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.
Have you ever wondered how you could get involved at Putney? As many of you will remember, we have had a silent auction at several recent Harvest Festivals. Many parents and alumni donated wonderful auction items, as did quite a number of local businesses. There were weeks at lovely cottages, beautiful pieces of art, and a wide range of services offered. The auctions were lots of fun, and the profits went to support financial aid for student trips. However....the time spent on the organization and presentation of the auctions was tough on the development office, on top of their other jobs for Harvest Festival. We are hoping that there may be one or two parents who might volunteer to take this project on for next year. We'd happily explain how it works (and if you don't already have a full time job, it is really quite manageable). If you have some time, and some energy, and some vision for what could be done and think this would be fun, please do let me know. We would so love to have the auction happen, but have decided that on top of the rest of Harvest Festival it's too much to continue to do with just our staff.
I am sure you are happy to have your children home for the break. We are looking forward to seeing many of you back here for Family Weekend, which is April 18-19. A detailed schedule will be sent to you shortly, but if you have any questions please email Katy at email@example.com.
New on the website is information about the programs in China, France and Mexico for next year, as well as two summer programs we are offering, one in India and one in the American South. You can find these at http://www.putneyschool.org/content/off-campus-opportunities. Please take some time to discuss these opportunities with your child over the break, as we will be discussing them in greater detail with the students when they return to campus.
We will be getting some photos and videos of the wonderful student work from project week up on the website shortly. Some of it was quite astonishing.
With wishes for a wonderful spring break,
After almost a week of snow, we have bright blue skies and astonishing clarity of light. Keeping the campus roads and paths clear is an ongoing task, as the snow drifts to fill in the spaces we've plowed or shoveled. Students have been cheerfully digging themselves out of their dorms in the mornings and wading through drifts to bring their artwork to the Currier Center for the end of term art show. The show will still be up for those of you who will pick up your children for spring vacation.
The end of the term is full of what might be called 'opportunities to show mastery'. Not only are the ways students learn changing, so are the ways in which they ought to be able to communicate what they know. I've recently seen quite a few videos produced by students for one purpose or another, and am struck by how quickly this form of communication is becoming a natural part of students' toolkits. When I first came to Putney seven years ago, only a few students knew how to make videos, and with a few notable exceptions, their productions were dreadful. No teachers outside the film class asked them to show their work this way, and most students seemed to see video as an opportunity to see how much 'inappropriate' content they could get away with. Things are beginning to change as technology has made editing easier, and we have realized that being able to communicate understanding in video form has at least as much utility to students as the traditional essay. Students in the 9th grade integrated class, Humans in the Natural World, recently made videos about global commodities - rice, coffee, silk, copper, etc. Each pair of students researched their commodity's production, geographic and economic niches, environmental impact, and local ties, if any, and then figured out the best way to present their work in a short video. The quality varied, of course, but it was clear that the students were comfortable behind and in front of the camera, and many of the films were well edited. Each dorm (and the day students) recently made a video as part of our 'dorm olympics', and these were of noticeably higher quality than in previous years. Our students are ahead of most of our teachers in facility in this medium at this point, and it will be interesting to see how we can take advantage of their knowledge and help them hone their skills at the same time.
It is not spring yet, but:
For parents of freshmen, sophomores and juniors:
As you are planning for the end of the year, be aware that students will generally want to stay through graduation on Sunday June 8. Although attendance is not actually required, it is a wonderful community event, and a mental picture of Putney graduation has helped many a student through a slump along the way. Of course parents of students in all grade levels are welcome to join us, and many do.
For parents of seniors:
We will send you a detailed graduation schedule in April, but since many of you will be planning with your student over spring break, here is the gist of how this works:
Everyone is welcome to graduation. There are no tickets, and we don't need to know how many people you are bringing. It is helpful to know ahead of time if there will be guests who will need special assistance.
Saturday June 7 is the last day of Project Week, and there will be presentations and performances all day. In the evening there is a special dinner for the seniors and their families, followed by the spring play. (If you want to attend the play, you will need to reserve seats. Your son or daughter can do that for you.)
On Sunday June 8 the graduation ceremony begins at 10:30 am. Before that there is brunch, and an opportunity to view the diplomas, which as usual will be individually hand painted for each student. After the graduation ceremony there is a simple lunch and time to finish packing up. I recommend making lodging reservations soon, as things fill up quickly.
All the best to all of you,
This past weekend we had a trustee meeting, one of the four times yearly that our board gathers on campus. One of the unusual things about our board is that it not only includes two students and two faculty as full voting members, but it also sets aside time to meet with students to discuss topics of interest to them. Since our board is made up of smart people doing fascinating things in the world, this is enormously educational. For the past several meetings the topic of the student-trustee meeting has been that of SRI, socially responsible investment. This is a topic on many college campuses as well, but here it has evolved into a dialogue with students and trustees exploring the topic together, rather than students demanding and trustees resisting. We have talked about the school's values and how these should influence the investing of our endowment, and what we should be doing as individuals to commit to those values. The discussion has turned from divestment to exploring proactive investment in companies with strong ESG (environment, social, governance) scores. Students have come to have a much more nuanced understanding of the complexities of the markets and also of what our endowment allows us to do here on campus. We are far from finished with the topic, but I am heartened by the combination of idealism and pragmatism that our students are bringing to the work.
