Welcome to the parents' newsletter from the Head of School, Emily Jones. Here you will find notes about life on campus, upcoming events, updates on schedule changes and links to our most recent website news items. Comments, feedback or requests should go to Emily via Katy Wolfe.
I will be away from school from November 1-5, doing an accreditation visit at the Colorado Rocky Mountain School. Independent schools are accredited in a variety of ways across the country, but generally the process involves a self-study focusing on standards set by the accrediting body, followed by a team of outside educators spending several days at the school to assess the extent to which the school is meeting those standards and meeting its own stated goals and mission. Done well, it is a very useful process for all involved. CRMS was founded in 1953 by John and Ann Holden, who had been Putney faculty from our start in 1935. Their ambition was to start a western school in the model of Putney, and indeed there are many similarities in intent. Given that both schools have characters and curriculum very rooted in the land they sit on, I will be fascinated to see how CRMS has developed. Quite a few schools have been founded by Putney people over the years, including Verde Valley in Arizona, Manhattan Country School, and recently the School for Environmental Leadership in California; CRMS was the first that I know of and the most directly based on this model.
A number of you have asked about our level of preparedness for Ebola. At this point there have been no cases in Vermont, and our relative isolation up here on the hill in Putney is probably an advantage should there be any. The CDC recommendations for student health centers are the same as those for other US health care workers and settings, and our nurses receive all the materials from both the CDC and the Vermont Department of Health. We took the precaution of checking the list of places our students were traveling over the mid-term break, and we will do the same for Thanksgiving and Winter break. That said, we will rely on you as parents to alert us in the very unlikely event that your child has had contact with someone who has been ill with Ebola or another dangerous infection. The health office staff asked me to remind you that if you really want to help us stay healthy up here, it would be great if you would get your child a flu shot over Thanksgiving break!
All the best to all of you,
We are looking forward to seeing many of you for Parents’ Weekend and Harvest Festival. Amidst all the fun and good food, this is also a time for us to let you know what we have been seeing in your child so far this fall, and for you to let us know what you have seen and heard.
Some teenagers are simple, transparent creatures, but most are not, and someone who can observe individuals in a group and understand what they are seeing has the skills of a world-class naturalist in the wild. You know your own child far better than anyone else does, but perhaps don’t often get to observe your child in a group of teenagers, because you are never invisible to them. We have teachers with years of experience observing teenagers, but they don’t know who your child is when they are not at Putney. Most teenagers don’t want to be confusing. It is just that they are changing as we watch, and trying on new ways of being in the world. They are often intensely self-conscious, but still don’t really know how they come across to others. Almost all of them are quite self-centered, which is age appropriate as they define their identity as adults, but some are much better at understanding that they are only the center of their own universe, not everyone else’s. Most teenagers are not really one age, but exist in a span of four or five years of maturity; one minute you glimpse an adult, and the next you see the 12 year old again. Some of you may be seeing your child for the first time since you brought them here in early September; you may find them eager for you to recognize that they have grown up and learned new responsibility since you last were with them. Some of you may find that when they come home they regress to their more childlike self, being tired of behaving so grown-up at school.
In any case, we are delighting in their company. Our teachers have found our new students an enormously competent, sweet and interesting group, and the ones we’ve known for years are stepping up to new challenges. This is without doubt the strongest student body in my time at Putney. A reminder that we have a few international students who are not going home and would love a place to stay during mid-fall break. If you and your family can welcome an extra student into your home, please contact Jadi in the Dean of Students’ Office. Families who do this have made lifelong friends and learned an enormous amount into the bargain.
All the best to all of you,
Some of you have seniors applying to college this fall, and some have yet to encounter this process, but doubtless your eyes are drawn to the discussions in the press about the issues colleges and universities are facing in adapting to a changing world. This September has brought another spate of articles, but without much consensus about the nature of the problems, or what to do about them. Colleges are challenging their own business models with MOOCs and other free online options, and there are entrepreneurs who maintain that smart young people should just get on with inventing new things and not waste their time learning the old ways. Many young college grads are not fully employed and are home living with their parents. Rising college debt is blamed for lowering the numbers heading for grad schools.
College is still “worth it” if you measure worth purely in monetary terms. The average wage for a four- year college grad is almost twice that that of people who have only a high school degree, and the gap is widening. It seems less clear what colleges are accomplishing educationally, however, and to some extent they are acting as sorting systems for employers rather than doubling a worker’s actual ability to create value.
