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Priory Big Ideas 2014

Apr 7th, 2014 by Brian Schlaak | Comments Off

4 Cs and an R:

The talented members of the Priory Innovation Committee (Yvonne Faisal, Damian Cohen, Crystal Yang, Tina Paulson and Matt McWright) spent two years intensively researching, interviewing experts and critically evaluating the skill related graduation outcomes that students in the 21st century need. As an addendum to the inviolable Benedictine Values, we will be using the 4 Cs and an R: Critical Thinking, Communication, Creativity, Collaboration and Resilience, as the lenses through which we will review all that we do in relation to teaching and learning. We will define those principles specifically for the Priory. We will also clarify how we know that the students are gaining proficiency in those areas.  This work will continue into next year.

Backwards Design:

We spent a lot of time looking at student learning from the perspective of backwards design this year. Crystal Yang has exceptional training and expertise in both backwards design and authentic assessment. She is the leader of a process that supports the faculty in reviewing their courses from the perspective of the backwards design planning model. The first step of the practice involves the teacher identifying the enduring understandings for each unit of instruction. An enduring understanding is a big idea that students will retain, 3, 5 and 10 years down the road. These enduring understandings are separated into essential knowledge and essential skills. These EK and ES enduring understandings will shape the culminating assessment as well as the learning objectives of daily lessons. Crystal will serve as the Coordinator of Curriculum and Instruction next year, to allow her time to continue this vital work.

Authentic Assessment:

Crystal Yang has also been leading us through an exploration of authentic assessment this year. An authentic assessment is a form of assessment that asks students to perform real-world tasks demanding the application of essential knowledge and skills. In comparison to traditional assessments, which typically focus on information recall and measure student learning by such means as multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, or true-false questions, authentic assessments require students to apply knowledge and skills in a meaningful, relevant context. Instead of taking a test at the end of a geometry unit on 3-D shapes, students would apply their knowledge of shapes and formulas for surface and volume to construct emergency shelters for the Red Cross. Rather than answer questions about the Mexican American War, students would demonstrate their understanding of historical arguments and biases by making a documentary video. As such, authentic assessments challenge students to demonstrate deep, multi-faceted understanding of content and skills in ways that foster critical and creative thinking. Ultimately, authentic assessments can encourage students to appreciate the real-life significance of what they learn in and across subject areas.

Questions about Advanced Placement:

As we have delved further into 21st century skills, backwards design and authentic assessment, we are increasingly wondering whether our large range of AP offerings are serving students in the development of those vital skills. Many independent schools are moving away from Advanced Placement as a standardized measure of rigor.  Most recently, Crystal Springs joined Exeter, The Fieldston School, Dalton, Lick-Wilmerding, Marin Academy, Urban, and many other independent schools, in shifting the entirety of their AP curriculum from AP designations to Advanced Topics in each of those curricular areas. These Advanced Topics courses are granted the same Grade Point bump as the AP courses. This transition has allowed the teachers at these schools to go into more depth, use more project-based learning and use the entirety of the school year for productive instructional experiences. We are continuing to wrestle with the role of AP in a 21st Century independent school context.

iPads in the Middle School:

Ms. Ambler and the Middle School faculty are excited to announce the expansion of the iPad program in the Priory Middle School for the 2014-15 school year.  At the Priory, we feel strongly that 21st century skills, such as collaboration, communication, creativity, critical thinking and digital literacy are integral aspects of education today. We challenge our students to take risks, try new things, and develop into lifelong learners. Hand-in-hand with engaging curriculum and hands on lessons, our 1-to-1 iPad program has allowed quick access to technology in the classroom which has enabled our students to grow as 21st century collaborators, researchers, and learners. We have seen great success with our pilot program this year (6th grade), including wildly creative projects, innovative presentations, frequent research, and both independent and collaborative digital assignments and authentic assessments.  We are excited to expand this program to include the entire middle school.

