The Perils of Perfectionism and Delay

David Baker ’04

Upper School History Department Chair

What constitutes academic success? Many of us make the mistake of defining academic success as perfection. Considering this view, a test, essay or project isn’t a success unless it’s flawless and earns an A or A+. As a result of this mindset and message, students are likely to obsess about their work, to spend hours making endless revisions on a paper, or cram every particle of information into their heads for a test.

This frantic quest for perfection often leads students to ask teachers for extensions of deadlines or postponements of assessments. Such requests are often accompanied by statements such as, “I just need more time to make this paper better!” or “If I had just one more night to study, I know I’ll ace the test!”

• The Value of Making Mistakes 

By pursuing this false god of perfectionism, students are seeking to avoid an essential component of the educational process – making mistakes. Deep and essential learning often takes place when a student gets an answer wrong and discovers why it’s wrong, or when a student responds to a teacher’s suggestions for improving an essay. Goals are achieved during the process of learning, not by turning in the final product.

Not getting it right the first time is OK. This provides the opportunity for constructive feedback, productive adjustments, and for thoughtful revision. Just by doing the work and trying, a student is already succeeding.

But when students seek perfection, they’re trying to avoid the mistakes they actually need to make to understand the material and, more importantly, themselves. Fear of being imperfect can also erode a young person’s willingness to try new activities and experiences. A runner, who focuses solely on training only for the 200-meter dash, for instance, is missing out on the success and enjoyment to be savored by trying the 400-meter or the high jump. Those additional events can help with the 200-meter training and can lead to new growth as an athlete and competitor, even if the times and heights aren’t as competitive.

• Doing, Not Delaying

As high school students have already discovered, there are no extensions in the real world. Before firing the gun at a track meet, the starter doesn’t pause and ask the runners “Does anyone need more time to prepare for this race?” A barber doesn’t keep customers when he turns people away because he’s still perfecting his craft. An attorney doesn’t help a client if she misses the trial because she still needs more time to prepare. And future professors, bosses, or colleagues won’t say, “That’s OK; just turn it in tomorrow” when deadlines are missed.

Thus, a key responsibility of educators is to prepare students by establishing high standards, not only for the quality of academic work but for its timely and consistent completion. Students learn most effectively when expectations are high and they’ve done their best work in the time allotted to do it. Doing so helps students become more resilient and more independent as lifelong learners and as soon-to-be adults in a demanding world.

• To Delay Is To Stress

Ironically, the stress generated by continually asking for exemptions from deadlines can actually lead to lower rather than higher grades. This desperate scramble produces even more stress in students because now, rather than completing the work and being done with it, they must agonize over the assignment for an even longer period. This takes time away from their work in other classes, leading to even more academic panic. It’s better to do the work than to delay it.  

• A Healthy Balance

Adolescents today are pulled in many different directions. This requires them to learn how to plan and organize their time, balance the simultaneous and competing responsibilities of academic, athletic, extracurricular, and personal activities, and make difficult but necessary decisions about priorities, preferences, and passions. 

In my experience, students actually do better academically when they’re actively and authentically involved in a variety of activities outside the classroom. That’s because the organizational skills and resilience they’ve developed to handle competing tasks bring discipline to their studies as well. Moreover, participating in sports, performance groups, publications, and clubs provides an invigorating break that enables students to return to the classroom refreshed and re-energized.   

• True Academic Success

A complete and effective education means, not only absorbing information and mastering concepts, but also developing the self-discipline, resilience, and resourcefulness to meet the challenges and tasks of learning: to complete essays, homework and assessments on time, to do one’s best work under existing constraints, and to forsake perfect grades for true learning and a happier, less stressful life.  

Pandemic Underscores Importance of Social-Emotional Wellness

Brenna Chiaputti ’98 Middle School Counselor

Moving Toward the Post-Pandemic Future

As devastating and disruptive as the pandemic has been, it has taught us all that emotional and physical well-being are as important as academic achievement. It has provided the opportunity for Kingswood Oxford to do what it has always done best – to nourish our students academically, socially, physically, and emotionally. And it has reminded us all that we’re not just educating students; we’re helping to raise happy and healthy kids. 

Now that the pandemic has subsided, at least temporarily, and Kingswood Oxford has returned to in-person learning, our school’s teachers, counselors, coaches, and administrators are asking: What lessons did we learn? Where do we go from here? What kind of support do our students need and how can we provide it?

Expanding Wellness

Kingswood Oxford’s Wellness Team, comprising counselors, deans, academic skills specialists, and the school nurse, has identified the development of five key social-emotional skills as essential for our students: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship management, and responsible decision-making.

To help build these competencies, our school will sustain and expand two resources already in place: the Life Skills program at the Middle School, and the VQV program at the Upper School. These classes engage students in discussions about a range of issues including stress management, conflict resolution, leadership, drugs and alcohol, healthy relationships, mental health, and sexual health depending on their grade and age and provide coping strategies.

Managing Screen Time

Another key focus of these two programs is the healthy and safe use of technology. Because online learning during the pandemic separated students from one another physically, many became even more dependent on technology for social interaction. It is well known that social media can reinforce negative behaviors like bullying and exclusion, and undermine the safe and supportive environments young people need and deserve. Many kids are being exposed to images and stories that they don’t have the context or the capacity developmentally to process or make sense of.

Enhancing Learning

Sometimes people fall into the trap of thinking that teaching of social and emotional skills distracts and detracts from academic learning. In fact, our own experience as educators, as well as hundreds of academic studies, have shown that social and emotional learning actually enhances academic success. Students who are managing their emotions, relationships, and self-awareness well are much more likely to excel in their classes and have better life outcomes.

