Monday, January 14, 2019

How to think about the College Process longitudinally - parents start before students- don’t let the students start too early...or too late!

Melissa Nipper
Director of College Counseling

Constant- that is the word I feel describes what it was like to have a newborn child- constant. We were either constantly feeding, burping, changing, rocking, entertaining, or attempting to get our little creation to sleep. As our first born grew, we grew as well - as did our definition of being parents. Or, maybe we just got use to the  ‘constant’ of parenthood and that simply became the norm. I remember two, what seemed like back then, major milestones that changed the shape of parenthood for us in those distinct moments. First, there was the day that our son properly dressed himself to go out and play in the snow. This process, that typically took the equivalent of a work day, now was taken out of our hands as he achieved full snow gear, boots and all, all by himself. Even better, he could take it all off by himself  when the fun in the snow was done. The second breakthrough and major milestone: being able to get into the car and buckled all by himself. Now THAT was a life changer! I think we gained 10, maybe 15 minutes of our lives each time we got into and out of our vehicle.

Although having been warned time and time again by people having gone through the parenthood process, we were caught off guard by how quickly time passed by. Suddenly, our major decisions of which piece of art work should we remove from the fridge in order to hang an A+ spelling test has turned into the recognition that college for our son is seemingly right around the corner. How did this happen so quickly? Being a college placement counselor for the past 20 years, I have been asked by many parents (most recently, by the parents of my son’s friends): ‘How as parents do we navigate this process? What should we do and where on earth do we even begin?. When should we begin and are we already behind?’.  Although emotionally, I may not be prepared to manage my son packing up and leaving home (his goal of course is to attend a university on the West Coast- way to choose something close buddy), I do feel confident in the process of getting from point A: Freshman year in high school to point B: May 1st- the college admissions decision deadline date- the day the students must declare where they will begin the next phase of their lives.

For most teens, this is their first real decision they have had to make in their lives. Up until now, school was laid out for them. For many,  based on where they lived, they knew where they would be going to elementary, middle, and high school. Attending school was not an option, it was, in fact, the law. However, there is no mandate requiring students to attend college. These new adults have their first taste at freedom.  This is also a very new phase for us as parents. Up until this point in time, what we said carried weight. But now, although we obviously all want to have input, it is ultimately, and should be, up to the student to make the choice in this big milestone in their lives: ‘where do I go after high school?’. This is why having a solid basis for this decision is paramount during high school.

As parents, we want (not to mention our savings accounts may dictate) our children to make well informed decisions and not starry eyed choices based on ‘name brand’ or wanting to attend a college because ‘that is where all my friends are going…’.  A 4 year comprehensive college curriculum program forms the foundation to the college search and application process in the freshman year so by the time the student is formally starting the search and application process (typically during the second semester of the junior year), they will have a much more well developed idea of what they want and need out of a college.  This mindfulness when choosing schools to apply to will help to ease the nervous and anxious parent- who themselves are also facing a transition : learning to allow our children to a make major life decision. Gone are the days of forcing our kids to sit in their high-chair until they finish their peas.  We are now facing the realities of our kids leaving home, some perhaps going hundreds and hundreds of miles away. This is why is is so imperative to start thinking of the process early. By building a solid foundation, the structure will be in place for well informed and thought out choices.

At AOA, we have a 4 year college counseling advisory curriculum. By starting the college process at the beginning of high school, it is my belief that our students will be better prepared to make well informed and thought-out choices regarding their college fit and major.  By the spring of their junior year, when the formal college search process begins, our students will start this phase of their life feeling confident and well informed. Where should they start? What are the building blocks that will inevitably solidify their choices? How can we, as parents, support them and guide them without overwhelming them (and ourselves)?

I cannot help but reflect on the days when my son would hold out his hand for me to take before we crossed the street. Me, grabbing it,  guiding him protectively across the busy path. This image mimics the role of a high school college counselor- holding the hands of our families while guiding them through this new phase in life. The goal is to make the entire process exciting, a bonding experience so to speak between the parent and child, and not to make it seem like a ‘constant’ task being forced on the parent or the student but rather a gradual build into declaring which college to attend.

