Teacher Blogs

By Lisa Vardi, Director of Cross Divisional Curriculum

January 2018

It has become a tradition to welcome the New Year with a full day of professional development for Bullis staff. 2018 was no exception; what was exceptional... the Bullis faculty who planned and participated in the kick-off of a new for 2019 curricular initiative, miniterm, with immense energy, excitement and joy! During next year's miniterm sessions (4-7 days depending on the division), students will take a deep dive into a topic of interest outside the traditional classroom. An individual or faculty team will lead students in full-day learning.

Look for more to come in the coming months about miniterm...in the meantime, helping to lead the process has been inspiring. It was a pleasure to create and collaborate with Maureen Martin, leader of the morning workshop, and other co-chairs of the Miniterm Task Force--Nate Gordon, Ben Mosteller, Rob Nichols, Emily Simpson and Wendy Sturges--to plan an experience that addressed the needs and learning styles of our faculty.

The goal of our recent January 2nd professional development day was to excite faculty, clarify goals and expectations and provide time for teachers to brainstorm cross-divisionally in a fun atmosphere using principles of design thinking. The entire faculty learned together in the morning session while the afternoon session was devoted to divisional time to generate and capture specific ideas for miniterm experiences. The morning session tackled this design challenge: How can Bullis staff design a miniterm which inspires students to explore an area of interest and allows students and staff to grow?

Why use design thinking? It is a process which allows for creative problem solving based on past and future experiences. Design thinking encourages deep thinking, prototyping, testing, and improving to arrive at the best possible solution. It encourages individuals to make mistakes and rethink a solution in a collaborative fashion. More and more Bullis teachers have been experimenting with design thinking in their classrooms--Rita Gerharz, Marc Steren, Jason Kezmarsky and Faith Darling to name only a few.

We have so many talented faculty members at Bullis who take risks, continuously strive to improve the learning experience for students, and want to fully contribute to our adult learning community. I am grateful for the time and energy Maureen Martin put into creating a morning workshop so interactive and collaborative. After faculty members created their own prototypes of a miniterm, Maureen facilitated a gallery walk to make learning visible and provide a free-flow of ideas in anticipation of the afternoon sessions.

Design thinking can be applied to all facets of one's life, not just in the workplace or in the classroom. At the morning workshop, I shared a book I had read over the holiday break, Designing Your Life: How to Create a Well-Lived, Joyful Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. Using the principles of design thinking, I have assessed how joyful and meaningful my life is presently in four areas: love, work, health, and play. I am now prototyping how to create this joyful life by journaling and assessing all aspects of my own life. I highly recommend the book if one is looking to engage in self-reflection. It's a wonderful way to begin a new year!

By Lisa Vardi, Director of Cross Divisional Curriculum

October 2017

I am so lucky to work and learn with such an incredibly creative and dynamic group of people. For the past month Kelsey Donegan has organized the Bullis Faculty and Staff Art Show, now on display in the Blair lobby. Close to 20 Bullis artists submitted work to enrich the Bullis community. From Matt Zigler's animal prints to Anita Havas' stunning landscape photos, all works displayed a spirit of joy and giving; color and beauty. Students and parents walk through the lobby, stop and take in the creative talents of our faculty, and become surprised and elated at the same time.

Our faculty's creative talents were also on display during Maestro Renzo Maggi's recent visit. The Italian sculptor spent three weeks on the Bullis campus creating an original bas-relief for the Discovery Center. He also worked with students in a variety of classes and led many workshops, including one for students and faculty combined. Maestro began the session with a demonstration of creating the sculpture we would all work on: a bulldog, our school's mascot. Teachers from across disciplines including art, Spanish, math, STEM, dance, the international program, the library and robotics participated in this project. Even our wonderful Parent Association President, Livia Christensen, joined in! She had been serving part-time as Maestro's translator during the three-week visit, but was now ready to join in as a fellow artist-in-resident!

