Welcome to Castle!

Nov. 16, 2012, marked the official opening celebration of the renovated and expanded Castle. Head of School Bob Henderson welcomed a crowd of nearly a thousand community members to share in the festivities. Following are Henderson’s remarks from the evening.

Welcome to the Castle!

Thank you to everyone for coming to Nobles Night in this spectacular reconstructed venue, as well as for your support of the school, and for this inspiring project.  We have definitely tested the full capacity of the facility with this event and can now consider it officially broken in!

The other day I met with several members of the Class of 1970 to thank them for their gift to underwrite the creation of the school archives as part of this project.  I thoroughly enjoyed catching up with them and hearing their stories and memories, one of which was about trying to ride a mule down on the Castle field – trust me, it’s complicated!  In 1970 Nobles was, in many ways, a different place than today.  The student body was roughly half the current size, all male, and much more homogenous.  The physical plant was dramatically more limited.  And the program and opportunities here were significantly more circumscribed.  As I spoke with these men, however, it was quite apparent that, despite the dramatic evolution of Nobles over the last four decades, certain elements of the Nobles culture and experience remain stunningly consistent and fundamental.

The first of those factors was the emphasis we continue to place in our mission and daily life at Nobles on the power and critical importance of salutary and inspirational mentoring relationships between faculty and students.  Teachers with deep, multi-dimensional commitments to this place remain our single most essential resource.  When asked what they think is most important about their Nobles experience, students today respond the same way that graduates do, and that is to say they value their connections with their teachers above all else.

The second factor, however, is the Castle.  As the school has transformed itself, the Castle has remained the unifying element of our geography, both of the physical plant and the psychic experience of Nobles.  All students of every Nobles generation “own” this building equally and together.  While the mode of serving meals has shifted over generations to become more informal, the Castle has nevertheless been sustained as the one place where every student goes, every day, for repast and friendship.  Everyone knows the creaks in the floor, the quirks of design, the echoes of youthful joy and enthusiasm, and tones created by shadow and sunlight in its various corners and crannies.  Above all, every Nobles student very quickly learns the power of the Castle as a metaphor: we all become enamored of its permanence, creative inspiration, colossal aspiration, link between history and future, and towering, unmoving integrity.

Even as the Castle interior in recent years eroded and badly showed its age, its impact on students remained as profound as when Nobles first occupied the building in the 1920’s.  Yet the obstacles to an overhaul seemed almost insurmountable, necessitating adherence to modern building, fire and disability codes, and requiring adaptations to a mid-19th century structure that appeared almost impossible in the context of the needs of contemporary secondary education.  Moreover, it was hard to imagine how an overhaul could be accomplished without undermining the special and unifying character of the building.

When I met with the Class of 1970 the other day, however, they affirmed for me what I have felt in a personal sense as I have walked around the new and renovated space – we, working with our talented architects at Architerra and the remarkable folks at Shawmut Construction, have managed to revive and restore the historical Castle while at the same time rejuvenating the structure for the next century.  We have blended old and new, traditional and modern, aesthetic originality and pragmatic functionalism, in a magnificent manner.

Upstairs in the Castle there are now 17 faculty apartments of various configurations, all with kitchen and bathroom spaces.  We have a modern, open kitchen and servery, where everyone can share meals conveniently, and, as one of my advisees observed the other day, “when you walk in the Castle now, there is amazing food everywhere and all around me.”  We have dining and meeting spaces that will foster our sense of purpose, mission and community.  We have archival space that will preserve and make available the vibrant history of this institution.  Perhaps most importantly, this project has been an immense boon to the daily life, morale and culture of the school, reducing stress and buoying everyone’s sense of belonging.  We accomplished every objective established for the school schedule and program that we outlined over two years ago as we conceived this.  And we have done this in a sustainable manner, adding 13,000 square feet of space with nearly zero net increase in energy usage.  As you walk around this evening, I hope you will take in the innumerable details that were addressed in this process.

We are thrilled that we have raised the funds needed to make this project a reality. In fact, we are in the fortunate position of having exceeded the fundraising expectations we established at the time we began our planning.  The response of the extended Nobles community to the needs of this initiative has been more than impressive.  This project was indeed expensive, but I hope it is clear to everyone that it has been well worth the investment.  Special thanks to all of you who supported this incredible transformation of the Castle!

Please accept best wishes from everyone here at Nobles for a great Thanksgiving wishes from all of us here at Nobles in the week ahead!  Thanks and enjoy the evening!

