Learning How to Learn

“Neuroteach” co-author Glenn Whitman will speak at Country Day Thursday, Aug. 16, about helping children achieve their full potential. The event is free but tickets are required. Click here to register.

Last year when Rachel Schmalhofer walked into a workshop on learning and the brain, she was curious. When she walked out, she was converted.

“I was just blown away at how fun and charismatic they were, and how easily they took meaty scientific research and made it accessible. As soon as I left the workshop, I knew we could apply what they were talking about across the whole LCDS community,” said the director of learning services.

“They” are Ian Kelleher and Glenn Whitman, and the pair distilled current research on mind, brain and education science into an eminently readable and practical book called “Neuroteach,” which every teacher received a copy of at the beginning of the year.

“This is just the jumping off point,” said Schmalhofer. “LCDS has made a commitment to staying on the cutting edge of mind, brain and education research and our efforts will continue to grow every year. What we are doing is a really big deal and represents an effort to create a culture of learning not just for our students, but for our teachers and parents as well. We want to practice what we preach.

“It’s different because it’s an undertaking that engages the entire community: teachers working to use current research to inform their practices, and teaching students to become more efficient, effective, motivated learners; parents continuing the conversation at home; students developing their abilities to be reflective about their learning and to approach learning from a mastery orientation rather than a performance orientation,” she said.

Classes as disparate as Brenna Stuart’s World Civ II and Sheryl Krafft’s preschool have embraced the idea that understanding the brain, the organ of learning, is critical to learning, and they’ve seen it bear fruit. The profound — if occasionally just plain common sense — ideas animating their efforts receive  thorough and engaging explication in Whitman’s “Neuroteach.”

Whitman is the director of the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning (CTTL) at St. Andrew’s School, with whom Country Day has become a partner school. Other partners include Johns Hopkins and Harvard. Whitman is coming to Country Day Thursday, Aug. 16, to speak with the community about helping children achieve their full potential. Click here to register.

Part of the partnership entails sending one administrator and one teacher from each division to a week-long workshop at the CTTL for at least the next three summers. This year’s group consists of Todd Trout, Lindsay Deibler-Wallace, Sue LeFevre and Joie Formando.

“Why are we doing this? Because we always want to be the obvious best choice for your child’s education,” Schmalhofer said.

The Never-Ending Essay

For the last three years, the kids in Stuart’s World Civ II class have started off the year with an assignment that, if it were a movie, would be terrifying and star Boris Karloff: The Never-Ending Essay.

Students start in September and, this year, they finished in February.

It’s pass-fail with four phases. The first is Argument, the second is Organization, the third is Support and the fourth and most difficult for student and teacher alike is Clarity. In this last section, students have to shorten their essays

The minimum number of drafts is four; most kids do 12.

Stuart’s rationale for pass-fail is that, “Grades are a primitive form of feedback and this takes the focus away from grades and puts it on the feedback, which they can put into practice almost immediately. And it also allows me to completely individuate the instruction,” she said.

“So I’ll say, OK, your essay is this many words, make it 20 percent shorter. Find every instance of some form of the verb ‘to be’ and change 70 percent of those to active verbs. Sometimes the result is genuinely elegant, and I’m like, ‘Go read this to your mom!’”

“At the end of it, are they better writers? Yes. And they take ownership of their work in a way they didn’t at the start of the year,” Stuart said.

Emphasizing the value of feedback to further students’ learning is a critical idea in “Neuroteach,” that aligns perfectly with the book’s goals, that is, “research-proven foundational principles of effective teaching,” Schmalhofer said.

“It occurred to me that coaches have a different relationship with their players than teachers do with their students, and they can be hard on them in a way that drives them.” Stuart the Crypto-Drill Sergeant finally cracked the code, however, because the “essay puts me in the position to coach. It changes the relationship,” she said.

Filling Up Little Toolboxes

In the preschool classroom, Sheryl Krafft is putting another “Neuroteach” lesson into practice: the idea that a mistake is an opportunity to learn and try again.

“Mistakes are part of being a person,” Krafft said. “I want to show kids that when something happens, it’s not the end of the world. You just make a new plan. I want to strengthen their resiliency and fill up their toolbox so they have strategies for when things go wrong.

“I want to enable them to feel capable and to feel confident knowing they have a hand in solving problems, that they can do things on their own and make them come out the way they want if they stick with it and see their mistakes as a natural part of accomplishing something,” Krafft said.

Schmalhofer held up Krafft’s work as another model that exemplifies a “Neuroteach” principle.

“What Sheryl’s doing is laying the groundwork for students as young as 3 to approach learning from a mastery, rather than a performance orientation,” Schmalhofer said. “It’s a foundation that our teachers will be able to build on for the rest of their time here at LCDS.”


“Neuroteach” co-author Glenn Whitman will speak at Country Day Thursday, Aug. 16, about helping children achieve their full potential. The event is free but tickets are required. Click here to register.

 

‘Why Not Give it a Go?’

