especially where the wellbeing of our children is concerned.

    Please know that The New School is, and will always be, an inclusive, welcoming, and safe space for all students.

    Please know, too, that we are a school based on open dialogue and reason; we don’t toe a particular party line – we let our students draw their own conclusions – but we do openly cherish our diverse student body and faculty, our one-of-a-kind academic program, and the humanity and thoughtfulness of our school culture.

    I’m so proud to be part of The New School, and I smile inwardly and outwardly each unique day at our wonderful school.

    My door is always open, friends.

    Very sincerely,
    Steve

    —–

    Steve Roushakes
    Assistant Head of School
    The New School of Northern Virginia
    sroushakes@newschoolva.com

    Education Is Still About People

  • by  Steve Roushakes      

    When I read about school systems forced by budgetary pressures or changing priorities to increase class sizes, I wince. Despite its allure, throwing more and newer technology at overcrowded classrooms does not, to my mind, make up for the creeping depersonalization of education, which concerns me greatly, given what I see as the fundamentally human nature of education. I’d like to explore that human essence of learning here.

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    One of the most enjoyable aspects of my job, as a school administrator, is meeting with prospective students and their families. On average, I will spend an hour and a half in an initial interview, asking questions, yes, but also stepping back and encouraging the student to direct the conversation.

    It’s truly rewarding getting to know students and their particular geniuses – along with their wishes, frustrations, interests, and how they view themselves. Over the years I have met with hundreds of students, and I am constantly reminded that you can’t generalize people and everyone is an individual.

    felicia-1Felicia

    But I’ve also come to recognize that virtually all students, their individualities aside, will describe the teacher, not the subject or class content, when I ask them about their favorite class. It seems to be a universal truth that a student’s favorite class is the one with his/her favorite teacher. And it’s an inverse law: it’s the teacher, not the subject, students describe when asked to reflect on negative experiences.

    For me, and I know for so many other students, parents and educators, there’s no question that the teacher is everything.

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    It’s certainly not remarkable that a great teacher is at the heart of a positive student experience. Rather, what’s struck me over the years is that students, regardless of background, will describe their favorite teachers in similar ways, as if they’re talking about the same person. So who is this Great Teacher?

    For simplicity, I’ll call her Ms. Friedman, and here’s what I know about her.

    Ms. Friedman’s genius as a teacher – her ability to bring out the best in her students – lies in three approaches:

    • She creates a space for students to be part of the learning in the classroom.

    Ms. Friedman’s class is a space of active and creative learning. The students are asked open-ended questions, rather than factual questions, which require higher-order thinking and invite them to engage with content on a deep level. Students’ opinions truly matter, because they are contributing to an open exploration, and the learning feels purposeful. The students feel heard, appreciated, and good about themselves.

    • She is knowledgeable and genuinely enthusiastic about her subject and lessons.

    Ms. Friedman’s happiness and love of what she does is infectious. She knows her stuff – she’s smart, smart, smart – but her intellect is inspiring, rather than intimidating, because she appreciates and invites her students to co-create the learning in the classroom. They feel: I can be like Ms. Friedman too.

    • She understands and appreciates her students as individual learners and works with them “at eye level,” giving them specific, honest, and encouraging feedback on their work.

    Ms. Friedman devotes considerable time and energy to giving her students meaningful and specific feedback on their work, and she expects them to build on her feedback for their future work. It’s a cultural principle in Ms. Friedman’s class that we all have strengths and areas needing improvement – no two individuals are perfectly alike – and her students see her notes as constructive encouragement, rather than points of failure. Her students feel safe and are motivated by her feedback to set higher and higher expectations for their work.

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    This is an idealized portrait, I know; teaching and bringing out the best in students is no simple job. I’ve met so many amazing teachers over the years, all of whom have their own unique strengths and approaches, and who are much-loved by their students. I don’t mean to say that Ms. Friedman represents the Platonic form of The Great Teacher. Still, her portrait has emerged from my many conversations with students, and, when students share their thoughts and experiences, I tend to listen carefully.

