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The Right Way to Search for a School

October 7, 2013

McGarryThe Right Way to Search for a School

by John McGarry, director of Financial Aid

My mother was born in 1922 and grew up during the Great Depression.  One of the enduring family values instilled by her parents was that while not everyone can be rich, everyone can be polite.  An essential family rule in our household was always to thank your host at the end of a visit.  “Thank you very much for a very nice time” was a required sendoff at the end of any guest experience, regardless of the quality of the experience that you actually just endured.  Throughout my youth, it was an inside joke that whenever our family was finishing up a visit with friends or extended family, my mother would always chime in with a chuckle and a “Thank you very much for a very nice time” as a friendly nod to more formal times gone by— an era when guests were taught to “visit well.”

As a new admissions season unfolds before us here at Concord Academy, we often hear families ask how they can make the most of their admissions experience.  In other words, how best to “visit well” in 2013?  We tossed this question around the table at a recent admissions office meeting and came up with some tips for prospective families.  What follows are thoughts and reflections from folks who have seen this process unfold many times before:

1 – Approach your school search process with a sense of optimism.

Planning to learn, to be surprised by new opportunities and experiences, and to actually enjoy it will contribute to your likelihood of conducting a successful school search experience.  Be sure to approach each school with the same optimistic energy, not just your top choice!

2 – Research the school you are visiting well enough to ask good questions.

Why does CA have Common Trust? Which kinds of kids seem to be the best fit at this school and others? A little research will help you discover what distinguishes CA from other schools. Research will also stimulate conversation with your interviewer.

3 – Talk to your current teachers and other secondary school placement professionals who know you and whom you respect.

Ask them for their opinions about schools, about you, and about different learning alternatives that they may know about.  What do they think about boarding vs. day, smaller vs. larger, sporty vs. artsy? These adults know you and they also know the stories of many students who have come before you and then moved on to make good high school decisions.

4 – Try to see what isn’t at a school, as well as what is there.  Open campus or closed?  Football team or Frisbee team?  Art building or art room?  Lots of competition or lots of collaboration?  Your tour guide can be a good source to help you to see what is featured and what is missing.  You may be seeking a school with abundant access to horses and no boys. How about a day school near a big city with a great ski team?  Check.

Finally, if you decide to apply to a school, complete your application with the expectation that a group of teachers who really like kids are sitting around a table discussing what you have written and are really trying to get a sense of who you are as a person, as a learner and as a community member.  Make sure it’s your authentic voice written in your own, unique style.  Then, before you leave the school after interviewing, make sure that the last thing you say is “thank you very much for a very nice time.”

At the very least, you will have visited well.


Finding “A Real Education” in an Unexpected Place

September 20, 2013

by Academic Dean John Drew

photo (20)This summer I was lucky enough to do a cross-country drive with my family, one theme of which was to find amazing trails on which to run. From a snow-covered path (that I later found out was closed) around Mount Rainier in Washington to a huckleberry-bordered trail up Mount Spokane, I was able to see new territory from my favorite vantage point and to share those experiences with my family. Several years ago, I would have thought these runs would be impossible. I had begun to shy away from running because of joint pain. It seemed logical that since I was getting older, perhaps I needed to find a new fitness activity.

Then I stumbled on Chris McDougall’s Born to Run, an odd but fun book based on the author’s desire to discover why his feet hurt. A bonus for me as a biology teacher was that Harvard biologist Daniel Lieberman’s research on the footfalls of shod and unshod runners figured prominently. Lieberman questions whether the thick running shoes most people wear today are necessary or even healthy. For most of human history we ran barefoot, which almost always means landing toward the front of one’s foot, not the heel. Popular running shoes have a large wedge of padding underneath the heel, encouraging/requiring that one lands heel-first in what Lieberman and others consider an unnatural movement.

Having coached high school and college distance runners for more than 20 years, I thought I knew quite a lot about the biomechanics of running. I had a consistent theory, shared by lots of other coaches, of how athletes’ feet hit the ground. Jogging means landing on your heels, transitioning to fast running done flat-footed or on the balls of one’s feet. The “minimalist” crowd suggests much lighter-weight shoes (or no shoes), and always landing on one’s forefoot or midfoot, even when running slowly.

It took almost a year to make the transition to minimalist running (not barefoot — that’s not going to happen!). The process was not without setbacks — my wife had to come pick me up on Lowell Road one summer day three years ago when both of my calves cramped up in the woods and I had to crawl out. But now I can run as much as I have time for, and last fall I ran my first ultramarathon (any sporting event longer than the traditional 26.2 miles).

