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.

 

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,

Expedition Behavior

September 5, 2017

Dear Parents,

As I write, students and adults are heading out on Long Fall trips. Monday was a day of packing backpacks, learning how to set up tents, doing swim tests, and beginning the process of creating a working group out of the 10-12 people who will spend this time together. I like the term “expedition behavior” which is used by outdoor educators; it suggests that each individual’s contributions to the group are critical. In my own childhood and adolescence I spent many months on an ocean-going sailboat in various parts of the world – the phrase used there was if you are not part of the solution you are part of the problem, which in that case was meant in a very practical sense.

On Long Fall students will be practicing a tool for giving feedback – the ‘Situation, Behavior, Impact’ protocol gives a simple outline for how to give constructive reflections to an individual or group about how their actions have landed with others. Having practiced this during Long Fall, students will also use it in the dorms, and we hope it will add to the general skill set of our community. The idea is that practicing talking directly and helpfully to people when the stakes are pretty low will help students learn to have more difficult conversations when they need to. This ability to have usefully difficult face-to-face conversations for the purpose of moving a society forward seems to be in low supply in the United States right now.

Our new international students have been here for some days already, and what a wonderful group they are! For some of them this is a first venture away from their home country, and others are truly citizens of the world, having lived on several continents already. We have a Chinese citizen from Angola, a French citizen from Thailand, and US citizens from Hong Kong and Madagascar, to name just a few. We are still waiting on a visa for an Afghan boy who is currently a refugee in Pakistan.

Putney is not representative of the whole world, for sure, but we do try hard to create a small world here in which students can practice learning from others and seeing themselves in a new perspective. For some students this is their first experience of not being in the racial majority. For others it is the first time they understand that ‘white’ is also a racial category. For all of them we hope to create opportunities to grow both their sense of self and their abilities to enjoy the company of diverse others.

Most of all, though, Long Fall is a time to enjoy the outdoors and each other, and for new students to get to know a couple of teachers well and have a group of student friends. We don’t overload it with earnestness, just enough to plant some seeds for the rest of the year. They will return dirty and happy on Friday, and be ready to start classes the next day.

All the best to all of you,

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