Vision Quest

With one year as Assistant Head of School in the books,

Dr. Elizabeth Rossini

discusses Agnes Irwin's adaptive academic approach in evolving times

It’s 2023, and our contemporary context is both exhilarating and exhausting, often simultaneously. As a global society, we are more connected and interdependent than ever before, and we are experiencing extraordinary and rapid technological changes. We are also facing the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, climate challenges, social and political polarization, workforce shortages, a rise in mental health needs, and global economic uncertainty. The world is in what historian Adam Tooze describes as a polycrisis.

Since this is where we find ourselves, most educators across the United States would agree that we are feeling challenged by responding to this polycrisis: not only are we rethinking how we create meaningful and engaging learning where our students develop skills and competencies for this changing world, but we are called up to encourage young minds to stay hopeful and optimistic, and to experience a collective sense of belonging. Whole child, indeed. 

We know what good schooling is, we are adapting our methods to meet the girls where they are in all divisions, and we feel equipped to help our students develop resiliency and well-roundedness.

Like all good schools, Agnes Irwin’s leadership continues to lean on our mission and core values as our north star, just as the school has done for over 150 years. We promise to empower each girl to learn, to lead, and to live a legacy. In addition to building a solid foundation, we continue to incorporate new ways to modernize Agnes Irwin’s “special sauce” — the unquantifiable parts of our curriculum that help us weave our youngest girls’ creativity and collaboration into the fabric of our graduates so that they leave us as confident, intellectually curious, and self-directed young women. It was with this “special sauce” in mind that one of my main goals this year was to reaffirm the school’s commitment to the following signature Agnes Irwin academic approaches that we know will equip our students with the confidence and skills they need in 2023 and beyond. ♦

#1 Help Students Find Their Flow

In Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes “flow” as the psychological state of optimal performance. Think of “flow” as a state of full immersion in an activity where time seems to pass really quickly. Helping our girls achieve flow requires teachers to challenge the students enough to hold their full attention. We recognize that if the activity is too easy, students may become bored; and if it is too challenging, they may become frustrated.

To achieve this balance, we differentiate our instruction to pinpoint the sweet spot for our students. When we are clear about the learning goals, provide immediate and ongoing feedback, engage our students with some level of ownership, and help them understand themselves as learners, they are likely to find their flow. This kind of learning is something we are always working on and striving for. We frequently hear from parents that they see this flow at home when their daughter(s) excitedly talks about a project, efficiently and confidently manages her work, and develops her own academic goals.

Lastly, we double down on what gives us our advantage — an all-girls setting. We like to think of our classrooms as organically flow-inducing spaces since they are tailored in real time to meet the girls’ evolving needs. Relying on our Center for the Advancement of Girls (CAG)’s collection of the most recent resources and research about girls’ education, we design our classes to align with them. Part of the CAG’s work is briefing our teaching staff with mini professional development discussions and providing them with this research so that it can be incorporated expeditiously into our classrooms.

#2 Lean Into New Technologies

ChatGPT, BARD, and other artificial intelligence (AI) tools are hot topics both here at Agnes Irwin and in schools worldwide. As educators, we approach these new technologies with curiosity and as an opportunity for us to examine our practices in a new light. They compel us to recognize our responsibility to be prepared — and to prepare our students — for the associated wave of changes.

We are exploring AI in our programming and engaging with fellow educators nationally about this changing landscape. We also collaborated with our Visiting Scholar Professor Meredith Broussard whose expertise helped us understand the implications of this technology in the PreK-12 setting. Our goal is to guide students to harness this technology in a positive way.As we consider the new paradigms, we are framing our thinking around three broad questions:

  1. In what ways can AI enhance learning for our students? 
  2. What transferable skill sets should our students be building?
  3. How might we help students use AI tools to support their goals and associated tasks?
  4. As a girls’ school, we feel a responsibility to prepare our students to confront existing biases, including those in the technology industry as well as those built into the technologies themselves. We

are also exploring impacts on student attention, motivation, and skill development. While these considerations are on-going, our goal is to help students become nimble lifelong learners, so that the skills they learn now are not obsolete by the time they engage in the world beyond AIS.

#3 Build Curricular Architecture

Our curriculum development is in constant iteration. One of my primary goals this year was to ensure coherence within and across the curriculum from PreK to 12. I met with teachers in focus groups to learn about their processes. Your girls are in good hands! I found a teaching staff who spends much time learning about their students so they can create engaging, clear, accessible, and meaningful curriculum. They also work hard to align their teaching to the grade or course outcomes — these include skills that help develop mathematical mindedness, artistic expression, scientific thinking, spatial awareness, literary analysis, language acquisition, etc. Our grade and course outcomes also include transdisciplinary skills such as research, critical thinking, collaboration, self-directed learning, leadership, relationship skills, and technology literacy.
The curricular architecture that runs from PreK to 12 is designed to define what success looks like for our graduates and is guided by three questions: 

  1. What should our students be able to do independently from us when they graduate? 
  2. How do we ensure our students have met those goals? 
  3. How do we prepare our students to be successful with those goals?

One way to enhance this architecture is by further developing continuums that build skills from year to year, like steps in a staircase. The more coherent the curriculum is across the grades and disciplines, the better learning experience our students will have. We look carefully at global research for trends in curriculum development and we spend time determining, with a lens towards what is best for girls, the kind of learning necessary to ensure our students are meeting the disciplinary and transdisciplinary outcomes. This curricular development is an important practice to ground us in the research and the practical applications of our discipline. It also creates coherence within our teams and ultimately, more clarity for our girls.

#4 Foster a Love of Learning

The girls’ social, emotional, and physical health are at the forefront of everything we do. We are intentional about combining intellectual vigor with personal passions and wellbeing. Just this year, the Administration and Board of Trustees added a new core value — Nurture Passions and Wellbeing. We are aware that an integral part of wellbeing is feeling an internal sense of belonging in your learning environment. As john a. powell (sic), law professor and head of UC Berkeley Othering & Belonging Institute said, “Belonging means being a part of something larger than yourself. It’s not just about being welcomed into a community, it is about actively participating in it to help shape its future.” With this definition in mind, our faculty and administration pay focused attention on continuing to build a school environment where a sense of belonging is a top priority.

We want AIS to be a place where our students, faculty, and staff skip out of bed each and every day excited to come to school. We want school to feel purposeful and joyful and to be a place of reflection, growth, and improvement. The genuine happiness and joy at Agnes Irwin has been the highlight of my year. There is always something going on to propel the momentum of learning, with a special dose of fun. Laughter and motivational energy reverberate throughout our classrooms and hallways every day. Agnes Irwin girls are engaged, passionate, confident, and finding meaning in their work. 

Together, we are creating the reality we live in and the community we strive to be: one that we are proud of, one that we can all thrive in, and one that brings us joy. It has been a rewarding first year as Assistant Head of School. I am excited for what’s to come.

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