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Nobles Grad Kozol Inspires in Latest Book

Jonathan Kozol ’54 has been one of the most prolific, inspiring and gifted writers on the subject of education in this country over the last half-century.  He is also one of the most extraordinary graduates of Noble and Greenough School. The publication of his latest book, Fire in the Ashes, according to some reviewers, marks somewhat of a departure from the tone of many of his works.  It offers, in short, rays of hope, whereas Kozol’s focus through his career has been so relentless and revealing in regard to the “savage inequalities” (to use the title of one of his books) that characterize the American education system, inducing considerable despair that as a society we have the compassion, perspective and political will to take decisive steps forward.  Returning to visit with some of the young people with whom he has worked over the years, in Fire in the Ashes (http://www.amazon.com/Fire-Ashes-Twenty-Five-Poorest-Children/dp/1400052467) Kozol writes with passion and profound insight about their circumstances.  The hope he discovers, however, is in the human spirit as families and individuals struggle against depressingly overwhelming odds in crumbling communities.  Some of those who find help and resources manage to clamber tenuously out of their abyss, while those without such support remain mired in desperation.  I confess that I have yet to read the book, although it is at the top of my list for this fall, hoping it will serve for me as a backdrop to the presidential election conversation on education.  I also will read it in the context of the school community book we read over the summer, The Other Wes Moore, which tackles some of the same questions from a different perspective.  Wes Moore will be visiting Nobles this winter to speak with students and faculty.

Five years ago Jonathan Kozol returned to Nobles for his first visit to the campus in twenty-five years. Among the many fascinating and distinguished graduates and speakers who have spoken at Nobles during my tenure, Kozol is perhaps the most profound example of someone who has lived the school mission to offer “leadership for the public good.”  Kozol’s career has taken him a very long way from the world of independent schools, and consequently his focus has not been often in our direction.  Yet he acknowledged during his visit here that Nobles was a very important influence in shaping the direction of his life, saying, “this school taught me to speak out against cruel and evil voices in society.  I feel I have brought the spirit of Nobles with me wherever I go.”  Seeking to be a healer like his father, a renowned neurologist, but lacking interest in science, he chose the field of education.  Early in his elementary school teaching career in Boston, he was radicalized (his word) by his experience with an obtuse and inequitable system, and his career as a reformer began.  Fifteen books and countless articles later, his is an inescapable and moving voice in the national debate.

In a lively question-and-answer session with Nobles students in 2008, Kozol took on topics ranging from charter schools, to high-stakes testing, to teachers unions and federal education policies.  He asserted that the American commitment to a universal public education system dates back almost two centuries, and even longer in some states, and is a bedrock of our republic. And he closed with inspiring words encouraging students to enter public service, imploring, “When you finish school, go out into the public, work to end inequality and fight against injustice…Take lots of risks; don’t be afraid…Life goes so fast; use it well.”  I hope in the years ahead we can draw Kozol back to his alma mater yet again to challenge and inspire students.  Regardless of your political principles, Kozol’s voice is one that must be heard and addressed, and he is without question one of the most brilliant and inspiring individuals ever to inhabit the Nobles campus.  I encourage everyone in our community to read Fire in the Ashes in the weeks ahead.

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The Growth of Online Education

The president of the University of Virginia, Teresa Sullivan, was summarily dismissed and shortly thereafter summarily reinstated late last spring, by that university’s board. The driving issue behind that seesaw governance crisis was online education and whether the administration was moving quickly enough to expand the university’s Internet presence. My purpose here, however, is not to explore the specifics of that situation; rather, I want to highlight the escalating interest and debate about the future of online education that were underscored by the Virginia dispute. Here at Nobles we have taken a significant step in regard to online options, joining Global Online Academy (GOA) and making that program available for full credit to Nobles students. There are sound reasons why GOA appealed to us as an opportunity and experiment, even though we continue at Nobles to harbor significant skepticism about online teaching.

In the second line of the Nobles mission we assert, “Through mentoring relationships, we motivate students to achieve their highest potential.” The student-teacher relationship is at the heart of our educational philosophy. The critical “value-added” of the Nobles experience is that connection. In the case of my own course, AP European History, I am well aware that the specific content can be delivered quite clearly and efficiently by a number of means, with a textbook or through a wide variety of resources available on the internet. My job in the classroom, however, is to make the emotional and intellectual connection with my students that will push their learning much further than is possible with a static resource. In an op-ed in the New York Times on July 19, educator Mark Edmundson argued, “With every class we teach, we need to learn who the people in front of us are. We need to know where they are intellectually, who they are as people and what we can do to help them grow. Teaching…is a matter of dialogue…Every memorable class is a bit like a jazz composition. There is the basic melody that you work with … But there is also a considerable measure of improvisation against that disciplining background.” This cannot be reproduced by the online experience, and it is this commitment to the individual student that makes a Nobles education special and powerful.

