Learning out Loud
The Evolution of the “Whole Girl” Approach
In the initial stages of creating the Signature of a BSS Girl, several members of the BSS Senior Leadership Team returned from a professional learning session and could hardly contain their enthusiasm. The core idea of the presentation gave language to what they were trying to accomplish and the overlap was electrifying.
The speaker was Simon Sinek, author of the bestselling book Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. At the heart of his work is this idea: “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And what you do simply proves what you believe.”
That’s the goal of the Signature of a BSS Girl.
“If we are going to effect change in the world, we have to express how our values come to life in our students,” says Head of School Deryn Lavell. “Working backward from the vision, we ask ourselves what attributes our graduates need to have.”
True to the aspirations of the school’s vision – to inspire women to become transformative leaders – the Signature of a BSS Girl has ambitious goals. As Dr. Angela Terpstra, Middle and Senior School Principal, explains, “We need to offer more than a visionary academic program. We have to have a larger purpose. To achieve that, we have to explain what the whole girl is.”
The Signature of a BSS Girl describes the attributes of a BSS student – Curiosity, Self-Awareness, Grit, Voice and Leadership – and poses questions about those attributes in the student’s voice. It also highlights two broad contexts within which the attributes are brought to life: the Self, who has a growth mindset, and the Self in Relation to Others, who is committed to being an ethical citizen.
Grounded in extensive research about best practices in education and learning, the Signature is intended to inspire excellence and growth. The individual questions – such as “Do I show a willingness to adapt?” – are provocations, not instructions. “This is not a checkmark document. It is an expression of our values for the community as we assess and implement our vision for a whole girl education,” says Junior School Principal Patti MacDonald.
Aligning the entire community around the ideas expressed in the Signature of a BSS Girl requires a genuinely collaborative process. “From the start, we were firm in our intention without being attached to a particular outcome. That made the school’s direction clear, while allowing the flexibility needed for everyone to participate,” explains Barb McLean, Assistant Head, Human Resources and Professional Growth.
In creating a truly collaborative document, the school has been through extensive consultation with the parent community, students, teachers and alumnae. In particular, there has been a strong emphasis on ensuring that the girls have a voice in the process so that they are empowered to direct their own experiences.
Ms. Lavell explains, “If we are a community and we believe in these values, we all need to commit to them. We need shared understanding that will embrace the multiplicity of viewpoints of our girls and their families. There will always be points of tension, but the Signature of a BSS Girl is a framework for learning and growing together.”
The process has also taken into account the need to be flexible. “The Signature has a different meaning for a girl in Grade 4 than it does for a girl in Grade 12,” Ms. MacDonald explains. “It also takes into account shifting priorities in society that will alter the skills and qualities our graduates require.”
Working together to express how the school’s values come to life has been a transformative experience. “From the academic program teams to senior leadership to the entire community, everyone is feeling the power of collaboration and different perspectives,” explains Ms. McLean.
The process has also drawn attention from others in the independent school system. Ms. McLean recently heard from the Dean of Studies at a well-known New England prep school who called to find out how BSS had managed to create such an impressive process. “She was blown away by what we have been able to accomplish!”
Implementing the Signature of a BSS Girl is an ongoing process as the teachers work to integrate it into their practices. “The teachers are assessing the enduring understandings of the Signature so that they can work backward to design a curriculum that will develop the attributes,” explains Ms. MacDonald.
In the Junior School, a different attribute from the Signature is being explored at each grade level, and there will be parent focus groups to illustrate how particular qualities, such as a growth mindset, show themselves in the students. In the Middle and Senior Schools, the staff is engaged in a gap analysis on the curriculum and is providing workshops for Grade 9 students to help them understand and embrace the Signature of a BSS Girl.
The school is also integrating the Signature into the ongoing professional learning of teachers. That includes applying the attributes to the evolving faculty growth processes that guide professional development and learning, which makes the Signature of a BSS Girl as much an adult document as a student document.
Ms. Lavell knows from experience that BSS teachers are serious about continual improvement. “They are amazing. Whenever there is a need for a new way of looking at a teaching practice, they get together and form a committee or a working group and make things happen.”
The final iteration of the Signature was completed this spring, following some “tweaking” during which the leadership team integrated feedback from the teachers.But, in some ways, the published document is less important than the shared process of establishing it. As one long-standing teacher said after a working session with faculty and staff from all over the school, “I feel like we shrunk the building today.”
In simple terms, the Signature articulates qualities that BSS strives to develop in its students. But it is far more than that. It is an effort to respect and recognize the multiplicity of voices and perspectives of the entire community. And in that way, it is as much an expression of the attributes of the school as of the girls it exists to serve.
By Warren Lang
Warren Lang M.Ed. is a freelance writer specializing in education and independent schools and is the co-owner of the writing company Sumner & Lang.