These ideas helped me to bring running back into my life, but perhaps more powerful was the powerful reminder that openness to new perspectives can create new understanding that is life-changing.

In Michael S. Roth’s review of Mark Edmundson’s Why Teach? In Defense of a Real Education, he states that Edmundson went to college “to see if there were possibilities beyond what others had defined as his limits,” and that real education (and the teachers that provide it) is meant to “crack the shell of convention…shining a light on a life’s different prospects.” I had bought into the conventional wisdom of running shoes — the more my legs hurt, the more “motion control” shoe companies led me to believe I needed. Breaking free of that convention took some convincing. McDougall and Lieberman led me to many different prospects this summer — some at high elevations!

With these experiences fresh in my mind, I am looking forward to CA students and adults gathering this fall to seek “real education” that allows us all to redefine our limits.

Let’s go to school!

What Does it Mean to Know Yourself? Profiles in Leadership

September 6, 2013


Written by Dean of Faculty Jenny Chandler

Portions of this blog were adapted from remarks made at the “Celebration of Teaching” program during Reunion Weekend and a summer reading memo shared with CA faculty at the end of the 2012-13 school year.

During my spring course, Profiles in Leadership, a senior asked, “Jenny, what does it mean to know yourself?” In that setting, the context for this beautiful and complex question was simple: we were reviewing Adam Bryant’s interview from the New York Times.

Twice a week, Bryant interviews CEOs and asks them to describe lessons on leadership. In this particular case, the young CEO being interviewed referenced his therapist as a source of inspiration and life lessons. “I learned from him,” said Bryant’s subject, “that nothing is as bad as it seems. It is really important to be centered during the day. And you should surround yourself with the right people. He taught me that you should be in a constant state of evolution as a person.”

When reviewing this with my students, I remarked, “In other words, he is a better leader because he knows himself well.” It was at this juncture when my student asked his question again.

“Jenny, what does it mean to know yourself?”

The question was challenging but also so intimate and—revealing—of the boy who asked it, the ethos of the classroom we shared, and the school where this occurred.

This is Concord Academy. This is the essential question we are asking and pursuing. And everything about this school allows for this, supports this, and expects this kind of inquiry. My student may well have asked me, “What is the meaning of life?” In many ways, this is exactly what he was asking: “What is the meaning of MY life? How do I make it meaningful? And when will I know that I know myself?”

What our students do not know about us—their teachers, advisors, house parents, coaches—is that even the most iconic, superhuman, awesome, immortal teachers in our midst ask these questions of themselves all of the time.

This is the reason I was able to collect myself in the face of my student’s question, because as is true of all teachers at CA, we too are exploring this question and moving toward greater understanding and self-awareness. But we know something that our students do not yet know: this inquiry is a life-long journey.

Those of us who are privileged to work with young people know that we often see in our students what they cannot yet see in themselves. When she spoke on campus last fall during the Concord Academy’s 90th Anniversary, the president of Harvard University Drew Gilpin Faust ’64 described a transformative encounter between a girl and a teacher. In this instance, it was with the school’s lead teacher—the head of Concord Academy, Elizabeth Blodgett Hall. On one occasion, Hall pulled Faust aside to say she was not living up to her potential, that she was more than she was allowing herself to be.

These encounters are not by chance, and while we cannot know what difference it made in the life of Dr. Faust—now a head of school in her own right—it made a difference. I believe this is the ultimate privilege and responsibility we have as educators: we make a difference in the lives of the children in our charge. We guide students through example, through kind words, through sharing knowledge, through fostering new ideas, and through selfless devotion to our work. The encounter that Faust described happens time and again at CA, and they do not end when students earn their diplomas and move on.

By aligning book selections with the three guiding principles of the school’s mission, we have adopted a new approach to summer reading for adult members of the CA community. This serves many purposes including providing a choice, connecting a reading to a core value, and creating an opportunity for faculty to engage with one another around many ideas before the start of school.

Here are the books our teachers read over this past summer and the core value tied to each. I hope you’ll read and enjoy them as we did.

“Students and teachers work together as a community of learners dedicated to intellectual rigor and creative endeavor. In a caring and challenging atmosphere, students discover and develop talents as scholars, artists, and athletes and are encouraged to find their voices.”

5 Elements of Effective Thinking by Edward Burger and Michael Starbird
Below is the Amazon link to the book and an article from The Chronicle of Education that first got my attention and compelled me to purchase the book last fall and use some of the ideas in my fall course. Dr. Burger is a math professor at Williams College and has recently been appointed President of Southwestern University.

