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Jennifer Bray and Ryan Welsh head shots

The National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) held their annual conference in Las Vegas with the theme “Cultivating Community.” Jennifer Bray, Upper School History and Social Studies teacher and Dr. Ryan Welsh, Chief Design Strategist, were two of the nearly 3,000 NAIS members in attendance.

Bray led a session with PD’s online partner school, Global Online Academy (GOA), focusing on designing courses for experiences and was a guest panelist on the topic of better learning through feedback.

Dr. Welsh also led a session that introduced design thinking to colleagues, and shared design work that PD has been doing.

What is the NAIS Conference? What did you learn?

Teacher Jennifer Bray pointing at sign advertising her session at the NAIS Cultivating Community Conference. 2023

Bray: It's intended for teachers and administrators for independent schools from all around the United States and the world. Basically, many of the workshops are for administrators to consider ideas about building different structures within their schools, how to develop leaders. Some of the teacher sessions were about equity in the classroom. The theme was “cultivating community” and how you can do that within your staff, with your students, and with your students’ parents.

Van Jones, a political commentator and host on CNN, was the opening speaker and was great. He talked about how to teach during polarizing times and build community. There was another speaker, Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, who talked about anxiety, not clinical anxiety, but anxiety and worry that our kids are expressing in large numbers, and how it could be used as a motivating force. That was another interesting part of the conference.

What are some key things that you're bringing back with you that really stuck out? 

Welsh: Leading the session and sharing work from PDS, I gained new perspectives on how PDS continues to stand out from lots of other schools in terms of our disciplined, practiced approach to innovation. I also gathered new ideas about how best to share our design thinking practice internally and externally.

Bray: So I started with a load of questions. I really thought about this idea of leveraging your mindset around anxiety, looking at what do our feelings tell us? Notice details, be aware, make a plan. I thought it would be interesting to consider reframing anxiety from a student perspective. 

I do think that's with a pretty big disclaimer though, because we're not talking about clinically diagnosed anxiety, we're just talking about worry, but knowing that our kids have grown up in a time where they have so many exposures and then also have lived through a really worrying time with the pandemic.

I think other things that I took away were how to build teacher leaders. What are ways that teachers can take a leadership role in their community? What are ways that you can consider? Evaluate? Here, we don't evaluate others, but we do learning walks. We go around and observe other peers. I went to one session that was really interesting where they were creating kind of a goal sheet for the faculty each year and kind of setting goals.

And they used a really interesting business hiring book, a kind of educational leadership book, and then a book by Brené Brown. They were looking at how do we develop ourselves and our peers in unique leadership ways. I thought that was really interesting as well. 

Can you tell me about your experience at the conference? 

Welsh: I had a great experience connecting with colleagues I had never met before or hadn't seen in person for some years. I got to attend a number of different sessions in the Leadership Lab offerings that were new for the annual conference. I appreciated people and programming that were aimed at the challenges and opportunities for mid-level independent school leaders. 

What are some of your key moments from the conference?

Welsh: I especially enjoyed getting to see Cindi Gibbs-Wilborn in my session. She used to be the Lower School head here at PDS, and she's now a head of school in D.C. I appreciated how many heads of school I got to work with recognized what Glyn and his team have known for some time now: Design thinking can be a powerful mode of creative, collaborative problem solving in independent school settings. Building new relationships and reaffirming old ones while also getting to help leaders practice design thinking was the most valuable experience for me. 

How do you plan or how would you like to implement your key takeaways into the PD community? 

Bray: I really thought about, reflected a lot about that idea of looking at our emotions. Personally having a psychology background, how do we acknowledge our strengths and weaknesses? And rather than necessarily trying to change ourselves, but looking at, okay, this is who I am, how can I leverage this skill well? Also, how can I encourage my kids in the classroom?

To feel that sense of community, and how can I model it for them in terms of being comfortable with myself.

Ryan Welsh sitting on table and talking with his students

Welsh: I plan to share with colleagues how valuable and forward-thinking they are when it comes to using design thinking. I'm also hoping to connect our school more closely to other schools that have invested in design thinking like we have at PDS. I always try new things and make mistakes as a facilitator, which always helps me to get better. I'll offer better facilitation here at PDS thanks to the mistakes I got to make at NAIS.

Can you both tell me about your presentations? 

Bray: How do we design for experiences, and not just instruction? How do we create courses that are outcomes-driven, goal-oriented, and human-centered? In this session, we deep dive into three primary threads embedded into GOA’s design process focusing on usability and accessibility, starting with backward design, and collaborating within a responsive process, and invite educators to consider how these strategies might level up their own learning design game. We shared key findings, valuable resources, and sample activities from what we’ve learned about designing high-quality learner experiences. This workshop will challenge educators to go beyond content-driven course creation in a move to more thoughtful, inclusive design practices. 

In addition, I served as a panelist in an online discussion regarding how do we cause better learning through feedback?

Welsh: I got invited to design and facilitate a session in the Leadership Lab to introduce independent school leaders to design thinking. In particular, we focused on how to use design thinking to approach various leadership challenges. I got to work with Ryann Fapohunda who is the Director of Teaching and Learning at the Bullis School. She provided the session with a real-world example of a challenge she is working through at her school. I conducted an empathy interview with her during the session. I then facilitated a number of design sprints that gave participants the chance to develop new skills and practice old ones that were relevant to design thinking.

Is there anything specific that you would like to talk about that I haven't asked about or you haven't touched on? 

Bray: So I think for me, one of my purposes attending was to present about curriculum design and development. It could be building a new course from scratch, or it could be revising a course that already existed. I think that there are ways that we cultivate belonging in our classrooms that have to do with instructional design. So yes, community and belonging are the ways you show up, the words you use, displays of empathy, things like that. 

But also our presentation was focused on how we can design content in a way that is equitable across sections, across teachers, across learning. I want to be careful with the wording I'm using here, but we use the words learning difference.

A big part of ours was about visual accessibility. But essentially, I want to, and I did this with a colleague from GOA, but looking at how we can have a design process that very clearly knows where we want to end up at the end of this unit, at the end of this course? The student should be able to do skills one through five so I've laid out the skills from the beginning and then I've gone back and said, okay, what are the ways they've shown me?