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Leading By Example

September 3, 2014


Elizabeth Green’s “Building a Better Teacher” argues that modeling can be extremely beneficial for student learning (p. 267 -268). When we show students what we want – exemplary papers, labs, projects, videos of exhibitions, intentional teaching of discussion and practices of rigorous, collaborative learning. The more we can demonstrate and model the excellence we seek, the clearer our expectations will be, as will the steps to that level of thinking.

During our recent fall athletic camps, I witnessed two examples of such modeling. At the end of their first volleyball practice on Wednesday afternoon, Gretchen Hagenbuch had her girls running a series of drills. When she asked them to practice a dive, some of the newer girls weren’t exactly sure what to do. So Gretchen dove across the court, bracing her fall with one arm, thrusting her other out for dig at the imaginary ball. She did it again, and then one more time, to make sure they girls understood. Then she did it with them to give them a final visual model to imitate.

Two days later, Matt Carroll was coaching the boys soccer team how to trap, pass and move. The players’ passes were soft, and the traps were loose; few players were sprinting after they passed the ball, as Matt had mandated. Instead of merely blowing his whistle, yelling, telling them to do ten pushups and a few sprints, Matt jumped in and showed them exactly what he wanted and how to achieve it – how to open your legs and trap the ball, how to strike the ball to get it 15 yards in a way that your teammate can next rap it; and what a sprint looks like and how it gives your team an offensive advantage. Matt demonstrated it again, putting together for all to see each skill and step.

It wasn’t just that both coaches were great athletes: it was more that each one knew the importance of modeling, of being able to demonstrate – either by themselves or by one of their players – exactly what skill they wanted their team to master. As we enter the classroom, we can use models to help our students grow intellectually and artistically; we can use them for how we want them to treat each other; we can employ them as exemplars of community, service, generosity and joy.

I welcome your feedback on other moments of modeling outside the classroom, and why they were – or were not – successful.

A Plan for Planning Backwards

May 29, 2014

I always find myself amazed at the end of May that I’ve actually arrived “here,” the place I had planned and hoped to find at the close of the school year. I’m surprised, in a way, that the students have grown, developed as critical thinkers and writers – that assessments worked, that texts provoked them, that they became more independent in their learning. There is a certain leap of faith that occurs when we start out in September: I hope/pray/believe/think that the building blocks are in the right order, that the design makes sense, that the first floor builds logically on the foundation, etc. But right now, I can see the finished product clearly, and I can see how it was made.

This week I’m also receiving feedback from course evaluations, as students take their final exams, providing me with student perspectives on what has happened over the past nine months. Read more…

Welcoming the Class of 2014 to the Alumni Family

May 23, 2014

The Class of 2014 will receive their St. Andrew’s diplomas in less than 48 hours, but this week has been much more about giving. These 73 energetic young men and women have given thanks, time, attention, love, and care to just about everyone they’ve come in contact with, including the Dunkin Donuts cashier at 6:00 a.m.

I’ve struggled to put this group into words, but if I had to choose one moment that captured St. Andrew’s this week it would be watching Ben Bentil ’14, a 1st Team All-State soccer and basketball player, work with a young boy in the Special Olympics. The boy’s task was to dribble a soccer ball about 20 yards across the football field. For many, it would take seconds, but for this strong little boy, it took a herculean effort. He moved inches with each step, but he was never alone. Big Ben was there from the start firing him up, clapping, and cajoling. The two worked in rhythm together for more than 10 minutes before they reached the finish line with a joyous celebration. Read more…

Student Self-Assessments

May 22, 2014

At the end of an English 2 oral exhibition last night on “Pride and Prejudice,” I asked the two students involved to assess the oral. Usually I thank them, give them some general feedback on the paper and maybe the oral, but only recently have I started to ask them to self-assess their effort. I’m coming to believe this step is valuable for them and for me.

The oral began with Alexandra King asking questions to Taylor Jaffe about Taylor’s paper for about 20 minutes. Alexandra was totally prepared with her questions; Taylor did some good, new thinking. Then they switched places, with Taylor asking Alexandra questions about Alexandra’s paper. These 20-25 minutes took off; both students engaged in a highly sophisticated discussion of the paper and the book. I was hardly involved in the discussion.