Freshman year:

The transition from middle school to freshman year can be difficult! This is when everything starts to matter in the eyes of colleges. Students now have transcripts and grades matter. Activities and community service hours become not just extras that students do for fun but have become an essential part of the college application narrative. Some students, and parents, tend to overthink the college search process. On the other hand, some students may see freshman year as just an extension of middle school. These two extremes must be averaged out to create the perfect scenario: a well balanced freshman year that is all about self- discovery. During freshman year, students should:
* Understand that class selection is important- freshman classes are the building blocks for future class opportunities and options.
* Recognize that strength of schedule is very important - many colleges look at how much a student will challenge themselves but students need to be careful. There is a balance between challenging oneself and being successful and challenging oneself and encountering a major academic struggle. For instance, getting an A in an honors or college prep class is much better than earning a C in an AP course.
* Take a practice ACT or SAT. Please do not feel the need to take the real test! Freshman year is JUST. TOO. SOON. Students are still learning higher level math concepts and advancing their reading skills. By taking a practice test, students gain an idea of what the dreaded SAT and ACT will look like. It eliminates the mystery of  these tests allowing for an understanding of how best to prepare for future standardized testing.
* This is the year they should learn and adjust their study skills, learn and practice time management and also develop test taking strategies that match the high school level test.
* Students should also explore activities. Keep in mind, colleges consider quality over quantity when it comes to extra curricular activities. If a student is involved with two or three very meaningful activities, especially those in which they can demonstrate leadership and initiative, this is more highly regarded than being involved in numerous activities in which there is only a peripheral level of involvement.
* Ideally, all freshman should learn about what types of colleges there are: public, private, liberal arts etc. They should experience a ‘taste of college’ and be exposed to what colleges look for in an applicant. This plants the seed of understanding in the freshman student and also will help to enlighten the parents on what colleges are actually looking for when they review applications.
* Freshmen should visit a local college. It doesn’t have to be one they are even interested in BUT by visiting a college early in high school, the idea of a college campus can be demystified.
* Begin a resume, or virtual portfolio, compiling awards, activities, community service projects, and any other significant involvement. When it comes time to apply to colleges in the senior year, It is so easy to forget what took place three years prior. By beginning this list now, a student’s application process will be that much easier.
* Attend college rep visits at your high school to further gain knowledge of what colleges have to offer.

Sophomore year:

The classes taken during sophomore year are also very important. They may satisfy prerequisites for higher level courses. At many schools, placement in honors and AP classes must have teacher approval. By taking the right classes, that fit a student’s ability (challenging them while not overwhelming them), the junior year courses to take become very clear.
* Whichever practice test the student did not take in their freshman year (either the practice ACT or the practice SAT), they should take sophomore year. They should then compare each test. Is one score way above the other? Did they feel more comfortable with one test over the other? If so, this is the test they should focus on and prepare for.
* Don’t forget to continue adding to the resume/virtual portfolio. I tell my student’s all the time- ‘Your future self will thank you!’
* Be mindful of leadership opportunities and seize them when they come along OR find ways (take initiative) to make these opportunities happen.
* Students should begin to explore possible majors or career interests. Shadowing a person in a profession that is of interest to them may solidify whether they want, or in some cases do not want, to pursue that field of study. If a student has no idea what they want to do, that is COMPLETELY FINE AS WELL!  The US Department of Education reports that 1 in 9 college students change their major more than two times during their college career and over 75% of students either begin as ‘undecided’ or change their major at least once before college graduation. Think back to when you were 15 or even 18.  Did you know you would be doing the job you are doing right now? So relax, unless a student wants to go into a specialized field with an accelerated degree, changing majors is the norm. College is a place to explore options and opportunities.
* We have many assessments that the students take to help them get a better idea of their strengths and areas that need improvement, learning style inventories, career interest profiles, and assessments that can help determine appropriate college major and career path based on interest inventories. This gaining of self understanding can be a catalyst to thinking about options they may not have considered in the past.
* Sophomore year is a great year to go more in depth with college visits allowing a student to begin to narrow down the type of college they may want including having a better understanding of the setting, the size, and the academic structure of the school. Visit two different types of colleges and compare. Visit a large public university and visit a smaller private university. Which felt better? What were the pros and cons of each. By comparing these areas, a student can better focus in on what may be the best fit for them.
* Students should attend college representative visits at their high school to further gain knowledge of what colleges have to offer. These information sessions give students  an idea of what individual colleges have to offer. These sessions may also spark questions and lead to areas of interest that the student may not have thought about before. For example, a student may not have thought about study abroad opportunities as an aspect to consider. But, after hearing about a college’s semester in Rome program, this is now a ‘must have’ on the college checklist.

Junior year:

