Education is an art not a science. There is no perfect equation that will allow you to calculate the exact result you need every time. Nor is there a compound you can mix to create the perfect conditions for academic achievement. Success in education requires both broad brush strokes and attention to the finest details to paint a masterpiece.
The philosophy behind what the school teaches traces back to the second charter of the school in 1947 when it became co-educational, focused on attracting families from the neighborhood, and open to students of all faiths or no faith at all. Good schools are mission driven and mission consistent. The way you apply the mission doesn't change depending on the age of the student.
If you have had the pleasure of sitting in an admissions talk in the past several years, you have likely heard Mr. Davison talk about the “three-legged stool.” Each leg works with the others to build a foundation for the curricular and pedagogical decisions that define a Grace education.
The first leg of the stool is that the school seeks traditional outcomes. We believe there are things you need to know and things you need to know how to do. As students progress through the school they take classes in traditional academic areas: English, mathematics, history/social studies, science, foreign languages including Latin, philosophy and ethics, technology, physical education, and the performing and visual arts.
In the earliest grades, there is a focus on literacy followed by increasingly complex composition, which culminates in the critical analysis of literature and writing. In math, students begin with counting and move on to arithmetic, equations, variables and finally, algorithms. In science, history, foreign languages and the arts, there are similar progressions to ensure student development in all of the areas of conventional education.
Our goal though is not to jam as much information into our students’ heads as possible. At one time, when the economy was mainly driven by manufacturing, knowing the most stuff meant you would be successful, but that is no longer true. In the modern economy, people will need a salient amount of knowledge to ask smart questions and understand the answers. Technology has made entire libraries accessible with a few clicks on a smartphone or a “Hey, Siri!” A 2nd grade student may not be able to name the tributaries of the Danube, but they will know what a tributary is from studying the Missouri River, which will give them the information they need to search for the right answer.
While there are things we think you need to know to be successful, we do not believe that there is only one way to learn them. The notion of memorization for the purpose of recitation is outdated and does not lead to long-term knowledge. We want students to not just take in information that they can spit back out in the short-term. We want students to process information, moving it from their working memory to their long-term memory, for retrieval later in life when it is needed.
This belief is the second leg of the stool; students have different learning style preferences, and thus, we have different modalities of teaching, learning and assessment. Learning style preferences are broken down into three broad groups – Visual (spatial), Oral/Aural (hearing and speaking), and Kinesthetic (physical) – although at times these categories are broken down to even more discrete preferences.
Visual learners prefer using pictures, images, and spatial understanding. The 1st grade graph breakfast with its many graphical representations of student interests is representative of visual learning, as are collages made from pictures cut out of magazines to illustrate a student’s preferences in a Spanish class.
Oral/Aural learners prefer using words, both in speech and writing. Reading groups and the mystery reader in the Lower School are classic examples of aural learning. A freshman delivering an oral report on a research project in a Lab Elective is also aural.
Kinesthetic learners prefer using their body, hands and sense of touch. Kindergarteners practicing writing letters in sand are exercising their kinesthetic learning muscles, as are 7th grade math students moving around the classroom to solve problem sets taped to the walls.
The majority of students do not have a single learning style preference, but a combination of learning styles. Some of the most interesting and challenging projects that students take on incorporate multiple learning styles. The physical models of a cell that 6th graders make are both visual and kinesthetic. The eBooks that 8th graders write and read to their book buddies are both visual and aural. Students in 2nd grade exploring a national geographic map that is the size of a room is both aural and kinesthetic.
The final leg of the stool is a pedagogy of joy. Students who have a positive self-concept are going to be more effective and happier. Students who feel connected – to other students, teachers, coaches, and parents – feel safe, which provides a key ingredient for student success. Students need to have a sense of fulfillment, in that what they do is meaningful to them and to others. When these three things happen for students, they are joyful learners.
To create an environment that fosters these sensibilities in students, we are constantly creating and recreating active curricula focused on social, spiritual and emotional growth. All children are interested in the questions of who they are and what they believe about their place in the world. Participating in developmentally appropriate service learning activities is one of the ways we help students wrestle with these questions, from Kindergarteners, who do extra chores at home to earn money for those in need, to Seniors, who complete a two-year project focused on addressing a social issue.
Throughout the school, students have opportunities to learn about leadership by mentoring younger students through Book Buddies (5th through 8th grade students matched with Junior Kindergarten through 1st grade students), Peer Leadership (Juniors and Seniors that work with Freshman and Middle School students), and Cross-Grade Connection (mixed grade Middle School groups with one high school Peer Leader).
In addition to the curricular ways that we address the pedagogy of joy, we build our community through events and activities that keep students connected to other students, teachers and parents and develop their sense of empathy. The entire school gathers for all-school chapel services to celebrate significant moments in the year, as well as events important to the spirit of the school, like the Martin Luther King, Jr. Peace March and Service. Parents’ Association events like international family night, family community service day and Grace-goes-camping create moments for families to be connected.
We believe that parents are the most important teachers in the life of every child, and will be for the rest of their lives, which is why we place a high level of emphasis on the dynamic relationship between family and school. Kids watch their parents, how they organize things and how they start and finish projects, and they emulate what they see. Parents give kids experiences unique to their family, whether the family likes to hike through National Parks or host dinner parties, and through those experiences parents challenge kids to learn something new, and after the child masters that task they move on to something more difficult. Schools operate in the same way, using these “challenge change” experiences to help kids master skills and move on to the next level.
What happens at home affects what happens at school and vice versa, so parents must have strong relationships with their child’s teachers, advisors and deans. Parents are an active part of the life of the school because, along with great teaching, they are a key element of crafting the finest education.