Family Conferences, Greenhill Style

It happens several times each year. Students, teachers, and parents pause to reflect. How is the year going? What would you like to share? Can we set some goals for the next trimester? Let’s look ahead at next year’s schedule. Let’s celebrate your progress.

At Greenhill, we regularly schedule days devoted to student – parent – teacher conferences. For some families new to the community, there is an element of surprise that students are included in these meetings. It is our philosophy, though, that students of all ages play a role in their own learning, and we gladly facilitate the opportunity to collaborate and communicate.

Just before Spring Break, I visited with both parents and students about their conference experiences. One mom of twin first graders stated, “They are so excited to show me their work and so proud to have us in their classrooms.” Students may start out a little shy with the spotlight shining so brightly, but Megan read a story that she wrote entitled “The Mint Girl,” and Allie read “The Little Red Hen” aloud to her parents. Their confidence and comfort grew from the positive conference experience.

Two third grade girls, Emma and Grace, love to hear all the good things said about them. Grace said that the adults can get “talkative,” but she really enjoys showing off her original writing. Skilled faculty facilitate these meetings, gathering impressions from other teachers, assembling work to be shared, and identifying the high points that must be covered. Despite all the “talkative” adults, though, the students in Lower School see the conference as a positive celebration of all they are doing.

The older the children get, the more significant a role they play in their own conferences. Middle School students set goals in collaboration with their parents and advisors and develop the clear-eyed ability to self-assess without worry. Students often lead the conferences themselves, providing experience as a self-advocate and leader. Advisors use their understanding of the whole child to determine a specific course of action for the coming months and then follow up with both support and direction.

Because Upper School students retain the same advisor for four years, the ability to monitor growth over time and close advisee/advisor relationships are the norms. Conference topics can range from adjusting to high school as a ninth grader to making the very most of the senior year experience as a twelfth grader. The advisor functions as advocate and guide throughout the student’s time in Upper School, and close, family bonds are created within the advisory groups. Those final advisory photos snapped just before graduation at the Meyerson are precious mementos indeed.

Regularly scheduled conferences function as just one element of frequent communication between home and school. Conferences provide the opportunity for all of the important adults in the student’s life to be on the same page, to join together in guiding and encouraging that student through the school experience. And the student understands yet again that he or she is known and cared for and supported here at Greenhill.

Does art need a point?

Our guest blogger this week is Kerry Shea, Director of Marketing and Communications. Kerry visited Becky Daniels’ Upper School Art History class and came away with great admiration for our students and their ability to tackle ambiguous and challenging ideas.

“Does art need a point?” Olivia asked in the middle of a thought provoking discussion in Becky Daniel’s Art History class this week. Ms. Daniels asked students to bring in a piece that is generally accepted as art, but he or she does not think is art. Students reviewed each work, debated if it qualified as art, and explored the broader question of how to define art.

The conversation started with a lively discussion of Barnet Newman’s Onement 1. The simple, modern painting, with two brown rectangles and an orange line through the middle, had students talking about the skill required to create art. To one student, the painting did not seem to take much skill at all, but another pointed out that creating abstract paintings is harder than it appears. Students analyzed the painting in historical context, and they made connections to poetry they read in other classes.

Conversation transitioned to a review of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain. The discussion mirrored the debate that rocked the art world in 1917 when Duchamp unveiled his urinal as a fountain. Are found objects art? Are everyday objects art? If everyday objects are art, then what is considered not art? If artwork forces you to look at something in a new way, is it art?

Students continued to analyze the Cloaca, a digestive machine created by Delvoye, which prompted a discussion about the intersection of science and art. A review of Roy Lichtenstein’s enlargements of comic strip elements forced students to think about plagiarism and art. If the image is the same, but a different size, is it art?

By the end of class, students had no clear, easy answers. What they did have were a series of positions about the definition of art and a thought process to analyze and create their own definitions of art.

As the Director of Marketing and Communications, I love the fact that I have the opportunity to sit in such amazing classes. What I learned from my visit to Ms. Daniel’s class is that not only are our students well prepared to handle any seminar in college, they are also prepared to actively participate and engage with the world around them.

Learning Through Service

From Operation Kindness in the north to the North Texas Food Bank in the south, a distance of 25 miles, Upper School volunteers blanketed the Metroplex last week for the annual Community Service Day. From Shoes for Orphan Souls in the east 18 miles away to the Citizens Development Center in the west, Greenhill volunteers impacted the everyday lives of our most vulnerable citizens. Seventeen agencies were served by 503 faculty, students, and administrators. At the average value volunteer hour of $21.47, that makes $53,997 returned to the Dallas community. At the heart of the logistics of this massive undertaking was Sally Rosenberg, Director of Service Learning and Community Service. Sally helped to identify guest bloggers this week who will share their impressions of the day from their very different perspectives. First, Joel Garza, Upper School English teacher, takes us inside the project at Catholic Charities:

Looking back at the students on the bus ride home, I was amazed at how the service project seemed to give them more energy than they brought in the morning. Michael Manes, Wayne Hines, and I led nineteen Greenhill Upper School students to Catholic Charities to paint a mural. Junior Ivan Kumamoto designed an imaginative and colorful scene depicting the power of reading and the imagination. In addition to the simple joy of working together, the students delighted in remembering a time when reading was fun, when you wouldn’t think about going to bed before reading a book with your family.