I have encouraged students to start to think hard about their summer plans, and to use the mid-term break to talk with you about possibilities if they are heading home. There is no 'right' summer job or program, but they should stretch themselves and push beyond what they have done before. Whether they intern in a high rise office and have to wear a tie every day, train as an EMT, work construction, or set out to bike across the country, I encourage them to spend time doing things that are unfamiliar to them.
I also asked students to think about whether they would like to spend a trimester next year in China, France or Mexico. As you know, we have a group spending this winter in Mexico, and we will repeat that program next year, most likely in the fall. The China term will run in the winter, and will include time in Beijing and Chongqing. The France term will likely run in the spring. There will be more information on all of these forthcoming, but it would be good for students to start to think about these possibilities. You probably have a greater capacity than your children to imagine how much they would learn by immersion in a different culture, and I hope you will encourage them.
All the best,
Putney's "Project Week" is an unusual feature of our calendar and our academic program. Most of your children have experienced this several times already, but some are shortly to draft their first project proposals, which will be their grant proposals for the time between February 18 and 28. Because we generally do projects at the end of a term, we often hear students telling visitors and students from other schools that Putney does projects in place of final exams, but this is not really accurate pedagogically. Final exams serve the purpose of causing students to review the work of a course and, if well done, can help them see connections between topics previously learned separately and to learn how to synthesize. Exams are generally used by schools as primary assessments of how much a student has learned; this is a much less sound practice pedagogically. I have often thought that if one could have students prepare for final exams, but not waste time taking them, there would be considerable value in that. Many of our teachers do give cumulative assessments of some kind, for the express purpose of forcing students to review and rethink their work.
Projects on the other hand, when student designed, serve a quite different pedagogical purpose. All schools want their students to be curious, innovative, persistent, and self-reflective. All adults (and college students) need to have good time management, a good deal of self-propulsion, and the ability to figure out when to ask for help. A traditional high school program neither requires nor nurtures these qualities, and sometimes actively discourages them. Occasionally we see a first year student stumped for ideas for a project, and it's often a student who has been enormously successful at doing what he or she is told. These are good times for conversations with advisors and classroom teachers who can help students figure out what they are curious about and what they might like to accomplish in ten days. Parents should feel free to talk with students about what they are proposing do to - the more students discuss their ideas, the more fully formed the proposals become. Proposals are due January 27. Project presentation day is February 28, and I hope that as many of you as are able will be here to see the work the students have done - it is usually quite a sight!
Thank you to all of our parents who made a gift to Putney before the end of 2013. Well over a third of our families have made a commitment in support of the school so far, and we so appreciate your generosity and your investment in furthering the education of all the students here on campus. Thank you also to those parents who made calls during the December phonathon; we very much appreciate your help.
All the best to all of you,
Happy New Year! 'Tis the season of New Year's resolutions, those heartfelt but often ephemeral intentions for self-improvement. I find myself reflecting on how much easier all this optimistic meddling was for earlier generations than it is for our teenagers. We knew that good habits were helpful, and that we could decide to get fit or stop smoking (knowing also that we could do it again next year if it didn't work out this one.) We were also secure in the knowledge that our brains were fixed in childhood, and that we were who we were. One often heard "That's just the way I am" given as an excuse or defense, and even those who felt they had been dealt a bad hand usually learned to live with the selves they had been given.
Looking back even further, we see our great-grandparents most often limited to the lives and locales of their own parents. Social class, along with kinds of foods, clothing, amusements and education were all more or less givens, and one had to actively rebel to make a change. Choices were relatively few, and the path of least resistance was a fairly safe one for many. Quite a few of us alive today had more choice than our great grandparents had, and it was more likely that we were told "You can do anything you want with your life". We knew it wasn't true, though, as soon as we began to understand our own limitations, and in fact in there was a brisk trade in matching one's 'natural talents' to various jobs and professions.
Today's' teenagers, however, live with the sense that everything is mutable, that their brains are plastic and moldable by brain exercises and/or medications, and there are dozens of industries marketing self enhancements for a price. They cannot say "That's just the way I am" with any finality, nor can they easily rule out options and opportunities as simply unrealistic. The line between accepting who they are and not trying very hard has become blurred. I know, for example, that although I have zero natural talent for languages, I could, even at my age, learn Chinese if I put all else aside; we know that brains can be rewired in this way.
There is an upside to this, of course. Children who would have been dismissed as not very bright are now seen to have relatively small glitches in processing. Teenagers can be encouraged not to give up on themselves, but to push past things that are difficult. But the vastness of the choices facing our kids is daunting, sometimes paralyzing. How are they to make decisions about their lives when they are in the confusions of adolescence and can no longer look forward to the fixed selfhood that our generation thought it could count on once we turned 21?
Since modern science suggests that New Year's resolutions are generally doomed to failure*, perhaps we can best help our teenagers by encouraging them to make resolutions that involve doing something, rather than trying to fix something about themselves: get up the guts to speak in assembly, write to my grandmother about how much she means to me, try out for a play, spend a whole day by myself in the woods (or the city); in other words something that needs a bit of a push from the superego but is ultimately not about my sense of self. I think that perhaps we can best support adolescents by putting the focus on what they do, rather than who they are - the identity crisis in which we used to rather enjoy wallowing has taken on whole new dimensions.
All the best, and Happy 2014! I am already at the stage of the holiday when I am impatient for the students to return. Putney is a very quiet place without them.
* Roy F. Baumeister, John Tierney, Willpower, The Greatest Human Strength, 2011