From the Notebook of a Grateful Teacher, November 26 – December 10, 2012

Kim Barnes, Head of Early Childhood, reflects on her everyday experiences in Greenhill’s Early Childhood and Lower School divisions.

– Mr. Simpson, Head of Lower School, gave a fourth-grader new sand buckets, shovels, and sifters for the playground. The child’s excitement was contagious as he and two other fourth-graders (one of whom sand play would have been my last guess for his choice of play), a third-grader, a second-grader, and a pre-kindergartner dug and sifted sand during the next thirty minutes of early morning recess.

– Pre-kindergartners and kindergartners were working on the “river.” I asked a pre-k’er what she is going to do about the leaves. “The leaves don’t matter. Water is a liquid and it will move under the leaves. Watch!” The water did, indeed, flow right under the leaves without disturbing anything. “See! That’s what liquids do. They go anywhere.”

– With full hands, waiting on third-graders to make their way into the cafeteria, a third grader stops everyone behind him and motions me to pass through the line. All stop even the students from older grades. Thanks were issued and then back from the original student, “My pleasure, Mrs. Barnes.”

-First grader is headed to class. She stops to tell me, “My parents forgot my backpack. No, I mean I forgot my backpack.” She wants to know what accountability is after I tell her I am proud of her for the accountability for her action of leaving her backpack.

– This has been a week of flexibility and risktaking for several of the adults in the building. After exhausting the list of substitutes, second grade was headed out on a field trip, short a few adults. An office coordinator is eager and ready to step in and help chaperone, never a worry to the time she is giving up on her work. Teaching fellows and teachers readjust schedules so 2nd grade, 3rd grade, and 4th grade classes are covered. This generally means giving up a planning time the only break in a day; it also means teachers readjust as the second adult with these young children is now gone. Heard through the grapevine that one of the fellows created a Jeopardy game on the spur of a moment to cover science vocabulary.

– Coming in from the playground, a child is eager to share his destination. “Mrs. Barnes, Mrs. Barnes, I found these coats on the playground. I’m going to all the classes to find out who left them on the playground. They are going to need them.”

– Leaves seem to be the topic of the day. This morning a kindergartner and third grader want to know why the leaves can’t stay on the playground. The kindergartner said she wondered what those men were doing with their leaves last week; “We need them for our play on the playground. We don’t want them to take the leaves. Can you tell them to stop?” A couple of pre-kindergartners echo the same thing later on the pre-k/k playground. “We need all the leaves and acorns.” As I walk out the pre-k/k door, four second-graders are actively gathering leaves and playing in them. The girls roll in the leaves, push the leaves together, swing each other around, laughing and giggling the entire time. I think the leaves need to stay.

Empathy, accountability, exploration, nature-connection, “civic” change, risk-taking – take a moment to listen and watch.

Capstones: the Culmination of a Pre-k – 12 Experience

Director of Curricular Programs Natalia Hernandez writes about her role at Greenhill and about Greenhill’s Senior Capstone Program.

Arriving at Greenhill School this year as the new Director of Curricular Programs has been incredibly rewarding both personally and professionally. Personally, I am honored to be part of this amazing school that holds itself to the highest standards and deliberately asks difficult questions to ensure continuous improvement. I have spent twenty years in education hoping to find a place like this. Coming back to Texas after living abroad and in Florida feels like coming home. Coming to Greenhill School feels like coming home to a loving family. Professionally, I sought a role that would allow me to have a broader perspective of the academic program of a school. While I loved being an elementary principal, I was eager to acquire a PK – 12 understanding of a student’s experience. This role does exactly that. I am fortunate to be involved in teaching and learning at all levels at Greenhill School.

One program that demonstrates the culmination of our K-12 experience, and one that I am especially excited about, is the senior capstone. The senior capstone project provides outstanding seniors with time for in-depth exploration and study in a self-selected area of interest. This student driven project requires advanced, independent and interdisciplinary study that culminates in an exhibition of a final product. This year’s capstone projects represent a wide range of topics:

    • Writing, directing, and producing a sitcom
    • Researching areas of dark matter
    • Scientific research on the molecular mechanisms behind higher cognitive functions in humans
    • Writing and directing a short film
    • Detection methods for metastatic breast cancer
    • Designing and creating a low cost prosthetic arm
    • Marketing and producing a fashion museum
    • Writing a bill that would make shark finning and the consumption of shark fin illegal

The outstanding students who have recently presented their first trimester projects to committees of faculty and peers have a wide range of interests and reflect the diversity of our school. However, some aspects of their progress are constant among them. All of these students love learning; they are deeply passionate about their work and enjoy being immersed in their projects. They all see relevance and practical application in complex and abstract concepts. They all have the necessary preparation they need to deal with the barriers, missteps, and challenges that they will face in the project phase of their capstones. Their ability, no – desire, to receive constructive feedback demonstrates an academic maturity well beyond their years. Above all, they are prepared for so much more than their next four years of college. The skills they are honing throughout the preparation and development of their capstones will serve them well throughout their careers.

While student initiative fuels these projects, faculty relationships also play a key role in project outcome. The capstone mentors who support these students strike a careful balance between pushing their mentees to excellence and allowing them to struggle through the ongoing trials of yearlong study. They have truly mastered the art of guidance.

The capstone experience is one I hope to grow each year. I recently spoke to the junior class about the possibility of entering into capstone study as a senior. Many have already approached me with inspired and unique topics of study. The exciting thing about being at Greenhill School is that our potential is as limitless as the ideas of our students.

Being New at Greenhill

Head of Upper School Laura Ross writes about her experiences during her first trimester on campus.

Being new to Greenhill this year, the first trimester felt like a whirlwind of activity. It wasn’t until the Thanksgiving break that I felt I had time to reflect on my experiences thus far. What I knew of the School was from an outside perspective, from my previous lives as a college admissions officer and as an administrator at a fellow SPC school. I sensed from those somewhat limited contacts with Greenhill that the students seemed like they had spark – like they had a strong sense of identity, individuality, and curiosity. What I didn’t know, however, was how that actually happened. What did Greenhill do to foster that spirit in its students?

One of the great benefits of this job is that I visit classrooms every day. I didn’t know what a privilege that would be until I realized that what I would see in those visits. In the last few weeks I’ve visited classes in Vector Calculus, AP Chemistry, Chemistry I, AP Biology, AP Art History, AX 9, Senior Rhetoric, Sociology, Chinese III, AX 10 and Fashion Design, to name a few. There was quite a bit of variety in terms of the way the learning was happening: I saw students counting glowing bacteria on lab plates; I joined students touring major architectural sites in Dallas; I enjoyed a Socratic Seminar run entirely by ninth graders; I viewed group projects with the latest in presentation software (good-bye PowerPoint!); I listened to podcasts with integrated music and interviews; I was inspired by self-portraits modeled after Civil War era photographs; I watched students draw on state-of-the art design software; I observed students taking exit quizzes on their smart-phones; and I observed students using Digi-Pens to take notes for absent classmates. The way the learning happened varied widely from classroom to classroom. But here’s what didn’t vary: the laughing. I haven’t been in one classroom yet where there wasn’t laughter at some point.

The atmosphere in each room was challenging and respectful but also joyous and playful. It reminded me that learning, at its heart, is the joyful act of creating – new connections, new applications, new neural pathways – new ways of looking at and interacting with the world. It reminded me that this career I’ve chosen (or that chose me?), and Greenhill in particular, provides daily reminders of the promise of the next generation of leaders and thinkers. When I’m feeling stressed or overwhelmed, all I need to do is pop into a classroom and then I remember why I’m here.