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Teachers Embark on Quests: Now They Know How Students Feel
Dianne Willoughby, Editorial Manager | Photos by Willow Taylor C.Y. (Grade 10)
I-Lab Director Angi Chau and students at the Quest Expo

May 22, 2019

When Upper School teachers Veena Krishnan (Math) and Michaela Danek (Biology) signed up to complete Quests -- the Upper School self-study project -- it seemed like a great idea. After all, every Nueva Upper School student is required to complete a Quest each year in addition to their classes and extracurricular activities. How hard could it be?
That’s exactly what they were about to discover. Veena, Michaela, and 12 more teachers quickly learned: From finding a mentor to meeting deadlines and milestones, Quests are hard work.
What Is Quest?
Working with Nueva’s Quest coaches and subject experts as mentors, each student identifies and pursues a topic, question, or project that excites them. They may pursue one focus for multiple years, or change every year. While each path is different, every Quest has a timeline with milestones, deliverables, and reflections that culminates in a demonstration of the journey at Quest Expo, the daylong showcase held each May.
The Quest Teacher Fellow Program, offered to all faculty last fall, gave teachers the same opportunity: to prototype a potential interest, get curious about a topic, or pursue a project that pushes them out of their comfort zone, as long as they committed to the same checkpoints and milestone as students. Quest coaches launched the Fellow program to develop a deeper understanding of the Quest process across the faculty, give the coaches fresh perspectives about how best to support students through Quest, and build empathy for the student experience.

Twelfth-grader Libby McClell and math teacher Veena Krishnan worked together on their Quest projects

Early Hurdles
From the start, Veena realized she would be walking in the students’ shoes, beginning with picking her Quest. “Choosing is a process in itself,” she said. “Topics are vast once you scratch the surface and defining your Declaration of Intent is demanding.” Veena knew finding work/life balance was her main goal and eventually landed on her project: “Mandalas: Finding Calmness and Beauty in One’s Life.”
Searching for a mentor is one of the earliest Quest challenges. Veena thought of Libby M. ‘19, one of her advisees from last year, who was always sketching, so Veena asked Libby to be her mentor. Mentors are intended to be someone outside of Nueva, but Angi Chau, PreK-12 I-Lab Director and Quest Co-Director with I-Lab Engineer John Feland, gave her approval to this perfect match.
“I knew I needed a mentor to be someone who would guide me when the going got tough, and Libby’s check-ins made me feel like she really cared about my project,” said Veena. “She shared her pieces of art with me, especially her geometric pieces. Her feedback on my work inspired me.”
Sometimes, the mentor / mentee relationship is not always this simple as Michaela found out in her process -- which helped her understand the hurdles students face.
“It’s hard to ask someone, and whether you’re a student or an adult, it can feel weird for so many reasons,” said Michaela. “I should have been better about cultivating the right kind of support. I didn’t develop this relationship deeply enough, so when my project sputtered, I was too embarrassed to reach out to the support networks around me.”
Slumps Are Real
Sputtering, roadblocks, and obstacles, oh my! Teachers found out that no matter what they’re called, slumps are real. The most common cause is the daily demands, unmovable deadlines, and commitments in everyone’s lives that take priority.
Veena’s first slump hit in November when she was writing narratives. The painted dot mandalas she originally fell in love with were difficult, time-consuming, and required the right space and conditions to practice. “Really quickly I realized it was not as easy as I thought,” she said. “I had to build in patience. I had to slow down to look closely at the designs and learn the technique, but by November, I didn’t have the time.”
She added, “It was so frustrating—my Quest was about work/life balance and it was the first thing I had to put aside! Then I saw that Libby still created her art all the time, even in the face of academic and athletic demands. I said that if she can do that, I can pick up my pencil.”
So problem-solving kicked in. Veena expanded her search beyond painted dot mandalas and discovered Hindu Rangoli, Islamic geometric works, and fabrics and artwork inspired by Native Americans. She adjusted to simpler tools using colored pens, pencils, and markers, and with these tools and her notebook in her bag, she could draw on the go.
“Just like my students and advisees, I had moments when I was figuring things out, getting started, and it was exciting. Then I hit a slump. I had to figure out what the problem was before I could solve it.”
The Pitfalls of Expectation
Lack of time is not the only problem. Michaela missed deadlines when she bumped up against areas she didn’t anticipate. She wasn’t achieving the results she expected, and hitting barriers shook her.
“I brought the confidence of my work/life experience to Quest, and believed I didn’t need help,” she said. “I really thought, ‘I’ve got this.’ I had grand goals, but as soon as I stopped meeting those goals I felt so negative that I distanced myself and avoided Quest.”
When she got stuck, Michaela thought she was done. It took her time to realize Quest was not about the end product, that there was a process to help her keep going, and that the coaches were there to support her through it. Michaela smiled as she added, “I told Angi and John that I had ‘failed my Quest.’ They were really excited. That was exactly what they wanted me to experience!”
It’s not that they were happy that Michaela hit bumps, but Quest coaches were delighted to see the experience of the Fellows echoing that of students. It's the time working through challenges that are precisely where the leaps in learning and growth take place.

Angi said, “Everyone believes Quest coaches think Quest is easy. We know it is not.”

History teacher Sushu Xia presents her Quest project

What’s the Upside?
For many Fellows, Quest has changed them in profound ways. Veena returned to her love of art and her work on Quest has become a family experience. “This has been beautiful,” she said. “When I was young, I was into oil painting. Now my children see me working through my designs carefully and they take out their drawing books. My husband has seen me come full circle, back to art. And I’m a more patient parent: I see that all of us need time and space to pursue things we love.”
Michaela, deeply invested and self-reflective, said, “I’ve learned so many lessons. I have learned about myself as a creator, bumped up against challenges of learning new technology, discovered how hard it is to coordinate participants, and ran directly into my own overblown ego. I’m not at a stopping point with Quest, I’m at a point of inflection and I will continue my work.”
And Fellows feel a renewed desire to support students and with their newly earned understanding. Michaela said, “The experience gave me a visceral level of empathy for my students and, simultaneously, it has only reinforced my belief of how valuable this program is for students.”

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