Eighth Grade Moves Up, thanks to John Dewey


The Class of 2021 has finished its middle school years and is getting ready for high school.

On June 12, we celebrated this rite of passage at our Middle School Moving Up event. Here are my opening remarks, sending them off to high school with the progressive ideals of John Dewey firmly in mind:

Not a single one of you is here by accident. Each of your parents made a deliberate decision to send you here– a cost of convenience, time, money and perhaps even some skepticism from neighbors or relatives. Flying in the face of all that, I feel the need to point out that your parents are enlightened! Something they’ve perhaps not been given credit for.

Just how enlightened, and why I am using that particular word, takes a little history to explain. At one point in the not too distant past, your compulsory schooling– the age to  which school was mandatory– would end with today’s event. The purpose of public school in the United States was to make sure we had solid citizens who understood America, as defined by those who were in power. The reason to give all citizens a free education was, in part, because the system did not necessarily trust the families that children came from, and the system had a pretty narrow definition of which languages should be spoken, how handwriting should look, and which historical and cultural narrative should be considered the truth.

With that goal in mind, certain educational methods fit the bill. When there is only one right answer, memorizing works pretty well. You’re either going to get something wrong or right, so memorizing the accepted answer will work. So, students were asked to learn lots of material by rote. When only one version of history is valued, then all the materials students came into contact with would tell only one story– and the diversity of the county would largely be lost through the pictures and words students encountered. Against the backdrop of this bureaucratic method of education, grades were invented, and lots of other school cultures that pitted students against the adults sprung up. And, in a legacy that still continues in too many educational settings today, being “good enough” is permitted to be the end of the story. Once you reach the “A,” no one asks what the next step might be in your growth. You’re just done, and the teacher pays attention to those who aren’t. Finally, arts and experiences where students might go “wayward,” couldn’t be added to a schedule. There is no way to control the right answer in these cases, so best to stay locked up inside, and, should even a little coloring be permitted, make the boundaries very clear.

Enter into this climate, at the very  end of the 19th century, John Dewey. He was a philosopher, a psychologist, and educator. His understanding of learning and of what the United States needed its youngest inhabitants to learn, was markedly different from the bureaucratic norm. In three words, he believed in Interaction, Experience and Reflection. If I pause for a moment, and it should just take a moment– I would like every student, parent, teacher to think of an example, from this past year– you may only have to think back a week or less– of when PDS provided each of those three: Interaction, Experience and Reflection.

Now, why those three? Neuroscience now confirms what Dewey asserted. Learning is stronger when taught through Interaction, Experience and Reflection. But, Dewey didn’t just care about students. He also cared about society. So, in addition to this history, that I hope will lead you to sense of appreciation for your education here at PDS, I want to consider Dewey’s other motive.

Just like those in charge of the bureaucratic schools, Dewey also cared greatly for society. His ideas about education put more trust in students and in their teachers. While he very much thought that the style of education should be driven byInteraction, Experience and Reflection, it was because he was sure that this was the path to a better society. One that was safe for all people, cared for all people, and was able to maintain the highest quality of life, for the greatest number of people. He believed that this would only be possible if students were taught from the start, with the idea that they would be living and participating in a democracy as adults.

I hope you’ll think about how we planted the seeds of participating in a democracy within you this year. Of the times when we had you interact– even when you’d rather be left alone–It’s because people in a democracy have the privilege of interacting– and we need you to be among the most skilled at it.  Of the times when we provided an experience for you to learn something instead of just telling you– It’s because we knew it would stick with you longer if you figured it out for yourself, or if we took you to the places where you could see for yourself.  And of the times–perhaps the somewhat painful times– when we asked you to reflect. In writing, in front of a parent or teacher or me. Sometimes these reflections were when things went well, and sometime when things had gone awry. You know how to do it– and there will be much more of all this ahead of you.

We know– we all know– we didn’t take the easy way. The work you have ahead of you is just too important for us to have done that. You are well worth the time, expense, and energy we spent. We care about your future, and count on you to care about ours. So, thank you for your hard work these past years– and please make sure to remember those of us the in middle school– we want to hear how you are faring in high school and beyond.

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Farewell to the Seniors: 2017

Our last All School Activity for this year carried on the tradition of bidding farewell to the seniors.

