Twenty-one members of the Class of 2009 are Lifers. The Lifers joined current preschool and kindergarten students in the Beehive to give advice, sing songs, and say, "so long it's been good to know you."
Teacher Mark Lawton and his sister Sheila present their account of Sheila’s decades-long battle with mental illness and its interplay with a large otherwise “normal” suburban family. It includes video and narrative interviews as well as Sheila’s artwork, which is at times light-hearted and playful and at other times haunting. The presentation was made to Catlin Gabel Upper School students in the spring of ‘08.
The Upper School's Catlin Gabel Players presented two evening performances of Shakespeare's great romance. Each night offered a different interpretation. All 30 cast members played two roles: one on Friday and one on Saturday. (Apologies from the photographer who was unable to attend the Friday show.)
By Brett Mathes
When I interviewed for my current position in the Catlin Gabel English department, I found the writing system here to be among the foremost attractions. I had taught in a boarding school in New England for seven years, so I had firsthand experience with more traditional modes of teaching composition skills. To my mind, our department’s method represents an ideal synthesis of the traditional and the progressive.
Each English class here requires students to write every day. Most periods begin with a “WEDGE” (writing every day generates ease) prompt, which allows participants to reflect informally on their reading, brainstorm for an upcoming assignment, or share an opinion on a current event. Through this regular process, our young writers learn to conquer writer’s block; the blank page loses its ability to intimidate.
Every writing assignment at Catlin Gabel emphasizes process as much as product. Students have the opportunity to draft, to read each others’ work, to seek criticism from peers and from their teacher, and to revise more than once. They see that even the best writers produce flawed first drafts, and that no matter how dissatisfied they are with their own draft, they can improve it through good process. The “edit as you go” one-draft mentality, which word processing software has fostered, often teaches kids to stifle their own creative output in the interests of making everything perfect immediately. Catlin Gabel’s process helps them unlearn this bad habit, generate ideas fully, and let their work mature before pulling out the editor’s magnifying glass.
Through one-on-one time with instructors and collaborative critiques, our young writers learn to evaluate their own work qualitatively and accurately. The traditional model of grading essays is to write a lengthy response to each student followed by a letter grade. All too often students in my boarding school days would flip directly to the grade, ignore what I had written, stuff the paper into their backpack, and learn no more from the experience than the vague notion that they were an A or B writer.
At Catlin Gabel, by contrast, students have the opportunity to see what their teachers expect at the beginning of each project, not just at the end. Classes will look over the exemplary work of past students, evaluate it alongside their teacher, and learn what makes an effective essay through direct observation. Then, when they have finalized their own piece of writing, they write a metacritical response: a self-evaluative reflection on process and product. Through this metacricital step, students also set the agenda for their one-on-one meeting with the teacher. In that conference, the teacher answers the student’s questions, evaluates her essay orally as well as in writing, and prompts her to take notes on key focal points for the next assignment. Only after the student synthesizes the information from the conference does she ask for her grade, so that the grade emerges from the context of more important, qualitative criticism.
From what I have observed, the Catlin Gabel system produces young writers who are more savvy, more independent, and more resourceful than their peers in a more traditional school. It is a pleasure to see our students leave us with the confidence to produce creative work, to defend their ideas rigorously, and to communicate their ideas cogently.
Brett Mathes teaches Upper School English. He has been at Catlin Gabel since 2007.
For a long time the Upper School English department focused mainly on teaching literature, and students wrote papers. It’s fair to say that most graduates gave credit to the history department for teaching them expository writing, especially Dave Corkran and John Wiser. The emphasis of the English department before the 1990s was mostly on workshopping, where you pointed out emblematic or egregious details of a couple of papers, thoroughly examining only one paper. The process hit almost no one and missed nearly everyone. It made it hard to keep some students interested.
A major difference came about in the push for student involvement in student writing, led by English teacher Bob Ashe in the mid-1980s. During this time educators such as writing theorist Peter Elbow spurred a revolution in the teaching of writing. So this movement at Catlin Gabel was a result of academic innovation and inspiration, a new way of thinking about writing.
A systematic and serious approach to teaching writing has developed mostly in the years since Art Leo’s arrival in 1995. He brought with him philosophical underpinnings from his graduate work on Aristotelian rhetoric. Over the course of his first six years here, we defined that better and worked with all teachers in the department so that they would understand and accept the process.
It was a period of getting the process under control, of changing the idea that another generation of kids would graduate and say they learned to write in history classes rather than in English classes. I was determined to make that change. Then teachers started working with the system in all four grade levels and even in the Middle School. It works, and the department continues to refine its approach.
