When people ask what I do, my response is that I’m a teacher. This is despite the fact that I teach far less than I used to and that most of my time is taken up doing Admissions now. But I love teaching. I love working with students and seeing the spark that comes when they discover something amazing about the world or about their own capabilities. I am particularly blessed to work in a place that prizes intellectual curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking as it has allowed me to shape my own classes over the years in ways that have been as fulfilling and interesting to me as they have hopefully been to my students. Because of this, I’m inspired every day by the work my colleagues and the students do here. So for this post, I thought I’d share some of the wonderful things I’ve seen happening on campus, many of which demonstrate how amazing school can be if not confined to the four walls of a classroom.

1) Our Solebury Builders Club (A STEM club) just built amazing paper airplanes that stayed up in the air for over a minute – it was AWESOME! Check this out to see some video of them in flight: https://www.facebook.com/video.php?v=10152290547845938&set=vb.191183385937&type=2&theater

2) Our Honors Environmental Science class is doing some very cool things! The teacher Jon Freer is having them blog for their assignments, so they can share their thoughts and reactions to the material, share links, video, or photos that encourages their classmates or others to investigate the topic further, and so they can learn how to effectively use this medium as an example of how to use technology well and how to communicate ones ideas maturely and effectively. Here is a link to one of the student’s blogs (I love reading this!): http://schuylerthes.blogspot.com/2014/10/steamboat-trip.html.

This class also went on a great trip recently. There are some Princeton professors who in their “spare time” run mini-courses using a steamboat on the Delaware River right near campus (yet another thing for me to feel inferior about as in my spare time I’m working on making the ultimate plate of nachos). They talked about the local fish population, the ecosystem, the health of the river, and lots of other things. One of the cool things about this trip was that our Middle School also went as they are studying Environmental Science as well. So while they were certainly getting different things out of it, and were tasked with asking different questions of the professors, it was a great moment where kids of different ages interacted and worked together which is one of the things I love most about the way things work at Solebury!

3) Our Honors History Theory course (a Senior elective) is doing some really high level work. They’ve been studying advanced sociological and psychological theory such as Durkheim’s anomie theory, the work of Milgram on authority and how we respond to it, Zimbardo’s work on the influence of social pressure on identity formation, Nisbett and Wilson’s work on the “halo effect”, and Festinger and Carlsmith’s work on “Cognitive Dissonance.” I was a history major and studied these things in college and would have LOVED not only to have found something this interesting and challenging during high school, but I would have loved the head start a familiarity with these ideas would have given me in college.

4) As impressive as anything was what our Astronomy Club did recently. The students decided they wanted to bring a speaker to campus. One of them emailed a physicist at NASA and simply asked him to come. He said he’d love to (how cool of him!). He came yesterday and spoke to a couple of classes, to the Astronomy Club, and to the school as a whole. And while all NASA Physicists are cool, this was Dr. John Mather who won a NOBEL PRIZE!!! He was awarded his prize for his work using the COBE satellite to measure the heat radiation from the Big Bang. Dr. Mather is a Senior Astrophysicist in the Observational Cosmology Laboratory located at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. He is also a Senior Project Scientist on the James Webb Space Telescope.

There are so many things I loved about this event. Certainly the talk itself – Dr. Mather was just tremendous. He spoke in a way that we could understand (no easy feat when you’re talking about the cosmos), he was funny, he allowed ample time for the kids to ask questions, etc. I was so proud of the questions the students asked and what these questions say about their intellectualism and curiosity. They included “How do we know that the characteristics of life elsewhere in the universe are the same as we require – how do we know what to look for?” “How can we tell where one galaxy ends and another begins?” “What’s the difference between dark matter and dark energy?” Finally, I loved the fact that all this happened because of the efforts of STUDENTS! They formed this club (it was started by a couple of students last year); they emailed Dr. Mather; they made all this happen. Fantastic job Astronomy Club!!!

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So thank you to all my colleagues here for doing such inspiring work and for helping our students’ minds develop in such amazing ways.  And thank you to the students for being not only up for these challenges, but excited about them!

Posted by: scotteckstein | October 2, 2014

There’s No Place Like Home!

This week I’ve been traveling throughout New England visiting some of the Junior Boarding Schools. These are really cool places that are boarding schools for kids in 5th through 9th grade. I take this trip every year to recruit students from these schools. I love going to them. Seeing the younger kids at these schools is always a ton of fun – they have great energy. I’ve gotten to know some of the faculty at these schools, particularly the placement people, and they are terrific people who I love working with and talking to. And I love the places themselves. While they are all different, they are all beautiful; some have a simple elegance, others have incredible facilities. I’ve seen five schools in the last three days and met with some amazing young people at each one. I’m so excited with this potential group of applicants and can’t wait for the chance to get to know them further! It’s been a great trip in every way (including some great meals and some beautiful runs among the fall foliage up here).

