Headmaster’s Journal: How did you get to be the way you are?

My brother visited last week with Joe Carroll, the superintendent of the Masconomet Public Schools. This year under Joe’s leadership Masconomet High School has adopted modular scheduling for one half the freshman class, about 90 students.
This means that instead of taking 5 courses 5 days a week, ninth graders take only two courses, but for long double periods each day, for twelve weeks. For example, a student might, during the first twelve weeks, take math and science, then in the winter a foreign language and English, and finally in the spring, social studies and an elective. There are several other pieces to the program including something called seminar, that which Joe Carroll came to talk about. Their seminar is a discussion class that meets in the afternoon. In the first meeting the teacher will introduce an issue such as abortion or gun control, and, then, during subsequent meetings (perhaps 5 or 6 on a given topic) the students and teacher are supposed to carry on a discussion on the subject. The seminar was meant to provide for and promote a learning style that was pretty much absent from the morning teacher-directed subject matter classes. During the seminar students are expected to speak up themselves and share their ideas with others, listen to and respect what others have to say, and by means of this process, grow in their own understanding of an important issue. They are expected to learn that discussion, if entered into candidly and honestly, will not only be enjoyable in itself, but also considerably strengthen and clarify their own thinking upon any given subject. The seminar was different from the morning classes in other respects, also: No homework was required, and no grades were given. Joe said that whereas the new modular schedule seemed to be working just fine, the seminar was not. The students were not taking it seriously, making little effort to come to grips with whatever issue had been introduced, perhaps because there were no grades. He didn’t know why it wasn’t working. He had come to ask our advice. My brother had told him that Waring knew all about the seminar. (Actually the “seminar” at Waring was a Great Books seminar, not the issues “seminar” introduced at Masconomet, but many of our humanities classes and tutorials, not to mention the all-school meeting, would qualify as “seminar” like classes of the sort that interested Joe.) My brother had told him that we were the experts, and that he ought to come and pick our brains and find out all he could from our experience. Following a tour of the school buildings we returned to my office and talked for an hour or more, about Waring and about the new program at Masconomet. Joe described the frustration among the Masconomet teachers whose seminar students didn’t talk. The much desired discussions were just not taking place. If there was a discussion it was over in a few minutes, and then the teacher would do all the talking. Joe asked if some of his teachers might come and visit Waring and learn from us. I told him, of course, and we arranged that they would come on Friday.
Three of them, David Donavel, an English teacher. Jack Paarlberg, a math teacher, and Vija Skudra, a German and French teacher, arrived about 10:30 on Friday morning. It was raining and there were big puddles everywhere, so I didn’t give them the usual tour of the buildings and grounds. Instead, they met first with Peter Smick who was an old friend and Peter told them about Waring. (Peter’s wife, Allegra, is also a teacher at Masconomet.) Then they had lunch with Josée and myself in the French library. I suggested that they “take” the all-school meeting coming up right after lunch and go directly before our students and teachers assembled in la grande salle, 100 strong, with their “problem.” From experience I thought that our students would like nothing better than to talk about those factors which had motivated them to talk. Dave and Vija and Jack looked at one another for only a moment and then agreed that this might be a good way to begin.
