Richard Kassissieh, Assistant Head of School for Academics and Strategic Initiatives
Maria Langworthy and Scottie Nash have a unique view of the UPrep academic program. As both parents and education specialists, they speak to Next Generation Learning from their knowledge of current practices in education and their hopes for their own children. Richard Kassissieh caught up with Maria and Scottie to ask what they thought of Intensives, the new UPrep academic term that will launch next year.
RK: Thank you for joining me for this conversation. Could you please introduce yourselves?
SN: My older son is in sixth grade, and I also have a younger son. Currently, I am an education consultant, and I work in districts as far north as Anacortes and as far south as Spanaway. I work with teachers, collecting data and talking about student growth, and I also support principals and teachers in instructional coaching in the classroom. Prior to that, I was a history teacher who did a lot of collaborative learning in extended learning blocks. I earned my doctorate at Seattle U. with a focus on school change.
ML: I have two daughters, the oldest in seventh at UPrep and my younger one in fifth grade. I am the worldwide director of education research at Microsoft for our education projects. That means that I put together research projects that can help us as a company understand how and where the use of our technologies is helping improve student learning outcomes. I have a long-term interest in new measures of deeper learning, how one can measure collaboration and creativity and communications in a digital era in ways that are rigorous and reliable. Prior to this role, I worked in the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on their K-12 team.
RK: What drew you to UPrep?
ML: We were looking at great schools that had interesting pedagogical approaches, and UPrep seemed to fit that profile pretty well. It also clearly had high quality leadership, teaching, and teachers. The number one thing I look for as a parent is teachers who have been at the school a long time and understand the rhythms of school, have the classroom management pieces already taken care of, and can therefore experiment and focus on student learning.
SN: What really stood out to me was that there was a solid core, but there were also really interesting electives for kids to navigate through, especially as they got older. I then began to learn more about how you were implementing a schedule change and noted the amount of support that the administration provided systemically for the teachers. The school really places high value on teacher learning, administrator learning, and student learning. That is the true idea of a learning organization, and it takes time and space to do that well. In terms of 21st century learning, you embrace as a school what we hope to have for our kids: collaboration, deeper learning, and blended learning, and all of those pieces came through on the tours and in conversations.
RK: What was your first reaction to the announcement about intensives?
SN: I feel that it is fantastic. The reality is that when you leave high school and go beyond, and you are looking for a job, you don’t ever have a project that takes place in a 70 or 90-minute period, and then you shift to a new one. You have to learn a lot of the executive function behind organizing, communicating, and working with others. You have to pull in different aspects of how you learn and what you learn to create something richer and more meaningful. To blend a more traditional kind of experience in extended block learning the bulk of the semester, and then to give them this intensive academic experience, allows for something that sets students up for greater success outside of the traditional school function.
ML: Scottie, I really love what you just said. Working in the field of education, I really admire and look to these kinds of innovations in our education system. Education systems around the world that I work with are all seeking to transform to better equip their students for life and for work in the 21st century, and that means exactly the kinds of things Scottie just talked about, like having skills with self-management, with identifying a goal and going after it, with real-world problem solving, communication, and collaboration skills—all those things. It’s risky, because there’s no clear way of measuring the learning from those kinds of projects, in a way that you can have a standardized test for literacy or numeracy, but systems around the world are more and more convinced that we have to find those new measures. It’s more important to begin to equip our children with these kinds of skills and experiences than it is to check a box on a state-mandated report.
ML: As a parent, when I heard about some of these things, my reaction was positive, because I was informed by my professional experience. At the same time, I was admiring UPrep, because the initial reaction of most parents and students to these things is often, “Oh my gosh, this is not going to work.” I know from my experience, students and parents tend to be the most conservative force in education change. Students come back and say, “This is going to mess up the rest of my schedule,” and things like that. Once they begin to experience it—and how it’s framed is incredibly important to that initial perception—then I very often see students become incredibly engaged in this kind of learning work. Really, it ignites them in ways that traditional teaching and learning doesn’t. So, kudos to UPrep for launching this, and know that there are still going to be some big boulders as you get started.
RK: What community-based, project-based, and interdisciplinary learning have you experienced that can serve as good examples of intensives learning done well?
