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Wednesday, April 25, 2018

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News from Keri Gelenian, Head of Schools / RA Principal

December 2014

Dear RA families,
Going into the new year we have many student accomplishments to celebrate:

  • Girls and boys soccer teams officially recognized for exemplary conduct on the field
  • The hilarious fall theatre production of Deceiving Granny raised over $3000
  • A generous donation from the Byrne Foundation to support Rivendell Abroad
  • Mr. Reiss and the journalism class for producing many cutting edge editions of the Raptor Connection
  • Excellent tech support by Mr. Ackerman, our new Digital Project Leader
  • A new digital production lab that was put to good use by Ms. Barsamian and her digital photography students
  • Thirteen new National Honor Society inductees
  • A second ping-pong table brought to us through a grant which Ms. Moffatt applied for
  • Our first CCV early college student, Aquene Sausville
  • New ideas for advisory from our student trip to South Burlington High School
  • The library research trip to Plymouth State organized by Mr. Reichert, Mr. Reiss, and Ms. Sobetzer
  • The first Rivendell Robotics tournament organized by Bea Green with the support of Doc Browne and the team
  • The new Choose Your Own Adventure opportunity

We are working hard to publicize RA events and achievements through our Facebook page and videos posted to the link on the Academy Facebook page. 

At the end of the first trimester we have had some good academic news; the junior class produced some of the strongest overall PSAT scores that we've seen in years; also, the percentage of student making the honor roll hit 44.5%, and the percentage of classes failed out of all possible classes was at its lowest level in four years. See the statistics in this newsletter for exact numbers.

These accomplishments are testimony to the hard work of the Rivendell staff, parents and community members.Thank you to everyone who has contributed to a very productive and fun first trimester.

New Developments

Advisory work and thinking

We continue to improve our advisory program. The goal is to make advisory a more integral part of students' experience to develop:

  1. Character skills necessary for success—persistence, confidence, decency, leadership, etc.
  2. Thinking skills—reflection, organization, communication, perspective taking, questioning, imagination, etc.
  3. Community—service, community events and speakers in the school, learning outside the school though internships, early college and Choose Your Own Adventure days.

CCS Awards

For the past three years we have debated whether or not to hold the Character Community Scholarship awards ceremony in the spring. Selection was a difficult issue. Determining community was easy (determined by service hours), as was scholarship (determined by GPA). 

Character was another matter: What if a student had shown growth but we were divided on whether there was enough? What level of character was enough? Could one misstep in behavior eliminate a student; a misstep at what level of indiscretion? Don't we all make mistakes? What were we doing as a school to explicitly develop character among our students?

This last question was the one that tipped the scales in making the decision not to continue the CCS awards. We decided to hold ourselves responsible for taking explicit measures to develop character in all students and not wring our hands over whether or not a high performing student does or does not have character; or wring our hands over not giving awards to students who might demonstrate character, yet not have adequate grades. This is what led to more thinking about character as an explicit focus in advisory. To further our work on this issue, Advisory Leaders Mary Rizos and Jen Ellis are in the final stages of completing an application for a Rowland Fellowship that would provide planning time to lift our advisory program to the next level in terms of supporting Character, Community and Scholarship.

Students "in the middle"

I believe that the most overlooked group in any high school is the group "in the middle." I am talking about students who tend to be quiet in class but do their work, don't get deeply involved in extracurricular activities, or are a bit hesitant to stand out or do things outside their normal comfort zone. They might have a lot going on outside of school but tend to keep their out-of-school lives separate from their more public lives in school. Maybe there is a level of comfort in keeping the separation. The question that I posed to myself recently was whether or not we are doing a disservice to the "middle kids" by allowing them to stay in their comfort zones. I do not have a clear answer to this question, which pushes me to want to test out ideas that might draw (or even push) these students (and sometimes their parents) into experiences that take them slightly outside their comfort zone. To be continued; all ideas and opinions are welcome.

Middle School Next Year

In 2010, when we were planning the restructuring of the school schedule, teaching assignments, curriculum and graduation requirements, I proposed that the Academy do away with grade level distinctions between 7th and 8th grades and between 9th and 10th grades. In the school that I helped design in California, we blended 9th and 10th grades, except in math classes, and it worked beautifully. I met with resistance with the idea at the Academy at the time, and as we were already making a large number of changes at once, I let it drop.

