Conversations in Education

From teacher book groups to conversations in the faculty lounge, Prep faculty and administrators think a lot about how we support students. Each month in 2017-18, we are featuring a piece by a Prep faculty member or administrator that gives a slice of life at Prep. If you would like to share your ideas, feel free to comment on an individual post or contact Dean of Studies Sarah Cooper.

From teacher book groups to conversations in the faculty lounge, Prep faculty read and talk a lot about education. Each month we highlight a few memorable pieces or videos. Our goal is to make the process of parenting, learning and living a little saner, to put things a little more in perspective. These articles will be chosen by Prep teachers and administrators.  If you want to share your ideas, feel free to comment on an individual post or contact Dean of Studies Sarah Cooper.

6 Ways to Enjoy Back-to-School Night

By Sarah Cooper

Back to School Night has often felt to me like giving a backstage tour during a play. The students are in the wings for the moment, and you as parents get to see what makes the day-to-day classroom tick.

Having been to my share of back-to-school nights as a teacher and a parent, I’ve also seen the evening from the other side. It is such a pleasure to watch enthusiastic teachers explain their craft.

On that note, here are some tips for enjoying the night as much as possible. Curtain up!

Look for moments to connect with your kid.

If you can remember just one personal or professional detail about each teacher’s class and then bring it up during the following week or month with your student, you’ll create a pathway into any school subject, even if your child isn’t prone to giving a lot of details (and many aren’t). In the past I’ve asked my own kids about a teacher’s Star Wars poster, or NASA bumper sticker, as a way into finding out about a teacher’s passions.

Listen for values.

Many teachers at Prep discuss the school’s mission statement, vision statement and honor code with their students at the beginning of the year. Consider what your student will learn from all these different teachers in terms of character and values, not just academics.

Imagine moments of engagement during the school day.

While sitting in each desk, put yourself into your student’s head: How might he feel when he’s in class? What would pique her interest in this teacher’s presentation style? Watching teachers teach is special because you can see what lights them up. And if you were especially impressed by something a teacher said, feel free to say so afterward or send an email. We teach because we love it, but a specific, heartfelt comment can add a spark to our day.

Introduce yourself.

Often we can see a family resemblance between you and your child, but sometimes amid the buzz we can’t remember the wonderful adolescent you belong to, even if we’ve met before. Please say a brief hello coming in or out, and follow up with an email or phone call if you want to continue the conversation. We’re always happy to learn more about you and your family.  

Consider what goes into this night.

Performing five times, ten minutes each, to an audience of thoughtful parents can daunt even the most seasoned teacher. Crack a smile once in a while if there's something funny or appealing—the teacher will thank you for it!

Enjoy this whirlwind tour.

Middle and high school go all too fast. Back to School Night at Prep is a chance to see some of the best teachers anywhere spin their tales and hook you in. Your kids get to be here every day. You get one night a year. Please, sit back and enjoy!

Posted by rfeliciano on Monday September 18, 2017
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Advising: The Answer to Your Ninth Grader’s Questions

By Barrett Jamison

Ninth grade, the year that students begin their high school journey, is marked by two consistent themes: transition and possibility. These two themes have a common consequence: questions—and lots of them. A common list of questions asked by 9th graders before the end of third period on their second day of school might look something like this…

Should I play a high school sport? Or two? Or three? Should I go out for the play? Can I play a sport and be in the play? What club should I join? Can I start my own club? How will I make friends with all of these new students who are joining my class? How will I get to know all of these students that have been friends since 7th grade? How do I organize my binder? Do I need a binder? What should I wear to Homecoming? Should I ask someone to Homecoming or go in a group? How do I study for exams? Should I do community service? What are ACL, SCAC, JPD, Senior Leaders, Morning Meeting and Peer Counseling? Where do I check in during my free period? Do I even have to check in? What is for lunch today? How do I access my Prep email? What databases does our library have? Should I bring a laptop to class? Can I check out a laptop from the library? What is the policy on chewing gum in class? Can I use my cell phone at school? How do I write a research paper? How do I balance my time? What is Conduct Review? What time does the library close? What is the Pythagorean Theorem?

Enter 9th grade advising, a weekly moment of calm, safety and friendship. It is an emotional anchor on this tumultuous journey of transition and possibility that we call 9th grade. 

The 9th grade advising program has a simple structure. Students are divided by gender into groups of about eight, with a faculty member as their advisor. The groups meet every Friday for a class period. A weekly curriculum includes topics such as goal setting, study skills, sex education, time management and holiday traditions. 

