Category Archives: Why we do what we do

What Does it Mean “To Use One’s Mind Well”?

  • by Steve Roushakes                 

    The pedagogy and culture at The New School revolve around the belief that learning should be purposeful and that students should have choice and agency in their education. Our mission – to help students learn to use their minds well and take charge of their academic lives – captures this two-part belief in simple terms, although exactly what we mean by “using one’s mind well” and “taking charge” may not be self-evident. In his February 2014 blog, What is Educational Ownership? John Potter, our founder and headmaster, discussed this principle of choice in education, whereby students considerably shape their academic lives and begin to set high standards for their work. It’s certainly worth checking out. Here, I’d like to take a closer look at what it means to use one’s mind well.


    Perhaps a good place to start is with criticisms of American education, which are not hard to find these days, and which seem to lament a general absence of dynamic thinking in school curriculums. Here are just a couple:

    One study…found that 40 percent of college seniors fail to graduate with the complex reasoning skills needed in today’s workplace. The test, the Collegiate Learning Assessment Plus, is given to freshmen and seniors and measures the gains made during college in critical thinking, writing and communication, and analytical reasoning.
    –Jeffrey J. Selingo, “Why are so many college students failing to gain job skills before graduation?” The Washington Post, January 26, 2015

    Don’t get me wrong—to study science, history, literature, indeed anything, one needs information. But shorn of their connections to one another, to underlying questions, to a disciplined way of construing this pile of information, facts are simply “inert knowledge”—to use the pithy phrase of the British American philosopher Alfred Whitehead.
    –Howard Gardner, Five Minds for the Future

    What these opinions and statistics point to, it seems, is an over-emphasis on the accumulation of facts at the expense of applied learning. Facts matter, of course, but they shouldn’t be mistaken as the be-all-end-all of learning, and the real heart and soul of a quality education – the really hard work, in fact – is applying what we’ve learned. “…analytical reasoning…” “a disciplined way of construing information…” This is largely what we mean at The New School by using one’s mind well.

    SLsydney01Sydney, Class of 2015

    It’s ultimately about asking the right questions. Ask a factual question (When was DNA discovered?) and you will get a factual, or “inert,” response (1869). When framed as a problem-based or essential question, however (How has the discovery of DNA benefited modern medicine?), you are asking the student to do much more than simply recall a fact; you are asking her to make connections, synthesize facts, and express and support an informed opinion. You are asking her to use her mind well.

    Compare these factual questions to their open-ended counterparts:

    • When was the telegraph created? / How did the invention of the telegraph serve European imperialism?
    • What are Newton’s three laws of motion? / How may Newton’s laws of motion help us understand, and thus improve, fuel efficiency of cars?
    • How many soliloquies does Hamlet give? / What do Hamlet’s soliloquies tell us about his character?

    Such open-ended questions are certainly challenging, yes, but they also invite the students to co-create the learning in the classroom. No sophistry: the teacher doesn’t have the answer. Rather, there are degrees of quality, informed answers, and students’ opinions therefore truly matter, because they are contributing to an open exploration. We all want what we say to matter, and students are no different. In my experience, too, students like to be challenged, so long as they see the purpose in the work, and it’s certainly fair to label such questions purposeful. I think many students feel alienated by their classroom experiences (I know I did) because the learning is so often one-directional and fact-based.


    Great teachers indeed ask thought-provoking questions (and great schools let them ask those questions). But great teachers also ask questions that are meaningful to their disciplines, i.e., questions that train students to think as historians, scientists, novelists, etc. This is what Gardner means by “a disciplined way of construing information,” which is sometimes called habits of mind in education.


    A similar, disciplined-based approach is to frame classes as “information in context,” whereby the class itself is an application of learning. For example, within the high school at The New School, we offer topical, or applied learning, classes within each credit requirement. Thus, rather than English 9, Chemistry 10, etc., students may choose:

    • 20th Century Social Movements through Music (U.S. History)
    • Art in the Context of the Self (Art)
    • The Chemistry of War (Chemistry)
    • Cryptology (Mathematics)
    • The Ethics of Capitalism (World Studies)
    • Roller Coasters (Physics)
    • The Search for Self in Literature (English)

    Teaching information in context allows students to see the purpose and real-world application of what they are learning.