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    Jasmine

    For me, the takeaway is not that teachers need to model themselves after Ms. Friedman. Rather, as a school administrator, I care most about school structure and making sure nothing complicates or prohibits Ms. Friedman from being Ms. Friedman; and as I consider Ms. Friedman’s three approaches – i.e., how students I’ve spoken to describe their most positive learning experiences – it’s immediately clear to me that the greatest factor is classroom size.

    It’s clear to me, too, that education is still about people, and there is no substitute for student-teacher interaction. The great challenge is creating and maintaining structures that support and encourage that fundamental human interaction.

    MM3Mary Meurisse

    Steven Roushakes
    Assistant Head of School
    The New School of Northern Virginia

     

    Reflections on Our Beliefs

  • by Travis Cooper                      

    It’s amazing how many schools of thought have similar insights. Whether we look to institutions of faith, the academies, or even folklore, some themes are universal and deeply human. There is one universal insight that tops my list of favorites: “What you believe influences what you accomplish.” Beliefs rooted in good information, experience, and a sense of purpose can set people and institutions on the right track by coloring how they see the world and, ultimately, impacting the kinds of outcomes they produce.

    One of the strongest examples of this truth comes from outstanding research on self-efficacy and learning. This research suggests that students who have a strong sense of self-efficacy—the belief in their own ability to succeed in specific situations or accomplish a goal—try harder, recover from failure more quickly, and are far more likely to succeed in college, a career, and their personal lives. It’s astonishing how adopting just one new belief can have such an impact.

    Institutional beliefs are also important, and we at The New School have distilled ours down to five statements. These beliefs are grounded in educational research, more than 25 years of experience, and a sense of purpose that we capture in our mission statement: Our mission is to help students learn to use their minds well and take charge of their academic lives.

    1. We believe students are intrinsically motivated to learn, achieve, and create.

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    Often when students are new to our community they’re also new to the idea of educational ownership. So much of modern education, for reasons having little to do with the quality of teachers and students, has become needlessly formulaic. Standardized testing, standardized curricula, and a focus on memorizing a standardized set of facts suggest that educated people are all the same. But the real mark of an educated person is his/her ability to explore, discern, learn, and create. The goal of any educational institution should be to create the environment and relationships that encourage students to explore their own interests, and help students make meaningful connections between those interests, academic material, and the wider world. At The New School, we avoid standardized tests as a measurement of our students’ abilities; rather, we encourage student to demonstrate their learning through interactive exhibitions, class discussions, and individualized projects that allow them to pursue their personal interests.

    2. We believe a special dimension of equality exists in the teacher-student relationship. We celebrate this dimension because it allows students to see themselves as successful and creative learners and individuals.

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    The student-teacher relationship is sacred. Lev S. Vygotsky, the great developmental psychologist and educational thinker, wrote, “Human learning presupposes a specific social nature and a process by which children grow into the intellectual life of those around them.” Our teachers create an intellectual culture by modeling quality thinking and demonstrating how to cultivate a vibrant, collegial community. Students and teachers read together, play together, travel together, and learn from each other. These relationships are the foundation of The New School because our teachers constantly reinforce the perspective that students are capable learners who have something unique to contribute to our school and the world.

    3. We believe teachers must help students develop the essential skills and habits of mind they need to use their minds well. We use tools of authentic assessment (portfolios, exhibitions, performances, projects, presentations, essays, and more) to evaluate students’ academic growth.

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    Authentic assessment is a term used often to describe activities that require students to demonstrate sophistication. At The New School, with our focus on educational ownership, students personalize their learning and have a say in how they will demonstrate their growth. These assessments represent the thoughtful applications of knowledge and skills that are most valued throughout college, a career, or a student’s personal life. Our experience has proven that the more students are allowed to personalize academic content and are challenged to demonstrate sophistication, the better prepared they are for life after high school.

