Upper School English teacher Emily Meisler with her tenth-grade American Literature class. “They know that the success of the class depends on their contributions,” Meisler says.
A PLACE AT A The Accountable Classroom at SPA
BY LAURA BILLINGS COLEMAN
The 10th graders in Emily Meisler’s American Literature course have chosen one of three August Wilson plays and arrive at class ready for a discussion. But when they take their seats around the classroom’s Harkness table one Tuesday morning, it’s clear their teacher has no intention of parsing the plays’ central themes or deconstructing scenes in a standard classroom lecture.
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Instead, she instructs her students to pair off and write a scene of dialogue in which one of Wilson’s characters meets up with a major player from an earlier reading, a list that runs from The Great Gatsby’s Nick Carraway to The Namesake’s Gogol Ganguli. The assignment requires creativity, collaboration, some time travel, and—as Meisler’s students soon discover—a deep understanding of the motivations of the characters in question. A hush falls as the teams take hesitant first strokes at the assignment, while Meisler moves around the room, asking questions, and challenging each pair to come up with three possible scenarios, no matter how unlikely. After a few minutes of discussion, two girls discover a common bond that may unite The Scarlet Letter’s Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale with Herald Loomis, the lead character in “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.” “They both are sort of in search of a woman in their lives,” says one.
“What if they meet in couples therapy?” suggests her partner. Across the table, two other students have hit on just the right setting to draw out the dramatic personal journeys of their chosen characters, casting them as guests at SPA’s annual Speaker Day. “That way it would be more natural for them to talk about what they’ve learned from their mistakes,” one student explains. Asking 16-year-olds to lead this kind of discussion can be risky, but Meisler makes her high expectations for student participation clear early in the year by leaving her classroom
high student engagement, collaborative discussion, and personal responsibility that are hallmarks of the curriculum of St. Paul Academy and Summit School. “Because our classes pivot around discussions and exchanges, students quickly learn that they are not here to occupy the seat and give one-word answers. You’re the one responsible for driving it forward, and your presence enriches the class.,” Roberts says. “Accountability” has become a popular buzzword in education circles, with such experts as Harvard’s Tony Wagner, author of Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, arguing that schools must teach students to be creative and
Lori Grant leads a Lower School Spanish class: “One advantage of an 8 to 1 student teacher ratio is that it lets you try things that are a little messier, and a little more joyful,” says Lower School admission officer Julie McGlincey ’84.
THE T TABLE: right in the middle of a discussion. “Five minutes later, I come back and ask what happened when I was gone,” she says, noting that the students usually admit to giggling and feeling self-conscious, unsure what to do next. When she repeats the exercise a few months later, her students know their job is to continue their conversation, without missing a beat. “They know that the success of the class depends on their contributions, and they don’t need me standing here to make it happen,” Meisler says. Head of School Bryn Roberts says lessons like this are at the heart of “the Accountable Classroom,” a culture of
collaborative problem-solvers to meet the challenges of the 21st century. But Roberts says accountability has been an SPA tradition for decades, giving graduates skills that serve them well in college and careers. “Accountability to us means a variety of things,” Roberts explains. “For students, it means you’re accountable for being engaged when you come to class, and that you are responsible for being a meaningful participant. For parents, it means that SPA isn’t going to let your child drift away. You can’t hide at SPA. Students are known, and we’re going to hold your child accountable for adding to the dialogue.”
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“The goal is to help kids become highly skilled at discussion, at offering and accepting criticism,” he continues. “If you learn how to perfect that, you’re going to leave SPA as a more thoughtful student, better prepared for college, and with the tools and intellectual substance to participate in a richly complicated world.”
