Category Archives: Fresh perspectives…

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.

     

    A Personal Reflection on the Seminar

  • by Steve Roushakes          

    My ideal learning structure is the seminar. I’ve always valued personable exchanges of thoughts, and I just don’t find larger learning structures energizing or rewarding. Put simply, I don’t like to be strictly on the receiving end of a conversation, and I suppose too, as an educator, I worry about educational models that disallow a dialectic between the teacher and students.

    Matt-2

    Growing up I disliked school, especially junior high and high school, I think because the learning was structured in such a one-directional way. The teacher spoke, and we, the students, sat quietly, took notes, and went to the next class. I remember liking several of my teachers, wonderfully bright and witty individuals, but I don’t remember ever speaking with them, either in or out of class. I did okay grade-wise, but I never felt my mind genuinely sparked; I never felt part of the learning or that I was adding value in any way by my presence.

    A case in point is seventh grade. I was at Thoreau (just a few miles from The New School), and a couple months into the school year I realized I hadn’t said a single word in any of my classes. Another month went by, and another – it became a game: how long could I go? – and in the end I went the entire school year without speaking in class. I must have learned something, but I honestly can’t recall any meaningful moments from my classes.

    A great change came in college, though, when I entered my first seminar course. For the first time I found myself engaged in a roundtable discussion with a small group of students and our professor. (I remember him perfectly, Dr. Rafeq, and I honestly believe he remembers me too.) We were a focused group, and, having never expressed my thoughts in a classroom setting, I felt uncertain. But I immediately appreciated the effect conversation-as-education had on my mind and sense of self – I also appreciated that I had a responsibility to be part of the learning – and I quickly found my voice.

    Educated-mind

    I had never worked so hard preparing for a course. The demands and expectations were high, but I was energized by the work and looked forward to each class. I find it telling that I felt deeply challenged, yet happy and never anxious.

    The seminar was a real dividing line in my thinking about both myself and education, and I’ve never looked back. I found the learning purposefulinclusive, and humane, and I like to think that my own teaching, twenty years later, is still guided by these three principles.

    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.

    _I2A2167

    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.

    _I2A2170

    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.

    _I2A2172

    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.”

    Akkadian

    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).

    _I2A2177

    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.

    _I2A2175

    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.

    Teacher as Coach in an Elementary Geography Class

  • by Mary Meurisse Richardson

    Aliens are attacking!  Join the EDF today!

    Yes, you heard right: the Earth Defense Forces (EDF) need willing and able recruits to help fight off invading aliens!

    Each new recruit must pass Basic Training in Planet Earth Geography—learning all the continents, oceans, lines of latitude and longitude, and time zone changes. Once they make it through Basic Training a recruit becomes a Private in the EDF.  To move up in rank they choose any of ten regions of the world to study. When they feel confident that they know the countries in that region, they face a challenge (quiz) on which they can earn between 25 and100 experience points.  As students complete challenges and earn experience points, they earn a higher rank and unlock new challenge options, such as presenting a project, choosing a theme for a region and investigating it, or making a map of their neighborhood. EDF members also earn experience points by being focused in class each day, completing a challenge every week, and working together on one region. They all want to achieve the ultimate rank of Planetary Commander!

    MM2

    To keep up the action, I roll the dice every day to find out if the aliens have attacked again.  If the answer is yes, I roll again to find out where and how strongly they are attacking.

    MM4

    On a large world map, alien attacks are marked with red flags and multicolored Planet Earth flags represent areas where students have completed challenges and thus beaten back the invaders. Currently, we’re winning, but who knows when or how strongly the aliens might attack! We have to keep learning and be ever vigilant.

    MM1

    At the beginning of the school year I had certain expectations based on past geography classes, but using this game format, I’m amazed by what the students are accomplishing. They choose regions to study based on a wide variety of factors, such as where they or family members have traveled, places they have heard of in games, or even places they don’t know anything about. They are mastering information more quickly than in a traditional class, and they often choose to work in pairs without my assistance. These kids are truly exploring on their own. I don’t have to do any “teaching”—I simply walk around and answer questions, help them find what they are looking for, administer challenges, and keep up with points and ranks earned. They’re so enthusiastic I sometimes have to push them out of the room to their next class!

    MM3

    We’re having a great time, defeating the aliens and learning geography in a way that is likely to stick with the students for years to come. Come by and visit any time—but be sure to bring your taser!

    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.

    Screen-Shot-2012-11-26-at-5.10.07-PM

    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.

    Play-Pool-Like-a-Mathematician-Step-5

    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.

    Mathart2

    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

    MuensterPanoram1600(0)Münster

    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.

    Social-Media-buttons1

    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.

    schiller_logo

    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!”

    PastedGraphic-1

    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!

    IMG_1049 IMG_1051 IMG_1052 IMG_1053

    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.

    paris-city-lights

    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.

    Manifestation-CGT-a-Marseille

    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.

    1206-Arche-de-la-Nature--Le-Mans

    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.

    dsc_00621

    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.

     

    Engaging Students in Meaningful Dialogue

  • by Alan Villarreal

    I usually teach junior high English and history, but every year or two I like to step out of my comfort zone by teaching a high school class. I enjoy the high schoolers’ maturity and ability to deal with adult-level material, although they can sometimes be harder to win over, at least initially.