Yet it is starkly true that online education is inexpensive and efficient. It does not require athletic centers or language labs, and one teacher can theoretically reach an unlimited number of students, virtually annihilating the greatest expense in traditional education, which is labor. If you have never done so, go to the website for Kahn Academy  and explore what is available through that incredible resource at no cost. The options for online education are proliferating, and just about every university in the country is expanding their online offerings, while also advancing their technologies to deliver this material in engaging, varied ways. It is a threat to traditional schools at both the secondary and collegiate levels, with their ponderous overheads and escalating cost structures.

So the challenge for Nobles was finding a reasonable way to enter and explore this burgeoning field without undermining what we truly believe is essential to excellence in teaching and learning. The opportunity was provided by a collaborative enterprise among a number of outstanding independent day schools from within the United States and around the world: GOA. This coalition of like-minded schools sought to create an online option that mirrors as closely as possible the relational model of classroom teaching. It also permits Nobles to expand our course catalog, making available a wide variety of subjects beyond the scope of our curriculum. Classes are small, and teachers provide individual attention to students on a regular basis. Moreover, students are required to engage in collaborative projects with students from a remarkable variety of backgrounds. We are required as well to offer at least one course and provide one teacher per semester, meaning that Nobles teachers will be trained in and develop sophistication with this media (this year it will be Ayako Anderson offering an introductory Japanese language and culture class). Nobles has the opportunity to learn and experiment with online education, in manner consistent with our own mission, developing our own perspective and relationship with this teaching method as the field grows. Several students took a GOA course during the second semester of last year, all of them providing favorable course evaluations, and several more will be enrolled in the year ahead.

There is no question that Nobles will remain deeply committed to what we consider to be the best practices in secondary education. The experience of being a part of a community like this is not possible online, nor are the depth and quality of relationships that develop in our classrooms, and on our playing fields, stages, trips and service commitments. In my view, the art of teaching developed some essential guiding principles in the time of Socrates that still guide the profession and which are, at best, very difficult to replicate outside of a dynamic environment created by a skilled teacher working in person with capable and engaged students. Yet online education is here to stay, and it is now incumbent upon this school to develop a relationship with it, and best practices to supplement our program. It is likely that all of our students in the future will experience some form of online education, either here, or in colleges and universities, or in some manner of professional training, or just as a matter of personal exploration and growth. You can read more about the specifics of our involvement in GOA, as well as the way in which we will credit courses for high school students, in the Nobles Guide and on the Nobles website.

This piece originally appeared in the September 2012 parents e-newsletter.

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Remembering 9/11

Sept. 11, 2012 Assembly Remarks (Delivered Monday, September 10):

The youngest of us in this audience have no memory of September 11, 2001, although I think images in the media are familiar to us all.  Those of us who are a little older remember that day all too vividly, glued to the television, talking with friends and family, trying to retain a sense of stability, order, and security amid fear, sadness, terror and wild speculation.  All of us of the right age remember exactly where we were and what we were doing when we heard the news that a plane had struck the World Trade Center, at roughly 9:00 a.m., as the school day was getting under way here on campus.  The details of the next several hours remain vivid as well, and I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing through that morning as the appalling story unfolded.  In the early afternoon we gathered as a school community in this room, where we together began slowly to process what had happened.

The following day, September 12, we confirmed here at Nobles what the direct loss had been to this community.  Three current and former Nobles parents lost their lives on the doomed planes that left Boston bound for Los Angeles on that beautiful and terrible morning:

Richard Ross, father of Franklin, Class of ’02

Cora Hidalgo Holland, mother of Nate ’01 and Jessica ’97

Sonia Puopolo, mother of Mark ’90

Later we learned, after she joined this faculty, that faculty member Meg Jacobs had lost her brother John Randall in the North Tower of the World Trade Center on that day.

Richard, Cora, Sonia and John were victims of the deepest sort of intolerance, of fanaticism, of hatred driven by irrational ideology.  They were all loving people whose lives were dedicated to their families.  All four were aware of and thankful for the blessings that this life had bestowed upon them, grateful for the love with which they were surrounded, and for the opportunity to love others.  In their own different traditions, they took solace in their faith.  They were also generous and giving, with commitments to service and helping others less fortunate.  These four were from different ethnic backgrounds and religious traditions, yet they all shared a connection, through the tragedy of that day, with this community and with each other.  They represent a microcosm of all that is best in this country, and in this extended school community.  Their loss was a stunning waste.