By 12:25 we were all assembled in the Grande Salle. Josée and myself, and our three guests at one end of the room on the long, wooden bench behind one of the folding tables, and everyone else facing us, on chairs, benches and on the floor. There was a little room at the end of the bench and Claire Sullivan came up and sat down next to Josee. This was a good sign—a year ago Claire would have been off in a corner, well out of sight I felt that Claire, and all of our students, more and more want to take an active role in these meetings. “Are there any announcements?” I asked. Little by little people began to stop talking among themselves and quiet down and listen. Someone said it was Lisa Glossman’s birthday and we sang her a very loud Happy Birthday. I could feel an unusual amount of excitement and electricity in the air. The kids were really up for this meeting, in part because it was Friday, but in part also because we had guests. I know our students love to show off in front of strangers. Other announcements followed. Angela Jernigan got up from her seat on the floor and asked the students why they hadn’t turned in their donations for the French Trip Auction. She sharply admonished them and gave them until Monday to do so. Emily O’Brien, seated to one side of the room, right next to a list of overdue library books tacked to the wall, stood up, pointed to the list, and made some remarks like, “if you don’t return these books…” We all love Emily, but we don’t take what she says about the overdue books very seriously. If we owe the library a book we want to confess to Emily and leave it at that. By returning the book we might break a tie between Emily and ourselves, a tie that we enjoy and don’t want to give up. Then Jon Bannon stood up, not an easy thing to do with crutches and an ankle in a plaster cast, and asked, “Who here has ever stolen a lunch, or anything else?” I thought to myself, this was the right way to ask the question, not “Who stole my lunch?” that to which no one has ever in my experience confessed. Jon had the right question, for at least 20 kids raised their hands, saying yes they had stolen someone’s lunch at one time or the other. In this case it wasn’t Jon’s lunch, but his orange that had been taken. He wanted it back. There followed other announcements, including Ben Richardson who proudly related that this time the J.V. basketball team had beaten Landmark by two points—(they had lost their first game by 14). We also heard that the Girls’ varsity had beaten Brimmer and May, for the second time.
I looked at our guests. They were taking everything in with obvious enjoyment and great interest. They were clearly impressed by the ease with which our students would stand up and speak in front of 100 people. I said to myself that it was time to cut off the announcements. I got everyone’s attention, turned to our guests and introduced them. Immediately Dave Donavel spoke up. He told everybody what he had already told me—he described the new modular schedule, and, in more detail, the seminar and how it didn’t seem to be working. He said it was now evident why they had come to Waring. “You,” and he addressed our students, “obviously know how to speak up in a group. We want to know how you learned to do this. When we conduct a seminar, it doesn’t go anywhere; we’re frustrated because our students seem to have so little to say about the subject, no matter what it is. How do we get our students to talk? How did you learn to do it? You have that reputation. Your reputation is certainly confirmed by what I’ve seen just now. Where did you get all that self-assurance? Why even your announcements make our discussions pale in comparison.”
I don’t remember who was the first one to answer. I don’t think it was Ben Dahl. But well-considered responses from all parts of the room came on fast and furious. It was almost as if our kids had been waiting for this moment. The actual question was probably not even that important. They were ready. They wanted to talk, probably, in part, they wanted to show off. I’11 try to put down the things they said, helter skelter, and without attributing particular words to individual speakers. There are many details of phraseology I can’t recall. It’s the ideas that I remember most. The quotes that follow are meant to represent the substance, usually not the actual words, of what was said. The order and particular choice of words is, in most instances, my own.
“Why speaking-up is easy here. At Waring we’re free, free to say what we want to say.” • “We don’t have to raise our hands. If we’ve got something to say we just open our mouths and say it” • “I began my talking in the Seminar two years ago. There were small groups of us, we were asked a question about the story. We could talk, say anything at all, and we’d know we’d be listened to, not put down by the other students.” • “Here you don’t have to worry about being wrong. There are no right and wrong answers.” • “The teachers at Waring care about what you say. They encourage you to speak. You know they are always listening.” • “In order to talk you’ve got.to know something about the subject. You can’t and won’t talk if you don’t.” • “The seminar shouldn’t be for just one period during the day. The kind of speaking up and taking part that you envision has to be reinforced all day long, in many other classes besides. That’s what happens here.” • “You first have to learn to listen. Talking is easy if you first listen to what the others are saying. It took me a long time to learn this.” • “Here we call each other by the first name, students and teachers. That may not be important in itself, but it does create a certain informality that helps one to relax, to loosen-up, and open one’s mouth and start talking.” • “Ask the kids in your classes what they want to talk about, don’t give them your subjects. They’re probably not interested in such things as gun control and abortion. Have you asked them to talk about the seminar itself?” • “Maybe you shouldn’t have any teachers. We don’t. Here there are only students.”
