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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.”

Helping Hands

April 25, 2014
Photo Credit: Joshua Meier

Photo Credit: Joshua Meier

With hundreds of activities during the week there are bound to be mix-ups and I walked into one recently. Every other week, a group from St. Andrew’s brings dinner from the School kitchen to the women of Epiphany House, a transitional home for previously homeless women in Wilmington.

I had agreed to pick up the food and deliver it to Epiphany House one day last week when I ran into a problem: the food wasn’t ready. Gary Grose, the lead cook on duty that afternoon, met me with a look of surprise before quietly kicking himself as he walked over to the kitchen’s master calendar to figure out how he had made the mistake. But he hadn’t made the mistake. There was no mention of Epiphany House on the calendar. There would be no food.

I began to weigh my options when Gary sprung into action. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. He moved deliberately around the kitchen, thinking on his feet, grabbing containers and filling them with food. Great leaders need a first follower and Gary had John “Murph” Murphy jump in without hesitation to help.

Within minutes they had conjured up a full meal for 15 people. “I don’t like to let people down,” was all Gary said as he and Murph loaded six large containers into the back of my car. The whole event took less than ten minutes, but as I drove away I couldn’t help but think how selfless and thoughtful they had been.

Gary could have apologized and said he wished he could help and no one would have questioned him. He had no notice and was, after all, in the thick of preparing dinner for 350 people. He didn’t have to do it, but he did it anyway. He certainly didn’t do it for praise or recognition. He simply wanted to make sure that a group of women he didn’t know and who didn’t know him could sit down and eat a meal after a long day of whatever work they were doing to get back on their feet.

To me, it was a shining example of the St. Andrew’s spirit.

Leading From Behind in Class Discussions

April 25, 2014

Late yesterday afternoon a teacher stopped by my classroom, seeking some advice. She said that a student told her at the end of class that “You seem to only ask questions where you know the answer.” This teacher was caught by this observation — yet, she also admitted that she knew the student was right.  “I want to control the discussion,” she confessed. “I prepare a lot so that I can know what might happen.”

This teacher’s admission reminded me how hard it is to have a meaningful, significant discussion — at any stage of our teaching career. We want to prepare; we know there are certain key points that need to be covered; yet we also want those spontaneous moments of discovery, not just for the students, but for us as teachers. We want to be learning and exploring too, no matter how well we know our subjects.  How can we make sure our deep preparation doesn’t get in the way of student discovery?

So we thought about ways to ‘fix’ this situation. She said she needed to ask questions she really cared about asking — questions she was curious to explore. We thought about ways to get the students to direct the conversation more: having them come in with questions; putting their questions on the board at the start of class; focusing on those questions in small groups; giving the students counter-arguments from critical sources to put pressure on initial answers; having small groups, rather than summarizing what they discussed, instead figure out what their next questions were based on their discussion. We thought about ways to connect what she was teaching to the events of today — how to make her topics and questions relevant to her students’ world. She admitted she was slightly scared about having the discussion go where she wasn’t leading it to go, but she also realized those were exactly the classes she relished the most when she was a student in high school, college and graduate school. 

To get to that moment, she ultimately realized, was an act of faith: faith in the students’ ability to think freshly and originally, faith in her own ability to pose questions that were significant and alive, faith in the class’s collaborative resource to explore and discover.

While we must prepare, we must also be present in the discussion to recognize when we have a new path or journey given to us. This brave teacher reminded me how exciting and terrifying that moment is: we are at cliff-side, creating a bridge collectively through faith, curiosity and intellectual resilience.

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.”


Classroom Collaboration

April 6, 2014


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.