Notes from Head of School Emily Jones

Welcome to the parents' newsletter from the Head of School, Emily Jones. Here you will find Emily's notes to current families, as well as reflections on campus activities, adolescent minds and progressive education.

 

Spring Has Finally Come To Putney

May 11, 2018

Dear Parents,

I would like to welcome the parents of newly enrolled students for next year to the Putney parent community. We have new families in fifteen states, and are adding Denmark and Poland to our already long list of nations.

Spring has finally come to Putney for real. The grass is so green it looks like an advertisement for Ireland, and it is covered with teenagers pretending to study… or not even pretending. Temperatures have been in the low 80s on some days, and there have been many intrepid kids swimming in the Puddle. This being Vermont, the time between needing winter boots and needing sunscreen is very short.

Students are finalizing their plans for Project Week, May 24-June 2. Some of them are old hands at this, and even the 9th graders have a sense of purpose and clarity that they couldn’t have when proposing projects in the fall. Our goals for this kind of learning are multifaceted, and student success at some of them will involve successive approximations over the years as they do this independent work. We can judge the impact of the “formal” piece of education by what students do when they are not being told what to do, and this applies to Project Weeks as well as to free time. A student faced with 40 hours in which to accomplish something they have set out to do will encounter many of the challenges set out in our Putney Core throughlines. Just a few examples might be:

  • Distinguishes between situations when challenges should be met with a consistent line of inquiry versus changing to a different, related question. (Inquiry and Research)
  • Recognizes contradictory evidence and realizes when they are wrong. (Argumentation)
  • Is self-propelled and self-reliant in organizing time and task. (Self-knowledge and Self-Regulation)
  • Establishes and communicates benchmarks, assesses and revises timelines and tasks, identifies and secures resources, anticipates obstacles. (Design and Build)

Of course students also hope to learn a great deal about their particular topic, and we watch closely to see how they reach out for what they need to learn to accomplish their project goals. When I ask “How did you figure out how to do that?” I hear everything from “Kevin told me that Noah knew how,” to “I found a YouTube video,” to the old-fashioned “I got a book on interlibrary loan.” Some students say “I just sat with it until it made sense.”

 

It was wonderful to see so many of you on Family Weekend. For those who were not able to be here, I am appending some quick notes below of what was covered in the 9th grade parents’ meeting. At parents’ requests, we videotaped the 10th and 11th grade meetings and the links are shared below. Our intention was to capture content; please forgive the less than optimal production quality. If this proves to be helpful, we’ll refine our technique for future meetings.

I’ve written to senior parents separately, as there is a lot coming up for them!

All the best,

Student Leadership

February 15, 2018

Dear Parents,

Putney takes student leadership seriously, as you know. Teenagers are asked to take unusual responsibility here, both for themselves and for the workings of the community - and that isn’t easy. We are heading into the time of year when we elect and appoint students to a whole lot of leadership positions, and a time when we reflect on the many meanings of that word. Some of our positions are really more management than leadership – work committee, student dorm head, barn crew boss, for example. But it takes time to learn how to hold others accountable and set an example of a good work ethic, and certainly some leadership ability makes management go much more smoothly. Some of our positions are memberships of larger adult teams, and provide relatively little autonomy but considerable influence – trustee, educational programs committee, admissions committee. Some positions, and some of the most difficult, give students wide scope in how to define their goals, and few carrots or sticks to get anything done. Being student head of school, for example, is a difficult and often thankless job – and is, of course, enormously educational.

Students are now wrestling with decisions about what they are interested in doing, what they think they would be good at, and whether they think they might be elected or chosen. Although the student heads of school, admission committee, and cabin dwellers are generally seniors, there are no grade-level requirements for any other position. We will elect the heads of school and trustees before the March break, and the rest will be chosen in the spring. If your child asks your advice, give it freely!

On the other hand, it can feel as if we overdo all this. I worry sometimes that Putney values leadership so much that students who don’t hold a leadership position think they don’t have a real role here, or think that they must not have leadership qualities. I have pointed out to students in assembly that on the list of people who have changed the world there is a high proportion of those who have never set out to lead anyone intentionally– Einstein, Toni Morrison, Beethoven, Jonas Salk, Mark Zuckerberg, Jimi Hendrix, Rachel Carson….the list is endless. So if your child is a pure intellectual, or an artist or scientist, or just isn’t that interested in making other people do things, please help them to understand that we do not value them less, and that their contributions come in other forms. When students find themselves in leadership positions they really didn’t want, but thought they ought to want, it rarely goes well, and it takes time away from the things they really care about.

This Saturday evening we will have our annual Snow Ball, a grand dinner and dance. This year it coincides with our Lunar New Year celebration, so will include an eight course meal and fireworks. I am always amazed at how many neckties and high heeled shoes there turn out to be on this campus!

All the best to all of you,

Happy New Year

January 5, 2018

Dear Parents,

Happy New Year!  As I write, we are gearing up for what is being predicted to be a few days of serious cold and a fair amount of snow.  Already it is blowing horizontally outside my window.  We try to find the middle ground between moaning about the cold and being so “Hardy New England” that we don’t recognize that it can be dangerous and we need to encourage students to dress sensibly.  For those who love winter, the whole world is a giant playground for sledding, skiing, sculpture and snowball fights. 