    This year I am teaching a US history course on the American West,w02_RA524337which focuses primarily on the 1800s and how various peoples have seen the West as a land of dreams, sometimes despite hard truths and messy realities. Our main “text” has been the PBS documentary The West (1996), produced by Stephen Ives. This is a remarkable documentary, not only because it is visually stunning and provides an easily accessible narrative, but also because it focuses on many different perspectives and individual stories. On most days, we watch a segment or two of the documentary, the students write impressions or questions in their journals, and we have short discussions about what we’ve seen. In addition, I often add background information and have them read and analyze primary source documents, usually in small groups.

    I planned and taught this class four years ago, and it went so well that I decided to repeat it this year. But as any teacher will tell you, every class has its own dynamics and develops its own identity, depending on the students who are “creating” it with you. Even the time of day and the room have their effects. This year, I haven’t had as many outgoing contributors to discussion, and so I have sometimes wondered how intellectually and emotionally engaged they have been with the material. And yet, something beautiful happened yesterday.

    14318968_1

    Little Big Horn

    During the previous class, we had finished watching Episode 6 of The West, which deals with the Indian Wars of the 1870s: the Battle of Little Big Horn; the forcible transportation of the Plains Indians to reservations, where they were dependent on unreliable government food rations and supplies; the flight of Lakota Chief Sitting Bull to Canada; and most moving of all, the story of the Nez Perce and Chief Joseph, one of the most memorable Indian leaders in history. For those who aren’t familiar with it, here is the story of the Nez Perc in a nutshell (Good Words).

    ChiefJosephZ1

    The entire history of Native American contact with Europeans is a tragedy, and the events described in Episode 6 are particularly hard to take. If you care about people and human rights, and you also want to love your country, watching this part of the documentary is a punch in the gut. How could a country that professes to believe that all men are created equal, and which had recently freed its slaves, treat Native Americans like less-than-human aliens in their own land, destined to be swept aside, penned up, and forgotten? I could see the gloom spreading among the students, and I was worried about their getting too depressed to see what an amazing story of human resilience this was and how Chief Joseph’s life also represented hope for reconciliation.

    So I decided to begin the day by asking the students to recall the story of the Nez Perce, who after fighting well and leading the US Army on a wild goose chase across half of the West,

    Nez_Perce_--_Bear_Paw

    The Nez Perce’s ill fated flight to Canada and Sitting Bull

    were herded onto a train and sent to a bleak reservation in Oklahoma. I asked them to imagine what American citizens might have thought of these events if they had read about them in the newspaper. One student responded that the newspaper stories were probably biased, and so most people probably thought the Indians had gotten what they deserved. Another student said that he might have admired the way the Nez Perce fought, especially how they didn’t attack civilians or desecrate bodies, as other rebellious tribes had done. Then I asked them whether they thought some people might have felt that the Indians had been treated unjustly, reminding them that some Americans had joined Abolitionist groups prior to the Civil War because they thought slavery was immoral. A few people nodded their heads and said they could imagine that.

    NEPE-HI-0395

    The Nez Perce delegation in Washington

    At this point, the entire class was awake and engaged. Next, I asked them to read a remarkable speech (IV) given by Chief Joseph in Washington, DC, two years after the Nez Perce had been defeated.

    In the speech, Chief Joseph says that he cannot understand why so many promises have been broken, and why, despite meeting the President and hearing sympathetic words from various government officials, nothing was being done for his people. He says he knows that the Indians must change, but that they ask for nothing more than to be treated as men, and to be judged equally under the law. After reading the speech, the students went off to discuss the document in small groups, and then returned to their desks to write a short interpretation of its meaning and significance in their journals. Finally, they shared their interpretations out loud and we had a general discussion.

    I was so impressed with the students’ thoughts. Here are a few of their responses:

    “This makes me so angry! This is my country, and this makes me so angry! I mean, we weren’t there when this happened, but the US was acting just like a bully–this is our land, and you Indians better get off it or else.”

    “Why haven’t we been taught about this? Why don’t people talk about this? We hear about the Civil War and slavery but not about this.”

    “I was shocked by how Chief Joseph spoke about equality and equal treatment under the law. I thought that’s what the US stood for, but the Indians weren’t treated that way and he’s pointing that out.”

    “Did this prick the Americans’ conscience? Was anything done after this?”

    “What’s happening with American Indians today? Are they still living on reservations? [Yes, but conditions aren’t good.] Well, they can leave, right?”

    There are good days and bad days as a teacher, but this was a good day. The true significance of these events was sinking in and having an impact on the students’ thinking. Tomorrow, we will watch more of The West and read a story entitled, “How Standing Bear Became a Person,” which is about the first time an Indian was recognized as having legal rights in 1879–ironically, the same year that Chief Joseph gave his speech.

    A Personal Meditation on Oppression in Schools Yesterday and Today

  • by John Potter

    LANIVET-PRIMARY-SCHOOL

    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.

    oppression1

    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.)

    Weather7

    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.

    Ownership-2

    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.

    Ownership-3

    Explaining..

    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.

    ownership-1

    Collaboration

    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.