It’s also important to note that for a long time the school supported a term or yearlong course in creative writing, focused mostly on poetry, which allowed wonderful teachers like Jane Glazer and Laura Conklin to inspire student writers. Other good recent writing projects include the Agents of Change project that Art Leo began some years ago, where students had to write persuasively to the person in charge of what they wanted to change and improve about Catlin Gabel. This year Art Leo started a “gratitude” project, teaching 9th graders to write successful thank-you letters, as he had started an earlier letter-writing project for 10th graders. In all cases, the important goal we try to teach is learning to take the audience into account. These projects allow students to think about a different audience, and to understand how varied writing can be.
Big news: Clint Darling has announced his retirement! More about that will appear in the next Caller. Clint came to Catlin Gabel in 1967 and has served many roles, including that of interim head of school.
In my recollection, the English department taught writing well, especially Gene Jenkins, Jane Glazer, and Pru Twohy. They stressed creative writing and writing as a mode of selfexpression, with less emphasis on expository writing.
I laid great emphasis on expository writing. I thought that a Catlin Gabel education should develop powers of the mind, and processing ideas through the act of writing was the most effective way to help people learn to think about difficult and complicated issues.
I developed my own way of doing that, which came out of an effort to develop evaluation criteria for student work. In about 1970 we were going to do away with grades, so we needed written comments and had to figure out what they could address. Kim MacColl, Ed Hartzell, Sam Crawley, and I worked together on developing a list of criteria that we would teach to. We had to develop words and phrases that would identify what was required so that students could understand the criteria. For writing these included focus, accuracy of fact, reasoning from facts to conclusion, relevance of generalizations, and accuracy of conclusions. Students received a criteria sheet, so they knew what was expected and what they were supposed to know. There was a big gap at first between expectation and performance, but then we narrowed it.
I gave my students one to three weeks to write a paper on a difficult and sophisticated question. After they handed the paper in, I’d spend the next week reading them from A to Z, for all the criteria including grammar and spelling. I made comments in the margins, and wrote a summary of the paper’s strengths and weaknesses. I would hand papers back and require the students to come in for a conference. In the conference we would go over the paper and my comments and review the student’s questions and complaints. Together we would figure out what had to do done next time to do better. Then we’d start all over again in three weeks. Most students learned from this, although it usually it took a few papers before kids caught on.
The work to read 40 to 50 papers of 7 to 15 pages each was an enormous job. After 20 years of writing pretty much the same comments on papers, I had a set of rubber stamps made with the comments in red ink. All that red ink provoked a great deal of fear of those stamps, but kids seemed to learn more quickly as a result. In the mid 1980s the school hired learning specialists to help students with different learning styles who had trouble writing. Dixie McKay, Molly Kohnstamm, and Kathy Qualman came in and gave these kids new tools for learning. When that happened my teaching of writing improved because the kids showed me some techniques they got from the learning center.
Was my teaching successful? Alumni have said that what they learned was useful in college, so it was a limited success. The purpose of education is not to go to college but to develop powers of the mind. I’d say that if our graduates were just able to write college papers, then we failed, but if they became thinkers, we succeeded. In education there is never success. There is excitement in getting a new insight, the joy of mind rubbing against mind, and a sense of camaraderie in seeing how far students and teachers can get in their thinking. But we always might have gone farther.
Senior Karen Morse tells a story about writing her first paper for Art Leo: “He tore it apart and talked with me and told me what to do. I wrote another and the same thing happened. I wrote a third and he tore it apart and told me what to do. After five months I went back and read the first paper and could see that it was worthless.” In five months she had internalized the standard to where she could re-read her first paper and see what was specifically wrong with it. She had developed a sense of what was possible, what was good, and that you strive for good writing even if you don’t get there.
That’s what I aimed to do. If I was as successful as Art Leo with Karen Morse, I’d say I was successful and it worked. My whole teaching career was devoted to showing kids their writing and thinking might always be better, that there would always be someone better, and that their reach should exceed their grasp. I and they would never get where we aspired to be, and that was okay. But I had a hell of a good time trying to get there, and I hope they did, too.