BYOD in Upper School:

On the heels of extensive research, we have discovered that students moving into high school have strong preferences as to the technological support device that they wish to use in the classroom. iPads have proven to be very effective through the end of eighth grade. Thereafter, students like the flexibility of choosing their own device. In the parlance, BYOD refers to bring your own device. Priory Upper School is de facto operating in this context now. We will likely formalize that structure for the fall of 2014. As an interesting ancillary observation, the conventional wisdom in high-end schools is to have enough bandwidth to support three to four devices per person on campus.

Parent Communication:

In response to less-than-stellar parent feedback regarding teacher to parent communication in last year’s Parent Satisfaction Survey, Corie Fogg and Kathy Gonzalez have graciously volunteered to unpack the entirety of our institutional parent communication procedures. Ideally their work will help us clarify our protocols for guiding faculty in those vital communications. We will be looking at PowerSchool, Haiku, comments, individual websites, email, and phone calls to try to streamline and enhance parent communication.

Community Service:

The indomitable Matt Lai, working in conjunction with Service Coordinator Mike Loftis, have completely revamped the structure of service at the Priory. Service is at the very core of the Priory’s Mission.  We want to prepare our students to “serve a world in need of their gifts.”  To this end, we have taken steps to reemphasize service here at the school – sports teams doing service projects together, new partnerships with outside organizations, and service trips.  Next year, we will roll out a number of other changes that will create more opportunities for our students to learn the importance of service.  Some of these new ideas include:  further integration of service activities into the classroom, student groups, and sports teams; more service-themed trip offerings; and a Service Week for the 9th and 10th grade class.  More details about these programs will come soon.


The Power Within Them

Nov 20th, 2013 by Brian Schlaak | Comments Off

I was in rural Vermont visiting my wife’s family last February. During our first weekend back there, I had the opportunity to work closely with my 13-year-old niece Mary for five hours or so on a frigid Sunday morning. That experience has resulted in some real reflection for me as to what engenders a real, deep-seated, sense of power and confidence in kids.

My wife’s sister and her husband are fine arts painters who love the culture, aesthetic and affordability of life in rural Vermont. They have managed to carve out a life for themselves and their children while continuing to make art. This is no small accomplishment in this day and age, and a lot of creativity has gone into making their life work for everyone in the family.

Mary loves horses. Riding is her true, and abiding passion. This particular fascination of my niece’s did not fit within the delicate financial balance negotiated by her family. Through some careful research, my sister-in-law found a work trade program at one of the local barns. The stabling of a horse and use of the facilities could be earned by agreeing to clean the horse barn and mucking out the stalls every weekend. My niece readily agreed to the trade.

As we all sat around the Saturday night dinner table planning the next day’s activities, my niece mentioned that she had to clean the barn Sunday morning and would not be able to join us until the afternoon. Curious, I volunteered to help her out. In the interest of finishing in a timely fashion, her mom said that she would pitch in as well.

We arrived at the barn a little before 7am on Sunday morning. The thin, wintertime sun was fighting its way through the trees. The thermometer inside the sliding wooden door said 6 degrees. My sister-in-law turned to Mary and said, “OK, tell us what to do.” She assigned her mom and me the more mundane, and frankly safer, tasks. We raked stalls, filled water troughs and spread new hay inside the barn.

My niece, in the meantime, went about getting those enormous horses out of their stalls and into the frozen pasture. At this point, it is relevant to mention that Mary is distinctly small for her age. She also comes across as shy. What really struck me, aside from her willingness to get up at 6am to work hard for 4 or 5 hours on a frigid Sunday morning, was the unselfconscious confidence with which she accomplished her share of the work.  She strode into the stalls and pushed the horses where she needed to push them. She grabbed them authoritatively by the bridles and led them in pairs, arms stretched high over her head, out of the barn. The horses sensed the complete command with which they were being handled.

