St. Patrick's is Closed - Wednesday, February 20
Given the forecast of inclement weather and resulting hazardous conditions, St. Patrick's will be closed on Wednesday, February 20.
It is a simple fact that the nation's finest schools recognize their primary mission as that of substantive change: enabling it, creating it, responding to it. Even schools that fail to recognize that fact inevitably find themselves dealing with the reverberations of change—in the families of the children who come to school each day, in the communities in which schools exist, in the demands of the larger society, and in our growing awareness of how children learn best. Of course, schools seek fundamental changes in the young people who inhabit them, that they might become more knowledgeable, more thoughtful, more accomplished, more confident, and ultimately able to use these gifts for wise and exemplary purposes—aspirations that we as adults should hold for ourselves and each other, as well.
Now in my fifth year of leadership at St. Patrick's Episcopal Day School, my twenty-second year as a teacher and administrator in four different schools that educate young people, the centrality of change has never been more apparent to me. Yet the mere recognition of the need for change is insufficient. We must at the same time establish a way of thinking about and achieving change that is reasoned and intentional. With this document, "Setting Compass," I offer my vision of intentional, guided change—and a worthy destination—as we continue to sculpt the programs and opportunities at an institution that is already one of the Washington area's premier elementary schools.
While my long experience in schools cautions me to proceed with more modesty than certainty, there is no doubt that we must proceed. As we do so, please remember my deep and abiding commitment to lead St. Patrick's School, and lead it well, into the next century. The prospect is awesome and exciting. Please join me as we move ahead.
Peter A. Barrett, Fall 1998
In ways unmatched by most schools, St. Patrick's embraces the childhood of its students, who arrive in many instances just beyond the toddler stage and prepare to graduate on the brink of adolescence. As children of three, four, and five become eight, ten, and twelve years old, they learn much about themselves, about the world around them, and about others who inhabit that world. The opportunities for growth and change, and the students' willingness to participate in thoughtful, engaging, even exhilarating activities to promote that growth and change, will never be greater at any other period in their lives. Indeed, it is an exceptional moment we cannot waste.
Mindful of the importance of each component of the educational foundation set in childhood, St. Patrick's has developed a depth and breadth of curricular excellence. At the same time we develop an academic core of language arts and history, of mathematics and science, we enrich that core through religion, music, art, and technology. All curricular areas ground us in tradition, reveal fresh possibilities for innovation, and offer us ways to find new means of self-expression. Even with this commitment to strength across the curriculum, we can nonetheless center our work, grounding it in some larger sense of purpose, standard, and destination for the education we provide. As to education, I propose this larger purpose, standard, and destination shall be "Exceptional Literacy" for all our students. Across time, literacy is foundational for character, understanding, and academic excellence. As St. Patrick’s seeks and experiences change—and balances tradition and innovation—exceptional literacy can provide the touchstone for our efforts.
The spoken and written word enables human beings to interact with, understand, and influence the world around them, hence the primacy of an exceptional literacy for our students. The ability to comprehend and to organize the spoken and written word, and the struggle to accomplish that sometimes difficult task, prepare an individual to understand and communicate effectively with others, to seek new knowledge, and to fulfill a greater sense of personal responsibility. The inability to do so—at the intersection of what one educator calls "instances of wordlessness and experiences of powerlessness"—can result in alienation, thoughtlessness in the truest sense, and irresponsibility.*
While a focus on exceptional literacy orients us to the symbol system of language—which we employ as readers, writers, speakers, and listeners—we must never lose sight of literacy’s importance in other areas of the curriculum. Math, science, and technology, for example, and religion, art, and music generate their own literacy needs, which students must master if they are to achieve the depth of character, understanding, and academic excellence we envision. At the same time, these areas benefit from exceptional literacy as students and teachers achieve meaning jointly through conversation and shared activity and individually through exploring, reading, writing, and reflecting. We must apply the standard of exceptional literacy to all curricular areas and respond to each area’s particular literacy needs in order to achieve the textured sense of subject matter, self, and others that results from this work.
*Maxine Greene, "Literacy for What?" Phi Delta Kappan, January 1982, pages 326-329.
All our work should stand the test of excellence. One thing, however, should be so special, so "shiny," so universally valued that its primacy at St. Patrick's is clear to all. That one thing, the destination for our shared work in educating St. Patrick’s children, should be "exceptional literacy." Across time, it should emerge as the school’s basis for influencing character, advancing understanding, and promoting academic excellence for our children.
With these measurements, we should hold ourselves accountable for the full development of the goals and values at the heart of St. Patrick's. In each area, we should organize to produce consistent excellence, innovation, and growth. That these measures exist should allow us to focus our time and wisely apply limited resources.
As a community, we should be able to articulate a set of fundamental values inspired by the parish that brought the school to life and by decades spent educating young children. We should hold these values to be true, universally, of children, and to be right, in a normative sense, for our school.
We expect that the buildings we enter will have a certain structural integrity, that they will stand in all kinds of weather and keep their inhabitants warm and dry. But buildings, and those who design, construct, and maintain them, should aspire to more than structural integrity. So, too, must exceptional literacy capture and maintain the mechanics of reading, writing, and speaking—of receiving and expressing written and oral language effectively—at the same time we recognize those mechanics are not our destination. Great architecture embraces a sound structural foundation but moves beyond that structure to design buildings with such obvious usefulness and beauty that they attract and engage inhabitants and passers-by alike. So should exceptional literacy instill in our students the means to lead articulate, purposeful, rewarding lives, as they acquire and put to effective use the words, attitudes, and conventions to comprehend and express meaning and to engage others in worthy purpose. What follows is a framework for engaging every St. Patrick’s student in the "Architecture of Literacy."
The Two Essential Parts
In the elementary school, exceptional literacy requires careful attention both to the structure of language and to its texture.* We might consider structure (often understood as a phonics- or skills-based approach) to be more mechanical, less creative, less interesting, and texture (often over-simplified as the whole language approach) to be richer, more enthralling, ultimately more beautiful. Only together, however, do these components achieve meaning—for an individual child or for an elementary school’s language and reading program. Only together do they build exceptional literacy. In the right hands, neither need endure the indignities of repetitive, lifeless instruction or the irrelevance of teaching not rooted in recognition of individual strengths and needs. In order to become literate individuals, our students must master both structure and texture and with them, gather the tools, the knowledge, and the attitudes needed for a lifetime of proper, effective, and beautiful use of language.