    There’s indeed nothing revolutionary about such a question-based / disciplined-based / using one’s mind well-approach to learning; it’s the foundation of liberal arts and sciences programs, not to mention most graduate programs. So why is such an approach so rare at the elementary, middle, and high school levels? The reason, I think, has mostly to do with the structural demands that standardized testing, such as the SOLs, creates for schools. There just isn’t enough time to stop and think. But for us at The New School and other like-minded schools, depth of thought and application of learning – using one’s mind well – always win over breadth of coverage.

    I think schools should examine their pedagogies by asking themselves, What are you trying to create? My answer to that question, as I think about our focus on using one’s mind well and students taking charge of their lives, is this:

    A New School graduate is an autonomous, skilled learner: an individual who owns his/her education, is self-aware and poised, and is fully prepared for college and a bright future.  

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    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.


    Ode to the Math Department

  • by Eden Costagliola

    I have two pet peeves about the way people talk about math.

    The first is when people say, “Do the math.” Arithmetic is a very small part of mathematics, and many brilliant mathematicians are slow or inaccurate at arithmetic. From the Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation movements we learned that we sometimes denigrate people in subtle ways through speech, and, for me, Do the math is a put down that discourages potential mathematicians.


    My second pet peeve is the question, “When are we ever going to use this stuff?” Many students who struggle with math ask this question, which is often a veiled cry for help. Just as an eating disorder is not usually about eating, When are we ever going to use this stuff is not really about the application of math. I take the question as a sign that I need to analyze the situation and figure out how best to help the student, and, as the student begins to understand the math, he/she naturally begins to understand and apply it and therefore understand its value.

    Truth is, most mathematicians work entirely without numbers, and pure mathematics is truly an art form. A mathmatician is motivated by a kind of daydreaming curiosity and the beauty of mathematics, rather than some concrete problem. Students may never need to write a lab report in “real life,” but we still want them to understand the process and habit of mind of the lab report, because it’s the logical thinking of the lab report that they learn to apply in their lives. Higher level math is similarly about habits of mind, and traditionally these habits of mind begin with Algebra 1.

    With this in mind, I’d like to introduce you to The New School Math Department. While we teach traditional material in traditional sequence (i.e., Algebra 1 through AP Calculus), the methods by which we teach are examples of New School pedagogy in action. Our students give explanations and proofs both informally and formally; they teach and design projects that explore real world problems. Most importantly, we teach students how to think like mathematicians – to describe, visualize, represent symbolically, prove, check for plausibility, make conjectures, change or simplify problems, work backwards and closely re-examine problems.


    The abstract concepts of mathematics are difficult for many students to grasp, but we teach our students to persevere. We find new ways to reach our students to build new and enhanced logical reasoning abilities. I often tell my students that the exercises they’re doing are stretching their brains to be capable of more complicated thought processes. This aspect of our classes cannot be undervalued, for that mental capacity is carried with them everywhere.


    I like to believe we’re good at inspiring mathematical curiosity in our students. Our students continue thinking about mathematical ideas beyond class, and they sometimes come up with original ideas that they are curious enough to explore. Our math students also learn to appreciate the beauty of mathematical advancements, ideas, and logic in their historical context. Pure mathematics is an art form with a rich history and we share our love for that aspect with the students along with the practical applications.

    Exchanges: From Facebook to Face-to-Face

  • by Virginia Palmer- Fuechsel


    While preparing for one of our school’s first international exchange trips, I thought a lot about the nature of communication and friendship in today’s world wide web. Social networks are bringing more people together than ever. The internet is flooded with personal photos, memes, videos, news, gossip, games, covers, profiles, and selfies. Some people seem to practically live their lives on the internet. They share, post, comment, twitter, chat, skype, log, blog, vlog, reshare, and overshare. And what would we do without YouTube? The biggest social network by far is Facebook, and that brings me back to the possibilities and limitations of online exchanges.


