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A Journey Earned

April 7, 2014

When Dominic Holder ’16 learned that he needed to pass the swim test before being allowed to join the crew team, the non-swimmer did the only thing he could think to do: he started taking swim lessons.

“I remember Jonathan Witchard ’13 met me in the pool on a Friday afternoon in September of my freshman year,” recalls Dominic. “He asked me to swim out from the wall. I made it about ten feet and then I actually began to drown. Ms. Kelly had to jump into the pool to save me.”

The incident reinforced what Dominic describes as an irrational fear of water — “drowning, specifically” — but he came back the following Friday and Jonathan was again there to help. And he kept coming back for Friday lessons and even some open swims on Sunday afternoons. “Rowing was something I wanted to do since I applied to St. Andrew’s. I wanted to be on the water with my classmates and I needed to get past my fear.” He felt ready to take the swim test by the opening of crew season in the spring.

And then he failed “spectacularly” before unceremoniously joining the j.v. baseball team. He also recommitted to his goal. The swim lessons continued and he rarely missed opportunities for extra practice. Kirstin Anderson ’14 and Taylor Graves ’14 picked up where Jonathan left off after graduation and helped Dominic get stronger in the water. “I felt good, but I was also still a little nervous,” he says. A moment during a St. Andrew’s service trip to Nicaragua last month helped him summon the courage to face the test again.

“I was in a field at midnight and found myself surrounded by cows and horses. I’d never been in a situation like that. I’m from Brooklyn. I decided I needed to take advantage of every opportunity I had in life and at St. Andrew’s.”

Last Thursday, varsity swim coach (and Dominic’s Chemistry teacher) Bill Wallace met Dominic in the pool to try the test again. “He immediately sensed how tense I was and told me to relax and remember to breath. He was very encouraging.” Dominic made it the length of the pool and back and readied himself for two minutes of treading water. “I’m treading water and Mr. Wallace asks me about Chemistry. So that’s what we did. We talked about our class. I forgot about the clock.” A full three minutes went by — enough to let Dominic know he could do it, and more — before Wallace turned the subject back to the test and congratulated him on passing.

Dominic climbed out of the pool, thanked Mr. Wallace, changed into his workout clothes and bounded down the gully path to the boathouse. He was more than a week behind and a year older than other novice rowers. Some knew and appreciated the journey he took to get there, but all welcomed him. “I’m getting better every day and enjoy the hard work,” says Dominic, instinctively searching for the calluses already beginning to form on his palms. “My goal is to become a very good rower by my senior year. It doesn’t matter what boat I’m in. I just want to be the best I can be.”

Dominic

Classroom Collaboration

April 6, 2014

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As Sharon Phelan and I were preparing for a senior exhibition oral this past week, it occurred to me how many different ways we collaborate as a faculty. The ability to collaborate is one of the key skills we look for in new faculty; it is a central habit we want to cultivate in our students; a residential school depends on students, adults, parents and alumni to foster and nourish community.

Here are just a few of the many examples of faculty collaboration taking place right now on campus:

  • Senior English exhibitions
  • Senior Spring tutorials: Elizabeth Roach and Eric Finch’s “Game Theory”; Joshua Meier and Harvey Johnson’s “Nature of Beauty”; Whiz Hutchinson and Pam Brownlee’s “Healthy Approaches to College”; Peter Hoopes and Seraphine Hamilton’s “Screenwriting”
  • Elizabeth Roach and Emily Pressman’s Humanities class; the Intro to the Arts class; the Great Books history class; some of the Problem Solving sections
  • Most sports teams have two coaches
  • dorm teams
  • lunch tables
  • department meetings and section meetings
  • recent school trips to Harpers Ferry, Nicaragua and Haiti are all collaborative
  • as advisors, we depend on the help, insights and perspectives of our colleagues
  • faculty meetings, Global Online discussions in March, ITC meetings let us collaborate, share, exchange
  • Our Friday chapel happened through the combined efforts of chaplains, teachers, choral director, students and dining services
  • Grandparents Day was a collaborative event put on by the advancement office, Facilities, the kitchen and many faculty
  • Visit Back Days happen only through the entire school community working together
  • During Arts Weekend, the Choral Scholars and Members of Dance and Chamber Ensembles will perform “Dido and Aeneas, An Opera in Three Acts” by Henry Purcell

It’s crucial we recognize how vital such collaboration is to our daily work as teachers and colleagues. While most of us teach by ourselves, we discuss and learn from fellow teachers, and we depend on our colleagues to achieve almost everything else we do.

