Head of School Blog: Back to School

There are some among us with fond memories of our middle and high school. You can probably recite a long list of your favorite teachers or recall the day a particular teacher, class, or lesson caused your mind to come to life or your heart to feel something for the first time. Know that you are to be envied because for others, memories of school fall somewhere between a grind and a blur.


Fortunately for me, though, one of the many blessings of being the new head of school at Falmouth Academy has been the opportunity to go “back to school,” what kids on the playground might call a do-over. Allow me to explain.


This year, we members of the senior administrative team, as most management teams do, have engaged one another in a goal-setting exercise. Not surprisingly, the chief goal I set for myself was, and I quote: “Build relationships with the school’s many stakeholders including trustees, parents, alumni, and friends, but with particular emphasis on faculty, staff and students.” Like many a noble but unrealized goal, however, this one was a little squishy, and since I had coached my team to make their goals SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound,) I, too, took to enumerating all of the action steps by which this goal could be realized.


And at the top of that list: “Observe every full time teacher’s class at least once before Thanksgiving.” Seems like a small thing, but consider that we have 50 or so teachers and you’re talking 30+ hours of “school” for me! My purpose, then, is to try to take you back to school as well- by sharing a collection of moments that, like paint smears employed by the impressionist painter or pixels by the digital animator, form a picture of what learning at Falmouth Academy looks and feels like. Here goes:


Mr. Jones using a ferris wheel to model precalculus concepts. Ms. Clark’s seniors determining how the five little objects she placed in the middle of the table related to All the King’s Men. Mr. Swanbeck’s students’ regular visits to the map alcove in the back of the classroom. Ms. Reves’ eighth graders making their own ice cream. Ms. Carter, moderating a twelfth grade debate conducted entirely in French.  Dr. Yanch’s senior physics students making the leap from one to two dimensional projectile motion equations (or something like that!)


Ms. Turner displaying familiar symbols like stop signs, recycling signs, and a kangaroo crossing sign on her way to a discussion of dog imagery in The Odyssey. Ms. Swanbeck displaying the famous vase-face visual to reinforce geometry as a way of seeing then breaking students into small groups to prove the famous “Bridge of Fools” proof to reinforce geometry as a way of thinking mathematically. Ms. Mobley’s seventh graders comparing the DNA they extracted from strawberries to the DNA in their own saliva. Pairs of seventh graders in Mr. Michael’s class co-authoring and filming “trailers” for their accelerated reading books. Dr. Parsons, dropping 52 index cards with French words on the floor, and prompting students to match subjects with their corresponding “to be” verbs.


Mr. Ledoux tossing manipulative models of molecules to his eleventh graders, and affixing “Do Not Cross” yellow tape on his forensic science door to indicate a “crime scene.”  Frau Eder’s eighth graders learning the imperative case by role-playing parents assigning their kids chores. Mr. Deasey’s seniors spending thirty minutes on the rhetorical strategies at play in a single opening paragraph. Mr. Lott’s seniors modeling the long-term financial implications of taking out college loans. Ms. Martula’s students illustrating visual interpretations of a character of their choice.


The orchestra, under Mr. Scharr’s direction, preparing for one of their signature “musical postcards.” Ms. Ledwell’s eighth graders careening from wall to wall during the opening storm of The Tempest. Ms. Moffat’s students darting in and out of the dark room via the mysterious revolving door.  Mr. Steven’s seventh graders using math to determine “who did it” in a simulated dinner party murder mystery. Dr. Ament circling up her tenth graders and using household materials to construct and model the function of a semipermeable membrane.


As I step back and look at the picture that emerges from these particular pixels, I can’t help but conclude that at Falmouth Academy, learning is more than listening and memorizing: learning is doing, learning is metaphor, learning is application, is object and image, is experience, at least for this 50 year old student, is fun.


In her article “ Open Your Door: Why We Need to See Each Other Teach,” Jennifer Gonzalez suggests several benefits to the kind of open door culture we enjoy at Falmouth Academy. My personal favorite is “having your students see you together.” She believes that “something powerful happens when students see their teachers together. You become larger than the sum of your parts, stronger not only in number, but because this simple show of cooperation tells them you are united, which is an important message to send to kids.”


She goes on to argue, quite rightfully I think, that teaching “is a delicate, nuanced art, and though books and workshops offer all kinds of interesting ideas for how we can improve that art, the resources that lie behind every door in your school can offer something even richer, if you’re brave enough to let each other in.”


I am so lucky that I work with a faculty that is not only “brave enough” to let each other in but actively looks for ways to make it happen.


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