Last week I had the opportunity to take the best of Wildwood and its advisory program to coach the middle school faculty at The American School in London (ASL).
For years, Wildwood School has been nationally recognized for defining educational best practices with our advisory programs and professional development. We enjoy the many benefits of advisory and teacher-led workshops at home, and through the Wildwood Outreach Center, we’ve continually been exporting those practices to schools across California and nation for over ten years. Now we are going global, responding to international demand for insights on how we do what we do.
Earlier this year, Outreach Center work took me to Mexico City’s American School Foundation to offer guidance to teachers there, followed by last week’s engagement in London. As I’ve been so deeply immersed in sharing the Wildwood way, and explaining how it can work in a range of school settings, I feel motivated to pause and ‘lift the hood’, so to speak, and devote some time here to illuminating how we at Wildwood plan and design exceptional educational experiences for students at home and, now, around the world.
Creating meaningful learning experiences for our students begins with inspired Wildwood faculty. Our culture supports constant conversation among colleagues about how to meet students’ needs, based on the Wildwood philosophy of teacher-as-coach. And, opportunities for specialized professional development are varied. Wildwood strikes a balance between in-house, teacher-driven work, bringing in outside presenters and experts, and sending faculty to workshops and trainings focused on leading-edge best practices. In recent years, faculty have integrated ideas from experts in their fields to positively influence our students’ use of technology in the middle and upper schools, while our elementary school language arts faculty attended summer trainings at Columbia University and adopted Writers Workshop strategies. Wildwood’s collaborative culture then allows faculty to solidify this work by encouraging teachers to coach their peers in implementing new ideas in their classrooms.
My approach in working with the middle school faculty at the American School was similarly aimed at striking a balance between leveraging their in-house expertise and the insights I could offer. I was brought in to consult with them about advisory programs, which I understand from my years as a Wildwood advisor and my experience as a faculty facilitator. But I also brought with me the foundational Wildwood ethos of teacher-as-coach; I knew that this work needed to be driven by the American School teachers rather than me.
ASL’s goals were clear: they wanted help defining the goals of their nascent advisory program and wanted input on redesigning the program to meet those goals. In my two days of observations I saw that, among other things, ASL students weren’t consulted regarding what they felt their strengths, stretches and needs are during the advisory placement process. At Wildwood that is a crucial input to make sure student needs are best met.
I also advised the ASL faculty that school leaders should prioritize shrinking the size of their average advisory from 21 to at most 15 students. The more intimate, small group dynamic is a proven Wildwood practice.
The experiences most reminiscent of Wildwood during my time at ASL were when I facilitated faculty work. In the Wildwood spirit, I designed and structured a full-day workshop with an advisory planning committee so as to coach the teachers to achieve their goals. In the same way that a Wildwood elementary teacher coaches her students through the various strategies to solve a math problem, I guided the ASL teachers along their path to finding the solutions that work best for their students. I offered advice, asked questions, inspired motivation, but I didn’t dictate answers. The result: A solid plan for a revamped advisory program for students in ASL’s middle school. It’s vibrant and based on a solid foundation and, most importantly, the teachers felt they had created a new beginning for themselves.
At the end of my week at the American School in London, the middle school principal related to me why she felt my time with her faculty had been so positive: “They don’t like someone coming in and telling them what to do, and you didn’t. You guided their work, but you let them make it their own.” As I reflected on the flight home to LA, I connected her words to what I know works best with students: help them make their learning their own. This is my take-away, which will reinforce the work that I do with Wildwood faculty—as they make their teaching responsive to students’ needs and their classrooms fertile ground for learning.