This column was originally published in the Fall issue of Parker Magazine.
By Dan Lang, Assistant Head of School for JK-12 Strategic Initiatives and Head of Middle School
One of our main academic goals at Francis Parker School is to provide a continuous and connected educational experience for all students from Junior Kindergarten through Grade 12. Certainly, the COVID-19 pandemic challenged this educational quest for continuity, as reduced instructional time and online learning greatly altered our daily pedagogical approach and often forced teachers to shed beloved lessons and projects. Yet, the environment created by this unforeseen global event provided important validation we will use to inform our practice for years to come.
We learned that sometimes, less truly is more. We learned that our focus on social and emotional skills and good mental health––for both children and adults––is paramount to educational growth. We learned that we need to be intentional about how we incorporate Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) into the fabric of our curriculum. Finally, as a leading learning institution among independent schools in Southern California, we reaffirmed how critical reflection, adaptability, and intentionality are, as we continue to craft and refine a curriculum that benefits the whole child.
Parker’s pre-existing backdrop of intentionality and “staircasing” student learning served us well throughout the pandemic. The first question in our curriculum design process is always “What do we expect our students to learn?” This query supports the quick identification of the absolute essentials for each lesson, unit, and course. Every teacher at Parker evaluated, adapted, and grew. As a result, student learning remained strong.
On the heels of the pandemic, we are beginning a process that will ensure our curriculum is strategically refined each school year. Oversight for this continuing effort is one of many strategic improvements Parker will be working on during this seven-year accreditation cycle. Leading the work is Parker’s Director of Curricular Alignment and Instructional Practice Denver Guess. Within this newly-created role, Denver is responsible for the execution of our scope and sequence process and curriculum review. Working closely with our Office of DEIB, Denver is developing a system-wide tool to audit our curriculum through a variety of lenses.
“While the [job] title is quite long, I see the purpose of the role as straightforward,” says Denver. “My job is to ensure that the learning outcomes of our courses and the way we engage with students is aligned with the School’s values. If we value having an inclusive community, do our courses illuminate a variety of identities? If we have a constructivist educational philosophy, do we provide students with opportunities to actively build knowledge, as opposed to passively receiving it?”
Denver, also Parker’s Grade 6-12 Science Department Chair, possesses an exemplary skill set. He began his new role in Summer 2021. While the current focus of his work is on ensuring our students’ experiences provide validation of their own unique cultures and identities and a window into other cultures and identities, in the near future, Denver also aims to verify that our curriculum has differentiation for a variety of learners and appropriate integration of 21st Century technology. Along with our DEIB team, Denver is coordinating with division heads, assistant division heads, and our director of instructional technology and information systems for this ongoing work. One of the long-term goals is to implement a healthy, annual curricular review process that is simple, value-driven, and unbureaucratic, a process that all high-performing schools do, Denver explains.
“Operationally speaking, this means that my most immediate task is to prepare our curriculum to undergo review cycles,” he says. “As a school community, we have been working hard to complete the overview documents for our courses’ ‘scope and sequence.’ By having these documents completed, centrally located, and broadly visible to our faculty and staff, we are able to internally reflect on our stated learning outcomes and make informed, valued-driven decisions about the content of our courses.”
Our namesake Col. Francis W. Parker championed a progressive educational view that put the student learning experience at the center of teaching. Teachers are the expert learners who are modeling, guiding, and encouraging novice learners. Rather than dispensing knowledge gained through their own study and requiring students to provide a well-rehearsed repetition of the teacher’s understanding (rote learning), faculty who practice in the progressive tradition create a learning environment for students to engage with existing knowledge, explore its edges, and form their own set of knowledge. Students build knowledge and form understanding through the intersection of their own life experience with information both curated for them by the expert learner and discovered through their own efforts.
Modern educational leaders have continued the work of Col. Parker. Practicing education in this way is a deliberate act that requires teachers to be more than content experts. It requires that they also study students collectively and individually. The late educational researchers and practitioners Richard and Rebecca DuFour developed the following central questions to encourage a continuous cycle of student learning:
What do we expect our students to learn?
How will we know they have learned it?
How will we respond when some students do not learn?
How will we extend and enrich learning for students who have demonstrated proficiency?
Embracing these questions guides Parker towards a curriculum where teachers working in content teams create horizontal alignment between the same course, and grade levels are informed by the work in the grades both above and below them to create vertical alignment.
As we often comment to both our current and prospective families: “Academic excellence is the floor, and there is no ceiling.” Parker does academic excellence well, yet the strength of the Parker curriculum, specifically our ability to attend to the social and emotional needs of students, is one of the reasons families seek a Parker education for their children.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has been tragic to so many and has certainly disrupted all of our livesParker remains resilient. Our focus on intentionality served us well during the most restrictive period of the pandemic, and it will continue to serve us now and into the future.
One more important lesson we learned during this unprecedented time? Don’t Go Back to Normal. “We owe it to our students and their families to uphold the promise of our mission,” Denver says. “Setting up a process for annual curricular review cycles helps us ensure that the values of our School are indeed the through line of students’ educational experiences.”
Peter Gow, a long time Independent School educator, administrator, and consultant has updated an ancient quote attributed to Socrates that states, “The unexamined curriculum is not worth teaching.” At Parker, we have been and choose to continue examining our curriculum to keep it inclusive, relevant, and excellent for all our students.