In early November, Country Day hosted Fiona Kennedy, the first teacher to visit LCDS as part of our new faculty exchange with Kelvinside Academy in Scotland. “Fiona was the perfect first teacher for the faculty exchange,” said Director of Global Programs Heather Woodbridge. “She’s so instantly warm and open and the kids just loved her. By the end of the week her classes were ending with hugs and group photos. That’s just her.”

Most of Kennedy’s time was spent introducing variations of handball to students of all ages. “Fiona would have fit it well regardless, but being a PE teacher really allowed her to reach all three divisions and experience as broad a classroom experience as you can get,” Woodbridge said.

The PE teacher and handball coach spoke to Cougar News with a thick Scottish brogue, and told a story you’d never believe if it weren’t true:

When Fiona Kennedy couldn’t get two tickets to the 2012 London Olympics, she was disappointed, but had another idea.

The Olympics set aside a certain number of tickets for schools, so while she couldn’t score two for herself, she was able to get 40 for her and a group of students. The only events that hadn’t sold out were basketball and handball, so that’s what they saw.

“I thought the kids would be excited about basketball and not care much about handball because it wasn’t something they were familiar with. But it was the other way around. They loved handball. Loved it.”

The entire trip back from London to Glasgow, her kids were relentless in asking her if the school could start a handball team. Somewhere in the middle of England, she said sure.

“I just thought why not give it a go,” Kennedy told the BBC in 2014.

“And within six weeks we’d entered the Scottish championships, where we came third.”

In the five years since launching the program, Kelvinside’s handball team has won 15 national titles and its players make up a third of the roster for the Scottish national handball squad.

With the team’s ascendency, Kennedy traded her coaching position for a managerial one where she oversees the program as a whole. Finding a new head coach for a team BBC Sport dubbed “a talent factory” was as effortless as it was auspicious. Kennedy’s replacement is Sarah Carrick, whose other gig is playing handball for the British national team.

All of this takes some of the sting out of Kennedy not being able to get those two Olympics tickets for herself back in 2012.

Kennedy’s visit was part of larger faculty exchange program. Last Spring, Learning Specialist Jill Englert kicked off the exchange when she spent a week teaching at Kelvinside and staying as a guest in Kennedy’s home. Englert returned the favor when Kennedy arrived stateside, setting aside time for a full Pennsylvania Dutch experience.

Mylin’s 500th: ‘It’s a Calling’

As Coach Dale Mylin reflected on his 500th game at the helm of the varsity boys soccer squad, he sounded an uncharacteristically solemn and fatalistic note.

“You don’t set out planning to do something for X number of years, but the days, weeks and months tick away and one day, here you are.”

That apparent solemnity lasted about six seconds.

“What better thing in life is there than to truly enjoy what you’re doing?” he asked. “I really enjoy coming into work every day. I really enjoy coaching every day; it’s a calling,” Mylin said.

Now in his 33rd year at Country Day, Mylin has head-coached varsity boys soccer for 29 of those years. (And in fact, when one adds in the basketball, baseball and lacrosse games he’s coached, the total climbs north of 760.) Mylin earned his 300th soccer win last season.

In addition to coaching, Mylin has also served as a PE teacher and Country Day’s first athletic director. These positions have allowed him to interact with, influence and “help develop” students’ character from kindergarten to 12th grade.

“There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing a kid in the graduation line who you’ve watched grow up and become the person they are, and congratulating them,” Mylin said. “Most teachers in most schools don’t get the chance to see them in that complete way, and to be able to be a small part of those 12 years is pretty special.”

That contact with students yields myriad benefits in the classroom, in the hallways and on the pitch.

Over the decades, his coaching philosophy has become acutely focused on the team overall, and the passing game more specifically. “When a player touches the ball, I want his first thought to be who am I going to pass to, not who am I going to beat,” Mylin said.

This team-first approach has occasionally led Mylin to difficult decisions and conversations with players. “It’s happened more than once that I’ve had to say to a kid, ‘You might be the better individual player, but the guy on the field is better for the team.’”

Mylin continued, “An average player who works hard, with the mental focus and conditioning to play 80 minutes will get a starting spot over the player who’s a flashier individual talent, but who thinks of himself first and the team second.”

That’s not to say that Mylin’s averse to fleet-footed footballers on his squad. Quite the opposite. “What I want to do is to put those franchise players in a position to direct the game, where the game flows through them and they can control it and dictate play, but the ultimate focus always comes back to the team,” Mylin said.

The coach, relentlessly upbeat and inspirational, keeps his eyes on the horizon. “I’ve never seen a perfectly officiated game. I’ve never seen a perfectly played game and I’ve never coached a perfect game,” Mylin said.

One can’t help getting the impression that Mylin has no plan to give up any of those pursuits any time in the near future.

Faculty Schools Students in Cougar Bowl

When Broadway Joe Namath’s New York Jets beat Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III, that was an underdog win.