• “Look, you’ve got to start with something that they know something about” • “We learned in Seminar that there are three kinds of questions, those of fact those of opinion, and those of interpretation. You can’t discuss factual questions. You shouldn’t discuss opinions. Good discussions result when there are different interpretations possible.” • “I know how I learned to talk. For three years I just watched others who would open their mouths and do it. Then, not too long ago, I started to do it myself.” • “First you have to talk about things that are not close to you. That’s right, things that don’t touch you personally. Here we talk about books and stories, about the characters and plots. We can talk about them and remain pretty much hidden ourselves. In this way we learn to talk without risk to ourselves, without exposing things we don’t want to expose. Then, much later, we can talk about something that is important to us, something we really care about. But you can’t begin that way.” • “Take Philip and Josée back to Masconomet with you, that will do it” • “In public school there were long corridors. I had to walk down them everyday. I felt as though they had me on a leash. If I talked at all, it was to perform, to do and say what they wanted. At Waring there are no long corridors, there are no seats in rows, there is no leash. I can say what’s on my mind. And if I don’t want to perform I don’t have to.” • “I didn’t say any thing for a very long time. It’s really a question of having enough confidence in oneself. What are you doing to build up their self-confidence? You’ve got to. When you do that they’ll talk, and talk a lot. You’ll not be able to keep them quiet Look at us.” • “I learned first from my friends, friends I’ve made since coming here to school. They were here last year, and they told me what to do. Already I’m starting to do it myself.” • “Maybe a group of us could go to Masconomet, Talk with the kids, do a seminar. We’d like that.” •”By being with the older kids in classes and in meetings, I learned from their example. They encouraged me, made me think that what I had to say was important.” • “Don’t think that you can do it in 60 days. It takes a long time to learn to speak up, to take part in discussions. Change your thinking in respect to the time table. Look for results over the long term. Don’t expect to see results from one day to the next, especially if there is only one period given to this sort of thing.”
These are just some of the responses. Perhaps you can remember more. Perhaps you’ve thought of others since Friday’s meeting. Put them in a letter to the Editor. Needless to say, we who watched this mini-event were overwhelmed by the students’ responses, and by the number of them who talked—later, with the roster before me, I made a quick count of who and how many had spoken up. There were 38 altogether, 15 of the 19 juniors and seniors, 6 from the seventh and eighth grades!
Finally, how would I answer the question, “How does one get kids to talk in seminar?” Actually, the problem does exist at Waring. We haven’t by any means won the war. On Friday we only stormed the fort and captured it. How to help our own kids speak up in class and in meeting is still very much on our minds. After all, during Friday’s meeting there were 47 students who didn’t say a word (I hope they were listening!). Three years ago when I was directing a great books seminar I remember feeling some of the frustration that Dave Donavel describes. I know from long experience that there’s no guarantee that this or that series of steps will lead to the desired result of kids participating in a class discussion. The students’ wonderful suggestions related above are necessary, but probably not sufficient conditions, for creating good class discussions. What for me is, perhaps, the most important element in bringing such about was not even mentioned on Friday—although on Friday this element was present and contributed substantially to the success of the meeting. This element is a condition, and the condition is that, for at least one person in the room or about the table, the subject of the discussion must be real, as real as a hand or an eye. This person provides the link between the words and the thing, between what is said and, to begin with, at least a particular person’s real world. This is the rope that holds the discussion balloon, always in danger of bursting and becoming only warm air, firmly in shape and tied to the ground underneath. On Friday the teachers came with their problem, with their frustration, with their link to the ground, to something real. We responded well because we knew we were talking about something important, that our words could have an effect The discussion topic must allow one to feel that one’s words do relate to possible future actions, to actual results. It is for this reason that the best discussions seem to arise when there is a real problem, such as how to recycle the school trash, how to help the homeless, how to care for the school in the absence of Diane and Pavel. Good discussions may also occur about something less real, about an abstraction, about a book or an idea, but the result in this case, real as it may be—a growth in one’s understanding, a change in one’s values—is not as readily perceived as being real, and hence the difficulty in getting this kind of a discussion off the ground. For a discussion to be successful there must be at least the perception that the issues are real and that real outcomes are possible. This was clearly the case on Friday afternoon.
Philip B. Waring

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