Active listeners and lively contributors “Show-and-tell is one of the places we start,” says Deb Waddell, who teaches first and second grades in SPA’s Lower School. During the morning sharing time in her classroom, a first grader sits in the traditional “teacher’s seat” and calls on classmates who take turns posing questions to the chosen sharer. “They’re only allowed to make one statement, something like, ‘I saw a fox on the way to school,’” Waddell explains. “That way the kids really start to listen to each other and learn how to form the sort of questions that can draw out more information.” In another classroom, first and second graders are exploring the difference between shapes in two and three dimensions, shouting out their observations (“Octagon!”) with each item teacher Amy Utecht draws out of bag. “Now what made you decide it was an octagon?” her teaching partner Dan Strombeck asks one of the students. “Because it has eight sides like an octopus,” the boy answers. “That’s what oct means.” “So what if it had six sides?” Strombeck asks. “Then it’s a hexagon!” suggests a girl. Though the class’s excitement (and volume) runs high during this math lesson, Julie McGlincey, Associate Director of Admission, says that SPA’s small class sizes help to harness the kids’ energy and direct it toward deeper learning. “One of the advantages of having an 8 to 1 student-teacher ratio is that it lets you try things that are a little messier, and a little more joyful,” she says. The Lower School’s multi-age classrooms also help to model the responsibility and maturity students will need to succeed as the curriculum becomes more demanding. “One of the things I think is really special about SPA is that kids get to be with kids in the same developmental range, working together as equals,” says third- and fourth-grade teacher Rick Magnuson. “Not only do we get to work with them for two years and really know who they are,” he says, younger students are always “looking ahead” to see what will be expected of them as they grow into the Lower School’s leaders.
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For instance, fifth graders lead tours for prospective families and take turns organizing and emceeing the all-school assemblies every Friday. Regular opportunities to “perform,” whether it’s standing up to share an idea, reading their writing aloud, playing an instrument, or acting in a play, also help students build confidence. Even interdisciplinary projects such as the annual Medieval Feast, where every third- and fourth-grade student enacts a role inspired by the literature and history of the Middle Ages, help reinforce the lesson that every student has something different and valuable to bring to the table. “You can’t hang back,” Magnuson says. “You have to be in on all phases, because if you’re not, it’s going to be painfully obvious, and that can be a powerful motivator.”
“...From very silly to quite profound.” While Carrie Clark’s 8th grade English students take turns reporting their progress on their daily reading, three boys pile floor pillows barricade-high, and flop onto their bellies when she calls the class to order. “Do you see the face?” Clark says, turning hers into a mask of quiet disapproval. “I’d like you to tune into the subtle cues I’m giving, so I don’t have get more obvious.” The boys rearrange themselves on their seats and join the circle with no further disruptions. Sixth grade English and social studies teacher Judy Johnson says managing exuberant and even inappropriate behavior is part of the package in Middle School. “They look like kids, but they’re also capable of doing some very demanding work,” says Johnson. “They can go from being very silly to quite profound—it’s just the nature of who they are at this age.” For these reasons, she says, building accountable classroom skills during the middle years starts with building trust. Every morning, students start the day in a small advisory group—“a landing place” as Clark calls it—where they can settle in, review the day’s schedule, and share what’s on their minds, from April Fools jokes to who lost last night on American Idol. The rapport students build with their advisories throughout the year helps to break down barriers in other class rooms throughout the day, encouraging students to speak up, take risks, and solve problems on their own. “So let’s say a friend of yours was too busy to do her homework last night, and now she’s asking if she could see yours,” Johnson asks her own advisory group of sixth graders. “What could you do in a situation like that?” Though some students clearly want to tell a teacher, and “catch” the offending student, Johnson challenges them to look at ways they could handle the problem on their own.
