I’m Out Learning

By Jason Yaffe, Director of Academics

In my new role as Greenhill’s Director of Academics, I am fortunate to spend part of my school day visiting classes across our beautiful campus. I recently created a sign to hang outside my office door that reads “I’m out learning.” Class visits present endless opportunities to learn about Greenhill, observe best practices in action, and see our curriculum come alive. Through it all, it’s abundantly clear that students are engaged, love learning, and enter amazing collaborations with each other and their teachers. Here is just a sampling of what I witnessed during the first few weeks of school::

• Our Lower School Counselor reading to a group of pre-kindergarteners about filling other people’s “buckets” with kind, respectful, and compassionate deeds. When the students struggled to move beyond how their own buckets get filled, the teacher encouraged the students to consider how they might fill a friend’s bucket that day.

• A “First Day Jitters” chart for a kindergarten class where students wrote their name on a post-it note before placing it in one of five categories. The two classroom teachers modeled this informal assessment by posting their own first day concerns (both were tired!).

• Middle School English students building Legos, some with directions and others in free play, as an activity linked to structured and creative writing in their classroom.

• Several Middle School Science classroom walls plastered with posters that asked students, “Our class should be ___________everyday” and “what should students in our class be doing to make sure class runs smoothly?”

• A student-driven exploration and discussion about standards based grading in an Upper School Latin class. Talk about assessments centered around words such as competency and mastery instead of quizzes, tests, essays.

Across these diverse experiences, a couple of common threads emerged. First, in the wake of the all-employee summer reading (Breaking into the Heart of Character by David Streight), it was inspiring to see what learning unfolds in a climate where students feel empowered. As Streight reasons in his book, “The more choices teachers can offer – in areas where choice is appropriate, of course – the more autonomy students feel, the higher quality of work they produce, and the longer they remember what they have learned.” The first days of class are typically filled with setting the rhythm of the school year and establishing expectations. In my eyes, this is very much a collaborative process for our students that will lead to engagement and excitement throughout the year.

Secondly, I marveled at the deep relationships between teachers and students. Returning to Streight’s thoughts, he believes that “the closer we get to the heart of the person, the more meaningful is what emerges from the person’s thoughts, intentions, and actions.” Our students feel cared for, a sense of belonging, and inclusion as partners in learning. My classroom visits reaffirmed Greenhill’s commitment to the power of relationships.

I look forward to meeting and getting to know our new families, as well as our existing families, so I encourage all of you come by my office, but if you see that I’m away from my office, it’s likely I’m out learning.

Now What?

By Susan Palmer, Head of Middle School

The school year is nearing a close, and I have been looking at all of my end-of-year remarks that accompany a variety of final assemblies. Looking back, looking forward, celebrating success and effort, readying for the next step … all of these are standard end-of-school fare and are certainly present in my comments. For the Middle School student – whether headed off to high school or entering from Lower School – perhaps these comments need to have a slightly different look, though.

Perhaps for departing eighth graders, I should challenge them to “think of a time when you were kind to a classmate.” Or “recall a time when you were disappointed and you demonstrated resilience.” Or even, “remember when you were extremely curious about something in one of your classes and used that curiosity to spur your learning.”

Our philosophy is to work with the Whole Child at Greenhill, and that should mean attention to non-cognitive skills as well as content learning and academic processes. We are lucky that our mission directs us to foster the growth of these qualities, qualities that bolster meaningful lives and relationships, long after school has ended for our students.

It is certainly appropriate to celebrate academic excellence, artistic accomplishment, and athletic prowess, and we will do all of that and more in the next few days. In all of the excitement, though, we should find moments to see what kind of people we are handing off to the next stage in their schooling. If we as adults have nurtured the development of kindness, teamwork, resilience, curiosity, and other such qualities, we will have set a foundation for life satisfaction that is firmly set in daily school life. We wish all of our students success in all kinds of arenas, and we also wish them to become young people of deep and constant character. It will serve them well.

Susan Palmer
Head of Middle School

Kids Who Get It

By Susan Palmer, Head of Middle School

Last week at the Sixth to Seventh Grade Transition Night, a panel of eighth graders shared their experiences in seventh grade with a room packed with current sixth grade parents. These parents were in attendance to learn about all of the changes ahead for their students in seventh grade: elective choices, athletics, busy social lives, and more are all on the horizon for students who transition from sixth to seventh grade. In addition, the seventh grade curriculum offers a ramp up of expectations and increased academic challenge. Teachers expect students to think critically and analyze at a deeper level than in past years. They will be asked to manage their time, their materials, and their responsibilities. We will ask them to self-assess so that they can see where they need to shore up and where they are strong. In other words, there is a lot going on in seventh grade.

