Resilience, Optimism, and Summer

Michael Simpson, Lower School Head, writes a mid-summer blog about tackling seemingly impossible tasks. There is so much to be gained!

School is only ten months. What about the other two? What’s to be gained? For me, it means the opportunity to teach! I can offer a Summer on the Hill class on any topic, as there is no Summer on the Hill “curriculum” to fulfill. Learning objectives are mine to decide!

In July I taught a two-week course on learning to map the USA from memory. At the beginning of the week, I asked my six students to draw and label the United States on a blank piece of paper. Depending on your point of view, the results are either concerning or hilarious. Five out of six caused a chuckle and comments like, “Idaho is next to Massachusetts?” or “Why is every state except Texas and Florida round?” Even the whiz who already knew all the states and capitals could not create a map beyond some wavy lines within an outline of the general shape of the United States. Six classes later, every student can draw an accurate map of the country, plan a color path with only four colors (most USA maps use five), and label all the states with ease. They’ve even become critics of their own work, expressing frustration when the shapes on the paper do not match what they see in their mind’s eye: “I can’t make Maryland look exactly right!” Nevertheless, the results are beautiful maps, works of art the students created without looking at a map of the USA.

There is no doubt these students will go forward with a strong knowledge of the geography of the United States. This may be useful to them in future classes, but the best part is the boost in confidence—not just about geography, but about a seemingly gargantuan task. Even though they chose the class and were eager to begin, when asked if they would be label to draw the USA from memory by the end, they responded, “No way!” “Impossible!” But they did it. As a result, they have become more confident about taking on a challenge. On the day they drew their maps, I heard a steady refrain of “I am so proud of myself!” And that’s the part—beyond the geography—that I hope stays with them as they move on through school.

If we are going to challenge children and help them learn perseverance, courage, and vision, then confidence-building experiences are crucial. And to truly build confidence, part 1 is that children (and adults!) must succeed at a challenge that is authentically difficult. Confidence gained from just being good at something is superficial and does not transfer to other experiences—it only applies to that subject. Part 2 of the confidence building is to have the opportunity to work though failure and still reach success. As Tim Allen tells his young superhero partners in Zoom after the villain has repulsed their initial effort to capture him, “Don’t you know the superhero secret? The first plan never works!” When we experience setbacks and frustration during the process and still come out with a victory, we are imprinted with resilience and optimism.

Summer is a prime time for these confidence building experiences, either through self initiated projects fueled by passion for a subject, an intriguing summer class, or experiences at summer camp. Hopefully every August each child returns to school with a little more “I can do it” and continues to build on it throughout the year.

So Much Drama

Kim Barnes, Head of Early Childhood at Greenhill, is our guest blogger this month. She offers her unique perspective on the value of “drama” and the young child.

Over the course of the last few weeks, I have been witness to “a lot of drama” on campus – “drama” in the classroom, “drama” in the office, “drama” in the kitchen, and actually “drama” on the screen.

Drama was in the classroom as Mr. Browne-Nichols’ 4- to 6-year-olds acted out favorite stories from his Summer on the Hill camp. There were costumes, and, whether constructed in the classroom or brought from home, all became whatever was in the child’s imagination – and made the audience believe. During the “mini-scenes” presented, there were times of silence and loudness and times of silliness and seriousness. A fond memory of the last mini-scene demonstrated a bit of improv as one of the stars announced, “I have to go to the bathroom,” and instantly Mr. Browne became a mommy. Not only were children trying on costumes, they were trying on life.

Drama was also in the classroom as one day Silverlicious spread its spell over 6 and 7 year olds under the voices of Mrs. Baldwin and Mrs. Wells in their Summer on the Hill camp, Literature Live. With construction of foil necklaces, glittery crowns, silvery leashes for alligators, and sparkly letters to peacocks, these twelve children threw themselves into note writing and storytelling. Not only were children immersed in shiny silvery reflections, they were trying on words and language.

Drama was certainly evident in my office as first a gaggle (or giggle) of kindergarten princesses, all dressed up in crowns and scepters and fancy dresses, found animals to be friends (and boyfriends), flowers to use for bouquets, rocks for jewels, and autoharps and hand drums to serenade. Then a giggle of pre-kindergartners followed them a day or so later; they were still dressed in their fancy attire but this time used their wiles to kill the witch (wonder who that was) and work out who was going to say and wear what. Not only were the princesses using their imaginations, they were trying on new information about life built from previous knowledge and knowledge from others.

And drama was on the screen as I had the opportunity to view a short film on the ISAS Fine Arts Festival that was held in Albuquerque back in April and an event we will be hosting in March 2012. The film was produced by the daughter of Rhonda Durham, the ISAS Executive Director. Prominently displayed in the film was 2011 Greenhill School Senior, Eriq Robinson. Eriq has extraordinary creative talents, but every time I see him and a couple of other students in this class, all I can think of is the “trial.” It was November of 1998 and scientists had begun to debate whether Pluto was actually a planet. The “drama” was in Mrs. Williams’ kindergarten classroom as defense and prosecuting attorneys and jurors took their place under presiding Judge Ashley Levy to debate the fate of Pluto, and Eriq was right there in the midst of it all. Not only were these students pretending roles, they were researching and organizing information.

Drama (dramatic play) allows students to work out social situations and discover the world around them as they become whatever their imagination chooses. “Drama” abounds on this campus – and that’s a great thing.