We are left to derive meaning and purpose, not from death, but from the richness of their lives.  It is our obligation to continue that dialogue and quest, to affirm life and direction from an act still so incomprehensible, for if we do not seek to understand, it will control and direct us against our will.  From insanity and grief we must seize and restore rationality, morality and aspiration, and that will be the most profound measure of ultimate victory.  With steady determination, we must affirm our values and principles as Americans and as human beings in the face of this most stark and egregiously violent challenge.

Please join me in observing a moment of silence in remembrance of and honor for all the victims of September 11, 2001.

In a new tradition, we will now indeed affirm life with a special recognition here in assembly.  For the last several years in the opening meeting of faculty and staff we have honored a member of the staff with the Cora Holland Hidalgo Holland Award, and we have decided to make this recognition in this annual assembly as well.

Many of us in this room remember Cora Holland well.  Mother of Jessica, of the Class of ’97, and Nate, of the Class of ’01, Cora was a dedicated supporter of the Nobles community.  She boarded an airplane in Boston bound for Los Angeles to visit relatives on the morning of September 11, 2001.  She was never able to rejoin her family after that tragic trip.  Cora’s particular concern and attention were reserved for the school staff.  A person with special warmth and openness, Cora went to great lengths to welcome and befriend all the employees of the school with whom she came in contact.  Her family felt that this award would be an appropriate means whereby Cora could be memorialized in this community.

The Cora Hidalgo Holland Award expresses the deep gratitude of this community to a member of the school staff whose work has been excellent, whose dedication has been exceptional, and whose character has made this a better place in which to live and work for all of us.

I am very pleased to present the 2010 Cora Holland Award to … Tessy Smith.  I would like Tessy, to her great embarrassment, to join me before you while I share some brief remarks.

Tessy came to Nobles in 2006, and she has been a godsend.  Not only has she made the Nobles technological systems work with remarkable imagination and efficiency, she has accomplished this with the most winning and wonderful spirit and energy.  While her primary role is to develop programs and systems that improve the effectiveness and efficiency of our systems and network, she takes the customer service ethic of our ISS department totally to heart and is always willing to help others with their more mundane problems and questions.  Her list of accomplishments is long and amazing, touching just about everyone is this community.  It includes student data systems; development support; interfaces between various school databases; calendar utility; introduction of new systems and programs for various departments; integration with first class email; most recently, a published idevice app for Nobles Athletics available at the Apple app store; and many other developments that I confess I only marginally understand but which those in the know tell me have been brilliantly effective.  She does all this with humility, a smile, and a “can do” attitude.  We are so fortunate to have her in this communiy, both because of her extraordinary talent and her magnificent qualities of character.

Today we express our community gratitude to Tessy Smith with the Cora Hidalgo Holland Award.

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The Tradition of Service Endures

As shared in remarks to faculty and staff on August 28, 2012:

It is generally understood now by all the constituencies of the school that the key phrase in our school mission statement is the first sentence, that “Noble and Greenough School is a rigorous academic community dedicated to inspiring leadership for the public good.”  This shared consciousness is a tremendous accomplishment; it is rare to so successfully and definitively capture in a single phrase, in the notion of inspiring leadership for the public good, the aspirations and purpose of an institution.  I appreciate that the meaning of this phrase is still the subject of debate.  Yet even that was part of our intention, to offer a concept wherein every member of our community could discover their own meaning, with implications sufficiently broad to induce ongoing self-examination by both individuals and widely differing elements of the school.  Even our graduates of every generation have embraced the new mission, asserting to me often in conversations that while the words are new, the actual mission of the school has not changed; they think that Nobles has always been about inspiring leadership for the public good, and that a rigorous academic program was essential to such an education.

The second sentence of the mission, however, has received less scrutiny and induced less conversation.  It says, “Through mentoring relationships, we motivate students to achieve their highest potential and to lead lives characterized by service to others.”  The first couple of clauses (“through mentoring relationships we motivate students to achieve their highest potential”) speak directly to the deep Nobles commitment to student-teacher relationships.  This is as close as we come to having an institutional pedagogy; while we do not have Harkness tables or required laptops, we do have a deep conviction that the value-added in this experience, the reason why our students learn more and experience greater intellectual growth than they could elsewhere, is because of their powerful, positive emotional connection with adults.

It is on the final clause of that second sentence, however, where I want to pause and place more attention as we initiate this school year.  If you connect it with the first clause, it reads, “Through mentoring relationships … we motivate students to lead lives characterized by service to others.”  It seems to me that there are two important implications to this assertion.  The first is that we believe that character development (in addition to intellectual growth) is intrinsically tied to the power of student-teacher relationships.  The second is the concept of lives of service to others.  I want to take a moment to consider the power and importance of both of these ideas in relation to our work with our students.