By Art Leo
|Art Leo and a 9th grader in a paper conference|
Visitors to Catlin Gabel frequently note the progressive elements in the writing program offered by the English department. The steady mix of analytical and creative writing assignments allows young writers to recognize more clearly both the analytical components of creative writing and the creative opportunities inherent in the best analytical writing. We have in place a system of collaboration between student writers in the generation and revision of texts, a process that reaches its zenith in the peer editing process. Other effective components of the program have little or nothing to do with the ways in which I was taught to write in high school: the many assignments in which students write about their writing, the one-on-one conferences between instructor and writer that conclude every writing assignment, the web-based tools for the management of documents, and the use of laptop-based technology to enhance peer collaboration and encourage revision.
At the philosophical heart of our approach, however, lie some very old ideas about communication derived from classical rhetoricians, primarily Aristotle. From these stalwart thinkers, we retain the idea that rhetoric—the art of persuasion—is first and foremost a civic art. We believe that our primary goal as teachers of communication skills is to empower young citizens to be more persuasive so they might become agents of positive social change through their compelling use of logic and language.
We help our students understand that any act of communication is made up of the three components of rhetorical context: the speaker’s purpose, the thing being said, and the needs and values of the audience. When our students speak and write, we want them to analyze their own communication to assess how best they might entertain, inform, and persuade their audiences. Whether it is freshmen learning to craft effective thank-you notes, sophomores preparing original tales to share with 1st graders or working on their Agents of Change projects, juniors arguing readings of American poetry, or seniors laboring over the personal statements at the center of their college applications, they are all learning to be more persuasive through their analyses of specific rhetorical contexts and their burgeoning control of the written word.
Like Aristotle, we realize that we run the risk of creating powerful sophists capable of persuasion without virtue, but we also understand that mastery of rhetoric is central to the perpetuation of civilization. As the rhetorician Isocrates noted in his Antidosis, “We are in no respect superior to other living creatures; nay, we are inferior to many in swiftness and in strength and in other resources; but, because there has been implanted in us the power to persuade each other and to make clear to each other whatever we desire, not only have we escaped the life of wild beasts, but we have come together and founded cities and made laws and invented arts.”
As we send Catlin Gabel students out into the world, we recognize that some of them will make laws, invent arts, and found cities, but we hope that all of them will be able to apply their mastery of rhetoric to improve the communities of which they have become part. We know that many of them will soon take a first step by beginning to teach their college classmates the lessons they have learned at Catlin Gabel about rhetoric.
Upper School English teacher Art Leo came to Catlin Gabel in 1995.
|Paul Dickinson and students in science class|
Everyone knows that Catlin Gabel students do a lot of writing in English, history, and foreign language classes, but a considerable amount of writing is required in science classes, too. Just as there are different expectations and writing forms in English and history, we teach a particular form—the formal lab report—in science.
While intuition is a nice faculty to possess, it is not a basis on which to draw dependable conclusions. One of the primary goals of teaching the formal lab report is to help students who have relied heavily on intuition to develop a more logical, provable way of reasoning and to present that in writing.
We may ask students to carry out an experiment that already has a procedure to follow. We assign such experiments to make important concepts more understandable to students who would otherwise just read it in a text. Another kind of experiment is one that students design themselves. Both kinds of experiments require a clear, concise statement of purpose to show that they know exactly what they are looking for.
This purpose statement needs careful attention. Often we ask students to go back and reword the statement so that it is concise and accurate. Once the purpose is clearly worded, a student may come up with a hypothesis in which he or she will try to predict the outcome, backed always by logical reasons. Writing a purpose and hypothesis for a science experiment is similar to writing a thesis statement for a history paper. It must be accurately worded because the writer is about to gather together facts that will support a thesis or discredit it.
Another important part of experimentation is the background section of the report. Students bring in ideas, concepts, and equations learned in previous labs, class discussions, experiments, or life experiences that they will use in the current experiment. This section is, perhaps, the most difficult for freshmen. They are not yet used to the cumulative nature of their science work and are often used to studying for the test and then forgetting much of what they have learned. Time for reflection is not a common occurrence in our busy society, but this forced reflection reinforces the ideas they have learned. The more ideas they remember, the easier it is to write about the connections in their next background section.
Just as students might hear, “What is the evidence?” in a history class, they must report supporting evidence in science. We teach them to organize their data in a table to make it easier—for both writer and reader—to better comprehend and recognize patterns. Here students learn to decide if they have gathered data that answers their purpose and supports their hypothesis, or if significant errors make it impossible to draw conclusions, with a clear explanation of their calculations and reasoning.
At first these explanations must be good enough to satisfy their reader, the teacher, but eventually students internalize this process, and they can realize for themselves if they have made their point and supported it. This process often takes more than a year, especially if it is the teacher making the student work on it, and not just the student wanting to improve.