However, I miss being home and am so excited to get back there tomorrow to see my wife Lauren and my 2 children Ali and Josh. I miss putting the kids to bed each night, reading the Percy Jackson series to them, having dinner together, just talking to my wife, etc. And as much as I love seeing these other schools, I miss Solebury; I miss my school. I miss my students and their energy, their banter, and their talents. I miss talking to my advisees. I miss teaching my class (the way the schedule rotates, I’ll only miss two class days this week and they’re working on a paper in case you were curious). I miss my colleagues and friends, many of whom I’ve worked with for over two decades. And while some of these campuses I’ve seen are incredible, I miss MY campus – the beautiful farm-style buildings, the walk from my house to work, the sprawling lawns, the deer running around in the evening, the fog that sometimes lingers on the campus in the early morning, the beautiful weeping willows around campus, and the fantastic food Carmen, Joe, and Pablo make for us in the dining hall.

I try never to take how blessed I am for granted; however, in the hustle and bustle of life there are moments where I know I don’t fully appreciate it. One of the things I love about these trips is that it always brings back to the forefront of my mind how lucky I am to work and live where I do. So one more night in a hotel, one more complimentary hotel breakfast, one more school to visit, and one more drive, and then I’ll be back on campus. See you soon everyone – particularly you Lauren, Ali, and Josh!!!

I wrote in a previous post about students leading. It’s an important concept and one which I actually think is overlooked too often in education. To allow someone to lead, you need to trust them, to give them the space to make decisions and take action, and you need to acknowledge that giving someone this space to lead may mean things don’t work quite as they might if you were in charge. In fact, you need to accept that the other person may blow it. This can be incredibly hard to do, particularly when the someone else you could allow to lead is a young person. After all, the media, films, tv, etc. all tell us every day how irresponsible the youth of today are, how self-absorbed, how lazy.

I’ve worked as a teacher for 22 years now, and I can tell you without any hesitation whatsoever that this characterization of young people is false. And not just at Solebury, although it is certainly false here. I travel to other schools a lot, I meet a lot of young people, I hear about life at other schools. There are lots of good young people out there who are being underestimated and hindered from great things because of this stereotype.

One of the things about Solebury that I am proudest of is that one of the core values of our philosophy runs counter to this stereotype. We believe there should be a mutual respect between teachers and students. This means that we believe students to be capable, to be good at heart, to desire to do well. While we take our role to supervise and guide them very seriously, we also put trust in them to live up to these perceptions. Our recent Convocation was a clear example of this. The whole school gathered on the main lawn where graduation is held and our Head of School addressed the community, in particular the new students, on what it means to be part of Solebury and explained the values we hold dear. It was not a long speech, for this was not the main piece of the event. When he was done, each new student was escorted by a member of the senior class from the gathering (they walk the same path they will walk at graduation but in reverse) and they go to the Performing Arts Center. Once there, the seniors and the new students sit down, the doors are closed, and they have a conversation. The seniors lead it by talking about what they value about the school, what about the school they hope the new students will ensure carries on after they graduate, what they wished they knew when they started at Solebury that they know now and what new students can do to get the most out of their time here. I’ve never been in the room, as I said it is a closed meeting for students only, but those who have told me it is a powerful moment. Whatever is actually said in there, the format of it sends a clear message to all. It communicates to the seniors in no uncertain terms – we trust you, you are the leaders of the school, we know you can do a great job here. The new students see this too, and to them the message is equally clear – this school believes young people are good and are responsible and the event practically screams at them to live up to that trust.

Young people will never learn how to lead if they are not given the chance. They will never grow as much as they might unless we give them the room to take on “adult” roles and moments, and other kinds of challenges. Some of the best moments I’ve had at Solebury involve watching students do these things: watching a dorm proctor take a young student under his or her wing and help them, watching our students tour prospective families around campus, seeing how our students interact with adults because they know how to do so, teaching a student in a class they pushed to take even though people cautioned him or her was too hard and watching the student rock it.

I’m a type-A guy and it is hard for me to give up control at times. However, every single day my students remind me that they are more than up to the task.

