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weekly feedback

September 3, 2010

I’ve often wondered why someone should spend 18 K (or 32 K at my previous school) to send a child to high school, when most of the parents at my school live in very wealthy school districts, where the public school offers nearly every AP, a student run television station, great teachers and countless other opportunities. Having thought about this for about 10 years, most of them at a boarding school, the best answer I’ve come up with is learning to engage the world of adults, and the opportunity that affords.

When I was a kid in high school, I think I barely connected with most of my teachers, even though I was a good student, who got good grades, and did all sorts of clubs and stuff. Like almost every public school kid, I was usually shocked to see them in the grocery store. And so it was in college, where even though I did an independent study with a professor, I never really reached out and connected with my teachers, mainly because I didn’t know I could.

I compare that to my students when I was boarding school, who really go to see me as a person, taking them on trips to Dunkin’ Donuts late at night, who stopped by my apartment morning, noon and night to watch TV, ask a question about homework which quickly evolved into a deep philosophical discussion about the nature of science, and many more things. I think the lesson students were learning, from their first step on campus, was that “I can talk to adults; I can understand what they do, and they are interested in what I have to say.” And I think this is one of the most empowering messages a child can hear—imagine what happens when that student, with that knowledge, sits through a 500 person chemistry lecture and then, at the end of class, wanders down to the front and says “professor, I was thinking about what it meant when you said X, and was wondering if I could talk to you at your office hours.” That spark could lead to an internship, research a career, and a world changing discovery. And I compare it to most students who shuffle out of the lecture, raised in schools where the simple size of classes and nature of school conspire against this lesson, and I think its value is priceless.

So how do you teach this lesson at an day school? Certainly a big help is having teachers who don’t leave at 3:30, and are deeply involved in sports and other things. But still, even coaching debate, which involves tons of travel, overnight trips and late night returns, doesn’t match boarding school for putting this message in the water. So my approach has become to try to push this conversation a bit. Since I have a few students who probably try (or manage to) to go through the day without really talking to an adult, I put together a little weekly assignment on webassign, asking them 3-5 questions like the following:

  • Name 1-2 plusses for this week in physics (things you like)
  • Name 1-2 wishes (thinks you’d like to see in our class in the future)
  • What are you reading these days?
  • Name a long term goal for yourself in this class, and outside of this class (I’m very big on goal setting, and working to improve this skill)
  • Name a single step you can take (and measure) this week that will bring you closer to this goal.

And that’s it. I then read these over in WA pretty quickly and write a few notes in response. This often draws a few kids out who really don’t engage me as a teacher in other ways. And it always leads to inscrutable responses that leave me puzzled and wondering if I’m really doing a good job or not.


  • Wishes:
    less talking by teacher and more student interaction

And then there’s the opposite

  • Plusses

This week has been very intersting to me. I really liked it. One thing I liked about it was that we were taught how to see beyond graphs. I have a lot of trouble reading and understanding graphs, but with you, everything seems so much easier… you gave us back our homework with suggestions, which I also think is really great, since it can only help us.Another thing I liked was that instead of learning from the book this week, like some of my other classes, we got into discussions about mindsets. I already knew about fixed and growth mindset a couple of years ago, and I always thought, I can bet there won’t be one single teacher that will ever mention this. I was wrong. I loved that you got us students thinking about how we view school, learning, and ourselves.

Anyway, it keeps me thinking.

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