All posts by John Potter

2015 Graduation Remarks

  •  by John Potter,    Headmaster

    Because of the depth, color and wide ranging accomplishments of our graduates, I often imagine The New School over time as a tapestry, that colorful woven cloth so often descriptive of important people and events.

    Tapestries are made on a loom. The rectangular loom has a warp, tightly pulled, strong yet thin threads running parallel with the sides of the loom. It is designed to support and help define the energy in the tapestry it holds and nurtures. Ours is a big, big tapestry, 25 years along and growing.

    Tapestry loomThis means that it has to be built of strong conceptual stuff. And it is. Included in its structure is the work of Ted Sizer and Howard Gardner, in addition to Paulo Freire and others upon whose work we have built. The loom provides the conceptual and philosophical underpinning of the tapestry.CoalitionofEssentialSchools711The loom would be useless were it not for the many strands of the warp running vertically with the frame. Everything is woven around the strands of the warp. Those strands are our teachers._I2A2177 Always there, always willing to support the weft the students weave around them…while understanding the educational brilliance of those minds making up the frame of the loom.The weft is comprised of the various strands intertwining the warp to create the picture, the work of art that is the tapestry. The weft can include green, gold, yellow, red—any color, in almost any weavable material.1280px-Bayeux_Tapestry_scene23_Harold_sacramentum_fecit_Willelmo_duciEvery student, every teacher, every parent who has been part of this wonderful effort is, in one way or another, woven into the tapestry that makes up The New School. Yes, every graduating student, every parent, every grandparent, every brother, every sister somehow has helped shape our graduates. Everyone who helps make up the school has their particular energy and support woven in.

     Some background on how The New School was started:

    In 1989, inspired by some of the great educational minds—Sizer and Gardner in particular—I found a small abandoned day care center in Vienna, Virginia and took out a $5000 loan to start a school—my second.  I needed help and students. Slowly the crucial support began to arrive.

    Two teachers, both with advanced degrees, volunteered to work for a year for no pay.

    Several parents from our 10 enrolled families took brooms, mops, paint and brushes and gave the building a completely new look before we started in September. Yes, we were poor, but I had a strong feeling that this very humble effort would transform into something that might prove to be as unstoppable as it was beautiful to contemplate.DSC_5407

     Those two teachers and that small cadre of parents breathed life into our fledgling school. The teachers devoted themselves to the students, believing that ideas like ownership, equality, a sense of oneness, critical thinking and the complexity of intelligencemultipleintelligences2 would stick, mature and thrive. A quarter of a century later, the tapestry is rich. We left the small, run down day care building in Vienna after three years and slowly built what you see around you.2015 Graduation hats up

     Two weeks ago we held a 25-year reunion here at school and I learned more about this tapestry than I ever imagined. Members of our school family in their twenties, thirties, and forties reconnected as though no time had elapsed.

    Here are some of the brilliantly colored threads woven in over the last 25 years:

    Purple and gold weft threads from Billy and Joanna, New School graduates, each of whom has worked here just shy of a decade, rooting us wonderfully in our own history.

    A red weft thread from Jacques for establishing a brand new restaurant, maybe 18 years ago, in Brooklyn.5323935538_b30aa2a125_b

    And a blue weft thread from Charlie, working toward a doctorate in clinical psychology. I suspect KC, a primate specialist at the national zoo, would provide a weft thread made of orangutan hair.

    And then there is Kara, recording oral histories of South American migrant communities now in this country. Felipe, who works with the European Union, and Sarah, a consultant on Middle Eastern affairs. Becky, an art therapist, goes to South Africa twice a year to help people in impoverished local townships. The threads they add are rich, multi-textured and exotic in color.

     Alan, a robotics specialist for the Navy, takes time out to help high school kids master the basics of robotics. Carlos is a builder, renovating houses and apartment buildings in Washington, D.C. Their threads are thick, sturdy earth tones.