How We Begin
Among all the worthwhile things our children will do, learn, and experience, none will be more fundamental than developing an early, proficient literacy. Early literacy—not to be confused with early reading—prepares children for healthy relationships with others and for academic success, forms them into students, and marks them as individuals. For our Nursery and primary students, we establish early engagement in language-rich social and cognitive settings that encourage conversation, listening, and attention to words spoken and written. Across the Kindergarten year, these early abilities should gather strength as children themselves begin to emerge as capable readers and writers and form the essential skills and desire to do so. From the Grade 1 year through graduation at Grade 6, we picture our literacy work in three parts: the mastery of the structure of language; immersion in excellent literature; and the habit and practice of learning to speak and write well and with spirit and voice.
*Priscilla L. Vail, Common Ground: Whole Language and Phonics Working Together, Rosemont, NJ: Modern Learning Press, 1991.
While St. Patrick’s literacy work begins with what we call Language Arts, the concept of exceptional literacy goes well beyond a particular academic area; indeed, it goes well beyond mere academics. Language arts itself is, in truth, an array of language-related areas of study, including reading and literature, oral and written expression, vocabulary acquisition, and grammar and usage. Excellent literature—thoughtfully selected to engage, challenge, instruct, and excite our students—is at the center of that curriculum as an engine for our varied literacy work, which grows to include non-fiction texts in history and science, for example, and always involves the exploration and discussion of significant ideas across the curriculum. The complete St. Patrick’s curriculum seeks to build exceptional literacy with the following components.
At the heart of St. Patrick's philosophy is the recognition of the infinite value of each student as a child of God. Our children arrive uniquely gifted, each one worthy of respect and challenge. The same academic or physical task, however, is never equally challenging for every child. Our program therefore makes room for a high degree of individuality: child by child, we set and nurture goals that will result in significant accomplishment. Whatever their gifts, we should expect our students to reach for their fullest possible measure of achievement. Indeed, we should expect students to desire to achieve their highest potential as they join us on a journey of discovery about the world, themselves, and others.
The whole of St. Patrick's curriculum is rich and engaging. Our strong traditional core of language arts, math, science, and history and social studies blends innovative techniques with clear, strong objectives for content and accomplishment, as do religion, music, and art. Engaged in an on-going dialogue about what in the world of ideas is most worth teaching in nursery, elementary, and middle schools, colleagues work across subject areas to offer children important ways of seeing the world and developing self-expression. Further, we have defined specific goals for technology, linking it to broader curricular objectives, especially in organizing and producing written work. Across the board, excellence should exist, be pursued, and be supported in every curricular area at St. Patrick's. Anything we choose to teach, we should organize to teach uncommonly well
From a deep bench of curricular excellence, one area should emerge as the "first among equals," that area we stress, disproportionately. "Exceptional literacy," defined as age- or developmentally-appropriate mastery of the structure and texture of language, becomes the goal we hold for each student and the skill we look to demonstrate in every subject area. While the teaching of literacy (reading, writing, and language mechanics) will be done largely in our strong language arts and history and social studies programs, literacy goes beyond any individual subject. Indeed, math, science, technology, art, and music have their own literacy demands in which our educational program engages our students. The literacy we should seek is ultimately the ability to understand and influence the world around us and to use language and other forms of communication to create and articulate meaningful, purposeful lives.
The buildings in which our church-school life unfolds should continue to be aspirational spaces - designed with functional integrity, filled with beauty, and always enhancing a child's desire to learn and grow. There are many potential uses for "bricks and mortar," including sidewalks and lighting, parking, more instructional space, a stand-alone library, and technology space closer to classrooms. We should test all potential changes to our physical plant for their aesthetic contribution to our school and their concrete contributions to function and safety. Finally, we should ensure that any changes in the physical spaces we inhabit will enhance either our educational program, the ease with which a teacher can teach, or our shared quality of life at St. Patrick's.
St. Patrick's believes that a strong working relationship between home and school is necessary for each child to enjoy the optimal educational experience. Such a relationship facilitates the development of shared values and aspirations for our children and creates opportunities for adult growth in our understanding of these children. We recognize parents as a child's first and most formative teachers, and we should involve them, in substantive ways and with great frequency, in their children's lives at school. For years, the imagination, talents, and commitment of its parents have enriched St. Patrick's. This tradition should continue even as we seek new ways for parents to participate.
Great teachers never stop learning. Recognizing that fact, St. Patrick's has created a "teaching culture," where traditional techniques are enriched with experimentation and innovation, as exceptional professionals give "total engagement" to the meritorious, vigorous task of teaching young children. Maintaining their focus on exceptional teaching, faculty members rely on "practitioner-inquiry" to advance their own professional knowledge and that of colleagues. In return, St. Patrick's should provide unmatched respect, resources, and growth opportunities for teachers. With the continued development of our recruiting philosophy, and with the expansion of opportunities we provide for the development of our teachers themselves, St. Patrick's will become, over time, a "Destination Posting" for exceptional teachers.
In the elementary years, a child's critical encounters are with other people, not with machines. At the same time, proficient technological literacy is increasingly valuable, even now and certainly later in life. With these twin, potentially contradictory, goals in mind, St. Patrick's Technology Master Plan specifies (and therefore limits) the Kindergarten - Grade 8 "tool kit" of skills and applications each child will master. These choices are intended to support broader literacy goals in organizing, writing, and producing text, and, for older students, in research and writing.
As St. Patrick's is a nursery, elementary, and middle school ending in Grade 8, our stewardship includes our students' middle school placement. In partnership with St. Patrick's families, the school is both guide and advocate for each student's next academic step. For every graduate, there should exist plentiful, worthy placement options. Intense during the Grade 6 year, the preparation for matriculation continues across the whole of the St. Patrick's experience, as students learn to achieve academically and as they become individuals with unique gifts, character, and voice. Without compromising the integrity and age-appropriate nature of our program, St. Patrick's should continue to attend to the inevitability of a next step and to the school's vital role in advocacy and preparation.
