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The Phoenix Rises: American Cooperative School of Tunis Rebuilds to Learn
By Lesley Tait 27-Sep-18
In Greek mythology, a phoenix is a long-lived bird that cyclically regenerates or is otherwise born again. After the events of September 2012, our international school, the American Cooperative School of Tunis (ACST), temporarily adopted the ethos of the phoenix. Our established school symbol was and remains the falcon. However, for a time, the image of the phoenix rising from the ashes was more apt. I was part of this school’s journey over the past six years and saw with my own eyes its regeneration. Now, as I prepare to depart the school, it is my privilege to put into words my account of what occurred. The 2012–13 school year began very well, with a positive vibe in the air. The school was well organized, with students from over 60 different countries of the world coming together under the leadership of enthusiastic educators. Everyone seemed pleased to be doing what they loved in this beautiful part of the world. Meanwhile, I was busy learning about my new role as Elementary Principal and finding my way. However, a monumental change was coming for ACST when the world of politics would directly impact us. At the beginning of September 2012, an American citizen published on YouTube a 14-minute video clip entitled “The Innocence of Muslims,” which was perceived to denigrate the prophet, Muhammad. The publication resulted in demonstrations and violent protests around the Arab world. Tunisia was not exempt. I well remember the afternoon of Friday 14 September. We were relaxing at home, a mere 10-minute drive from the developing chaos, when a colleague arrived with the news. The protest had turned ugly and the attention had moved from the U.S. embassy to our school. The results were catastrophic for us all: the school’s security system smashed beyond recognition, 16 elementary classrooms destroyed, the elementary library and its contents burned, every piece of technology in the school damaged and/or removed, every door and window in the buildings kicked in, and the technology lab completely lost. However, this article is not about that event. I was part of a team of amazing people who rose up, rolled up their sleeves, and got the school running again. The phoenix began to rise! We were closed for only two weeks before our focus turned to “bouncing back,” and demonstrating the resiliency we foster in our students. Looking back now, I am not sure if the events of the fall of 2012 were the impetus for change, but in my own memory they certainly corresponded to a surge among school administrators dedicated to moving the school forward in its development as a learning community. We knew the campus was a mess and it was going to be long, hard slog to rebuild it (five years, in reality), so we seized on this opportunity to rebuild better by focusing on what matters most in a school: learning. School culture matters. We wanted the culture of ACST to be one in which learning, for both students and staff, was valued and at the forefront of all that we did. A school with a learning culture is one that enables students to discuss their own learning, where a mistake is a learning opportunity, where teachers routinely meet to work out how they can teach better and learn from each other, and where the institution evaluates itself and sets goals for improvement. As 2012 rolled into 2013, we embarked on what has come to be called “The Learner Quality” project. A team of teachers and administrators was established, tasked with the job of collecting baseline data directly from our students. These folks individually interviewed 70 randomly chosen students on video. Participants were asked: What makes a good learner? What do your friends who learn well do? What do those students in your class who get good grades do to receive those grades? How do you approach the task of learning? How do you think about the process of learning? What characteristics do you have that enable you to learn? I am sure educators who are reading this article will not be surprised to hear that there was a range of responses and that many of them were behavioral. “Good learners walk in a line,” “good learners study hard,” “good learners stare at the teacher,” “good learners do their homework,” “good learners are nice to each other” were some of the standard answers. As to the grading question, no surprises here either: “Students who get an A do their homework,” “they hand things in on time,” “they don’t mess around in class,” “they are well-behaved,” etc. It was time to take this student voice to the whole faculty, which arrived at the following conclusions: Our students do not have the language to describe learning. There is no common learning language in our school. Students appear to believe that being a good learner is about being a well-behaved student. Students do not connect good grades with good learning. After much discussion, we decided upon the following: Learning at ACST will involve collaborating, questioning, innovating, persevering, wondering, reflecting, taking risks, and connecting. An image was created linking these qualities to our core values and to the school’s mission. We were set to make change! The school’s leaders talked about learning at assemblies. Teachers modeled these principles by sharing their own experiences as learners and the ways in which they persevered, collaborated, or reflected. Posters of each learner quality in our three main languages (English, French, and Arabic) were clearly displayed in each learning space and teachers began to adopt this language themselves. Catch phrases such as “mistakes are learning opportunities” became common. In the Spring of 2018, it was time to re-gather data. Once again, seventy students were interviewed. The questions remained the same, with one addition: “If you had to explain to someone outside of our school what learning is like at ACST, what would you say?” I am excited to report that over 50 percent of the interviewed students responded to the questions about learning using what we have termed “dispositional language.” For example, they spoke about learning in terms of risk-taking, persevering, connecting, and collaborating. They were able to use examples from their own lives, both inside and outside of school hours. Most pleasingly, every student talked about learning from a growth-mindset perspective, with such comments as “yes, everyone can learn” and “everyone can receive a good grade.” There were still some behavioral and teacher-focused responses, just fewer than five years ago. We can now say that most of our current students view themselves as learners and have the self-efficacy to speak about themselves as active participants in their own learning journey. This work will never be over! Hopefully it has now permeated the school’s culture and become a ubiquitous part of what we do and who we are at ACST. A next step will be to ensure that our assessment and reporting systems reflect the value we are placing on developing oneself as a learner. The phoenix has definitely risen! From the ashes of a school’s crisis came a focus on what matters most: student learning. My sincere thanks goes out to all of the teachers, assistants, administrators, support staff, ACST parents, and students who worked so hard to ensure that the phoenix could rise again and become the mighty falcon once more.
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10/01/2018 - Christine
Great article, Lesley!
The 2012 attack on the school feels like a blip on the timeline of ACST's rich history. It was traumatic at the time, something none of us here will forget, but I don't feel like it has defined or shaped this wonderful school's present or future. ACST is an incredible learning community, and it continues to grow as one, despite, not because of the events in 2011-12. And this is because it has been blessed to have brilliant leadership and exceptional educators in the past as well as now, focused on promoting the best learner qualities and committed to "Opening Doors, Hearts, and Minds."
Here's a link to what's going on at ACST these days: