I hope you had a wonderful 4th of July and are enjoying your summer. It is certainly flying by. One of the things I really value about the summer is that the slower pace (it’s crazy how quiet it currently is at school!) allows me some time to take a few steps back and think about the big picture of our school. I usually have some more time to read books and articles, to connect with colleagues doing similar work at other institutions, and to ruminate on how best to support our faculty and kids.
This week, it’s especially quiet for me because both of my kids are away from home. While my husband and I were looking forward to this week, we are finding ourselves at a bit of a loss without our kids around. But, I feel very strongly that these experiences away from home are crucial in our kids’ development. The amount I see them grow in their short time away each summer always amazes me. When they can’t call me the second something goes wrong, and when they have to work through issues on their own, they may find themselves uncomfortable, but this discomfort pushes them to work towards solutions. And when they successfully solve a problem, the reward is so much sweeter for having figured it out on their own.
A recent article in Psychology Today talks about the value of summer camps for this very reason. I enjoyed the article tremendously, partly because it supports a value about which I feel strongly. But there was something else in the article that struck me and that I have now been thinking about a lot. The article references another article by David Brooks that was in the New York Times in April. In this article, Brooks talks about a summer camp where he worked years ago, and what a strong mark the camp left on him. He then goes on to say that there are two types of institutions: thick and thin. Thick institutions leave their mark, whereas you might pass through a thin institution with little memory of the experience.
He goes on to talk about some of the things that make thick institutions thick. My favorite part of his description is when he says that a thick institution “engages the whole person: head, hands, heart and soul.” This is such a wonderful way to think about those institutions in our lives that have truly made their mark upon us. And it’s a wonderful way for me to think about how we do this at Dawson.
The first part is the easiest. Because we are, first and foremost, an academic institution, students’ heads are always at the forefront of our minds as we plan. We ask ourselves how students learn best, and we create curriculum and assessments that we hope will engage our students’ minds in new and creative ways. Every time I visit classrooms, I am amazed at the high level of engagement I see. Whether I’m helping the second graders use their math skills to create a budget for a party, participating in kindergarten’s exploration of Japan, or watching an intense debate over civil rights in an 8th grade history class, I am always in for a treat and am continually impressed with the creative ways our teachers engage students.
This leads to the next part of Brooks’ quote: the hands. We have known for many years that students learn more by doing, and the importance of hands-on learning has been clear for some time. Our K-6 math program, Math in Focus, emphasizes the value of students first showing their understanding using manipulatives, then demonstrating understanding pictorially, and finally using an algorithm. Students who are able to do this develop a much deeper understanding of how math works than those students who have simply memorized times tables and formulas. And this understanding becomes crucial as the math becomes more complicated.
We see students doing hands-on work in all of their classes, of course. Last year, seventh graders worked together in teams during English class to come to a consensus on how to solve a problem. They did this during their reading of Twelve Angry Men to give them a deeper understanding of what it would be like to be on a jury. Our first graders raised money through a bake sale and then used the money they made to go shopping at King Sooper’s for food to donate to Sister Carmen. And our sixth graders worked on the ultimate hands-on project, designing Rube Goldberg machines. There are hundreds of other examples I could provide, but suffice it to say that when I visit classes, very rarely do a see I room where the teacher is standing or sitting in front and doing all of the talking while students sit idly by. No, our teachers are engaging our students’ minds by asking them to jump right in and get their hands dirty (metaphorically but sometimes literally as well!).
Now we come to the next part of the quote: the heart. Frankly, this is why I went into teaching, and I think it’s almost impossible to engage students’ heads and hands without first engaging their hearts. When you think back to your own days as a student, what are the classes you remember? More likely than not, the classes that made a difference for you were taught by the teachers with whom you made a connection. And this is where the art of good teaching really comes into play. There is no one right way to connect with students, and yet great teachers figure it out. Whether it’s taking a moment after class to check in with someone who seems sad or cheering a team on during a game, our teachers find ways to reach out to students and show them that they care. Conversations in advisories and classes allow students the chance to explore their values and discuss what’s important to them. The final project in 8th grade is a “This I Believe” essay, an opportunity for students to demonstrate how they came to be where they are in terms of their beliefs and values.
The final part of the quote talks about engaging souls. This, to me, is the thing that ties everything else together. When we focus on the whole child – not just academics, or athletics, or even social emotional learning – we work to know them and understand them. And this leads to connections that bind us all together and make us proud to be part of the same community. Brooks talks about how thin institutions think horizontally – people focus on what they can get out the relationship – whereas thick institutions think vertically – people focus on working together to “serve the same higher good.” Each year, as I sit with faculty at the Lower School Closing Ceremony, Middle School Moving Up Day, and Graduation, I am reminded of this feeling. As we see our students develop into strong, articulate, passionate individuals, we collectively beam, and we feel proud to be a part of our thick institution.
If you’d like to read either of the articles mentioned, click here:
Please enjoy the summer, and I’ll see you in August!