Independent School Education Today

It is an exciting time to be a student. As we close out the second decade of the twentieth century, schools continue to focus on developing innovative ways to keep students engaged, curious, and passionate about learning. In the summer volume of Independent School, the National Association of Independent School’s quarterly magazine, the editors take on the subject, “What Independent School Education Looks Like Today”. Throughout the issue, they feature signature programs and state-of-the-art practices from independent schools around the country that are giving students choice and voice, building partnerships with public institutions, and re-imagining how students should be thinking about their learning and the future.
As educators learn more about the science of how our children learn, they are challenging the orthodoxy of school structures, building design, and even its very purpose. Whereas educators in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries sought to prepare students for the contemporary workforce, today’s teachers understand that our role is to develop the skills and habits in learners that produce agile, creative, and critical thinkers prepared to solve the big problems they will confront, even if they haven’t yet been identified. According to a recent report, an astounding 85% of jobs that will exist in 2030 — when our current First Grade students graduate from Bush, and our current Twelfth Grade students turn thirty — haven’t been invented yet (Emerging Technologies’, 2017).
This is the charge of teachers at Bush — to prepare students for a future that is unknowable yet filled with possibilities. Many of you heard this directly from our teachers at this week’s Middle School Back-to-School and Upper School Curriculum nights. They spoke clearly and persuasively about their passion for developing curricula that encourages students to ask questions and to challenge assumptions. They shared their pedagogical practices that require your children to work collaboratively — a skill that develops empathy and the ability to listen, digest, synthesize, and process data from multiple sources and perspectives. They shaped conversations around student voice, agency, and choice, which make learning not only more engaging, but relevant for them.
I was encouraged to read that some of the programs featured in the magazine are part of our curriculum and practices as well. For example, the magazine highlights Putney School’s (VT) movement to re-consider assessments and define characteristics of a Putney student (pgs. 87-91); Catlin Gabel’s (OR) place-based learning module called the PLACE program—an inspiration for Bush’s Methow Campus (pgs. 110-111); and The Willow Community School’s (CA) effort to implement the RULER program within their school community (pgs. 81-85). These examples focus on areas The Bush School has championed for years—authentic assessment and engaged learning, education outside of the classroom and in partnership with the community, and recognizing emotions as an integral part of how students learn. I appreciate that we are not only responding to these positive trends in independent school education, but finding areas to lead.
At tonight’s Lower School Curriculum night — and throughout the remainder of the year — parents will have an opportunity to hear about how science, research, play, and passion influence our teachers’ work and your children’s learning. They may not know what big problems will lie ahead for them, but Bush graduates will be prepared to solve them.
It’s a great time to be a student, and a great day to be a Blazer!
Sincerely,
Percy L. Abram, Ph.D.
Head of School

Convocation 2018: Beauty

Welcome. It’s so amazing to see your beautiful faces here this morning.

I am certain that many parents/guardians are as happy we the we are to welcome your children back to school. It is an exciting time for us—full of hope, positivity, and optimism.

In preparing this year’s speech, I reflected on the comments of a starry-eyed kindergartner after his first convocation last year. I walked up to him and his mother at the end of the day and asked him how his first day of school was, and he looked at me with the ebullient energy only a five-year old can emitand barely containing himself—he said AWESOME. So I pressed and asked “And how did you like Convocation?” His smile slowly receded and he looked up at his mother and she nodded…and he turned to me and said…”I thought there’d be more DANCING.” So, I took note. That comes later.

There is something refreshing in a child’s candor and honesty, and the powerfully optimistic belief that anything is possible—like dancing at convocation—it is beautiful.

I began writing this speech a fortnight and four days ago and I wondered how I might incorporate the this year’s theme—BEAUTY—into my remarks. Anyone who knows me well, knows that when I seek inspiration, I look to nature. So, I set out for an early morning hike, got dressed—pulling one boot up, then the other boot up…I knew I would find the answer in the trails of Helliwell Provincial Park.

After I returned I relaxed with a cup of coffee and book. I was reading Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin. Baldwin is my favorite author, and I have been revisiting his work this summer. I love his confident voice, his use of words, and above all his hopefulness and belief in the power of love. This despite a difficult childhood and strained relationship with his father.

Baldwin was born August 2, 1924, in Harlem, New York to a young single mother, Emma Jones, who married a Baptist minister named David Baldwin when James was three years old. As a child, James Baldwin was teased and insulted not only from people within his neighborhood, but from his father as well. In an interview Baldwin recalled, “He said that I was the ugliest child he’d ever seen. He told me that his whole life and I BELIEVED HIM. And I’d accepted that nobody would ever love me.”

Boys called him frog eyes.

Girls mocked the way he walked.

He remembers Grandmothers on his block commenting “That sure is a sorry little boy.”

His mother was different. From his mother, James got the sense that he was beautiful in an inner way. She knew that beauty came from the inside and that true beauty came from acts of kindness, of service, of love. She was particular about the words that young Jimmy and his siblings spoke, and the things that they said, and what it said about them. And she encouraged her son to write, to use to his words to spread love at a level that would consume hate and anger.

For young, James—“frog-eyed”, black, gay man—growing up in the first half of the twentieth century, life was hard. HIS unique ability to see the truth of the world around him…coupled with his intellect, creativity and ethic helped him navigate his course…

One of his quotes from the book A Fire Next Time stays with me…

“Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within….” He goes on, “…I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense BUT as a state of being, or a state of grace – not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.”

He experienced the world differently than others and noticed that all of us wear masks, because we’ve been conditioned into believing that they give us our beauty. But in fact, they conceal it..

These are the masks that tell us that we’re perfect, invincible, courageous, confident, powerful, omnipotent,

Masks that fool others into believing that we didn’t study for that test we just aced. That we were born great athletes, great musicians, technicians, or stylish dressers. We walk around with these masks because we’re scared we cannot live without them. But they hide the truth about us, our real, true beauty. That we have:

  • Frog noses
  • Bruised hearts
  • We lisp, and limp
  • We stutter, and speak too fast or too slowly
  • We’re shy, and can be shallow
  • We’re weak and sometimes petty
  • We’re pimple faced and awkward
  • Our clothes hang too loosely, or too tight
  • Our voices crack
  • We strike out, we shoot airballs
  • We fall in front of our peers, we fail big exams
  • We forget lines or draw outside of them
  • We cry in front of our friends, big sad ugly tears that worry the ones around us
  • We’re scared to enter a room, worried about what people around us will think… or say

Our beauty comes from recognizing our imperfections.

I would like to share with you “Beauty XXV”, a poem by Khalil Gibran Lebanese poet who died when James was only seven.

And a poet said, ‘Speak to us of Beauty.’

And beauty is not a need but an ecstasy.
It is not a mouth thirsting nor an empty hand stretched forth,
But rather a heart enflamed and a soul enchanted.
People of Orphalese, beauty is life when life unveils her holy face.
But you are life and you are the veil.
Beauty is eternity gazing at itself in a mirror.
But you are eternity and you are the mirror

So each morning, look in that mirror—see yourself with all of your imperfections, idiosyncrasies, insecurities, and doubts—and tell yourself. I am beautiful.