Junior year IS the most important year. This is the year that will produce the final grades on the transcript that the colleges will see when applications are sent in. This can also be the year to even out any bumps in the road a student may have experienced in 9th and 10th grade. Struggled in a class? Didn’t have the outcome hoped for in terms of GPA? Hit a roadblock along the way somewhere? All is not lost! Junior year is the year to show resilience and make up for any concerns the student may have. It also makes for a great essay topic! I also highly recommend that students do as much as they can during the second semester of junior year in order to ease their requirements during their busy first semester of their senior year.
* Virtual portfolio/resume should be completed.
* Activities and involvement- leadership and initiative are highly regarded in the application process. Students should be mindful of the level of involvement in their activities. Again, it is quality over quantity in regards to extra curricular involvement.
* Take the SAT and/or ACT- take a prep class but only if 100% invested in this. Otherwise, just doing one’s homework will be beneficial in two ways: better grades and better preparation for the standardized tests. There are also a number of colleges that have joined the FairTest movement. This allows for students to apply without standardized test scores. They may ask for additional letters of recommendation or copies of graded papers to supplement the application.
* Complete an ESSAY! Look at the Common App prompts. The second semester junior year is the perfect time to begin (maybe even finish) the main personal statement. This should not be a dissertation length paper. In fact, the common application has a 650 word limit. By getting the main personal statement out of the way early, students will have more time and less stress for the supplemental essays some colleges require.
* Teacher recommendations- ask before summer! Colleges typically want to see two letters of recommendation. One should be from a science or math teacher and one should be from an English/humanities teacher. Keep in mind it is very important who is asked. Has the student had more than one class with a teacher? Has the student had significant interactions with the teacher outside of the classroom? Perhaps the teacher is also the student’s coach or an advisor. The teachers that write the recommendation letters should also be from the junior year. By asking the teachers early, they are now given ample time to write the best recommendation possible rather than asking them a week ahead of time- these may not be the best to use...
* Students should: have a working college list and visit as many colleges on the list as possible over the summer. Keep notes for all visits. Send handwritten thank you notes to the admissions counselors that are met with. Make sure these visits are scheduled visits so that they go on record. This demonstrated interest can sometimes help in the college process.
* Speaking of the working college list, I like to take the ladder approach: have schools on the list that are on different levels: safety, realistic/target, and dream/reach. Applying to 5-7 colleges is the norm. Some students may only apply to 1 (be careful as to not put all the eggs in one basket) while others may become obsessed with applying and even hit the maximum level on the common app (that’s 20 colleges by the way). Not only is this a lot of work, it is EXPENSIVE!
* Juniors should attend college rep visits at their high school to further gain knowledge of what colleges have to offer.  By meeting with a college representative of a school of interest, the student is showing  demonstrated interest- have I stressed yet that this is a VERY, VERY important aspect of the college admissions process?
* Speaking of demonstrated interest, I highly recommend a student visit their top choice school if at all feasible for the family. Many of the top choice colleges however also recognize this may not be financially realistic for some.  Many of the top tier schools do not count campus visits towards an applicant’s admission decision. By visiting the college however, a student may solidify their desire to attend and may want to consider an early decision application.
* Attend a college fair but do research ahead of time. Find out which colleges will be in attendance and mark the ones that specifically are of interest. Go in with a game plan, come out with knowledge (and a lot of brochures).
* Begin the common application in late spring. It will be the practice one but much of the information will roll over to the live version that opens each August.
* Be very mindful of the classes selected for senior year. Colleges don’t want to see basket weaving and three classes of physical education. They all look at strength of schedule. Again, this is a balance: student need to have a respectable strength of schedule without overwhelming themselves.

Senior year:

THIS IS IT! All these years later, even though it seems like kindergarten was just yesterday, senior year and application time is here! Senior year is no time to slack off in classes. It is the contrary. Some schools may ask for semester or quarter grades. Teachers also continue to write recommendation letters. As long as students have followed along with what they should be doing every year, they will be ready to solidify all the pieces of the application puzzle during the first semester. Trust me, by keeping up with the small things each year, the craziness of the college process will be MUCH easier and relaxed and even fun (seriously, it CAN be fun!). If done properly, senior year consists of completing:
* FAFSA (only for domestic students) and CSS (if required by the select college). I will save the ‘how to pay for college’ for a different blog.
* Prepare for interviews- some colleges require, some offer, some won’t even consider this.
* If a student hasn’t visited their top choice colleges yet, they should.
* Consider ED/EA/REA/RD applications.
* Be aware of deadlines! I would hate for a student to have a dream school only to miss the application deadline.
* May 1st is National Decision Day. A student does not have to make a deposit to a school until this day. Prior to this day, many schools offer admitted student overnight visit programs. This is like a test drive. My mentor use to say: ‘You wouldn’t marry a blind date, so neither should you choose a college without visiting it.’ It is a great idea for the students to collect all of their acceptances, look at the financial aid and merit packages, consider all other aspects that are of importance to the family, and then after everything is considered, it is time to make the deposit! CONGRATULATIONS, YOU MADE IT!

Keep in mind, the college process is a very individualized process for each student. Although I have laid out a general path, what is right for one, may not be right for another. Also, if there was a struggle somewhere along the way, all hope is not lost! Most colleges have a holistic approach to college admissions. This means they look at the whole picture of a student. I liken this to a jigsaw puzzle. Each piece of the application is a piece to the puzzle. The holistic review allows the colleges to put the pieces together and see the full picture of a student and not just the test score and transcript pieces. Also, in terms of essays, I like to anticipate what questions the admissions counselor may have after reviewing the application. It is best to provide answers to these questions before they have a chance to get asked. This is the best time to show grit and resilience and the ability to overcome obstacles.

