PARTNER PODCAST 7-14-17: Uniquely PCD: Engaging Students the Providence Country Day School Way

July 14, 2017

sm-VWatchorn_Portrait_for_webFeatured guest Vince Watchorn, Head of School at Providence Country Day School (coed, day, 210 students, grades 6–12), speaks with host Peter Gow (who taught at the school in the 1970s) about how the East Providence, Rhode Island, school works to fulfill its mission “to inspire lives of engaged citizenship.”

The discussion hit upon many topics, among them the ways that PCD “thinks hard about why it does what it does.” Representative of this think is a group of features of the school’s program that live under the umbrella of “Uniquely PCD,” an intentional bit of branding that illustrates the school’s belief that giving something a name underscores its importance.

Central to the program is the school’s 7-day rotating block schedule, which is unnamedcalled The Atlas—it holds up the entire program. The Atlas includes massive amounts of “community time” for assembles, clubs, the pursuit and exhibition of student interests—in short, a host of student-driven activities. Watchorn speaks of this as time for “opportunities, not obligations.”

Related to The Atlas is The Compass, a longitudinal co-curricular program designed to help students discover interests and purpose and build self-understanding throughout their high school years and beyond—to build what Watchorn calls “a mindset that allows you to think and grow as a person far after you’re out of college.” Although it is connected with the college counseling program, The Compass is about getting students “focusing not on college but in themselves,” and includes having ninth-grade students write a “This I believe” essay that is read by producers of Rhode Island Public Radio‘s “This I Believe—Rhode Island” program, with selected essays being read on the air.

All of the “Uniquely PCD” programs flow out of Providence Country Day School’s historical mission to help students find and develop purpose and a sense of their own agency. Watchorn quotes the school’s founding head as making the point that “There are no sideliners” at the school—that every student is active and involved. In our time the work of Carol Dweck and others on mindsets has been helpful in refining the school’s work and program to promote these values.

So also has been the development of inquiry- and critical thinking-based curriculum and pedagogy, which PCD is embracing ever more actively as it moves into the implementation cycle of a new set of strategic priorities. The idea, says Watchorn, is to focus on big questions—what he calls “chase questions”—and to keep these in sight across topics and disciplines. Students who have grown skillful and comfortable in dynamic, inquiry-driven learning environments, Watchorn notes, are becoming especially attractive to colleges and employers.

Also important at Providence Country Day School are two small words: “WE” and “YET.” Watchorn delivers a compelling short homily on the significance of these words as inspirations to collaborative and growth-focused thought and action at the school.

As “Uniquely PCD” serves as an umbrella for multiple thematically tied programs, so does the Independent Curriculum Group‘s mission to “promote the transformation of teaching and learning” serve as the umbrella under which Providence Country Day School finds its affinity with the aims of the ICG.

Email Vince Watchorn

Resources referenced by Vince Watchorn:

  • Rhode Island Public Radio’s “This I Believe—Rhode Island” program as both an element in and the inspiration for a key element in PCD’s personal growth curriculum
  • The life and work of author and former Spelman College president Beverly Daniel Tatum as it has provided framing for PCD’s ongoing conversations about “how we relate to each other and how we think about ourselves.”
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