    Three years ago, when I was challenged with the task of re-starting a German language program at The New School, I spent a lot of time searching for up-to-date, teen-friendly internet content to supplement the otherwise excellent Langenscheidt immersion curriculum. It didn’t take long before I stumbled on a YouTube channel called “Easy German” (you know, that European language that has the reputation of being really hard to learn). Easy German started in 2006 at the Schillergymnasium (a college prep school) in Münster, where, under the leadership of a creative, global thinking media instructor, students have been producing increasingly professional, very cool street interviews, language lessons, and cultural exchange videos. Through watching their episodes, my students learned loads of new vocabulary, but even more, enjoyed glimpses of different cultures, dialects, concepts, places, and faces. Some faces became familiar over time. But they were still just faces on the screen. So when Easy German created a Facebook group, I joined, hoping to learn more through participating in this international language learning and sharing community.


    One day last summer, I noticed that the English subtitles on one of the recent uploads were a bit wonky; obviously, someone had taken the Google translator short cut. I made a friendly comment and gently corrected the text. This led to an offer to help out with more episodes. Before long, Janusz Jamerski (Schillergymnasium’s media guru), Carina Schmid (manager of the affiliated non-profit, The Global Experience), and I were busily exchanging notes and subtitle scripts back and forth, and while doing this, getting to know each other. Finally, I plucked up courage to ask the question on my mind, “Would it be possible to bring some of our students over to your school, to work with and learn from you and the German students in your media classes?” The answer that came back was, “Ja! Let’s figure out how to do it!”


    So, to make a long story short, after months of preparation we assembled an exchange group of five students who were totally excited about spending face-to-face time in Münster, Hamburg, and Cologne with their new Facebook and E-mail buddies. Nine days were just too short for everything we wanted to do, but we packed in as much as we could. It was wonderful to finally hug our exchange hosts and Easy German friends! We came back stuffed with faces, places, exchanges, experiences, digital footage, and skills that will help us produce our first Easy English-American Edition videos.

    Easy Languages Colleagues

    But let’s hear from the students themselves, for this is their trip, and they have been involved from the get-go in making this exchange a reality. And, because it was a media workshop trip, their contributions to this blog are in video form. Here is a friendly video in which some of our Schillergymnasium Münster student hosts are inviting us to visit their school:

    Schillergymnasium Intro Video


    This was our students’ video response about themselves and The New School:

    NSNVA Intro Video


    But it’s easier to tell you about our trip with excerpts from my daily iphone log and two of our first videos for the Easy Languages channel:

    Our day in Cologne (Sunday, April 6)

    We arrived at the Köln Hauptbahnhof with German punctuality at 11:29 AM. After finding a comfortable café for today’s home base (Starbucks, in the hopes of better wifi access), we talked through the day’s schedule and video shoot assignments. Our team of 5 American and 4 German students then left our gear with Janusz Hamerski, our Video Meister, to see the sights around the Kölner Dom. After a brief glimpse inside the cathedral (we couldn’t go in, due to Sunday services), we walked to the train bridge over the Rhine. I don’t know when this “locks of love” fashion became the vogue, but we found the high, heavy-duty wire fence separating the pedestrian walk-way from the train tracks completely covered with every sort of decorated padlock that you can imagine. All colors and shapes, inscribed with countless names. We inspected them closely as we walked across, then under, back up, and over on the other side of the bridge spanning the Rhein. The views of Cologne and the river were simply splendid on this fine day. Before heading back, we decided to attempt the climb up the cathedral tower. Needless to say, I wasn’t the only one who needed occasional breathers while struggling up the 533 (!!!) steps to the observation gallery around the pinnacle’s base. The views were incredible! When ready, we walked carefully down the seemingly endless steep, narrow and stony, spiral stairs. As I later told the kids, we’ll have memories and bragging rights for life.

    Once back at our Starbucks base, we packed up our gear and got to work. Today we split into 3 teams. Janusz took Brian and Nikolai to finish our political Easy-German video, asking passersby, “What should Obama do?” The girls (Käte with a local friend joining her for the day, Vi, Valentina, and Queenie) shot imaginative footage for a “Verbs in Aktion” video. Lennard and Anil had a great time working together under Vince’s camera direction on a very funny but instructional video, “Doing Verbs in Köln.” I followed the boys and sometimes Janusz, capturing images of them at work on camera and “film.” It was good to see how much they learned from our video shoot in Hamburg yesterday and how well the German and American students are working together.