    4. We believe students, teachers, and parents must relate to one another with mutual respect and trust; we all must act in ways that benefit the community.

    Parents and teachers represent two of the three most important relationships a student will have (friends are very important, as well). With this in mind, students, teachers, and parents work closely together to make sure each student, and the community as a whole, is thriving. Frequent, ongoing, and honest dialogue must exist to ensure that students celebrate their successes, plan to succeed in areas where they struggle, and continue to take more and more ownership of their academic lives.

    5. We believe In our skilled faculty: collegial friends of the highest order and talented student mentors.

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    We are so lucky to have assembled such a talented, passionate team of teachers—most of whom have been with us for more than 10 years. They are the true heroes of The New School. They love working with students and have an uncanny ability to see what a student can become through hard work and support. In addition to teaching amazing, one-of-a-kind classes, it is common to see teachers working on projects with students, traveling the world with them and sharing their successes and challenges. Our teachers cultivate a sense that there is always more to learn and always something to be excited about. We believe deeply in our teachers, who invest their time and talents in the growth and development of young people.

    The New School is a special place. Our students enjoy their days, develop their minds, prepare for the future, and nurture a sense that they are capable people who have something valuable to contribute. These outcomes are the direct result of what we believe as a school—beliefs that permeate every interaction among the students, parents, and teachers who call The New School community home.

    Travis Cooper
    Social Science Teacher

    What Does it Mean “To Use One’s Mind Well”?

  • by Steve Roushakes                 

    The pedagogy and culture at The New School revolve around the belief that learning should be purposeful and that students should have choice and agency in their education. Our mission – to help students learn to use their minds well and take charge of their academic lives – captures this two-part belief in simple terms, although exactly what we mean by “using one’s mind well” and “taking charge” may not be self-evident. In his February 2014 blog, What is Educational Ownership? John Potter, our founder and headmaster, discussed this principle of choice in education, whereby students considerably shape their academic lives and begin to set high standards for their work. It’s certainly worth checking out. Here, I’d like to take a closer look at what it means to use one’s mind well.

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    Perhaps a good place to start is with criticisms of American education, which are not hard to find these days, and which seem to lament a general absence of dynamic thinking in school curriculums. Here are just a couple:

    One study…found that 40 percent of college seniors fail to graduate with the complex reasoning skills needed in today’s workplace. The test, the Collegiate Learning Assessment Plus, is given to freshmen and seniors and measures the gains made during college in critical thinking, writing and communication, and analytical reasoning.
    –Jeffrey J. Selingo, “Why are so many college students failing to gain job skills before graduation?” The Washington Post, January 26, 2015

    Don’t get me wrong—to study science, history, literature, indeed anything, one needs information. But shorn of their connections to one another, to underlying questions, to a disciplined way of construing this pile of information, facts are simply “inert knowledge”—to use the pithy phrase of the British American philosopher Alfred Whitehead.
    –Howard Gardner, Five Minds for the Future

    What these opinions and statistics point to, it seems, is an over-emphasis on the accumulation of facts at the expense of applied learning. Facts matter, of course, but they shouldn’t be mistaken as the be-all-end-all of learning, and the real heart and soul of a quality education – the really hard work, in fact – is applying what we’ve learned. “…analytical reasoning…” “a disciplined way of construing information…” This is largely what we mean at The New School by using one’s mind well.

    SLsydney01Sydney, Class of 2015

    It’s ultimately about asking the right questions. Ask a factual question (When was DNA discovered?) and you will get a factual, or “inert,” response (1869). When framed as a problem-based or essential question, however (How has the discovery of DNA benefited modern medicine?), you are asking the student to do much more than simply recall a fact; you are asking her to make connections, synthesize facts, and express and support an informed opinion. You are asking her to use her mind well.

    Compare these factual questions to their open-ended counterparts:

    • When was the telegraph created? / How did the invention of the telegraph serve European imperialism?
    • What are Newton’s three laws of motion? / How may Newton’s laws of motion help us understand, and thus improve, fuel efficiency of cars?
    • How many soliloquies does Hamlet give? / What do Hamlet’s soliloquies tell us about his character?