Building Equity and Inclusion

An important part of our vision is building equity and inclusion. Welcoming, respecting and valuing students of all ethnicities, backgrounds, cultures and identities are essential to nourishing an environment of social and emotional wellbeing for all of our students. By becoming a more equitable community that embraces diversity in all its forms, our school will also become a healthier emotional community. 

Fulfilling Our Vision

Our school’s Strategic Vision summons us to engage students in learning opportunities beyond our campus and to “develop compassionate collaborators, ethical problem solvers, and active citizens who lead and serve in the wider community.” What could be a more effective way of nurturing these future leaders than helping them build a lifelong foundation of social and emotional health?

A Mindful Education

By Kata Baker, Upper School Science Teacher, Head Coach Girls Swimming, Form Three Dean

We talk a lot about “managing” in education. “Good management” is generally held in high regard because it suggests students who achieve this skill are on the path toward accomplishing their goals – and impressive ones at that.

We say that students should manage their time, manage their stress, and manage their workload. This often means juggling several honors or Advanced Placement courses with an elective, Model United Nations, a varsity sport, and theater rehearsals. 

We say that students with good time management skills will be able to research, write and edit an English paper while cramming for a history test and preparing for a debate tournament the next day. We might even describe such students as “managing their stress well.”

Crisis Management

“Management,” in its essence, means “authority.” It implies having control or facing challenging odds and “coming out on top.” By using the word “management” in education, we’re subconsciously acknowledging that there ISN’T enough time, there IS too much work, and that students SHOULD feel an unbearable amount of stress – but that we want them to trudge through anyway. 

Under this mindset, putting together a “successful” four-year education for high-school students requires students to forget about discovering their true interests, abilities, and values, and instead to check off boxes and keep score – courses taken, clubs joined, sports played, leadership positions acquired, volunteer work performed. Students become so busy with everything, that they actually commit to nothing.

Education, when not tended and nurtured with the support and guidance of mindful adults, can easily become a goal-oriented, process-blind way of approaching life. The result is a school culture that values accomplishments over authenticity, performance over purpose, and superficiality over substance. This is not what teachers want for their students. 

Yes, curriculum and classroom lessons should invigorate, challenge and stretch students. Yes, it’s natural there will be time limits; teachers want to make productive use of the 60 minutes they have with their students. Yes, there is a task, a goal – work! And, yes, students will feel challenged. There IS some stress. 

All these things, in moderation, create a joyful, invigorating, and powerful education. But when pressure, deadlines, and rigor become excessive, teachers and students are simply managing.

Mindfulness, Balance, and Self-awareness

The role of teachers, advisors, and parents – the beautiful triangular support system our school provides – is to think mindfully about the life each student wants to live and about how to help each student strive for balance. 

Here’s what I wish for our students:  

• Quality over quantity. Sample, and then choose. ONE THING. Take an A.P. course only if you’re in love with the subject. Commit to one club that you can’t imagine not being a part of.

• Lead with you and your interests. 

• Listen to your body. We’re all designed to manage some stress. We naturally respond by releasing hormones that trigger a productive and appropriate response. Stress isn’t something we stifle or ignore, but we have to be thoughtful about how to react to it. 

• Learn how and when to say NO. Set boundaries. Set bedtimes. Know when enough is enough. When you decline a request for your time and participation, there’s no reason to apologize. Walk away with dignity and respect for your own well-being. It’s not that you’re not enough; it’s that the extra work and worry are too much.

• Build time into your schedule for the essential three R’s: recreation, refreshment, and rest.

• Do the thing. If you’re gonna’ do it, do it right. Dig in. Work hard, stop wasting time, and get it done. If you’re thoughtful about selecting to do what you love, this will come naturally. 

• Choose mindfulness, not management. By seeking an awareness of your true interests, virtues, values – and limits – your experience as a student will be more joyful and rewarding.     

Built-In Free Time Refreshes Middle Schoolers

Ann Sciglimpaglia, Head of the Middle School

If you’d entered the KO Field House between 2:00 and 2:30 p.m. on any Friday afternoon this winter, you would have seen 150 adolescents having fun. Amid laughter, conversations and squeals of merriment our middle school students were playing basketball and dodge ball, walking laps, drawing pictures, talking with their friends or simply sitting down and relaxing. You would have seen happy kids. 

But why weren’t these students in class?

Give the Kids a Break

Among the many lessons the recent pandemic has taught us is that middle schools students, after hours of supervised, structured experiences in classrooms, advisee groups, musical ensembles, sports teams, clubs and art studios, need the restorative power of unstructured free time. We realized that our students are so scheduled in their daily lives, not only in school, but in outside activities such as music lessons, campus and travel teams, that they need to escape from the daily regimen for a while, move their bodies and connect with their friends.

So beginning last September, we started setting aside half-hour periods when students were free to go outside and, during inclement weather, go to the Field House to rest, play and enjoy time with their friends. Teachers are present at these sessions and sometimes participate in their games and activities, but for the most part the faculty members stay in the background. For that half hour, the students are free to remove their masks and literally take a breather.

Free-Enterprise Zone

Our expansive Field House, with its three basketball courts, bleachers and hospitality room provides plenty of space to play dodge ball, spike ball, corn hole toss, wall ball, volleyball and handball. Students even devise their own games, concoct their own rules, and even set up March Madness-type tournaments. The field house also offers bleachers and a hospitality room where kids can simply sit, relax and interact with their friends.

Enriching Social and Emotional Well-Being

We’ve found that these sessions enhance our students’ social and emotional health. Middle schoolers need this time, not only for rest and play, but also for social interaction. During the pandemic, students have lost valuable opportunities to interact, socialize and work cooperatively, and this unstructured time allows them to freedom to plan, propose and problem solve together, as they negotiate friendships and make their own decisions. They need to talk with one another, resolve differences and figure out how to organize themselves. 

