Refilling the Heart during Community Service Day

Head of Upper School Laura Ross reflects on her first Greenhill School Community Service Day.

Whew, what a day! I just returned from doing site visits at nine different agencies at which our students were volunteering as part of the Upper School Community Service Day. I also returned to campus just in time to watch our seniors hugging good-bye their 5th grade buddies from Bush Elementary after hosting them for the day on our campus while the 9th-11th graders were out doing good all over Dallas.

I was struck by something Sally Rosenberg, our Director of Service Learning and Community Service, said to me as we were driving all over town. She said that she plans this day with the goal of our students learning to be “heart smart.” I’ve been thinking about what that means all day. For her, it meant that she wanted to instill a lifelong love of and commitment to service in our students. Upper School Community Service Day is not an isolated incident – it’s the culmination of years of service activities that Greenhill students start in kindergarten when they accompany Mrs. Rosenberg or Mrs. Barnes on trips to deliver Meals on Wheels. I love that part of our curriculum, and I appreciate that goal.

For me, however, I see its value differently. When I observed our students today, I saw them as children – as young people who are still kids in the best sense of the word. I felt like I could see little meters on their hearts filling back up to full. The last few weeks have been stressful ones for the students as they completed their first set of finals for the year. For seniors, it was their last exams of high school, and for ninth graders it was their first. For both of those groups of kids, last week was momentous. I saw a lot of anxious faces and a few tears. I also saw them learning and studying together – cheering each other on as they were walking into rooms and hugging each other as they walked out. It wasn’t all bad (they got to have “dress down days” so that part made them really happy!) but it’s certainly not the easiest time of year. Given that, having Community Service Day right after finals felt right, because I saw them become youthful, silly kids again right before my eyes.

Every place we went the staff members were full of praise for our students and their work. Mrs. Rosenberg told me that every year she tells the agencies to plan twice as much work as they think teenagers will do because she knows how dedicated our kids are. At the end of the day at We Over Me ranch in South Oak Cliff, the farm manager told our students that in one day they had completed two weeks’ worth of work on the farm. I was proud of them, and they were clearly proud of themselves, but I was more excited because we were providing the opportunity for them to learn to be “heart smart” – to remember that the things that fill our spirit aren’t always the things we can quantify.

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.