|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).
On a Friday night in the dead of winter, residents of mythical Almost, Maine, fall in and out of love at an alarming rate. Drama, humor, romance, and the aurora borealis come together in nine vignettes.
As parents, anticipating how our children’s futures unfold is nearly irresistible. Looking ahead to college is a natural consideration for people who value education. Given the expectations about college admission, I invited college counselors Kate Grant and Nancy Donehower to answer questions that we hope will allay whatever concerns you may have so you and your children can concentrate on taking advantage of the enormous learning opportunities right here, right now.
— Lark Palma, head of school
When should students (and families) start thinking about college?
NANCY: You can always be thinking about your education. It’s appropriate in 9th grade to think about the courses you’re taking and make sure the plan you have for study in the Upper School works for you. Those kinds of discussions should go on all the time, independent of the college process.
KATE: We want students to start thinking about college sometime during their junior year. Many start earlier and that’s okay. Some start later and that’s okay, too. Nancy and I work with students in a concerted way in the junior year.
NANCY: As for the nuts and bolts, we give the PSATs in October of sophomore and junior years, so we gently ease students and parents into the college admission process. However, that is not our reason for giving the tests. We offer PSATs twice so our students, who don’t take many multiple-choice tests, gain exposure to this type of testing. The more familiarity they have with the test format, the less anxious they will feel taking the test. But the PSATs have no bearing on the college application process.
Can you outline what juniors do in preparation for choosing and applying to college?
KATE: In the fall of junior year we meet with juniors and their parents to review the process. Then we take the juniors on a retreat in January to begin the self-assessment work that is the bedrock of our college counseling program. During the retreat, the students write free-flow pieces about what they like, what adjectives describe them, what their strengths are, and who has influenced them. We ask juniors to think about their long-term goals and we ask how they see themselves within the Catlin Gabel community. Not only do the self-assessments give us a way to get to know the students better, it also gets each student thinking about what’s important to him or her. Then we explore what kind of learning environment they think is best for them.
Why is all this self-assessment so important?
KATE: The self-assessment is a great exercise that prepares students for interviewing with admission officers and filling out applications. Parents write profiles of their children that provide us with even more information about our students and family expectations.
NANCY: We live in a culture that encourages people to do their shopping before they know what they want. Our position with regard to college counseling is the opposite of that. You can’t find a college that will work for you if you don’t reflect on what kind of person you are, what your learning style is, and what kind of learning environment you need.
Okay, back to the process. What happens next?
KATE: Beginning in the spring, juniors meet weekly with college counselors in small groups, called pods, and in individual meetings. The pods and individual meetings resume in the fall of senior year and continue until winter break. Throughout the fall of senior year, students take SATs, refine their college choices, write essays, ask teachers for letters of recommendations, and submit applications. We help students stay organized, meet deadlines, and complete application materials on time. College applications are generally due at the end of December unless students are applying for early admission or early action (which is a topic for another interview). Most college decisions are announced in April.
What kinds of colleges do Catlin Gabel students attend?
KATE: All kinds and all over the country. Most Catlin Gabel students are attracted to small liberal arts colleges. But we also send kids to big Ivy League universities, state schools, and military academies. There can seem to be a disconnect when students who have been successful in Catlin Gabel’s small, individualized environment want to go to a huge university. But it works out because when they do go to large universities our graduates are so accustomed to personalized education they don’t hesitate to meet with their professors. They ask questions in class no matter how intimidating the large lecture hall might seem.
NANCY: UC Berkeley, for example, is a great school with a huge bureaucracy, but kids from environments that are small like ours can navigate those environments really well. They don’t expect to be slowed by bureaucracy, so they step right in and ask for what they need. They are terrific self-advocates. This is so striking to me. Catlin Gabel kids really understand that they are responsible for their own learning. This school is a great launching pad for any kind of college setting.
How do students decide which colleges to apply to?