This time at school with classmates is especially cherished by Kingswood Oxford students. Because our students live in many different towns and cities, often quite distant from one another, they often don’t have the chance to spend time with their classmates during evenings and weekends. So these sessions provide that opportunity.

A Lift for Learning

While some might wonder whether these breaks consume valuable classroom time or distract students from their academic work, we’ve discovered that these sessions actually enhance their learning. Students return to the classroom after these sessions exhilarated, invigorated, and focused. Our teachers report that students pivot seamlessly from recess to class and are eager to dive back into academic work. This energizes their engagement in learning and makes their classes more productive, purposeful and stimulating.

Our teachers enjoy the chance for a break as well. Most of the teachers spend the break time with the students, enjoying watching them have fun and often chatting casually with them, but some teachers use the free time to catch up on tasks such as preparing for class, calling a parent or responding to emails. Others savor the opportunity to socialize and interact with colleagues. Whether they’re with the students or not, teachers appreciate the chance to decompress for a few minutes during a busy day.

The Pause That Refreshes

In short, building this unstructured time into our middle school day has not only provided a valuable respite for our students and teachers, but also enriched students’ and teachers’ social and emotional health, boosted our academic energy and significantly lifted community morale.   

Antics in the Attic: Immersing Students in the Joy of Learning

Stephanie Sperber, Upper School History Teacher

Frederick Jackson Turner’s “Frontier Thesis” – that the American values of equality, democracy, and freedom were shaped by the continuous presence of the western frontier – might seem like a dry, academic subject. But if you had walked into my U.S. history class last February 14, you would have seen his ideas come alive as you encountered a scene from a western saloon in the 1890s.

My students, wearing cowboy hats, blue jeans, bandanas, sombreros, and checkered shirts were portraying cowboys, Mexican Americans, miners, members of Indigenous communities, sheriffs, homesteaders, and African Americans. 

As player piano music played in the background, they were assessing and debating the merits of Turner’s thesis from the point of view of diverse individuals. Did these westerners believe their experiences validated – or invalidated – Turner’s thesis about frontier egalitarianism?    

Because it was Valentine’s Day, students were asked to identify other people who shared their views about Turner’s thesis and then send valentines to them. Then the valentines were read aloud, amidst laughter, mirth, cheers, and whoops. The kids were tackling difficult material and having fun at the same time. 

Learning To Love Learning

As a history teacher, I have one goal for my students: that they take joy in learning. I want them to love learning so much that they look forward to every class, that they experience excitement, surprise, curiosity, and delight during class, and that they leave class bubbling about what just happened.

When we study an era of history, I seek to create that joy and a life-long love of learning by immersing my students in the sights, sounds, textures, and smells of that time. I want to transport them to a distant time and provide them with a 360° view of what the past was like. My goal is to create experiences that make them want to learn and to equip them with the tools to do that.   

To accomplish this, my classroom frequently comes alive in a wide variety of creative simulations. These include donning costumes, role-playing, eating food, playing board games, listening to music, building models, staging debates and trials, and even meditating. While I can’t always take students to restored historical communities like Williamsburg or Old Sturbridge Village, I can bring a little bit of that experience into the classroom almost every day.

Antics in the Attic

My classroom is located on the second floor of the First House, built exactly 100 years ago. With its sloped roof, dormer windows, and working fireplace, the room has the cozy, quirky charm of an attic, so it’s the perfect spot for creative activities. I want my students to have a space where they feel at home. The classroom walls are covered with posters, maps, bumper stickers, and artwork by students. 

Through these activities, I hope to foster deep and genuine learning experiences for my students. Here are some of the other “antics in the attic” my students have enjoyed this year:

• Crime Scene: For our class on the Boston Massacre, I greeted my U.S. history students at the door dressed as a British officer, replete with a redcoat and tricornered hat. Laid out before them was a crime scene surrounded by yellow caution tape: five plastic gingerbread men carefully positioned on the floor, representing patriots shot by British soldiers. After examining the evidence, students read first-hand accounts of the shooting from various perspectives and then wrote a letter arguing whether the British soldiers were guilty of murder or acted in self-defense.

• Gummy Government: I challenged students in my Global Cities class to portray different forms of government, such as monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy, by using Legos and Gummy Bears. Showing delightful creativity, they worked in pairs to build thrones, voting booths, and barracks and used different flavored Gummy Bears to represent different classes in society – as well as dead Gummy Bears to depict the dangers of autocracy. Afterward, they arranged their exhibits around the classroom to create a museum that the entire class then toured.

• Food for Thought: What foods did enslaved women cook for their own families? My U.S. history students literally got a taste of history when they prepared authentic soul food, including collard greens, okra soup and cornbread, and brought the delicious dishes to class to share with their fellow students. 

• Founders League: My U.S. history class has 13 students, the perfect number to recreate the Constitutional Convention of 1787 where each of the 13 states had one vote. I dressed as presiding officer George Washington as students, seated at tables draped in green cloth as at the original convention, presented their state’s concerns. Then all 13 students debated, compromised, and voted to choose the best form of government for the United States. 

Joyful Learning

While we usually think of high school history class as listening to lectures, taking notes, and memorizing dates, I’ve found that students absorb the facts, concepts, and understanding of history most effectively when they are enjoying the learning process. I provide simulations and immersive experiences so that they’ll approach class each day with anticipation, expecting something exciting is going to happen. I want to surprise them and engage them physically, mentally, and emotionally so that we can find the answers together as they learn to love learning. If I can light that fire, I’ve accomplished my goal.      

Striving for Balance and Flexibility in Teaching and Grading

Kathleen DiSanto, Upper School Science Teacher

As a teacher, I’ve sought to pursue and maintain what many educators have called “a growth mindset.” This means that I always try to be open to using new strategies and methods to enhance my students’ learning.