I’ve worked in schools for over twenty years now,  and I’ve become convinced that one of the key ingredients  of successful schools is having strong student  leadership.  Having students set a tone for others,  help new students form an appreciation  of,  and an attachment  to,  the school’s  values,  and demonstrate  that putting yourself out there and being involved in school is THE cool thing to do, can make all the difference.  I’ve always been proud that Solebury  gives students so many ways to seize the reins of some piece of the school.   Three of these were on display recently.   Our Peer Leader program which has selected students run weekly groups of new students to help them get settled,  meet others,  and handle the transition,  began today.   In preparation  for this,  the peer leaders  went camping with two faculty members to do some training.  They had a wonderful (and productive) time from what I’ve heard.   I watched them working with  the new students today and was so impressed with their energy,  their maturity,  and their ability to make new students feel comfortable.   Here are a couple of photos of the groups working.

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A second great example of this was last Monday  night when our Intercultural Student Association  celebrated the Moon festival (a very important day in China  and other Asian countries) on campus. It was a ton of fun with students preparing great food (see the shot of students at the grill below)  and students from every background there.  A ton of day students hung around for the event which was great to see. Here are a couple of photos

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The other great recent example of students showing other students the way, happened last week during our annual club fair.  During a break in the morning,  each club on campus (approximately  20 right  now) sets up a table in the center of campus and everyone can walk around check out what’s out there and see who else might share an interest of theirs.   It might be a concern for diversity issues,  or a love of chess,  or astronomy,  or debating political issues,  or reading great books… There’s so much for students to explore.   Even more  importantly,  students see other students passionate  and engaged and that sends a very  direct and clear message that this is a good way to be and that in fact, it is the way one should be at Solebury. Here are come pictures of the students at the club fair.

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So thank you students… For being a constant reminder to me that it is you,  your energy, and your talent that makes school in general,  and Solebury  in particular,  so special!

Posted by: scotteckstein | September 11, 2014

We don’t just enroll students, we enroll families

Part of what I value about working in an Independent School is the chance I have to get to know the parents of my students. At Solebury, our goal is to have parents be part of the community. We enjoy having them on and around campus, we are incredibly appreciative of their willingness to help in a variety of ways, and we believe firmly that education works best when a student, teachers, and parents are working in concert. This is why last night was so much fun for me. It was our Annual New Parent Gathering – a lovely dinner put together by our incredible chefs and a chance for the parents to talk to each other and to a bunch of faculty and staff and share stories about the first week of school. It’s always a night filled with good energy as the pre-school jitters have settled down and kids have begun to adapt to the schedule, to their classes, to boarding life, and to the general culture here (it’s jarring sometimes for kids when everyone around them is suddenly nice!). This year’s event was particularly wonderful. I have said in a previous post how excited I am about the group of students we have here this year, but I have to say that I’m equally excited about the parent body! They are a wonderful, warm group of people who I love talking to and who I’m thrilled to have “enrolled.”

So on behalf of everyone here, thank you to the Solebury parents out there! Thank you for sharing your children with us, and for partnering with us on this grand adventure of educating and raising young people into adults who can go forward with confidence and positively impact the world.

Posted by: scotteckstein | September 8, 2014

The day I’ve been waiting for!

For me, and for I imagine anyone who works in Admissions, the first day of school is truly wonderful. It’s the culmination of a year’s worth of work. For months, the image of the school community has been only in my head – I see what each grade looks like, I picture the dorms alive with the students we have, I envision looking up at the student body assembled as one. Finally, on the first day of school, there they are, all the new and returning students, all in one place, the community I’ve only been able to see in my mind. It is an incredible feeling seeing all of them so excited to be here and begin to get to know one another. I see friendships that I’ve had a hunch might form begin to do so. I see the excitement on my colleagues’ faces as they get to know this talented and special group of young people.

We have just finished the second day of classes, and are fresh off the first weekend of activities. A great BBQ put together by one of our amazing chefs, and a concert that I’m not sure I was hip enough for organized by our Student Activities Director Nicole kicked off the weekend. A trip to Six Flags, a movie on campus, and much more rounded out the weekend. While it will take a little time for everyone to settle in, to learn the schedule, and to feel completely at home, everyone seems well on their way. So thank you to all you Solebury students, for being who you are, for finding your way to us, and in advance for what I know will be an amazing year to come!

Old friends back together!

Old friends back together!

Some fellas hanging out in the newly renovated Student Lounge.

Some fellas hanging out in the newly renovated Student Lounge.

Some of the Middle Schoolers enjoying some cake the chefs made on the first day.