One of former Nobles headmaster Ted Gleason’s favorite admonitions was that teachers do not teach a subject – they teach themselves; meaning who they are, how they think and understand the world, and what it means to be an adult of character and purpose, every day, in class especially, but also in every interaction in the school community.  As a student at Nobles, I was not aware that he said this, or at least I do not recall it, although I certainly was a beneficiary of that ethic.  But as a Teaching Fellow, here for one year in 1980-1981, I recall Ted Gleason saying this powerfully, as only he could, on more than one occasion to the faculty.  It made an indelible impact on me, and I carried this idea into every school where I worked over the next two decades.  When I became a school head in 1995, I joined a community where I sensed some confusion about this ethic, and there were some members of the faculty and trustees who I felt were espousing misguided virtues for classroom teaching.  In the summer after my first year there, I picked up the book “Greater Expectations” by William Damon.  Some of you, I know, are well familiar with this book, or with William Damon’s eloquent ideas about education.  This paragraph, which has stuck with me, articulated what I had grown to believe about teaching.  I shared this selection in my summer letter to the faculty as well:

“The enterprise of teaching children values in schools is more often than not an indirect one.  Where core values are concerned, teachers communicate more by their manners than through explicit messages.  A habit of being scrupulously honest with one’s students is far more powerful for teaching the value of truthfulness than a thousand lectures on the subject.  Students are acutely aware of when teachers are shading the truth, when they are favoring some students over others, and when they are turning a cold shoulder to students in need.  Students are acutely aware of their teachers’ efforts to be honest, fair and caring.  Such efforts are the school’s surest and most lasting means of communicating good values to children.”

What we do is more important than what we say.  We are teachers through our actions and interactions with others all the time in regard to the highest values to which we aspire, and to which we hope our students will aspire.  I think we grasp this, and while we might debate the degree to which it is true, every adult in this community accepts the essential veracity and the centrality of this tenet of our mission.

So how about that last clause about lives of service to others?  I remember distinctly one teacher’s eloquent comment while she was on the committee to write the new mission.  I will elaborate freely and creatively from memory – she said, “I do not like that expression – it makes me feel like a supplicant, or like a nun, and as if the purpose of our school is to create docile people, doing as expected rather than creating and inspiring.”  While respecting and understanding that reaction, I felt the expression should remain because of its history, evolution and power at Nobles.

In the years of Elliot Putnam’s headship, up until 1971, Nobles had a “statement of purpose” rather than a formal mission.  It opened with the words, “The central aim of the school is to prepare boys for a future life of service to their communities.”  I know that graduates from that era took those words quite seriously.  They saw the phrase as inferring humility, concern for others, responsibility for leadership, and selfless labor for the benefit of community in whatever capacity an individual might choose.  Extraordinary graduates like Bob Lawrence, Bob Morrison, Fred Clifford and George Bird have consciously lived this ethic their whole lives.

Ted Gleason’s headship began in 1971, and soon thereafter he personally authored the mission statement that shaped his years of leadership and which so profoundly reflects his eloquence and spirituality, as well as his paradigm for a happy and successful life.  I know there are members of the faculty in this room who can still recite these words: “Growth, knowledge, the discovery of value and personal worth all come from the family; not only the family into which we were born, the family into which we may marry, but other families as well.  Noble and Greenough hopes to be such a family in which each member cares and to which each member contributes, a family of interaction and respect, personal integrity and commitment to excellence, a family where one may develop the mind, the body and the spirit for a life of service.”

Wrapped within Ted’s construct of family is the same concept of a life of service to others as guided the Putnam years.  I can remember Ted talking about that idea of service in morning assemblies.  It provided direction and purpose during my adolescence that has stayed with me ever since.

The first sentence of the Baker-era mission statement asserts, “Noble and Greenough School is a rigorous academic community that strives for excellence in its classroom teaching, intellectual growth in its students, and commitment to the arts, athletics and service to others.”  There it is again.  In this context, the phrase “service to others” retained its past meaning, but also provided the impetus for the remarkable and burgeoning service learning ethic and program that emerged and burgeoned in that era.

So the expression persists in our current mission statement.  It has deep and critically relevant historical roots.  Most importantly, however, in a troubled and divided time both nationally and globally, the idea of a life of service to others offers to young women and men a sense of meaning and direction for their lives, whatever their specific interests or eventual choices of career might be.  In a time at Nobles of unprecedented diversity, it constructs unifying direction and meaning for this education.  It does not specify how one should choose to serve.  It might be accomplished through community service, but more broadly it should inspire a sense of responsibility among those who graduate from this school to give back to their communities, to offer leadership, and to aspire to a life of meaning beyond the narcissism of youth and the hedonism and chaos of our times.