When I studied science in high school, college, and graduate school, the teacher usually functioned as “the sage on the stage,” someone who lectured, instructed, and explained. But when I became a teacher myself, I quickly realized that students would learn more deeply and effectively if I sometimes served as “the guide on the side,” someone who provides them with direction and support as they discover information and concepts and formulate new ideas themselves. 

In the classroom, I seek to strike a balance between teacher-centered learning and student-centered learning. Sometimes lecturing is the most effective way to supply and consolidate information clearly, thoroughly and efficiently. Lectures also provide the skills, structure, and vocabulary that allow students to then pursue their own exploration in purposeful and systematic ways. Learning is like the process of building a house; the teacher builds the foundation and framework so that students can complete the structure by constructing the interior walls, rooms and ceilings.

What does student-directed learning look like? In my physics courses, it often involves practical, bite-sized activities that enable students to test skills and concepts they’ve learned from lectures and apply them to real-world experiences. 

To study Newton’s Second Law of Motion, for instance, my students perform test runs of a moving cart with a fan attached to it. While varying the speed of the fan and the mass of the cart, students time the cart to determine its acceleration. They soon discover that, as Newton stated, the greater the mass of the object, the greater the force (the fan) needed to accelerate it.  

Student-center learning can also involve group work. When performing calculations in class, for instance, each of my students writes, not in a notebook, but on on a 24 in. by 24 in. white board. This enables students to share their work with other students more easily, a process that often generates lively chatter and even laughter as students compare and discuss their computations. I’ve learned that a loud class isn’t necessarily a bad class, and that everyone can be a little bit silly and still learn.

I also try to achieve flexibility and balance in my grading policies. Most of my teachers in high school and college based their grading on content and details rather than process and offered no opportunities for reassessments. Instead, I evaluate my students on the skills they’ve learned. Rather than receiving one grade for an assessment, each student earns a separate score for each skill demonstrated, and during the course of a semester each skill is assessed at least three times. Recognizing that students learn at different rates, I offer each student the opportunity to take up to two reassessments per semester covering up to three skills of their choosing. 

I envision the flow between teacher-directed learning and student-directed learning, as well as the pace and progress of each student’s mastery, as a wave-like pulse that surges and wanes throughout the semester. Achieving the right equilibrium in methods of teaching and assessing students is challenging but ultimately effective, rewarding and enjoyable for my students and for me. 

Restorative Circle Builds Character and Community

Kathy Dunn, Associate Head of the Middle School

When a student breaches standards of good citizenship, schools have traditionally responded with punitive measures, such as after-school study halls, Saturday detentions, or even suspensions. But recent research has shown that such threats of punishment and restriction do very little to improve students’ future behavior or enhance their self-awareness and growth. Moreover, systems based on rigid discipline contribute to a stressful atmosphere in which teachers are seen as enforcers and students are less likely to tell teachers about the infractions of classmates.

With these insights in mind, our Middle School has moved this year toward a restorative model that treats student discipline as a learning process. Rather than imposing a set of fixed penalties and procedures, the school asks students who have broken the rules to take responsibility for the impact their behavior has had on others and to repair the damage they have done. 

We do this by convening a “restorative circle” where a student who has made a mistake meets face-to-face with the students and teachers who have been affected by their actions. The student also invites one person – a friend, teacher, or coach – to be present for support.  

In the restorative circle, the student listens as each person describes what happened, how they were affected by it, and what needs to happen for things to be better – for restoration. The group then discusses possible resolutions of the problem, adjusting their responses to the specific nature of the offense and the particular attitude, needs, and situation of the student. Finally, their conclusions are summarized in a written agreement that everyone in the circle signs. 

This collaborative process, in which each person has an equal voice, provides an opportunity for students and teachers to work together to build a stronger community. In the circle, teachers become humanized and seen, not as punishers, but as partners who express their honest feelings about what has happened and contribute to finding solutions.

This process has the potential to shift the culture of the Middle School away from one of rules and compliance to one of responsibility and community. Students come to understand that the actions of one person can affect everyone and that each of them plays a role in setting and supporting standards of behavior. 

Under a punitive system, students who make mistakes fear punishment, so they’re often defensive, deceitful, and evasive when confronted. Likewise, students are hesitant to tell teachers about others’ negative behavior because they don’t want to get anyone into trouble. This leads not only to a toxic culture of gossip, rumor and factionalism, but also prevents teachers from ever hearing about hurtful student actions and behaviors that need to be addressed.

Under the restorative model, where the consequences for breaking the rules are more supportive than punitive, students who misbehave are more willing to admit their mistake, and students who witness misbehavior are more likely to share the information with teachers. This year, in fact, more students than ever before are coming to tell me about infractions, and this openness has helped our school to confront these issues quickly, openly, and effectively.  

Some of our sports teams, advisee groups, and classes have begun to use the restorative process to resolve issues among their members, and I hope this thoughtful, responsive process will help our school become a healthier, happier, and harmonious community. 

Language Provides Access to a Wider World

Ron Garcia, Upper School Spanish Teacher

Learning a foreign language is a gateway that enables us to meet and interact with people from communities very different from our own, thus enriching our understanding of them and of ourselves. This power of language to bring people together has been abundantly clear as I’ve accompanied groups of students on service trips to the small, impoverished town of Tobati in Paraguay each March for the past two decades. 

The idea for this annual two-week excursion began during my boyhood. Each year at Christmas time, my family and I visited Tobati, where my mother had grown up. As a boy in Indiana, I had heard Spanish spoken only in my home, so it was exhilarating to visit Tobati, where the little linguistic world of my family was expanded to a wider atmosphere. 

When I became a Spanish teacher, I knew I wanted to recreate my childhood experience for my students by bringing them to Tobati. During these excursions, students work side-by-side with Paraguayans to build schools and playgrounds, upgrade medical facilities and water supplies, and harvest crops.

