‘Principal’ed Teaching and Innovative Student-Centered Practices

By Arthur Baraf
October 5, 2018

This was originally posted on the Center for Collaborative Education on May 4, 2017. Adrian Robbins and Elijah Wright, 10th-graders at the Met School, filmed and edited an accompanying video for Students at the Center Hub.

Did you know the title “Principal” comes from the fact that the principal was originally known as the “principal teacher” of the school? I try to embody that history in how I structure my time and in my philosophy as a school leader. I make time each trimester to teach a class. I do this partially because I love teaching, but more importantly, I do it because it keeps me grounded in the real world that my teachers live in as they develop engaging, student-centered curriculum; plan effective lessons; differentiate and personalize; assess learning; and manage the classroom environment.

The class I’ve taught this year is called “Justice: Responding to Ethical Dilemmas in Life, Politics, and Schools.” I used the online lectures of Michael Sandel, one of the most popular professors at Harvard University. For the first trimester, Michael Sandel was the “professor”, and I was the “T.A.” I flipped the classroom; students watched the lectures for homework and took two-column notes. When they came in for our sessions, students discussed the lecture—the dilemmas, the philosophers, the concepts—and I facilitated. The conversations were rich and regularly blew student minds when they had to reverse course on a position after a peer asked a provocative question. Students wrote responses to dilemmas and demonstrated understanding of consequentialist, utilitarian, and strong-rights theories of justice. They argued as libertarians and egalitarians, and imagined “what’s the right thing to do” from behind Rawl’s “veil of ignorance.” Using Sandel’s lectures, I was teaching them to think and debate using logic developed by Mills, Kant, Locke, Nozick, and many other great minds. We had a great time.

I developed “Part Two” to my class alongside Harvard University’s Meira Levinson. Professor Levinson’s book, Dilemmas in Educational Ethics, was our text. It is structured around case studies focused on scenarios that real teachers periodically face, which test the ethical and moral dimensions of our profession. For example, should you promote or retain a student who tried hard and has a terrible home situation, but who didn’t meet the requirements? Or, should a teacher in a “Zero Tolerance School” turn in a student for an infraction she doesn’t feel warrants legal action or work around the school policy and risk being fired? Each case study is ultimately about how best to serve students—so of course the students’ perspective should be heard. Student voice then became the driving force behind “Part Two” of class: teaching the students how to reason and write well enough to publish their own commentaries on these case studies.

To plan this part of the class, I reflected on the Big Picture Learning elements of high-quality projects, as well as The Buck Institute’s Gold Standard Essential Project Design Elements. For the critique and revision element, I reflected on Ron Berger’s concepts of creating a “culture of critique” and making “beautiful work”.

My students paired up and chose case studies. They started in the inquiry phase, researching their topics (school discipline, inclusive education, and promotion/retention) with readings, fact-finding, original survey data, interviews, roundtables, and site visits. Then they read the published commentaries and analyzed them as models to determine the dimensions of highly effective argument writing. Next, they went through many cycles of drafting, critique, and revision.

In mid-February, we joined Professor Levinson’s Harvard class and learned alongside the 60 graduate students. The Harvard students had read one of my students’ commentaries for homework leading up to that day. I was so impressed by how well my 9th grade Met students carried themselves in this Harvard graduate-level class. They were split apart into small groups and held their own in hour-long small group debates.  When the professor opened up a whole class debate, my students jumped right in, making astute points. After the class was over, the Harvard students hung around for 20 minutes to talk more with my 9th graders, who felt like rock stars. On the drive home, they were on fire with ideas for next steps. We were invited back in late March to present our own ethical case study about moral dilemmas administrations face surrounding the Anti-Trump student walk outs in November.

To be a great school leader, one must constantly think about great instruction and deeper student learning. Too often, once a teacher becomes an administrator they become disconnected from the work of teaching students. I’m privileged to be in a school that allows me the opportunity to continue teaching. The experiment of creating and teaching this class has taught me so much about how to engage students in relevant, academically rigorous, and authentic learning.  We ought to design leadership roles that keep administrators doing the work they are leading.

Met High School students reflect on their class with Principal, Arthur Baraf

Learn more about The Met.

Arthur Baraf is a Students at The Center Distinguished Fellow, principal of The MET, an innovative public school in Providence, Rhode Island and the host of The Student-Centered Learning Podcast. Subscribe and stay tuned for more episodes or check out the archives for a variety of SCL topics on Podomatic, Stitcher or iTunes. The Students at the Center Hub team and Arthur Baraf also developed a podcast blog series titled A School Leader’s Student-Centered Resources for Next Gen Educators.

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