Written by Xiomara Contreras ’13
May 1st is nearing and it is almost time for me to decide where I will spend the next four years
of my life. After stressing from August 2012 up to late March 2013, the tables have finally
turned. The first semester of senior year was filled with great classes, and the usual amount of
school work, but seniors had to take on another class- college applications. When I thought I was
done with work, I realized I had college essays to write, supplements to submit, and meetings to
attend. It was all definitely manageable with excel sheets, folders, and the support of my college
counselor and other adults in the community, but on top of the work, there was the constant fear
of not getting into the college fit for me. In addition, I spent January and February filling out the
FAFSA, the CSS Student Profile, and additional forms colleges required for the financial aid
process. Then, there was the wait. Will I get into college? Will I get sufficient financial aid?
April 1st arrived and my fear went away. I got into college, better yet, I got into colleges, and
colleges I did not think I could get into. Now I was the one choosing between candidates. The
weight was definitely taken off my shoulders, and I was ready to frolic across the quad, but I
realized it was not over. I had to make a decision. I thought this would be the easiest part of
the college process, but it was not. I had chosen to not fall in love with a school, to apply to
incredibly different colleges and universities, and now I was stuck. After speaking to my college
counselor several times, I finally narrowed it down to three. What do I want? Do I want to spend
my college life in the warmth of LA with over 30,000 students? Do I want to go back home to
Chicago and study at a university, or do I want to attend a small liberal arts college with 1,700
students? I ended up eliminating The University of Southern California. It was too big, even
though the West Coast was very tempting. So, it was narrowed down to Northwestern University
and Amherst College. I could not be stuck between two more completely different schools. I
knew I could get great academics from both, but I was picking between apples and oranges. I had
to speak to two college counselors and a teacher for advice, and the advice was the same. I could
not make a mistake.
I thought about it. Amherst was great because I was used to having a small community that
I knew I could fall back on. The professors there really care about the students, and after I
attended several classes and panels, I noticed that they made students ponder on big questions,
and that I would benefit from an open curriculum. The only drawback? It was three hours from
New York and two from Boston. I did not want to base my decision on that though. I enjoyed
my visit and thought that was where I wanted to go, but after I visited Northwestern, I was
conflicted. Northwestern was back home, near the beautiful lake, and I remembered how much
I missed being away. I could have so many opportunities having internships in the city. I made
friends with not only prospective students, but also current students. I left both places amazed by
all aspects of the schools.
So, I ponder. Some say Amherst, especially the New Englanders who know its reputation best.
Others say Northwestern, especially my eighth grade teacher. Everyone has admitted to a bias
though. It is left to me and my gut. I have to choose between a “pre-professional” school, and an “intellectual” school. I know I will be happy at either institution, but now I have to decide which one that will be, and whether it is time for me to come back home and leave my comfort zone of a tiny community. Having options is a good problem to have.
A recent NYT magazine article (http://nyti.ms/UbxdYC) describes how the last presidential election was impacted by the Obama campaign’s use of technology, and perhaps more significantly by Republicans’ resistance to new modes of communication and data gathering. While Robert Draper’s story has many threads (responding to demographic change deserves its own post), I read a metaphor for the risks and opportunities that face independent schools in general and CA in particular.
Two things struck me: first, use of social networks, communication and data-gathering tools gave the Obama campaign an advantage with every demographic group, not just young and/or urban voters. More importantly, these new tools were used seamlessly with traditional means of increasing voter turnout (Facebook networks used to identify when volunteers would have free time). Second, the description of Republican reluctance regarding technology brought me up short, because I heard some of my own words in their hesitation to embrace new forms of communication (and until I read this column, I was unaware of reddit as well!)
In recent alumnae/i gatherings I have attended, CA grads have been eager to discuss the balance that we need to strike. A close partnership between adults and students makes a CA education distinctive and meaningful. Time for individual reflection is required for new learning to deepen and for creativity to emerge. As our grads remember those essential characteristics they are excited by the prospect of new opportunities, and the idea that we are preparing students for a changing world that they already inhabit.
A former president of Bates college now directing the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth (CTY) talks (http://chronicle.com/article/Top-Students-Too-Arent/137821/ ) about preparation for the future that strong students need. If school is not interesting or challenging, young people don’t develop the skills that are required when they do become engaged, no matter how capable they are. Dr. Tuttle Hansen is concerned that even CTY’s excellent programming during the summer cannot replace daily engagement during the whole school year. Tuttle Hansen’s column emphasizes for me the continuing relevance of a CA education.
