The College Process from a Progressive Standpoint


Dear Parents,

As you know, American high school students are sadly torn between the goals of genuine learning and the demands of the “college process.” I don’t know anyone who works in high schools, colleges or universities that doesn’t agree that the system is a poor one. That said, we know our students need to present themselves well to colleges and have the time and assistance that they need to do this. We added Karla Baldwin, former academic dean and drama director, to our College Office this year, and that has made a big difference. This past Sunday was our annual College Essay Day, timed for those with a November 1 deadline. For five hours the KDU became a drop in center for seniors to work on essays and get feedback on their efforts from faculty members. The atmosphere was serious, but also informal and surprisingly relaxed. Because our seniors don’t see themselves as competing against each other for places in colleges, there was a “we’re all in this together” feeling to the effort.

The essays, however, are astonishingly different. Some are describing turning points, where something was learned or understood that now defines the young adult. Some are perceptive social commentary; others deal with particular academic or intellectual passions. Many essays turn on experiences that are quintessentially Putney – the burdens (and joys) of leadership, life in a cabin, favorite projects, a particular moment in the community. All of them are honest, and none are self-aggrandizing. None of them sound canned or as if they were written by a consultant. I love this day each year because it feels to me like I’m reading Putney’s report card – what have they learned, and whom are we sending out into the world? I learn a lot about kids I thought I knew pretty well, and if feels like a gift when they ask me to read their essays.

The college process is stressful; there’s no avoiding that. But I’m heartened by the sensible attitudes of our kids – they are ambitious, for sure, but very few get their hearts set on only one place. They can explain clearly why they are applying to certain schools, and it has to do with program and how they want to learn, rather than prestige or what their friends are doing. Given their skills in living in community and working together towards common goals, there’s no question that colleges are lucky to get them.

On a more progressive note, this week students began the process of project proposals, so that by the start of December everyone is ready to dive in. For those parents who are hearing about this for the first time, the pedagogy behind project weeks is based on the conviction that students learn by doing, and that this includes doing the imagining, the planning, the time management, the course corrections, and the evaluation. Each student has a faculty advisor, but the curiosity and the drive comes from them. It’s a central part of a Putney education.

Students write project proposals like grant proposals, only the grant is for time, rather than money. They need to define their goals, find a faculty sponsor, figure out what materials they will need, make a schedule, and anticipate problems. They also are asked to link their projects to relevant pieces of the Putney Core. Many projects link easily to the Inquiry and Research or Design and Build throughlines, and also provide portfolio pieces for the sciences, writing and arts. We have a number of teachers from other schools coming to see Putney project weeks in process, and we hope to see many of you for the presentation day December 14th.

Best to all of you,

Emily H. Jones
Head of School


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