Upper School Principal Column
Earlier this month, in partnership with other RCDS administrators, I shadowed a student for one 24-hour day. In my case, I selected, with permission, junior Mikey Farber, student body vice president, starting lacrosse goalie, and student extraordinaire with five courses all at the honors or AP level. The goal was to experience the cycle of a complete day, manage the workload and time commitments, and have a little fun in the process.
I selected a day when all of Mikey’s courses met (no skip day for me!), student government would meet during break, and lacrosse practice was in full swing, though I stated from the start I was not going to let the boys' lacrosse team take random shots at the principal…after all, this experiment only goes so far…but I did agree to go to lacrosse practice for the duration.
The night before, I sat down with my books and attempted the homework. BC Calculus was a bit over my head, and seeing as they were review problems from the Barron’s AP review book, I had no problem guessing at the right (or wrong) answer. AP Physics was also challenging, but here I could at least muster answers and respond accordingly. Then, it was on to AP Latin, and although I could not do the translation at the highest of levels, I made sure that I read a published translation and could, at the very least, be prepared for class.
English was a two page essay reflecting on a poem, and that was quite fun, and several students reported the same in class the next day. And finally, AP US history was a brief reading about Alger Hiss, which was GREAT as my master’s thesis at Columbia was about Alger Hiss, so as much as I was not qualified to handle the math and physics, I was in my comfort zone in history.
All in all, homework took a couple of hours. I read and write fast, so history and English were not that time consuming, and to be honest I couldn’t do the others, so my experience was a bit different than Mikey’s. I did email him a couple of times to send him progress reports, but it was clear he was more deeply involved in his studies than I, and he started ignoring me, as he should. So much for my efforts to try to be a distracted teenager during homework.
School started with a first period free, and I had tried to get Mikey to take a sleep in, but it was not his sleep in day and he would have none of it, which, I thought, was unsporting of him. But, I did spend first period doing my history homework for the next day, and started my English work before second period.
Then, it was off to classes. The pace wasn’t impossible, but here is where I learned a couple of things. Clearly, Mikey is in challenging classes, and I was incredibly impressed with the level of energy in each and every class, straight through the day. Last period history was just as alert and alive as second period physics, and that was exciting to see. Also, in physics and math, where my homework was, shall we say, not up to speed, the teacher in fact treated the homework as the basis for class; which problems were difficult, who needed help, why did some students get some answers and others get a different answer. The homework was NOT the cause of grading angst; rather, it was a fine springboard for an informed class. Students willingly offered where things went wrong, and there seemed no stigma attached to that. That was nice to see.
After school, I changed, and ran out the lacrosse field to find no one there. That was embarrassing! I circled back, and the boys were watching the film of the latest game; here, I truly appreciated the supportive coaches who could use the film to teach lessons. They would find mistakes, and, in ways that were not hurtful, they could teach from these mistakes, correct positioning, explain defenses, point out missed opportunities. Peppered throughout were moments of excellence as well, with the boys cheering on the excellent plays of their teammates. These 30 minutes were really fun and a chance for me to see education and supportiveness at its very best.
And then, rather than play lacrosse, I did a 4 mile run around the fields, all the while watching Mikey standing still in the lacrosse goal…he still owes me a four-mile run!
And then, my day was over. I was not exhausted or terribly spent; I was tired at the end of the academic day, but the sports really did pick me up. The homework was manageable, but more importantly, the teachers I had that day had put homework in a context where it was helpful for class and not stressful. I witnessed terrific teaching, and I also witnessed terrific classes.
In the end, I have to thank Mikey Farber. It is not easy to draw such attention to one’s self in this manner, but he did so with a fine spirit and a wonderful tone. Obviously, the challenge in the junior year is not in the individual day, but in the cumulative nature of the academics and extra-curricular activities, and my 24-hour experiment, while important and meaningful on many levels, does not in any way emulate the journey of the junior year, and I know that.
But I had a fine experience, I learned something, and the students got a real kick out of seeing me go around to classes for a day. And yes, I really was a junior boy…I left my books in Latin class and had to go retrieve them at the start of history class, getting admonished by the teachers in both classrooms. Oh well, these things happen. At least I avoided a detention.