Ms Shih-Kahn, Upper School Art teacher, commented, "This was an enjoyable experience for me to see the teachers use a medium they are not familiar with and try to translate what they were seeing on a two-dimensional surface into a three-dimensional sculpture. Clay is easy to manipulate and with just a few changes, each staff member created a unique bulldog with an individual expression!" Kathleen Pappano, English language learning specialist, proudly submitted her bulldog to the faculty art show!

Bullis is a community of learners and givers who take risks and challenge ourselves to grow. Not only during the school year does our faculty grow, but they find time every summer to recharge, explore and create beautiful art. Bullis teachers may apply for a Summer Renewal Grant that allows faculty to create their own learning experiences. This past summer three faculty members were awarded grants: Renee Berry, Alana Hill, Kira Orr.

Dance teacher, Alana Hill, traveled to Barcelona, Spain to participate in the The Creativity Workshop, a learning experience designed to help participants learn practical strategies to stimulate their imagination and innovative thinking. The workshop used many techniques to guide this process including creative writing memoir, art, photography, storytelling, mapmaking, mindfulness and guided visualization. Ms. Hill wrote and produced a creative video story of her journey, which I encourage you to watch here.

Learning Support Director Renee Berry traveled to Berkeley, California to participate in The Greater Good Science Center's Summer Institute for Educators. When asked why she decided to participate in this experience, she shared that she has observed a recent quantum shift that has been happening in education. She believes that schools are beginning to adopt social-emotional learning, mindfulness, character education, and other non-academic programs due to the rapidly growing body of research on social-emotional learning —or what the Greater Good Science Center calls the "Science of Prosocial Human Development and Education." She further explained that schools are integrating these skills in developmentally and culturally appropriate ways into all areas of education, such as school and classroom climate, teacher-student relationships, adult relationships and well-being, content, and pedagogy. Ms. Berry hopes she might bring these topics to the forefront and generate engaging discussions around how to successfully integrate these social-emotional skills into our Bullis curriculum and community.

Kira Orr, Assistant Principal in the Upper School, participated in Leading the Effective Upper School, a summer institute in Delaware, which helped her prepare for her new role in the Upper School. While in Wilmington, Ms. Orr worked closely with 14 new or aspiring Upper School division heads to understand and further develop their personal management style. Topics they studied included student centeredness, inclusive practices, transgender policies, fostering positive relationships with the administrative team, mission statements and strategic plans, and conducti effective faculty evaluations. The group spent a lot of time grappling with case studies to learn how to approach difficult situations. Ms. Orr received an intense and rich orientation for Upper School life and came home with a great sense of excitement and eagerness to meet new challenges in her work this year. What she most appreciated about the experience was that she met and bonded with talented leaders who can serve as a network for advice, feedback and support. Overall Ms. Orr found the experience collegial, informative and empowering.

Bullis faculty is ever-growing and changing to create an enriching experience not only for students but for their own lives. Learning never ends...

By Lisa Vardi, Director of Cross Divisional Curriculum

October 2017

I recently read Adam Grant's In the Company of Givers and Takers (Harvard Business Review, April 2013) for the Advanced Organizational Theory and Behavior class I'm taking at Vanderbilt. Grant believes there are two types of individuals (in his Ted Talk, he adds a third, matchers!) in an organization: Givers, those who are willing to help others to benefit the organization, and takers, those who prefer to have someone else do their tasks in order to protect their own time and experience. Grant argues it is best for organizations to hire givers who will create a culture of caring; but, it is equally important for organizations to encourage these employees to advocate on behalf of themselves or to protect their time and space. In our high-performing competitive culture today, it is not easy for an institution to protect its givers; but we must do so as it will truly create a culture of caring and attract more givers to your institution.

During my weekend class, my Vanderbilt EdD cohort discussed how most educators are natural givers who are not always protected and continuously ask what they can do for others. I strongly believe this about Bullis instructional and operational staff who contribute tirelessly to ensure our students have the best education possible. I can also say the same about the Bullis Parent Association (PA) as well.