Finally, in a discussion we ask the students to look back at their purpose and think again about what they set out to prove. Then they summarize what they really found, after all the little glitches and errors, and conclude whether they accomplished their purpose, and whether their hypotheses were correct. We feel that students really learn to carry an orderly approach and thought process into all of their work in science because of the orderly and thoughtful way they are asked to write about it.
Upper School science teacher Paul Dickinson (“Mr. D”) has been a faculty member since 1969.
By Jens Tamang '07
|Jens Tamang '07|
As editor in chief of Pegasus, the Upper School’s literary magazine, it wasn’t my wrenchingly awkward adoration of literary minutiae, nor my manic demand for creative control, that endangered it. Rather, it was the combination of my die-hard desire to Do Well and the fact that I did not know what was expected of me. Like a cow that only knows it ought to make a sound, I spent the first months on staff barking when I should have been mooing. Aimee Bender, the first 2006–07 Jean Vollum Distinguished Writer, taught me how to moo.
Bender is a magical realist who presents supernatural occurrences in a nonchalant fashion. Angels, in her work, are just as unremarkable as cabbages. One story, “The Healer,” concerned two girls, one with the hand of ice who possessed the ability to heal ailments upon contact, while the other with her hand of fire could only cause harm. After her reading in the Cabell Center, Bender led a workshop in our creative writing class. “A hand of fire, a hand of ice. What did you mean by that?” asked one student.
To anyone who has never undergone four years with the Catlin Gabel English department, this seems like a perfectly legitimate question. However, we were told never to trust what artists say about their art. Why? Because, as Jean Cocteau once said, asking an artist to talk about her work is like asking a plant to discuss horticulture.
A smug grin stretched across Bender’s face. “A symbol is just a provocative image,” she said, running her bony hands through her coarse black hair. “It doesn’t mean anything.”
After the class I approached her. “Okay,” I said. “I know you said that the whole fire-ice thing doesn’t mean anything. But it does, doesn’t it? It must.”
Bender cocked a brow, stood up, put her jacket on. She placed a hand on my shoulder. “I liked your story,” she said, in reference to an exercise we had done. “But if you don’t relax the way you think about writing you are going to wear yourself out.” And on that note she exited.
I stood in the classroom for a moment, stunned. Relax, I thought. I wonder what she means by that.
When I decided that Bender probably meant “relax” in its most literal sense I decided to attempt writing a poem that had no preconceived meaning, symbols, motifs, or themes. One day, riding the bus to school, I watched a girl ogling a young man. She fixated on him and looked so calm and unwavering, like a flame in the dark undisturbed by wind. I couldn’t take my eyes off her, nor could I ignore the placid beauty of the boy sitting near her. She to him, me to her, and he somewhere else entirely, we were a love chain. I was so caught up in the moment that when I bit into my sandwich I neglected to see that I had wrapped it in cellophane.
I documented it and submitted a poem describing the incident to the Pegasus editorial staff, and it was published. Hell, I thought, if this relaxing business works for poetry why shouldn’t it work for everything else?
I began to ease my death grip on Pegasus. English is a language, not a religion, and somewhere along the line I forgot that. Production became much smoother, and Pegasus became a success. I shudder to think what might have happened had Bender not shaken me loose. I still have to remind myself from time to time take it easy, to mellow out, and I don’t always succeed. When I do manage to lighten up, things always seem to work out better for me and those I care about. Go figure.
An American studies major (and diving team member) at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, Jens Tamang writes for various publications and is working on a documentary film.
In and Of It
Jens Tamang's "relaxed" poem from the 2007 Pegasus
A young man, sitting on the bus,
Is reading a book, open in his lap.
She sees him there, she who rides the bus each morning,
And she places his face amongst the infinite faces of boys
That maunder in her head like beads of oil in water.
Which of them does she like the best?
The homeliest of them is beautiful to her.
They needn’t have Adonis lines and beefy shoulders to be beautiful:
This boy has neither; yet, she is entranced by the curves of his chin,
His incarnadine cheeks, his privet face stands out from the rest.
If you had him, Miss, what would you do with him?
For I see you.
To you, you are holding his hand.
To you, you are stroking his hair.
To you and to no one else.
You saw him and loved him:
The light from the window illuminating his skin,
His hair hanging over his eyes like the vines of a willow,
Or moss off an oak.
Her unseen hand passed over his body, obeisantly caressing him.
Please excuse my asking, Miss, but you see:
My mother loathed those certain slants of skin-illuminating light
So excuse me, excuse me, for asking, but
Is he worth these thirty seconds of your morning commute?