There’s a book out there that I really think is worth your time to read. It’s Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed. A parent of a current student sent it my way, I enjoyed it over vacation, and my copy is now making the rounds of the faculty. It will soon find its way in the school’s library.
Before I launch into the book itself, you should know that at this year’s conference of college admissions officers and college counselors earlier this fall, there was a tremendous amount of talk about a student’s ability to overcome hardship, to stick to difficult tasks and work through mistakes. The term tossed around was “grit,” and as I followed the conference on several blogs and through the lens of The Chronicle of Higher Education, I was able to get a taste for the topic.
And then, I read this book, and it nails the idea of what it is that children need to succeed. Refreshingly, it does not focus on good grades or courses taken or standardized test scores. It looks at students facing hardships, real hardships, major life hurdles, and it searches for answers to why some students can overcome such barriers, and why others can’t. What does it say about a student who stares at poverty, lives through despair, and surfaces to enough energy to press on and find hope and desire.
And it is not just about students rising above economic conditions. A good half of the book draws its examples and its illustrations from nearby Riverdale, and the lessons there are just as interesting and real, at least to this reader.
This is not a feel good book; this is a book about pulling strength from mistakes and about not getting down on yourself. One teacher profiled is a no-nonsense chess instructor of middle school children. She leads a team of inner city students to the highest chess levels they can go, and she expects the best from them. When a student makes a mistake, she chastens that child, harshly, and demands better. And I mean she demands better. She sits the child down, goes over the moves of the fateful game, chides the child for committing errors that should not have been committed, and then, just as importantly, shows him or her how to learn, and really learn, from the error.
And here is the key. She expects excellence; in fact, she expects and demands perfection, and when the student doesn’t deliver, she addresses it…honestly and forthrightly. And her method, drawing tears as it might (hers and the student's, in fact) is indeed amazingly respectful, for it says to the child that not only are you good, but you are capable of great, and you missed out on great because you didn’t think, or you acted too quickly, or you panicked. Now, think it through, get back into the fray, learn from your error, and go be great. I believe in you!
It’s brilliant, to be honest, but it isn’t always pretty. And, the point is that the child learns “grit,” learns to overcome mistakes, learns the real value of error as a necessary learning tool, develops real confidence in the process, and surfaces ready for success.
That’s just one teacher, and one angle. Read on for many more.
As students prepare for and take exams during the end of February and the beginning of March, I thought this an appropriate time to address stress at RCDS. There are many different ways to approach this subject, and rest assured that faculty and administrators and counselors have ongoing discussions around this topic, but I would like to point everyone to an excellent article in the New York Times magazine section, dated February 6, 2013.
Read the New York Times Article
The article is a terrific vehicle for us to examine the topic of stress. Most interestingly, the author explored a particular gene and its variants and examined exactly how this gene helped or hindered students and stress. Without belaboring the scientific details (which are fascinating), the author explored a chemical, biological explanation for why students may in fact react differently to the same situations…their personal chemistry and biology is pointing them in a particular direction.
A second element of the article used the terminology worrier vs warrior, or those who are burdened with anxiety and concern as stress surfaces, and those who can use that stress to elevate their performance. In my personal opinion, I think that simplifies the world in a manner not consistent with the complexities I see every day, but the categories and the language are helpful nonetheless. If for no other reason, one should read the article to learn strategies that work for the worriers, how “training, preparation, and repetition defuse the Worrier’s curse.”
Another interesting Harvard experiment shows that students who were trained and taught that short term stress could indeed have a benefit on performance in fact did better on standardized tests, both in lab experiments and in real-life situations such as the GREs. Rather than assume stress ruins ability, there are specific ways to get students to see stress (short term stress, that is) during a test as a benefit, and in fact results show that this works. There is some interesting commentary about the amateur athlete and the professional athlete and how they both have the same levels of stress in similar situations, but the professional athlete has learned to channel this stress into a motivator.
Please understand, I am not advocating stress. Far from it. What I found interesting about the article is that it explored stress from many different angles and it provided helpful ideas and vocabulary for managing stress in a way that could even be beneficial. That caught my attention and is why I encourage all parents to read the article.