KATE: We like students to go home at the end of their junior year with a long list of colleges to explore on the Internet, through visits, or by talking to friends. Things are really fluid with the lists at this point. Juniors should be looking at a range of schools because it is hard to predict how they are going to feel in April of their senior year when they choose colleges. Kids need options. Sometimes students think it’s odd when they have, say, several small schools and one really big school on their list. But that makes sense for a student who is interested in a particular field of study. Looking at small Kenyon College and big NYU is not a contradiction if you’re interested in studying English or theater.
Are visits to colleges helpful?
KATE: Yes, because visits help kids see what they might like or not like, whether they want big or small, urban or rural. But the specific college is not as important as visiting different kinds of environments. That could be done close to home by visiting UO, OSU, Lewis & Clark, Reed, University of Portland, and Portland State.
How do colleges select kids for admission?
NANCY: (Nancy is the former dean of admissions at Reed College.) It’s a very complicated process, and colleges spend much more time on it than students and parents think. There’s a mechanism for assessing the student’s background. It’s like looking through a kaleidoscope. The admission office looks at the opportunities a student has been afforded in high school and what advantage he or she has taken of those opportunities. The most important thing is what students have done within their high school academic program. The colleges look at the school profile and see how challenging the high school curriculum is. Happily, every student at Catlin Gabel has a rigorous program. These kids all have great opportunities.
In small environments like this, when there’s a prominent group of high-achieving kids, the tendency is for average students to think, well, I’m not so-and-so who is a superstar student, therefore I’m not going to get into a good college. That’s just not true. For us the fun of the process is working with students who have lots of different interests.These days, the selective and highly selective colleges are probably looking at candidate pools where 90 percent of the applicants could do the work. That’s when they start looking at less quantifiable factors. What are the personal qualities of the applicant? What is this student like in the classroom? That’s where the teacher recommendations come in.
The intangible, personal qualities of students are also important to colleges. The college essays tell the admission office a lot. Kids think the colleges don’t really read the applications and essays, but those are the pieces that will sink a student if they don’t answer the questions on the form or they try for humor that falls flat in the essay. When I worked in the Duke admission office we got an essay from a kid who wrote about turning into a werewolf at night, stalking the countryside and wreaking havoc. We knew he was trying to be funny, but we couldn’t help wondering who we would room this kid with.
Every piece of the application process is important. That’s worth remembering, but not worth making you crazy. For example, a year or so ago, the Wall Street Journal ran an article about a kid who played the tuba getting into Penn and everyone signed their kids up for tuba lessons. People think that little details like this can tip the decision, but they really don’t – at least not to the degree people assume they do.
KATE: When people our age applied to colleges, the colleges said they were looking for well-rounded students. Now they say they are looking for well-rounded classes. They’re putting together a well-balanced class. Part of that might be a tuba player. And it might be kids who are very smart in one area and kids who are very smart in another area. The admission office knows what they’re looking for. That can change year to year. If a college is trying to change its image, the admission office might be looking for something different than in previous years.
NANCY: Generally speaking, the admissions decisions in any given year are the result of three factors: the volume of applicants, the qualifications those applicants possess, and the institutional priorities of a particular college that year. How the college weighs those factors is what you don’t see when you are a student or parent. That can make decisions frustrating and hard to understand
KATE: It’s like pick-up sticks. On the rare occasions when we see a decision that really doesn’t make sense, we call the college and say we don’t get it. But generally it’s not something they can explain. Often students think their lives are over if they don’t get into a certain college, but then they are happy where they end up. That’s the point to remember.
NANCY: It’s really important to change the metric of success in the admissions process. It’s not about how many kids get into Stanford or Harvard. What we need to ask is: do Catlin Gabel students have college options? Are they making wise choices, and are they succeeding at the colleges where they enroll? We can answer those questions with a definite yes – and those are the most important markers of success.
Do the most selective colleges provide the best education?
KATE: The most selective colleges do not necessarily provide the best education. The best education is a match between student interests and learning style, and the environment the college has to offer. Many well-known colleges don’t give the attention to undergraduates that less famous smaller schools do. When the graduates of those smaller colleges go to graduate schools they might be more prepared than graduates of bigger schools.