Some of the Middle Schoolers enjoying some cake the chefs made on the first day.

the whole school leaving the welcome assembly and heading off to afterschool activity.

The whole school leaving the welcome assembly and heading off to afterschool activity.

Posted by: scotteckstein | May 17, 2014

So much more than test tubes, bunsen burners, and microscopes

One of the definitions of science in the dictionary is, “systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation.” I remember science in high school, and with all due respect to my science teachers, I got turned off by it early and often. There wasn’t enough experimentation…it felt contained to a classroom, and felt too much about memorization of formulas and terms. That’s why when I see some of the things our science department is doing, I’m jealous for the experiences our students are getting. While our students get a great background in the traditional Physics, Chemistry, and Biology sequence (we are a Physics first school, which research says is the way science should be studied), they are challenged to think and to see the relevance of the material outside of the classroom. The work our Biology teacher, Jon Freer, is doing highlights this. His Honors Biology and Biology classes are using our greenhouse and our educational garden to design, grow, and build both Vertical Gardens (Biology) and Hydroponic Gardens (Honors Biology). All are up and growing (although a local groundhog has made a meal of some of the lower plants). The process included elements of design, construction, and science that resulted in some awesome gardens. Here’s what they look like:

Biology Gardens

The department as a whole just did another fantastic thing. It was recently National Science Week, and they celebrated this by running a variety of cool workshops and demonstrations for the community. There were experiments with electricity (some students and faculty may not need gel in their hair for a little while), the creation of some crazy substance that was liquid until pressure was applied to it at which point it became solid (this was nuts!), and a variety of other things. Check out this great video one of the teachers made of the different workshops and demonstrations:

Our Science Building has state of the art labs and some great work is done within them. However, I love the way the department doesn’t confine themselves within those walls. Whether it’s our 9th grade Conceptual Physics class, AP Chemistry, or one of the electives like Forensics or Human Anatomy and Physiology, the students get to see that science is a piece of the world they live in.

Posted by: scotteckstein | May 9, 2014

Let Creativity Run Free

Each spring, Solebury takes a week and highlights the arts with our annual Arts Festival. While normal classes still go on (after all AP exams are still a couple of weeks away), and the sports teams are still playing as they march towards the playoffs, we have a variety of events during the school day and in the evenings for the community. The opening of the Arts Festival was a concert by Solebury alum Langhorne Slim (class of 99). Slim (Sean Scolnick) was one of my best students in Ancient History back when he was at school, and we are incredibly proud of the success he is having. He was incredibly generous to donate his time and come back and do this concert. It was great to hear him play, but equally great to watch him engage the current students in the audience. A great group of alum came back for the show as well – here’s a photo of Slim, me, a couple of other faculty members, and some alum who were at the show.

Langorne Slim

During the week, there were workshops on an incredible array of topics for the community to engage in – everything ranging from silk screening t-shirts, to graphic design, to a songwriting class with the lead singer of a band named Goldspot. One of my favorite things about the workshops is that several of them are run by current students who get the chance to share their talents with their peers – it’s wonderful to see them take on this challenge. There was also a great concert by our Jazz Roots Group and Master Singers and our spring Coffee House (always a favorite).

The week was a huge success because of the efforts of lots of people, particularly Art Chair Erika Bonner and the rest of the Arts faculty – so huge kudos to them!

Posted by: scotteckstein | April 21, 2014

21st Century Feminism

I have always considered myself a feminist. While some of the clear indicators of sexism are long since gone – the restrictions on voting, land ownership, ability to work, etc., there are still too many places in our society and culture where we have a ways to go. There’s still not equal pay, there still are too many unhealthy messages put out by our culture about body image, etc. And that’s just here in the U.S., nevermind, the gender issues and inequalities that exist in other countries. While I believe I’ve always held these views, certainly having a daughter has made me even more conscious about them as I try to help her grow into an adult with all options available to her, and who is confident, secure, and healthy in mind, body, and spirit.

Thus, I am incredibly proud when I see young women such as the members of the club Girl Forward here at Solebury being so active in promoting equality, and working toward a future where negativity and prejudice do not keep any of our daughters and sons from realizing their dreams. Girl Forward, which is Solebury’s chapter of the international organization Girl Up, has had a busy and terrific couple of weeks here running a few events. They organized a Skype chat with the Girl Up chapter at Gashora Girls School of Science and Technology in Rwanda. Then they organized a Saturday night movie here on campus where they showed “Wadjda”, a movie about a young woman in Saudi Arabia. They had t-shirts printed and have been selling them to raise money for Girl Up. Finally, they finished production on, and released a video they’ve been working on all year. It’s a great video and I’m so impressed with the job they did on it! You can see it by clicking on the below link:

Girl Forward Video

I’m sitting down with my both my children (I have a son as well) tonight to watch this video. As I often say, one of the many things I love about living and working at a boarding school is that my children get a front row seat to some amazing and inspiring things. And while I love that they get to see kids who are really talented in sports and music and theater and art, the thing I hope for most is that they wind up being adults with good hearts and good character who try to improve the world they see around them. Thanks Girl Forward for helping me get them there!

