Good to Go Blog
At St. John's, good knows no bounds. It's greater than great academics. Here are snapshots of what it means at the Prep. Something amazing happens when you're open to good!
Eric Kimble fosters a partnership with students in his freshman English classes that extends beyond their years at St. John’s, and he does this in an innovative and meaningful way.
The sublimely simple exercise carries a big benefit: Prep students are confident in the knowledge that he truly cares about both their present and future success.
“In literature, we talk a lot about life, and I get excited about teaching life lessons through literature,” says Kimble ’85. “In my classroom, the lessons just happen to spring from somebody else’s words. We use the literature as the vehicle.”
Mr. Kimble doesn’t just teach the lessons, mind you. He codifies them. More to the point, he knows of what he speaks. He is one of multiple Prep faculty members who have made the transition from successful careers in the business world—in his case, senior level sales and marketing in the biotech industry—to a career in teaching.
“Do we teach the boys to write well? Of course,” says Kimble, who double-majored in English and economics at Brown before earning his MBA at Harvard. “But I do this job to possibly change their trajectory in the same way St. John’s helped change my trajectory. I’m here to help these young men understand their place in the world and what they can do with it. I get excited about teaching what happens when literary figures are faced with addiction or encounter prejudice or make a choice that goes against the grain. The concept is: when these students ultimately encounter these things in real life, they’ll have some grounding as to how to deal with them.”
In each of his freshman classes and throughout each school year, Kimble works together with his students to help build a list of life lessons. Whenever a character or plotline presents such a teaching opportunity, Kimble’s stops the day’s lesson and the class collaborates to articulate the particular insight in writing. The list varies from year to year, but about 70 percent of the overarching messages are so timeless that they don’t change. For example, the meaning and importance of keeping hope alive as depicted in the Stephen King short story that inspired the movie “The Shawshank Redemption.” Or, the plain-spoken wisdom of Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird” … You never really know a person until you walk in their shoes.
Kimble says processing each life lesson in the context of the literary work maximizes retention. But he doesn’t leave it there. He adds a timed-release component as well.
At the end of students’ freshman year, he formats the customized list of life lessons, complete with a class picture, and presents it to each student. To make the lesson scaleable, and to reinforce the different shades of literary meaning that his students come to understand as they advance through their St. John’s experience, Mr. Kimble re-sends them (and their parents), those same life lessons and class picture the week before their graduation.“I teach these guys when they’re young and still highly impressionable,” he says. “By the time they’re seniors, they’re crusty and ready to take on the world. My reward as a teacher comes when they send me a note after they’ve moved on from St. John’s to let me know they’ve encountered one of those life experiences we talked about in the literature. ‘You might not believe it, Mr. K, but I had to adapt, adjust, act on or stand up to X, Y or Z today.’ That kind of outreach from former students is reassuring. It says we’ve found what’s relevant to them in the class materials and we’ve served it up in away that keeps them engaged and helps those lessons sink in.”
Campus life at the Prep orbits around student voice and student choice
Max George ’17 has moved on from St. John’s, but his intellectual property is a permanent part of campus. The Brother Keefe, C.F.X. Academic Center, which opened in September 2015, was under construction during George’s sophomore year. That’s when he envisioned something beneath the exposed beams and steel girders of the construction site. On the blueprints, Keefe was to feature all-glass, multi-purpose rooms for student collaboration. But in his mind’s eye, George saw more. He saw an aquarium.
Now a freshman at Holy Cross studying biology, George knew that the proper mix of self-advocacy and savoir-faire could turn his wish into actual fish. A long-time aquarium enthusiast, he sketched a plan, reached out to school leadership and even put together a Powerpoint presentation.
“I got a sit-down with (Headmaster) Dr. Hardiman and (Assistant Head of School for Facilities) Steve Cunningham,” recalls George. “I was pretty nervous, but my main pitch was: It would be student-run. Technology like automatic feeders and light timers allows the tank to operate smoothly without anyone on campus. And, the formation of an aquarium club ensured it would be cared for long after my graduation.”