In spite of the craze for testing in the K-12 world, colleges have fended off most attempts to turn their ‘value added’ into a data set. The famous US News and World Report rankings are based to a fairly large extent on input data – incoming SAT and ACT scores, acceptance rates, faculty salaries, etc. These say little about what actually happens over four years. The one output test used over time is the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), and this has revealed that most college students learn few of the critical thinking skills the test seeks to measure. (Arum and Roska, Academically Adrift, 2010). I don’t find this very surprising, as colleges don’t mostly teach skills, other than certain discipline specific ones. Most courses aim to impart as much information as possible in the most efficient way, which is often in large lecture format. Students need to arrive at college with the skills they need to absorb and make sense of the material that is given them; if they do not, they learn them by trial and error, from their peers, or if they are lucky, at a college learning center.
We read often in the press about how little time college students spend studying – apparently a third report studying less than 5 hours a week. (Perhaps if they put a calculation of their impending debt over their desks it would provide motivation?) But I worry more about what students do when they are not studying. At its best a college experience should do what the army did for so many in earlier generations – mix up people from different backgrounds and help young adults become less certain that their own view of the world is the only valid one. Putney believes that “to prepare our students to be effective citizens we must ensure that they appreciate how to live and work in an increasingly diverse community and ideologically polarized society, as well as function effectively in a global economy” (from our strategic plan). But at many colleges students fracture into like-minded groups which shelter members from the experience of intellectual conflict or dissent. As Frank Bruni pointed out in his excellent New York Times editorial September 7th, many students seek out the familiar in college the way they do on the internet, avoiding those ideas and opinions they are not already ‘comfortable’ with. Students who join fraternities literally pledge not to evolve over four years; I have known smart students who left college less grown up than they were in high school.
I am proud of the fact that Putney students have a very broad view of college possibilities – they are not particularly interested in name brands, but seek out places that feel authentically educational to them. They have a sense of what and how they want to learn, and figure out what is behind the college admissions hype; they are ambitious in all the right ways. Most of them graduate from Putney equipped with the skills to cope with a large institution, but if they ask my advice, I generally suggest that colleges which are not part of large universities often have better teaching. I also suggest that they find out how much time professors spend with students outside of classes, and what percent of the student body is in the fraternity system.
In any case, we know that we have to teach our students skills that will actually survive the four years of ethical and community chaos that is the reality of most colleges. They must be able to reach out for learning both academically and culturally, and they must know when to go with the flow and when to paddle upstream as hard as they can. There is an enormous amount to be learned at every college, but it takes self-direction and determination even at the best of them.
All the best to all of you,
Our student leaders arrived today, and I can’t wait until the rest of the school assembles. We have had a good week of faculty meetings and both classroom teachers and dorm parents are eager to see your children here. I want to catch you up on a few changes we’re making to our communication systems, and let you know some of what we have been talking about this past week.
Those of you whose children have been here before will remember that I have been writing a bi-weekly parent newsletter for many years. I have alternated between newsy campus topics, and more contemplative or theoretical pieces. Our parent survey last spring and informal feedback has shown that many would like more news about student life, and many others like the 30,000 foot view of why we do what we do. Going forward, Todd Pinsonneault, Dean of Students, will write a weekly newsletter about happenings on campus, and I will write bi-weekly on whatever seems interesting or pertinent at the moment.
I will start in that vein by sharing with you some of the themes of our opening faculty meetings. One of the central questions about experiential education is how to know when it is effective, and when there are better ways to learn something. When is learning by experience too messy, either literally or in terms of institutional practice? Since we let students practice leadership and many other skills on the real world matters of making this community function, we regularly deal with these questions, and they impact the quality of all of our lives. Our teachers know that every year we take in students who don’t know how to do what they are trying to get done, and that we must not take away from them the right and the responsibility to learn. We help, and nudge, and have infinite patience, and I believe that it is this combination that creates both confidence and competence in young people.