You have all chosen such a life of service to others by joining this community.  We all in this room share this mission together.  We model it in the most profound ways to our students, day in and day out.  And with that concept in mind, I extend to everyone my very best wishes for a great year ahead.

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The Short Term Vs. the Long Run Solution

A friend of mine who was at one time a school head at a small boarding school sometimes tells the story below about his early days of school leadership.  It is a reminder and inspiration to me about the deeper challenges of our business and school mission.

Nearly 30 years ago, there was a very large rock on his campus behind which students would do all sorts of things that did not please him.  The rock sat on a hill in such a location where students could always see him approaching long before he got there, and he could never get close enough to confirm his suspicions.  His efforts at detective work constantly failed, and it rankled him that the students felt confident they had him beat.  Frustrated, but refusing to accept defeat, one day this otherwise sane man actually arranged for a demolition company to come to the campus to blow up the rock!  He assembled the whole student body outside at a safe distance to witness the event.  In front of the student body, he personally pushed the plunger and turned the massive boulder into thousands of paperweight size pieces.  In the immediate aftermath, he was delighted with the outcome, both in the interruption of student misdeeds and in the dramatic demonstration of his power and authority.  Within months, however, he had learned that the student behavior he sought to stop simply had migrated to a new location that was even further beyond his reach and control.  His satisfaction, immense at the moment of the explosion, quickly turned to a deeper realization that he had done nothing really to grapple with the culture and circumstances that had created the problem in the first place.

Thereafter, he dedicated his efforts to developing deeper relationships with his students and to creating programs that made a difference in their lives.  He took one of those paperweight size rocks left over from the blast and placed it on his desk.  It sat there for over two decades as a constant reminder to him that while swift and decisive action can make us feel better in the short term, it may not solve the problem in the long run.

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Experiential Learning

When my son announced in the fall of his Class III year that he wanted to apply to the Island School in the Bahamas for the second semester of his Class II year, I wasn’t really surprised.  Two of his cousins had gone there and returned with glowing reviews.  He was a product of several years of intense involvement at camp, spending the previous summer on a month-long canoe expedition in Northern Maine.  Every year he had been at Nobles he jumped at the chance to participate in a school trip, traveling to Greece, Italy, South Africa and Honduras with different teachers, and with a different purpose and focus on each expedition.  He was already a dedicated consumer and beneficiary of experiential education opportunities before attending the Island School this semester.

Yet he is thriving at Island School beyond my hopes and expectations.  Based upon written reports and his own communications, he has grown profoundly and stretched himself to discover his potential in ways that would not have been possible here at school.  He has loved Nobles, yet there are constrictions to this campus and program.  Stepping outside the social and academic conventions of this community at this critical developmental point, sidestepping the maelstrom of the second semester of junior year and moving away from the omnipresence of his headmaster-father, has been a great gift for him.  While there are still several weeks remaining before I can pass final judgment on Island School and truly assess his progress, the prognosis is promising.

Whereas I have always felt that experiential education is an important cog in secondary education, watching the benefits it has afforded my own children and so many others at Nobles has deeply reinforced my conviction that it is essential to the school mission to develop leadership for the public good.  The experiential side of the Nobles program, including service, study away, travel, internships and senior project opportunities, has grown immensely in scope, depth and importance over the last decade, complementing in critical ways the academic and afternoon requirements and offerings at the school.  This is a theme that the Nobles Board of Trustees intends foster and better articulate in the months ahead.

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Recognizing Transformation

In the fall of 1973 I arrived as a brand new member of Class III at Noble and Greenough School.  I was not entirely sure I wanted to be at the school, as I was leaving behind a very close group of friends in my hometown, as well as a carefully established identity as a soccer player.  I was coming to a school that, at the time, was all male and quite small.  I had to put on a tie and jacket every morning, abandoning my jeans and sneakers, which made me very grumpy. I found myself shifting from large classes, where my relationships with my teachers were rather distant and I could hide in the back of the room, to small classes, where I was accountable and expected to participate knowledgeably every day.  As a new tenth grader, I joined a school where it seemed the other students had been friends for many years, and I was on the fringe of every social group. I criticized vehemently, in that cynical manner of adolescence, the oddities of Nobles’ organization and structure (like calling sophomores “Class III” and the idiosyncratic Nobles grade point scale). Soccer did not seem to matter much at Nobles; football ruled in this community in those days, and that made me feel devalued.