    Such open-ended questions are certainly challenging, yes, but they also invite the students to co-create the learning in the classroom. No sophistry: the teacher doesn’t have the answer. Rather, there are degrees of quality, informed answers, and students’ opinions therefore truly matter, because they are contributing to an open exploration. We all want what we say to matter, and students are no different. In my experience, too, students like to be challenged, so long as they see the purpose in the work, and it’s certainly fair to label such questions purposeful. I think many students feel alienated by their classroom experiences (I know I did) because the learning is so often one-directional and fact-based.

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    Great teachers indeed ask thought-provoking questions (and great schools let them ask those questions). But great teachers also ask questions that are meaningful to their disciplines, i.e., questions that train students to think as historians, scientists, novelists, etc. This is what Gardner means by “a disciplined way of construing information,” which is sometimes called habits of mind in education.

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    A similar, disciplined-based approach is to frame classes as “information in context,” whereby the class itself is an application of learning. For example, within the high school at The New School, we offer topical, or applied learning, classes within each credit requirement. Thus, rather than English 9, Chemistry 10, etc., students may choose:

    • 20th Century Social Movements through Music (U.S. History)
    • Art in the Context of the Self (Art)
    • The Chemistry of War (Chemistry)
    • Cryptology (Mathematics)
    • The Ethics of Capitalism (World Studies)
    • Roller Coasters (Physics)
    • The Search for Self in Literature (English)

    Teaching information in context allows students to see the purpose and real-world application of what they are learning.

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    There’s indeed nothing revolutionary about such a question-based / disciplined-based / using one’s mind well-approach to learning; it’s the foundation of liberal arts and sciences programs, not to mention most graduate programs. So why is such an approach so rare at the elementary, middle, and high school levels? The reason, I think, has mostly to do with the structural demands that standardized testing, such as the SOLs, creates for schools. There just isn’t enough time to stop and think. But for us at The New School and other like-minded schools, depth of thought and application of learning – using one’s mind well – always win over breadth of coverage.

    I think schools should examine their pedagogies by asking themselves, What are you trying to create? My answer to that question, as I think about our focus on using one’s mind well and students taking charge of their lives, is this:

    A New School graduate is an autonomous, skilled learner: an individual who owns his/her education, is self-aware and poised, and is fully prepared for college and a bright future.  

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    A Personal Reflection on the Seminar

  • by Steve Roushakes          

    My ideal learning structure is the seminar. I’ve always valued personable exchanges of thoughts, and I just don’t find larger learning structures energizing or rewarding. Put simply, I don’t like to be strictly on the receiving end of a conversation, and I suppose too, as an educator, I worry about educational models that disallow a dialectic between the teacher and students.

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    Growing up I disliked school, especially junior high and high school, I think because the learning was structured in such a one-directional way. The teacher spoke, and we, the students, sat quietly, took notes, and went to the next class. I remember liking several of my teachers, wonderfully bright and witty individuals, but I don’t remember ever speaking with them, either in or out of class. I did okay grade-wise, but I never felt my mind genuinely sparked; I never felt part of the learning or that I was adding value in any way by my presence.

    A case in point is seventh grade. I was at Thoreau (just a few miles from The New School), and a couple months into the school year I realized I hadn’t said a single word in any of my classes. Another month went by, and another – it became a game: how long could I go? – and in the end I went the entire school year without speaking in class. I must have learned something, but I honestly can’t recall any meaningful moments from my classes.

    A great change came in college, though, when I entered my first seminar course. For the first time I found myself engaged in a roundtable discussion with a small group of students and our professor. (I remember him perfectly, Dr. Rafeq, and I honestly believe he remembers me too.) We were a focused group, and, having never expressed my thoughts in a classroom setting, I felt uncertain. But I immediately appreciated the effect conversation-as-education had on my mind and sense of self – I also appreciated that I had a responsibility to be part of the learning – and I quickly found my voice.