On these trips, I’ve observed that almost all of our students were able to communicate in Spanish, not because they spoke flawlessly, but because they were confident enough to take risks, to make mistakes in grammar, agreement and pronunciation, but nevertheless be understood. This reinforced the important lesson that the goal of learning a second language isn’t perfection; it’s being able to communicate effectively in real-world situations.

In Tobati our students learn other lessons as well. They encounter abject poverty and witness the realities of inadequate food, water, housing, education and medical resources. This, of course, instills a deeper appreciation for all the economic advantages they enjoy in the United States.

But they also come to understand and appreciate a way of life that is, in some respects, superior to our own. The American dream of meritocracy, which promises that hard work and talent will bring great success, is almost completely absent in Paraguay, a place where most people are born poor and are likely to remain so for their entire lives. 

But oddly enough, most Paraguayans are happy. They don’t view poverty as the result of failure or a lack of work ethic or talent. In fact, their challenging conditions contribute to collective community efforts and to tight connections among families, friends and neighbors. 

Life is lived at a much slower pace than in the U.S. People always greet one another with a kiss, a handshake or a hug. Meals, however simple, are leisurely and joyful.

In Tobati, American students, who often struggle with stress and pressure in their lives, meet joyful, outgoing and friendly people who face all types of significant challenges every day but are completely at peace with themselves.

One of my fondest moments during every trip to Tobati comes on our last evening there when our students collaborate with Paraguayan children in small groups to choreograph, rehearse and perform inventive and elaborate dance routines for the entire community. Americans and Paraguayans put away their inhibitions and give themselves fully to the music and spirit of the moment. 

After this joyful, refreshing and inspiring event, our students bid their final farewells to the children. It’s no wonder that everyone is crying.    

Statistics and Economics Plunge Students into the Real World 

Tracy Deeter, Upper School History and Math Teacher

What can students learn from projects as diverse as constructing a chain of paper links and bouncing a Batman action figure on a rubber-band bungee cord? 

These are some of the enjoyable and instructive classroom activities I use in my Advanced Placement Statistics and Economics courses to strengthen my students’ reasoning skills and their ability to approach complex problems with open minds, keen observation and objective analysis. 

In A.P. Statistics, my primary goal is to encourage flexible thinking and to approach statistical data with a critical eye. Are there inherent biases in how this information is collected or presented? Are the inferences drawn from it correct? 

To encourage this critical approach, I often ask students to first conduct a real-world group experiment with no prior knowledge or assumptions and then process and assess the results later. This method gives students consistent practice in contributing original ideas, making connections between ideas, and constructing an understanding of new content in a collaborative environment.

In the Bungee Batman Jump, for instance, students attach a bungee cord made of linked rubber bands to a Batman action figure and drop it toward the ground 15 feet below. Before the drop, each group of students constructs a linear regression model to calculate the number of rubber bands that will give Batman his maximum plunge without crashing into the ground.  

Each group asks: How accurate are our predictions for Batman’s drop? Is it wise to use extrapolation? How do outlier conjectures affect our linear regression model? 

Such practical experimentation enriches my A.P. Economics course as well. Economics is a social science that examines the way people make decisions. Students quickly learn that every decision in economics involves both benefits and costs, including overlooked marginal benefits, such as a company’s reputation, or unforeseen opportunity costs, i.e., how does the action we’re taking preclude us from taking other beneficial actions? So we engage in activities that illustrate concepts involving making choices. 

In the Paper Chain Game, students explore the cost-benefits dynamic in labor supply by creating a mini-factory. Students are divided into groups of 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 people. Each group is given the same resources – a stack of paper, a pair of scissors and a stapler – and asked to create a chain with as many paper loops as they can in three minutes. 

Which group will be able to produce the most links? At what point does increasing the number of workers stop adding to the productivity of the group? What is the optimal number of workers to hire? What are the benefits and costs of hiring that number, or of hiring fewer or more workers?

Of course, not every activity in these two classes involves fun and games, but we often apply the concepts we learn to relevant social and practical issues. 

Statistics students, for instance, investigate whether research data on New York City’s “Stop-and-Frisk” program provides enough evidence to prove that police are racially biased. Economics students explore the reasons male pro golfers make more money than female pros and why Ben and Jerry’s provides financial support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Connecting concepts to real-life data, whether it concerns bungee jumps or racial bias, brings these concepts to life for students.     

Preparing Students for the Metaphors of Life

Ron Monroe, Upper School English teacher

What has been my primary mission as an English teacher? As I reflect on my 44 years in the classroom, I keep coming back to the notion that I’m helping my students to live and thrive in a world of metaphor. I hope that by thinking, writing and discussing the complex meanings found in literature, they’ll come to understand that almost everything and everyone they encounter in life is, to some degree, a metaphor embodying complex meanings.

Just as an object in a poem, a character in a novel, or a gesture in a play can be interpreted in a variety of ways, so too can the events, ideas and people my students will experience in their lives. My goal is to encourage students to look beyond superficial appearances and to realize that there’s always more to something than we see initially. I hope to equip them with the analytical skills needed to decode and navigate deeper layers of meaning, enabling them to lead more fulfilling, more thoughtful, and more productive lives.

For this reason, one of my favorite novels to teach is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” Most of us are familiar with the more prominent symbols in the novel, such as the green light on Daisy’s dock and the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg on the billboard, but almost every character, incident, conversation or object in the novel also bears multiple meanings. 

We view all the events in the novel through the eyes of the narrator, Nick Carraway. But who is Nick? Is he a steadfast reporter who tells the story straight? Or does he shade the story to reflect his own biases and judgments and to hide his own weaknesses? Can we trust Nick to tell the truth?

