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October Head of School Letter

Thursday, September 29, 2016

There was a line of cars and SUVs parked next to the silo this morning, all pointing toward Hart Street and the way north, to Newburyport and Joppa Flats and the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge. The second grade investigates the question, “Where do I live?” as their theme for the year, and they were loading up and preparing to drive to a national wildlife refuge to learn about migratory birds.

I had spent an hour with them last week teaching about some of the birds of the GUS campus. Black-capped chickadee, tufted titmouse, downy woodpecker, white-breasted nuthatch, American goldfinch. The children will see these birds on the class feeders all winter. When it’s in the single digits in a few months, and we barely dare to go outside, these feathered neighbors will brave the elements and entertain us on blustery, gray days.

The second graders I was with at Joppa Flats learned about how migratory birds are harmlessly caught in mist nests, measured, weighed, banded with a tiny metal ring around the ankle, and then released back into the wild. We watched as scientists recorded data for two white-throated sparrows and a red-eyed vireo. Our guide asked us, “What can we learn about these birds? What can we learn about the habitats around us?” The kids came up with many good answers and insights, just like real scientists would. In fact, they were real scientists, because the process of inquiry starts early and, nurtured, only grows in complexity and curiosity. The fact that they left with new questions was a sign that real learning was happening.

Second graders traveled to Joppa Flats to learn about birds not because we expect them to grow up to be ornithologists or field biologists (though it would be fine if they did!), but because we want them to be attentive to the world around them. We also want them to develop a sense of biophilia, a concept first proposed by renowned Harvard professor E. O. Wilson. He defines biophilia as “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life.” Empathy might be another way to think about it, and our world can certainly use more of that. So I was pleased that most of the kids made “Oooo!” sounds when they saw the birds up close and wanted to hold them, because this is the way children naturally express biophilia. And biophilia today, in second grade, might lay the foundation of an environmental ethic that will shape decisions these students will be challenged to make decades from now.

The Joppa Flats trip is just one example of how Glen Urquhart School’s approach to education is holistic and vital. Field trips aren’t just occasional and isolated experiences. They are manifold at all grade levels and continually compliment and build on other academic experiences to allow children to create context for and meaning about their studies.

As a student growing up in Georgia, I was lucky to regularly play and explore outside. The school I went to was quite traditional, but we took week-long trips starting in the elementary grades that were the one time in the year when we got outside the classroom. I thought back to myself as a second, third, and fourth grader and smiled as I considered how much more GUS students will understand, appreciate, and connect with the world around them. Each week, they know better and better how to answer the question, “Where do I live?”

Trust and Go Forward,

David Liebmann

Head of School