Another New Year

Happy New Year. No doubt, you are thinking about the arrival of 2011 in just a few weeks. The New Year traditionally signals a fresh start with new plans and goals and heightened expectations for health and happiness. But at Greenhill, the New Year comes twice a year – when the school year begins in late August and then again in January. Think of the opportunity we have!

Recall those sweltering late summer days when we welcomed families to the start of a new school year. Everything’s new – schedules, teachers, classes, books, and more. For many entering our community for the first time, newness is the overwhelming emotion. The buildings on campus buzz with excitement. After a summer of growth, it is time to step up to the next grade level or it is time to welcome a new crop of smiling faces. Our faculty have hopes for their new charges, and they meticulously plan the learning year so that growth and progress unfold. Many teachers ask their students to write and reflect on personal goals.

Setting goals in August is fairly standard practice. After all, a new school year translates into the opportunity to fix some old habits and to develop some new productive ones, all under the guidance of new and enthusiastic adults. Faculty and staff have their own goals that reflect teaching practice or personal growth. The cycle of the late-August fresh start is ingrained in many of us.

But I would argue that the other New Year – the one where the calendar actually changes – is a second opportunity. Ninth grade English teacher Joel Garza recently asked his students to speak for two minutes on what they’ve learned in the course and what learning plans they have for themselves moving into 2011. One student likened her improvement in writing to the characters of the texts, and her resolve to continue with this new self-awareness was inspirational.

The half-way point of the school year comes at a perfect time for reflection. Many teachers offer their students reflection time throughout the learning year as well. What did I learn? What else could we have tried? How does this knowledge apply to me? As students pause to mull over these prompts, real learning takes place. Using the occasion of the New Year not only to turn over a new leaf but also to examine progress seems like the perfect use of the calendar change.

One teacher recently told me that she is a “cogitator” and that she likes to take the time to slowly consider all sides of the issue. The skill of reflection must be encouraged and nurtured. It is tied to self-awareness, authentic learning, and problem-solving – all critical to 21st century success.

As the calendar changes, let’s take the opportunity of the new year to recalibrate those hopes, dreams, and plans established in August. And Happy New Year #2 to all!

Coming to America

In her weekly update to parents, third grade Humanities teacher Paula Hall described the simulation activity that ended their study of “The Big Wave” of immigration that lasted from the late 1800s through the closing of Ellis Island in 1954.

All Aboard!  The S.S. Greenhill set out for the shores of New York, and after a long and tiresome voyage across the Atlantic, cases of conjunctivitis among the passengers, and rats in steerage class, the steamship arrived safe and sound.  Of course, the first class passengers enjoyed quite comfortable accommodations of blankets, cookies, and lemonade to make the journey a positive one.

But for the passengers in steerage class, the experience was quite different …

By the end of the simulation, all of the students had experienced both environments.  Differences in nourishment, space, light, and comfort defined the immigrant journey.  The children wrote about their reactions to the division of first class and steerage passengers.  They learned that even the Statue of Liberty welcoming them to New York harbor did not signal the end of their worries and challenges. 

Throughout their study of immigration, the timelines and the statistics, the students sought to answer the overarching question, “Why did people come to America?”  Their exploration of the topic touched on those who were forced to come as well as those who migrated for better living conditions and those who risked all for opportunity. 

With each vintage photograph, each personal tale, and each read-aloud, the third graders prepared to step into the immigrants’ shoes.  They began to understand the fear of the unknown and the anxiety experienced by their forebears.  They developed the essential quality of empathy. 

The third grade team sought to document this empathy and understanding in a unique way.  Professionally photographing each third grader costumed as an immigrant child has been a culminating activity of the unit for several years, but only recently has the third grade team partnered with Frank Lopez’s AP Photography class to take the photographs. 

As you see, the combination of photographic skill and the understanding of the immigrant experience have resulted in stunning evidence of learning.  As the students donned historically accurate caps or shawls, they went back in time.  And their student photographers joined them in their journey.  

These photographs were taken by seniors Jenny Wiseman, Ryan Kline, and Margot Beauchamp.  Their photographs of third grade students/immigrants will be included in their Advanced Placement portfolios.  The advantages of teaching and learning across divisions and grade levels are crystal clear.

Now you can appreciate these photographs with both your eyes and your heart.