     Jamie is the Senior Effects Artist at Microsoft Games. Working in the Unreal Engine he has created waterfalls, fireballs, and a bazillion additional effects.

    And Jake, one of our first students,images-2 a video artist who earned a Masters at Columbia then went on to write a play that ran off Broadway for many months. Their colors sparkle and sizzle.

     I could go on and on. The students who have graced us with their presence continue to add more and more brilliantly colored wefts.

     So, to you, the class of 2015, you have already added color and richness to this cloth of the mind. The Laramie Project, this year’s major theatrical production, is an example of that richness, as are the math competitions, debates, musical events, science fests, and myriad community events. As are your unique personalities. Your writing. Your art. Your self discipline. Your wisdom.

    laramie_project_designWe celebrate you today, but keep in mind that you will continue adding to this widely admired tapestry even after you have moved on. You are an indelible part of our design, which simply keeps growing more beautiful.

     I look forward in one year or five years or ten years to seeing the amazing things you have added to our New School tapestry as you weave in your new weft threads around the warp supported by the frame built on the foundation of great educational minds.


    Attracting and Retaining Excellent Teachers

  • by John Potter          

    At The New School, the teaching environment is unique and rewarding, and our staff usually stay many years.  Only six out of 31 staff members have been here less than eight years, a striking piece of data by any measure.  Such longevity leads to a very tightly knit group working in a highly collaborative manner.  As a result, bringing in new faculty members is both exciting and daunting.

    Our faculty represent the heart and soul of the school.  New School teachers have freedoms that teachers in most schools would envy.  They create their own classes based on their interests and passions—consistent with our curriculum guide—and we encourage them to develop their own unique approach, always bearing in mind the highly dialogic nature of this environment.


    On the flip side, being so small means we ask much of our teachers, all of whom wear many hats. They may have fewer students than teachers in larger schools, but they put an extraordinary amount of effort into their classes, their assessments and their relationships with students and their parents.  The effort they put into designing a course for a class of ten takes more time for our teachers because of the latitude they have.


    As teachers in most small schools will tell you, our salaries can’t compete with the public schools or some of the wealthier independent schools, yet we attract amazingly talented teachers. Why do these talented, creative people choose to work here? And why do they stay so long?

    Juana Gomez-Diez has taught Spanish at The New School for 14 years, having turned down repeated offers of higher paying positions at big name prep schools in Washington, DC.


    Students often stay with her for four or five years, and achieve a remarkable level of fluency. When asked what keeps her here, Juana says she is endlessly grateful for the freedom to create classes in her own style and the chance to work so closely with her students, with whom she develops a powerful bond. “I am not micromanaged,” Juana says. “I believe in mixing language instruction with cultural studies, often through film. In this I am supported and encouraged, not restricted.”

    So what do we do when an outstanding faculty member leaves?

    I have a system that might make some people wince, but it winnows the field very effectively so that I’m not inundated with responses from those who might well be less passionate.  More times than not, it has brought me excellent applicants. My teacher ads don’t simply ask for a cover letter and resume, they contain a challenging prompt to which the applicants must respond.  For example, a well loved, multi-talented humanities teacher moved to another country after being with us for several years, leaving a huge professional and personal hole in the staff. We had big shoes to fill.

    My ad for her replacement read, “Write an essay about what it means to be a Renaissance teacher.”  I received only ten responses, of which four were thoughtful and well written.Of those, one in particular stood out, and that was from Jacob Cholak, whom we ultimately hired. The ad didn’t include the name of the school.  Jacob was so intrigued by the ad that at first he thought it was a hoax placed by his friends to see what he would come up with. Here are a couple of excerpts from his essay:

    Real learning is an act of aggression. One must kill one’s own assumptions and then ransack the past… But there are fragments which, reconstituted, provide new life.”

    “My small apartment consists mostly of books. I try to read three a week. Sometimes I read four.  My students need me to know everything. I can’t and never will. But: Russian symbolism, German idealists, ancient Near Eastern poetry, Zoroastrianism, political economics, Chinese zen painting, paleolithic fertility icons, Ethiopian garage bands, and C# programming. I’m a young, old-fashioned generalist in an old, specialized world. I’m learning Akkadian. I rode through Asia on a motorbike.”