The winter term is short, the shortest of our three trimesters.  We pack a lot into it, intentionally.  Unlike schools that have a holiday on Martin Luther King Day, for us that is a day of study, reflection and community work on themes of equity and inclusion.  Some of the student leaders have been working hard on this year’s program in consultation with the Diversity Steering Committee.  My sense is that students are eager to become effective agents of change in our troubled society, and understand that often this starts by looking inward.  International students are often able to recognize parallels in their own cultural history that they might not have seen before.

Other events of the winter term are less intellectual, for sure.  Each advisory group thinks up and carries out a “random act of kindness” to the community; in past years this has included doing morning chores for the winter barn crew, delivering cupcakes to students walking out to Gray House, French fries for all on a Saturday afternoon, and other (often gastronomic) kindnesses. We hold “Dorm Olympics,’’ a weekly series which pits dorms (and day student groups) against each other in contests of hula hooping, tug of war, limbo, and other fairly silly activities. Towards the end of the winter we have our annual “Snow Ball,” which is a fancy dinner and dance.  

In a couple of weeks we will host eight students and two adults from Fordham Leadership Academy, a public school near Fordham University in the Bronx.  A former Putney faculty member teaches there, and she and I have been hoping to develop a relationship between the two schools. 

Thank you to all of you who have recommended books and articles to me – I much appreciate it!

All the best,

Giving Thanks

November 21, 2017

Dear Parents,

Happy Thanksgiving to all of you! I know that many of you live in places that do not celebrate the U.S. version of Thanksgiving, but almost every culture has some ritual of giving thanks. Often it is connected to the harvest, but in every case it focuses the mind on what we have been given and whom we ought to remember. At Putney we have March of the Turkeys, our annual Thanksgiving feast, which no doubt your children have described to you. Our ritual includes each student being given a piece of string to tie on a wrist or an ankle; they must think about someone from their past to whom they owe thanks, and not take the string off until that has been accomplished.

Here in Vermont, Thanksgiving feels like the corner between fall and winter, and it’s likely that by the time students return from this break there will be snow on the ground. I have always been fascinated by the impact of architecture and landscape on the formation of community and group behavior (getting to design a boarding school in Thailand from scratch once was fascinating). Putney’s campus is a fundamentally different place in the winter, and the community behaves and feels differently as well. When there is snow on the ground the days are very bright, and the nights not very dark. Hoods are up and heads are down against the wind; people walk faster and don’t stop to talk on the path much. Places with stoves (the library, most common rooms, the faculty room) become gathering places more than they are in the warm months. The big wood fired oven in the KDU draws people like a magnet. Those who are downhill skiers live for Wednesdays and Sundays, while those who are nordic skiers get out most afternoons. There’s pick-up basketball in the field house almost all the time, it seems. Students here for their first winter sometime forget that spring will arrive, but it always has, so far . . .

Even if your child is not a winter sport enthusiast, it’s important for them to have winter-worthy play clothes. It’s no fun if you can’t go sledding or try skating on the puddle because you don’t have warm clothes – a good winter jacket, boots, hat, mittens, wool socks, some kind of ski or snow pants. These don’t need to be fancy or expensive, and layers are always good. If you live somewhere winter clothes don’t exist, or are not able to get what your child needs, please alert his or her advisor, and we’ll figure it out when they all get back from the break.

Gordon and I are on our way to Victoria, British Columbia to visit our daughter, so out of touch until next Monday. I hope that you are having a wonderful week.

Putney stands for a way of life

October 18, 2017

Dear Parents,

It was wonderful to have so many of you here for Family Weekend and Harvest Festival, and I’m sure also wonderful for you to have your children home for a few days afterwards. Thank you again to those of you who hosted students who were not able to return home for break.

We are much aware that quite a few of you have found your homes at risk recently, whether by earthquake, hurricane or fire. Reading the news recently is rather like reading the Old Testament, and makes one wonder when the locusts will show up. I hope that things will soon start getting back to normal, and that you will let us know if we can be of help in any way. There is a proposal for a service trip to Puerto Rico during Project Week, although no definite plan yet.

I spent some of the mid-term break at a conference at UPenn; it was ostensibly on leadership but really just brought together some strong researchers from Penn’s education grad school to talk with independent school leaders. Hot topics included recent brain research on adolescents and the ‘unprecedented pervasive levels of anxiety’ that many schools are seeing. Much of this anxiety is thought to be related to cell phone and social media use, and the resulting lack of social-emotional skills. We were encouraged to nurture students’ capacity for solitude and to actively teach ethics.

These are all things that we have talked about extensively at Putney; they call the question about the line between the implicit learning a student gets by being part of this community, and the explicit learning of the formal educational program. Our mission statement begins with “Putney stands for a way of life,” and we know that this way of life teaches students a great deal about ethics, the responsibilities involved with living closely with others, and the skills of working with a team, be it a dish crew, a lab group or a rock climbing expedition. As a progressive school we are clear that students learn by experience more effectively than they learn by being told things. But as I said at the start of the year, we are constantly adjusting what we do as we see generational changes in students who come to Putney. We have started teaching conversation skills in more explicit ways, and are working on ways to encourage students to embark on greater self-awareness of cell phone use rather than simply insisting they abide by the school’s (student written) policy. That said, we are finding that our kids, really yours kids, are clearly invested in making the community here work well. By and large they treat each other admirably.

Someone at the Penn conference pointed me to a TED talk, which I highly recommend. Elif Shafak’s work is impossible to pigeon hole as it ranges across many cultures and disciplines. If you have a spare 20 minutes, it is well worth watching.

All the best to all of you,

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