Imaginations at Work

This blog will take me a little closer to home … into the eighth grade literature classes.  I am responsible for teaching one of those sections, and my colleague Susan Bauman teaches the other four.  Our collaboration contributes to so many best practices of good teaching.  Together we devise overall learning goals, create daily plans and activities, develop assessments, and look closely at our resources and materials.  Both of us routinely report that this collaboration keeps our teaching fresh.  We are living examples of two heads working better than one.

But this week’s blog is about the students and their unique ability to demonstrate and apply knowledge.

Since early September, we’ve been working with methods of characterization.  How do authors create characters that we so quickly take into our hearts?  How do they pull from thin air fictional people who can seem so real?  And how is it that we so quickly develop strong opinions – opinions worth arguing about – about these same characters?  We ask students to think about those Middle School literary lives that loom so large – Scout, Tom, Lennie – and delve into the text to discover the magic of creation.

For their final assessments, we asked students to use visual representations to demonstrate their knowledge of characterization and of character change.  Creativity and originality (and the WOW! factor) are at the top of the list of evaluation elements, and our students literally took this open-ended project and ran with it.

Projects that we have seen include technically adept videos, including one in which a student used his dog (a Corgi) to serve as a frightening wolf.  The dog actually did a good job.  Another student used friends outside the eighth grade to act out a story line of forgiveness and redemption. 

Power Points abound in this project, including the one entitled “The Story of an Ex-Shapist” that used a process very much like claymation to tell the parable of a triangle who excluded others based on differences and how he vows to change.   Several illustrated children’s books have demonstrated simple yet effective storytelling skills as well as artistic prowess.  And one three-dimensional story board creator combined a comic strip with a diorama, never losing sight of the concepts or the stated assignment.  Amazing!

Greenhill teachers often ask the right questions and then get out of the way, as our students consistently demonstrate the joy of learning coupled with a desire for excellence and a slightly off-beat and humorous view of the world.  This week, Susan Bauman and I have stood in appreciation as our students have found ways to show what they know.  It’s been great!

Pink Rules!

If you had been on campus last Friday, you would have seen a sea of pink. 

Greenhill School’s Pink Out Day was organized to send love and support to those in our community who are touched by breast cancer.  If you only counted the number of pink tutus, pink t-shirts, pink ties, and pink socks, you would know how successful the day was, but there was really so much more.

Our athletes, both boys and girls, incorporated pink into their competition uniforms.  Pink shoelaces, undershirts, tape, hair ribbons, and t-shirts were the order of the day for football, cross-country, volleyball, and field hockey athletes. 

The Upper School faculty appreciation lunch, hosted by the tenth grade parents, included pink meringues and pink flowers.  Our cafeteria staff sported pink aprons and toques, hand-dyed by our Sage Dining Services Director Ed Bogard.  Pink icing ribbons decorated the cookies for sale in the Upper School bake sale.

A group of faculty staff, and students joined the crowds at the Komen Race for the Cure on Saturday morning, wearing pink “Greenhill Cares” t-shirts.

But what made the day so moving and so reflective of our core value of compassion were the small conversations taking place all over campus.  One boy asked if he could take a pink ribbon he made in art class to his teacher, a breast cancer survivor.  Children made pink “cootie catchers” with words of encouragement and support inside each flap.  One fifth grader designed his family’s t-shirt for the race, honoring his grandmother.  And there were many discussions about the color pink itself … it’s not just for girls, is it?

The care and initiative taken by each member of the community and the desire to join together was inspirational.  On Friday, everyone one of us looked outside ourselves and rallied visible support for those touched by breast cancer.  Director of Service Learning Sally Rosenberg said it best:  Greenhill is truly a community that cares.


A recent Op-Ed piece in the New York Times by Thomas Friedman bemoans the fact that the United States is now ranked number 11 in Newsweek’s list of the 100 best countries in the world.  He couples that with a reference to “shrunken student motivation,” cited by Washington Post economics columnist Robert Samuelson as a cause for much of the failure of school reform measures and one reason for the low ranking. 

Although Friedman goes on to discuss his perception of a national “values breakdown,” his reference to motivation struck a chord with me.  It is hard to find a shortage of motivation at Greenhill.  Each day, I am impressed and gratified to find both students and faculty taking on new responsibilities, trying out new strategies or methods of teaching and learning, and looking for new ways to contribute to the community.  And motivation does not just pertain to the new and different.  Many members of our community are motivated to complete daily responsibilities at a consistently high level.  They get up every morning determined to make the very best of the day.

In his bestseller Drive, Daniel Pink cites three elements of motivation that work.  After he discredits external forces such as rewards or the carrot and the stick, he states that people are motivated by autonomy, mastery, and purpose.  These three qualities, at work or singly, maximize human potential and serve to trigger high level performance.

In Genie Burke’s Cold War History elective, all three of these motivators are at work.  Last summer, Genie received grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and Greenhill Trustee Grants to travel to Cambridge for the Churchill Seminar.  As she read and explored in the Churchill College archives, Genie developed a plan for her Greenhill students. She asked them to read several original documents relating to the early years of the Cold War and to prepare for a Socratic seminar based on their understanding, analysis, and synthesis of these documents.

I sat in the back of the class on seminar day and could barely keep from either applauding or joining in.  First, you need to know that Genie spoke not a word.  Her students, seated in a circle, began with questions and proceeded to express their positions based on the evidence.  Genie silently took notes as the conversation moved from student to student in an atmosphere of civil exchange.  The levels of questions contributed to an ever-deepening understanding of the issues and Churchill’s role on the world stage even after World War II.  The seminar was a powerful display of intellectual engagement.

What motivated this excellent moment in the life of Greenhill?  Grades, maybe, but I don’t think that is the whole story.  Aside from being motivated by autonomy, mastery, and purpose herself as she sought greater understanding and knowledge last summer, Genie provided her students with the opportunity to become experts, to direct the conversation themselves, and to connect history to world events outside the scope of their reading.  A perfect storm of motivation.  I hope Thomas Friedman reads this blog.

Students of Hope

In the midst of last week’s Homecoming excitement and activities, many of us took time out to consider the words of Coach Joe Ehrmann.  Coach Ehrmann spoke twice at Greenhill on Wednesday, once to the seventh and eighth grades and later in the evening to all Upper School athletes and coaches. 

Joe Ehrmann played in the NFL for 13 years, but it is his work after his football days that distinguishes him.  He has set out to transform the culture of sports and to redefine what it means to be a man and a woman in today’s world.  His words are powerful, personal, and inspirational, and our students responded enthusiastically.

Coach Ehrmann began by defining our students as symbols of hope.  He challenged our students not to let others define who and what they are.  He wants young people to discover how to be allies, how to support each other, and how to put aside personal gain for the greater good.  Standing together against social norms, he promotes transforming rather than conforming.  To him, all of life should be about relationships and how we serve humanity. 

Service includes, according to Coach Ehrmann, older students serving younger ones and that there is no dignity in embarrassing or hazing.

Coupled with personal stories and examples from the media, Coach Ehrmann’s words have sparked tremendous conversation on campus.  A quick debrief with eighth graders revealed that our kids listened and personalized his message.

One student said to me, “I think I need to define for myself what it means to be a man.  Coaches who tell me to be a certain way are wrong.  This is something I have to decide for myself.” 

Another girl remarked, “He really made sense when he talked about culture and the media making decisions for us.  That’s not who I really am.”

Values of respect and service permeated Coach Ehrmann’s words, and his innovative perspective combined with Greenhill’s commitment to both of these ideals gives students, teachers, and coaches a new approach to influencing young people and each other.  The conversation will continue.