When he learned of our choice, Dr. Burger wrote:

“Wow! What great news! Next, I hope that the students get a chance to read it. Very exciting–I hope those faculty that have a look find it helpful. Maybe someday I’ll have a chance to give a talk there!”


“The school is committed to embracing and broadening the diversity of backgrounds, perspectives, and talents of its people. This diversity fosters respect for others and genuine exchange of ideas.”

Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights by Kenji Yoshino
This book comes at the suggestion of the Community and Equity Team:

“Common trust challenges students to balance individual freedom with responsibility and service to a larger community. Such learning prepares students for lives as committed citizens.”

Do It Anyway: A New Generations of Activists by Courtney Martin
Martin profiles eight young activists, including Emily Abt ’93, a CA graduate. Another point of interest is her profile of Rachel Corrie; David Gammons staged a play about her a few years ago. Rachel is treated as a cautionary tale of sorts given the tragic outcome of her work. In addition to the profiles, Martin’s thoughtful introduction and concluding chapter provide lovely bookends on the profiles and suggest that she is the 9th profile and you, the reader, have the potential to be the 10th. I used this book in my spring course, Profiles in Leadership. Here’s how one CA student described the book: “For once I was reading about people in the 21st century I could relate to! The stories felt current, plausible, and real.”
Here’s a link to additional information about Martin and the people she profiles:

Coaching The CA Student Athlete

September 4, 2013

by Jon Waldron, boys cross country coach

September 2013 marks the beginning of my seventh year as a cross country coach at Concord Academy. That’s a long time, and yet I still struggle to define the “the CA student-athlete,” in part because those athletes have done so much to define my thinking.

It seems to me that the CA kids I know—the ones who join the cross country and track teams—reliably defy my preconceptions and my attempts to fit them into a single template. Thanks to them, I have been (and continue to be) challenged to re-evaluate and refine the way I coach. Every season, it seems like I’m the one who has the most to learn.

So instead of enumerating my “seven rules of coaching” I’d like to reflect on the work-in-progress of coaching and learning that all of us (coaches and athletes) begin anew every fall.

Before I came to CA, I worked for many years at Newton North, a large public high school in my home town of Newton, MA. Eventually, and for many reasons, I decided it was time for a change, and in 2007 I applied for the position of boys cross country coach at Concord Academy. During my interview with then-Athletic Director Carol Anne Beach, she observed that I might find CA (350 students) a little different than Newton North (2,500 students), and asked me how I would feel about that change. Never having taught or coached at a small private school, I didn’t really know how I would feel, but I responded to Carol Anne’s wise questioning with what I believed at the time: ultimately, kids are kids, running is running, and any successful cross country or track program has to address certain common and fundamental challenges to bring kids and running together in a positive way.

Seven years into my journey at CA, I still believe that’s true . . . mostly. But what I didn’t foresee was how much the experience of coaching CA students would deepen my understanding of those challenges.

For example, one perpetual challenge I have is finding ways to reconcile individual needs with team goals. Running is both intensely personal and surprisingly social. In training and competition, it is a sport that rewards individual effort with meaningful individual achievements (personal bests, top finishes). However, even talented individuals need the support structure that enables them to endure the long road of training, the plateaus where progress is slow and continuing is hard, and the inevitable disappointments and setbacks. Eventually, even the best runners realize they can’t be as good on their own as they can be with a team around them. With this knowledge, they understand that there’s a lot less loneliness in long-distance running than meets the eye.

But before that happens there is the practical matter of figuring out how to train together. At the beginning of every season, CA teams reflect the widest imaginable variety of abilities, experience, and motivations. On the first day of cross country, fifty students will show up and some of them will find it hard to run a mile without stopping, while others will be comfortable running ten times that far. Some will think of themselves as athletes, and others won’t be so sure. From this variety, a team has to emerge. It would be possible, of course, to form a team through the principle of sink-or-swim, requiring that runners meet certain standards. It would be possible, but it seems particularly inappropriate for CA. So we try to take a different approach – from coaches to captains to each individual runner – that values and encourages individual improvement and growth for everyone who wants to run.

What does that mean for winning and losing? At many schools, both public and private, teams are judged by their records. At CA, we care about our record, too, but primarily as a by-product of our focus on and commitment to helping each runner improve. If we honor the latter, the former will take care of itself. Perhaps that’s only a fancy way of saying that we are a community of individuals. If so, then it’s good to know that we are aligned with the overall mission of CA, which is as an institution that embraces a similar philosophy for academics, arts, service, and community life.
Another challenge for me as a coach is helping kids to set priorities. I think there are two major traps for a high school coach: the trap of making sports always the top priority, and the trap of thinking that sports should never be a top priority. I believe that at CA and elsewhere, the priority given to athletics ought to support a range of individual needs.

