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.

Posted by: scotteckstein | March 9, 2014

The Beginning of the End (and of a new Beginning)

One of the things that is most wonderful about working in schools, and particularly about my job here, is watching students change over time. You get to see them when they are very young, to see the seeds of who they will become, to imagine the different people they might grow into, and then you get to see them as they prepare to embark on the rest of their lives, brimming with talent, confidence, and excitement about their future. It is truly a magnificent thing.

There are a couple of nights a year when this is at the forefront of my mind. Graduation is certainly one of them. Another is our annual Senior/Trustee dinner. This is a great Solebury tradition where the senior class, the Board of Trustees, and the faculty have a delicious dinner catered by our chefs (and where the Middle School students serve as the waitstaff – god they’re cute when they do this!). The night has a couple of keynote speeches by students, but the real highlight of the evening are the toasts. There is a microphone set up in the dining hall, and anyone can get up and make a toast to whatever or whomever they would like. While some toasts are made by the faculty and the Trustees, the evening is really about the students sharing their thoughts about their time here. Below are two videos – one of one of the keynote speeches, the other a compilation of some of the toasts students made. Even though I’ve been an observer and a participant of the whole process of their education and development during their years here, hearing them speak about the impact the school, the faculty, the classes, and the relationships all have had on them almost brings me to tears each year. They are tremendous people, and while I, and the school as a whole, will miss them tremendously, I am so excited for them as they get ready to begin this next part of their lives. As you watch the videos, you’ll see why my colleagues and I are truly blessed to live the lives we do.

I am a child of the 80’s. It is a badge I wear proudly. I graduated from high school in 1989, so my formative years were this decade. So certain things hit a particular heartstring for me. “Footloose” is one of them. I remember seeing the movie vividly; I know the words to all the songs; if pushed, I might even be able to simulate some of the dance moves in the ending scene. Because of all this, I was particularly excited to see the production of “Footloose” here at Solebury School this past weekend. Not only was it nostalgic and endearing, but it was GREAT! The actors, the crew, the faculty who directed it, the wonderful parent volunteers, everyone involved did a fantastic job! It was particularly impressive given the obstacles that mother nature threw at them. Their rehearsal schedule was consistently interrupted and lacked the rhythm and regularity that is so helpful in putting a show like this together. However, our Director Shawn Wright, our choreographers (Faculty member Rebecca Wilschutz and student choreographers Lia and Ashley D’Alessandro), and our Technical Directors Chris Langhart and Mike Barocca all somehow got it to come together.

There were too many great performances to list, but there were a couple of really cool things about the production that I loved seeing:

1) There were six 8th graders in the production! I love the confidence they displayed and the future this portends for the theater program. It is such a great reflection of the way the Middle School Program here allows that group of students to stretch their wings and jump into all Solebury has to offer even before they get to the Upper School.

2) It was a huge cast – I believe over 40 people – with an incredible depth of talent. I’m still not sure how they fit everybody for the big numbers on the stage in our beloved black box theater, but they made it work.

3) While there are some people who I’ve known were theater junkies since they applied and who have been constants in the theater program here, there were some people who shocked me. In particular, I’m thinking of two seniors who have been here for four years and who had never been in a play. They’ve been wonderful contributors to the school in other ways, but they decided that they wanted this experience before they graduated. And they were fantastic! I love that they developed the confidence to get on stage, and that Solebury’s activity program and culture makes this opportunity possible – that the activities aren’t exclusively the property of those who have been participating in them since birth.

Again, to everyone involved, thanks for a wonderful performance and congratulations on a job well done! There’s some video below of a few scenes so you can see for yourselves how great it was.

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