Learning how to take responsible action

Our students’ journey from self-awareness to community engagement

By Tim Bazemore, Head of School

In 1981, headmaster Steven Prigohzy wrote that founder Ruth Catlin was “convinced that capable, concerned young people could enhance their society…make the world a better place…[and]…be effective agents of positive change.”

That conviction has been a hallmark of our school since its inception, shaping how we educate young people and who they become. From Honeybees taking turns in morning circle to seniors interning with local businesses, we teach students to be responsible for themselves, for our school community, and for the world around us. Learning how to take “responsible action” is just as important here as learning how to read and write.

Children generally are not born with a disposition to act responsibly in the world. They learn it just as they learn math skills, over time, with careful guidance and frequent practice. At Catlin Gabel, this begins in the Beehive with an explicit focus on social-emotional skills. Using teachable moments and thoughtful questions, teachers help children develop self-awareness, social skills, and responsible decision-making. Children first learn to care for themselves, then for family, friends, and schoolmates, and eventually for others they do not know. This ever-expanding sense of responsibility helps students to understand the impact that their decisions and choices have on others and their environment. It helps them to recognize that education is not merely for personal benefit.

The intentional instruction that begins in the earliest grades continues into the Lower, Middle, and Upper Schools. New students entering each division appreciate the opportunities to practice making choices and developing agency. Inspired by Ruth’s belief in children, the “working community” ethos of Black Mountain College, and a clear-eyed view of inequity and injustice in the world, many opportunities for responsible action at Catlin Gabel involve learning through social justice activities. Volunteering with young children at Albina Head Start, Elana Gold outdoor service work on Mt. Hood, and building InvenTeam solar-powered “JuiceBoxes” for Portland’s houseless citizens are vivid examples of direct social impact.

Responsible action takes many forms, however, and is evident in daily activities as much as public projects. When I ask current students how they define responsible action, the answers reveal the step-by-step journey from self-awareness to community engagement. “You should use nice words, not mean.” (Kindergarten) “You put back the tool after you use it in the woodshop.” (Grade 2) “You follow the rules and are kind.” (Grade 5) “Caring about people who are suffering and need food or shelter.” (Grade 7) “Standing up and speaking out when something is wrong.” (Grade 9) “Responsible action is taking what you learned here to do good for the planet and other people.” (Grade 12)

Every day, students make choices that express their intellectual and moral growth. They develop their work ethic and strive to improve the quality of their schoolwork. Team captains motivate and encourage teammates. Stage directors guide actors through rehearsals. CGSA members meet to address the concerns of the student body. Students serve on the board of trustees and community task forces. Student teaching assistants help teachers prepare labs. And when they leave campus, Catlin Gabel graduates serve in the Marine Corps and the Peace Corps. Alumni build businesses that serve consumer needs, employ workers, and pay taxes. They vote, volunteer, and donate their resources. Across grades, disciplines, and decades, Eagles learn and model principles that have the power to make the world a better place.   

This is experiential learning at its best: applying what you know and can do to achieve something that has relevance and meaning to you and others. Over the decades we have encouraged students to aim for “purposeful living” (1929) or “useful living” (1946). It is through responsible action, learned through experience, that they will best achieve and appreciate that life.

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