And, to you, what is anything worth at all?
And, might thriftiness be your call?
And, are your thoughts just foofaraw?
Her unseen lips touched the back of his neck.
I was there, on that bus when her lips came down.
I was attempting to eat a sandwich.
I was watching her watching him; when,
As I bit down, into my sandwich, I realized,
Amongst the myriad people watching each other,
That my sandwich was still wrapped in fine clear layers of cellophane.
I saw teeth marks in the plastic. Then, looking up, I noticed,
In a moment gone by, they had disappeared (to their stops most likely),
And then, I was alone.
But, luckily for me, loneliness is an art
And I do it very well.
"The Last Day"
It’s over, one of these days.
I’ve realized this only now, just as
I’m peeling away the skin of a grapefruit
And my tongue is wet with bitter anticipation.
I’m wondering if that day will bring leaves,
Skittering across the sidewalk, like those little orange
Plastic cars we used to race across the porch—
Or maybe it will bring sticky, salty, sidewalk heat,
The kind that bites the virgin skin of toes.
And what about the roaring women of that day?
Mouths twisted, tears skating down cheeks,
Because suddenly there are babies,
And two minutes before, there was, really, nothing.
That’s what it is, right?
Birth and death every second?
Or are the rates all topsy-turvy these days?
Twisted and arbitrary, kind of like this tree—
Bent-backed, knot-kneed, crouched outside my window?
By an 11th grade student
"Four Twinkling Stars"
Little clear diamonds still twinkling
in a dusty black spiral, engulfing
but those four gems,
spinning almost cheerily
until they gravitate to the center
and morph into more brilliant
The explosion is shattering,
a million pieces of awesome light
that rock and vibrate the darkness
until everything is more
than it ever could have been
By a 6th grade student
"This Dark is For the Light"
I’ve always loved small spaces, safely surrounded and enclosed by something. Wrapped in warmth and simple physical darkness rather than the expansive suffocating kind. This dark is different. This dark is loving. This dark is only dark to make you brighter, letting your light filter through, filling the space with each breath you take, until you are breathing light. Then your entire world is bright, shining bright, and you know.
And you know too, that when you step back into the world, you can hold it. Imagine sitting low to a ground that is rich with the scent of chocolate mulch and the subtleties of Hyacinth, waiting in this diffuse willow-dusk, surrounded by singular beautiful branches, which filter the light softly through, making it dance, filling the space until it can’t be filled anymore. And you are breathing light. Light from a sky that continues even beyond the Earth’s imagination. And you can feel it, exactly like that.
By a 12th grade student
"Where I'm From"
I am from wide-angle lenses
Seeing everything, everything present
If just from a different perspective
I am from swimming in blackberry thorns
From finding old pathways
Lost to time
I am from the chunk of asphalt on a blown-apart road
The road that I walked down for miles
I am from collecting that chunk
From placing it on top of my dresser
I am from short cuts and long-cuts
As long as they’re out of the way
From climbing cliffs to avoid the crowded path
That wide, flat, paved track
Which carries everyone, everyone but me
I am from running
Not to run, but to get away
I am from the yearning to escape
The yearning to be free
Free from life’s maelstrom
The hustle and bustle that is omnipresent
This is my time to go away
I am from that which strives to act
From the things which are unspoken yet understood
From the passage to danger, to triumph
From the secrets of nature
But that is more than I am
I am from collapsing on long journeys
Too tired to carry on
I am from waterfalls and crumbling cliffs
From recklessness and adventure
But also from the relief of safety after a long,
From fresh-cooked dinners
And my homemade puff pastry
I am from memories, photos, and my family
I am from me
By an 8th grade student
Death penalty debate statement excerpt: pro
The death penalty may be cruel, but certainly not unusual, as the ways in which it is practiced are not unusual at all. Society changes over time, so what may be seen as unusual changes as well—for example, whipping. It was considered normal when the Constitution was written, but now it is seen as unusual. A punishment for a crime is unusual if it is ridiculously high for a crime lower than it, such as life imprisonment for felony. But as the death penalty is far milder than the crimes for which it is given, it is not unusual. It is also not in violation of Amendment V of the Constitution, which states that no one shall “be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.”
By an 8th grade student
Death penalty debate statement excerpt: con
The death penalty is a “cruel and unusual” punishment, and an ineffective crime deterrent. It needs to be abolished before more innocent people are executed. For every eight people put to death, one innocent person is released from death row. The system in deciding punishments is not equally balanced with the crime committed, and the whole system is rampant with racial prejudice. Also, while there, people can change, and regret what they have done, but are still put to death. When someone is sentenced to death, they are not only going to be executed, they will have to also stay on death row for many years, and pray to be freed. . . .