But it isn’t the curriculum that is most important. What matters most are the relationships that are built into this weekly pause: the relationships built among students, and also between faculty and students. These relationships allow students to ask the questions that have been plaguing them since last week or since last period. These relationships allow them to share their concerns and worries. These relationships allow them to brainstorm solutions to their problems and to celebrate their successes. These relationships help create the sense of community that defines the Prep experience.

You may wonder what the 9th graders think about advising. I asked students in my last geometry class of the day to tell me, and this is what they said…

“Advising is a place I can talk openly about what I’m feeling about issues.”

“Now I have another adult on campus that I can go to for help.”

“In advising I get to talk to people I wouldn’t normally run into.” 

“The most valuable part of advising was getting to know a teacher I wouldn’t otherwise have known.”

“Advising was just what I needed on Fridays. A place where I didn’t feel stressed, and I could talk about my week.” 

“Don’t forget the snacks!”

So if your 9th grader comes home distraught and worried because they couldn’t get their locker open or didn’t know who to ask for help writing a lab report, you know what to do. Smile, offer a hug and a snack (because for some reason part of the solution to every problem for a 9th grader involves a snack) and tell them to bring up their concerns on Friday at advising. Or better yet, tell them to find their advisor tomorrow!

Barrett Jamison is the Dean of Student Life and the 9th Grade Dean.

Posted by rfeliciano on Wednesday May 17, 2017
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Playing with STEAM

By Nick Ponticello

Teenagers and power tools. Sounds like an explosive combination, right? Nevertheless, teaching students to use power tools is exactly what we are trying to do with Prep’s STEAM program, which began in August 2015. STEAM (an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) is all about getting your hands dirty: building things, growing things, trying things, retrying things. STEAM thinking is about the process more than the product—about design, engineering, failure and redesign. Often we refer to this constant reworking of ideas as an iterative process: tinkering with something until it works. 

This concept of iteration could not have been more evident last December when we held our first woodworking workshop at Prep. A dozen students showed up during a Thursday community block to learn how to craft with wood. They started with a flat piece of plywood and were told to design a structure—a birdhouse, for example—that they could make using only the most basic of tools. The students started with rulers and pencils, tracing out their designs before cutting into the wood. Once they had successfully completed the design phase, they picked up handsaws, buzzsaws and wood glue to bring their designs to life.

Don’t worry—obviously we didn’t just let the kids pick up buzzsaws and go at it. Six adults on hand, hailing from departments as varied as Spanish and Drama, helped guide the activity. But even for some of the adults, this was a novel experience.

To emphasize how much STEAM thinking values process over product, we can look to the workshop’s end results. Only one student produced a final, working product: a birdhouse. Everyone else came away with crumbling structures, a pile of jagged wood or some combination of the two.

But were the students discouraged? No! The entire philosophy behind STEAM thinking is to teach students how to solve a problem. And there is no better way to do it than to let them loose on a project with minimal instruction (but ample supervision) and see how they tackle roadblocks on their own.

The STEAM program has been building steam (haha) for nearly two years now. A dedicated cohort of faculty members meets once a month to discuss engineering, art and design in the classroom, seizing on interdisciplinary connections. These teachers have learned, for example, how to use Prep’s 3D printers and how to design three-dimensional objects using online software called TinkerCad. They have participated in National Coding Week by getting, for some, their first taste of “for loops” and “if/then” statements. They have even worked with rudimentary circuit boards to convince works of art to talk or bark. 

What do we really do at these meetings? I like to think we play around with stuff.

And we want our students to play around with stuff, too. Hence woodworking, just one of many workshops designed to get kids thinking more about STEAM. We have also hosted our students on the 3D printers, taught them to design objects in TinkerCad, got them thinking about the anatomy of bugs through drawing, had them sew light-up circuits into bracelets and taught them how to photograph microscopic images.

And, while we’ve also embedded STEAM formally into the curriculum in many ways, from algorithmic thinking classes to interdisciplinary projects, what makes the activities listed above so special is that they are entirely voluntary. During community blocks, students have the choice to spend their time in a variety of ways. But lo and behold, students always materialize in the science lab or the art studio to play around with stuff and ideally learn something along the way, too. 

Nick Ponticello teaches Calculus and is Prep’s STEAM Coordinator. 

Posted by rfeliciano on Thursday April 13, 2017
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