My final piece of advice, and this may be the most important: It is SO IMPERATIVE to not compare test scores, where a student is applying, where they got accepted, how much of a scholarship they were offered etc. As hard as this may sound, try and ignore all the noise that surrounds the college process. It will be inevitable that a well-meaning family member or neighbor will ask: ‘So, where is your child going to college?’. It is also very acceptable to answer: ‘We are looking at all their options.’ Also keep in mind that you are not graded as a parent based on where your child goes to college. The ultimate goal of going to college is the right fit, leading to a satisfied and productive college student regardless of where they attend. In the end it is all about what they do while at college and not what college they graduate from.

Constant, the college process during the high school years is a constant factor. But,  just as we had to adjust to the demands of becoming new parents, if done properly, the ‘constant’ factor simply becomes the norm and integrates into daily life. Stress is reduced, expectations are known, and the path to crossing the road is safe and clearly laid out. One final thought to leave you with. Please keep in mind that your child’s choice in college should not be based on which college you think sounds good when talking to friends, family, strangers etc. Their choice in college should be about finding a university that will help them develop into the person you always dreamed they would become.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Assessing Creativity

Michael G. Ford, M.Ed, Ph.D.
Co-Department Head, Science Department
Co-Director Global Scholars Program

As a reader of our blog, you are in a position that was shared by our AOA faculty during the start of the Creative Thinking Initiative. You probably value creativity in yourself, your children and your coworkers. You no longer require convincing that creative output is a cornerstone of the modern workplace and a key to the future success of our children. Even if you are already convinced of the value of fostering creative thought, you may have some uncertainty as to how an educational institution could undertake an evaluation of creativity in its students. The prospect of placing a numerical grade on creative student work may be both confusing and a little intimidating. I hope to convince you that the production of creative output arises from a learned set of behaviors and that with systematic and rigorous application of specific principles, it can be evaluated, ranked and scored. In this work, I will attempt to show what we have learned about the process of teaching our students creative thinking, and several ways in which we foster the development of these skills in the classroom.

Before listing a set of characteristics that we seek to encourage, I believe it is useful to consider what must be absent in an environment that seeks to foster creative thinking. A number of stereotypes and preconceptions surround the language used to describe the production of creative work. Additionally, while superficial evaluation of creativity as a line item at the bottom of a rubric has been present for years, it is only by pushing creativity to the forefront that full development of creative thinking can be made possible.

Creativity is Not Character

It is common in many settings to refer to ‘creative people’ as if all of their original, interesting and impactful work is the product of innate inability, instead of the result of long years of training and honing of a specific skill set. If we are to evaluate creativity, we must possess the mindset that creative thought is not solely the product of an inborn proficiency for producing interesting, useful and novel work. This shift does not require us to ignore personality traits and habits of mind that give some advantages in producing creative output, any more than we would be required to ignore writing ability, math proficiency or scientific aptitude. Instead, we strive to set up a process which improves upon areas of weakness and utilizes an individual’s characteristics to their best advantage.

Not a Niche Market

While it is natural to think of creative output being tied tightly to specific subjects such as language arts, visual and performing arts, effective education utilizing the ‘creativity toolbox’ cuts across all disciplines. In math and science, the trend toward Project-Based Learning (PBL) strategies, is really just a specific implementation of a strategy designed to make use of student’s natural curiosity by removing rigid framework, and allowing hands-on exploration of scientific and mathematical principles. As a science teacher, I have found great joy in giving my students the time and space to develop their own questions and to find surprising solutions to open-ended challenges. Placing an institutional emphasis on creativity across grade level and subject has also allowed AOA to develop a common language for encouraging and evaluating creative work.    

Evaluating Creativity - Product and Process

Almost all scholarly work on teaching and evaluating creativity contains some attempt to define creativity, an effort to delineate what it means to ‘teach creativity’. Instead of spending time with this academic exercise, I would like to share a specific set of traits and behaviors that we seek to instill in our students. When the faculty of Andrews Osborne Academy seeks to evaluate creative output, we are evaluating both the product and process of creative thought.

The Product of Creative Work - Novel and Useful

Any valuable piece of creative work must fulfill two basic criteria; it must serve a purpose or perform a function while also containing original thought. The purpose of an assignment seeking to develop creative thinking skills may vary broadly in scope, but always there remains a specific idea that the work seeks to communicate. If the student loses sight of the specific goal, they may turn in novel work which is irrelevant or otherwise unable to meet the requirements set forth by the instructor. Similarly, work which is a simple reworking of existing ideas would likely provide a product that may be minimally functional, but will not convey any sense of the student’s own perspective on the subject at hand.