The task for groups was to make a magic wand and write a special spell. One of the favorite “Caffeinator” to make coffee available with a flick of the wand! When we gathered in the gym, each senior had a chance to sit before the crowd and hear their particular spell read aloud.

All school groups, like many other aspects of school life, have grown proficient this year. The students had a intent hush and focus when I visited each room to photograph the middle school students in action.

The other striking aspect: Take a look and see how much older the middle school students look compared to the first ASA of the year!

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Not Exactly Scary, but Takes Courage


At PDS, we’ve had student-led conferences since 2004, when my predecessor, George Swain, introduced them to our middle school. We started with a pilot for just grade 8, but quickly included seventh graders. The sixth grade followed suit a few years later. We’ve gotten good at leading students through the process and our reputation has grown.

This fall I was contacted by a school that wanted to talk over SLCs, and a two former colleagues led a workshop about the program for yet another school. A third connection arrived by text one day, in the wee hours of the morning. George Swain texted me from China. He’d just finished hearing about SLCs in a Beijing school, and of course wanted to share the news immediately. (No, he didn’t actually wake me up and

I courteously texted him back at 6:30am, likely barely interrupting his dinner.) This seems to be the year of student-led conferences (SLCs): in other schools!

The magic of SCLs is really not magic at all– but rather obvious. The most important person in a school conference is the student. To really have student-centered learning, then, we must have the student at… the center!

With SLCs part of our culture for so long, my encounters with other schools have reminded me why some other programs find them “scary:” You have to know how to talk with students, and not at them, in order to have successful preparation. As long as students are prepared, the conferences will be wonderful. To prepare students takes a dedicated group of advisors who design and follow a process for helping the students to reflect.

Students sometimes seem to believe that the actual conference, when they sit with their advisor and family, is the “hard part.” Really, though, that can be so well rehearsed that is becomes familiar and easy by the day it happens.

Ideally, the most challenging part is the reflection before the conference. At PDS, students are asked to reflect frequently. The biggest amount of time is set aside not right before the conference, but, rather, right after the mid-year reports are released. Using the narratives each teacher has written, a student annotates the reports and synthesizes what the teacher is saying about the learning for the first half of the year. The best part of this synthesis– although not easy– is that patterns emerge that cross subject areas. In this way, a student can see strengths (for example in understanding reading) and think about how to apply to areas needing more development (revising writing, for example.)


This analysis– thinking about thinking– truly does put the students at the centers of their own learning. And, while not scary, the center is not always the most comfortable place to be. One consequence of setting goals is that you have to acknowledge that you have some control over achieving them. Whenever we take control, we also take on an equal measure of responsibility- and therein lies the challenge.

Just the process of having SLCs in the program automatically brings a cascade of other influences on the program. Teachers write reports knowing that students will be setting goals from them. This makes the language of the reports accessible and direct. We also slow the schedule down enough to include time for conference preparation. Anytime a school slows down a schedule and makes a less hectic pace for students, they benefit. And of course, it is a huge benefit to have parents join us as partners in planning the next steps for the students’ education.


So, have courage! Students should always be including in their conferences, and when they take the lead, all the better.

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The Food Truck Emerges


Sixth graders completed their structure of a food truck, built of Goya cans, at the Poughkeepsie Galleria mall! The truck is striking for several reasons: it has a lighted sign, reading How CAN I help you? It has brightly lit headlights. It has a steering wheel, a big attraction, since when buttons are pushed, it honks and a voice intones “How CAN I help you?

Best of all, the structure has over 3000 cans! The labels are arranged to help the depiction, and students accessorized with condiments and a compassionate menu. The project will help many people in the Hudson Valley.

Students found the work fun and also challenging. It is not easy to meticulously line up cans for several hours at the end of a week. Unless the cans were placed precisely, the stability of the structure would  not be sound. Yet, when a builder is close to the can, it was hard to see where adjustments need to be made. The builders had to listen to a lot of feedback from the slide lines.

The suspense of seeing the students lift and place each layer of masonite for the new level of the truck was particularly exciting. We all had a burst of pride when the sign was plugged in and the windshield wipers began to move!

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The structure, along with the work of the Randolph School and High Meadow School, will be on display for a week. We have field trips going to the mall from classes this week in order to admire the work. During those trips, students will bring more cans, because the event serves as a food drive– furthering the benefit for the food bank.