In terms of what we do here at RCDS, please understand that we have many, many policies that are designed to reduce overall stress. Our six day schedule, which means most students have four homeworks a night instead of five, is a direct result of looking at work load and stress. More work needs to be done in this area, but not long ago, every class met every day, and the homework load in that scenario was even greater. Our exam period in March (and henceforth we only have one exam period a year) is a perfect example of managing stress in a positive way. Yes, exams are stressful, but we have stretched the exam period over two weeks, we start review before the weekend, there is only one exam a day, we separate science and humanities by a weekend, students are done at 11:00 in the morning and have an afternoon and evening to focus on the next exam, there is a vacation after exams, and more. We opt to maintain the “stress” of an exam, but within that context, we have created a calendar that helps students work with that stress and learn that it is manageable.
I would encourage all to read the article. One does not necessarily have to agree with everything written, but it is a fine handling of a pertinent topic and serves as an excellent springboard for relevant and important discussions you may have with your child.
What a week this had been for the Arts at RCDS. Without stretching far beyond the single vantage point of this office, so much has happened at both the individual and school level that I thought it worth highlighting to the entire Upper School community.
At the top of the list is the Festival Chorus Concert, Awaken the Dawn, which was performed this past Sunday at SUNY Purchase. This annual event has grown beyond the school’s facilities to host it, and approximately 200 people took to the stage this year to perform, and several more hundred served as friends and family in the audience. Conductor Mary Marcell has, over the years, with her unique blend of talent, energy, and sheer force of positive personality, amassed a group of adults from parents, alumni, friends, and faculty to join with the Upper School Choir for this annual choral concert. The event allows her students to sing a major work with an orchestra ( a wonderful addition to her choral curriculum), and the entire concert becomes a superb symbol of pulling together so many different elements of our community for a single purpose. Students perform the solo components, and this year a featured soloist was from the Middle School, adding yet another element to this wonderful experience.
The Katonah Art Museum features the best art work of seniors throughout the county, and this year, we have twelve seniors whose works have been selected and are on display. Should you be up in the area, please stop in to the museum and see the talents of Julie Kahn, Riley Kaminer, Ariana Boccanfuso, John Rigby, Emily Hauben, Brittany Maldonado, Tyler Davidson, Wenchen Huang, Julie Shanus, Olivia Nichols, Rebecca Mendelsohn, and Ryan Carroll. Their work, individually and collectively, brings pride to RCDS.
Over Winter Break, the Upper School added to its ceramics curriculum and purchased two potters wheels. Ms. Dolan, the ceramics teacher, reports they are now getting a lot of use as we move ceramics in this new direction.
A new honor to our school has come via the artistic talents of juniors Phobe DeVito and Francesca Colombo. Last week, both received Presidential Scholarships to attend The School of Visual Arts Pre-College Program, where they will further their art studies each weekend and receive advanced experience and training in a field for which they have talent and passion.
Film, a relatively new offering in the Art Department, is also surfacing on a regular basis. At a recent Morning Meeting, the current members of the film class created a mock trailer for movies yet to be made, a funny set of bits and pieces, wonderfully done, and it served its advertising purpose as a number of students left the Morning Meeting and signed up for the Introduction to Film class. It is nice to see a new component of our curriculum receive such positive attention.
The Green Cup Challenge is a chance for RCDS to receive positive acknowledgement for its sustainability initiatives, and one component of this competition is a video, This year’s entry was premiered at this week’s Morning Meeting, featuring Adam Alpert as the Green Man. Its clever antics, fun story line, and meaningful message were well received by the Upper School crowd, and as I understand it, the film may be online shortly for all to see.
And that’s just one passing week, and without me going out and digging deeper. The Arts, from music to film to ceramics, from groups of 200 and audiences of more than 400, from individual awards to local museum displays, are alive and well. Students combine energy and talent and creativity, and we all benefit from their work.
Over the past couple of weeks, I have had the opportunity to think about our recent graduates from a number of vantage points, and I would like to report that, as nice as things look inside the walls of the Pinkham Building, they look even better when we extend our view a couple years down the road.
Earlier this week, a collection of young alumni returned and served on three different panel discussions. The first panel spoke to juniors, who are entering the college process, the third spoke to current high school athletes about the recruiting process, and the second panel, the one I wish to highlight here, was composed of 9 members of the class of 2010 who reflected on their RCDS experiences and how well they were prepared for college.