My experimental biology class this spring offers me a chance to see these themes in action. Student teams come to class every day to exchange ideas with each other and to perform hands-on research. One research group culturing bacteria in Petri dishes photographs the dishes with an iPhone, and organizes those photographs on Facebook. Some of those photographs then appeared in a well-organized presentation for class, incorporated into a Word document that when projected onto a screen looked like a traditional spiral-bound lab notebook. Seeing that process take shape, I marveled at the idea that colleagues from some other schools have told me proudly about successful bans of cell phones and Facebook in school. I believe that a well-maintained and sturdy school culture can not just withstand but benefit from new tools.
As we work towards CA’s future, I am very heartened by the school’s long traditions of engagement with each student and willingness to experiment and to change. This is an exciting time to be involved in education!
The first quarter of the calendar year is a busy time in independent schools. We are simultaneously moving through the important work of the day, while also planning and putting complicated pieces in place for the next academic year. It is a time for thoughtful envisioning that thankfully goes well beyond needs and wants, as schools are now very much focused on the “what ifs.” It is an exciting time to be engaged with students within the context of a strong and innovative secondary school program.
Envisioning the needs, wants, and what ifs for the new year runs along a wide continuum including emergent opportunities for collaboration, development of new courses, on-going incorporation and deployment of technology, and projection of section needs and class assignments.
This is also the time of year when we are well along in the hiring season. Between now and early April, we will have hosted many outstanding teaching candidates. Given the retirements of Susan Adams and Keith Daniel, we are on track to make appointments in German and music. And because of these long and distinguished tenures (a combined 75 years of service and unwavering commitment to CA), we are also cognizant that our to-be-named colleagues have, as we have heard throughout this process, “big shoes to fill.” It is my sense that both Keith and Susan will find in these appointments, more than any gift or accolade, the greatest mark of their work. Ensuring that we are bringing on board outstanding new colleagues to guide these integral programs reinforces and confirms the enduring nature of what Susan and Keith have built and the contributions that they have made to the School.
Our approach to these appointments is very much influenced by the long runway Susan and Keith provided by sharing their intentions early; we have had time to be deliberate in examining what the School needs and what qualities and credentials we expect to find in our candidates.
One aspect of the process has been the development of questions to ask our prospective colleagues. As I hear myself asking these questions, I am increasingly aware of my own answers, as these are questions that do not need to be limited to the entry point of one’s tenure. We did not consciously tie the questions to the School’s mission, but what we ask clearly provides an opportunity to elicit responses that illuminate whether or not a prospective colleague understands and has the promise of representing and advancing what we value most at the School. I listen for responses that capture a love of learning, respect for diversity and community, and an appreciation for common trust. I am also listening for the words that convey a genuine desire and capacity to guide and nurture these values in adolescents. One way to tease out these qualities is to ask questions that allow candidates to remember their own adolescence. Circling back to that period of one’s journey and being mindful—years later—of the vulnerabilities tied to that time and the role played by thoughtful adults creates a connection between a teacher and her students that transcends time and experience.
- Tell us about people who have inspired you.
- Beyond expertise in his or her subject area, what does a teacher need to know and understand about adolescents in order to be effective and successful as a secondary school teacher?
Schools often have exit interviews with departing colleagues. They provide an opportunity to mine ideas and insight that may help influence how faculty and staff engage with the School moving forward. I am chewing on the idea of dedicating time in a spring faculty meeting for colleagues – those departing, those long tenured, and those relatively new to the School (as is true for me) some of the questions we ask prospective teachers. The ideas and vision of colleagues, at any stage in their respective careers, have the potential to elicit an unexpected and perhaps transformative initiative, a lively discussion, or clarity on one’s approach to engagement with students. And if the questions are effective and the process is safe and inclusive, responses will also remind us of what we value most about the School and what ties us to one another.
- How do you characterize yourself as a colleague? What do you look for in colleagues?
- How have you seen this field change in the last few years? And what changes do you see or anticipate playing out over the next five years?
As I return to them, I realize that the questions are relatively simple, and yet their importance is significant. What they reveal shapes the next step of the hiring process. Getting the pieces of the puzzle together is complicated, but if we have the School’s mission in our sights and listen for it in the words we hear back from candidates, the process also feels powerful and inspiring. With April faculty meetings now in my sights, I realize that setting up an exercise that has us asking these questions of one another will also help identify the needs, wants, and—in particular—the what ifs that we are envisioning for the next academic year.