Our relationship with St. Patrick's Episcopal Church is a central, distinguishing feature of life at the Day School and the foundation of the system of values we embrace. The education of our children is inspired by our church-school identity and reflects it with our commitment to their moral and spiritual growth and to their participation in the values and service to others found at the heart of the Episcopal tradition.
St. Patrick's is unique for actively seeking out a range of gifts and talents in its students. While many of our students arrive superbly prepared for academic success, St. Patrick's should never become a narrowly defined elite. Instead, we embrace the boundless potential of childhood, when a fascination with the world reveals a range of possibilities unmatched at any other time, when excellence can be taught and modeled. We believe that seeking out a range of gifts places emphasis (for us, correctly) on the growth and potential of childhood, and that each child arrives worthy of respect, high standards, and achievement. All our children should leave St. Patrick's with a deep sense of the infinite value of every individual and, ultimately, of the importance of applying their gifts to wise and worthy purposes.
That our children will grow and change is a given. So, too, must adults continue to learn and grow and change, a process that those who educate children must embrace with deliberateness and intentionality. As teachers pursue their own professional development, we learn more about how children learn and identify new methods and materials to foster that learning process. This embrace of continual growth also extends to our educational program. Committed to excellence, we will maintain on-going review and improvement of our curriculum, accomplished with coherence and consistency, and articulated with clarity to current and prospective families.
We recognize that we need not choose between being a warm, nurturing, joyful place— where children see that they are known, respected, and loved—and one that sets challenging standards for our children's academic work, for their sense of responsibility, and for their behavior. To choose one over the other suggests an impoverished understanding of how one nurtures children, of what truly brings them a sense of joy and self-worth. In this pairing of rigor and nurture, St. Patrick's can find its unique style and position.
St. Patrick's is a better place because it welcomes children, families, faculty, and staff members who demonstrate the range of differences that enrich humanity. We stand for tolerance, inclusivity, and the deep-seated belief in the value of all God's children. Even as an Episcopal parish day school, we are "made whole" by children and families from a variety of faith traditions. Likewise, we seek community members who reflect a range of racial, cultural, ethnic, and socio-economic backgrounds (and physical challenges, to the extent we can provide an appropriate setting). Just as we stand for inclusivity, so should our educational program fairly embrace content of excellent quality that represents the range of faces, voices, and differences that we find in the world around us.
Children and adults at St. Patrick's are blessed with a bounty of talents, gifts, and opportunities. The fullest expression of gratitude for these opportunities is found not just as each child and adult strives for individual excellence and responsibility, but also as each individual learns to give back, to serve others, and to be a constructive part of building a better world.
Thank you for your interest in St. Patrick's.
Welcome to our thriving community of students, faculty and staff, and parents, all engaged in the important work of preparing students to live with integrity, empathy, and purpose.
Every member of our community is committed to putting students at the center of our work, as imagined by our guiding philosophy, Exceptional Literacy. I encourage you to spend time on this website to learn more about St. Patrick’s.
I also invite you to call and arrange a visit. There is no better way to experience the combination of warmth and challenge that distinguishes this dynamic place.
Peter A. Barrett
Head of School
While doing a bit of Christmas shopping in a bookstore recently, I somehow found myself in the cooking section, a fact that some of those close to me might find amusing. Crammed into a corner on the second floor, the cooking section featured a single chair, occupied by a woman whose right foot bobbed up and down as she read with her legs crossed at the knees, and a ladder. A latecomer to the section suggested I step aside so that he, too, could browse the section. The holiday spirit prevailed.
Undeterred, I continued to peruse the shelves until they yielded the prize I thought I might as well seek, as long as I was there: English Bread and Yeast Cookery by Elizabeth David. You see, there had been a time—perhaps before daughters, although I find those two-thirds of my life difficult to reconstruct—that I had baked bread, and the Elizabeth David book was my guide. Nothing fancy, of course. Indeed, English Bread and Yeast Cookery dubbed my favorite recipe “A Basic Loaf.” The U.S. equivalents asked for three cups (“or so”) of unbleached flour and three-quarters of a cup of wholewheat flour, a half ounce of yeast, three teaspoons of sea salt, and about a cup and a half of water (“at body heat”). “Stone-ground flours with germ intact,” of course, “are to be preferred.” Without the time to search the basement for the tins I had relied on in my baking, to shop for the proper flours (with germ intact), and to give an afternoon over to the rising and knocking back of the dough, I contented myself with the reading of the recipe chapter entitled, appropriately enough, “Bread.”
The chapter opens with a lengthy section from M. Vivian Hughes’ A London Home in the Nineties. It reads, in part:
I remembered how often mother used to send me out when I was a little child to buy a pennyworth of yeast at the baker’s, for her saffron cake. So I sent Emma out on a like errand. She had never made bread, but recalled a saying of her mother’s—“All that bread wants is time and warmth.”
The section continues, People dislike the idea of trying this for themselves because of the “time it takes.” The bread certainly wants time, I assure them, but not their time; it doesn’t asked to be watched, and can be trusted alone in the house; the actual labour in making a batch takes about six minutes from start to finish.
At this holiday time, let me suggest to you that the shared enterprise in which we are engaged has much in common with the breads destined for British ovens—and my oven, too, if the break offers me the opportunities I hope it does. All that children want is time and warmth. While they may take watching, and cannot always be trusted alone in the house, and all too often require more than six minutes from start to finish, ultimately all they want is time and warmth. May this season of Christmas and Hanukkah and Kwanzaa offer all of you, and especially your children, that time and warmth.
Columnist Sally Jenkins wrote a sadly accurate piece in the August 22 edition of the Washington Post entitled “Mo’ne Davis is out of Little League World Series, and women’s sports are shoved from spotlight.” The column captured the characteristic apathy of male-dominated sports media toward girls and women—unless they are playing against boys and men.
It’s about them, Jenkins quotes tennis legend Billie Jean King as saying. You’re in a male arena. [Annika] Sorenstam played in a men’s tournament. Babe Zaharias played against men. I played Bobby Riggs. Those are the things that get attention, because we’re in the all-male arena, and the males are now interested, because it’s about them. That’s the essence of it.
Thirteen-year-old Mo’ne Davis, whose Taney Dragons had just been eliminated from the LLWS, captured widespread interest this summer as her pitching led the way for the Philadelphia team, becoming the first girl to win a LLWS game, appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and drawing record audiences to Little League broadcasts on ESPN. But had she been playing ball against other girls, instead of boys, Jenkins writes, they never would have wasted a thought on her.