How reliable or meaningful are college rankings such as those published in US News and World Report?
NANCY: The college rankings are not reliable or meaningful. A lot of colleges agree with that and have tried to take themselves out of the rankings. It’s hard to take yourself out because the information is publicly available.
KATE: The rankings are based on who is admitted and their test scores, the percentage of applicants who are admitted, endowment, alumni giving . . . Each year they change the rubric so the same schools are not in the top five year after year. But what’s really most important, and how we want Catlin Gabel to be judged, is not who gets in, but what is the value added of the education. That’s much harder to assess.
How well do colleges know Catlin Gabel?
KATE: Of all the schools in Portland, we probably have the largest number of college representatives visiting our campus. They know us, they know our kids, and they work to recruit our students. They know we don’t inflate grades. They know how well educated our students are because our graduates perform at a high level and are active in their college communities.
NANCY: We do a good job of meeting people at conferences and inviting them to come to Catlin Gabel. We spend time with people who haven’t visited before and we educate them about Catlin Gabel.
Do the Upper School’s uninflated grading standards hinder our students’ with respect to college acceptance?
KATE: Unequivocally no. Just look at the impressive list of where our students go to college. If you compare the high school GPAs of students at selective private colleges to the GPAs of Catlin Gabel graduates at those same colleges you may see that the alumni from Catlin Gabel have lower GPAs. That is because the colleges know from the high school profiles we send with applications that we don’t hand out 4.0s like candy the way some schools do. We are in good company. Prep schools like Andover, Lakeside, Groton, Exeter, and Milton have grading standards similar to ours.
What advice do you have for anxious students and parents?
NANCY: Breathe! Know that you have very competent college counselors. We have worked with a lot of students and parents over the last 25-plus years. We will do our best to make it a process that everyone feels good about in the end. Allow the students to take the lead. This is their show. Let them star in it.
KATE: And realize that the implicit message when you are overly involved as a parent or hire an outside consultant is that you don’t trust your child to do this on his or her own. We want our students to know that they are perfectly capable of making plans for their lives after Catlin Gabel and we will do everything we can to support them.
This interview was first published in the All-School News when Kate Grant was a college counselor. She has since become the Upper School counselor. Nancy Donehower continues in her role as college counselor.
By Robert Medley and Laurie Carlyon-Ward
There isn’t a culture without artistic expression, that isn’t drawn to creation as part of its existence in one form or another, be it writing or singing songs, decorating everyday items, or passing down stories. Every child feels a need for some kind of expression as he or she learns and grows, and that act of creativity lies at the center of a Catlin Gabel education. This very human act leads to far more than a drawing, a poem, or a piece of pottery: it also develops a sense of the self as an individual and as part of a group, confidence, a grasp of how to use materials, and so much more. This is why it’s so important to value and nurture our students’ creativity.
Having the confidence to put ideas out into the world is difficult. If we manage to teach students that ideas are interesting—but that not every idea will gain acceptance—we form adaptable, flexible people who will have the background and strength to use their talents in the world. In particular, our classes and teaching methods in the arts encourage students to think of solutions in situations that demand constant review and analysis, and to bring their ideas to fruition in music, theater, and the visual arts—in short, to be creative.
At the core of every arts class are students working with teachers to build a set of skills. The teacher poses challenges for the students—“springboard moments”—that encourage them to take their skills and go beyond the basics they have learned. That springboard provides the impetus toward creation. Something that on the surface seems as simple as the way a material is used (whether it’s paint, a musical instrument, a script, or a hunk of clay) can present an opportunity. Beyond a material’s common or intended use is an infinite universe of things you can do with that material, and we want students to glimpse that infinite universe.
Visual and performing art classes work differently from other classes. They are structured, and there is a sequential curriculum, but students often tell us they feel a difference in the way they process information when they shift from left-brain activities, such as learning math, to the more right-sided activity involved in visual and performing arts.