CA invites anyone who is able to do so to schedule a campus visit as part of his or her admissions process. This visit typically includes a tour of the school as well as an interview with a member of the admissions staff or a faculty or alumnae/i volunteer. Those unable to visit campus are invited to SKYPE instead.
By the end of January our office had conducted nearly 700 interviews, most in person here on campus, some off campus in the student’s hometown (or country!) and some by SKYPE. Providing this kind of experience requires an allocation of significant time on the part of the admissions staff since each interview and subsequent written reflection takes almost two hours. It also requires that a family make the extra effort to drive, fly, or otherwise get here, often requiring missing school and work.
So why do we bother trying to meet interested students face to face? After all, the rest of the application is certainly comprehensive – it includes student writing, multiple teacher recommendations, grades, special interest recommendations, and testing.
In fact, there are two reasons for this. First, coming to campus for a tour and interview allows candidates to learn about Concord Academy first hand. The tour introduces parents and students to our community members and provides them with a sense of our culture (How are people interacting with one another? Do they seem happy and engaged? Is this a formal or informal environment? Do adults and students mix?). The interview offers students the chance to hear about the school’s mission, values, and program, as well as about any specific area in which the student has an interest. Providing families the chance to “kick the tires” is important— it’s a courtesy, as well as an important part of the mutual look process.
Second, we actually do discern important things in the interview, and often what we learn serves to enhance a student’s profile. At CA, we are so lucky to have interesting applicants, almost all of whom have wonderful things to share with us. The interviews provide us with a first-hand look at the skills and attributes which we are looking for in our selection process. We learn about their comfort level with adults; their ability to reflect, connect, and grapple with ideas; and to express appreciation and reveal dreams. Furthermore, the interview represents the beginning of a relationship – a relationship with an adult at CA, as well as with the school.
After each interview, an admissions officer writes up a report. Here are some out-takes from our reports which re-enforce why we so value these interactions (the names of students and schools have been changed):
Sally credited her dad with her love of learning, saying that we talk about everything, and he inspires me! And while mom pushes and encourages Sally to reach even higher, dad is her champion, helps her think things through and partners with her. The combination of these approaches, she reports, has been very positive as it has shaped her as a student and learner.
Samantha is calm, thoughtful, and earnest. She is sensitive to others’ needs, and is seeking to define herself, in part by watching and admiring others (when asked about whom she admires she described a classmate who’s an avid feminist, who makes things happen, a natural leader – she really admires her).
In general I found Johnto be sensible, funny, self-aware, trusting of adults. He’s busy, curious to try new things and takes school seriously.
I asked David to describe himself as a student and he said “I’m unique.” Why? I think differently than other kids. I tend to have unique opinions that I express in class, and I can back up my opinions with fact and good arguments. He went on to say that while others kids were likely to have comic books on their shelves, he had Encyclopedias which he read with a vengeance. He also said that he’s a reader, preferring non-fiction unless the fiction is a real challenge – he read Beowulf on his own, he said.
I have so much more to write but will keep this simple. Sam is a good student and likes his teachers. In and out of class, he said “I’m the kid who puts himself out there.” His dad came with him today and is clearly very supportive of Sam, and clearly loved what he saw at CA, as did Sam. Dad’s lens is about safety, respect, support, academic engagement. Sam’s is probably the same, though perhaps in a different order?
These little excerpts remind me of just how rich these conversations are, just how helpful they are in bringing candidates to life, and just how lucky I am to call this a “job.”
If you’re looking for something to read over the break or perhaps hunting for a book idea for your holiday gift list, we have compiled a list of suggestions from the CA community. We encourage you to add your own book suggestions in the comments. Enjoy!
Library Director and Archivist Martha Kennedy recommends:
The Yellow Birds: A Novel
by Kevin Powers
Greenhorns: The Next Generation of American Farmers
50 Dispatches from the New Farmers’ Movement
Edited by Zoe Ida Bradbury
This is How You Lose Her
by Junot Diaz
English teacher Morgan Mead recommends:
Schmidt Steps Back
by Louis Begley
The News from Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story
by Joan Wickersham
The Marriage Plot
by Jeffrey Eugenides
Assistant Dean for Community and Equity, English Teacher and College Counselor Jennifer Cardillo recommends:
Covering: The Hidden Assault on our Civil Rights
by Kenji Yoshino
Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books
by Azar Nafisi
Interpreter of Maladies
by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
by Alan Bradley
I love watching the Olympics.