As important as Jenkins’ column is—and I strongly recommend that you read it—it was with similar sadness that I read this observation in her first paragraph about what Mo’ne Davis has to look forward to in the more immediate term:
Now she will go back to taking penciled tests, as opposed to being recruited into social-science conversations about gender and whether biology is destiny. Everyone wants to say something important about Davis, but what really needs to be said is this: As she returns to the dim, dull regular school day, may her experience as a Little Leaguer not be the pinnacle of her athletic life.
I was struck by Jenkins’ ready association of schooling with penciled tests, dimness, and dullness. It may be difficult for any human activity to compete with the bright lights that Mo’ne experienced during the Dragons’ run to the LLWS semifinals. However short-lived it may be, the attention of Sports Illustrated and ESPN may be difficult to top, even for such a remarkable athlete. Furthermore, the way in which baseball fully engages Mo’ne’s mind, body, and spirit, the challenges it provides game in and game out, and the sense of accomplishment that she experiences at every step along the way represent a high bar for school-based learning activities, but not one we should dismiss as a standard for our work with young people.
Can we not design teaching and learning activities that fully engage young people’s minds, bodies, and spirits? Can we not challenge them day in and day out? Can we not offer young people a real sense of accomplishment by inviting them into substantive, meaningful learning experiences they can approach with curiosity, intelligence, energy, and purpose—and perhaps even enhance that sense of accomplishment when they attempt an activity, fall short, and learn to bounce back from the inevitable disappointments that occur with tasks that are varied and challenging?
I doubt that the independent school that Mo’ne attends would welcome Jenkins’ characterization of the school day to which she returned on September 3, along with many tens of thousands of American schoolchildren. But I worry that Jenkins’ easy association of schooling with the dim, dull, and regular is, like the theme of this particular column, sadly accurate for far too many of those schoolchildren. And we, as educators, have only ourselves to blame—those of us who have allowed penciled tests to become the primary way for young people to demonstrate what they know, what they can do, and what should become of them. Those of us who have denied young people opportunities to become deeply engaged in learning experiences that enable them to find real meaning and a deeper understanding of the fascinating and complex world around them. Those of us who have chosen routines over substance, bits and pieces over the fullness of human knowledge, failing to shape and navigate the “approach to complexity” that Harvard’s David Perkins identifies as formal and informal education’s “most fundamental and general problem.”
Curiously, the 2009 Perkins text shared by St. Patrick’s faculty this summer, Making Learning Whole: How Seven Principles of Teaching Can Transform Education, explores how formal teaching and learning environments can more closely approximate the process of learning baseball that Perkins himself experienced as a youngster. While Perkins admits that “[b]aseball for me was a triumph of mediocrity,” he nonetheless teases out seven principles that St. Patrick’s faculty have been reading about and discussing, part of our commitment to making the education of our children vibrant, creative, challenging, and meaningful: Play the whole game, make the game worth playing, work on the hard parts, play out of town, uncover the hidden game, learn from the team and from the other teams, and learn the game of learning.
Similarly, faculty and administrators have engaged the topic of how St. Patrick’s can become an even more student-centered place—what that concept means and what it would look like—as we strive to strengthen the educational experience for every young person in our midst.
As your sons and daughters begin their school year at St. Patrick’s, where we commit ourselves to striving to reach, and even surpass, that high bar in our conceptualization, design, and implementation of teaching and learning activities, I wish for them and for all young people the kind of educational experiences they deserve—not the dim, dull, and regular, but the vibrant, creative, challenging, and meaningful in the hands of an extraordinary faculty.
Peter A. Barrett,
Head of School
From time to time, I have remarked on the opportunistic fashion in which some of my St. Patrick’s colleagues and I relentlessly search for language that helps us understand our shared work better and sustains us in that work. We have relied not only on educational research but on fiction, poetry, proverbs, and cookbooks . . . and, occasionally, and with only the shortest of steps, the sports section of the Washington Post.
Which brings us, of course, to Tom Boswell’s column last week with the headline, “Washington Nationals spring training: Livan Hernandez, 36, is in no rush to call it a career.” The column explored, among other things, whether Hernandez’s 2010 season—in which he pitched 211 innings with the 14th-best ERA in the National League, allowed two runs or less in 20 starts, and earned a 10-12 record on a woeful team—was something of “a fluke at the end of a fading career” or if Hernandez, like Greg Maddux, could actually have another five or so good years in him.
The column also touched on Hernandez’s odd negotiations on a 2011 contract, his “deep loyalty, even honor, in dealing with” his team, his iconic status as “baseball’s emblem of pure joy in playing,” his golf game, and his (supposed) age. But there were two particular paragraphs that caught my eye:
Perhaps because he learned the game in baseball-mad Cuba, perhaps because he’s an independent thinker by nature, Hernandez has his own unique views on everything. “I hate when pitchers say, ‘He hit a homer, but it was a good pitch.’ No, that’s a bad pitch. A good pitch the hitter misses or grounds into a double play,” Livan said. “You must not throw what the hitter is looking for. Then even a curve in the dirt can be a bad pitch.”
So, don’t impose your theories on the game. Instead, watch each hitter, treat him as unique, and be open so that the game can constantly teach you.
Of course, there is some risk in equating the relationship between teacher and learner with the relationship between pitcher and batter. After all, the pitcher is interested primarily in getting the batter out, unless a particular situation in the rich and complex game of baseball favors a different result at the moment. Regrettably, sooner or later many of us encounter a teacher who seems to thrill to that analogy, having honed a wind-up, delivery, or array of pitches designed to confound the student, to convey something that he isn’t looking for . . . to have him swing and miss or ground into a double play.
Sorry. Not interested in that kind of “teaching.” Rather, keeping with the baseball analogy, I am an ardent fan of teachers who, like Hernandez, maintain the joy of the game and those who consistently bring their best stuff to challenge their students, as any great teacher must do. I am confident that they find intriguing the idea of a pitcher not imposing his theories on the game, of watching each hitter and treating him as unique, of remaining open to the game so that it can constantly teach you. Surely that description of a pitcher provides something of a road map . . . a game plan, if you will . . . for a teacher: Avoid ideology, study each learner carefully, treat her as unique, and always, always remain open to the manifold possibilities of the teaching and learning relationship—this rich and complex “game”—so that it can constantly teach you, recognizing and valuing the teacher as learner.
