Connection and Learning Abound During Rivers’ Professional Development Day

After March break, the professional community came back for a full day of connection and learning. Gathering in Kraft Dining Hall on Monday, March 25, colleagues happily greeted one another and shared stories of their adventures away. For some, the break was a chance to reconnect with families and friends, while others accompanied students on trips to Italy, Greece, and Cuba. For many members of the professional community, work continued on campus and served as a time to prepare for the final stretch of the year.

Head of School Ryan S. Dahlem, starting with his own personal journey, shared a particular moment of joy that occurred during his break. As a member of the Rivers contingent that traveled to Cuba with Rivers jazz ensembles, Dahlem had the opportunity to see students perform and interact with their Cuban counterparts, students from the Escuela Nacional de Música, the top performing-arts school in the country. The Rivers cohort had a joint concert and a recording session with the Cuban students in Havana. In addition to attending performances and cultural sites, our students made authentic connections and friendships. For his “moment of joy,” Dahlem described the experience of listening to a joint concert with Cuban students in Havana, where students “just blew the roof off the place.” He recalled that both the Cuban students and the Rivers students were wowed by one another’s talents. He went on to thank organizer (and Global Education Director) Andrea Villagrán and Jazz Program Director Philippe Crettien, as well as the chaperones who made this trip possible. Dahlem said it was one of the most profound educational experiences he’s seen during his time as an educator.

Following Dahlem’s opening remarks, Enrichment Grants Committee Chair Juliet Bailey announced the 2024 professional community grant recipients. These grants will fund personal and creative enrichment projects, separate from and beyond the recipients’ classroom practice and professional development. Personal pursuits will include a range of new experiences, ranging from language and cultural immersion to hiking and mountain biking in various parts of the world. 

English Department Chair Mac Caplan provided an update on the final stretch of the AISNE self-study project before professional community members broke out into their groups to put the finishing touches on their self-assessment reports.

Following that, the first workshop of the day for Middle School and Upper School faculty was led by author and researcher Michael Delman, author of Your Kid's Gonna Be Okay: Building the Executive Function Skills Your Child Needs in the Age of Attention. Delman's presentation on developing executive function skills in students provided invaluable insights and strategies for faculty members to enhance student learning and success.

Delman began his interactive presentation with a question: What behaviors do you expect of your students when they enter the classroom? Delman asked for four volunteers to act out how students might enter a classroom. Some entered slowly; others were more boisterous. The discussion segued to what makes for a “model student”—one who arrives engaged and ready to learn. Delman said the factors that go into that mindset, and the ways to spot it, are simple: Ideally, that a model student connects with others in the classroom when they enter, engaging in light conversation rather than looking at their phone. (Perhaps the phone is placed in a designated bucket until class is over.) They show up on time, they have the necessary materials near at hand, and they acknowledge and greet the teacher appropriately.  

Delman emphasized the importance of understanding executive function skills, which encompass cognitive processes like self-regulation, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. He provided practical strategies that faculty members can weave into their teaching practices to support the development of executive function skills. Faculty members were reminded of the importance of consistency and reinforcement in supporting the development of executive function skills. 

For the final portion of the day, the Middle School held a division meeting. Middle School teachers and advisors read an article focused on post-pandemic characteristics of middle school students and discussed ways in which they might continue to meet students where they are, given the extent to which critically formative developmental years were interrupted by the pandemic.

For the Upper School, the AI task force conducted a series of workshops for the Upper School faculty—led by faculty members Nick Herrmann, Ben Leeming, Victoria Mizzi, Feryal Sacristán Muñoz, Mac Caplan, and John Adams—with the goal of engaging members of our professional community with AI technology. Said Adams, director of academic technology, “The north star of the day was to get every Upper School teacher using AI and, in the process, building their AI literacy and considering how it could impact their work and their students.” 

The specific workshop topics ranged from the pragmatic to the conceptual, covering the role of AI in such areas as language acquisition, research, lesson planning, and, of course, writing. Leeming, whose workshop was titled “Embrace Your Chatty, Hallucinating AI Assistant: The Challenges and Opportunities of Using AI for Research,” said, “The workshop had three objectives: to discuss some of the pros and cons of AI as a research assistant; to give teachers an opportunity to play around with multiple AI chatbots by conducting some research on topics related to their disciplines: and to have them plan a brief lesson or activity incorporating AI that they could introduce to their students in the coming weeks.”

In aggregate, the workshops served to reinforce to teachers that AI is here to stay, and that it’s crucial for them to learn to work with it and to maximize its potential as an educational tool. Sessions like Monday’s workshops give faculty members the opportunity to explore that potential with the support, input, and collaboration of their colleagues. As Leeming said later, “The only way to get a handle on AI—its use, and its implications for our fields—is to roll up our sleeves and explore, experiment, and play.”

Upper School faculty members adjourned to participate in department time. After a full and thought-provoking day of professional development, the faculty were ready for the immediate task ahead: Welcoming students back to campus the next day for the final months of the school year.
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