By Kelley Waldron, Head of School, St. Andrew’s School, Savannah, GA

In Josh Clark’s article in the January edition of HeadLines, “School Is Not Reality,” he drives home salient illustrations of the structure and patterns of “how schools work.” He succinctly outlines how what we ask of students is often counterintuitive when compared with the content and skills we are working to develop in our students for the workplace and for life. Josh also highlights the important realization that we serve students with different learner profiles than those of many years ago, and even differences that have long existed in learners are newly understood within the context of neurodiversity.

It is important to keep these dialogues at the center of educational thought leadership. And yet, the most difficult aspect of creating the changes needed to address these challenges is the very structure of the way we “do school.” The organization of our time and space often prevents us from being able to empower our teachers with the time and resources to redesign and reimagine their leadership in the classroom.

Working to create this growth in our community at St. Andrew’s has been a journey that has required us to reorganize our ways of working over the past decade and is a continual work in progress. The nature of the typical school day has teachers largely working in relative isolation with groups of students who need their immediate time and attention all day.

There is often very little time built into the day or year that allows for the reflection, sharing, and planning that is a necessary element for real change or growth in our approaches to teaching and learning.

To support this growth, St. Andrew’s began with some shifts that can be translated to support educators in any school aspiring to create more authentic learning environments. Our goals were to align pedagogical practices with approaches proven to be most effective in student learning, and to challenge ourselves to deepen our commitment to scaffolding opportunities to learn the skills needed for a new era of the economy and workforce.

These shifts included implementing a fellowship program, Teach the Future, that ran for four years[1] from 2012-2016. While St. Andrew’s founded and organized this fellowship, we opened the program to educators from public and private schools in Savannah. Faculty leaders who applied to participate in the fellowship spent six to seven days over the course of the school year exploring neuroscience, industry, and entrepreneurism to expand their understanding of the ways in which learning, the economy, and the landscape of work were rapidly changing. Fellows spent time brainstorming and implementing new ways of organizing learning experiences that reflected these expanded understandings. Fellows from our school served as teacher-leaders in our school community to help lead and inspire dialogue, creativity, and growth.

A foundational piece of leading pedagogical change included creating more time and space within the regular school schedule to allow for professional learning and sharing. With the implementation of newer technology and some curricular framework revisions, we shifted faculty meeting time from being focused on information-sharing on a specific area of the school and rededicated this time to professional learning experiences.

This allowed teachers to explore and reflect on their own practices, dig into research-based practices, and collaborate with one another to support growth in perspective and practice.

Most independent schools have time designated for full faculty meetings as well as divisional, curricular, and team meetings over the course of a month. By reinvesting this time as professional learning, we committed four to eight hours each month where our faculty and staff can continue to learn and innovate in their practice. Rather than relying on only a few professional service days sprinkled throughout the school calendar, the incremental and continuous pattern of a collaborative, professional learning environment aligns with best practice in change management to effect real change over time.

What is the evidence of this real change to create more authentic learning experiences for our students? First and foremost, there is a pervasive mindset within our faculty and staff that we are continually learning and growing in our practice as educators and that we have a responsibility to create authentic learning environments. Over the past 15 years, our classrooms have shifted from traditional models of content delivery and repeated practice to collaborative, active learning environments in which students are challenged to demonstrate mastery of content and develop learning skills that we know will be most valuable in the future of learning — asking good questions, being self-directed as learners, collaborating to develop viable solutions for real problems, communicating, participating in civic dialogue, appreciating a diversity of thought, and building a background in creating the most robust outcomes.

While this happens in smaller ways throughout the days and weeks, there are a few flagship programs where authentic learning does look like real life in each division. In our lower school, students spend the first few weeks of the second semester diving deep into a thematic topic chosen by grade level. Students engage in cross-disciplinary learning experiences with field trips, guest speakers, independent application, and group research projects to develop an expansive understanding of their chosen theme.

They evidence their learning through community service, independent explorations of research questions, group projects, and challenges. At the end of the third quarter, students organize their work to create living museums in each classroom. Parents and community members are invited to join us for a day of learning and to tour our classrooms where students share and explain their learning and projects to our visitors.

In middle school, students engage in cross-disciplinary projects on a quarterly basis that push students to develop a mastery of content through the authentic application of their learning.  These projects require students to make connections in their learning, work collaboratively, integrate technology, solve problems, and direct their own learning. Students have opportunities to share this work with classmates and parents in a variety of formats throughout the year.

Our upper school curriculum is rooted in our implementation of the IB Diploma Program as our primary curricular offering for 11th and 12th grade students. Within this framework, the provided assessment model drives toward authentic learning. However, St. Andrew’s has worked to embed opportunities beyond those expected with the implementation of two new flagship programs. The Freshman Flights program includes a monthly field trip for 9th grade students to spend a day off campus and onsite exploring a local aspect of industry. The program gives students an opportunity to understand the interconnectivity of our local community and economy. It offers firsthand experiences among the intricacies of the career landscape in a diverse set of businesses and the opportunity to learn from industry leaders. We have also implemented the Civic Leadership Certificate for students in 10th through 12th grades.

Over two years, students spend time learning from community leaders about different types of civic engagement to support community growth. Students apply this learning by working in groups to choose a civic problem or topic and then develop a solution or program to serve their community.

The opportunities for school to be closer to real life, and to create authentic learning experiences for students, are diverse and multifaceted. As a school, we continue to look for inspiration from other schools and thought leaders on this journey. We dedicate energy and resources to structure our professional learning so we can continue to grow in our implementation and innovation of applied and authentic learning. Most rewarding on this journey is the growth of a learning culture amongst our faculty and the ability of our students to recognize and articulate what they value in such an environment. We continue in this work, recognizing that there is always room for further growth, because we want to empower our students with the skills and knowledge that will prepare them for their present and their future.  School could be real life.

Dr. Kelley Waldron has been with St. Andrew’s since 2002. She has held a variety of positions in the school including upper school Spanish teacher, director of admission, director of studies, and IB coordinator. Kelley holds a BA from Tulane University, an MS from Loyola University New Orleans, and an Ed.D. from Georgia Southern University. She is a published author, enjoys working with children of all ages, and is passionate about the vision and community of St. Andrew’s School.

St. Andrew’s School, an independent college preparatory school dedicated to personalized student development, strives to develop engaged, well-rounded individuals by inspiring a passion for knowledge, a commitment to personal integrity and a deepened social consciousness within a supportive educational community.

[1] A special thanks to SAIS for their support of this program with the awarding of the Stephen Robinson Collaboration Grant.