Practice What You Teach

By Sacha Zimmerman

The School’s educators are taking the Strategic Plan and running with it. From decolonizing the curriculum to bringing the streets of DC into a seminar, Sidwell Friends shows why the people in front of the classroom are its greatest strength.

“It is exciting that we are intentionally setting aside a significant amount of time to really think deeply about our teaching practices,” Min Kim, the assistant head of school for academic affairs, says. Given that she has worked at Sidwell Friends for more than 15 years, it’s a pretty meaningful statement. Kim is eager to talk to me, or any staff member willing to come to the teacher resource room, about the opportunities available to faculty at Sidwell Friends. Right now, she is sitting on a sofa in her office upstairs in Zartman House plying me with materials in the manner of a host making sure I am completely comfortable. Do I have the professional development website? Do I need a description of all the Strategic Plan Grants? Despite her obvious passion, the main impression Kim gives is actually one of contemplative calm. “All of our teachers play a part in helping to shape who our students become,” she says in a clear, composed voice. “The more we can do to be reflective and to think about the role we have in nurturing our students so they really can be ethical leaders, the more we achieve that mission.”

Practice What You Preach 2

Kim is no stranger to Sidwell Friends’ commitment to ethical leadership; she has served as Upper School English teacher, all-school diversity coordinator, director of summer studies, Upper School assistant academic dean, and Upper School academic dean and assistant principal. She stepped into her latest position when Ellis Turner, the former associate head of School, retired last June after 39 years of service. But where Turner focused on everything from professional growth to media relations, Kim’s position zeros in on academic affairs. Kim also has an important new tool: the Strategic Plan. Every year, the School allocates an average of six to 12 venture grants to faculty looking to expand their knowledge base, further their education, or hone their craft. In general, the more training teachers receive, the more formed and innovative their teaching becomes. Now, as individual teachers submit grant requests, Kim and the Faculty Professional Development Committee will assess how well each individual grant helped to further the priorities of the Strategic Plan: unify the campus, imagine the future of learning, inspire ethical leadership, and welcome a wider community. 

“Great ideas shouldn’t happen in a vacuum—they need to be integrated into the School,” Kim says. Now, by working closely with each division’s principals and academic deans, Kim can help teachers construct professional development proposals that align with both the teachers’ individual goals and the School’s strategic direction. In other words, Kim can see the professional development program from 30,000 feet. “I’ll know the divisional goals and the all-School goals,” she says. “The way I see my role is to interpret or translate the Strategic Plan.” To that end, Kim will ensure that the set of Strategic Plan Grants awarded last summer will have the potential to echo across the School and have impact across the three divisions.

Kim has also been integral to setting up the School’s two new innovation hubs: the Center for Teaching and Learning, which asks teachers to think critically about their craft, and the Center for Ethical Leadership, which asks students and faculty alike to think critically about ethics in the Quaker tradition. Putting such a decisive focus on professional and student development as well as the future of education resonated with many in the Sidwell Friends community, particularly the Drezner and Karam families.

“Sidwell is one of those special places in my family’s life,” Michael Karam, a former trial attorney and Sidwell Friends spouse and parent, says. When Karam wanted to honor his late wife, Linda Morgan Karam ’69, he and his daughter, Meredith Karam ’03 (now in her second year of a PhD program at the Catholic University of America), decided that endowing a fund to promote professional development was one of the best ways they could give back to the School. “I was drawn specifically to the topic,” he says. In fact, Karam introduced Head of School Bryan Garman to Georgetown University Vice Provost for Education Randy Bass, who runs Georgetown’s Designing the Future(s) program for educational innovation.

Karam, Garman, Kim, and other Sidwell Friends leaders visited Georgetown and were inspired by what they saw. All kinds of ideas were on the table, Karam says: “getting away from 15-week semesters, one-credit courses, bridges to post-academic life.” And of course, opportunities for teachers to excel. “In the past, we had funded faculty research grants when teachers had special interests,” Karam says. “Now, we can continue that work—but under the Strategic Plan.”

Quaker Values

“Quaker identity is a mission to let our lives speak,” Denise Coffin, a Lower School kindergarten teacher, says. “Some of our students are Jewish, Quaker, Muslim, Baha’i, Episcopalian, but that inner light is there no matter what. It even extends to people with no faith.” A practicing Quaker, Coffin is a member of the Strategic Plan Grant team working to develop an interfaith dialogue program. She says that a “big piece of our duty as a school,” is to introduce children to the broader world and to ask, “What do they need to know before they graduate?”

Quaker Values

Coffin with a student, Photo by Kelley Lynch

They were inspired by last spring’s Peace Speaker Eboo Patel. Patel, the former head of President Barack Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based Neighborhood Partnerships, the founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, and the author of several books, including Acts of Faith, talked to the Sidwell Friends teachers about navigating delicate conversations and turning an intellectual religious literacy into a more profound religious appreciation and positive inclination toward faith traditions. “We begin with tolerance,” says Coffin, “and we end with enthusiasm.”