    Great stuff!

    I also require an applicant to design and teach a class before I make the final decision.Jacob taught a class on the culture surrounding The Great Gatsby, using a film clip,pieces of art, a short reading and an analytical discussion with the class. The students ate it up. I hired him_I2A2194


    Echoing Juana, Jacob loves the freedom we’ve given him to follow his passions. As a film school graduate, he badly wanted to start a film program at the school, and he pitched it professionally. He now has the equipment and time to train students to use it, and is planning a film festival for February. He is actively collaborating with the rest of the staff to film exhibitions, unusual classes and school events. Half of his classroom is set up as a living room, with couches, chairs and lamps, over which hangs a large pull-down screen for viewing films.

    Jacob appears to have settled in for the long haul.

    Our new theater director, Steve Elm, had the task of bringing together six high school  students (no warning for them) to coach them into creating a cohesive production in 90 minutes (between 9:00 AM and 10:30 AM).


    The result was nothing less than sensational.  Steve’s extensive theater experience is breathing energy and inspiration into the department and this is proving to be infectious.


    We work extremely hard to find and retain people who will add to the richness of the mix we have. It is imperative that we hire people who will not only be successful teachers and mentors, but who will ultimately blend their own considerable strengths with those of the rest of the faculty as they grow into The New School community.

    A Personal Meditation on Oppression in Schools Yesterday and Today

  • by John Potter


    The County Primary School in Cornwall

    For the full decade of the 1950s my elementary and secondary education took place in Cornwall, in southwest England, a remote and economically depressed region. I felt oppressed from beginning to end. I was not a happy camper. The majority of my classmates were sons and daughters of farmers and farmworkers and a constantly changing population of gypsies.

    oppression copy

    Although I was not especially silent when beaten

    Corporal punishment after the age of eight was routine, and not simply for misbehavior. If a student, in the eyes of the headmaster, consistently underperformed academically or spoke out of turn, he would be forced to bend over and hold his ankles while the headmaster beat him with a bamboo cane. Faced with this ongoing threat and consequent sense of disempowerment, students became indifferent to school, at best, and much more interested in developing their physical attributes. Boxing, for example, was a constant subject of both conversation and impromptu student-organized tournaments. If you stayed away from the tournaments you were rubbish; if you attended, you’d be browbeaten into taking part, prepared or not.

    By any modern measure, what happened to students in this particular school in Cornwall would be widely condemned. My formative academic years left me particularly sensitive to injustice, especially in educational settings, and led to me founding this school in which, I would argue, academic oppression is virtually nonexistent.


    This says it all!

    I frequently refer to our school as “dialogic,” a place where interpersonal communication is the lifeblood and where a unique state of equality exists within the community: students to teachers, students to students and so on. This dynamic is facilitated greatly by everyone being on a first name basis. Given the values we have come to represent, if there were ever a sense of oppression in this setting, the source would be rooted out quickly by students and teachers alike.

    And so we thrive.

    Because our school is located in affluent Fairfax County, adjacent to affluent Loudoun County and affluent Montgomery County, and because the nation’s capital is filled with the highly educated professionals it requires, the kind of oppression students here live with is the polar opposite of that with which I grew up. Much of the talk here is about the imperative of getting into an Ivy League school, or a “public Ivy,” a la William & Mary or UVA. The talk I grew up with was almost exclusively about football, boxing, cattle, sheep, chickens and so forth. (Amusingly, both now and then the weather was a constant topic of conversation. Then, because farming depended so heavily on the weather; now because it affects traffic so profoundly. It is no coincidence that weather and traffic are reported on many radio stations every ten minutes. But I digress.)