The Nationals played their first spring training game this week—a win, as it happens, as were the second and the third, with Livan starting the second game. There is either much for Nationals fans to look forward to this season, or not so much. But when Livan Hernandez takes the mound on Opening Day, I will be reminded how grateful I am to him, with an assist from Tom Boswell, for stressing the need to study each learner/hitter carefully, treat him as unique, and remain open to the game so that it can constantly teach you.
Peter A. Barrett
Head of School
"Here You Are, Alive. Would You Like to Make a Comment?”
In preparing to welcome faculty and staff back for the new school year, I wrote to them in early August, “One of the many things I like about being in a school like St. Patrick’s is that there is a real sense of rhythm that shapes our lives in schools. From the very first days of school in the fall . . . through to Thanksgiving and then Christmas . . . on into spring . . . and then all of the excitement of finishing up in June and looking ahead to the next grade level as school resumes after the change of pace that summer brings . . . those rhythms move us joyfully through the year.”
“One of the hazards of such a reality, of course, is that rhythms can become routines, and routines can become ruts, and I’d like not to think about what ruts become. One of the other things that I like about being in a school like St. Patrick’s is the determination and creativity you bring to your quest for vitality and freshness in our shared work here, qualities that keep those rhythms joyful and inviting, and always challenging, for the young people with whom we are privileged to spend our days.” That quest for vitality and freshness must always guide us in our work with young people—and with each other—so that the cadences of the schoolhouse shape without constraining, reveal rather than obscure, so that they don’t become mere routines or, worse, ruts that force eager wheels into tracks cut long ago, now hardened and unyielding. So, as we ready for the return of colleagues and students, we are always on the look-out for language that reminds us of why we chose to do this work in the first place, language that recalls us to its importance in our own lives as well as in the lives of the young people who will soon, once more, breathe life into this August-muted place, language that sustains us when accumulating demands threaten to crowd out a sense of possibility.
I’m not sure just how poet Mary Oliver, the Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning author, would react to that search leading us to her Long Life: Essays and Other Writings. (“I make little use of the schoolhouse,” she observes at one point. “[I]t is the natural world that has always offered the hint of our single and immense divinity—a million unopened fountains.”) But we are nothing if not opportunistic in our ongoing search for language that helps us understand our work better and sustains us in that work, relying not only on educational research but on fiction, poetry, and proverbs.
Contrasting the work of the poet with that of the writer of prose, Ms. Oliver writes, “Poets must read and study, but also they must learn to tilt and whisper, shout, or dance, each in his or her own way, or we might just as well copy the old books. But, no, that would never do, for always the new self swimming around in the old world feels itself uniquely verbal. And that is just the point: how the world, moist and bountiful, calls to each of us to make a new and serious response. That’s the big question, the one the world throws at you every morning. ‘Here you are, alive. Would you like to make a comment?’”
Isn’t that just the point for educators as well as poets? For all of its challenges, contradictions, even threats, the world is a “moist and bountiful” place, one that offers endless fascination to our young people and that we have chosen to help them understand better, even as we endeavor to understand it better ourselves. And that world “calls to each of us to make a new and serious response,” not to remain uninterested or passive or to respond only as those around us are responding. We have chosen to make a comment:
We teach. In doing so, we “tilt and whisper, shout, or dance, each in his or her own way,” striving to invite young people to make their own comments on the world and to enable them to do so with intelligence, understanding, compassion, and purpose.
Peter A. Barrett
Head of School
About a month ago, the children in N1 and N2 presented their music program in the Nursery School and Lower School music room. The following week, the teachers in one of the Nursery classrooms wrote in their newsletter to parents, “Thanks for coming out to support your children last week for the Nursery music program. We felt like they really did a lovely job, and they certainly adored having you come to watch them sing. As we lined up in the classroom to go downstairs, [one of the students] confided to [a teacher], ‘This is the day I’ve been waiting for my whole life.’”
I’m not sure how many of you remember your own Nursery music program. It’s the one at which then Mrs. Spector, and now Mrs. White, alerts parents before the children enter the music room that almost anything can happen. They have asked parents to stay quiet as children enter in order not to make them any more nervous for their first performance and not to eat during the performance, remembering that a bag of popcorn in the audience one year attracted an inordinate amount of attention from the children. They also warn parents that individual children might not sing, might rush out into the audience, or might even choose to unburden themselves of articles of clothing.
My point is not the faint praise that would come with observing that neither Ms. Petersen nor Mr. Smyth need warn your parents these days about what might happen when you appear on stage. Your remarkable spring musical, Rock Around the Block, drove that point home in resounding fashion, and all of you arrived at the final curtain fully clothed.
Instead, I want to return to what that Nursery child whispered to his teacher as the class prepared to go downstairs for the program: “This is the day I’ve been waiting for my whole life.” What a remarkable thing for a four-year-old to observe before an event that the Nursery School endeavors to keep as low-key as possible for the very reason that there’s almost no telling how any one four-year-old might react to being up on stage in front of family and friends—and classmates’ families and friends. “This is the day I’ve been waiting for my whole life.”
No longer Nursery Schoolers, or Kindergartners, or even Lower Schoolers, you would no doubt tread ever-so-carefully when it comes to such a bold—or, perhaps more to the point, revealing—statement regarding an event in your life, especially something having to do with school. The process of growing up regrettably often puts us more on guard, makes us more reserved, when it comes to expressing our feelings. Some of you here tonight, particularly those whom the process of growing up has brought to adulthood, and maybe particularly those of you whom it has brought to teacherhood, may wonder what the word "reserved" has to do with this Grade 6 Class of 2008. While there are obviously some who are more reserved than others in this group of forty-three wonderful young people, in the aggregate, the Class of 2008 is just as fun-loving and boisterous as they come—and for that, we are grateful.