SN: When I was teaching in a very traditional high school, I ended up collaborating with an English teacher and an art teacher. I was the history teacher, and we did four intense units throughout the course of the year, one each quarter, to get the kids to look at a topic historically, literarily, and artistically, and get a multi-range of perspectives. Two projects stand out to me; one of them was a Holocaust unit, and the kids read Maus I and II, and I taught about the Holocaust using Facing History and Ourselves. Then the kids worked with the art teacher and interviewed some of the Holocaust survivors in our district, and they created the most beautiful sculpture to represent their deeper understanding of survival. The kids walked away from that experience with a sense of their own community’s historical importance, and they were able to read a meaningful text with a lot of context.
ML: I think about these kinds of projects very much in terms of real-world problem solving. I like to see projects that a student could put on their LinkedIn profile, whether that’s four years from now or 20 years from now and say, “Hey, this is what I accomplished, and this is how it impacted the world.” For example, a sixth and seventh grade science class in Michigan had been studying the water system, and the teacher challenged the students in the last three weeks of school to apply what they had learned in a way that helped someone in the world. And she left a lot of the choice and decision making about how they were going to approach demonstrating their knowledge to them. One of the things they did was to interview a professor who started a program in rural Zambia to improve quality of life. The kids decided that the one thing they could do that would really improve the quality of life in a village in Zambia was to help them get an EcoDome toilet for clean water. So they did a ton of research figuring out where to get suppliers, how they could ship to Africa, how much it would cost, and they started to fundraise, and part of that fundraising was how to get very creative and very entrepreneurial to raise $2,500 to fund and ship this EcoDome toilet to a village in Zambia. Ultimately, it was an amazing, multi-year project that the whole school became invested in and was recognized by the White House. That is the kind of project that every single one of those kids can put on their LinkedIn profile. They can demonstrate, “Hey, I’ve got the real-world problem-solving skill and experience. I can make an impact in your organization as well.”
RK: Does anything about intensives make you nervous, from either the perspective of a parent or an education leader?
SN: As an education specialist, making sure there is really good communication and opportunity to cycle through for questions and answers. It’s going to be very different, and change is hard. We should allow for some bumps in the road. As a parent, I am hoping to be able to find a choice that my son is really enthusiastic and excited about. I know there will be lots of them, but it’s so different than what he’s experienced. It will be my job to help him understand what that experience is going to be like, and how to take a bit of a risk, is going to be a challenge.
ML: My views of this are as both a parent and my background in education. My fear is that some of your highest achieving kids are often going to be the ones that are the most upset about these types of challenges, because it’s not crystal clear what the expectation is and what their route to success is. There’s also a little of a worry for me that the way these are designed will be too structured up front, and that teachers are seeing it as a burden on them to design the learning experience in a way that is suddenly going to convince everyone that this is a great experience. I think that one of the key learnings out of this is to get the kids to co-construct their own learning experience. There’s going to be some bumps along the way, and I hope that the community at UPrep—parents, teachers, and students—can have a clear sense at the beginning that the goal here is innovation, and to accept and embrace it and have a growth mindset about it.
RK: What conversations do you think parents might be having with their students around intensives?
ML: In preparation for this conversation, we have had our first conversation already! That was part of what awakened me to the pushback you might get, because the concern was, “Because we’re doing this schedule change, I don’t get to take all of these electives I wanted to take.” Now that we have had this conversation, my response will be, “All of those electives you want to take, why don’t you try to pursue them within these intensives. If they aren’t in there, be sure your voice is heard. This is about you taking ownership over your own learning, and you need practice at that.”
SN: My son, being a sixth grade boy at this point, he’s not a risk taker. Getting him to realize that he doesn’t know everything at this point about his learning. We need to have a conversation that moves from, “What do you love to do? What excites you?” to “What are some things that interest you but you’re nervous about?”
ML: After two or three years of doing this, it will be the common expectation that this is what we do. It’s only in year one of the conversation that parents and students will need to really engage in the conversation, because it’s a different thing.
ML: The research that I’ve seen shows all of the variables involved in changing education in schools toward more personalized, student-centered approaches. Changing the schedule stands out as a strong indicator of a school or system that is going through change. When a school decides to change their schedule to having longer courses, no 50-minute classes, that is the biggest indicator.
SN: And it’s schedules that really tend to get in the way. I was really excited that UPrep was taking time to research best practices and what’s current, exciting, and preparatory.
RK: Thank you so much for sharing your time and thoughts today.
Learn more about the design of Intensives.