Posted by: scotteckstein | April 5, 2014

The End Game We Should Want for Our Children

This has been an exciting few weeks here at Solebury as our seniors have heard from the colleges they applied to. Just as it is at all schools, this time period contains a mixture of joy and disappointment. All our seniors have some wonderful choices including some of the top schools in the country such as Yale, Penn, Georgetown, Bryn Mawr, Bates, Bowdoin, Skidmore, etc. I couldn’t be happier for, or prouder of, them. Certainly this is one of the things that the students, their parents, and we as a school, think about a lot and a great deal of effort on everyone’s part (first and foremost the students) is spent to get to this moment. At times though, I feel like we as a society get mixed up. Certainly some colleges have better reputations than others, and having gone to one of the big-name schools, I can look back and see the way my alma mater has impacted my life. However, I’m 100% convinced that the impact is less than we generally perceive it to be, that what really determines success is an individual’s drive, and his or her ability to solve problems, to communicate effectively with others, and to think critically about the information presented to them. These are the skills I see among people who I would label “successful”. They go far beyond their ability to perform on a standardized test or many of the traditional metrics schools use to determine success.

This is why when I see some of the things that our classes are doing here I am so envious of the experience the students here are having, and so proud of the job my colleagues are doing. They’re dealing with real world issues; they’re solving problems; they’re taking things they see and trying to figure out how to make them better; they’re not simply memorizing things out of a book and figuring out how to regurgitate them. Here are a few examples:

1) Gretchen’s Honors’ Physics class was given a challenge – help Owen. Owen is Erika’s (the Head of our Art Department and one of our dorm parents) beloved pug and one of the unofficial mascots of the school. He’s got a physical issue that is making it more and more difficult for him to walk effectively (don’t ask me what since at my previously mentioned big name college, I managed to avoid getting any education in the hard sciences by taking Astronomy one semester). The class was challenged to create a mechanism or contraption that would allow Owen to move more easily and without pain. They developed a really cool prototype that, while it looks a little clunky, has really improved Owen’s quality of life and made Erika incredibly happy. Here’s a picture of it:

Owen

2) Four of the students in Lauren’s journalism class had their editorials published in local papers. They were insightful analyses of the society these students see around them and demonstrate an awareness, a maturity, and a sense of perspective that will serve them incredibly well as they go forward. Here they are (click on each name to read their editorial):

Eliot

Veronica

Michaela

Erika

3) In the 10th grade Honors Ethics class that our Head of School, Tom Wilschutz is currently teaching (he, the Head of the History Department, and I each do a trimester of it), they have been discussing the tension between modern capitalism and the desire/need to continue to progress, and the damage that this desire/need has caused to the environment. Every day in class, they are wrestling with ideas such as what role can an individual play in resolving this tension, what would it mean to be an “ethical” actor in this theater, and is it possible to find a new path forward that would allow for both progress and protection of the world.

4) Our Middle School just took a trip to the United Nations in NYC after studying it in class. Their interdisciplinary History/English class – called Identity, Connection, and Change – has been examining governments, decision making, the role that individuals can play in solving problems, etc. through social studies and literature. They’ve spent a great amount of time discussing utopias and dystopias, so they went to see what the UN is really like since it was very much the world’s attempt to move us closer to being a utopia, and further away from the dystopia that was World War 2 (we’re not there yet, but maybe someday).

I don’t remember a lot of specific things from Middle School or High School. What I remember are the moments where teachers did something unique, something that I could connect with – a group research paper I did my senior year on whether there was a racial bias incumbent in the SAT where a really diverse group of people had to figure out how to work together and present a unified viewpoint, the calculus problem that involved a traffic light dangerously swinging in a high speed wind, etc.
As a teacher I love imparting the knowledge I have to my students; it’s great to know things and one cannot be truly successful certainly without a strong knowledge base. However, what’s really wonderful is helping students develop the skills I mentioned in the beginning of this post – in short, to help them develop wisdom.

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