THE ACCOUNTABLE CLASSROOM GOES TO COLLEGE: Cecilia Di Caprio ’10 Princeton University, Class of 2014 Princeton, New Jersey
For Cecilia Di Caprio, ’10, the lessons of SPA’s Accountable Classroom extended all the way to the field house, where she was a top athlete on the school’s soccer, basketball and track teams. “My grades were always the best during the soccer season because that was my busiest time of year,” she recalls. “I always tell people sports kept me sane through high school, probably because it forced me to make very good use of my time.” Di Caprio is still keeping plenty of balls in the air at Princeton University, where she is a junior majoring in sociology, playing goalie for the Princeton Tigers women’s soccer team, and exploring postgraduate options that range from the Peace Corps to a master’s degree in public health. A tough competitor, she says one of the things she prized most at SPA was the feeling that every student was on the same team. “Even though it’s academically very challenging, I never felt I was competing with anyone,” she says. “There was always a feeling of collaboration that stems from being at the Harkness table where you learn from your classmates and you teach your classmates.” Di Caprio started at SPA in sixth grade and noticed immediately how the connections SPA’s curriculum fosters between students and teachers were very different than what she’d experienced in her elementary school. “I started to have the kind of relationships with teachers that you don’t always get in that traditional, teacher-in-frontof-a-desk setting. I also really liked the way that discussion-based classes encourage you to look at every subject, across disciplines. I remember often talking about one thing in science and realizing that in English class were talking about something that was connected. That’s one of the values of a liberal arts education, and they really start that early at SPA.” Di Caprio admits there were times when balancing both a heavy course load and competitive sports was a burden, but adds, “I would tell other students not to give up. It’s a hard school, but no one is out to get you. One of the best things you learn there is that it’s not a weakness to ask for the help you need.”
“There was always a feeling of collaboration that stems from being at the Harkness table where you learn from your classmates and you teach your classmates.”
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THE ACCOUNTABLE CLASSROOM GOES TO COLLEGE: Rosalind Mowitt ’10 Northwestern University, Class of 2014 Evanston, Illinois
Although she’s more than a year from graduation at Northwestern University, Rosalind Mowitt ’10 already has a full roster of campus leadership roles on her résumé, from managing the social media and marketing for the campus’s concert, film, and lecture production group, to designing “Stitch,” a student-run fashion magazine. “It’s sort of second nature to be involved like this,” Mowitt says. “SPA is such a small community that leadership positions are not so out of reach. You learn not to be afraid to try for things.” At SPA Mowitt edited the yearbook, organized homecoming events and service learning efforts, and co-captained the volleyball team—responsibilities that proved to her she actually enjoyed feeling connected and accountable to the larger school community. “It also helped teach me that there’s no magic to getting things done. If you’re not prepared, you’re going to be in front of a microphone with nothing to say,” she says, or if you miss a yearbook deadline “there won’t be anything but a blank page.” Being allowed to fail, in fact, was one of the most formative lessons she took from SPA: “In seventh grade, I totally bombed a science test and it felt so terrible, I thought, ‘Okay, I’m never doing that again.’” Instead, she learned to ask for help when she needed it, building a rapport with teachers that made it easy for her to transition toward the demands of college work. “I think one of the most important assets SPA gives to students is the ability to develop strong relationships with adults. Once you get to college, you’re not afraid of your professors; you know they are there to reach out to,” says Mowitt, adding that she’s been surprised to find so many college classmates who seem intimidated by faculty, or are reluctant to ask questions. “I get pretty good marks, probably because I’m not afraid to talk.”
That confidence has created opportunities off-campus as well, including backto-back summer internships at ZenithOptimedia Worldwide, a media/marketing agency in London, and a semester at the Institut d’études politiques in Paris. Though she arrived with only a year’s worth of French language instruction, “I wasn’t afraid to speak to people and practice,” she says. “You know you’ll make mistakes, but that’s how you learn.”
“If she’s my friend, I could maybe say we could work together on the homework, but not show her my paper,” suggests one girl.
“mission statements” for each set of players—from the Dakota people, to Christian missionaries, to fur-traders, to politicians.
“But someone who wants to cheat from you probably isn’t a good friend,” says another.
In another discussion about the novel Skellig, Johnson asks her 6th graders to use a ball of yarn to follow the thread of discussion from one student to the next. By the end of class, they’d created a web of connections at the center of their circle—a visual reminder that everyone’s contributions added to the fabric of learning. “That’s why advisory is such a big piece of what we do. When kids feel accepted, and in a safe place, you can take them to so many interesting places,” Johnson says. “I think even they were impressed by how far their discussion skills had come.”