On the other hand, we work to draw accurate distinctions between when students are - or are not - learning from the mistakes they make in trying to get things done. We don’t want them to come out learning that messy is good enough, rather to understand that it is a stage in a longer journey towards real excellence. Those of you who have seen the galleries and presentations of student project work will have recognized students at all stages of this process. The level of student exploration must also come within the context of the costs of something being done badly. Sometimes students work in areas in which there is relatively little room for error – they cannot learn by trial and error not to milk a dry cow, or what happens if you serve moldy food. There will be other times in which the initial goal is learning craftsmanship, not learning from experience. Knowing ahead of time what our learning goals are helps a great deal, because the kids are learning from absolutely everything in their day, even if we are not aware of teaching it.
This topic of messiness ties closely into the idea of stewardship. Some of the things that seem messy here are not educational works in progress; they are actually failures of stewardship. One definition of stewardship, which seems useful to us is “the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one's care.” I will share this definition with the students at convocation this year, and I hope to have the term better embedded in our community’s vocabulary. Stewardship has the virtue of being a positive term for a set of behaviors that are more often commented on in their absence – as carelessness, waste, thoughtlessness. I actually think our students do quite well, having more responsibility for the immediate world they live in than many teenagers are allowed to. That is not to say that they cannot do better. They tend to look after each other, and the animals, better than they look after their dorms and their belongings.
These are some of the themes of our opening meetings, as well as work on the new Teaching and Learning Center and discussion of our internal and external communications. I would be most happy to have your feedback and ideas on any of these topics, and I look forward to seeing many of you shortly when you drop off your children.
All the best,
School is starting soon, and we are gearing up for the arrival of our students, new and returning. The campus is looking gorgeous, and the playing fields are finally ready for the new soccer season after their whole long year of renovation and regrowth.
I'm back in Putney after a trip to California, much of which I spent talking with people doing interesting things in education. I was struck by the extent to which the education world and the business world have become intertwined on the West Coast. Venture capitalists are starting schools, governance structures are being remade both in the public and independent sectors, and there is as much of a 'next new thing' atmosphere about education as about the latest app. I spent some time talking with Cindy Johanson at Edutopia, which is doing a great job at fishing "what works in education" out of the torrent. I visited Marin School for Environmental Leadership, and went to the Bay School to look at their new Design/Build Lab (Putney's whole campus is really one of these, but I want some dedicated space for a really good workshop for everything we design and build here that is not technically 'art'. Think robots, telescopes, motorbikes, etc.) I met with the head of the Buck Institute, which is a center for project-based learning. I also got to spend a half-day at Google visiting one of our alums; their corporate culture is enormously impressive to see.
I am glad to be back in Vermont, and eager to see the students back. Next week we have the Progressive Education Lab summer mentor camp, along with our studio arts week for adults and the Vermont Jazz Center camp. Faculty arrive the week after that and have several days to meet and plan. Student leaders arrive on the 26th to organize their jobs for the year and plan orientation for our new students. (You can see the complete schedule of student arrivals and registration times below.)
If your student is coming new to Putney, a few words of advice; all new students are excited, and a bit nervous, and this is ok. Reassure your child that Putney will feel like home soon enough, and that the first impressions and first few days are not a make or break situation socially or otherwise. (I recently talked with an alum from the 50's who said his first day at Putney he arrived to find his roommate Wally Shawn reading Ulysses, and was thoroughly intimidated.) Also encourage them not to bring too much stuff - they may be sharing a room for the first time, and they really don't need everything they think they can't live without.
New parents, when you come to drop off your students, you will have time to help them get settled, and then join the faculty for a welcome assembly. After that, you will say your goodbyes, and are all invited to my house for dinner while your children go off with the student leaders on their new adventure. I'm looking forward to meeting those of you I don't already know. In the meantime, have a lovely rest of the summer.
All the best,
Tuesday, August 26: Student Leaders Arrive
2:00 - 4:00 pm Student leader registration — Library Room 1
Wednesday, August 27: New International Students Arrive
1:00 - 4:00 pm Welcome, international students and parents — Faculty Room
4:00 - 6:00 pm Registration for new international students and parents (Libby and Marie) — Faculty Room
Friday, August 29: New Domestic Students Arrive
12:30 - 3:00 pm Registration for new students, dorm heads on duty in dorms
3:00 - 4:00 pm Families meet with advisors in designated places TBA
4:15 pm Head’s Welcome — Calder Hall
5:00 pm Dinner for new parents at Rockwell House (210 West Hill Road)
Saturday, August 30: Returning Students Arrive
1:00-4:00 pm Registration for returning students