Written by Carolyn Campion for the Alchemy issue of The Bridge (abridged version)
For many, the word alchemy conjures up images of wizards, potions and magic. It is the medieval forerunner of chemistry whose practitioners once aimed to convert base metals into gold. But by another definition, alchemy can be viewed as any process through which change or evolution occurs in a seemingly magical and impressive way. Throughout our 105-year history, education at Severn School has continually and intentionally evolved to keep pace in an ever-changing society. What are the elements, the alchemical ingredients, that have helped transform education at Severn into gold?
Embracing the New Tools of Education
Technology, according to Mr. John Bodley, Upper School history teacher, has had the most transformative effect on education at Severn.
“When I got here in 1976, we had chalkboards. I came in early every day and stayed late to put notes on the board for my students. I don't have to waste my time doing that anymore; technology has freed me and my students from doing tedious tasks and allows us to spend more time delving deeper into the curriculum.” — Mr. Bodley
Over the years, we've done away with overhead projectors and transparencies, filmstrips and TV carts, and even notebooks bursting with paper notes and assignments. Many classes are now paperless. This is possible through mySevern, our online learning management system through which students, parents, and faculty can access and share syllabi, class notes, homework, electronic textbooks, relevant curriculum links, and grades. Students can even submit assignments and participate in class discussion boards through mySevern.
Technology has also enabled Severn to expand student learning beyond our physical classroom walls. In 2016, our Upper School joined the Malone Schools Online Network (MSON), a consortium of schools where students can take classes via video-conferencing with expert educators across the country. In addition to MSON, we are launching our first online course in the spring of 2020 exclusively for students on Teel Campus. It is a one-semester elective on the Harlem Renaissance, team-taught by Severn history, literature, art, and music teachers.
Working Together on Projects That Matter
Collaboration and relevance are additional key catalysts of change according to Ms. Kelly Wilson, the new director of studies and former director of innovative and entrepreneurial programs. Many classroom projects require students to work together and for a real-world audience. For example, 6th graders in Design Thinking and Innovative Challenges design and build educational toys for kindergarten and prekindergarten students using the 3D printing and laser systems in the Graw Innovation Lab. In Upper School, students in Digital Media collaborate with their peers from Business Ventures to develop business plans and design logos.
“Giving our students a skill set to collaborate is critical to their future success. The ability to collaborate is one of the most marketable skills in our current society. ” — Director of Studies Ms. Kelly Wilson
We Never Stop Learning
Professional development is the third element that has transformed the Severn education. “Post 2008, many private schools made the error of cutting funds for professional development. Alternatively, our board and head have always understood that a school is its faculty and that professional development is critically important,” explained Ms. Lise Charlier, former director of studies and strategic initiatives.
Severn currently budgets approximately $200,000 on professional development each year. With this budget, the school provides in-school learning opportunities as well as funds for conferences, workshops, tuition reimbursement, and Severn Summer Institute classes taught by and for our teachers on campus.
“We always start with the students — we ask, 'What is best for them?' I think any educator would tell you that our goal is to make sure that when our students leave us, they are well-prepared to step into the next endeavor, whatever it is." — Upper School English teacher and Technology Coordinator Ms. Julia Maxey
Agile for a Changing World
With our commitment to technology, collaboration and relevance, and professional development, the Severn education has evolved, and will continue to evolve, to best prepare our students for the complex and challenging world beyond our doors. Is this transformation magical, as the term alchemy might suggest? Perhaps in a sense. But intentional? Absolutely.
“This does not happen by accident. It happens by design; by not simply knowing the language of the mission but, more importantly, by stepping up to the language. It happens by having a faculty who understand the breadth and range of an independent school teacher and who hold their students and themselves to high standards. It happens by understanding that we, educators, are more important than ever before. But, only if we are as agile and adaptable today as our charges will need to be in the future.” — Headmaster Lagarde