    College admissions are profoundly difficult to predict

    I am saddened when I hear about students who feel helpless in the face of constant academic pressure to gain admission to prestigious colleges and universities. It reminds me a bit of the pressure I felt, when I was growing up, to do well in the boxing tournaments. That, however, was peer driven. The obsession with prestigious colleges in the greater Washington area is, I believe, primarily parent driven and mostly misguided.

    At The New School we are quite clear, as a college prep school, that the imperative is finding the best college fit, and that calls for active student input and realistic expectations, usually determined by round table discussions among the major stakeholders—primarily the student, and secondarily the parents and the school.

    I use college admissions to illustrate my point about oppression because it is the front and center focus of fear and hope in this area. As a parent at a local public school lamented to one of our parents, “The principal only applauds the achievers. The parents only blame the teachers. The teachers only cater to the achievers. What’s in it for the “AVERAGE” student? Not much. When matriculating at James Madison University or Christopher Newport University is viewed as a career turn toward flipping burgers, the heated pot can boil over.”

    I close with a plea to families everywhere. We have great kids who need to find their own way. Let’s take the pressure off and let them do just that.

    What is Educational Ownership?

  • by John Potter

    Typically, when students enter The New School, they have had few, if any, conversations about what it means to take charge of one’s education. They understand “education,” they understand “ownership,” but educational ownership? How do you own something as intangible as education?

    In these United States, where homeownership, car ownership – the mere notion of ownership – is so important, it’s puzzling why talk about educational ownership is so worryingly absent from our national discourse.

    At The New School, we believe that educational ownership is the foundational habit of mind of a quality education; and after 25 years, we understand, too, that it’s challenging teaching students to self-advocate and approach their learning from the concept of ownership. They’re just not used to it.


    Making a point.

    A good case in point is incoming ninth graders. The majority of our new high schoolers have been steeped in an educational culture where the school does the owning – where the student’s curriculum is prescribed (English 9, Biology 9, etc.), where assessments are based on the memorization of facts and teachers’ opinions, where students are not even present at parent-teacher conferences. In contrast, our pedagogy and values make the student the center of his or her education. We allow students to choose their classes; we insist that students participate and add value to classroom learning through direct investigation and dialogue; and we require students to lead their academic conferences, with parents and teachers asking thoughtful questions.



    Indeed, ownership is largely derived from dialogue. This is not to say that there are no other contributing factors, but active, ongoing respectful dialogue between students and teachers in the classroom is crucial. Equally crucial is that students feel their ideas are valued. The classroom must carry a sense of egalitarianism (notwithstanding the fact that the teacher is in charge). This is one reason why students here are on a first-name basis with the faculty: it’s an equalizer, and it’s a factor that makes students colleagues, rather than passive participants, and brings them closer to the notion of ownership.



    If a woman owns a house, it’s safe to say that she chose that house; if a man owns a car, then it’s understood that he chose that car. It’s not hard to imagine how we would feel if the state dictated those kinds of ownership. We certainly would be far less invested in the state’s choice of car or house than if we made those choices ourselves. Translated into educational terms: giving students control, e.g., allowing them to choose their classes and giving them a space for their voices to be heard, results in them having a greater investment in their work. There’s nothing particularly radical about this idea; it’s the bread and butter of liberal arts college programs.

    Ownership 4

    Problem solving

    Clearly we have to take means into account.  For an adult purchasing a car, it’s about money. For a student, whether in our program or that of a liberal arts college, it’s about motivation and acquired skills. Some may venture to say it’s about smarts as well. So in helping our students make choices about what they learn, we have to take their means into account. And that we do. The stage is then set for the student to develop his or her sense of ownership to a higher level. The higher it is, the easier the transition into college becomes.

    In a broader context, this sense of ownership can be incredibly powerful and often leads to empowerment and improvement in other parts of a person’s life. Ownership is a key component of educating the whole person in addition to preparing them for college. Ownership for young people is about growing up and having agency in their own lives.