Consider an assignment in which a student was required to create a graphical personal ad for a character from The Great Gatsby. The requirements of this type of assignment might be to portray the best aspects of one major character in an engaging visual format that would make the viewer curious to know more about them as a person. A student with a design background might spend hours on the interplay of color, font and overall design while ignoring the exploration of the character traits depicted in the novel. Conversely, a bulleted list of all aspects of the character’s personal qualities may lose a reader’s interest before they can engage with the text itself. The search for the ‘sweet spot’ where a novel presentation is able to meet a specific curricular goal is the challenge faced in any classroom seeking to teach the set of skills involved in producing quality creative work.
If we look at companies, groups or individuals that embody the creative spirit, we find this same union of function and novelty. Apple remains a tremendously successful company because its products combine a pleasing form with functions that lead the electronics field. Instead of ‘thinking outside the box’, successful creative endeavors maneuver gracefully within a specific ‘box’ better than their peers. 

Creative Thinking as a Process

As educators we are taught to value the process that leads to an end product even as we grade the end result. Assignments promoting creative thinking are no exception. A brief listing of each aspect of this process is useful in understanding how we develop these skills in our students.

Divergent Thinking - The first part of many creative endeavors is idea generation. Whether called brainstorming, ideation, or divergent thinking we ask students to generate possible ways to fulfill the stated goals of the assignment. In some cases, such as a building project in physics class, we may pay little heed to the feasibility of a given design, and may simply set a goal of generating as many solutions as possible.

Taking the ‘Deep Dive’ - Digging deeply, investigating thoroughly, and researching the work of others can help to provide a first screen of a set of possible solutions, and give fuel for the creative fire. In literature, this may mean a close reading of a specific passage, or the tracking of a character through a novel. In history, it may mean getting closer to primary sources to aid in understanding of the personal effects of important events.

Risk-Taking - Thoughtful risk-taking is part of any creative endeavor, requiring a student to be willing to attempt an unproven technique or design. While risk taking includes the acceptance of failure as part of the growth process (as is so fashionable to discuss in educational circles) it also means being open with personal ideas that may leave many feeling vulnerable. The ability to listen to one’s unique inner voice means accepting the risk that your creative work may not be highly valued by peers and teachers.

Convergent Thinking - Iteration, testing, editing - we have many ways of selecting one solution from many. Ultimately we are guided by our need to fulfil the requirements put forth in the stated goals of the assignment itself. During a long-term assignment - The Big Battery Build, students in my chemistry classes narrowed down possible battery designs based on the directive to produce the highest possible voltage while avoiding toxic or dangerous materials.

While development of the creative skill set requires us to examine both the process and product, it may not be possible (or desirable) to evaluate all aspects of creative thinking in a single assignment. In our science classrooms we might seek to emphasize a ‘deep dive’ - researching current gene therapy techniques, followed by the selection of a single technique (convergent thinking) suited to treating a specific genetic disorder.

While I have not fully explored exactly how creativity is assessed for individual assignments, I have attempted to give you a sense of what traits we seek to impart to our students. I hope to take an opportunity in future blog posts to better illustrate the shared language of assessing creativity and contrast traditional assignments with versions modified to emphasize creative thought. While I may have only begun the process of uncovering what it means to assess a student’s creative work, I hope that you have come to understand the overall goals of evaluating creativity in the AOA classroom, and that it may be less mysterious to those in our community as a whole.

Friday, November 16, 2018

School Athletics in 2018 – How To Do It Well

Scott G. McNevan, MBA
Assistant Head of School – Co-Curriculars & Residential Life
Athletic Director

It has been said routinely by coaches and administrators for years that ‘athletics are an extension of the classroom’.  This very American mantra (most countries do not embrace athletics so formally in their school systems) is more true today than ever.  As technology annually provides our students with more and more opportunity for inactive stimulation, it can be argued that the value of participating in organized school sports is at an all-time high.  While the value is inherently there, just as it is for learning about literature or social sciences, the delivery is something that many schools take for granted and should re-evaluate.  How can schools deliver quality athletic programming well in 2018? 


The traditional measures of athletic success are performance-based statistics.  How many games did the team win?  How many points did the player score?  How many saves did the goalkeeper make?  Similar to test scores in the classroom, these quantitative measurements provide us with information about output.  In this way stats are used to identify high performing teams and individuals.  However, it is very important for school leadership to avoid over-prioritizing traditional stats as the only measure of success.  In over-focusing on wins and losses we lose one of sport’s most teachable moments, context-based reflection.  In addition to competitive results, defining success for a school’s athletic teams and programs must include other contextual considerations like the starting point of pre-season expectations, injuries and other adversity throughout a season, the amount of improvement over time, academic performance of athletes, graduation rates, and representation of community core values.  It is a valuable exercise for school leadership to pause and reflect on what contextual considerations are most important to them outside of competitive results.  The real benefactors of this reflection are the student-athletes, who can begin to learn that winning and losing are relative and that defining success is context-based. 


