NAIS Day Zero: Field Work, Pop-Up Workshops, and the Power of Informal Networks


I’ve often thought, a bit tongue in cheek, that the best part of NAIS Annual Conference is the day before the conference itself.

In that space - where educators are in town, but not yet booked - we have the chance to connect, reflect, and share practice. (In the same way, the second best day of NAIS is often the time spent in hallways sharing ideas and debriefing the previous workshop.)


On my first day in Atlanta for the 2018 NAIS Annual Conference, I visited the innovative Lab Atlanta program in Midtown. A project of Lovett School, Lab:ATL is a semester-long program for 10th graders in Atlanta. Coming together from public and private schools, they form a diverse cohort that uses the city as a campus and creates a capstone project that delivers social impact. A few minutes after I showed up, a team from the Hill School showed up. Then Christian Long of the consultancy Wonder, by Design, and on my way out, another delegation arrived in blue blazers. Field work isn’t just for students, and I was heartened to see the hunger independent schools are showing to blur the lines between campus and community. But it was also heartening to witness the generosity of Executive Director Laura Deisley, who was creating a powerful moment of expeditionary professional development simply by saying: "we're here. This is what we're trying. Come see it in action." It didn't require a slide deck, and it was more powerful as a result.

I walked across the street to the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), where Atlanta’s innovative Mount Vernon Presbyterian School and Silicon Valley’s Hillbrook School (through their Scott Center for Social Entrepreneurship) were leading an unofficial, pop-up workshop on “Designing for Social Impact.” As we explored the beautiful and creative space, we started sharing ideas - and then launched into a hands-on project led by two schools on opposite coasts. One of the most resonant parts was a series of TED-style MoVe talks, including a reflection by a Mount Vernon senior about what she learned through Mount Vernon's Innovation Diploma program. This was a moment that NAIS didn't actively plan, but it's also a moment made possible by seeing NAIS as a platform for self-organized learning: and by our increasing ability to see other schools launching new programs, connect electronically, and create opportunities to see the impact for ourselves. Nothing could be a more powerful testimonial to an Innovation Diploma than having a student share her experience and make a passionate case for all of us to embrace diversity, develop culture, and act intentionally.

It has never been easier for independent schools to connect, experiment together, share lessons, and form consortia - both formally and informally - that lead to change. It’s promising that NAIS is experimenting with its format through additions like Speed Innovating, but the more interesting development is how NAIS is becoming a platform for participants to self-organize and accelerate their cycles of learning.

My lesson from this day leads to some questions we should all be asking: How are we forming networks? What coalitions can we form, even if only on a pop-up basis? How can we create opportunities for our educators to share the same space, and set the conditions for the productive collisions that will occur?

Greg Bamford