When the oral concluded, I asked the students if they could identify why the second half was stronger than the first: both students agreed this was indeed the case. Alexandra felt that she stayed too close to her pre-written questions, while in contrast she could sense Taylor was asking her questions that mattered at that immediate moment, questions that were building off what they each were discovering. Taylor felt she was more grounded in the text during Alexandra’s oral, allowing her to ask questions that started in a clear place. Read more…

Reliving Arts Weekend 2014

May 16, 2014

Arts Weekend 2014 took on a life of its own well before Daniel Maguire ’14 and Brian Peart ’14 pulled their unsuspecting mothers up to the stage in the midst of their dance performance. The four jumped, jived, and lost themselves in fun under the bright lights and to the cheers of a raucous audience that responded to the music’s end with a standing ovation on Mother’s Day weekend.

It was a light moment in a swirling sea of equally great moments that included virtuoso performances (fast-forward to 8:05 to see Middletown’s own Aaron Chang ’14), short fiction and poetry readings, a gallery opening of student work, short films, the spring play in Forbes Theatre, and a groundbreaking collaboration on Sunday with members of the dance program, orchestra, and Choral Scholars presenting the opera Dido & Aeneas in Engelhard Hall.

Barry Benepe ’46 emailed me this week to pass along that the musician and Reverend Caroline Stacey of NYC’s St. Luke’s in the Fields once assured him that “There is a fine line between art and God.” Read more…

Accessing “The Sacred”

May 9, 2014

In a Chapel talk today, Arts Department Co-Chair John McGiff touched on the notion of experiencing life and art in ways that transport us to a higher plane. It was a theme I’d been thinking about a lot this week after hearing Religious Studies teacher Nate Crimmins talk about his bike ride across America with the Environmental Science class. Nate described with yearning the many moments he witnessed the kind of beauty one would expect to see and feel by slowing down and traveling the country in the open air at a bike’s pace. He called it “The Sacred.”

There will be many moments to access “The Sacred” over the next three days as we welcome families to Arts Weekend. My office is in the O’Brien Arts Center so I’ve watched and listened to students and faculty practice, practice again, and practice some more as they prepare to be their absolute best. They have put in the work and it is a testament to the incredible arts faculty that 90% of current students are performing this weekend and 10% look forward to cheering them on.

Every year seems better than the last and I hope you parents soak it all in. Come to the performances and be a part of the experience. If you can’t, catch what you can on our livestream channel. There’s so much talent to see and hear, but there’s also joy, beauty, and a good chance you’ll feel what we hold sacred here at St. Andrew’s.

Chemistry Cannon

May 2, 2014

You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a ping-pong ball cannon in action. I didn’t know this to be fact until about 11:00 a.m. this morning when Dr. Harvey Johnson invited me to his AS Chemistry class.

Johnson had spent the past few days coaching his students through questions on temperature and pressure on a molecular level, air molecule collisions and Newton’s second law of motion. He decided to cap-off the week by letting the class test a mathematical model they developed showing air molecules moving at 500 meters/sec. Hence, the need for a cannon made with a vacuum and a PVC pipe with a circumference slightly larger than a ping-pong ball. (Watch it in action here.)

To get to this point, the students successfully built an expert’s understanding of how air molecules relate to volume, pressure and force. By most accounts, the process was marked by frustration, struggle, and failure. But they all got there together. “The beauty of science,” says Johnson, “is that we don’t move backwards. We just keep ratcheting up.”

I felt a sense of ratcheting up beyond the classroom this week. The VI Form hosted a Prom Weekend for the ages with three dances, two bands, and at least one recorded instance of crowd-surfing in the library. The IV Form chapel service offered moments of great humor, introspection, and wisdom. Ryan Bellissimo ’16 raised money for the Wounded Warrior Project. Adam Gelman ’17 helped us honor and remember those who died in the Holocaust. Students participated in the Day of Silence to call attention to the silencing effect of anti-LGBT harassment in schools. Johnson’s refrain provided a steady drumbeat: “We don’t move backwards. We just keep ratcheting up.”

And so there I was, hiding behind the door frame of the chemistry classroom with Grayson Ahl ’15 pointing the cannon in my direction. You don’t really see the ping-pong ball after the cannon operator pokes a hole in the pipe’s seal to release the pressure and allow air to rush in. It’s a bang and a streak followed by confusion and a search for its remains. And then you do it again. Maybe it can go a little faster. Maybe it can go a little farther. “We don’t move backwards. We just keep ratcheting up.”


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