And then there’s the complexity of Gatsby himself. In chapter 4, when Nick and Gatsby are driving into Manhattan, Gatsby gives Nick what seems to be a load of baloney about attending Oxford University, living like a raja in all the capitals of Europe, and machine-gunning Germans during World War I. But when Gatsby pulls out an authentic medal for valor from the tiny nation of Montenegro, Nick begins to think these stories might all be true. In fact, Nick doesn’t know what to think, and neither do we, the readers. And it’s just that uncertainty I want students to explore, discuss and analyze. Just who is this guy Gatsby anyway? 

To be honest, when I was the age of my students, I pretty much took life and literature at face value, paying little attention to ambiguity and complexity. But sometime during college, with the help of brilliant and provocative professors and classmates, I learned to live in the world of metaphor, to think beyond the obvious and to explore ambiguity and complexity, not only intellectually but emotionally. 

My life has been the richer for it. That’s why I’ve tried to create that same experience for my students so that they’ll gradually develop what Fitzgerald described as a “first-rate intelligence” – “the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”      

Sharing the Joy of Math

Denise Garcia, Upper School Math Teacher

Excitement. Joy. Pride. These probably aren’t the words most of us would associate with the study of math. Yet these are the emotions my students and I experience as we explore this elegant realm of beauty, logic, and precision.

             I first knew I wanted to be a math teacher at the age of 17 when I volunteered to tutor a younger girl in arithmetic. The pride and joy on her face at the moment she mastered the process of subtraction told me I had found my calling.

            Solving a challenging math problem requires not only perseverance, tenacity, and determination, but also flexibility, improvisation, and creativity. I challenge students to devise new ways of looking at a problem, to break it down into its simpler components, to use the known to discover the unknown.

            One of the deepest pleasures of solving math problems is total engagement in the task at hand. The process can be almost meditative. When my math professors in college would give me a take-home test, for instance, I would put my hair in a ponytail, head straight to the library, and immerse myself completely in the problems for hours. My concentration was so intense that the outside world didn’t exist. One time, I was so intensely focused on a problem that a friend sat near me in the library drawing a sketch of me and I never even noticed her presence.

            Math shouldn’t be easy. It should push your brain and use every cell in your brain to circle in on a problem and devise a variety of possible approaches. What questions does the problem raise? What might work? What else can I try? What elements of this problem have I seen before? What might I be overlooking?   

            Unlocking the secret of a tough problem through hard work, ingenuity, and patience is like cracking a safe. When the tumblers fall into place and the door opens, students experience an amazing sense of exhilaration and accomplishment.

             These are skills, processes, and experiences that will equip students in whatever endeavors or careers they pursue. Learning how to size up a problem, pursue logical steps to figure it out, and then explain your solution to others is essential, whether you’re a doctor, a lawyer, a governor, or a business leader.

            I love teaching math at Kingswood Oxford. Because the classes are small, I know my students well; we joke around; they feel comfortable telling me when they don’t understand something. For all of us, math is personal; when they figure out a hard problem, I’m as excited as they are. Above all, I really want my students to love math as much as I do.

Teachers Pursue Professional Development to Meet Pandemic Challenges

by Heidi Hojnicki, Director of Teaching and Learning

Despite the logistical limitations imposed by the current pandemic, our teachers’ vigorous efforts to enhance their professional growth and discover new ways to engage and excite our students have continued unabated.

Although teachers are no longer able to meet in person for workshops and group discussions, they’ve pivoted to address the challenges of both online learning and in-person classes requiring masks and social distancing. Teachers have acquired new skills, perspectives and technologies to help their students become effective, independent and passionate learners.

A Collaborative Venture

Because this is an exceptionally difficult time, connecting with one another is more important than ever. So this year our professional development efforts have focused on collaborative learning among teachers. By working together with their colleagues, teachers are modeling the collaborative learning they seek to nurture in our students.     

Thanks to the magic of Zoom technology, our teachers have continued to participate in full faculty meetings, peer presentations, remote workshops, support sessions and individual check-ins to make sure they’re encouraging and sustaining one another’s professional growth and well being.

New Resources and Strategies

Necessity has made us all innovators. Teachers share the latest technology applications, online educational resources and fresh strategies to deliver content, engage our students and help them take ownership of their own learning. 

By thinking critically about our curriculum, the ways classes can meet both synchronously and asynchronously, and how we can best meet the needs of all our students, our teachers have devised workarounds, improvisations and solutions that are creative and ingenious.

Sharing Innovative Ideas

During our recent professional development day in early January, teachers gathered on Zoom to discuss ways of implementing the school’s Strategic Vision into their classes. Several faculty members presented work they’re already doing that embraces elements of the Strategic Vision. While it was definitely more challenging to share the work of our colleagues through Zoom rather than in-person, these presentations offered us all not only creative inspiration but also a wonderful moment of connection.

The presentations and the values of the school’s 2020 Strategic Vision they exemplified were:

• Choreographer Showcase with creative arts teacher Kyle Reynolds addressed: 

  • partnering with people and institutions in the Greater Hartford area 
  • engaging in real-world learning opportunities 
  • working toward equity goals  
  • Collaborative Math Problems with math teacher Chris Vicevich addressed: 
    • working toward equity goals 
    • developing compassionate collaborators 
    • developing ethical problem solvers  
  • Global Cities with history teachers David Baker and Scott Dunbar addressed: 
  • developing ethical problem solvers  
  • engaging in real-world learning opportunities
  • The KO Garden: Soil Composition and Composting with science teachers Tim Allerton, Lisa Bailey and Natalie Lynd addressed: 
    • developing compassionate collaborators 
    • engaging students in real-world learning opportunities
    • leading and serving in the wider community 
    • developing active citizens 
  • The Lunchroom Recipe Project with math teacher Megan Farrell addressed: 
    • developing compassionate collaborators 
    • engaging in real-world learning opportunities 
  • The Power of Water with history teacher Peter Burdge, science teacher Josh Garrison and English teacher Beth Repp addressed: 
    • engaging in interdisciplinary learning opportunities 
    • engaging students in real-world learning opportunities 
  • Witness Stones with history teachers Katie McCarthy and Tricia Watson addressed: 
    • partnering with people and institutions in the Greater Hartford area
    • developing ethical problem solvers  
    • engaging students in real-world learning opportunities 
    • working toward equity goals 
    • leading and serving in the wider community 
    • developing active citizens