To a great degree, the meeting was a broad affirmation of the work we do. The alumni praised their preparation in all the academic fields, complimenting the departments across the board. They spoke of their mature capacity in time management, and highlighted their ability to talk to and work with professors.
These young adults were talking to the academic leaders of the school, the department chairs and administrators, and it was a proud moment to see them so confident in themselves and their abilities. They spoke of starting clubs at RCDS, and how that experience, while it may have come up short here at school, was invaluable in getting them to a better place and starting an organization on campus. They appreciated the chance that RCDS had offered, them and they recognized the value of the experience, regardless of the results. They spoke of a love for service that continued with them at this next level.
Interestingly, when asked what curricular experience at RCDS impacted their studies at college, the answers were wonderfully surprising. Lizzie Tepler, now at Vassar, spoke of a short little side bar of a lecture and a couple of classes on architecture and urban planning that Mr. White had offered in one of her courses. She had been really intrigued by this whole new field, and now she is majoring in Urban Studies.
When asked what they wished we had more of, in addition to some interesting content suggestions, they spoke of wanting to have more time and space for collaborative learning and wishing for more application of the lessons they had learned. Both excellent commentary on how we might move our curriculum forward, and both excellent commentary on the very work they are and should be doing as juniors in college.
So, from my seat as principal of the Upper School, I would like to report that the work we do here, as seen through the eyes of these 20 year olds, is good work indeed, and while we can always improve and always stretch ourselves a bit more, we should be proud of and confident in the fine young men and women who emerge from our school and carry in themselves the skills and the focus and the energy to succeed as their journey continues.
Just yesterday at a lively and vigorous Upper School faculty meeting, we engaged in a discussion concerning what might be some possible evolving “curricular gaps,” meaning what we might need to add or change in our grades 9-12 academic curriculum as we continue to prepare students for the 21st century and an ever-changing world.
The discussion was sparked by the event last year of removing the required Senior Seminar course from the curriculum. I am not here to report to you what the results of this discussion was, but rather to articulate to you the fervor and energy that the teachers of your sons and daughter took to this topic.
The Academic Affairs Committee, a collective of students, administrators, and department heads who oversee the Upper School curriculum, and the Curriculum Council, a similar body with different but overlapping membership that oversees the entire curriculum of all three divisions, had started this discussion, when, interestingly, a member of the committees asked that the discussion be broadened and that we get input from the entire faculty. The two committees would still retain the authority to make the final decisions, but we wanted to hear from more than just ourselves.
There are many ways to set up this discussion, but the premise I used for the US faculty was to list whatever came to mind…do not think of what we might have to take away if we add something, and do not think that what we add has to appear in the form of a full blown course…it might be part of an assembly program or a special co-curricular day. Worry not about the implementation logistically or the cost overall; just think broadly and creatively, I advised.
We broke into small groups, circled our chairs, and instantly it sounded like Middle School lunchtime. For ten minutes, clusters of faculty envisioned a dream world of unlimited time, resources, and energy. And then, we all reported back.
Rather than report the list, which in itself is exciting and interesting, what is more important to me is the energy and positive attitude that this engendered. No one rose to defend territory; no one felt that we couldn’t give our curriculum a good overview and offer some energetic thoughts; no one was silent or felt that we could rest and applaud ourselves. Everyone had something to add. Everyone talked. Everyone listened.
And that is the point, really. Isn’t that what we want in a faculty? Energetic, exciting, eager discussion about possibilities. The world changes, curriculums adjust, needs and interests rise and fall, and here, sitting in front of me for a faculty meeting was the perfect collective embodiment of that ideal.
Trust me, Upper School parents, your children are in good hands.
Last weekend, (BHS…Before Hurricane Sandy), I had the opportunity to hear a terrific educator, Edward Burger, offer his thoughts on effective thinking, which he has created into a short book, located here. http://www.amazon.com/dp/0691156662
Professor Burger doesn’t need me to advertise for him; he is doing quite well on his own, but he said several things that stuck with me, and I thought I would pass them on. He has taught math at the college level, but this lecture was about lessons he had learned from his teaching that can be applied outside of his math courses.