By an 8th grade student
Excerpt from science lab report
The charged strips of acetate and vinylite attracted and repelled various bits of string. To quote Shakespeare, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” [Romeo and Juliet (Act II, Sc. II)]. Although we cannot pass this off as a scientific fact, it is logical to assume that a name has little to no effect on the object to which it is tied. This led my partner and me to believe that changing the name of the charges would change nothing about the nature of the charges themselves.
By a 10th grade student, in answer to a question about whether changing the names of positive and negative electric charges would affect how these charges act
"Its a Boy?"
As babies we sleep and occasionally coo
Boys and girls both, our differences few
But similarities end in just a blink
When boys dress in blue and girls dress in pink
We face gender choices at every growth stage
And they powerfully shape us into old age
Dolls and cute animals aren’t much of a hit
For boys dangerous toys are a much better fit
Boys hide their emotions and shed fewer tears
Putting away feelings and childish fears
Watching ballet is tough for a boy
Nothing can beat a slam-dunk by Roy
Passing, shooting, or kicking—boys want control
In all types of sports being first is the goal
Shopping for clothes is not a boy’s cup of tea
Unless shopping includes buying games for the Wii
No make-up or heels or dresses with lace
For boys it’s just clean and no food on the face
What’s important to boys is big, brave, and strong
And in a perfect world to eat all day long
But is all this true? Is this who boys are?
If it is, then we haven’t come far
The male nurse or secretary, the stay-at-home dad
Breaking gender stereotypes should make us all glad
We are impossible to classify
Except girls are xx and boys are xy
By a 6th grade student
I can feel the difference in the terminal’s width.
It’s smaller and we’re bigger. We take up too
Escalators that had appeared dormant wake to
take us up, too fast
Unloading its cargo, it drops us off like
baggage on the empty floor above.
It’s smaller and we’re bigger. Why do we take
up so much space?
We sink into the thick green carpeting,
swallowed whole and unable to speak.
We’re like our cargo, dropped us off like
baggage on the empty floor above.
Our smiles flicker off, like the open signs on
the shop doors.
The thick green carpeting cushions the blow,
swells our throats until they are tight.
The calm voice from the PA matches the air
conditioning, soothing our dry skin like lotion.
Somehow we can’t turn our smiles back on.
Her eyes are weighed down with fear but she
keeps a brave face on. We all do.
The air conditioning soothes our wet eyes
when she turns away while the woman on the
PA tells us everything will be alright.
Our words run through the conveyor belt,
making sure nothing sharp or metal enters our
We keep on our brave faces and don’t look up.
I watch her plane roll on to the runway.
Our conversation is littered with tiny shrapnels,
no matter how hard we try and keep them out.
Escalators that had appeared dormant wake to
take us farther from her. It’s too fast.
We watch her plane from the empty shell of
the parking garage.
I can feel the difference in the terminal’s width.
By an 11th grade student
Of Chang Tuan’s cats,
Cloud Pattern was the loneliest.
She would look upon her brothers
Silk Brocade’s fur was the softest in all of
Drive-Away-Vexation’s dainty paws were the swiftest rat-catchers
in all the land.
Purple Blossom had the most gentle mew ever heard in that dynasty.
Guardian of the East’s ears reached the farthest; she heard the
cream bowl hit the tile before it had.
White Phoenix’s tail was the bushiest and waved about a great deal.
And lastly, her brother, Ten Thousand Strings of Cash.
He was the most well-loved among the staff and visitors at
Chang’s house for his golden eyes.
Of all those magnificent felines, those careful creatures
Cloud Pattern was the loneliest.
His fur was often matted;
His paws, at times, had failed at Cat’s domestic duty.
His voice was loud, and screeched at Master Tuan’s ears;
He was always last in the scramble for the cream, since he
never sensed the delicate clink of porcelain on tile.
His tail was thin, and oft hung limp;
And, above all, Cloud Pattern’s eyes were not gold;
They were green, green on his stained fur.
And for these reasons,
Cloud Pattern was Master Tuan’s favorite.
By an 11th grade student, inspired by Wang Chih, 1100 C.E.
