What One Administrator Learned from Two Days of Sitting in The Student Seat

What One Administrator Learned from Two Days of Sitting in The Student Seat

By Adam Carter     Apr 22, 2015

What One Administrator Learned from Two Days of Sitting in The Student Seat

Editor's Note: With the vast array of schools and districts out there, it's impossible for educators to travel from place to place, gathering edtech best practices and tidbits along the way. So, EdSurge is bringing the tour to you.

In continuation of our April three-part series on kick-off district Summit Public Schools, Chief Academic Officer Adam Carter talks curriculum and pedagogy, following up on CEO Diane Tavenner's focus on Summit's mission and value systems.

Got opinions on who should be part of our exploration? Drop us a note!

Before IDEO, Google, and the d.School, great educators employed user-based design. Great teaching is the translation of theory into highly contextual practice, and what wins is what works for students.

User-based design is perfect for schools because the power of all great educators is derived from the capacity for empathy. At Summit Public Schools, we have been building schools around students since our founding, and we have systematically applied design thinking for the past four years. Students have helped us understand what works, what doesn’t, and how to improve. One result is a student day built to ensure autonomy, mastery and purpose in a supportive community.

Last week, I carved out 48 hours to go through the day as a Summit student—with one day at Summit Denali, our middle school in Sunnyvale, and one day at Summit Prep, one of our high schools in Redwood City. My goal was to do as Alexis Wiggins did last October: attend classes, complete homework assignments, and do as teachers told me to do. My goal was to be a student so that I could get inside the student experience.

What I didn’t take into account was how challenging it would be to live in the shoes of a student in schools that are structured to intentionally layer one learning experience upon the last, to build enduring relationships, and to allow students’ flexibility in how and when they learn. Next Generation school design makes my “pretending to be a student” for a day difficult.

Here’s why.


Personalized schools are based in deep understandings of individual learners and of learning outcomes. By honoring students' unique interests and skills, personalized schools are flexible, unpredictable places. These make them great places to be a learner, but difficult places to try to be a student for a day. Within five minutes of my first class as a Summit Denali sixth grader, the jig was up.

At the start of the period, Mr. Hesby, the teacher of this 25 student Computer Science class, had us reflect on our progress from previous days, set goals, and then begin working with partners. Some of my peers finalized their websites using HTML and Java, while others finished games or coded in what one boy said was Python. There was no list of instructions on the whiteboard, and Mr. Hesby wasn’t loudly repeating directions or telling us how many minutes we had to complete a task. I asked for help from the girls beside me, but they were so enraptured by the websites they were building (the “Magical Mystery Site,” dedicated to the boyband One Direction, was Leyla’s) that I decided to change tactics. By pretending to be a student for a day, I found myself distracting actual students doing interesting work—real work that they owned and valued.

Expeditionary Learning

Summit students spend eight weeks per year in expeditionary learning, exploring passions and engaging in perspective-changing experiences. I happened to schedule my day at Summit Denali while students were on Expeditions. These immersive experiences are planned in two week segments, of which I was dropping in a week and a half late. Aside from Computer Science, classes I observed included:

  1. Balanced Living: yoga, meditation, and emotional awareness
  2. Video Production: editing stop-motion videos
  3. Engineering: creating and testing load-bearing bridges
  4. Portraiture: using oil pastels for close-up portraits
  5. Art Appreciation: making representative street art in the tradition of Banksy

In Video Production, Alex, a seventh grader, explained how he introduced conflict to his stop-motion film by allowing the Claymation protagonist to find a hammer on a merry-go-round. In Engineering, students were so engrossed in the construction of load bearing bridges that I didn’t dare break their concentration with questions.

At Summit Denali, I realized that a curriculum organized around skill development is nearly impossible to jump into for a day as a student. Watching students in the state that Mihaly Csikszentmihaly refers to as flow, too engrossed in their own work to speak with an adult, I realized that I needed to change my approach for my second day as a student, this time at Summit Prep.

Deeper Learning

At Summit Prep, I decided to observe students and to interview as many as possible. I went through:

English-Language Arts (in which students rehearsed annotated Othello scripts in groups), Summit Solves (a tiered math extension and support program for all students), and more.

Chris, a ninth grade student at Summit Prep, told me that projects “can be really hard – I don’t always like every project. But I understand what I’m learning and how to apply it to real life, so by the end of a project, I feel like I can breathe fire!”

At every time of the day, students worked together to problem-solve, to communicate effectively, to read for understanding and to set and achieve skill-based learning goals. Projects were treated as “the main course, not dessert,” which means that each day builds on the work of the last, and each skill spirals throughout disciplines, courses, teachers, and grade-levels.


Finally, schools built around students are built on meaningful relationships. Peer relationships. Mentor relationships. Faculty relationships. And relationships take time to build. It was challenging to be a student for two days because I conducted a test designed for a factory model school environment in the context of schools built to foster—to force, even—dynamic relationships between many members of a community.

Every student I interviewed at Summit Prep, when asked the top three things about the school, mentioned their teachers and/or their mentor. Bella, a freshman, said “I’m proud of myself because I’m doing the work—even though it’s tough, it’s like, ‘I can do this’” with the help of Ms. Larsen.

These relationships are a living testament to the skill and care of Summit teachers, and the time to foster these relationships are built into the master schedule. Every Summit teacher dedicates at least 200 hours each school year to mentoring students on Habits of Success (Emotional Intelligence, self-directed learning, and learning strategies).

In schools structured to value creativity, collaboration, and community, in which cognitive skills are the foundation of the curriculum, and in which students are empowered to drive their own learning, empathy is embedded in design. But design is only as effective as those who breathe life into it, and Summit students are inspired by Summit teachers. Next week, we’ll bring Summit educators and our professional development programs into the spotlight.

Adam Carter is Chief Academic Officer at Summit Public Schools, a growing charter network in California dedicated to providing all students with access to college. The recipient of the California Outstanding New Teacher Award in 2003, Adam helped found Summit Preparatory Charter School in Redwood City, California, which was featured in Waiting for Superman and recognized by US News and World Report as one of the nation's ten "Miracle Schools." Currently, Adam leads the Summit's Academics Team, which works tirelessly to support all of our faculty members in developing self-directed learners. Adam holds degrees from Presbyterian College and Stanford University.

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