Every school has a mission statement.  Most athletic departments have a mission statement.  The exercise of creating a mission is important and valuable work.  It helps an organization realize its identity.  However, more important than creating a mission is living it out in day to day operations.  The mission is the lighthouse.  It is there to guide operating decisions through the good and the bad.  When things seem troubled and confusing, the mission is there as a beacon, helping a school to stay on course.  For athletics to be done well, the department, like all others at the school, must align with the mission.  School leadership must be very intentional about its athletic policies, ensuring that decisions are made with intent to reflect the mission, rather than in an arbitrary fashion. As an example, at Andrews Osborne Academy our mission is to develop students who can lead and serve in a global community.  To ensure our student-athletes don’t confuse team goals with the mission, we support participation in school activities outside of athletics, even during the season. This year the senior captain of the boys’ varsity basketball team also pursued a lead role in a school theatre production.  Restricting him from doing this due to ‘team commitments’ would not have aligned with our mission.  By being a part of both experiences, he is becoming more prepared to lead and serve in his community going forward.  


The landscape of youth sports has been changing steadily for the past twenty years.  Much has been documented about the rise of club sports, the loss of unstructured play due to technology, and the more frequent participation in year-round training for kids.  Despite one’s opinions on these topics, it is vital for a school to recognize and accept the reality of this landscape.  We are incapable of changing the greater environment of youth sports.  However, we are very capable of considering the realities of that environment and then being creative.  Many schools have made the mistake of taking a defensive posture regarding their athletics, asking families to ‘choose a side’.  Some have even instituted penalties for those that participate in outside training rather than with the school-endorsed program.  Schools should not so easily choose this adversarial position.  Sports-loving families are always going to find ways for their student-athlete to participate in programming that they believe is best.  Whether or not we agree with their thinking on this, it is a reality we should accept.  Keeping a big perspective on this and choosing to be creative in the ways we approach things can prevent a lot of frustration and encourage stronger relationships with families.  Examples of this usually involve compromise.  If a family would like their middle-school aged daughter to participate on both a club soccer team and the school team, seek a way to make this work.  Instead of blindly sticking to old policies that link attendance to playing time without any conversation, determine to be creative.  Perhaps the club team schedule can take priority and the player can be warmly welcomed to school practices and games when she is available.  Perhaps when she is available a starting role, while warranted based on caliber, is not granted while instead considerable playing time off the bench is agreed upon.  There are many creative ways to provide an outcome that benefits both the school and, most importantly, the student-athlete.


Students are experiencing higher levels of stress and anxiety today than ever before.  Pressure stemming from parents, outside club sports, social media dynamics, and normal adolescent turbulence is combined with growing academic pressure at many schools to create a very unhealthy equation for the student.  School athletics can avoid contributing to this.  While hard work, determination, and perseverance remain foundational expectations of any good coach, it is vital for all of us to remember that sports are supposed to be fun.  Inside the structures of training and practice, it is not only possible but necessary to incorporate moments of silly, goofy fun for student-athletes.  There are many moments during every season that call for some light-hearted play.  Sometimes it can be spontaneous, providing a disheartened team with 15 minutes to try a new, unstructured game just to break the tension.  Other times it can be planned, scheduling a light, fun practice to compensate for a series of tougher, more physical days.  One goal of every coach should be to see each student-athlete finishing their season loving that sport just as much or more than they did on day one of the season.  If we are not seeing smiles or hearing laughter from our student-athletes, we may be forgetting to incorporate enough fun into the schedule. 


One of the biggest challenges for school athletics is finding, developing, and retaining good coaches.  The demands of coaching in 2018 are significant.  There is a long list of certifications to complete, increased expectations from schools and parents, and evolving needs from student-athletes to deal with.  Schools should be sensitive to these demands on coaches, provide the resources necessary, and support them well.  However, one thing schools cannot afford to do anymore is turn a blind eye towards coaches who continue an outdated, unhealthy, unacceptable cycle of treating student-athletes poorly.  I’m not referring to the need for coaches to maintain high expectations or push their players out of comfort zones at times.  I’m talking about the boundaries regarding language, terminology, and appropriate methods of motivation.  There once was a day when coaches motivated more commonly through yelling, screaming, and emotional outbursts towards student-athletes.  Questionable language and intimidation were more widely accepted.  Thankfully, that day has passed.  Students still need a strong response from coaches at times.  What they don’t need is to be publicly embarrassed or shamed in front of their peers.  They don’t need to be screamed at routinely or motivated frequently through threats or aggressive behavior.  Most of the time when coaches act this way today, they are simply repeating a standard experienced from their playing days in high school.  They are continuing a cycle that must be broken.  The best coaches in 2018 are those who build a deeper toolbox of resources.  They are committed to being good communicators, highlighting goals and objectives, planning well, and staying relatively positive as a role model for their players.  Schools that look the other way and continue to support coaches who perpetuate this cycle do so at the expense of their own student-athlete experience.