The panel of eighth graders, having left seventh grade behind nearly a year ago, characterized the experience as manageable, surprising, and fun. They talked about asking teachers for help in planning out projects, doing homework on the team bus to an away game, and getting to know the older eighth graders in elective classes and on sports teams. They talked about trying something new (“I never knew a track was so big!”) and receiving so much gratification from competing for their school. They shared their love of playing in the band and of the eighth grade campout. They talked about the increased number of choices in every area of school life and how to use parents and teachers to help make those choices wise ones.

The best was saved for last, however, when the students offered advice to the parents. From “Don’t stress out because then we’ll stress out” to “Help us make a plan when there is a lot going on,” these students were candid and genuine in their desire to partner with their parents to navigate the final two years of Middle School.

The parents in the audience were in awe, hoping, as one parent said, that their own children could morph into such articulate, mature beings over the course of the next two years. Frankly, those of us who work with Middle School students every day were in awe as well. These eight students demonstrated that the challenges we offer our students are completely and totally age-appropriate and that they can tackle challenging tasks with our encouragement and coaching. They take great pride in reflecting on how far they have come. They have every reason to expect success in Upper School. Their Middle School experiences have readied them for the next step, and those of us they leave behind will be applauding from the sidelines.

Heart of the Hill

By Kim Barnes, Head of Early Childhood

“Dear White 8,
When I returned to my desk after our last HOH, the little flowering plant that you left on my desk made me both happy and grateful to be part of a community that cares. Thanks for such a thoughtful day-brightener!


Mr. Kasten”

Heart of the Hill has been a “living cog” on this campus for the past eighteen years. Simultaneously 1,400 students and employees move to classrooms all over campus for a few moments of service, games, conversation, or group traditions. Each of the 80 groups is comprised of students from various grade levels, such as White 8 has students from 2nd grade, 6th grade, and 10th grade. To this point in time, I have been with “my group” long enough to see two groups graduate.

Over the past couple of years, we (the adults in White 8) have given the responsibility of planning group activities to our group of upper schoolers. While some of the activities may be variations on projects we have done in past years, the projects that tend to be echoed deal with service and gratitude. This year in our February meeting the idea from one of the 10th graders was to thank the “Legends” on campus for each of their twenty-five years or more of service to Greenhill School. They wanted to use an idea we had used last year via designing flower pots, writing cards, and potting a flowering plant. These were a pleasant surprise! Of course, learning about each person who is a Legend and what his or her job entails gave the students a greater understanding of how this school works and the variety of jobs found on this campus.

Sometimes walking onto this campus or just driving by and seeing this vast parcel of land or being a small child and seeing the many Lower Schoolers on the playground at the same time can be overwhelming. There are many people, many buildings, and big spaces on this campus. Yet through events such as Heart of the Hill, this campus becomes a little smaller and a lot tighter. During these times the campus “cog” becomes family as people are the Heart of the Hill.

Can You Really Teach Relentless Effort?

By Chad Wabrek, Head of Athletics & Physical Education

For as long as I can remember, Middle and Upper School athletics have always been full of champions, terrific teams, and unbelievable coaches. Likewise, for as long as I can remember, Middle and Upper School athletics have also been full of runner ups, struggling teams, and embattled coaches. But there is always one constant in athletics – willing student-athletes – and knowing that Greenhill offers an environment for these individuals to be part of a team, it begs the question – can you take a captive audience of willing student-athletes and teach them the true meaning and value of Relentless Effort? At Greenhill the answer is YES, and we do so with a focus on responsibility, determination, and teamwork.

Responsibility: A successful student at Greenhill knows that coming to school, participating in class, adhering to school rules, and doing homework are basic expectations. It is HOW WELL you do what is expected of you that will determine your school-day success. Our student-athletes know this is at the core of their daily life here, and our coaches model this same responsibility in planning practices, executing game strategy, and developing team chemistry. We expect more than just effort; we expect relentless effort.

Determination: We constantly remind our student-athletes that effort is a choice – anybody can simply show up – so in line with our standard of excellence at Greenhill, we expect relentless effort all the time from our student-athletes. Using this as our foundation, we couple this with a growth mindset approach to everything we do, which includes daily challenges and constant feedback. We firmly believe that perfect practice makes permanent, and to achieve this goal, it relies on a particular approach, which at Greenhill is rooted in relentless effort.