Earlier this week, the Bullis PA Faculty Enrichment Grant Committee, chaired by Patty Sanders, awarded nine grants to faculty members who proposed creative, exciting opportunities to enrich the learning environment in the 2017-18 school year. These grants are "add-ons" to what our dedicated and innovative faculty do everyday in the classroom. These individuals are givers who took the time to write professional and forward-thinking proposals for these grants.

Holistically, these grants have several themes: (1) reflection, (2) art as self-expression, (3) identity, (4) facilitation, and (5) hands-on learning.

  • Middle School teachers Rita Gerharz and Dana Bleiberg will guide students in planning, creating and monitoring a monarch butterfly garden (certified by the North American Butterfly Association). Students will track migration patterns by communicating with students in Mexico and other parts of the United States, serving as citizen scientists documenting and reflecting on the experience.
  • Lower School STEM teacher Mark Walter will host naturalist and artist Clare Walker Leslie, who will guide the Lower School community through reflective nature journaling.
  • Kelsey Donegan along with artist-in-residence Arturo Ho will guide Middle School students in creating a South Hall hallway mosaic which encapsulates the vision of the Middle School experience: Learners Today, Leaders Tomorrow. This permanent art installation will complement the Lower School mosaic created last year and which now hangs in the stairwell of South Hall.
  • Lower School 3rd-5th graders under the tutelage of Carolyn Cohen and playwright-in-residence John Morogiello will script class plays, cast their characters' roles and perform the plays for the wider school community.
  • During the Asian New Year, a local Beijing Opera Company hosted by Chinese teacher Xueying Clarke, will share the music, songs, mime, dance and acrobatics of this ancient art form.
  • To further explore the identify of their immigrant roots, 4th grade students guided by their teachers Jennifer Campbell and Liz Jacobi along with Humanities and Global Studies Director Sara Romeyn will organize a temporary photo exhibition, Building Bridges: Portraits of Immigrants and Refugees to highlight the experiences of immigrants and refugees in America.
  • Julie Finigan and Patty Topliffe have invited Dr. James Golden, Director of Education, the Mark Twain House and Museum, to speak to American history students about the history of race relations in the United States and how The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn can be an agent of change in our society.
  • Sara Romeyn and Bryan Whitford will guide Humanities and Global Studies capstone students in the publication of a first-ever diversity and culture magazine for the Bullis Upper School community to foster a true understanding of our diverse student body.
  • To assist students in evaluating fact from fiction in the news media, Brad Kosegarten and Lisa Clarke will host journalist Peter Adams from the News Literacy Project who will conduct hands-on workshops for Upper School students.

I want to honor these givers who help enrich our community of learners. I look forward to sharing in their gifts this year.

By Lisa Vardi, Director of Cross Divisional Curriculum

September 2017

I was lucky to spend a week in late August shadowing our newly arrived staff as they adjusted to a new school culture and attended informational sessions to help them acclimate to campus. The week began with a warm welcome from Head of School, Dr. Boarman, and a brief history of Bullis shared by Susan King, school historian and author of Onward Faring: A History of Bullis School. I think it is so important to learn our history to understand where the school began and how the school has evolved, especially with the opening this month of the newest building on campus, the Discovery Center. What motivated William and Lois Bullis to open a small boys preparatory school in the former Bolivian embassy in Washington D.C during the height of the depression? What drove them to renovate and redesign this space on their own and develop a learning program which catapulted Bullis to what it is today? These talented educators laid the foundation for Bullis to grow into a caring, challenging community with an entrepreneurial spirit and a drive to innovate and create.

This entrepreneurial spirit runs through the halls of Bullis and motivates successful alumni like Marc Steren '89 to give back to the community. Marc directs our Entrepreneurship Signature Program which has grown to include an array of offerings students crave to experience, including the newest addition, a Leadership in Action course. Watching Marc work with students during the second day of class was a joy as he paces the class masterfully and focuses on skill-building throughout the lesson. He has embraced design thinking as a way to encourage collaboration and risk-taking in his classroom. I look forward to learning and leading with Marc this year.