Connecting With One Another

Collaborating equitably requires relationship building. As we adults form relationships across disciplines and departments on campus, we are modeling this transformative act of working together for our students, preparing them to enter the global community knowing how to create local community. KO adults and students alike are strong, resilient and resourceful in large part because we care about each other and connect with one another.

New Methods, Schedules for In Person Classes Provide Expanded Opportunities for Learning

by Jackie Rubin, Director of Academic Skills 

All members of our school community have shown remarkable flexibility, creativity and resourcefulness as they’ve implemented in-person learning under pandemic protocols this year. In making adjustments to meet this challenge, teachers and students have discovered ingenious ways to enrich and energize the educational experience, both inside and outside the classroom. 

The new academic schedule necessitated by the pandemic has fostered rich opportunities for independent, experimental and exploratory learning. Moreover, because teachers are also adjusting to this new environment, they themselves have become learners, fostering a sense of camaraderie with their students.  

Masks and Motion      

Wearing masks, maintaining social distancing, and sitting in rows facing the teacher are new and unfamiliar experiences for students who have become accustomed to sitting in a circle, moving around the classroom, and collaborating on group work. 

But after enduring the limitations and isolation of online learning last spring, students are very happy to be back to “real life” with their friends and teachers, and they’ve energetically and enthusiastically risen to these new challenges.

Speaking Up

Projecting your voice through a face mask that covers your mouth and nose isn’t easy, but students have adapted by speaking more loudly and enunciating more clearly. This enables them to practice speaking authoritatively and emphatically, a skill that will boost their communication skills when masks are no longer required.

Gesturing

Because teachers and classmates can’t see one another’s facial expressions, students have found kinetic ways to indicate their responses, including nodding, clapping and giving “thumbs-up” signs. Teachers have encouraged students to “go big” with their reactions, and these creative gestures make classes more dynamic and enliven students’ sense of spontaneity and fun. 

Spreading Out

Teachers have been especially creative in finding ways to allow students to engage in face-to-face discussions and work together in small groups. Literally “thinking outside the box” of the classroom, teachers often move classes to larger spaces or outdoors, which allows students to face one another during full-class discussions. Sometimes teachers send groups of two or three students to vacant classrooms, halls or lobbies for collaboration. Students also work regularly with one another in Zoom breakout rooms to incorporate remote learners and maintain the safety of social distancing. 

Exploration and Experimentation

Under the school’s pandemic-adjusted schedule, students are spending only four days, instead of five, in the classroom per week and now have 15 minutes, rather than five minutes, between classes. Each Wednesday is dedicated entirely to asynchronous learning, which provides valuable time for students to hold one-on-one meetings with teachers, participate in group extra-help sessions, meet for collaborative small-group projects, work solo on an assignment or conduct independent research.

By building in more time for non-classroom learning, the school has provided students with expanded opportunities to take risks, to discover new interests, and dive deeply into subjects that fascinate them. Through group work online, students have more time to teach one another and to enjoy interactions with classmates and teachers. They also have more freedom to pursue their intellectual, artistic and creative interests, such as reading, painting, writing, singing and playing instruments. 

Resilience, Reflection and Renewal

The school has responded to the challenges of the pandemic with ingenuity and flexibility. By devising new classroom strategies and innovative schedules, our teachers have enabled students to take more responsibility for their own learning, to hone their communications skills, and to savor more time for personal reflection, growth and renewal. These have always been fundamental goals of a Kingswood Oxford education. Necessity is the mother of invention, and our school intends to continue many of the learning strategies devised to adjust to the pandemic, such as additional open-ended work, a more skillful incorporation of technology and a less rushed pace of learning, even after the pandemic ends. 

Applying To College in the Age of Covid-19

by Jami Silver, Director of College Advising

The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 continues to dramatically alter the college admissions landscape. Many of the methods and markers that colleges have traditionally used to evaluate candidates have been disrupted or de-emphasized. Meanwhile, the pandemic-induced recession has led both students and colleges to reassess their financial realities and priorities. 

While these shifts pose significant challenges for college applicants, they also provide the opportunity for students to discover, explore and communicate their unique interests and their true selves.

• How the Pandemic Has Changed the Admissions Process 

Standardized Tests

Colleges have been reducing their reliance on the SAT and ACT for several years now, and the pandemic has dramatically accelerated this trend. Because in-person administrations of these tests have been greatly reduced, fewer students have been able to take them. As a result, many more colleges have now made these scores optional or discontinued their use altogether.

Grades

When secondary schools turned to online and hybrid learning last spring and this fall, students completed fewer tests, papers, and other assessments, and grading of necessity became more subjective and generous; some schools simply adopted a pass-fail system. Consequently, grades earned during the spring/fall semesters of 2020 are not always reliable indicators of achievement.

Extracurriculars

The suspension of traditional, in-person extracurricular activities, such as clubs, athletics, publications, and performances, as well as summer internships, academic programs and sports camps, has deprived students of certain opportunities to demonstrate to colleges their talent, breadth, creativity, and leadership.