Next year, we have only nineteen 7th grade students entering RA. Rather than break the group into travel groups of nine and ten, the middle school staff and I have discussed blending the next year's 7th grade with next year's 8th grade.

There are a number of benefits of blending:

  • We have solid evidence that age classification of students relates more to the bureaucratic structure of schools than it does the abilities and needs of kids. Some younger kids in some subjects are just as competent as most of the kids in the next grade, and some are better in every subject.
  • When the curriculum is looped and key activities are done at both grade levels, younger students learn from working beside more experienced students. For example, if students learn how to engage in a formal debate in 7th grade, the following year the incoming 7th grade takes less time to learn the process because they can follow the lead of the older students.
  • Other types of institutional knowledge are passed on more efficiently by older peers rather than adults.
  • The idea of looping also means that teachers have fewer preparations and can devote more time to focusing on the students in front of them and the curriculum for those kids compared to having to prepare lessons for two levels.
  • The same curriculum is covered; it's just organized differently. For example, this year's 7th grade is taking biology. Next year, Mr. Steckler would teach everyone physical science and flip back to biology the next year. The same would happen in humanities.
  • Math is different because concepts and skills build in a sequence, so it will still follow a sequence, but students can be placed in different math classes more strategically based on a careful assessment of their skills. This would also break up the monotony of kids being with the same peers all day.
  • The classes for the next two years would be very small, approximately 15 students.
  • Our special education teachers, Cheryl St. Pierre and Jennifer Bottum, and special education assistants would work as a team to modify curriculum and co-teach, so in many classes we would have greater flexibility in providing appropriate instruction and strategies to students within the same classroom.

We are still in the planning stages. There are scheduling details to work out, and we need to gather information about the incoming students much earlier and with more depth than we have in the past. We will also be holding a parent night to discuss the idea and plans in February or March.

The three Ps

As a school we are focusing our attention this trimester in three areas:

  1. Parents—providing more frequent and in-depth information from teachers to parents, especially in cases of students who are struggling.
  2. Planning—walking across the hall during common planning time to work collaboratively with another teacher; two heads are better than one.
  3. Projects—developing at least two projects in every class this trimester and replacing traditional testing with projects.

Projects

From its conception, has Rivendell espoused a project or problem-based approach to curriculum and instruction. It values using skills and ideas, not simply acquiring knowledge for its own sake.
Recently I asked several students if they thought it made sense to put a typical classroom test in a personal learning portfolio. They thought it was ridiculous, and they were right. It would be like asking a licensed carpenter to show a potential client a copy of her licensing examination instead of a portfolio or photographs of actual construction projects.

If projects matter in life, then projects should matter in school. This is not to say that all students will jump up and down joyfully when a project is assigned. Several years ago, Doc Browne gave students a choice of completing a project at the end of the wave unit or taking a test. All but one student opted for the test! I have the completed project of that one student. I doubt that any students kept a copy of that exam.

Furthermore, we created a new position at the Academy last year. Here is the job description that brought us Dr. Gary Ackerman:

  • Rivendell Academy is seeking an exceptional educator to lead the Academy in developing a dynamic digital culture. Duties Work collaboratively with teachers and students in and outside the classroom to develop digital projects that target one or more of these areas: analysis, problem solving, communication, intercultural understanding, mathematical modeling, global issues, collaboration and individual responsibility.
  • Coordinate the evolution of a digital culture at the Academy including digital tools for curriculum development, storage of curriculum and media, assessment, and recommendations for hardware and software purchases.
  • Communicate the evolution of the Academy's digital culture to multiple stakeholders.
  • Support school-wide staff development (project design, web design, Google Applications, mobile devices, social media, and the development of student's electronic portfolios).

Qualifications
Candidates must have 1) Demonstrated experience and expertise in project-based learning 2) The skills and personality necessary to teach adolescents and adults 3) substantial experience in web development, video, programing, and digital photography as well as an understanding of media and culture, 4) Patience and creativity

We have made a commitment to educating students who know how to use knowledge. If knowledge is indeed powerful, it is mostly through our capacity to use it.

Have a great holiday.
Keri Gelenian

December 2014, Newsletter