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May Head of School Letter: Experience Matters

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Experience matters. We all know that. And there is a reason school doesn’t last forever: the real world is the best teacher. At some point, we move beyond the basics, then beyond abstraction and theory, textbook and lecture, and out into the world. There, we test what we think we know against what we see and feel and experience, and we work to reconcile the differences and make sense of it all.

At Glen Urquhart School, our spiraling, theme-based curriculum is designed with those processes in mind. The child begins at the center, in kindergarten, first grade, and second; moves progressively out into the world; and then comes back to the center just when adolescence is hitting and self-reflection and self-awareness become two of the most compelling forces in their life. All along the way, immersion in the real world is woven into the fabric of GUS life because we want students to reconcile theory and experience now, as they go, and not be sheltered from the verities of life. We also want them to build determination, flexibility, confidence, self reliance, and resilience, “discovering the best within themselves” and “speaking individually while working collaboratively,” as our mission statement guides us.

So it begins in September each year at GUS, and it is culminating now, often with extended trips away from our twenty-three acres of classrooms and open spaces, woods and water.  Fourth grade will soon spend several days at the Mystic Seaport Museum aboard ship, culminating their study of the sea; fifth grade will head to Chewonki’s Outdoor Classroom in mid-coast Maine to cook on fires and sleep in tents and experience group challenges to cap their study of the land; sixth grade just returned from a trip to Heifer International’s Global Village where, yes, they herded goats, but they also came to appreciate privilege and some of the challenges of daily life in different cultures as they faced quandaries of social justice.  The seventh grade hiked in New Hampshire.  How important it is to get off the grid for a few days and unplug, having time for reflection in the natural world with friends and mentors.  Eighth grade, as you read about last week, had capstone trips to Washington to serve the homeless and the Dominican Republic to serve children in the village of Monte Cristi as they learned English, a vehicle for economic mobility.  I asked our oldest students to reflect on their experiences last Monday when they returned in an effort to reconnect them as a single class and to allow them to hear each other’s thoughts about the worlds they had encountered.  They remembered individuals, real people.  They connected with kids living in what many GUS families would consider challenging circumstances, and adults living hand to mouth in the margins around the nation’s most politically powerful.  They broke down stereotypes as they wondered aloud how much was enough and what it means to lead a fulfilling life.  I hope they continue to ask those questions for many years to come, striving for answers as often as they ask new, more complex questions.  That’s how we go about fulfilling our mission.

I am close to finishing my own first year of experiences as head of Glen Urquhart School.  It’s been joyful and challenging, and just as the students are forced to reconcile theory and practice, so have I.  I’ll explore these topics in greater depth in my June head of school letter, and I encourage you to join me at our Annual Meeting on Thursday, June 8 to hear my reflections and plans as we move into Glen Urquhart School’s fortieth year in 2017–2018. 

Trust and go forward,

David Liebmann
Head of School