This coming week, and throughout the spring, I urge us all to find new ways to collaborate with colleagues, and to hold sacred the many cables that connect us in our service to our students.

Teaching Through Discussion

March 31, 2014

Screen shot 2014-04-07 at 8.56.12 AMOver break I read Discussion as a Way of Teaching (Brookfield and Peskill). The author’s central argument is that discussion is the democratic process we create every day in our classes: only through collaboration and co-operation with others can we be exposed to new points of view (p. 4); discussion takes us out of ourselves and opens us to new realms of experience and thinking (p. 34); discussion lets us see the world as someone else sees it (p. 266); discussion allows students to appreciate ambiguity and complexity (p. 279); and teaching students to talk in these ways to their classmates is the best hope for a civilized and just society (p. 269).

Some of us already practice many of their suggestions. Here are a few I thought can help all of us achieve these worthy goals — to help students listen and collaborate, to help them debate generously and graciously, to foster empathy and deeper knowledge, and to nourish humility that others may know more, or be able to help them learn through such rigorous conversations.

  • When you have students return from pair or small group work, instead of just asking for summaries of what they had discussed, ask them what new questions were raised in their groups. Such a questions validates the work they were doing, it helps them see that there is more to consider, and it affirms their collaboration.
  • “Stand where you stand”: besides getting all the students up and moving, this exercise also lets students persuade others of their thinking; additionally, it allows them to be persuaded in a safe environment. They can change their mind, and see others do it.
  • Create questions as a class, then let students go to the question they are most interested in discussing. Put questions in different parts of the classroom.
  • Keep cold-calling on students, the ones who haven’t spoken and the ones who have, to show your students you value everyone’s contributions.
  • The authors caution against teachers making impromptu “lecturettes” – it destroys the development of the discussion. We need to keep the focus on the students and their thinking, exploration, discovery. Knowledge isn’t something that is “given and received” — instead, people construct it individually and collectively. We need to keep asking the important questions.
  • Video a class to gauge how much you are talking, who isn’t, how much the students are talking to each other or only back to you.
  • Consider giving the students a few minutes in the middle of discussion to think – to be able to reflect rather than be engaged in the discussion constantly. This can be a time to write, to annotate, to work on a problem, and then return to the class together.

The authors encourage teachers to seek feedback from their students, even weekly, with questions (written or oral) such as:

  • What do you know as a result of participating in the discussion that you didn’t know when class started?
  • What can you do as a result of participating in the discussion that you couldn’t do when class started?
  • What could you teach someone to know or do as a result of participating in the discussion?

These questions, activities and intentional engagements remind us of how important every single class is that we have with our students.

An Endless Call to Serve

March 28, 2014

Over spring break I became increasingly aware of a sort of “need to do” mentality among the millennial generation. I loosely define it as an unwillingness to do anything that isn’t needed or required. This can take the form of something simple like walking past a piece of litter (“do I really have to pick that up?”) to choosing not to provide added value to a project, event or relationship (“I’ve done my part”).

I began thinking about this issue after spending a weekend with friends who work with Teach For America. “Millennials are tough,” lamented my friend who is working to open a new TFA site on top of his 60-hour a week job supporting young teachers across Boston. “They’ll do the minimum of whatever they’re asked to do and then quit if it’s not fun or if things get too difficult.” Last week, a St. Andrew’s classmate told me over dinner that he recently interviewed more than 20 candidates for a position and came away empty. “They were all more interested in being CEO than putting in the work to get there.” He went back to his dinner, ending my line of questioning and implying that this is just the new world we live in.

If there is, in fact, a down market for finding motivated, hard working, creative problem solvers then there is also tremendous opportunity. Tad continues to challenge all of us to seize it; to work our tails off for ourselves and for each other; to contribute, connect and engage every day to the absolute best of our abilities.

