February 27, 2020

What Makes Tulsa Term, Tulsa Term?

Andover's Workshop team traveled to Tulsa to soak up hard-earned wisdom from a program that has blazed a trail.
by Andy Housiaux & Corrie Martin

In 2019, as we began the design process for the Workshop at Phillips Academy, we knew that we wanted to soak up the hard-earned wisdom from programs that have blazed a trail ahead of us. One of those trails leads west to Tulsa, Oklahoma. A few weeks ago, we and Andover colleague LaShawn Springer got the opportunity to share one full, glorious school day with the students and teachers of Tulsa Term, an immersive, experiential program. It is led by Eder Williams-McKnight and Jane Beckwith, two teachers at Holland Hall, an independent school in Tulsa. Throughout the semester-long program, juniors and seniors from Holland Hall and four public schools work together on projects related to the history and identity of the city, public health, and civic engagement.

Ensconced on the 6th floor of City Hall, we witnessed the kind of deep learning and engaged teaching that we often spend whole weeks striving to cultivate in a conventional classroom. We were fortunate to spend time with Williams-McKnight, Beckwith, and their students and to see up close the rituals, practices, and reflective learning community that has been created in just a few weeks.

Following are four major take-aways from our experience:

BE AUTHENTIC

Real work for a real audience leads to real engagement. We spent all of Monday with the Tulsa Term students and faculty. To better orient themselves to their city and to their environment, they had been returning to one of the central questions of the first unit (and the term as a whole): “What makes Tulsa Tulsa?” To respond, students walked the city streets, took photographs and video, interviewed people, and saw for themselves the ways in which the black community—and thus Tulsa itself—is grappling with the legacy and consequences of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre and subsequent urban planning (in particular, the construction of an interstate highway through Greenwood, the historically black neighborhood). This embodied learning accompanied the kind of research and reading that many high school classes feature, but because students in Tulsa Term spend all day in this program, they were able to get into the city and engage with their surroundings in an immersive way.


ASSIGN MEANINGFUL TASKS

The students’ final task was a challenging one: they were to craft an 8–10 minute documentary on the origins of Tulsa, present that documentary to a panel of experts (employees from City Hall, community organizations, and a visiting Fulbright scholar from Northern Ireland), and respond to their audience’s questions and feedback. The students knew their work had real stakes: they would be sharing their research with people who cared about the city and had dedicated their professional lives to it.

This kind of assessment is an educator’s dream. It was collaborative: the students worked in small groups across schools. It required sustained creative and critical thinking: the students had to produce something new and make a range of choices about the Tulsa story they were telling and the ways in which they would convey that story in images and words. Most importantly, it was authentic: it was the kind of work an expert in the field would do. A quintessential example of the kind of work written about by Grant Wiggins or Ron Berger.


ALLOW FOR THE PERFECTLY IMPERFECT

Before flying out on Tuesday, we were deeply fortunate to see one of the student groups present to the expert panel. They did an amazing job, but this work did not come about all at once. It was the work that came before the presentation that led to this success.

On Monday, after editing their videos, the students did a dress rehearsal for their peers, Tulsa Term faculty, and the three of us from Andover. During the rehearsal, they had to deal with technical blips—some videos were choppy, others didn’t buffer well. Introductions were rushed—students hadn’t practiced public speaking or introducing themselves to an audience. All of this was beautiful to see. Afterward, the students received feedback, warm and cool, about their projects.

The students addressed the issues in their presentations and videos, and things on Tuesday went much better. When technical challenges came up, they were nonplussed. Introductions were clear and crisp. The students had good body language for the Q&A: they were present, and they answered difficult questions thoughtfully.

It was clear that the teachers wanted the students to succeed and do their best work. To this end, they designed a learning environment in which students could give and receive feedback and take advantage of opportunities for reflection and improvement. Just as important, the schedule ensured that no group presented for the first time in front of the audience of experts. All of this helped the groups create better final products, just like the legendary critique session modeled in “Austin’s Butterfly.”


LOOK WITH FRESH EYES

During their morning meeting, reflecting together on their Tulsa Term experience thus far, one student noted that she was finding it to be, in her words, “all-consuming.” It was a feeling she’d never experienced before. No longer content to view school as a series of discrete, essentially menial tasks to be completed as quickly as possible, she had, in the space of two short weeks, completely lost her desire to “game the system” of schooling.“I now feel like there is, actually, no end to any question or issue we take on,” she explained, both exhilarated and a little overwhelmed, “and I care so much about what we’re learning. I want so much to be proud of what I am doing.”

Another student said, “I know what you mean. I can’t see Tulsa, my own city, the same way. I see everything—street signs, highway markers, buildings, parks, people—through new eyes. Or maybe, for the first time.”

Later, we heard stories about students from last year’s cohort, the program’s first, who have since returned to their schools, both public and private, after completing Tulsa Term. Williams-McKnight highlighted the student who, for years, had been known for “coasting” but who now won’t leave his teachers alone. “Teachers tell us they have to come up with extra assignments for him to take on, because he’s so hungry for more to learn.”


Clearly, these young people are being transformed as students and citizens. The truly remarkable thing is that the significance of the Tulsa Term model does not stop there. Tulsa Term’s co-founders, soulful teachers Beckwith and Williams-McKnight, and the Holland Hall and the Tulsa public school partnership, have imagined and are embodying a possible future for Tulsa and beyond. They have created an intentional space and means for challenging intellectual work, genuine relationship-building, and collaborative learning and action, bridging the gaps of race and ethnicity, genders, socio-economic class, segregated communities, disciplines, institutions, and other social structures that divide and distance us. There is, indeed, no end to the city’s potential for reconciliation and renewal if educational programs like Tulsa Term thrive and continue to foster such wisdom, creativity, and democratic engagement. Their brightly colored t-shirts read, “The real world is now.” Tulsa Term could very well be the school of the future.


Andy Housiaux is an instructor of philosophy and religious studies at Phillips Academy, the Currie Family Director of the Tang Institute, and a member of the Workshop faculty.

Corrie Martin is an instructor in English at Phillips Academy, a senior Tang Fellow in engaged pedagogy, and a member of the Workshop faculty.

LaShawn Springer is the director of the Community and Multicultural Development (CAMD) office at Phillips Academy and a member of the Workshop faculty.

Categories: The Workshop, Featured

Other Stories

The Ethi{CS} Project: Teaching Ethics in the Computer Science Classroom

Software developers face many ethical dilemmas. Shouldn’t their training reflect ethical reasoning as well as coding?