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    I had never worked so hard preparing for a course. The demands and expectations were high, but I was energized by the work and looked forward to each class. I find it telling that I felt deeply challenged, yet happy and never anxious.

    The seminar was a real dividing line in my thinking about both myself and education, and I’ve never looked back. I found the learning purposefulinclusive, and humane, and I like to think that my own teaching, twenty years later, is still guided by these three principles.

    Critical Thinking is Creative Thinking

  • by Steve Roushakes           

    The most common expression in education today is the need for schools to teach critical thinking, and I couldn’t agree more. The problem, though, is that the term “critical thinking” is so widely and effortlessly used – it seems to be a catchall mission statement these days – I’m afraid it’s becoming meaningless. George Orwell rightly said that imprecise language leads to imprecise thought, and schools and educators need to define – for themselves – what they mean by critical thinking, if they want to make it the mission of their pedagogies, and if they want those pedagogies to serve their students well.

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    Of course there are many ways to define critical thinking, although most definitions, I find, revolve around the application of reason, as in:

    • Evaluating arguments
    • Solving problems
    • Distinguishing fact from opinion

    These are all good and equally valid definitions of critical thinking, and certainly great lessons and curriculums may be developed from these goals. I suppose, too, that such definitions are closest to the actual meaning of critical, which implies a keen and discerning judgment – an essential skill, for sure.

    But I like a more constructivist definition of critical thinking, one that emphasizes originality of thought and allows for the greatest possibility of informed ideas; a definition that defines critical thinking as a creative, rather than a judgmental, act. For me, critical thinking means:

    Creating meaning from information.

    Aren’t these – Meaning and Information – the two real platforms on the scale of education, and hasn’t Information been given greater weight in American education at the expense Meaning? 1492, Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel, stars convert hydrogen into helium through nuclear fusion, all dogs are descended from wolves, Martha Graham pioneered modern dance. All true, but where’s the corresponding meaning to these facts? Where’s the critical thinking?

    13566047401274783345scale2-2And the most important pedagogical question of all: How do you create meaning from information?

    At The New School, we believe that open-ended questions – essential questions – are the best approach towards teaching critical thinking. For example, for my English class on Romanticism, I began with the question What is the essence of Romanticism? which the students had to answer in a 30-minute presentation and Q&A – what we call an exhibition – at the end of our nine-week study. We read Rousseau, Goethe, Mary Shelley, Frederick Douglass; we examined the art of Friedrich, Blake, Turner; we listened to Beethoven, Chopin, Schubert; we studied nationalism and the rise of nation-states; and we sought to define the particularly Romantic concepts of the sublime, irony, and the self. Most importantly, we always read and discussed these works in the context of the essential question, which made the students engage those works critically throughout the course; after all, they would each be responsible for an informed answer to the question at the end of the class.

    I’m particularly fond of essential questions because they allow for this kind of student choice, which I think inspires engagement and motivation, and therefore leads to student success.

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    On exhibition day, no student gave an imbalanced presentation of pure information, because the essential question – What is the Essence of Romanticism? – engaged each student to create an informed and meaningful argument. Note, too, that an essential question has no one, correct answer and therefore allows the greatest possibility for student responses.

    What a fascinating series of presentations that day. The essence of Romanticism is…

    • A celebration of the uniqueness of each individual and the importance of self-realization (based on a close reading of Rousseau’s Confessions and Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave).
    • A fascination with the less rational forces in human nature (based on a close reading of Shelley’s Frankenstein and Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell).
    • A defense of the importance and truth of human emotion (based on a close reading of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads and Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther).

    It’s exciting to teach in such an environment, where you provide a space for exploration and originality of thought – always grounded in informed reasoning and relevant information. And after fourteen years at The New School, I still feel the same perennial excitement as I look forward to a new year of student possibilities.

    Welcome back to school.

    September 2014

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