Written by Director of Residential Life Annie Bailey
I love watching the Olympics.
For me, though, it’s not just about the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. I am drawn to the athletes’ individual stories—some of triumph and many of struggle. I am always fascinated to learn about the varying backgrounds of these individuals—gaining insight into specific countries, customs, and family life. Each story is unique and yet each athlete shares a vision and drive to get to the Olympics. The athletes want to be part of a team that represents their country and by so doing they partake in something truly magnificent.
In some ways, seeing these athletes come together is akin to what I see each year during our August orientation for new boarding students, and in the houses throughout the school year. We all come together; many from different countries, but we each possess our own unique story. I am reminded at these times why I am proud to be a part of a school and a boarding program that embraces our differences—celebrates them actually—and encourages each of us to be authentic.
As a house parent and orientation leader, it is truly a joy for me each year to meet all of the new faces on campus and hear of the personal journeys they took to get to this school. Whether one grew up in New York City or a small village in China, we are each urged to tell our story; whether on a formal level through chapel talks, or informally around the breakfast table in the Stu-Fac, in the classroom, or in the common room eating house food with housemates on Saturday night. We are bonded by our differences.
The Olympic creed states that the “. . . most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part…The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.” Surely that was true for the first woman to compete for Saudi Arabia who came in last in her race but broke barriers while doing it, and the South Sudanese marathon runner who, for political reasons, refused to compete under his country’s flag so he ran under the Olympics flag.
As I watched the Olympics unfold this summer, I was continually reminded that I am also part of a community that values the journey of life and learning and not just the proposed outcome. Love of learning is far more than just a sentence in our mission statement, but our mantra, practiced and upheld on a daily basis. We come from different parts of the world but when we get here we all have the same job—to jump into the game, participate, take a risk, ask questions, get to know one another—and learn. I truly look forward to another great year.
“How was your Parents’ Weekend?” I asked the parents of a new 9th grader. The two of them were sitting on the Stu-Fac patio Saturday morning after a full day Friday of class visits and teacher conferences.
“Great,” the Dad said. “We liked our son’s teachers and his friends. Everything was good. But at the dinner last night he wanted to eat with his new friends instead of with us. And then I had this dream.”
“What was it?” I asked.
“I dreamed we were swimming together and a huge wave suddenly picked him up and carried him away.”
“Uh-oh,” I said.
“I know, classic, right?” the Dad said.
Classic and familiar both, I might have replied.
After all, ninety or so seniors disappear from our midst every spring; another one hundred or so new students arrive in late August. By the end of the first couple of weeks we expect ourselves to have at least a rudimentary knowledge of all the kids we teach, coach, advise or deal with closely with under other auspices. It’s exhausting, but also interesting and fun, this annual starting-up, this immersion in a sea of new faces and stories.
Meanwhile, walking down the hall you think you see a familiar face approaching only to realize that that particular student has graduated. They are starting a new life at a new place. We have said our goodbyes to them and now it’s time to focus on our hellos.
In fact, in the oceanic terms suggested by that Dad’s dream about the wave, CA can feel at times like Canada’s Bay of Fundy, where a billion tons of water moves in and out with each changing of the tide. The quad on graduation afternoon might be our version of this watery landscape: packed with people at noon, deserted at dusk. My own experience of graduation is the same every year. In the busy-ness of the term’s end I manage not to focus on the idea of saying goodbye until it is almost too late. Then, as I am leaving the reception after the ceremony I stop to take one hurried last look, and it hits me like that billion tons of water. We call this commencement, but there’s no denying the part that is an ending.
I did have a note this fall from one of my former students who graduated last spring. As a freshman at the university he passionately wanted to attend, he is already starting to encounter the people and experiences he hoped to find there. He’s happy. Nevertheless, at the end of his email he admits: “I keep having these intense bouts of nostalgia for high school…I’m sure it’ll go away as I form new “good old” memories at college, but it just feels like high school is so far removed to the past. I’ll have to visit.”
The name Fundy is said to derive from either the French “fendo” which means to split, or the Portugese “fondo” meaning funnel. As far as I’m concerned both are applicable to our CA tide. Our annual arrivals and departures, each one in turn, both divide us and bring us together.