An Independent K-12 school on a beautiful wooded campus, 3 miles from Washington, D.C.

Potomac News

Designing Community and Curriculum

I had a professional development experience recently that spoke directly to what we do as a school to educate the whole child. I attended the Institute for Social and Emotional Learning to develop new strategies to include in our curriculum what is known as social and emotional learning (SEL). In simple terms, SEL instruction helps students recognize emotions in others, manage their own emotions, care about those around them, and act responsibly and ethically.


The institute workshops were uniformly excellent, but one stood out for me: “Design Thinking and SEL,” facilitated by Megan Terra of the Nueva School in California. Initially, we were asked to envision a consumer product; I quickly sketched out what I personally thought was a terrific and very functional wallet. Then, we were asked to redesign this same product and customize it for a partner in the group. To guide our design, we talked at length with our partners about what made them tick—their ideas, their values, the people who are important in their lives, and so on. I took to this with gusto, and learned a great deal about my partner in a very short time. I then designed an “ideal” wallet for my partner, a task that I found quite easy. Feeling as though I knew her, I knew what she needed.

The overarching message of the workshop became very clear to me: designing a class curriculum or community, like designing a wallet, cannot be done in the abstract. The best teachers understand that empathy for their students—a deep understanding of each child’s needs, values, and core beliefs—is critical to helping them learn. Within each class and at the school level, we must aim to build an inclusive community based on empathy—the only way to create a culture where children feel comfortable taking academic and social risks. Personally, as a division head, I must always remember to listen closely to students, parents, teachers, and staff, identify what is important to each person, and ensure that key decisions reflect my understanding of, and empathy for, everyone in the community.