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Reading to Build a Bridge

This month I’ve invited parents of grade 5 students to visit with me, tour the Holford Learning Commons and hear about the middle school program. Of special interest are parts of the program that work to build a bridge between the “small nest” of a “contained” lower school classroom and the “bigger nest” of the middle school.

We have started to build the bridge directly with the students this winter. The fifth and sixth graders are meeting periodically to enjoy book groups together. Literacy skills improve when there is social learning connected to the reading. Talking about what you read helps you see patterns that make themes develop. The characters and their situations come alive through conversation.

Students were invited to form groups based on shared book choice. In this way, even students who don’t know each other, immediately have something in common.Unlike an adult book group, some of the time students are together is spent in actually reading the books they’ve chosen in common.

As they finish books, students will decide how they want to share their book with the entire fifth and sixth grades.

As one fifth grader put it, “Book groups make me more comfortable being with the older kids.”

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Are We Running Out of Juice?


Early in the faculty meetings planning for this year, Jake Lahey, our 7-8 history teacher, wondered if we might create an interdisciplinary study that asked students to consider the history and processes that humans use to get energy from the earth. After our successful engagement with the students in 7-8 around the issues of access to water, we were eager to create a similar experience around another important issue.

Students are spending the vast majority of three school days intensively working to understand how people generate power and which of the methods are most sustainable.

Our first day started with an opening plenary session where students looked at maps of global and USA energy use and sources. They made comparisons and asked questions of maps of the data. We broke them into four groups named after an ancient “element” that we get energy from: earth, wind, fire, and water. Each group moved to a classroom to begin research.

The students were charged with creating a pictorial timeline of the technology history of an energy “element.” The wind group, for example. started with the sail from ancient times and charted to wind farms in modern time. The earth group, in another example, started with the fuel of wood and moved to petroleum.

Next, working in smaller clusters of two to three, students designed a way to model one way that their “element” generates power. They were asked to draw and design, and plan for materials.

That planning was followed by a day of building. The Holford Learning Commons hummed

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with industry. Models were constructed of cardboard, plastic, and in one case, cake! Some models represented the parts but did not move. Others had moveable parts. In the “fire” room, solar power actually baked s’mores– more than just a model, it was a demonstration!

Today met the gold standard for engagement: Had all the adults melted away, the students would have taken quite a while to notice. The modeling was fun– and sometimes a little frustrating– in a good way. You can get a sense of the project from this video.

A museum will be created for day 3– and also a chance to get back to the big question of our study: Now that we understand where energy comes from, are we running out of juice?



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True Service Learning Couples Awareness and Agency


A student walked into my office today, with great excitement. She and her mom had taken time after school to deliver a play kitchen to the downtown Poughkeepsie daycare where some of our students volunteered during this year’s service learning classes.

It is a wonderful measure of the success of the program when a student can transfer the connection from school time to private time. The student recounted being recognized and received with excitement by the daycare children. She completed the circle of connection by making sure she had a chance to let me know about her extra efforts, outside of school, to help the daycare.

One long term goal of our service learning program is to foster a strong sense of connection to different areas of our society. Equally important,though, is the sense of what we call “agency:” Students need to know not only that there are people and causes in need, but also that they themselves can fill some of these needs. To have awareness without agency leads to cynicism and even despair. To connect awareness with agency leads to empowerment and connection.

Our service learning program is structured as a series of day-long classes using the time in our schedule that is set aside for interdisciplinary studies. In addition to the early childhood class that worked with the Poughkeepsie day care, other choices for service classes were: Green Team, Outdoor Service, Encouraging Childhood Literacy, and Oral History. Every class had a community connection, from the National Park Service, to the library, to The Landing, a retirement community, or to the farm that receives our food waste each week.

Part of the American experience has long been service to the community. We are a rather unique country this way: Service transcends our government, the immediate family and religious organizations. At PDS, we firmly believe that as our students grow to assume more responsibilities to society, seeing need and working to address it, will be an important part of their futures. We start in middle school (and, actually, even earlier, in our lower school program) so that students will feel comfortable and secure in finding ways to help as adults.

Enjoy the photos that teachers captured, while the students were in action:





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