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.