Rivers Team Inspired and Energized by NAIS Strategy Lab Workshop

School may be out for students, but a group of Rivers academic administrators jumped back into the classroom earlier this month for an opportunity to strategize, learn from peers, and imagine the pedagogic future at Rivers.
The two-day NAIS Strategy Lab workshop, held in Washington, D.C., was a pilot program offered by the organization, a leading voice for independent schools. The stated goal of the session was to “reimagine the future of schooling,” and the Rivers participants—Head of Upper School Melissa Anderson, Head of Middle School John Bower, Upper School Dean of Faculty Andrea Diaz, Upper School Dean of Studies Chris Dalton, and MS Curriculum Consultant (and former MS Humanities teacher) Melissa Dolan ’98—came back energized and brimming with ideas. 

“This is among the first Strategy Lab programs NAIS has hosted,” noted Anderson. “They invited school teams seeking guidance on how to think about prioritizing and executing strategic change.” Thus the timing was perfect for Rivers, as the school is concluding the accreditation process that will in turn help inform the new strategic plan to be launched next spring.

Anderson, Bower, Diaz, Dalton, and Dolan have collaborated for years but in 2024-25 will be codified as the “academic leadership team.” They arrived in D.C. with several topics in mind; foremost among them was a focus on “one Rivers,” with the Upper and Middle Schools more clearly and explicitly aligned academically. “We want to find opportunities to bridge the divisions, in a way that feels cohesive, mission-aligned, and developmentally appropriate,” said Bower. “For this particular conference, we were looking at that through the lens of academics and what the experience looks like for students in grades 6 through 12.”
Dolan said, “It’s not uncommon for [grades] 6 to 12 schools to have some variation in their program. The Strategy Lab gave us opportunities to think differently about that always-present challenge.” Added Anderson, “I think we have a lot of alignment [across the divisions] philosophically, but we’ve missed some opportunities to communicate to our constituencies where those points of alignment are.”

There were also fruitful conversations about centering the student experience and interdisciplinary opportunities. The attendees agreed that a particularly telling moment came as the group discussed how “Rivers teachers are second to none.” Dalton, a scientist by temperament and training, challenged his colleagues to turn that statement into an actual hypothesis that might be proven (or disproven).

“What struck me,” said Dalton, “is that our teachers are ‘second to none’ in ways that align with our mission and values. It’s about finding, retaining, and cultivating teachers who reflect our culture.” Those teachers, said the group, are not just experts. They are also learners who are “open to asking questions about their own practice,” said Dalton. As Anderson put it, “Our teachers are dexterous and humble, and they subordinate any claim to expertise to the learning experience of the students in front of them. That learning journey is as much a part of our faculty culture as it is for our students.” Diaz, who oversees many faculty hires, told the group that when a prospective teacher is interviewed, she provides prompts that get at candidates’ ability to be self reflective and to embrace a growth mindset.

Another topic that came up was the concept of “transfer goals.” Bower said, “If we have a clearly articulated academic mission (the what), as well as learning objectives for students (the how), transfer goals are about developing deep understanding of concepts and being able to transfer that understanding to real-world scenarios.” A metaphor suggested by the workshop leaders resonated with him: In soccer, he said, “You can have a kindergartner whose goal is to score a goal, and you can have a senior whose goal is to score a goal. But the ways in which you get to those goals are going to be different in Kinder Kicks from how they are for varsity athletes. It was a nice way of looking at ‘How do we bridge the 6 to 12 experience?’ in a developmentally appropriate way.”

Academic and curricular change are incremental by their very nature. A week post-workshop, the attendees were debriefing the experience and coming up with an action plan. But, said Anderson, “We’re not seeking radical change. I expect we’ll do more communicating across divisions and move in a more unified way toward our learning goals for our students. Hopefully, we’ll proceed with a stronger sense of purpose and alignment.” 

The team was energized by the opportunity to connect with peers from other schools and from the workshop leaders, and they were grateful that the Rivers administration had supported their participation. “It was really fun,” said Anderson. “We came back flying high.” As enthusiastic learners themselves, this group can’t wait to tackle the challenges ahead, as the school creates and launches its next strategic plan. 
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