Putney Stands for a Way of Life

Dear Parents,

It was wonderful to have so many of you here for Family Weekend and Harvest Festival, and I’m sure also wonderful for you to have your children home for a few days afterwards. Thank you again to those of you who hosted students who were not able to return home for break.

We are much aware that quite a few of you have found your homes at risk recently, whether by earthquake, hurricane or fire. Reading the news recently is rather like reading the Old Testament, and makes one wonder when the locusts will show up. I hope that things will soon start getting back to normal, and that you will let us know if we can be of help in any way. There is a proposal for a service trip to Puerto Rico during Project Week, although no definite plan yet.

I spent some of the mid-term break at a conference at UPenn; it was ostensibly on leadership but really just brought together some strong researchers from Penn’s education grad school to talk with independent school leaders. Hot topics included recent brain research on adolescents and the ‘unprecedented pervasive levels of anxiety’ that many schools are seeing. Much of this anxiety is thought to be related to cell phone and social media use, and the resulting lack of social-emotional skills. We were encouraged to nurture students’ capacity for solitude and to actively teach ethics.

These are all things that we have talked about extensively at Putney; they call the question about the line between the implicit learning a student gets by being part of this community, and the explicit learning of the formal educational program. Our mission statement begins with “Putney stands for a way of life,” and we know that this way of life teaches students a great deal about ethics, the responsibilities involved with living closely with others, and the skills of working with a team, be it a dish crew, a lab group or a rock climbing expedition. As a progressive school we are clear that students learn by experience more effectively than they learn by being told things. But as I said at the start of the year, we are constantly adjusting what we do as we see generational changes in students who come to Putney. We have started teaching conversation skills in more explicit ways, and are working on ways to encourage students to embark on greater self-awareness of cell phone use rather than simply insisting they abide by the school’s (student written) policy. That said, we are finding that our kids, really yours kids, are clearly invested in making the community here work well. By and large they treat each other admirably.

Someone at the Penn conference pointed me to a TED talk, which I highly recommend. Elif Shafak’s work is impossible to pigeon hole as it ranges across many cultures and disciplines. If you have a spare 20 minutes, it is well worth watching.

All the best to all of you,