From Student Centeredness to Student Initiated

 In About BA

By Nancy Hughes
English Teacher

A fierce commitment to student centeredness has long been a hallmark of Brewster Academy. Yet what has struck me in the past few weeks is how student initiated the Brewster experience is. Here are a few quick examples.

Just hours ago, a group of students and faculty members arrived at Lord House for the second meeting of the newly formed Harry Potter Club. Craig and I had no cookies or cider to offer, but the attendees couldn’t have cared less. They had come to trade Potter trivia, discuss their individual house sortings, and plan for the upcoming group reading of the new play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. They had come because John Scala ’17 and Dexter Hanson ’17 had taken the initiative to create and promote a club, which they hoped would provide a forum for BA Potter aficionados to gather and share their passion. John and Dexter’s initiative has already brought students, new and old alike, together and orchestrated what has been the highlight of at least one faculty member’s week.

Last Wednesday Alicia Childers ’01 and I took a group of students over to Sugar Hill Retirement Community for a tour of the facility before commencing our volunteer work there in the coming weeks. Our tour was to be about 40 minutes long, and we knew that a couple of the students needed to return to campus for commitments later in the afternoon. In the midst of our tour, we passed by a dining area, where a group of residents were just finishing their lunch-time desserts. Cued by our host, the students stopped to say what I imagined would be a quick hello. I was expecting a “here’s my name and where I’m from, see you next week” sort of engagement. But what the students launched into – what they (not Alicia nor I nor our host) initiated – was one of the most sincere introductions and calls to dialogue I have ever witnessed. With no eye on the clock, the kids headed over to the residents’ dining tables and sat down to talk about college aspirations, life in Wolfeboro, the map of China, and much more! Most of the residents in the assisted living area are deep into their 90s, and a number of residents repeated their questions over and over. Our students responded with patience, interest, and sincerity. Watching them step forward to engage so thoughtfully filled Alicia and me with both pride and admiration.

This year the juniors are taking a course called “Engaged to Educate” (E2E) during the SEL (Social and Emotional Learning) block. The impetus for this course came directly from two former BA students, Abdullah Al-Farsi ’16 and Isaac Weiss-Meyer ’16. Co-heads of O.N.E. (One Nationality and Ethnicity Club), Isaac and Abdullah were interested in helping the Brewster community foster dialogue across various lines of difference. Throughout 2016-2017, they pursued their commitment to examining how exploring differences within a group can enable individuals to connect, gain perspective, and develop self-awareness. Heading into their final term on campus, Abdullah and Isaac were looking for ways to leave their mark, to contribute. That drive led them to use the project-based learning period to create the framework for the course that is now the E2E course being taught to all juniors. Education doesn’t get much more student initiated than that!

This fall I have the privilege of working with faculty member Melissa Lawlor, who has been the champion of this student-led initiative. Melissa took the framework crafted by the boys and wrote a curriculum that allows students the opportunity to explore the dominant eight social identifiers (age, ability, religion, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic class) in 22 lessons. Inspired by Abdullah and Isaac’s intentions, Melissa hopes that the course serves to promote an earnest and productive dialogue amongst students about how they see themselves and understand others. She explained: “An important part of our mission here at BA is to create productive global citizens, and to do that we must work more deliberately to help kids develop their awareness of who they are and of the various lenses through which they understand themselves and others.”

Yesterday, faculty member Doug Shelley bounded out of his E2E class all thumbs up. “Wow,” he said. “What a group! We had an amazing discussion!” When I pressed him later about his enthusiasm, he said he has been struck by how swiftly his group has been able to develop an atmosphere of mutual respect and trust. He pressed on, “There is a comfort in the room that enables both students and me to share perceptions and personal experience with great candor, and this, of course, is allowing us to know each other and ourselves better.”

Brewster’s commitment to student centeredness has created an environment that avidly supports student initiatives, and that environment in turn supports the growth of faculty and students alike. Pretty cool.