At AOA we are committed to doing school athletics well.  We’re adding new programming, re-evaluating the ways in which we measure success, and establishing new goals for our athletic department.  It is an exciting time to be here.  Go Phoenix!

Monday, October 15, 2018

What is a Creative Thinker?

AOA students and teachers talk about their interests and what thinking creatively means to them.
*Editorial credit to Marina Vladova, M.A.Ed., AOA Upper School English Teacher 

Amy Yao
What is creative thinking about? 

For me, it is an openness. It is about discovering objects, stories, and traditions that have either been neglected or forgotten and transforming them into things that people feel will love again. Guo Pei is my favorite designer whose skill and imagination blow me away. She is inspired by tree roots and plants. Although I’m more of a minimalist, I enjoy taking long walks and am also inspired by nature as well as by the fairy tales that my grandmother read to me. Journaling is a great way to explore concepts, questions, and doubts. During our junior year at AOA, we created nature journals where we got to explore and practice some of the Transcendentalist ideas that we read about. For my Senior Experience, my art teacher showed me how to create a tactile idea-journal and helped place me with an incredible local designer who showed me how to incorporate traditional patterns and upcycled pieces into new designs. I got to go through an entire process of creating garments for an individual from start to finish. This involved multiple redos! I’m so excited to study fashion design at Parsons this year!

Amy Yao graduated from AOA and is a freshman at Parsons School of Design in New York.

Madelyn Conley
What is creative thinking about?

For me, it’s about developing a wide perspective and many reference points to draw on. The things I treasure—my maternal Japanese great-grandmother’s red dancing shoes and fan and the soft-shoes (ghillies) from my father’s Irish side of the family—reveal how curious and sentimental I am about the past. I see culture as a spectrum of many components where understanding one drives me to want to dig deeper and know more. As I practiced the traditional Japanese fan dance, I began learning about my great-grandfather’s life in Camp Jerome, an internment camp in Arkansas to which thousands of Japanese Americans were relocated and incarcerated during WWII. AOA has students from every continent, and it’s great to exchange ideas. Drawing on multiple perspectives gives you an opportunity to create a wider, more interdependent web of friends and a dynamic identity for yourself. I look forward to studying environmental science at Reed College.

Maddie graduated from AOA and is a freshman at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.

Luke Frisbie
What is creative thinking about?

It’s just expressing yourself through whatever shows it best! I love working on my drawing tablet, and I’m really into stop-motion and animation. I can take any question or incident and animate it. For example, is April Fool’s Day a holiday? I have a YouTube channel and like to collaborate with kids here that I know and kids from around the world. Sometimes I’ll team up with others to use their voices for characters that I’ve created. For AOA’s International Week, my friend told me an Indian story and I animated it. I see design as perspective-taking and am always looking for opportunities to work with other kids. I like stories that play with time. Years don’t really go by that fast, it’s just that when you don’t remember what happened you say they do. If people lived forever, they’d probably remember differently, and each year would be like a day. If this suddenly happened to us, we’d have to adjust. It could be a gift or a curse depending on how you lived. Attitude is everything.

Luke is a current seventh grader at AOA.

Dawn Driggs
What is creative thinking about?

I treasure my record albums—Bowie, Beatles, Marillion. I still listen to them and look at the artwork. So much gets lost with downloads. Seeing the artwork on the album gives me a “rounder” experience. This is what I bring into the classroom. This is my fourth year at AOA, and I love finding creative ways for students to have a “rounder” exploration of other cultures. Passport to World Cultures is a program for our first graders. It is a way to cross borders and to invite families to share stories, songs, history, artwork, food, and friendship. Creative thinking isn’t difficult to develop with younger children, because creativity hasn’t yet been “untaught”. Six-year-olds don’t even know yet what’s in the box; everything is outside the box for them. I try to give them the tools and space to not be afraid to make mistakes and to see how mistakes can blossom into new and useful ideas.

Dawn Driggs has an BSBA in Accounting and Finance and is Montessori certified. This is her nineteenth year in education and her fourth year teaching at AOA.

Glenn Pihlak
What is creative thinking about?