We all know that we learn from making mistakes, and that failure is an ingredient to advancing our thinking. Professor Burger added an interesting twist; he spoke of working with a young boy who was struggling trying to figure out how to put 38 items into two equal rows, and he did not have the mathematical tools to get the right answer. “Just guess…get it wrong on purpose,” urged Professor Burger, and the boy blurted out “16.” Within minutes, through his own work on why 16 was wrong, he learned and understood that the answer was 18. He would not have gotten there without failing with 16, and in fact, many of us would agree that blurting out 16 is not a failure, but a pathway to getting the answer correct. And then, he added something interesting…in his math classes at Williams College, 5-10 percent of each grade is connected to how students get the wrong answer and what they learn from this. In other words, in order to get an “A” with Professor Burger, you have to get things wrong and show that to him. That idea I found useful and helpful and an important thought for our community.
A second idea Professor Burger discussed was that an effective thinker is always listening and shaping questions; in other words, he or she is an active listener by forming questions about the content. That’s clear; many of us who teach explore ways in which we can have our students be active listeners and active readers. What he did was assign a “questioner” for each class who, when called upon, needed to ask a question that showed either an understanding of the content or an intelligent question about his or her confusion about the content. When he first did this, he interviewed the young woman afterwards, who commented how difficult it was to always be actively listening. In short, she was well versed in passive learning, but this new role forced her to become a participant in her education. I think I will add a questioner to each of my classes and see what happens.
And finally, Professor Burger offered that all knowledge has a context; it comes from some place and is headed to a different place. For me, the history teacher, this seems obvious, but his anecdotes proved enlightening. He held up his Smartphone, which represents to him the end of the technology that started with landlines and wall phones. But to today’s five year old, this same phone is the beginning of possibilities. “Wherever you are, no matter how difficult it was to get there, don’t think of it as the end, but a new beginning,” he implored, for that is what it really is. Ask yourself where can you go from this starting point, and just by asking the question, you place yourself in the mindset of an effective thinker.
It is my goal, now, to take these inspirational lessons and discuss them with our faculty and see if, through the content we teach, we can move even further in the direction of creating effective thinkers. And, to take a lesson from Professor Burger, let’s assume that our incredible successes at RCDS are not an ending, but a beginning, and let’s see where can we go from here.
October is an important time in the Upper School. On the surface, seniors are focused on academics and college applications, juniors are adjusting to their course load and learning about a balance of academics and other choices, and sophomores and freshman are settling down and learning if their course selection process last April has hit the right balance. The first series of tests and papers are in the rear view mirror, and the routine of school has set in.
October is the time to address issues and alter choices made several months ago. The knowledge base is deeper (Is the math course at the right level? Is the sixth homework-bearing course too much? Have I taken on too much in the extra-curricular life at school? Can I volunteer for more opportunities?), and students and families can now make alterations to what was a master plan.
What is nice is that these changes are still a completely acceptable part of life here at RCDS. If a student needs to go from Geometry Honors to Geometry, the honors grade does not travel with the student, and the grade starts afresh. If a junior has taken on too much with a sixth course, she can drop the class without any ramifications whatsoever. These are student-friendly policies that are consistent with our belief that students should stretch themselves academically and explore new interests, but, if such choices mean that there is too much on the plate, we are here to help with the appropriate adjustment.
What we see at school is not exactly what you see at home, and generally, this is good for everyone, for it gives us all two points of reference. If there are issues that need discussion, please do not hesitate to contact your child’s advisor or grade-level dean. The number of conversations I have in March that start “I wish I had called you in October” is worth noting, so I encourage one and all who have a need to communicate a concern, now is the time.
Later in the year, we have fewer tools to correct a concern. Now, the schedule is still flexible, the ramifications for change are minimal, and policies exist that absorb adjustment and change at this point. If there are communication issues or other concerns, call the grade-level dean or advisor. We welcome such contact, for it informs us of what worried students are bringing home or where we might improve from your perspective, and we are glad to work on the problem.
As you are well aware, often concerns voiced by students at home have, in fact, many different perspectives that are worthy of hearing, as well, but that should not dissuade a family from contacting a dean or advisor. A student’s perspective is important, and trust us when we say that we want to know it, understand it, and adjust accordingly, if that is the proper course of action.
October is a great month at school. Energy is high, optimism abounds, and routine has its rewards. And yet, October is also the time to start addressing the types of issues that further down the road may turn into bigger concerns, and we encourage one and all to address such issues now.