In the busy and buzzing atmosphere of visual arts classes, students operate as if they are in a real art studio. They learn where to find the supplies they need, and which materials are necessary for their current work. They set up their own work area and then evaluate, with the help of the teacher, where they left off on their project from the last class. Are they happy with the work’s progress? Is there another direction to take?
At the beginning of new projects, the art teacher demonstrates how to work with the medium and hands outs written material to get students set up for the activity. Students then take different amounts of time to come up with their own ideas, which eventually become the solution to the assignment. For example, if the assignment is drawing a still life, they make several sketches to decide which way they want to build the composition. Each person includes different objects and arranges them from his or her own individual impulse. There is no one “right” way to form the composition or solve an assignment. There are many ways to view the still life and create a pleasing composition. Similarly, when we take students on a photography field trip we all go to the same area, but every person’s eye and sense of what they could communicate through a photograph leads them toward a different location, a different detail—their very own artistic viewpoint.
Performing arts involve both the brain and the body and the integration of the two. Whether in music, dance, or theater, the performing artist is interpreting another person’s piece of work. The very nature of performing arts—doing your own art, with your own body, within the construct of someone else’s piece of equally absorbing work—pushes creativity and problem-solving to the edge. The nature of performing arts lends itself to endless interpretation and manifestation. Whether performing Shakespeare or Tchaikovsky, the performing artist working on a piece will always look for a fresh take on the material, fresh ways of solving the problems within the structure of the text—whether the artist in question is a designer, an actor, a director, a dancer, or a musician.
Performing arts develops in students the ability to reinvent themselves for the task at hand. They also learn how to work collaboratively, so that all facets of the production become one. Each performance is original—unique, never to be duplicated—because things will change in subsequent performances. Even if recorded, once performed it is gone, a lesson about the transitory nature of life.
Teaching students to feel safe in the arts community is an important aspect of how we teach visual and performing arts at Catlin Gabel. We teach students, who are often their own harshest critics, how to evaluate their own work and the work of others with insight and support. We teach students how to give and receive criticism, and how to see the difference between a finished piece of work and a piece that could use more work. It is a powerful experience to express yourself in any media and then hear or see the reactions of an audience or listener. This circular experience unites the artist, the teacher, and the viewer.
One of the greatest benefits of arts education, especially at the high school level, is that students learn that they are free to take enormous chances in their work (visually, verbally, musically, or through physical expression) in both conceptualization and execution. Sometimes that kind of risk-taking produces a satisfying piece of work, but sometimes that final product just doesn’t come together. Praise or criticism may follow. That doesn’t matter. What’s important here is the student develops the courage to take more and bigger creative risks, and learns to shrug off the sense of failure knowing that another opportunity to try out ideas lies just around the corner. Ultimately students learn that taking bold chances is the way to learn the most. Living through these somewhat scary experiences gives depth and richness to their education.
Art allows you to learn how to live a life of quality, beauty, and truth. This is why people often remember most keenly their own artistic experiences. As we think about Catlin Gabel’s construction of a new facility for visual and performing arts (see the next page), we think about how we are forming a legacy of place. We hope to overhear a parent say to a child, “This is where I learned this thing, this is where I took this risk, this is where I was shaped into the person that you see today.” The new Arts Center will be a place where teachers and students see and learn from each other’s creative work. From the common pursuit of art a sense of collaboration, sharing, and most importantly of insight arises that students will pass on to others as their own lives are enriched.
Robert Medley is Upper School theater director and teacher. Laurie Carlyon-Ward is chair of the arts department and teacher of visual arts in the Upper School.
By Richard Kassissieh
Over the span of decades, the practices of good progressive education have changed little: focus on the individual, teach from each student’s experience, and encourage students to construct knowledge. Over those same decades, though, the tools of learning have changed enormously. New technologies help create learning experiences never before possible. How do Catlin Gabel teachers incorporate these tools to teach students to construct knowledge together? How do these efforts support entrepreneurship, creativity, and risk-taking, especially in classes in subjects other than the arts?