Returning staff joined our new staff in late August to spend a week redesigning their newly-assigned learning spaces, discussing the nuts and bolts of opening day and collaborating on curriculum in grade and subject-level teams. I was inspired by visionary and educational consultant Jen Cort, who challenged the faculty to think deeply about how Bullis addresses diversity, equity and inclusion. She used the power of storytelling, a strategy discussed in all of my leadership courses at Vanderbilt, to help faculty understand her lens to diversity. This workshop was the first of many conversations we will have with Jen in the coming year.

The faculty also participated in cross-divisional discussions on our summer reading (yes, students, teachers have assigned reading as well!) Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing our Students for the Innovation Era. Topics included what skills are essential for preparing students for the future and how might we reimagine Bullis to ensure our students master those skills. I was grateful for the faculty's openness in discussing the text, challenging some themes and assertions of Wagner and Dintersmith and embracing others. We will open this discussion up to the broader Bullis community when we host a viewing of the accompanying documentary on the evening of November 8th.

Marc Steren is not the only talented faculty member on campus. Bullis is full of dedicated educators who devote their time and effort to make learning challenging, enjoyable and innovative. Always thinking of ways to improve teaching and learning at Bullis, faculty leaders invited staff to join Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) via a virtual PLC Fair. These PLCs will continue throughout the year to build collegiality and promote our core values. I look forward to watching faculty continue to inspire students and each other in the coming year.

By Lisa Vardi, Director of Cross Divisional Curriculum

August 2017

I witnessed extraordinary Middle School learning and leadership on the Bullis campus this week at a time in our country when the qualities of good leadership are being debated.

Dedicated school leadership, thoughtful and articulate students and a talented group of Bullis parents came together to collaborate, think critically and share experiences about leadership. Mind you, this happened prior to the opening of school!

Twenty-six Bullis Middle School students came together for a three-day Emerging Leaders Academy Summer Retreat as part of a new program to develop effective leaders within the Middle School who embody the Bullis core values in all they do. Prior to the start of the retreat students, read two books (Hard Hat: The True Story about How to be a Great Teammate and Who Moved my Cheese?) and watched the movie, Apollo 13, to help root discussions and further explore the virtues of leadership including embracing change, teamwork, innovation and creativity. Dr. Moreno, Dr. Trammell, Ms. Henry and Mr. Daniels facilitated a number of retreat activities including small and large group discussions, small group teamwork, creative challenges, written reflections, and preparation for parent panel discussions, all within an encouraging and nurturing environment.

How best to embrace change was the topic of a panel discussion on Wednesday, August 16th. Bullis parents Avi Benaim, Nigel Brazier, Devin Cheema, Joe Lee, John McKew, Sara Romeyn answered student-prepared questions on the topic. One of the final questions, how does one deal with "smart" failure, elicited some wise responses. Ms. Cheema shared how different failure is perceived in the present generation: "Silicon Valley sees failure as so positive. If you are not pushing yourself enough to fail, you are not learning." Mr. McKew echoed the same sentiments about failure, saying "Most of what scientists do is fail. This is the way to learn."

These same sentiments on failure are what we discuss in educational circles, specifically in my doctoral program at Vanderbilt. We want students to fail, yet, does our grading system encourage exploration and the "safety" of failure? As students progress in grades, I do not think we do. I know I can do better to encourage the "safety" of failure in my own classroom. I look forward to doing so in my 9th grade Human Geography class this year.

This summer retreat was the kick-off to a year-long enrichment program which includes a total of 38 Bullis Middle School students who will participate in a series of leadership skill-building and community service activities. I look forward to watching the progress of these students and the talented Middle School faculty who will lead them in their journey.

Leadership development does not stop in the Middle School. It continues in many forms in the Upper School. One new offering this year is a new course called Leadership in Action, part of the Entrepreneurship Signature Program. The course will teach students to build and grow teams, identify leadership opportunities, and provide strong leadership at Bullis.The course will follow case studies on leadership, teams, ethics and will culminate in a leadership-in-action opportunity for students. As with the Middle School leadership training, it will be taught by a team of dedicated Bullis faculty including, Ms. Antokas, Mr. Pollicino, Mr. Steren, Dr. Trammell, and Ms. Vardi (me!).

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