Talking with Park’s new Upper Division head Caroline Beasley, it’s hard not to be infected by her passion for education and her excitement about her new role. Caroline, a champion of progressive education who joined Park this fall after nine years at The Parker School in Devens, MA, sat down with me before the Thanksgiving break to share her educational philosophy, her background, and her priorities for the Upper Division.
What motivated you to pursue a career in education?
My interest in education started in elementary school in Carrollton, TX, a suburb outside of Dallas, where I went to a local public elementary school. In the third grade, I was placed into my school’s Gifted and Talented program, which I credit with my skills in critical reasoning, effective communication, and above all my ability to be a creative and analytical thinker. I believe in project-based learning and applied learning because I went through it myself as a child. But this experience also made me acutely aware of equity in education and the messages kids get at an early age about haves and have nots. One of the reasons I was driven to be a teacher was so I could provide access to those programs for all students, not just those who show an aptitude at a very early age.
How has that shaped your thinking as an educator?
That experience was a huge part of my thinking as an educator about equity and access and about how students learn. I believe that students learn best when they have opportunities to construct meaning through hands-on exploration and inquiry. This is far more effective than teacher-centered learning where a teacher gives information and students absorb and repeat it back to the teacher.
The Parker School, where I was before Park, is a leader in progressive education and a pioneer in student-centered learning. Student-centered learning shifts the focus of instruction from the teacher to the student and moves the child to the center of the educational experience. It prioritizes the student’s needs above all needs. I loved that way of teaching and and was an arts and humanities teacher for nine years before getting my master’s degree in educational leadership last year. I’m interested in looking at how students learn in parallel with how teachers learn, which aren’t vastly different. I’m passionate about adult learning, student engagement, and school reform.
How have you applied these ideas at Park?
We just piloted Park’s first student-led conferences, which gave our eighth grade students a chance to practice the skills of reflection, self-assessment, self-advocacy, and communication. Students led their parents and teachers in conversation by sharing their reflections about who they are as learners, focusing on their own goals for the year, as well as key strategies they believe will support them in making progress. The response so far has been overwhelmingly positive.
I have also been working with teachers to embed more student voice into the curriculum so our students can practice rigorous academic skills. I have challenged teachers to talk only if they are giving instructions, asking questions, setting parameters to a problem, or synthesizing what a child has said. This doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in content or the importance of information or of answers, but when a student has the opportunity to construct meaning on their own, they are also being given the opportunity to think creatively, critically and flexibly. That is how academic rigor is defined, and it requires the teacher to be thinking about how you design learning rather than deliver learning.
I also want to take a look at assessment – to move away from “can students tell you what you told them” and toward “what can students do with what they’ve learned.” This is called authentic assessment: it’s about the doing rather than the knowing. Knowledge is important, but just knowing lots of things isn’t particularly valuable – it’s about what you can do with what you know. We need to be starting at this age and even before, giving students the opportunity to do something with what they know and assessing them on their doing and not just on their knowing.
to move away from “can students tell you what you told them” and toward “what can students do with what they’ve learned.”
What are your priorities in your first year at Park?
There’s work for us to do in the social-emotional learning realm. Social-emotional skills are deeply connected to academic rigor, because if you are asking students to do intellectually-rigorous academic work, that requires a certain caliber of relationship in the classroom with peers and with teachers. We’ve learned from brain research that if students don’t feel socially and emotionally safe in the classroom, they actually can’t learn – they’re not going to raise their hand to ask a question or take a risk on exploring a solution on their own. They’re going to want to play it safe. And when a child isn’t feeling safe to explore something, then they’re not practicing critical thinking skills or analytical skills or communication skills. These are the skills that define academic rigor in the 21st century, not memorization and not ‘recipe’. Furthermore, this is the magic of a PK-8 education: our Upper Division students have strong, longstanding, consistent relationships with peers and teachers supporting them as they merge into more complex and rigorous academic work. We need to capitalize on that magic!
And on a lighter (or I should say heavier!) note, we’re taking a look at the weight of our students’ backpacks. I have created a task force of Upper Division students to study the issue and come up with solutions. We meet once a week and are making good progress. So far, we’ve defined the problem, identified questions, and will soon move into our data collection phase. We hope to have some recommendations for the Administrative Team to review and consider by the end of January.
You recently spent three days as a Park student: one for each grade in the Upper Division. What did you learn?
It was awesome! Being a Park student for three days allowed me to develop a deeper understanding of the student experience. I was exhausted by the end of every day. Adult work is really different than student work. When you’re an adult, for the most part, you’re in the position to create and control situations, but when you’re a kid it’s the opposite; kids often are asked to enter into situations and adapt to expectations that have been set for them. As adults, I think we can forget how exhausting that can be. Surprisingly, my favorite part of being a Park School student was when I had to take a test. I hadn’t been in classes learning the material leading up to the test, and so this forced me to approach the work by problem-solving, rather than by simply answering questions. I had to be the most creative, to think the most critically, to be careful about how I communicated – that’s when I was doing the most doing.
I also noticed a big difference between sixth and eighth grades. I crammed for a test during recess with other eighth grade students, whereas in seventh grade I was swinging on the swings. Eighth graders have a lot of pressure so that they can get into the secondary school of their choice, but I worry that it becomes less about learning and more about how they’re seen by others. We need to make sure that students want to learn for learning’s sake and not wanting to perform. Because at some point, the audience fades away, and it becomes you and your work. If you’re just motivated to learn for a grade, you’re going to burn out and you won’t be an effective adult in the greater world. I want to instill in students a love for learning and the skills to DO so they’re able to go out and make meaningful contributions in their chosen fields of study and work. That is the point of an education.