Veteran faculty member Mary Tapia traveled to the Jubilee Center:

When assessing the success of Community Service Day, one could count how many students participated at how many agencies for how many hours. However, when I think of Community Service Day, I don’t think in those terms. I think more in terms of the intangible lessons I have learned both about my Community and about myself over the years. Every time I have participated has been a little different, even on those occasions when I have returned to the same location because every group of students is different and because the conditions change from year to year. This year I was privileged to go to Jubilee Park with Frank Lopez, David Lui, and a group of eleven students. Although I was born and raised in Dallas, and although I have lived here for the last 27 years, I was completely unaware of the way in which this neighborhood close to Fair Park has been revitalized over the last five years or so. It was amazing to see how Jubilee has been transformed from a place with high crime rate in which most people would not want to live into a caring community of neighbors and volunteers. Our group participated by working one on one in the free ESL classes, we worked in the community garden, and we helped organize the library. At the end of the day, we came back home with smiles on our faces and a feeling that we would happily return to Jubilee again. One student picked up a brochure about helping out with Jubilee’s summer program, and I am going to arrange for my Spanish students to communicate via Skype with the ESL students at Jubilee. I am extremely proud to work in a school where we are encouraged to interrupt our regular daily activities and go out into the community to help others. Thanks to Sally Rosenberg for making this happen year after year!

Eve Hill-Agnus, in her first year as a member of the English Department, wrote about her day at The Stewpot:

On Community Service Day, I was part of a group that volunteered at the Stewpot, a center that supports the homeless in Dallas. We got the service part down. We formed a bustling assembly line that, in a single hour, stuffed 300 backpacks with toiletries, creating “gift-bags” that would be distributed at an upcoming event for the homeless. At lunch, we served 600 trays of macaroni salad and sandwiches and canned fruit at The Bridge nearby. When we left, the Stewpot’s volunteer coordinator, a woman with more energy than any of us, thanked us warmly. And of course we hope our service mattered in some way.

But it’s not what we did that was most striking for me. Our time at the Stewpot plunged us into a community made up of homeless clients who have, in some cases, known each other for more years than our students have been alive—and veteran volunteers who have done much more than we could on a single day of service. In a place that’s all about transience, I was struck by all the evidence of continuity.

What crystallized this most was the service we attended for the homeless who have passed away in the last year. The coinciding of these two annual events—their event of community, our event of service—was pure chance. We were outsiders, listening to the reading of names we couldn’t recognize, in an event marked by the specialness of ritual and ceremony. It was also unfolding in the midst of ordinary life. In one corner, a sleeping man snored loudly. In another corner, one man gave another a haircut, his electric razor buzzing softly through the service’s songs and speeches. This was all part of the picture. The whole scene took place in the Stewpot’s main room, whose walls are lined with charcoal drawings of the Stewpot homeless—fifty-two faces captured by the deft hand of a volunteer who came every week for a year and drew a different portrait each visit. I know a number of students left with the intention of returning later on their own to volunteer. I wonder if it’s the nature of the service that appealed to them, or the sense of community—or something else entirely.

Mary and Eve hit upon one of the enduring results of Community Service Day – the opportunity to forge long-lasting bonds with the agencies and their clients. Our students and faculty put real muscle behind their efforts of Community Service Day and can point at many, many completed jobs. But, remember, the heart is a muscle too.

World Wide Grads

Department of Defense contractor, Environmental Protection Agency staffer, Congressional scheduler and intern. Government consultant, entrepreneur, high school English teacher, journalist. Undergraduate, attorney, aspiring doctor, Obama advisor. All of these professions and many more were represented at the On the Road Alumni Reunion in Washington, D.C. last week.

What does Greenhill look like in the real world? How do our graduates, removed from their days on the Hill by at least four years, take on the challenges of productive, fulfilling employment? Could there be common themes connecting these disparate professions?

Based on the many conversations I had with the group gathered for the DC reunion last Thursday, Greenhill grads are passionate about what they do. Lauren White ‘05, who will enroll in medical school in the fall, has used hospital work to prepare for her medical studies. Melanie Sharry ‘05 has learned exactly how to keep Congressman Lloyd Doggett’s calendar as she monitors access to the busy congressman. Mel will pursue her interest in government in a graduate program in the fall. Carrie Palmer ’06 describes herself as “liking to be in the thick of things” at her state and local government consulting firm. She, too, plans graduate studies. Lauren, Mel, and Carrie speak of their plans with eloquence and purpose and enthusiasm.

Austin Holtsclaw ’02 provides the military with technology that is efficient and essential to completion of assigned duties. Jeremy Jacobs ’02 covers the workings of the legislative process. Carey Fitzmaurice ’86 writes policy for the EPA while simultaneously founding a non-profit to fight ovarian cancer entitled Teal Toes. Their days are filled with significant, fulfilling work.

Michael Davis ’84, Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Department of Labor, connects his commitment to service to his father and his academic preparation for higher education to his experience at Greenhill. Michael states that his father believed that “the true measure of the man is how he uses his platform to create opportunities for others.” Michael’s educational, civic, and government service translates this legacy into measurable impact on the lives of others. His was only one of the many voices in the room seeking to bring change to society.

Our nation’s capital may be the ideal landing spot for Greenhill graduates with a passion for service, a desire to engage in purposeful work, and a need to truly be in the thick of things. Spending the evening with these alums evoked real pride in how Greenhill is represented out in the world. Our graduates seem to enthusiastically seek challenges for their life’s work. Their optimistic and eloquent approach is cause for celebration. And, truly, they have taken Greenhill’s pursuit of excellence and made it their own.