When the Country Day Faculty soared to its 21-14 victory over the Students in the 2012 Cougar Bowl, that was an historic triumph on par with Alexander the Great’s defeat of Darius III, or even Rocky Balboa’s knockout of Apollo Creed.

The Faculty had racked up a half-decade of consecutive losses and, early in the first quarter, history seemed poised to repeat itself. Asked what the score was, Head of Upper School Eric Bondy said, “We’re not losing, which is good.” No sooner had those words left his mouth when the Students picked off a Faculty pass deep in their own territory, turning the endzone into a helicopter blur of black t-shirts as the kids broke into a chorus of “Let’s go students!”

 

Several series later, the Students had the ball around their own 25 when the Faculty defense made a risky choice and blitzed. Playing quarterback, senior Spencer R. broke out of the pocket and channeled Randall Cunningham, gaining the first down and leaving a few teachers grasping for flags and catching handfuls of air. Faculty coach Mike Simpson saw he had to rally his troops: “No, no, no! Do not rush the QB! They’re younger and faster than we are, and they’re very slender. You guys… You guys are really bad at football,” he said.

Simpson’s stirring speech must have hit a nerve, because the Faculty managed to convert a nice post route into a touchdown as time ran out in the first quarter. Up 7-0, they would never trail for the rest of that warm, late-summer night.

Senior Sam G. walked the sidelines swooshing and shining as only someone decked out in head-to-toe polyester can. And while he might have seemed like the Student coach, the masking tape on the back of his jacket announced his true title: Couch.

Like any great couch, Sam gathered his team at halftime, and, with tongue firmly in cheek, said they had to “stay positive and come together as a group.” Another far-less-amused student remarked, “They’re winning,” his voice dripping with incredulity. “Seriously. How sad is that? They’re old and decrepit; look at them!”

With 5:50 left in the third quarter, senior Gaby D. plucked a Faculty pass out of the air and took it a few yards the other way, her interception stopping the Faculty drive cold and sending the Student sideline into hysterics. But despite some last-minute flashes of Student heroics, Friday just wasn’t going to be their day.

The buzzer sounded and the scoreboard told the tale: Students 14, Faculty 21. But Sam mustered his team around him one last time to put the loss into instant retrospect, as only a true head couch can: “We’re going to fix the world, then this game won’t matter,” he said.

A Theater Double-Feature

Renée Morth prepares her student-actors for opening night with a thoughtful, rigorous process that would make Stanislavski proud. Right now, Morth is helping her cast of 17, including three Middle Schoolers, plumb the depths of Arthur Miller’s classic drama about the Salem Witch Trials, “The Crucible,” whose two-night run starts Friday, Nov. 2.

Even with her careful planning, Morth gets the same feeling every time she stages a new production: “I go home at night and think, ‘My God, this isn’t going to work at all.’ Of course, I’m always wrong and it always works, but somehow that doesn’t stop me from thinking it. Every time!” she said with a laugh, shaking her head.

But part of the reason it works out every time is that Morth remains true to the same thorough method that gets her students to the heart of the material. “I help them to investigate the complexity of the character through a series of questions. Physically, are they the same as you or different? When they walk, what part of their body do they lead with and how does that affect how they carry themselves? We approach voice the same way,” she said. “We ask each other a lot of questions to get to the ultimate one: What does this character want in this scene, and how does that connect to what he wants in the overall play?”

Asked why she chose “The Crucible,” Morth effused that the material presented her and her cast with an embarrassment of riches.

“It’s a stellar play, written exceptionally well,” Morth said. “The Crucible’ is fascinating to me personally because of its vivid depictions of hypocrisy and duplicity and the roles that they played in our society then, and continue to play in modern society as well.

“All the best drama is timeless,” Morth continued, “but the idea that this whole town gets wrapped up and duped by this, less charitable, shall we say, side of human nature — it’s just irresistible.”

In addition to directing “The Crucible,” Morth is also stepping into the assistant’s role for Country Day’s collaborative production of T.S. Eliot’s “Murder In The Cathedral,” the first such partnership in the school’s history.

Her applied theater students are working with actors from St. Edwards Episcopal Church in Lancaster.

Besides working with other actors, the students also have the unique opportunity to work with director Matthew Sternberg, who was assistant director to E. Martin Browne for the 1975 anniversary production of “Murder in the Cathedral” in London. Browne had also directed the play in its Canterbury debut.

“When I asked my students what piqued their interest, they all said the collaboration,” Morth said. “Matthew wanted to expose a younger generation to the play, but also wanted to expand it to students, so it was a win-win.”

Fall Theater What’s Doing

  • “Murder In The Cathedral” 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Oct. 26-27, at St. Edwards Episcopal Church, 2453 Harrisburg Pike, Lancaster.
  • Franklin & Marshall history professor Van Gosse will lead a free discussion on the Red Scare and “The Crucible” at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 16 in the Steinman Theatre. The event is sponsored by Project Arts, supporting the visual and performing arts program at LCDS.
  • “The Crucible,” 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Nov. 2-3 in the Steinman Theatre.