Peek through a classroom door on a typical day, and classes do not look so different from the progressive classrooms of John Dewey’s time. A teacher sits with his students in a seminar-style arrangement, discussing Martin Luther King. The conversation moves from one topic to another, following the students’ interests. One student asks, “What did King think of the Vietnam War?” The teacher bends over his laptop and visits YouTube. A six-foot image fills the wall at the front of the classroom. The voice of King fills the room. “The time has come for America to hear the truth about this tragic war. . . . ”
It is 7:30 a.m. on a dark February morning. Ten students in a Winterim class gaze expectantly at a dark screen. A friendly face appears, but it is silent. The screen goes blank again. The students and teachers look worried. Finally, a voice with an Arabic accent inquires, “Can you hear us? We can see you.” Thus begins a live video conversation with a dozen teenage students in Gaza City. Students in both locations dare to ask authentic questions and reply from the heart. For two and a half hours, they challenge assumptions and change their minds.
Two 8th grade students huddle around a laptop, giggling. “Look, they replied!” “What should we say?” The students are exchanging messages of greeting with their peers in Martinique, weeks before they will board a plane and fly there. One asks, “Can we record our voices?” With laptop computers at hand, the answer is “yes.” The lesson changes direction, and within minutes students are leaving voice messages for each other. When the students arrive in Martinique, they will be long past simple introductions and ready to make the most of their visit.
A 5th grade student sits in class in front of a computer with a builtin camera, staring at an image of himself. On paper, he has written his own original story in Spanish. He begins to read the story, tentatively, awkwardly, to practice his speaking skills. He stops and plays it back to see how he did. Fifth grade students love to see themselves speak and then perfect their presentations. Put these two ideas together with a computer, and you create a powerful learning environment. Twelve minutes later, we return to the student, who by now has memorized his story and recites with confidence. “How many times did you record it?” “Five!” the boy replies. He thrives on this stuff.
A student contemplates a set of triangles on a computer screen. Lines, angles, and measurements abound. She takes the mouse and grabs one of the vertices on one of the shapes and drags it. Suddenly, the entire diagram leaps into motion—the numeric measurements change fluidly as the student moves the vertex. A smile lights the student’s face. She now understands the relationship between the hypotenuse and sides of an isosceles right triangle.
|Working on robot control systems|
A junior in computer science class stands over a board filled with wires and lights. The pride in a complex task accomplished shines throughout her presentation of what the tool does and how it works. Catlin Gabel offers four levels of computer science, with only one an Advanced Placement course. The content-centric curriculum serves as the foundation for individual ingenuity later on.
Sixth grade English has just begun. The teacher says, “Tell us what topic you have chosen for your final presentation.” Three excited boys ask, “May we make a movie instead?” These boys will work together to explore the subject from a new perspective and overcome challenges unique to their chosen format.
Two 7th grade students prepare for their “teach-a-class” moment. One says, “I heard of this site where you can create a flipbook. Let’s use it!” Not only do they teach a great class, but they earn “top flipbook” honors on Flip.com.
CONSTRUCTING KNOWLEDGE TOGETHER
The school is justifiably proud of its award-winning robotics program. Part business, part engineering laboratory, the robotics team meets a challenge put forward by the national organization FIRST. Build a robot that can win in a competition involving dexterity, speed, and strength. Produce a communications and marketing plan based on a team web site. Misses Catlin and Gabel would be proud if they could see the ultimate project-based activity and witness the successes this group has repeatedly achieved.
The last day of the 4th grade immigration unit has arrived. A student stands up to make her final presentation. She describes a person who arrives at Ellis Island, attempting to enter the United States. However, the story is not real. Rather, the student has constructed the details of her character’s life using primary and secondary sources provided by the teacher. A wealth of historical information stored on the web served to enliven each student’s experience creating these characters.
Two 7th grade students share their newfound knowledge of the planet Mercury with their classmates. A colorful, dynamic presentation serves as backdrop. Cross-sections, mythology, and statistics crisscross the screen. Several faces in the room brighten as the visual learners in the room immediately grasp the material.