This fall, the Lower School held a Diwali celebration to honor the Hindu festival of lights. In the lead-up to the festival, the team crafted queries to guide the celebration, conducting a Meeting for Worship with a special focus on Hinduism and identity—which asked the students to look for ways they might connect to the traditions even if the practices were not their own. The students also went to an Indian-
authored play at Imagination Stage to look for moments of both familiarity and surprise. The team then connected these lessons to Quaker identity—pairing the light of Diwali with Quakerism’s inner light. The group will do similar programming around the Chinese Lunar New Year and other traditions that go beyond holiday high points and reveal deeper truths. Or as Coffin puts it: “Finding the appropriate faiths to tell the story of faith.”

The team has plans underway to collaborate with experts at the Howard University School of Divinity and to take their project across divisions. They have started to have conversations with Upper School students about new courses and interfaith workshops as well as field trips. “Our future hope is that there might be ways to make routine the habit of visiting different faiths’ spaces,” says Coffin, “and to reflect on what it means to go to another place of worship.”

Another group of teachers worked on a project called Social Justice Through Literature, rethinking the 4th grade reading curriculum with an eye toward religion, ability, race, gender, socioeconomic status, and environmental stewardship. (All of which also complements the School’s commitment to equity, justice, and community, or “EJC.”) Kathryn Bauman-Hill, a 4th grade teacher, and other members of the Social Justice Through Literature group then reconceived the entire 4th grade reading list and added student evaluation forms at the end of each book to ensure students are thinking critically about what they have read. 

We begin with tolerance, and we end with enthusiasm.”—Denise Coffin

Ethical Leadership

Every December, Hayes Davis, an Upper School English teacher and the Upper School EJC coordinator, chaperones Sidwell Friends students attending the National Association for Independent School’s Student Diversity Leadership Conference. “And for years, students have been wanting to host an EJC-related conference of their own,” Davis says. “They wanted a space here to have conversations with other students about identity”—something that went beyond affinity groups, something that asked the entire Upper School student body to stop and pay attention.

Ethical Leadership

Hayes, Photo by Kelley Lynch

Of course, erecting such an event is no small task. “Honestly, I never felt like there was enough time to work on it,” Davis says. “But then the Center for Ethical Leadership started, and there was dedicated funding to develop the conference over the summer through the Strategic Plan Grants.” So, the seeds of what would become the Ethical Leadership Conference were planted. Still, in a city with no shortage of conferences, there was the issue of offering something that would not overlap or duplicate the efforts of already established events. “What can we do that is different?” Davis wondered. Still in the early phase of planning, the Strategic Plan Grant team working on the project came to the idea of a skills-building conference as a first step. “Students can come to our conference in March to get some of those hard leadership skills,” he says, “like running a meeting, listening, encouraging others.”

The daylong student-led Ethical Leadership Conference will be held on March 4, 2020, and student leaders are hoping to include the participation of at least one area public school—part of the Strategic Plan goal of welcoming a wider community to Sidwell Friends. The event will feature a social hour to help forge bonds between students. Other likely activities include brainstorming sessions, young alumni panels, a focus on wellness, questions for leaders to bring up at the beginning of the day and return to at the end of the day, and a Meeting for Worship. The team plans to pilot the conference this year before scaling it up to include the Middle School and more outside schools in subsequent years. “I’m looking forward to continuing to work with the students on the conference,” Davis says, “and then watching them lead it.”

Encouraging students to be teachers is a rich part of the Sidwell Friends experience—from teachers treating students as equals in the classroom to students leading top-flight scientific tours of the Middle School. “Mentoring doesn’t always happen chronologically,” Coffin notes. “How can we make mentoring go up? How can young people teach older people? Often young people are bigger on the inside; they have valid and important ideas and opinions.” Most notably, teaching up is an excellent way to learn to lead, which is exactly what the Ethical Leadership Conference aims to do.

Students can come to our conference in March to get some of those hard leadership skills, like running a meeting, listening, encouraging others.”—Hayes Davis

Inspired Teaching

“The good thing about the archives is you’re always adding to it,” Darren Speece, an Upper School history teacher and assistant dean of students, says, beaming. “You can work here forever!” Though the archives room, housed in the lower level of the Upper School Library, is perfectly bright and modern, Speece has a way of making me feel as though we should be carrying a candelabra through a dusty chamber filled with sepia-toned scrolls. In a way, it is this sense of romance that led to his Strategic Plan Grant. When Speece realized there was initially no plan for the archives in the new Upper School building, he sat down with Mamadou Guèye, the principal of the Upper School, as well as archivist Loren Hardenbergh, Kim, and Garman to talk about how “the new building gives us an opportunity to do more to use the archives intentionally and use them as a tool for building community and teaching students how to do history and tell stories about Sidwell—good, bad, and triumphant.”