I thought often about leaving during those first several months.  Because I did not ever like admitting my mistakes to my parents, I kept this largely to myself.  But I silently plotted fantasies about how I could blame them for the error and return to a more comfortable haven in my town.  I hedged with my old friends, telling them that Nobles was okay, but that I thought I might be back with them as a junior.  Yet there were some experiences at Nobles that started to make a huge impression on me, and I did not even truly sense how my expectations and identity were shifting. I did not yet recognize it, but leaving was becoming impossible.  I had Mr. Baker for English, and I had never before experienced anything remotely like that; I was motivated and engaged, and I relished going to class every day.  Indeed, I liked all my teachers, and I remember them all well; Mr. Warner for math, Mr. Keyes for history, Mrs. Wells for biology, and Miss Twiss for German.  I did not like them all equally, and some were certainly more inspiring than others, but I developed a positive individual relationship with each of them.  Honestly, I can only remember one of my teachers from ninth grade at my previous school.  Morning assembly was a powerful part of this shift as well; every day at Nobles I felt like I was part of something bigger than myself, an experience that bonded me with all the others who shared it, even when the subject was little more than mundane announcements. So often, however, it was far more than that, with Headmaster Gleason talking about the mission of the school, or seniors making me laugh at some marginally appropriate lunacy, or a faculty member commenting profoundly on an event in the world.


There was one moment, however, when I became genuinely and inescapably a part of this place.  I understood its meaning only in retrospect because it was not a positive experience in many ways at the time.  I was in Mr. Warner’s math class during the highly pressured period before the December Break.  Desperate to be accepted, and feeling terribly anxious about upcoming exams, I allowed myself to be distracted by an obnoxious and literally sophomoric conversation with two other boys sitting next to me.  We were supposed to be working on some review problems, and Mr. Warner more or less exploded on me, singling me out and telling me to keep quiet and get to work.  Upset at taking the entire rap, I said so, barking back something to the effect that he had no right to pick on me.  Mr. Warner then threw me out of class, and I remember what he said and eventually put the words on my senior page in the yearbook, “Henderson, get out of here, and don’t come back until you understand that it takes brains to know something.”  Mr. Warner was a quirky, traditional guy, but he was also a kind and often funny man, someone I felt cared about me, and I was really hurt by this, although I had no clue exactly what his parting words meant (and I’m still not entirely sure, but I like the sentiment on many levels!).

Quite angry and sad, I went directly to see my advisor and biology teacher, Mrs. Wells. Remarkably savvy and intuitive, she read me perfectly.  After allowing me to vent, Mrs. Wells simply said to me, as I essentially recall, “You need to realize that Mr. Warner has very high expectations for you, and you disappointed him more than those other boys in this situation.  You made it seem as if the most important thing for you in that class was be liked by those other boys, more important than learning.  But you can’t really start liking anything in this world until you like yourself.”  That final clause also ended up on my yearbook senior page.  She sent me back to Mr. Warner to apologize, which I did sheepishly, and which he accepted with a harrumph and an admonition to do better in the future.  I went on to earn an A in Mr. Warner’s class, the best math grade I had ever received or ever would receive again. Mrs. Wells and I began an intermittent dialogue that lasted through the rest of that year about how one balances fitting in and respecting oneself.  I have never forgotten, and I will always be grateful to both Mr. Warner and Mrs. Wells (both of whom have since passed away) for seeing me with greater clarity than I could see myself, and for raising the bar for me appropriately, both in terms of my intellect and character. This little vignette probably says as much as anything else I could share about why I became a teacher, and what I think great teaching ultimately is all about.

Very few of the adults I know would go back and relive their early teenage years again.  It is often hard work, full of doubt and pressure, arguably far more stressful today even than when I went through it.  Sometimes, however, its most important moments, and its most essential interactions, are only clear in hindsight, when you look back a year later, or maybe only in reminiscing as an adult.  When you are in the middle of growing up, striving to win your independence and autonomy in the world, you can’t always sort out what matters most.  Your parents are critically important in this life passage, and not to be devalued – they love you and have watched you grow with pride and passion.  Often, however, it is your teachers who see you with the greatest clarity.  Sometimes the way your teachers see you is with a more stark and bright light than you are used to, but also sometimes they can offer you the most help in finding the path you need to follow to go where you want to go.  As students set their goals for whatever comes next, I urge them to listen carefully to their teachers and advisors and accept help.  And who knows, maybe something they say will end up on a senior’s yearbook page.

