Teaching Innovation

by Laura Drepanos '19


Recently, students at St. Mark’s have been noticing changes in the way classes are taught. More than ever before, we are noticing many similarities between our different classes. For example, it has become typical for a student to notice similar project rubrics in an English class and in a Math class. The situation has left many of us to wonder if there has been a change in the way that teachers at the school communicate with each other.

At the installation of new faculty chairs, Mr. Camp discussed how teaching at St. Mark’s is far more collaborative than competitive. He mentioned how teachers have the opportunity to learn about elements that other teachers use in their classes to incorporate these into their own classes. To those of us who have noticed these similarities between classes, this piece of information made sense. Many of us were even impressed that teachers worked so hard to make our classes better. However, this left many of us to wonder– have teachers always been this collaborative?

To try to find some answers to this question, I discussed with Mr. Wells and Ms. McColloch– a Physics teacher and French teacher respectively. These two teachers represent different perspectives of the school, so I expected to find vastly different answers to my questions. While both offered unique perspectives, I was surprised to find that both teachers have always seen St. Mark’s as a place where teachers work together on class structure. However, there has been change and general innovation in the way teaching is viewed here.

When Mr. Wells first arrived at St. Mark’s, the discussion of the “craft of teaching” was far less frequent and teachers did not reach out as much to try new class activities and software as they do now. The only direction he received from the head of the math and sciences department on his first day was a grade book, a pad of paper, a red pen, and the instruction to “maintain order.” However, he sees the change in teaching as a gradual change that has improved over time rather than a recent revolution.

Ms. McColloch’s perspective seemed to support Mr. Wells’ idea that the faculty have been consistently working to enhance the learning experience at St. Mark’s for a while now. Since Ms. McColloch began teaching here, she has always worked closely with the other French teachers to share ideas and implement new teaching strategies into her classes to benefit the students' learning. She mentioned that the longer professional development meetings that have occurred on a few Wednesday mornings this year have provided more opportunities for teachers to share the work they have done in their classes. While the forty-five-minute block on Thursday mornings is typically only enough time for a presentation or a discussion, this longer block on Wednesdays allows for more collaboration. For example, Ms. McColloch got the opportunity during one of the Wednesday meetings to go to a workshop that Mr. Dolesh and Ms. Brown ran that focused on the team-based learning idea that Algebra II students practice.  Ms. McColloch found this inspiring: “Hearing how other teachers have really interesting ideas and how they use them, it gets you all excited to figure out how you might use these cool ideas in your own classes.” 

So how else have faculty been working to improve classes? One of these ways is by doing research on cognitive science. Andrew Watson, a brain, and education specialist and the founder of the professional development group “Translate the Brain,” has come to numerous faculty meetings to  talk about how learning works so that the teachers could understand it from a scientific perspective. Mr. Wells recalls this is as one of the most memorable faculty meetings he has been to at St. Mark’s. Faculty have also been doing research on their own; for example, Ms. McColloch mentioned that she was part of a group of faculty at St. Mark’s who was able to get a grant to research blended learning. This type of collaborative work is not unusual among St. Mark’s faculty, for Ms. McColloch mentioned that teachers who have common ideas and interests regarding education will often form a group and work together to discover how these concepts can be incorporated in different ways into classes. She clarified that there has not been any push by any faculty at St. Mark’s to collaborate more, it is just that teachers are getting excited and discovering how beneficial this type of work can be. In addition to learning how newly researched concepts can be applied to their own classes, teachers also look at how an element from a completely different class at St. Mark’s could fit in as well. For example, Mr. Wells has found a way to incorporate a version of the learning evaluation infographic in his Modern Physics class that is used in the Advanced Biology course by Ms. Berndt and Mr. Corliss.

To better understand the overall objective of teachers at St. Mark’s, I talked with Dr. Worrell to get her  perspective as the Director of the Center for Innovation or Teaching and  Learning.  In response to my question regarding how the faculty are collaborating and seeking out innovation, she clarified that "Innovation in teaching is both about mindset and practice; it is a commitment to collective learning, a collaborative culture, and iterative practice in order to design the best possible learning opportunities for all students.”

While students often get recognition for their research and  work, teachers are also doing interesting work behind the scenes  to ensure that the teaching strategies used at St. Mark's are as beneficial for us as possible.