And yet, oh fun-loving and boisterous members of the Class of 2008, you have probably cultivated a certain reserve when it comes to your feelings, either because you think that reserve comes with the territory as an almost-teenager or that reserve is a necessary characteristic in order to display a certain cool. I expect that you have engaged in a variety of activities—even here at school and maybe even this year—that far outpace that homespun Nursery music program with respect to their potential for challenge, accomplishment, and satisfaction. In terms of performances, there have been in just the last few months the Recitation Contest (with four of the five commended students, including the overall winner, coming from this very class), the Spring Concert, and the Spring Musical. How many of the participants in those sparkling performances thought in the moments before their time in the spotlight, “This is the day I’ve been waiting for my whole life”?
Adults somehow have a way of saying things that they don’t mean to be criticisms come out as highly critical. Sometimes I fear that we as teachers have mastered that very skill. So let me observe here that it is not my point that those of you who haven’t recognized recently your involvement in something that you’ve been waiting for your whole life are somehow deficient, lacking in insight, feeling, or honesty. In fact, it may be that you’ve instead recognized a simple reality—that is, that the world, including the small corner occupied by St. Patrick’s, is full of wondrous experiences and opportunities, and that part of the challenge is pacing yourself so that you avoid some kind of system overload.
Ten years ago, almost to the day, I remember happening upon a Grade 6 teacher in tears in the Church Courtyard following her first graduation ceremony, that one involving a class that, just like the 2008 edition, comprised a really interesting, talented, and creative group of young people. Figuring—hoping, really—that she had many more graduations to come, I offered her just one piece of advice: “You’ve got to learn to pace yourself.”
Which brings us to tonight, and to Wednesday night, and to one of those events that, at some point in your time at St. Patrick’s, you may have been waiting for your whole life—your Grade 6 graduation. Now, in truth, this event has changed during your very own days at St. Patrick’s. When seven of you joined St. Patrick’s in Kindergarten—you know who you are, and you are a sterling group—and brought to thirty-four the collection that is still here today at St. Patrick’s, that very same fall, we enrolled our first Grade 7 class. And now, most of you, sixty per cent of you, will be continuing on to our MacArthur Campus.
Nonetheless, this Grade 6 graduation marks an important point in your life. While some of you are completing your days at St. Patrick’s, all of you are completing your days in elementary school, the thirty-fifth class to do so here. Across the more than three decades worth of classes, Grade 6 students have routinely seen in their graduations, accurately or not, what they have called the ending of their childhoods. To my knowledge, Grade 8 students never think of their graduation in that way, perhaps because they regard childhood as too distant. But many of the hundreds of St. Patrick’s Grade 6 graduates, and no doubt some of you, have seen it in that very way, the conclusion of your childhoods.
And I’ve got to believe that that’s something you’ve been waiting for your whole life—maybe not yet to be an adult, but no longer to be a child. Such are the days that you enter now in your life, whether here at St. Patrick’s or elsewhere, but in either event, fortunately for us, near at hand. Let me just remind you—implore you, really—to recognize that there is so much from childhood and from your days at St. Patrick’s that is worth holding dear to you. One of those characteristics is to be ever open to your experiences, to recognize in what you have just done, in what you are doing now, or in what you are about to do, something that you have waited for your whole life. True, you’ve got to learn to pace yourself—I guess life can’t always be lived at the bubbly pitch of every new experience being something you’ve been waiting for your whole life—but try to preserve the freshness and excitement of human experience.
I guess that is what I wish for you now—the ability, the determination, really to seek out experiences that you have been waiting for your whole life. At the same time, you need to recognize such experiences for what they are—whether you sought them out or found yourself right in the thick of them. And always, always, you need to savour those experiences, to involve others in them, and to confide those experiences to others. Never lose that ability to recognize your experiences for what they are. Never grow up too much, become too adult, to savour those experiences—and never take them for granted.
And maybe Wednesday night, sitting on the risers with your forty-two classmates, preparing to stand at just the right time with the rest of your row and then to file down to shake first my hand and then the hand of Mr. Powell, just maybe you’ll think, if only just for a moment, that this is the day you’ve been waiting for your whole life.
Some months ago, Ms. Smith reported to Mr. Smyth and me the enthusiasm and quality of your work with the poet Robert Frost. She thought maybe, just maybe, there might be something worth talking about this evening. While I decided against Frost as the starting point for my remarks this evening, settling instead on the amazing words of a St. Patrick’s Nursery student, I will instead conclude with a poem by Robert Frost, “Into My Own.”
ONE of my wishes is that those dark trees,
So old and firm they scarcely show the breeze,
Were not, as ’twere, the merest mask of gloom,
But stretched away unto the edge of doom.
I should not be withheld but that some day
Into their vastness I should steal away,
Fearless of ever finding open land,
Or highway where the slow wheel pours the sand.
I do not see why I should e’er turn back,
Or those should not set forth upon my track
To overtake me, who should miss me here
And long to know if still I held them dear.
They would not find me changed from him they knew—
Only more sure of all I thought was true.
The adults in this room will always long to know if you still hold them dear. Please know, too, that we will always hold you dear, wherever you might be upon your track. Congratulations on the point that you have reached in your young lives. May those lives continue to be filled with experiences that you’ve been waiting for your whole life.
Peter A. Barrett
Head of School
Education is fundamentally, perhaps relentlessly, a future-directed activity. So much a part of society's ability to conceptualize education and indeed of educators' ability to conceptualize their own profession, this future-orientation—captured in some version of the conviction that teachers don't know where their influence stops, for they touch eternity—ultimately confounds our ability to construct classrooms and schools that are respectful of time in all its fullness. Specifically, we run the risk of snuffing out the present in our classrooms, resulting in settings that defer meaning for their participants to some vague future.
The present, however, has disappeared neither quietly nor completely. It resides, in large part, in our primary and elementary schools, in our Lower Schools. In fact, the Lower School distinguishes itself from the Middle School and Upper School first and foremost in its different conception of time. So important is that difference, that we can identify the Lower School as a different timescape, one that values the present in ways too often absent from the settings in which older children learn. The Lower School, then, has become the last outpost of the present.
Arguing that education should not, or that Lower Schools do not, have a future-orientation is simply foolish. Parents and teachers and society should have aspirations for their young people, aspirations that hopefully reflect that society's best hopes for itself. And those young people themselves must learn to set goals, to strive toward achieving them, to persist in their efforts, and when necessary along the way to set aside more attractive possibilities in the present.
