As each trimester begins this year, I am seeing how the rhythms of life at Vermont Academy shift and settle in as we respond to the changing seasons, new programming, and even an altered schedule.
Great care is taken at VA to link these factors together in an organic way--snow and ice, daylight and dark, teenagers and their sleep and waking “best times,” course requirements and assessments, art and music and theater programming, travel times to distant schools for athletics. Recently, Brian Gilloran shared a schedule of winter events so that students could know when there was a coffee house, trivia night, pizza in the Wildcat Den, poetry competition, dodgeball tournament, or Chinese New Year celebration coming up. He will be developing a similar calendar for residential life curricula, which includes day students affiliated with dorms.
My winter schedule includes administrative evaluations and class visits. I have been to a U.S. History Class, AP Environmental Studies, Foundations in History, and Honors World Literature so far, with about two or three class visits a week scheduled for this trimester. One of the significant threads of commonality in these courses has to do with the focus on experiential learning, on applications of concepts, and on real-life illustrations of course material. Here are some windows in on what this looks like in our classrooms.
In Environmental Studies, students learned what it would be like to be a nocturnal or day creature, foraging for food. What if they were wounded? What if they had to fight for their food? After experiencing this by being given identities and problems to solve in an active context in an imaginary forest, students ran, crawled, and fought for the available resources. Then they learned about the concept of mutualism and the way in which interdependencies in the animal and plant worlds create a kind of elaborate web of collaboration, all in the interest of survival.
In Foundations in History, we were all given identities in the Indian caste system, and of course, ironically, I was given the status of the “Untouchable.” As head of school, I then challenged students to speak to me as I walked among the groups, and they were humorously torn between responding to their head of school and being faithful to the rules of the caste system that meant that Untouchables were off limits for communication!
In U.S. History, we learned that the Emancipation Proclamation was a political document, and it really did not free the slaves. Slaves were freed in slave-holding states, but the rule of law ignored President Lincoln’s declaration. Lincoln then kept slaves in border states enslaved. We concluded the class by listening to rap songs that directly addressed the false hopes of forty acres and a mule that many free black men and women experienced during Reconstruction, and the ways in which these concepts continue to resonate with African Americans and with our never-ending ideals of equity and justice.
In addition to attending classes, I have so enjoyed and admired the 24-hour play festival, in which our students wrote scripts overnight and then turned them over to actors and directors who put together six vignettes performed 24 hours after the start of the challenge. Each play had to include a flashlight, a slow-motion sequence, the word "Wildcat," the line "You need to get out of my way," and the theme "[Blank] is lurking around the corner." What witty performances we all witnessed!
As you know, I have a great desire to position Leavitt House as the heart of the campus. Recently I had a dinner in the dining room with the English department to honor our writer in residence, Brian Mooney, while the girls' and boys’ basketball teams had a pizza, ping pong, and pool party with a crackling fire in the basement of Leavitt House. Students also watched the Miami-Duke game, with graduate Bruce Brown playing for Miami. I hosted seven dancers from the Cherylyn Lavignino Dance Troupe at the house before their workshops and performances on campus, and this week Brian Mooney, our writer in residence, has been staying in the house while he teaches, gives tutorials, and offers a public reading.
As you can see, we are experiencing a vibrant winter season that will be continuing with lots of events, including our fantastic athletic records. Girls’ ice hockey continues to be ranked number one in New England!
I want to share with you that the Kent School has suffered lots of damage as a result of flooding from the Connecticut River. I reached out to offer faculty housing and any other help as they manage this time when they sent students home for several weeks of online learning. We are all a community in this world of boarding schools, and in times of need, we need to stick together.
I hope that you are not, as Paul Simon wrote, “slip sliding away” but rather enjoying the extra snowfalls and colder temperatures this winter.