"The Night Painter"
sweeps over my face
cleansing my soul
twirling and dancing in the wind
bringing on a heavy sadness
in the water colored air
with gently painted strokes
dipped from a stormy ocean
Grey wisps which kiss the silent leaves
flying through the stars
continuing on forever
as I stare out my window
on a dark night
By a 6th grade student
"The Two Aliens"
Once there were two aliens and they liked pie. Their names were Bob and Joe. Bob looked like a shark. Joe looked like a firebreathing orange-headed wolf. It had been ten years since they blasted off the planet.
The next day they landed on a pie-covered planet. There were frog leg pies and pasta pies and spaghetti pies and bunny pies and eraser pies and underwear pies and rice pies and ball pies and seaweed pies and feather pies and hair pies and they didn’t know if they were poisonous.
They walked around to see if anybody was there to tell them if the pies were poisonous. Six years later they found some fish to tell them if the pies were poisonous. None of the pies were poisonous, so they started eating the pies. Then one day they were too full. They went to sleep and they got knocked off the planet. They did not know where they were. They were on their home planet. They wanted more pie.
By a 2nd grade student
I am a small, free-flowing river rushing through
I feel energetic as I stream over damp, mosscovered
I laugh as fish tickle me as they dart upstream.
I hear deer softly trample grass as they come
to lap up my water.
I feel frisky as I hustle over waterfalls.
I feel good when the sun heats me up on a
I feel scared and race away when bears
come lumbering in to eat my fish.
I am curious as I flow into
a larger river bound for
By a 4th grade student
Excerpt from essay "Gods Soldiers"
Eight years later, September 11 has had a larger impact on recent global history than any other date in the last five decades. Two wars, countless bombs, and endless amounts of civil unrest, misery, grief, and sorrow have defined the results of this monumental date. Dozens of nations engaged in painful arguments and arrangements, all involving the increasing interest in the Middle East and her oil. Car bombs killing hundreds explode every day in India, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, many traced back to the same causes that fueled 9/11.
I remember this date myself, although I was thousands of miles away from the catastrophe; the date was a day of shame, despair, and unity for all Americans. I recall being shuffled into the school library, and being informed of the recent tragedy just hours after the event. The nation was on red alert. I also remember knowing that my uncle worked in the World Trade Center, and I remember thinking for days that he was dead until he finally called, and notified us he had actually just taken the day off to spend time with his family. All his colleagues were dead. All their deaths in vain because of one single cause: religion.
By an 8th grade student
Most of us attended schools with report cards and infrequent parent-teacher conferences that may have been convened only when a student was in trouble. Things are different at Catlin Gabel. We asked our division heads, Pam McComas, Vicki Roscoe, Paul Andrichuk, and Michael Heath, to talk about our unique approach to student assessment and grades.
How does Catlin Gabel differ from other schools regarding assessments?
Pam: In some schools, students focus their attention and energies on tests. Getting good grades is then linked to the ability to anticipate what will be on the test. Catlin Gabel teachers do not define learning in this way. As goofy as it may seem to some to not give letter grades outright, the practice helps focus student attention on our instructional goals: depth of understanding, creative thinking, and analytic reasoning. These are the lasting gifts of a good education. In a world in which the fund of knowledge doubles every couple of years, these skills will serve students best.
What do we assess?
Pam: As a progressive school we are firmly focused on the development of more than academics. Intellectual growth and social-emotional health are also fundamental elements of a well-rounded education, and so our assessments include these as well. Teachers are interested in their students’ abilities to reason and their depth of thinking, as well as the specific content and skills they have learned. Creative approaches to problems, resiliency, and interpersonal skills and dispositions (persistence, for one) also figure into assessments. Our goal is to educate good people as well as academically skilled students.
What do written evaluations and parent-teacher conferences tell parents about their kids that letter grades do not?
Paul: Written evaluations tell parents about their child’s learning disposition, motivation, response to feedback, and what engages him or her in school life. The teachers can write and talk about specific challenges, such as a child who seems to know the material but does not hand in homework or a student who does fine in class but is experiencing social challenges. Middle Schoolers are experiencing rapid physical and emotional changes. We want parents to understand how these stressors can affect their children’s learning.
Vicki: We do not give letter grades or standardized achievement tests in the Lower School. We believe that showing parents evidence of learning is much more authentic and powerful than a letter on a page. And if the children themselves take ownership of their learning and are responsible for presenting it to you, and are part of celebrating their strengths and successes and setting their own goals - well, in short, it doesn’t get better than that.
Why do students get grades in the Upper School?