Watching Mary go about her business, I felt like a got a glimpse of the real essence of her. I saw her tenacity and her passion for what she was doing. I saw the complete lack of hesitation and the comfort with which she instructed her mother and me about our share of the work. I saw her investment in doing a good job and her love for the horses. She did not seem to need or want our praise. She knew what she was doing was important and the reward for her was quite tangible. If she did a poor job, the horses would suffer and she could lose the arrangement that was allowing her to ride.

Over the course of the 27 years that I have worked in education, I have had similar insights watching students engage in things that they are both passionate about and know are important. Sometimes, that level of engagement is in a vibrant and engaging classroom experience.

At least as often, I have witnessed it outside of that context. I have seen it in concerts, athletic events, plays, art shows, film festivals, robotics competitions and science fairs. I have seen it in the eyes of kids working a weekend job, where I showed up to eat. Or in students who worked hard to save for and rebuild a car. I have seen it in students showing their work, be it a piece of writing or a computer program. I have also seen it countless times in thoughtfully constructed service experiences.

The context for me is less relevant than the power that kids embody in those situations. When I witness that level of intense engagement, I am inevitably struck by how often we underestimate our students. Perhaps that propensity is due to the fact that we are called upon to measure kids by criteria that are too narrowly defined, or by metrics defined by organizations more interested in sorting than empowering young people.

Dramatic and musical performances often provide the opportunity for us to see the real power in our students. Watching a well-done student production, we lose our perception of the actors as kids. They inhabit another reality and can do so sufficiently convincingly as to temporarily change our perception of them. When the lights come up, “reality” is restored, but a glimpse of the students’ actual capacity has shown through.

That was my sense with Mary in the horse barn. I was afforded a glimpse of the actual power that is within her. She is blessed to have had the experience of that power herself. It seems to me that acquainting students with their own power and providing them opportunities for passionate engagement should be at the forefront of what we are trying to accomplish in schools.


Innovation Benedictine Style

Sep 16th, 2013 by Brian Schlaak | Comments Off

Silicon-ValleyLately, I’ve wondered about the seeming contradiction of working in a Benedictine school here in the heart of Silicon Valley. The Valley is, by most definitions, a high octane, innovative, cerebral and experimental culture. At the Priory, that culture is juxtaposed with the contemplative, reflective and soul centered approach to life outlined by The Rule of St Benedict. I am coming to believe that this dynamic tension is actually creating a synergistically positive experience for our students, families and faculty.

The Benedictines have been educating students for 1500 years. Theirs is the longest standing educational tradition in the western world. The sheer tenure of their experience in education gives the Benedictines a very different concept of time. They do not have the sense of urgency that many of us are bringing to the educational conversation in 2013.

According to the Benedictines themselves, members of other Catholic communities have complained about working with them because they are always “going off to pray”. Indeed, five times a day, the brothers drop everything that they are working on and retreat to the Chapel for prayer. They have faith that through ora et labora, work and prayer, things will work out in accordance with God’s plan.  The brothers state unequivocally that is difficult to get too caught up in the day to day drama of the material world because they are consistently required to stop what they are working on to go check in with God.

When this Benedictine ideal is seen through the lens of Silicon Valley culture, the possibilities for student experience at the Priory are profoundly diverse. Our parents are intelligent, passionate, well-read, curious and forward thinking. When Priory faculty and administration speak to the parents in our community about the innovative strategies we are trying, there are nods of approval rather than headshakes of concern. When all of our teachers step outside of their comfort zones (and sometimes fail spectacularly) on Fail Forward Friday, our families applaud the exploration. Priory families recognize our need to experiment and iterate and reconceive and try again, as we construct effective educational strategies for the 21st century.

The latitude for exploration granted to us by the families and students in our community stems directly from the knowledge that we will never lose sight of the individual gifts of each of the students here. We know that our students feel known and loved for who they are. They feel safe to take intellectual risks and to try new things, precisely because they know that we love them as they are.  This approach to educating children is timeless and will never go out of style. Ultimately, it is precisely because of our Benedictine identity that we are able innovate and explore, safe in the knowledge that our primary task is to continue to treat our students with the dignity and respect that they deserve.