But teachers of students of any age touch the future only in their ability to help students achieve meaning in the present. The point is not to extract the present from some list of temporal options. Rather, we must first recognize that the richness of time—past, present, and future—provides a complex context for meaning in our schools and offers a critical perspective from which to view what goes on there. Having done so, we must then not ignore the importance of the present in the midst of our determination to prepare our students for the future.
While educators have not ignored the importance of time in their work, they have labored within a narrow conception of time. In part because of the perceived future-orientation of the enterprise and in part because of the ever-growing demands on the school for specific curricula, programs, and services, time becomes a precious resource at best, an enemy more likely. Rarely do educators conceive of time as what I shall call a locus of meaning. Conceptualizing time in this manner allows us to see that meaning may reside, temporally, in the past, revealed largely in subject matter; in the future, revealed by what the individual "does" with her life; or in the present, revealed by the personal meaning the student constructs as a result of the activities in which she becomes involved.
Concerned about the manner in which schools can negate the quality of the present lives of teachers and students and diminish "their possibilities for engaging fully as persons in the present and future," Zaret cautions against viewing schools as "the means to something else." Instead, she writes, schools should offer opportunities for activities and experiences that have an integrity not subject to some temporally removed point of reference. "Through an active, seeking consciousness we create, revise, and recreate our understandings of the world," Zaret writes. "There is an ongoing interplay in consciousness between our past histories . . . and the quality of our experiences in present situations."
Ninety years earlier, Dewey had spurned schooling in which the "value of these [lessons and habits] is conceived as lying largely in the remote future; the child must do those these things for the sake of something else he is to do; they are mere preparations." More than a century before Dewey's comment, Rousseau complained that educators "devote themselves to what a man ought to know, without asking what a child is capable of learning." In spite of the expanding knowledge base concerning how students of all ages learn best, concerns about time as a locus of meaning have persisted across the two centuries since Rousseau's Emile.
The Lower School teacher recognizes that she ignores the present at her own risk. Furthermore, she recognizes that the value of that present, its potential meaning, resides not simply in and of itself but in its ability to comprehend the individual pasts of her students and to propel them toward futures that, while perhaps only dimly glimpsed, hold promise and opportunity.
The curriculum occurs in time as well as space. The school year, the school day, the class period, the lesson: Each represents a segment of time that shapes the lives of teachers and students throughout their school experiences. But time offers a variety of other perspectives on the curriculum beyond these rather obvious divisions. It is not just a commodity, not just an organizer. Recognizing the rich temporal possibilities of the school setting, Ben-Peretz examines distinctions among instructional time, curricular time, sociological time, and experienced-personal time. It is the construct of experienced-personal time, which overlaps with each of the others, that concerns us here.
In an account rooted in temporal considerations, King describes curriculum as a situated event. As an event, "its essence cannot be captured in or equated with a lesson plan or a curriculum guide," forms that offer stasis and advertise meaning regardless of time or place or actors. Curriculum draws its meaning from the multiple, overlapping contexts—including temporal contexts—in which it occurs, in which it is embedded. "The curriculum emerges as it happens in the classroom," King writes. Curriculum is all movement, interaction, flow—its characteristics often "fleeting" and "visible only during the curricular event itself."
Elsewhere, Lofty's Time to Write offers a temporally sensitive look at the teaching of writing in a particular locale. Subtitled The Influence of Time and Culture on Learning to Write, the study relies heavily on the notion of timescape, "a term that suggests a shape both spatial and temporal, a form of time whose rhythms and extensions influence the quality of classroom life." My contention is that the Lower School, perhaps benefiting from its professional ties to the field of early childhood education, constructs a timescape that is fundamentally different from those of the Middle School and the Upper School. My own discomfort with the clichés that often clutter the Lower School world—for example, that we teach the whole child, that our work is child-centered rather than subject-centered or, of course, that we seek the teachable moment—finds some measure of relief in the recognition that the thinking behind those remarks is essentially temporal and indeed presentist at its very heart.
The Upper School and, to a lesser and hopefully decreasing degree, the Middle School arrange themselves around subject areas and, within those areas, arrange their courses in sequences that create their own imperatives. Movement through a subject area becomes less an accumulation of meaningful presents than a movement, at its worst a forced march, toward a remote future. Learning looks far too often like coverage, which diminishes the importance of the present in favor of the future, while meaning, which rests on what the child is able to make of the idea in the present, far too often disappears.
Given the cultural obsession with education as a future-directed activity, an obsession fueled in large measure by concerns about America's ability to compete economically with the rest of the world, the meaning of any particular present dissolves in the face of a rush toward that future. Of course, perceived links between schooling and the workplace, whether through direct entry into the job market upon school-completion or -leaving or by way of prestigious colleges and professional schools, increase such concerns within households. Complicating this situation may be a peculiarly American habit of diminishing the importance of the present in favor of the future, a legacy of our national past as a young, restless, rapidly growing country of boundless opportunity.
An unrelenting part of the modern child's life, school will no longer be a part of that life when the individual is "grown-up." School is preparation for the future, as Dewey suggested, but not of the future. The Upper School is, then, in curious ways closer to the future, a truth that may help explain the relative significance accorded to the Upper School. More distant from the future, the Lower School and the teachers who labor in it experience the cultural disregard for the importance of such work. Hence the response of a parent of a rising fifth-grade girl who said to me many years ago when I called him about meeting with me in late August or early September to discuss the year ahead: "I'll worry about that when she's in eleventh grade." While there is some basis for the caricature of prospective independent school parents seeking admission to highly desired schools for their yet-unborn child and, once successful, relentlessly tracking that child's progress toward acceptance at the college of one's (very likely the parents') choice, there is also a sense among Lower School teachers that they benefit from their distance from that future, that they can attend to the child in the present before such concerns close in on student, on teacher, on curriculum, on time.
Let a teacher talk about time and he will probably talk about how little there is of it—too little time for what he must do and what he feels he should do—let alone what he (or the student, if the teacher is so inclined) would like to do. And non-instructional responsibilities siphon off much of what little time there is, the teacher might complain.
The relationship among time, what is taught, and how it is taught is a compelling one. In his 1983 work, High School: A Report on Secondary Education in America, Boyer writes,
Just as the arrangement of space is standardized in the American classroom, so is the use of time. If ideas are to be thoroughly examined, time must be wisely used. Time is the student's treasure. However, what occurs in the classroom is often a welter of routine procedures and outside interruptions that come to dominate the life of students and teachers alike and, in the end, restrict learning. Time becomes an end in itself.