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Why Great Schools Are Often ‘Subversive’ and ‘Countercultural’

In 1969 Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner published the book Teaching as a Subversive Activity.  I was first required to read this book as a member of Class III at Nobles in Dick Baker’s English class in the fall of 1973.  Written in the context of those troubled times in this country, the thesis is essentially that educators have a responsibility to ensure that young people are prepared to question and challenge established institutions and authority to ensure the survival of democracy and justice.  I still occasionally peruse the book because it is provocative and full of inspiring notions about the power of education.  At the end of the first chapter (page 15 in my 1969 edition), Postman and Weingartner write the following:

“What is the necessary business of the schools?  To create eager consumers?  To transmit dead ideas, values and metaphors, and information…?  To create smoothly functioning bureaucrats? … the purpose is to subvert attitudes, beliefs and assumptions that foster chaos and uselessness.”

The rhetoric of the 1960s runs through this passage, with its strong message to question and distrust the establishment. Yet it also strikes me that the goal of teachers remains the same today.  In other words, great teachers still intend to instill in students the confidence and ability to think critically, to express themselves with clarity, and to probe that which they do not understand.

I was struck by an opinion piece in an edition of Education Week  by Patrick Bassett, president of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS, our national umbrella organization).  The title of the editorial is “Why Good Schools are Countercultural.”  He uses the term countercultural quite deliberately, despite the 1960s overtones.  Bassett maintains that the cultural climate that adolescents confront today is fundamentally toxic and anti-intellectual.  Excellent schools, he argues, establish internal cultures that run directly counter to the prevailing popular culture.  The mainstream culture in the United States in recent years has been increasingly tolerant of vulgarity, sexual profligacy, violence, winning at all costs, conspicuous consumption, lionization of the individual, anti-intellectualism and rationalization of dishonesty.  In contrast, the most effective schools emphasize honorable behavior, community, self-control, civility, academic achievement, fair play and common decency.  In this paradoxical sense, Bassett usurps the 60s concept of the counterculture to describe the highest purposes of education.

I am struck by the consistency in perspective demonstrated by these two views of education, one by Postman and Weingartner in the wake of the social and political eruption of the 1960s, the other by Bassett a generation later.  Both insist that the essential challenge of education is to produce dedicated citizens who care about those around them and who are willing to confront the perils of their era.  On page one of Teaching as a Subversive Activity the authors argue as follows:

“… one of the tenets of a democratic society is that (people) be allowed to think and express themselves freely on any subject, even to the point of speaking out against the idea of a democratic society.  To the extent that our schools are instruments of such a society, they must develop in the young not only an awareness of freedom but a will to exercise it, and the intellectual power and perspective to so effectively.  This is necessary so that the society may continue to change and modify itself to meet unforeseen threats, problems and opportunities.”

Teaching indeed is often a subversive activity, encouraging students to question and challenge dominant assumptions and norms.  Great schools are generally countercultural in that they do maintain higher standards for behavior and thought than those asserted by the popular culture.  Our purpose at Nobles is to produce young adults capable of navigating the complexities and ambiguities of our world.  We hope to produce an appreciation for the values of community, learning, achievement and service to others.  We intend that our graduates will make a difference for the better in our world through the quality of their character and intellect.  These goals of education are transcendent of eras in a successful democratic society.  The context shifts, but the essential purpose does not.  In my estimation, Nobles fulfills this mission exceptionally well.   

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Respecting H.H. Richardson’s Vision

Much has been written over the last couple of years, by me and others, about the powerful significance of the Castle to Nobles, both as an icon and practical facility.  This communication has been integral to the massive commitment by the extended Nobles community to the revitalization of the building.  I have had the privilege of visiting the site often as the construction project has proceeded through this year, and I have been witness to the emerging and remarkably sensitive blend of new and renovated space.  The new dining and kitchen facilities are extraordinary, long overdue, and will serve the school magnificently for decades into the future.  Yet what I personally find most spectacular is the renovation of the old space in the Castle, in the original building envisioned and created by the great American architect H.H. Richardson.  It is in those rooms that we have had to take the greatest care, respecting at every turn the artistic intent of the creator.  The blending of old wood finishes with modern furniture for a school in this era, the selection of light fixtures that will serve a cafeteria and which also evince the 19th century sensibility of the space, or the installation of sprinkler and heating systems which address our modern needs while respecting the aesthetic of the interior, are all examples of the inspiring challenges we have embraced.  In the end, I think the most salient fact about the Castle project is that we will renovate this building thoroughly, significantly increase the amount of excellent faculty housing, and add over 13,000 square feet, all while keeping the increase in energy consumption to less than one percent.  The school commitment to sustainability is thereby profoundly illustrated by giving the Castle a rebirth for the next century while not increasing the burden it presents either locally or globally.

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