    Thoughts on Thanks

  • by John Potter

    I received a card this morning from the parents of an alum, thanking me for changing their child’s life. It made me think about the countless times over the years I’ve been thanked for turning a child around, helping her to love learning again, helping him to see his potential.

    It’s incredibly gratifying to hear these words, of course, and affirms that we’re doing a lot of things right. Grateful parents tend to rave to their friends and colleagues about all The New School has done for their child.

    But it occurs to me that people have a fairly deep-seated need to categorize, or pigeonhole, and praise like this sometimes leads other parents to believe the child we “turned around” needed fixing.

    Absolutely not.

    The kids who come to our school don’t need fixing. They are talented, creative, unique individuals who were not being served by whatever schools they came from. There is no criticism inherent in that statement, simply an observation that all too often the school does not fit the student.

    Our faculty is constantly working to create an environment where ideas flourish, individualism is celebrated and each student’s needs, thoughts and talents are seen and considered important.  Teachers consult with each other and with the students and test out new ideas, the objective always being to help our students become critical thinkers, articulate and thoughtful presenters and enthusiastic community members.

    We are not fixing our students. They’re not broken. We’re providing them rich soil, sustenance and the space to grow into themselves.front-facade

    What Exactly IS a Liberal Arts Education?

  • By John Potter and Steve Roushakes      

    We describe The New School as a unique liberal arts education, but I sometimes wonder how people interpret the term “liberal arts” and subsequently envision our school. The term certainly does not mean an art-focused education, and we are not, then, an art school (though it’s true we have a reputation for excellence in the fine and performing arts). Rather, the liberal arts comprise a variety of disciplines that, together, form a foundation for higher learning. For us, it’s about creating a whole, thoughtful person with an agile mind. Let’s take a closer look.

    In the original sense, in classical antiquity, the liberal arts were those disciplines one studied to become a freethinking, “liberated” individual who is capable of independently responding to the world, and therefore fit for participation in civic life. Although the discipline make up of the liberal arts has changed over time – from classical antiquity, through the medieval and renaissance periods, to today – the term has always signified a broad, multidisciplinary basis of knowledge. Mathematics, science, art, and language are, together, the common core of the liberal arts.

    Today, the term liberal arts is most commonly used to describe undergraduate college curriculums that focus on fundamental skills of critical thought and informed expression through the study of the sciences, the arts, foreign language, and humanities. Liberal arts colleges also tend to have small classes and a faculty dedicated to teaching first, rather than research and publishing.


    Socrates: an icon in the Pre-Dawn of Liberal Arts

    It’s with this liberal arts college model in mind – small classes, dedicated faculty, a broad curriculum encompassing mathematics, science, art, foreign language, and the humanities – that we like to call our school a unique liberal arts education.

    It’s the approach to the disciplines that makes the distinction; in a liberal arts education, the skills and competencies of each discipline are studied on their own terms, but they are treated as part of a larger goal of developing a well-educated individual. This difference is evident in virtually every aspect of our curriculum.

    In our view, a liberal arts education teaches a person how to think critically, how to analyze, synthesize, rearrange and integrate ideas and priorities. We feel that approaching liberal arts the way we do initiates the process of freeing a student’s mind to begin to realize its fullest potential. We feel strongly that our curriculum gives our students a very strong start in transitioning to college, particularly if it is a college focusing on the liberal arts.

    Constantly encouraging students to think and learn across disciplines is the core of what we do. Encouraging critical thinking, independent thinking, and applying reason through dialogue provides students with a range of skills that ultimately should be the foundation of all professions — particularly in a complex and rapidly-changing world.

    The Challenge of Putting “Technology” in Perspective

  •  By John Potter and Billy Pasour      

    “At the point of encounter there are neither utter ignoramuses nor perfect sages; there are only people who are attempting, together, to learn more than they now know.”
    Paulo Friere

    In his important July 15th article, “Nothing Can Replace a Good Teacher,” Jay Mathews outlines the plight of Melvin Marshall, whose reading is four years behind grade level, and whose language arts class was taught entirely through the computer. Melvin had little to no interaction with his teacher on a daily basis, and recently a lawsuit has been filed on his behalf seeking to set right the flawed educational practice of “virtual learning.” We applaud Mathews for insisting that education without student-teacher collaboration is not, really, education.