    Here’s one of the first results from that day (including footage from our shoot in Hamburg):

    Obama question video


    But, as we learned during the next few school days, video production is a time consuming and tricky business. Four days were impossibly short for the amount of footage we had to process.

    Video Workshop with Janusz Hamerski, Day 1.
    Technical Difficulties.

    Yesterday’s session started later than planned, because we couldn’t get in the media lab. So we hung out in a corner bakery and enjoyed German breakfast pastries. TD #1. What? No phone signal? Argh. Once we were all there, Janusz gave us his standard introductory lecture: relax, have fun, stay focused, be professional, and don’t forget Murphy’s Law. Prima.

    First off, he got Queenie and Vi going on their project. Anil was next. Brian worked on storyboarding a mini Film Noir spoof for Janusz’ pet project, a local video contest for students. I was frustrated with TD #2; I can’t open my video footage with iMovie, as planned, which means that I’ll have to try out Adobe Premiere, which I bought in January, but haven’t had time to use yet. Poor Vince. He didn’t just have TD#3, it was a Total Fail. His video files from the Köln shoot just wouldn’t read. We tried all kinds of decoding solutions, but nada. Janusz said that’s the main difference between the amateur and a pro. The pro’s been burned badly like this before, and is very careful to make sure that it never happens again.

    Despite numerous glitches, Queenie, Vi, and Anil were able to make the first raw cuts. The next phase went to the German students, who pitched in after lunch together. Vince took a crew out to the park and a playground to re-shoot their video, “Doing Verbs.” We continued cutting, with breaks for silly YouTubing and making music with Janusz’ guitar and keyboard. The girls swapped hosts for the night; little by little tired students left for home.

    Enjoy the video that Vince, Lennard, Anil, and Brian made that day:

    Doing Verbs Video


    There’s so much more that we could tell from our jam-packed trip. Our students also enjoyed visiting their friends’ English classes and sharing common teenage activies, such going out for lunches in nearby bakeries and pizzerias, getting snacks in a corner grocery, taking walks in the park, singing favorite songs, exchanging selfies, playing video games, and shopping  downtown. Münster is known as the bicycling capital of Germany (with easily three bikes per car), so on Wednesday I took a group out for a tour of the former city wall, which is now a beautiful park and promenade.

    Bicycling in Münster

    Our time went by swiftly, and there were a lot of tearful farewells at the train platform that Thursday evening. Now we’re back to e-mails and Facebook posts, and hoping that everything works out for the next phase of our exchange. We’re really looking forward to introducing our new German friends to our school, DC, and NYC in the fall!

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    Reflections on Culture

  • by Suzanne Stluka

    As I prepare to lead a group of New School students on a trip to France, I’m reminded of my own first visit abroad. I was 16 years old, and I signed up with an international agency to spend three weeks that summer in France. We would spend one week in Paris getting acclimated to the country and seeing some sights, and then we’d travel to a two-week homestay with our French host families.


    Surreal Paris

    During our week in Paris, my new friends and I visited local cafés and boulangeries, went to museums, and basically soaked in the vibrancy of a new culture.  By that time, I had had three years of French in junior high and high school, so I knew a lot of “textbook” French, but I had never had the chance to use it “in real life.” That first week, I got to use a lot of the language I had practiced: buying croissants and Metro tickets, asking for directions to the post office, and navigating my way through an unfamiliar city. But I was just starting to see the deeper aspects of French culture that I really couldn’t learn back in the U.S.


    Political passion in Marseille

    That week was my first experience with a French strike. For the French, a strike is as normal as a breakdown of a Metro escalator is for Washingtonians: it happens all the time, and you just learn to work around it. The French believe strongly in social justice, and feel that the strike is their rightful way to express their displeasure with a situation in their country, whether or not it achieves the change they seek. While people from other cultures may not understand the point of a French strike, it is a deeply important part of French culture.

    So all the language-learning I did in my French classes at school was important and valuable, but the truest part of my education came once I was immersed in their culture, seeing firsthand how others lived.