Brian Schlaak’s Top Ten List for Life: A Chapel Talk

Apr 18th, 2013 by Brian Schlaak | Comments Off

A chapel talk here at the Priory is short—about five to seven minutes in length—and may address any topic the speaker feels inspired to share with the community. In spite of my almost thirty years in education and literally hundreds of public presentations, giving the chapel talk at our school still makes my knees knock.

There is something about our chapel experience that affects people.  Maybe it’s the beauty and intimacy of the space, or the presence of the monks, or the captive audience of students, faculty, and staff, or the long history of teachers, administrators and kids sharing their most personal truths there.  In any case, there is an ineffable quality to the experience, an elevation of sorts, that makes our chapel the spiritual heart of our community.

Giving a chapel talk inspires speakers to quake a bit and, more often than you might expect, to transcend themselves and rise above the commonplace. Our Senior Exit Surveys have shown that Chapel is one of the most memorable parts of the student experience here. The talks tend to be instructive, insightful and inspiring.

With only three days notice, I approached this week’s talk with some trepidation. People spend hours working on these presentations. In years gone by I have spent that much time myself. In the end, I decided to compile a list of ideas that I wish I’d had access to earlier in my life. Teenagers are notorious for their unapologetic disregard of adult advice. I chose to share these with them anyway.

Here’s my list. I hope you find something helpful here.

1. Try not to hold back. Love the people that you love ferociously and unapologetically. When the impulse to tell someone you love them strikes, do it, even if it might embarrass you. Tell people when you have warm feelings for them or when you are proud of what they are doing. Say thank you to the people you are grateful to. You never know what other people may need to hear and it feels marvelous to do.

2. Pay attention to your moments of grace. There are times when the world feels magical, mysterious and brilliantly lit. That is the most extraordinary gift of God or whatever you happen to believe in. Whether it happens to you out in nature, reading a book or kissing the person you love, relish those moments of grace.

3. Give yourself a break. We are here to make mistakes and screw things up periodically. When you blow it, allow yourself a bemused smile and a shake of the head. No one does this complicated journey perfectly. Trying to do everything perfectly will drive you crazy, and in the end, cause more harm than good.  Instead, try to show up, do the best you can, and let go of the outcome.

4. Don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides. As confident and invulnerable as others may appear, there is no way to determine how they are actually feeling. All of us are insecure. While you are worrying about how you are being perceived, chances are good that everyone else in the room is worrying about the same thing.

5. Show up as yourself.  When you give yourself permission to be the quirky person that you are, you give other people permission to do the same. You never know what you’re giving to others just by living your own life as authentically as you can.

6. Life can be paradoxical. While I spent much of my young adulthood wandering the globe and seeking various forms of adventure, getting married and having a family ended up being the most freeing thing that I have ever chosen to do. There will be times in life when surrender will bring an unexpected blessing.

7. The only choices I regret in my life are the times when I was cruel.

8. It’s a cliché, but the best things in life probably aren’t things.

9. Being an adult is much more fun than it looks.  For some of you, high school will stand out as a wonderful time in your life, but for all of you, there is so much more to look forward to.

10. Life is both a beautiful and terrible gift. It is yours. It is not your parents’ or society’s. Your life is yours. Throw yourself into it with abandon and faith.


Why Fail Forward Friday?

Mar 13th, 2013 by Brian Schlaak | Comments Off

I have a friend who is on the science faculty at one of our reputable local universities. Among an array of other duties, she teaches an undergraduate Biology course every year. The class is heavily populated by understandably intense pre-med students. My friend mentioned how concerned she was about her students’ desperation to always have the correct answer in the interest of maintaining their requisite near perfect grades. Her concern stemmed primarily from the fact that scientific exploration is, by definition, trial and error. Scientists need to be tenacious and resilient in the face of long efforts that often yield incremental if any results. Going repeatedly back to the drawing board is the nature of the work. Clear, unambiguous “right” answers are very, very rare.