The tyranny of the blank page no longer haunts English students in the Upper School. Teachers use a web-based writing environment to provide students with a series of questions to guide their writing. Ideas rise and words flow. When the draft is due in class, the student submits the work online to an audience of his peers. Within the web-based tool, students write, revise, and critique. They always write within a community of authors.
What technologies will arrive next to amaze and entice us? We don’t exactly know. But we can count on the fact that Catlin Gabel teachers will think deeply about the potential of these tools. They will create opportunities for students to experience, learn their own way, and construct knowledge together. These students will continue to confidently take risks and chart bold, new directions.
Richard Kassissieh is director of information services at Catlin Gabel.
The combination of initiative and risk-taking is necessary, I believe, for creativity to ensue. And creativity is the factor that makes productive change possible. Now, when I say “creativity,” I mean it in the broadest imaginable application, even if artistic creativity is what springs most immediately to mind for most of us. . . .
It takes a while—particularly for 9th graders—to apply the concept of “creativity” to an activity such as writing an essay on the Odyssey. It’s so easy merely to complete an assignment, without the bother of imagining a more interesting approach to doing it. One of the purest pleasures of teaching, by the way, is the occasional moment when a student “gets it,” realizes what you were trying to do, and writes or stops by to let you know: “Now, I understand.” The insight occurs most often, I imagine, when students have unconsciously engaged in the metacritical examination of their efforts that forms so essential a piece of what we ask them to do in English courses. . . .
Too often students chafe at any restriction, which they almost inevitably see as unfairly limiting their creativity. But, of course, all of human activity, even human life, necessarily has limits. Some of us are less physically gifted, some less intellectually, others artistically, etc. But with the right attitude, those limitations may lead to new discoveries. For a number of years, I have used a postcard project that challenges students to represent (note that I did not say “illustrate”) an important idea from whatever we happened to be reading, e.g., Homer, the Bible, Romeo and Juliet. Since a postcard in this case needed to measure exactly 4” x 6”, and had to arrive at the school unpackaged and unprotected via the US mails by a certain date, limitations existed on the potential materials. As I pointed out to you as 9th graders, neither glass nor chocolate cake was likely to survive the franking process at the post office. You students either completed the postcard with a workmanlike view to getting it done or, infrequently, hit upon a method to extend the restrictions and produce a creative solution. I was awestruck when a student mailed me a block of wood of those 4” x 6” dimensions but laminated and stacked about eight inches tall. I still have it as a fine example of creative possibility.
So, seniors, those are the two pieces of advice I am hoping you’ll carry with you, not only as you go on to further academic attainment, but throughout your lives. Initiative and risk-taking are likely to lead to creative solutions as you seek to make the world a better place. And since you will continue to be bombarded on all sides by vast amounts of information that ought to remain suspect: believe nothing of what you are told, no more than half of what you read—and never trust a bearded man.
Clint Darling has served as Upper School English teacher for many years and as interim head in 1982–83.
The Catlin Gabel Eagles faced the OES Ardvaarks on a beautiful fall night. The varsity boys made a valiant effort, but lost 2-0. The JV boys were victorious at 1-0. The fans, including plenty of alumni and guests from OES, enjoyed a festive night of soccer, barbecue, and entertainment by the jazz band and the dance club. Senior soccer players and their parents were honored.
Many thanks to Jordan Treible '10 and Mackenzie Treible '09 (go Blue) for taking photos of the Upper School Rummage Contest. News of which team won the contest had not been released when this photo gallery was posted.
On September 16, elder statesman of the science department Paul Dickinson officially dedicated the new Upper School science lab with a ribbon cutting. Retired teacher Lowell Herr, current teacher Dan Griffiths, and students Rivka Shenoy ’09 and Megan Stater ’12 spoke beautifully about their passion for science teaching and learning.
Three alumni, Lee McIntyre ’80, Kristen Hege ’80, and Chris Gibson ’01, talked via video about the role of science education in their careers. Watch the videos.