Michael: All in all we do a good job of focusing on the things that grades fail to measure: knowledge, sophisticated self-reflection, the ability to think deeply and communicate lucidly, and the cultivated desire to invest in a community and the world. At the same time most colleges and universities request a transcript with letter grades. While we want our children to earn these “measures” of high achievement so that colleges will recognize our students as the intelligent, engaged learners they are, we do not want to overemphasize the importance of the GPA.
How does our Upper School grading compare with other schools?
Michael: Our grade spread is typical of independent schools across the country. Colleges know that when a school awards 50 percent of its students a 4.0 GPA, then that school’s standards are not comparable to a school like ours. Last year a faculty task force compared Catlin Gabel to other highly academic benchmark schools and their grade distributions. As a result of their work three substantial changes were put into place. We added an A+ for truly outstanding students, giving all students the possibility of earning higher GPAs. We instituted the practice of giving individual faculty members a report on how their grading matches up with others in their departments and with every teacher in the Upper School. Finally, we revamped our school profile that is sent to colleges and universities so that students from Catlin Gabel are viewed in the specific context of our program and standards—including how we grade. These changes have made a positive difference already.
What do you say to parents who just want to know where their child stands?
Michael: We resist what I call the Antiques Roadshow syndrome. On the Antiques Roadshow, participants bring in family treasures from their attics so an expert can assess their value. The experts go into all kinds of interesting detail about provenance, design, etc. The owner feigns enthusiastic engagement—when everyone can see that what he really wants to know is how much the thing is worth. We never want parents in conferences or reading narrative reports to think, yes, this is all very interesting, but what’s her letter grade? We provide useful information about how children are learning and thriving. We do want you and your daughters and sons to fully understand where they stand, as it were. It is vital that in every case where a student is struggling, teachers are clear and honest, and offer ameliorating strategies for the individual. The last thing we want in those instances is for parents to be surprised further down the road.
What is the value of parent-teacher conferences?
Vicki: Teaching is about relationship building. Once healthy bonds are made between the teacher, the student, and the student’s family, there is no limit to the learning that can take place. Conferencing is essential to strengthening this partnership. Sometimes parents see a side of child that is not revealed at home. Occasionally, when parents hear about a child taking personal responsibility for cleaning up or helping others they say, “Are we talking about the same kid?!”
Michael: And in the Upper School, when each student has as many as six or seven teachers, these teachers may see a different side to the child when they hear what their colleagues observe. For example, a parent told me about a conference where her son’s math teacher described a problem the boy had with differentiating symbols. His history teacher leaned forward excitedly and said, maybe that explains why he writes well but doesn’t use proper punctuation! Then all six teachers talked about how they could help her son with his particular learning challenge.
When children work with so many teachers how are assessments shared by faculty members?
Pam: In all four divisions teachers, counselors, and learning specialists have formal and informal conversations about individual students. We continually share insights, anecdotes, and progress reports with one another. This gives us a 360-degree view of the child’s learning from math to art to language to social skills. The net effect is that each teacher’s assessment enriches our collective understanding of each student’s learning style, current challenges, and accomplishments. We do a better job of teaching than we would if we worked in isolation from one another.
How are students involved with their evaluations?
Paul: Our assessment practices actively involve students in their own learning. We help students develop their ability to self-assess and articulate their learning styles. Part of this involves asking students to reflect on how well they understand the material. More importantly, the students develop a better sense of how they think about learning. When students know themselves as learners, they are able to create their own learning opportunities. Research tells us that the closer the assessment is to the student, including the criteria and standards for assessing “quality,” the more value it has for him or her.
Vicki: Students in the Lower School and in 7th grade are involved in student-led conferences. I guess that makes them student-parent-teacher conferences. Children get to report their own progress, which makes them active participants in their assessment. Let’s face it, the adults can talk until they are blue in the face, and set the most meaningful and relevant goals in the world for the child, but the goals will never be realized until the kid is actually involved. Our goal is for the children to be intrinsic learners; we’ll never get there unless they are empowered to be part of the process.
How do the close student teacher relationships and small class sizes affect assessment?
Michael: Our low student-teacher ratio allows for in-depth guidance. Our kids are trained to address the substance of the work. Conversations between student and teacher are educational ones, not bottom-line ones. For example, after Upper School teachers send mid-term reports, each student has a one-on-one meeting with his or her advisor to reflect together on the academic progress students have made. Some of the questions advisors ask are: What surprised you about some of these comments? What are you particularly proud of here? If you were to pick just one thing you wanted to focus on for the rest of the year, what would that be? One of the school characteristics that comes up again and again when I meet with prospective students and their parents is the way we know the students in our classes and C&Cs (advisory groups).