Conversations like this help to define what accountability means to SPA, but Johnson says they also build skills for more meaningful classroom discussions, encouraging students to try to see situations from multiple viewpoints. For instance, during her 6th grade social studies class exploring the roots of Minnesota’s Dakota Conflict, Johnson divides the class into groups to write and share 16
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THE ACCOUNTABLE CLASSROOM GOES TO COLLEGE: Adam Rosenberg ’09
“The mentality [at Swarthmore] is that you’re in charge of the experience, and the professor is there to facilitate. Coming out of SPA, it’s what I was used to.”
Swarthmore College, Class of 2013 Swarthmore, Pennsylvania
SPA doesn’t offer Advanced Placement classes for college credit, a deviation from the more traditional high school curriculum for which Adam Rosenberg, ’09 is still grateful. “The class experience is so much better when you don’t have a test hanging over you,” Rosenberg says. “Instead you can take charge of your own learning.” This spring, Rosenberg graduated from Swarthmore, a college he chose in part because of its small class sizes and seminar-style approach to teaching. “I have classes now with six to 12 other people, and professors who say ‘This is your seminar, and you’re expected to come prepared,’” he says. “The mentality is that you’re in charge of the experience, and the professor is there to facilitate. Coming out of SPA, it’s what I was used to, and it’s just what I wanted from college, too.” Rosenberg entered SPA in seventh grade when his family moved to Minnesota, and he thrived in the school’s rigorous, discussion-oriented classes right away. “I think it’s a good school for drawing out wall flowers,” says Rosenberg, a talented debater who says speaking up in class was never a problem for him. “Instead it was a learning opportunity for me and a challenge not be the one doing all the talking, and SPA really taught me how important it is to tune in to the classroom dynamic. Now I have a professor who makes it clear she doesn’t like people who dominate the discussion, and I’ve never been called out for that. I think I learned how to strike that balance.’’
A political science major with minors in history and French, Rosenberg credits Dr. Andrea Sachs’ honors history class with fueling his continuing fascination with American political history. “Dr. Sachs joked she was waiting for me to write a multi-volume history of Democratic American presidents—that’s what I was always writing about,” says Rosenberg, who adds that the opportunity to write demanding research papers with scholarly sources and annotated bibliographies “was one of the biggest benefits I got from SPA. Regardless of what you end up studying in college, having the skills to do that really puts you at an advantage.’’ By the way, Rosenberg did very well on his Advanced Placement tests, earning college credit for his command of World and U.S. history. “Of course, you’re prepared for the tests,” when you leave SPA, he says, “but you’re prepared to do even more.”
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Drawing everyone into the conversation
his argument. Though the students struggle with the assignment, they don’t shrink from the demands. “That’s what I’ve always loved about teaching here,” says Sachs, who adds that asking kids to be accountable to each other and engaged “is a great way to teach bright kids without breeding a sense of entitlement. It’s rare to encounter that entitled mentality at SPA because students here are so motivated.’’
Though seminar-style discussions are one of the hallmarks of SPA’s humanities classes, even science and math classes that don’t revolve around a Harkness table have a high degree of give and take between students and faculty. “I’d have to say it’s more like teaching college students than I might have expected,” says Dan O’Loughlin, Ph.D., who came to SPA’s math department this year after nearly 20 years of teaching math at Macalester College and the University of St. Catherine, where he also served as the chair of the math department. “There’s so much discussion in one of my classes that the challenge is actually in tamping it down a little.”
Roberts says the success of the Accountable Classroom culture depends on having skilled teachers like Sachs, one of nearly 75 percent with advanced degrees in their disciplines. “In many ways, this style of teaching asks more of the teacher. The adult is no longer ‘the sage on the stage,’” he says. “The teacher is the leader of the seminar, but also an active participant. As a teacher, that means you have to be a skilled questioner, you have to know when to step back and when to jump in, and you have to accept— and this can be a challenge for some teachers—that you’re not the only repository of wisdom. Kids learn through articulation and synthesis and your job as the teacher is to move that along in the right ways.”