    Kicking back in the sty

    The cultural immersion deepened as I departed Paris for my homestay. Each of the students in my group stayed with a family in a rural part of France, near Le Mans. Apparently, the homestay coordinator was a bit desperate for host families, and my homestay ended up being two weeks on a pig farm. The plumbing was primitive, the food was unlike what I was used to, the family spoke no English, and there were no neighbors for miles. Compared to my comfortable suburban home in Fairfax County, it was quite a culture shock.


    It’s different!

    Culture is a soup that we are swimming in; we know it’s there because it’s all around us, but it’s constantly changing, being stirred up by new ingredients that are added. How do you characterize a soup to someone who hasn’t tasted it? You can tell them what the ingredients are, and compare it to other soups they may have tried, and even describe its color, flavor, texture, and consistency with the words you have in your vocabulary, but they really can’t understand what you mean until they’ve actually tasted it themselves. And THAT is the value of a study-abroad experience, particularly one with a homestay component.

    I had to learn how to interact–with real, live human beings–entirely in a language that I had previously only used in a classroom. I had to advocate for myself when I realized that my host family had no other children near my age, and make arrangements to spend some time with another host family nearby. I saw how a certain set of people–people completely unlike myself and my family in many ways–lived, every day, and realized that although their ways were different from what I knew, they were not wrong. And that is a very important concept, particularly in our politically divided society.

    I came back from that trip not with any particular love for pigs or for farming life, but with an appreciation that the world was bigger than the comfortable suburb I knew. And I could not have absorbed that just from reading a book, or even from talking with someone. Some things can only be learned through direct experience.

    A French friend of mine once told me how they could spot Americans a mile away, even if they weren’t wearing “fanny packs” and cameras around their necks:

    Americans always have beautiful, white teeth.dusty-sneakers-i-welcome

    Americans take up a lot of space.

    Americans always wear sneakers.

    Are those cultural stereotypes of the U.S.? Sure. Are they right? Not exactly, but they have enough truth in them to be recognizable. But the best way my friend could find out for herself was to actually come here and experience our culture, and draw her own conclusions.

    I can’t wait to see France through my students’ eyes on this trip, as they begin what will hopefully be a lifelong journey through the different cultural soups that surround us all, wherever we are.


    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

    Art… An Extraordinary Expression of Self

  • Self is the core of who we are.



    It is an infinitely deep well of renewal, connection and creation. My creative process is the search for and exploration of my infinite Self, to know and be present to my Self. In knowing my Self I know how I am different from all others and how I am the same as all others. I am extraordinary and ordinary. Connecting the two is the creative process. It is expressiveness going extraordinary. I want my students to find their extraordinary expressiveness.

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    To truly open to one’s Self the artist should resist judgments and categorizations, be curious, be moving, shift perspective, boldly go where they have never been before. We are held by gravity, which allows us, equally, to fall and to fly, just as a bird pushed from its nest takes flight from its falling.



    In building an educational art studio that harbors and encourages the creative process, I strive to give the young artist-students protection and armor from the judgments of others, positive and negative, benign and aggressive. I am realistic about the futility of suppressing such powerful human traits, but I am convinced of the necessity of struggling toward that safety, while at the same time flirting with the danger of being wrong and failing. Necessary and inherent in the creative process is failure and, simultaneously, the faith that I am, in reality, worthy and, ultimately, safe.



    How do I teach the creative process? I don’t. Being creative is inherent to humans. It does not need to be taught. I get out of the way. I protect the space. I give them time. I display faith. I patiently wait for them to do what is inevitable: be creative. Persistently and very gently I prod their creative process along.



    I provide resources and media. When asked, I teach techniques. I remain curious about what the students are experiencing and what they are doing. I encourage them to doggedly go where their curiosity and excitement takes them. If they get joy from the process they will play long and hard at it. Their technical abilities will naturally grow and mature. They will work through the blocks and “failures.” The failures cease to be “failures.” The “failures” become information opening up directions, resources, and possibilities hidden by the students’ habits, assumptions, tendencies, reactions and finite vision. The creative process is a portal to the universe of infinite possibilities.






    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.