The Finish Line Approaches

The phrase “limping to the finish line” might have some glory when it pertains to the completion of a marathon. The phrase connotes an injured, gritty runner marshalling every ounce of will to make it to the end of a 26.2 mile course. When it comes to the school year, however, it is much better to finish strong.

Finishing well is an art, and one that we want to both encourage and model here at Greenhill. In the last several days, I have observed numerous examples of finishing strong.

Four members of the Class of 2011 completed Senior Capstone projects, and their culminating presentations reflected the work of a year. Katrina Thompson’s informal reading of her original play, Jeremy Cain’s visual and analytical display, Eriq Robinson’s original work of music and poetry, and Ryan Kline’s short film have amazed and delighted their peers and teachers. All four have taken the opportunity to delve into areas of passionate interest. Guided by the advice of their mentors, but mostly by their own will, these soon-to-be-graduates completed independent, intense projects that clearly prepare them for college-level work. They are all examples of finishing well.

Finishing well can take the form of a celebration of learning. Fourth graders traveled to Austin to meet our state’s leaders as a culminating Lower School experience. Their year-long thematic focus on leadership took on practical applications when they met elected officials and toured the State Capitol.

Around campus, I observed eighth graders rehearsing scenes from Romeo and Juliet. Enthusiastic swordplay and the Bard’s enduring words echoed throughout the Quad. Also enjoying the weather were Upper School students preparing for exams, huddled around laptops and consulting one another.

Farewell picnics offer our Lower School children and their parents time to celebrate their year together and all that they have learned. And final Lower School family conferences speak to a year of growth and learning with an anticipatory peek at the year to come. Both students and parents leave with feelings of accomplishment.

As I travel the campus, energy is high, smiles are bright, and feelings of satisfaction abound. No one here seems to be limping to the finish line. Summer will be the perfect time to reflect on all that happened in 2010-11. The Greenhill community won’t be slowing down until then.

Visiting Artists Enrich Learning

On May 6, 2011, artist Matthew Sontheimer visited Greenhill’s Lower School. Sontheimer, known for his drawing and etching, guest-taught each first grade class. Sitting at a large table, surrounded by eager students, he showed them how to use the shapes formed by the letters in their names to create a unique piece of art. By the end of class, each student had used pencil drawing, tracing and coloring to create a completed work to take home.

Through Sontheimer’s simple exercise, students learned valuable lessons about line, form and color. The students’ eyes glimmered as they learned how drawing a line across the two points of a capital M created a completely new shape. You could visibly see each student internalize Sontheimer’s lessons.

Sontheimer is just one of the many artists that visit the Greenhill campus each year through the generosity of the school’s Cultural Arts Committee, a parent-driven organization dedicated to enriching education through the arts. In the 2010-11 school year, Trenton Doyle Hancock, well-know artist of prints, drawings, and college, visited campus and worked with Upper School students. In January, Michael Albee, a jazz choreographer, worked with the Greenhill Dance Company. Bruce Goldstone, an educational author, taught students how to quickly estimate large numbers.

These guest artists enhance the education experience, not only by sharing new skills, or providing a different perspective from the everyday teacher, but they also act as an inspiration to the students. Each time a guest artist visits, students learn about a possible career opportunity. They learn that by dedicating time to a craft, you will be successful. Because of their own persistence, development, and love of art, three Greenhill seniors will be attending art-specific colleges in the fall: Maryland Institute College of Art, Savannah College of Art and Design, and Parsons: The New School for Design.

Visiting guests, whether artists, academics, or athletes, have a profound impact on the students. Greenhill is lucky that so many are able to visit each year.

History Alive

Assessments of learning can take all forms. We are all familiar with the endless bubbles of standardized tests, but standardized tests do not tell the story of the frequent and creative ways which we assess learning here at Greenhill. Lower school teachers often record anecdotal notes that contribute to a record of a child’s learning progress. Every time a student speaks up in a class discussion, the teacher makes a mental note and checks both understanding and thought process. Eighth graders perform scenes from Romeo and Juliet that demonstrate understanding of Shakespeare’s characters, plot, and language.

Eighth grade French and Spanish teacher Claudia Loewenstein has developed digital portfolios for her students that monitor progress and incorporate both visual and audio evidence of learning. These portfolios can be passed to the next year’s teacher and contribute to programmatic as well as individual learning goals.

Traditional paper and pencil assessments do play an important role in assessing learning at Greenhill, but so do a variety of authentic experiences that offer students the opportunity to demonstrate application of content knowledge in new and daring ways.

I found myself right in the middle of an impressive display of understanding at the Fourth Grade Mystery Theater last week. Students chose and researched historical figures and then created their own original biographies of these figures. The fourth grade Humanities teachers, in the words of Math teacher Linda White, encouraged the students to “look for characteristics of leadership and significance of action.” A room full of experts was then divided into small groups to create a Mystery Theater presentation. Four historical figures, ranging from Lucille Ball to Napoleon, then collaborated to write a play in which the characters worked together, all within their own personalities, to positively influence the world. Mrs. White says, “It is an ambitious project, stretching everyone involved to higher levels.”

Punctuated often by appreciative laughter, the four plays that I saw went beyond traditional assessment. Somehow these students found ways to use specific personality traits of, say, Anne Frank, Mother Teresa, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Harry Houdini. They pooled their individual strengths (the students as well as the historical figures) to create a final product where learning “went beyond content,” as Mrs. White says.

And it was so delightful to see such student-driven performances, homemade costumes, helpfulness with scene changes, and pride in accomplishment.

As always, the Fourth Grade Mystery Theater represented only a snapshot of the many creative, innovative, and effective learning moments here at Greenhill. I will say, though, that the conversation between John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Benedict Arnold was pretty amazing.