A "tyranny of time," Boyer calls it, one that contributes to teachers' feelings of powerlessness and that, coupled with the frequently heavy teaching load, helps explain their reliance on standard procedures such as question-and-answer, recitation, seat work, and homework.
Boyer's work appeared in the first rush of an ongoing reform literature (A Nation at Risk sounded its shrill warning in 1983). Shaped largely by concerns about global economic competitiveness, those documents demonstrated in stark terms a future-orientation that continues to guide reform rhetoric. If time itself became a topic, it appeared as something we needed more of, even if that additional time would operate less as what Boyer called "the student's treasure" and more within the standard approaches that characterize the school. Rather than providing more of the present, additional time would simply provide more time to prepare for the future. While more recent literature recognizes that time itself is in need of reform, and that reform activity demands time not currently available to teachers and other participants in that process, it never escapes the conviction that time is essentially a commodity and that the answer lies in part in having more of it.
Nearly a decade after the first reform salvos, Congress directed its own gaze in very specific ways toward the nature of time in schools, forming the National Education Commission on Time and Learning. The title of the commission's 1994 report, Prisoners of Time, echoes Boyer's tyranny metaphor. The report, which states that "American public schools have held time constant and let learning vary" over the past century and a half, finds schools, students, teachers, administrators, and parents captives of the school clock and calendar. Like most documents of this sort, the report is unable to escape the clutches of global economic competition, linking time to quality and wringing its hands over how American students can be expected to compete with students in foreign industrial powers who spend twice as much time in core academic subjects. It senses "a dawning consensus, just now being articulated, that school time, broadly conceived, is quality's ally."
Two other recent reports demonstrate the prevailing concern with time as a commodity. Time for Reform, a 1992 RAND report by Purnell and Hill, argues that schools and school districts intent on reform must recognize the importance of time in such a process and suggests ways of creating time to support the process. The National Education Association, meanwhile, weighed in with its own 1993 report, It's About Time, which trains its attention in large measure on the control of time rather than simply the amount of time. "The public debate of adding extra hours to the school day or days to the school calendar is shallow dialogue," the NEA report states, "if divorced from the several fundamental concepts of the use and control of time in American schools," including recognition that teachers' work comprises more than just standing in front of a classroom.
Time remains a concern to educators. But the public discussion of time does indeed remain shallow at best, rivetted on how much, with one eye on the clock and the other eye on the Germans and Japanese. While we are likely to hear discussion of the relationship between time and learning, it is less likely that we will hear discussion of the relationship between time and meaning, and certainly not of where, within some temporal framework, we locate that meaning.
Lofty's definition of timescape embraces both spatial and temporal elements within a particular context. The Lower School distinguishes itself from the Middle School and Upper School along both axes. Lower School classrooms, for example, commonly offer differentiated space, including areas for dramatic play, quiet reading or writing, artwork, and computers. That differentiation dwindles as one moves across the Lower School, replaced by individual student desks in single-use classrooms, and disappears entirely when one enters the Upper School, where differentiated spaces emerge as separate spaces even beyond those familiar to the younger students: the seminar room, the science lab, the language lab, the computer room. In corresponding fashion, the movement among these spaces, so often guided in the Lower School by individual choice rather than curricular imperative, either disappears or occurs only according to some elaborate schedule, the triumph of (or uneasy truce with) time as organizer.
Lofty identifies as one of his timescapes personal or existential time, "time of extreme concentration and engagement in the activity at hand, whether in school or at home." Lofty continues,
Given a tension that to a degree is inevitable and even productive, if schools are to equip students to move toward a range of possible futures, they will need to ask how they can enable students to establish their identities within a setting that endorses some different notions of time and being.
Lofty explores the lack of opportunity for students either to control or to take responsibility for their own time in schools. Their choices may represent "wasted time," as far as teachers are concerned, and perhaps even activities worthy of punishment: Talking during class, tardiness, leaving campus, or daydreaming. In the Lower School, particularly in settings for the youngest students, there is a recognition that in selecting different presents, the student is imagining different futures , a concept fundamental to the importance of play at that level. Boyer wonders about high school students, "How . . . can the relatively passive and docile roles of students prepare them to participate as informed, active, and questioning citizens? How can the regimented schedule and the routinized atmosphere of classrooms prepare students for independence as adults?"
Characterizing the Lower School as essentially presentist is a risky business, as is suggesting that the value of the present has all but disappeared in a future-oriented, careerist Upper School. What I have called an obsession with the future is evident in any number of Lower Schools: Why wait to prepare for the future? Certainly someone else will be preparing, so that every year one delays means wasted time, lost ground, a widened gap. Perhaps just as likely is the Upper School classroom that reflects, in spite of its undifferentiated physical space and tenuous temporal existence within a succession of 50-minute periods, an abiding concern for the present and its students' ability to construct meaning within that present.
But the configurations of independent schools often create or stress the discontinuities of schooling rather than its continuities. That is, voices that discuss ways of thinking about and being with students that predominate in early childhood and primary settings dwindle as one moves through the Lower School and may perhaps be all but silenced as one reaches the Middle School and certainly the Upper School, settings that are likely to be physically and administratively distinct from the Lower School. Teachers of older students might argue that the shift in the temporal locus of meaning away from the present and toward the future is entirely appropriate, reflecting as it does the cognitive development of the student, away from the need for a more concrete, hands-on approach, as one former colleague characterized it, to a more abstract, minds-on approach. Perhaps. But school routines and teaching methods that take the present away from the student also take away some possibilities for the future.
We must regard schools from the vantage point of time, not merely what the teacher or student has time for (although what a school does make time for says much about what it values) but also the nature of time, its functions, and the relative values of past, present, and future. Of paramount importance is the identification of the locus of meaning, with respect to time, in any aspect of the curriculum. Schools eager for guidance in creating a different timescape, one that values the present more highly, might do well first to look toward their Lower Schools.
Peter A. Barrett
Head of School
A version of this article appeared in the Winter 1995 issue of Independent School.
Given the forecast of inclement weather and resulting hazardous conditions, St. Patrick's will be closed on Wednesday, February 20.