Inspired Teaching

Speece is combing through various white boxes—each neatly marked—stuffed into towering shelving units that seem a tad precarious. The small room is bursting with Sidwell Friends history—old pennants, trophies, artwork, papers. “Here it is,” Speece says, victorious. He is holding a mid-1920s portrait of Setsuko Matsudaira, who attended Sidwell Friends while her father, a Japanese aristocrat, was ambassador to the United States. Three years after attending the School, Matsudaira would marry and become full-fledged royalty as Princess Chichibu. Speece admires the photograph of Princess Chichibu for a last moment before putting her back in a box and pushing it deep into the shelf.

Use the archives intentionally and use them as a tool for building community and teaching students how to do history and tell stories about Sidwell—good, bad, and triumphant.”—Darren Speece

Speece applied his Strategic Plan Grant toward this passion: “Doing History” would be a way for students to study the archives, to execute research projects, and to discover new historical spaces. Last year, Georgetown University was getting a lot of attention for exploring the Jesuits’ legacy of profiting from enslaved people. It’s just the sort of project Speece wants to spearhead at Sidwell Friends. “The history of this property and land and neighborhood is that it all belonged to one family that owned slaves,” Speece says. “Presumably, this land was cleared and tilled by enslaved Africans. How should we as a community react, how should we understand that and think about that, and what obligations do we have?” 

Inspired Learning 2

Speece wants students to work with the DC Historical Society to learn more about the Tenleytown and Cleveland Park neighborhoods and add to the School’s archives. He then wants them to curate rotating exhibits on campus. And he wants them to explore the District of Columbia more broadly: There are projects to do on everything from the history of Earth Day at Sidwell Friends to the history of DC go-go music, from an aerial photography exhibit to the top movies shot in Washington. Basically, he wants to put the School’s resources to work: “How can we pull out the archives and tell these really cool stories?”

Speece isn’t the only teacher to reexamine how to present the past in a more inclusive way. Nan Pickens, a 7th and 8th grade Spanish teacher and the Middle School Language Department chair, wanted to rethink the colonial bias threaded throughout traditional school curricula. Her Strategic Plan Grant team worked on Decolonizing the Classroom. “For a long time, I have been grappling as a Spanish teacher with how to teach through a decolonized lens,” Pickens says. “The language came with the colonization.” Now her classes explore Mesoamerican civilizations and indígena (indigenous) identity. “It’s so simple,” she says. “We just need to make it an intentional practice in the classroom.”

Chanel Malik, a Middle School 5th grade teacher and the Middle School EJC coordinator, also worked on the project; she says she “started thinking about the connectedness of the Middle Ages and the modern world in a different way.” She was teaching Medieval times—the fall of the Roman Empire, the beginning of the Renaissance—when a 5th grader in her class said the lesson was Eurocentric. “So, they know,” Malik says. “The kids already pick up on it.” The challenge for the teachers then is to look at, say, Medieval culture and—as Malik puts it—ask, “So, what was going on in the rest of the world?”

Unite the School

Unite the School

Almost every Sidwell Friends teacher I spoke to volunteered the same sentiment:

Working across divisions was a high point of their Strategic Plan Grant. “It’s such a pleasure to go to the other campus and sit down with teachers from another division and think about the possibilities,” Coffin says. Malik agrees. “I hope to have more time to have conversations, as in the summer,” she says. “We don’t get enough time to have interdivisional talks and to truly focus on the Strategic Plan.” Davis is still impressed that faculty were willing to come in over the summer to pursue all of these projects: “Their level of thinking, processing, and mindfulness about the work that we were doing and what we want to offer was extraordinary.” 

Generating that kind of enthusiasm for collaboration is exactly what the School’s unification process is about. “It’s amazing to think about the future—to bring the campuses together,” Karam says. “We just have to hope all the supporters come through with the necessary funding.” Kim agrees. She says her deepest hope for the next five years is to raise the funds to renovate the Upton Street property and give the School’s two interdivisional innovation hubs—the Center for Teaching and Learning and the Center for Ethical Leadership—a real brick-and-mortar home. 

Back in Kim’s office, she reminds me that she has also been a Sidwell Friends parent. “It has been an incredible experience to have my colleagues help to raise my children,” she says. Now, in her new role, she talks about how much she enjoys working closely with the three division principals. “I’ve always enjoyed that insight into the Upper School,” Kim says, “but now it has expanded to include the students, teachers, and parents of the other divisions.” 

Once again, Kim has her eye on the School from 30,000 feet, making sure all the pieces are connecting and creating a whole. Perhaps it isn’t surprising then that her favorite spot on campus is behind Zartman House, where she can see “the football field, the soccer field, the cross-country track, and if you turn the right way, the tennis courts, and see what all the kids are up to” while also keeping an ear out for the “student theatrical productions and ensemble groups” happening in the Kogod Arts Center next door. 

I’m truly part of a larger community,” Kim says. “It’s inspiring to see students and faculty who care so deeply about the quality of the academic experience. When they work together across divisions, it’s pretty awe-inspiring.” 

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