If anyone tells me that CA athletes aren’t serious about athletics, I am ready with counter examples of CA athletes who were as serious about their sports as any of the athletes I coached in the public schools, and whose education and personal growth benefited greatly from their level of commitment. For those athletes, I had to remind myself not to lower my expectations or place limits on what they could achieve. At the same time, I am comfortable with the fact that many CA students will have a long list of other interests that are a higher priority than running. For them, it might be enough to expect that they will have the experience of setting and meeting goals that seem modest, but are quite meaningful to them. As I said before, I don’t believe there is a single template for a CA student-athlete; instead, there are individual athletes, each one with a different set of needs.

The last thing I want to reflect on as a perpetual challenge for me as a coach at CA is teaching student-athletes about stress. I don’t mean telling them how to avoid it, but rather how to understand it and how to respond to it. At CA (and elsewhere, but perhaps especially at CA), both students and teachers talk about stress in mythic terms. The stress “ogre” seems to looms large and the more we talk about it, the larger it becomes. In truth, the first few years of coaching at CA, I was awed by it as well.

But over the last couple of years, I’ve been evolving towards a different view. As a coach of an event that is more or less pure stress in the physical if not mental sense, I tend to think of training and racing in terms of the equation (Stress + Recovery) = Adaptation. I see the proper application of stress (and recovery) as necessary and complementary components of healthy training and growth. The right stress rightly applied makes an individual stronger and more resilient. The wrong stress wrongly applied leads to breakdown and weakness. I often find myself thinking “I don’t want running to be just another stress in the lives of my students,” but I think what I’m coming to understand is that students can benefit from the stress of running— they can become more resilient, more confident, and more able to take things in stride, so to speak. Of course, if they believe that running helps them to reduce the stress in their lives, I don’t argue with them!

I hope from all the above, I’ve given some sense of how much I’ve had to learn and how much more there is to learn about coaching CA student athletes. If there’s a conclusion here, it is that I’m more convinced than ever that coaching, like teaching, is an adaptive process that changes those who coach as well as those who are coached. In the words of the musical ‘Wicked’, I know that my experience with CA students, CA teachers, and other CA coaches has changed me for good. I hope that I will be able to say someday that I have contributed in a small way to changing CA for the better, just as it has changed me.

Finding Our Way

June 24, 2013

jdby Academic Dean John Drew 

There is a necessary intensity to the school year at CA. Curious, capable, enthusiastic students and adults are wonderfully stirred up by growing and learning, seeking and sharing. The fact that everyone in the community takes their interests so seriously, and that the interests are so numerous means that the September to May pace is quick (a topic for another time is the remarkable pace of infrastructure renewal that occurs when students and faculty are away!)
One narrative that accompanies graduation and commencement focuses on slowing down. And while I am certainly looking forward to some slow time this summer, at this moment I am more compelled by the notion of CA and “not CA” in all of our lives.
Many forms of arrival and departure occur at each year’s end. Seniors graduate, beloved faculty members retire. A week later, alums return, former faculty and administrators come back, some from each group for the first time.  A number of seniors each year are a little uncomfortable leaving. What most returning alumni/ae know well is that one’s education is occurring all the time, so each transition from home to school, school to home, school to summer, CA to the rest of one’s life provides opportunity for lessons learned in one place to be reflected upon, tested, solidified and advanced in another.

In John Huth’s The Lost Art of Finding Our Way, the legendary Gilbert Islands female navigator Baintabu says to her apprentice, “No one sign in navigation is reliable, but several signs in combination are. You must always ask yourself, ‘Are there other ways to prove to myself where I am, and where I am going?'” In the South Pacific, wind, ocean currents, the migration of birds and fish and the position of the sun all contribute to finding one’s way in a boat. For our students, classes, performances, games, internships, time with family and summer jobs all contribute to an understanding of where he or she is going, not to mention important relationships with adults and peers.

So I’m glad for departure, just as I will be glad to return to CA in August, as each part of my experience informs the other. Right now, I’m looking forward to the learning that occurs away from CA for myself, my colleagues, and our students.

A Reflection on the College Process

May 6, 2013

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.

Technology and Engagement in the Classroom

March 26, 2013

900001912Written by Academic Dean John Drew

A recent NYT magazine article ( 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 ( ) 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!

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