It’s why I was heartened this week to see about 20 kids instinctively jump up and try to help when a fellow student dropped a tray filled with plates and silverware during Wednesday night dinner. Kids promptly cleaned it up while others asked if she was okay. At the tail end a senior boy came whisking out of the kitchen with a mop to finish the job. Lindsay Brown then sat down next to me to say that Chef Ray greeted the crew program an hour earlier with two giant containers of hot chocolate as they came off the pond for no other reason than he imagined they were cold and could use the pick-me-up. Later that night, sophomore Preston Firestone joined a senior tutorial because he loves to write and the class gave him that chance above and beyond his already full course load. On the other side of campus, Stuart Chair in English Elizabeth Roach was trying to learn game theory from Aaron Chang ’14.

None of these activities will show up on a transcript or resume. None of them were exactly fun. None were required or needed to be done. They happened because we believe in an ethic of hard work, exploration and kindness. We don’t always hit our own high mark, but we get out of bed each morning knowing that beyond our day’s extensive checklist awaits a sea of opportunity to help others, learn more and to give more of ourselves, wherever it is needed.

Trust in Team

February 16, 2014

I recently finished Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat, the remarkable story of the 1936 U.S. Olympic rowing team made up of blue-collar boys from the University of Washington. I’m not a rower, but I gather within rowing circles they’re considered one of the world’s all-time greatest boats.

There’s a moment about two-thirds through the book that helps explain how this group, despite not being the strongest, tallest, or most technically sound, could compete against and beat the world’s best. It hinges on #2 seat Joe Rantz, a gifted, but inconsistent member of the team who can’t seem to find his rhythm. Legendary boat builder George Pocock, whose workshop sat above the Washington boathouse, pulls Joe aside before the spring season and insists that he has an opportunity to do things most would never have the chance to do, but to get there he has to trust the other boys in the boat.

“Joe, when you really start trusting those other boys, you will feel a power at work within you that is far beyond anything you’ve ever imagined.”

I’ve rolled that idea over in my head the past two days. Trust. It’s perhaps that simple — the greatest teams, organizations, dorms and classes thrive when and only when the members trust each other completely. We trust each other to do our part. We also must trust that we care when other members succeed, not just when we do.

I’ve seen this play out most recently with the III Form boys as they’ve come together with the help of dorm parents and advisors. During duty on Wednesday nights I watch as they study and play together and, though they might not be ready to admit it, how much they care about each other. They do their jobs, played sardines, eat cookies and often find it difficult to go their separate ways at bedtime. It is a scene played out by generations of St. Andreans.

We’ll see the same this weekend with the winter play and again next weekend when students come together for Mock Trial and the winter musical. Look out for it around you and the next time you’re on campus. In it’s greatest form, it can be, as Pocock correctly asserted, beyond anything we imagine.

A Faculty Rubric

February 15, 2014

Hadley Roach ’07 shared a teacher evaluation rubric from North Star Academy in Newark, NJ, where she teaches. One of the categories is “Checking for Understanding and Responsiveness to Daily Student Learning.” The highest qualities (“Advanced”) for a teacher in this area of teaching are the following:

  • Adeptly, efficiently and frequently uses a variety of checking for understanding techniques to constantly monitor student learning;
  • Frequently and consistently uses higher order thinking questions to push student thinking;
  • Unrelentingly focuses on student mastery of specific objectives.

Teachers at North Star who daily attain the “Advanced” level have developed a classroom culture where “95 – 100% of the students are engaged in the learning activity, and 85 – 90% of student hands are raised or students are ready to answer immediately when cold called.”

The questions and ideas that I’m thinking about from this challenging and worthy rubric, are:

1.) How can we check daily – in each class – for student engagement, knowledge, learning? How can we make sure that in each class we teach, 95-100% of our students are engaged, not just there, but learning, talking, questioning, re-thinking, doing, actively listening, ready to answer if called upon? Read more…

Effort, Teaching and Persistence

February 8, 2014

My 6-year old son’s piano teacher asked him yesterday what happens when he practices. “I get better,” he said without hesitation. I admit I’ve been a bit of a Tiger Mom with him since he started lessons, but there’s no denying the results. “Hot-Crossed Buns” gave way to “Old McDonald” in short order, and he’s set his sights on Yuja Wang by 2034. He is quick to point out that she started when she was 6-years old as well.

Harvey Johnson introduced me to Carol Dweck’s concept of a growth mindset several years ago. People with growth mindsets understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. Everyone can get better at anything if they work at it.
Read more…

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