Teamwork: Trying as hard as you can every day can be a lonely experience if those around you are not doing the same thing. Athletic endeavors tend to be rather public, available for everyone to see. Someone is always watching, yet we often hear that character is revealed when no one is watching, and at Greenhill, we explain that if individuals on a team play with relentless effort, then Together Everyone Achieves More (TEAM), which says a lot about each individual and who they are. In turn, an individual’s character is revealed when everyone is watching.

The roots of relentless effort are established in the Middle School, and we acknowledge one such individual from each team at the end of every season. Yet we often see the true value of relentless effort in the Upper School because the challenge of HOW we play from start to finish is HOW we gain an opponent’s respect and HOW we justify the importance of this Greenhill athletic standard.

We have a greater responsibility to do more, and relentless effort allows every Greenhill student-athlete to begin a playbook for life.

With Hornet Passion and Pride,

Chad A. Wabrek
Head of Athletics and Physical Education

Partnering with the Library

By Susan Palmer, Head of Middle School

It’s easy to look around the Middle School and identify all of the ways in which we partner with our colleagues in the Library, and it’s easy to convey how rich our partnership makes the learning process. Head Librarian Donna Woody and Librarian Katie Beth Miller have developed critical elements of the Middle School curriculum: media literacy, research skills and strategies, and thorough knowledge of Young Adult fiction in order to foster a love of reading in all Middle School students.

The path between the Middle School and the Montgomery Library is worn thin by students checking books in and out. They naturally and effortlessly confer with librarians on the latest releases, the impatient wait for a sequel, and the enthusiasm generated by just the right book. Eavesdroppers are astounded by how well the librarians keep up with the newest books on the market and how they easily match the book to the reader. Fantasy, contemporary, historical fiction … it’s all there for the taking. Aligned with English Department goals of a lively free choice reading program in the Middle School years, the librarians are critical to the success of that program.

Our librarians also collaborate closely with Middle School teachers in all subject areas to develop and teach age-appropriate research skills. Identification of effective resources, critical assessment of those sources, note-taking, and summary skills are all elements of good research. Our librarians work with the teachers to craft projects that align with both content and skills expectations. The seventh graders are deep into a research project on the Holocaust following their reading of MAUS II. In order to guide students away from simply assembling facts, the librarians teach them to ask critical questions and to create a thesis which must then be proved using their research. It’s a lengthy process with an impressive final product, all because the librarians teach and coach the students through every step.

Critical evaluation of the vast amount of information available today is a life-long skill that must be tried out and practiced in Middle School. At Greenhill, we want our students to weigh all arguments, evaluate them for accuracy, and determine their effectiveness in conveying information or opinions. Critical thinking has to be practiced, and collaborations with the library staff allow this practice towards mastery to take place.

From “just browsing,” to ebooks to intense research projects and papers, the Montgomery Library is central to our development as learners and teachers. It’s true that the architecture is gorgeous and every Middle School student likes reading around the fire on a cold day, but the real work of the library and of the librarians is of the mind. And this work can lead to a lifetime of thoughtful understanding.

Teaching Methods of Lower School

By Michael Simpson, Head of Lower School

On Tuesday the following request was sent out by one of our science teachers: “Send me questions with right or wrong answers from your subject area.” Why? Her students are building electronic quiz boards. This involves designing and building circuit systems that allow answers to be transmitted and a response of incorrect or correct to be lit up.

Then yesterday during an admissions visit, a prospective parent asked, “Which books do you teach from?” I explained that we don’t follow textbooks but use a wide variety of resources and materials.

The contrast of teaching from a textbook versus students building a circuit board to apply their learning was palpable. As often as we can, our teachers design projects or tasks that require students to create authentic demonstrations of their learning. A few examples:

• Protest Letters in fourth grade (applying research, writing process and editing skills)
• USA Road Trip in second grade (simulation requiring practice of math, research, and literacy skills)
• Fine Arts Musical Performances (applying music theory and structures learned in class)
• Primer Pie Contest (applying literacy and math skills)
• Microscope work in third grade—checking out real cells (applying observation & recording skills and conceptual understanding of cells)
• Stock Market Unit in fourth grade (applying broad math and research skills)

Benefits? During these kinds of experiences, we observe high levels of engagement and a joy in learning. Students immerse themselves in big picture ideas and practice higher order thinking as they work together to solve complex problems. Individual passions are discovered. Classmates have real and substantive conversations with each other and their teacher. Students manage their leaning to accomplish goals, and practice collaborating and communicating in small teams.

In short, this is where learning becomes real, memorable, complex, and fun! When I walk into a classroom engaged in these kinds of activities, the energy and passion for learning are instantly recognizable.