In an effort to combat this tendency, my friend designed a lab in which it was impossible to come to a defined correct answer. The actual honest response had to be, “I don’t know.”  She broke her students into working groups and sent them about their business. On the day of the students’ presentation of their results, not one group was able to say, “I don’t know.” Each group gathered the circumstantial evidence that they were able to piece together and leapt to a conclusion.

This outcome is not the fault of the students involved. They are the most successful products of a system that has conditioned them to think that they are not permitted to say that they do not know. The profound irony for those of us who have lived for while, is that most decisions in life are complex and nuanced. Objectively defined “right” answers are unusual.

Fail Forward Friday is a response to that trend. Three years ago, we worked with some talented folks from the Stanford Design School to help us think more creatively about our teaching techniques, curricular choices and assessment designs. We knew that our kids tended toward right answer addiction and adult dependency in the academic experience at the school. As we heatedly discussed how best to put these design concepts into practice, one of the teachers asked, “How much risk taking do we model for them in a teaching context? If we want them to take intellectual risks, shouldn’t we be modeling that willingness to try and fail for them?” From that very insightful question, Fail Forward Friday was born.

This Friday is our third annual Fail Forward day at the Priory. During the course of the day, every teacher in every class will model this intellectual risk taking for their students by trying a technique, an assessment, an activity or a content exploration that is well outside of their teaching comfort zone. Some of the undertakings will soar and some will plop and we will celebrate them all. We have set up a Fail Forward Friday Facebook page, an anonymous drop box in Benedictine Square, as well as an email address for students to share their impressions of the day with us. We are allowing them fairly free access to their devices to facilitate the sharing of that feedback. We are excited here and hope that Friday’s experience helps our students to think about their learning in a different way.


Future School: A paradigm shift toward student centered learning

Feb 5th, 2013 by Brian Schlaak | Comments Off


thinkers_cartoon-280x300Welcome to the first of many articles about all things relating to Priory academics. Come back from week to week or subscribe to my blog to receive updates when I post them. We’ll also be cross-posting these articles via our Facebook wall.

2013 is a fascinating time to be working in education.  We must, as educators, hang on firmly to the core ethos of our schools while also accepting that the mechanics of education are undergoing a radical shift.

Our country’s 100-year-old tradition for educating kids is slowly but surely coming apart at the seams. We are witnessing the death throes of an educational system modeled on Henry Ford’s efficiency-minded factory and put into place on a grand scale over the last century.  In that construct, students were almost seen as widgets moving down an assembly line, with various content specialists stamping their own, often unrelated, pieces onto the finished product.  The unspoken hope was that the students would somehow be able to synthesize many years of information into some coherent whole.

Now that system is dissolving and the timing is perfect.  We’ve begun to acknowledge that, through the old way of doing things, we’ve inculturated traits in our students that do not serve them well: right answer addiction, intellectual risk aversion, compulsive busyness, and lack of real resilience in the face of sticky problems. It’s time for a change.

Pat Bassett, the very talented former President of the National Association of Independent Schools, took a pretty good shot at articulating what children need from schools in the 21st century. Part of his thinking is encapsulated here below. The ideas provide a starting place for a substantive conversation. I hope you find them as thought provoking as I did.  His premise is that schools need to move from:

*      Knowing to Doing
*      Teacher Centered Pedagogy to Student Centered Learning
*      The Individual to The Team
*      Consumption of Information to Construction of Meaning
*      Schools to Networks
*      Single Sourcing to Crowd Sourcing
*      High Stakes Testing to High Value Demonstrations/Digital Portfolios
*      From simple content outcomes to backwards planning for character, critical thinking, collaboration, communication, creativity, cosmopolitanism

In the coming months, I look forward to exploring and reflecting upon this heartening evolution with you.





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