Finances 

While the cost of financing higher education has been skyrocketing over the years, the financial pressures of the pandemic have forced many families to reconsider the realities of paying for college. More students are applying for financial aid and prioritizing cost as a factor in deciding which colleges they apply to and choose to attend. At the same time, many colleges, facing diminishing enrollment and tuition revenue, have been forced to reduce the financial aid they offer.

• Who Are You? What Can You Control? 

Students can no longer rely on the traditional checkboxes of the admissions process. Instead, students now have the opportunity to focus more intensely on what they love to do, why they love to do it, and who they truly are. The pandemic has provided students with more time to explore their authentic passions, whether it’s building and launching a model rocket, taking an online course through a Mooc (like Coursera), writing poems or short stories, starting a blog or podcast, volunteering at the election polls, or reading everything Dickens, Morrison or Wharton ever wrote.

• How Students Can Communicate Their Passions to Colleges

The college essay and teacher recommendations continue to be important in evaluating applicants and offer an opportunity for colleges to “get to know the student” beyond traditional indicators. 

The essay allows students to convey their passions, personality, character and style. Through storytelling, introspection, self-revelation, anecdotes and humor, students can put an emphatic exclamation point on their unique imprimaturs. In supplemental essays, which are geared to specific colleges, students can show how their identity and goals mesh with the values and culture of the college.

Likewise, teacher recommendations celebrate not only a students’ intellectual and academic abilities, but also their enthusiasm, effort and character, especially in response to the challenges of online learning. 

• Money Matters

A student’s answer to the question “Who am I?” is now likely to include “Which colleges can my family and I afford?” The economic consequences of the pandemic and the $75,000-plus costs of exclusive private colleges, have led many families to take a fresh look at less expensive public universities and to prioritize financial aid in choosing a college. While every family’s financial situation is different, it’s important that all students and parents think realistically and strategically as they try to match family resources with college costs.

• The Process of Self-Discovery Continues

While many unknowns remain about what college will look like during the next few years or how the admission process will evolve, students will continue to have the opportunity to get to know themselves, how they define success and why they want to go to college. These aspects of the college process, while often overlooked, will remain very important.  

What Parents Should Know About Online Learning

by Dan Bateson, Director of Technology

In adjusting to the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, Kingswood Oxford teachers have quickly pivoted to implement a variety of technological resources and platforms to provide students with effective remote and concurrent learning. Understandably, this rapid transition to online learning has raised important concerns for many parents. These include:

• Will my child be safe online?

• How adept are my child’s teachers at online instruction?

• Will my child continue to develop social skills?

• How will my child build a strong relationship with teachers?

• Will my child be spending too much time online?

• Do I have the necessary technical expertise and digital devices to support my child in online learning?

I hope the following information will help to allay these concerns and provide parents more peace of mind about online learning, enabling them to share more fully with their children the richness, depth, and delight that digital learning can provide.  

Our Students Have Been Well Instructed in Digital Safety, Literacy, and Citizenship

Even before the school moved to online learning last spring, students were well prepared for this transition. For several years, two required courses – the Upper Prep Computer course for sixth graders and the VQV (“Vincit Qui Se Vincit”) program for Upper Schoolers – have been teaching students how to:

• engage with others online with respect and empathy

• evaluate the accuracy, perspective, and validity of online information

• use technology as a source for good

• balance priorities and time spent online and offline

• be alert and know how to be safe online, such as avoiding suspect websites, detecting scams, and protecting personal information

As the school engages more deeply in online learning, these courses have provided our students with a strong foundation in digital literacy and conduct, and our teachers are continually reinforcing these principles and guidelines. 

Our Teachers Are Experienced and Proficient With Educational Technology

For several years now, KO teachers have been on the cutting edge of using technology in the classroom. This experience has enabled them to make a natural, informed, and energetic transition to online platforms this year. 

Many of our teachers are intuitively and instinctively “early adopters” who are quick to familiarize themselves and their colleagues with the latest learning digital hardware and programs. As a consequence, our students are already well versed in the use of technology and comfortable with many of these platforms. 

A group of teachers who are especially expert in technology, known as “ATCs” (Academic Technology Coordinators), provide their colleagues with frequent ed-tech workshops and one-on-one computer support.

Effective Online Learning Fosters Social Interaction

When students aren’t able to be with their classmates and teachers in person, a variety of online activities and tools allow them to interact with one another. During online classes, teachers often provide “breakout rooms” where small groups of students can meet to discuss academic topics or collaborate on projects, research, reports or presentations. Even when the entire class is gathered online in synchronous learning, they interact through discussions, presentations and question-and-answer sessions.

Technology Can Foster Student-Teacher Relationships

Though technology is clearly not a substitute for in-person interaction, teachers continue to build strong relationships with their students by checking in with them frequently and inviting students for one-on-one meetings online to answer questions, clarify class material, and discuss papers, labs and projects.

Teachers Strive for Balance in Online and Offline Learning

Our teachers believe that students should experience a healthy balance of digital and “real world” education. Thus, in addition to their online classes, students still will continue to spend a good deal of time offline as they read, study, research, and write.

Parents Are Strong Partners in Online Learning

While the levels of parents’ digital fluency and comfort with technology vary widely, parents can support their children’s online learning by familiarizing themselves with the programs they’re using, asking them questions about the work they’re doing online, and ensuring that they’re completing their assignments for each class.

Because families use different types of devices and programs, the school has chosen platforms, such as G Suite for Education, which work across multiple devices. Likewise, the school also uses several different channels, including texts, emails, social media, telephone and regular mail, to communicate with parents.  

As the role of technology in education expands, the school may soon begin offering parents workshops on technology to help them support their children’s learning.

A Learning Platform for All of Us

I hope this information will help parents to approach the online learning process as their children do – with curiosity, enthusiasm, and confidence. From my experience, as parents become more familiar with their children’s online learning, they often begin to appreciate the many opportunities for creativity, curiosity, and originality that digital resources can provide.