    Virtual learning “solves” two problems; it gives the teacher more time for clerical tasks, and standardizes assessment. Assessment is the real issue here. The argument is that standardized assessment acts as an early warning for ineffective teaching. Parents and politicians are deeply apprehensive of children’s minds being spoiled by overzealous or inept educators, so the methodologies of the teacher in the classroom become diverted from best practices and directed toward acceptable practices. In the case of Melvin Marshall, the teacher was diverted to the point of not actually teaching. This is the unintended and obvious consequence of policy based in fear.

    Learning is a human endeavor. It happens when two or more people with open minds convene in dialogue. Those in such a dialogue must recognize that their knowledge is incomplete, as is that of their dialogue partner, and faithfully work to integrate new ideas into their understanding. This type of dialogue is quite natural among friends, but is largely absent from our schools, where the knowledge conveyed by teachers, textbooks, and, now, software seems absolute and immutable. Learning becomes a matter of memory, yet memorizing is nothing like truly learning. Learning is to delve into the unknown and conquer it through reason.


    Textbooks and their baggage

    To properly teach, teachers must be aware of their own ignorance, and accept that
    it is qualitatively no different from the students’ ignorance. The curriculum and methodologies in the classroom must support an exploratory approach that allows every member, including the teacher, to dialogue as equals, deepening each other’s relationship with the subject and other group members. In this setting, students are not locked out
    of knowledge by assessment, but rather assessment comes from the teacher herself, who best knows each student’s capabilities and contributions. Student and teacher alike are invested in the material, and the all-too-common question – when am I ever going to use this – doesn’t arise.


    “People who are attempting, together, to learn more than they now know” P. Friere

    Any educational aid which circumvents, rather than fortifies, the student-teacher relationship is not merely insufficient but altogether wrong-headed, and more attention needs to be paid to what we expect education to be before we try to design a solution to its shortcomings. As adults, former students fondly remember the teacher who touched their lives, not the worksheets that drilled information. What gives the art of teaching lasting value is a partnership between teacher and student forming deep intellectual connections that last a lifetime.


    High School Fundamental #1: Dialogue, Dialogue, Dialogue

  • By John Potter and Matt Willmott

    Jay Mathews, in his piece, “A visionary’s final ideas on fixing high schools,” observes the work, style and inspiration of Ted Sizer in a nicely measured and appropriately enthusiastic way. For member schools in The Coalition of Essential Schools, the Ten Common Principles provide an extraordinarily reliable set of guidelines.


    By exploring the considerable academic advantages of oral exams, Mathews is touching on one of those principles in particular, that of the importance of authentic assessment. Coalition schools often use both student portfolios and student exhibitions as assessment tools, and when these are applied optimally there is heavy emphasis on the oral components (presentation, fielding questions and engaging in discussion).



    Authentic assessments such as oral exams have many advantages over standardized testing: they give teachers a more nuanced sense of students’ actual accomplishments, and they let students know that they are expected to be able to do more than pass a standardized test. Moreover, they affirm to students that the educational experience is one that cannot be reduced to or summarized by a simple standardized test. It is something much richer.

    It is not uncommon to hear Coalition schools describe their pedagogy as “dialogic” — that is, involving an ongoing academic conversation among students, between students and teachers, and among teachers. The importance of an ongoing dialogic experience in high school is critical to an optimal learning environment. Students who participate in a dialogic model can feel a sense of ownership of their education; they see education as an evolving process, and they discover that, in that process, they have a voice and a role. In the end, they can emerge not only having the academic competencies one hopes secondary education will provide, but as self-aware, poised and inspired individuals.


    Mathews is right. Finding ways to increase the emphasis on meaningful dialogue and orals could begin the essential transformation our education system so desperately needs.