It’s about planning and tinkering, a process that begins purposefully but is never really finished, and this is enormously fun. I’ve collected postcards from over forty countries that I have visited, some in which I’ve lived and taught. Travel is an iterative process determined by the traveler, people he or she meets, and unexpected circumstances. This summer, my wife and I went up to Lake Michigan. The only things I had actually planned was to go to a soccer match and kayaking. Otherwise, we had some nebulous ideas. This left us open to experiences where we’d stop and indulge. We met people who shared our passion for hot beignets and blueberries in half-pint containers. Just like I prefer traveling with an open-mind and ill-defined goals to pre-packaged tours, I don’t settle on fixed outcomes in the classroom. In my ninth grade World Literature classes as well as in the Senior English Seminars that I teach, “What if” is a question that always succeeds to bring greater depth to class discussion and written response. Our readings serve to uncover how writers explore new encounters, environments, successes, and failures.

Glenn Pihlak has a MS in Education Policy. He has taught World Literature, American Literature, and several Senior English Seminars and chairs the English department. This is his sixth year teaching at AOA.

Mike Ford
What is creative thinking about?

It’s about beauty and function. I love gadgetry—to use and display. I have a century-old balance. It still works, and I find it beautiful. It’s unusual these days for things to work for more than a few years. I also have a Geiger counter and like to turn it on. Students are surprised to learn that radiation is all around us. In fact, there was a uranium glaze on Fiestaware from the 1950s. Thinking creatively also means digging deeper, being able to see instruction as a set of constraints that function as a launching point and not an end in itself. The paths vary, and some I would have never envisioned. Science is not linear; there is movement and bouncing between hypotheses and experience. Creative thinking also depends on one's willingness to work in groups, break up jobs, and support one another in exploring hunches to the point where students reevaluate their relationship with the subject matter.

Mike Ford has a Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and has taught Chemistry, Biotechnology, AP Biology, and Genetics. He chairs the science department and co-directs the Global Scholars Program. This is his fourth year teaching at AOA.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Schools MUST Teach Students to Think Creatively

Larry Goodman Ph.D.
Head of School

Let’s be clear - “creative thinking” is not the same thing as “creativity” any more than critical thinking is the same thing as “criticism.” Nor am I advocating that schools need to teach students to be creative any more than I would suggest schools should teach students to be critical. But I AM saying that schools need to teach students to think creatively, just as they teach students to think critically.

“Critical thinking” is convergent - calling for one to think toward what is already known; “creative thinking” is divergent - calling for one to think away from what is known. But while “critical thinking” is a foundational part of virtually every curriculum in the United States, “creative thinking” amounts to little more than a rhetorical flourish on most schools’ websites. This is a big mistake - and one that schools should work hard to change.

Already in the 1950s Professor Ellis Torrance was writing on the concept of creative thinking while at the University of Georgia. Torrance labeled four categories in which the scale and scope of one’s creative thinking could be measured: fluency (how many ideas one can generate), flexibility (how readily one can transform one idea into another), originality (self-explanatory), and elaboration (how extensively one can build-out an idea). All of these thought patterns move away from what is already known.

Also developed in the 1950s was a hierarchical model that educators have used ever since to determine how sophisticated one’s understanding of a concept is. At the bottom of this hierarchy are mental tasks like memorization. A student can memorize the capitals of every State in the Union without knowing too much about any of those cities (or States) - which is why this cognitive skill (memorization) is “low man on the totem pole.” By contrast, evaluation is at the top of the hierarchy; if a student has to evaluate how effective city A is as a capital of State B, then that student necessarily knows a great deal more about the capital and the State. Initially, the hierarchy was comprised entirely of critical thinking (convergent) skills. But by 1992, educational theorists recognized the crucial role of creative thinking (divergent) skills and replaced “Evaluate” at the top of the hierarchy with “Create.”

Here’s why this is so important.

Our schools focus almost exclusively on critical thinking - on thinking toward what is known. Students’ understanding of any content area (as reflected in grades) is judged almost exclusively by their ability to memorize, analyze, think convergently. This creates - and then reinforces - a mindset that ambiguity is bad and that one needs to think only toward what is already known.

Now consider this. We’re told that in 2018, 50% of what a first year college student learns in a technical major is outdated by her junior year! No sooner do we get comfortable with one set of “facts” in any given situation, than we discover that those facts have changed. We now live in a world punctuated by change and ambiguity - precisely the aspects of cognition that our schools teach our students to fear and avoid!

If schools are going to prepare students for success in our rapidly changing world, they have to teach students how to navigate ambiguity - not avoid it. They need to teach students how to think divergently - how to think creatively.

To do this, schools have to value creative thinking - they actually have to teach the distinct skills involved in creative thinking and provide feedback (grades) for students in these areas as they learn to master these skills. I’ve written about this in some detail and you can find that article here.

What we hope to show in future blog posts on this site is how we teach creative thinking - and how we assess
creative thinking - at Andrews Osborne Academy.