Upper School faculty members say that’s one of the final lessons of the Accountable Classroom experience, teaching SPA students that meaningful dialogue depends on drawing everyone into the conversation, not just the extroverts. For instance, Emily Meisler sometimes starts her English classes by handing two index cards to each student, instructing them to toss a card back into the center of the table each time they speak up. “The rule is that you can’t contribute again until everyone in the class has offered something to the conversation,” Meisler explains. But whose responsibility is it to make sure every student at the table is drawn in, a visitor asks. “It’s ours,” the class says together. But discussion isn’t the only collaborative skill SPA faculty try to hone. With an honors U.S. history seminar full of gifted speakers and debaters, Dr. Andrea Sachs decides to push them out of their comfort zone with an assignment to help strengthen other muscles. After reading British historian Godfrey Hodgson’s “The Ideology of the Liberal Consensus,” she breaks the class into small groups to discuss his key points, then challenges them to create a graphic depiction of his thesis, using images and symbols to convey
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Upper School math teacher Dan O’Loughlin: “I’d have to say it’s more like teaching college students than I might have expected...There’s so much discussion in one of my classes that the challenge is actually in tamping it down a little.”
Meisler admits that this style of instruction can be demanding for teachers “but it’s also more exciting, and in the long term, probably more sustainable, too. Saying the same things about The Great Gatsby every year would get pretty stale, but in this setting, it’s different every day. I can honestly say that I’ve had my ideas about these books challenged by the kids in my classes.” When recent SPA graduates return to campus, Roberts says many tell him how amazed they are to discover how seamlessly SPA’s approach prepared them for the work they go on to do in college and university settings. “And that’s the whole point. Our goal is not only to make learning more interesting, but also to help kids think in more flexible, thoughtful and creative ways as autonomous learners, not just in the classroom, but they move forward in life, too,” says Roberts. “And I think that’s part of the magic of the Accountable Classroom—it really does work.”
THE ACCOUNTABLE CLASSROOM GOES TO COLLEGE: Steven Wendeborn ’11 University of Chicago, Class of 2015 Chicago, Illinois
One week during his junior year at SPA, Steven Wendeborn ’11, had to be in two places at once—the Minnesota State Capitol, where he had been selected to serve as a page, and his chemistry class, where he and his classmates were to spend the week devising and observing their own experiments, a project worth nearly half of his grade. A student at SPA since second grade, Wendeborn suspected that asking for any special allowances or bringing a note from home would be frowned on. “So in a flash of brilliance,” he laughs, “I figured out how to do both.” Starting a few days before his chemistry classmates, he set up an experiment to study the oxidation process of lignin, the wood byproduct that causes newspapers to yellow over time, by rigging up newsprint and a series of lights. The next week, when the rest of the class began their experiments, Wendeborn was at the Capitol, observing the machinations of state government with Republican Representative Matt Dean. The following Monday he returned to chemistry class, ready to report his results. “You can tell I’m proud of how I pulled that off because I still remember it three years later,” says Wendeborn, now a junior at the University of Chicago. Though he knew he had the support of faculty to make both opportunities possible, “the thing I really like about SPA is that they always give students the chance to fix the problem first, and it really makes you feel more confident.’’ Another feature of the Accountable Classroom that added to his sense of autonomy was a series of independent study classes Wendeborn was able to design for himself, allowing him to take two courses of Chinese, a study of multiculturalism in American, and a history course about the Ancient World—an academic passion he’s also pursued at college, where he studies economics and a multi-disciplinary major called “Law, Letters & Society.” While he was a student at SPA, Wendeborn captained the swim, math, Quiz Bowl, and Science Olympiad teams, played violin in the orchestra and chamber ensembles, and even worked on the stage crew for a few school productions. “I really liked that your social circle wasn’t defined by what you did. There’s no ‘basketball clique’ that only the basketball players can hang out with, because even the basketball players are in the orchestra, or doing theater, or science. So the boundaries are very blurred, or they weren’t there at all, which is fantastic in my opinion.” Jason Smith
“That’s one of the things I miss about SPA is that you could really spread yourself across disciplines,” says Wendeborn, who advises today’s student to do the same. “My advice is to try everything.”
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Published on May 2, 2014