George’s pitch to add a hands-on, educational and aesthetic accessory to the Keefe building was well-received. The tank was up and running at the building’s ribbon-cutting ceremony and, nearly three years later, the aquarium is the centerpiece of a collaborative space adjacent to the Keefe lobby. The tank, inset into a wall-length wood cabinet, features more than a dozen fish and is accompanied by a photographic key that explains the scientific name, origin, adult size and behavior of each resident. Some additional fish were recently transferred to populate the Middle School Environmental Club’s new aquaponics system, as those students are now learning about pH balance and tank purification along with temperature and lighting requirements.
Just this past fall, another group of students embraced their capacity to effect change in the course of proposing a new student club. The concept involved students interested in discussing and critiquing movies. In a phrase: The Rotten Tomatoes Club (so named for the well-known online aggregator of movie reviews performed by professional critics). St. John’s Assistant Principal for Student Life Wendy Olson was initially skeptical about the idea.
“Generally, I tell students that if you can do it in your family room with friends and Cheez-Its, it’s probably not going to be a club here,” she says. “We want student life to be an extension of the learning experience. It’s not just something to kill time after school. That said, we really are all ears when any student brings us an idea. We keep an open mind because students clearly grasp their sense of agency that way.”
The students involved saw the challenge of Mrs. Olson’s criteria as an opportunity. They executed two months of planning to choose a sample film and put together a sample club discussion. They found a willing faculty club moderator. And, they emphasized the merit of the prospective club’s discussion sessions, even linking the activity to a key dimension of life balance and healthy choices at the Prep: aesthetic wellness.
“These students advanced the idea that this wasn’t just a club devoted to talking about bad movies,” Mrs. Olson explains. “They talked about getting club members to appreciate the genesis of a plot and the origins of a director’s vision. They wanted to dive into elements and style and the cultural phenomena that can turn a bad movie into a cult classic. They made a very convincing case. It went from a ‘no-go’ to something that really took off.” In point of fact, the Rotten Tomatoes Club came on line earlier this year and drew a whopping 65 students to its first meeting.The aquarium inside the Keefe Academic Center and St. John’s newest after-school club are prime examples of a student body that understands putting your best foot forward and articulating a common cause can have a clear and concrete impact anywhere and everywhere on campus. It’s more than student life. It’s student living.
Two groups of St. John’s students have achieved at a high level in important and distinct ways this month, but the linchpin lessons are the same.
The Prep entered the arena of competitive robotics only eight years ago, but in that span, the program quickly has quickly become a force to be reckoned with, and recently qualified for April’s VEX Robotics World Championship in Louisville, Kentucky. A competition that began with more than 20,000 teams and a million competitors representing 45 countries is now down to 568 teams from 23 nations—and the Prep is among them.
In a comparably jaw-dropping accomplishment, the St. John’s Drama Guild qualified for this week’s Massachusetts Educational Theater Guild Drama Festival finals in Boston—the 37th time the theater troupe has done so since entering METG competition 41 years ago. The Prep has won more state Drama Festival titles than any school in the Commonwealth, and more state titles than any other competitive team at St. John’s, including athletics.
Feats like these are fun to celebrate, but the most valuable takeaways are the real-life skills and capabilities students gain along the way. Trophies and publicity, field trips and curtain calls are well-earned byproducts of such stellar success. At the same time, these challenging and thought-provoking experiences provide students with an important new sense for how far their horizons extend. What’s more, in the process, wide-ranging and highly specific tools and traits are introduced, strived for, honed, reinforced and mastered.
“People skills are something I’ve developed and improved upon from Day One of freshman year in the Drama Guild,” says Alex Kosciuszek ’18, who plays a leading role in the current Drama Festival production. “I’ve learned how to interact with different types of people and the best ways to adjust to varying personalities. It’s a little bit like interacting with different characters in a show. What might seem like a small thing from the outside can be a key distinction. Forming a meaningful relationship isn’t a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. That has translated to the classroom for me, for sure. It’s pretty seamless for me to interact and collaborate with fellow students.”
Competitive robotics, in turn, involves a complicated and arcane rubric to evaluate performance. Success requires standout planning and execution from an engineering and design perspective as well as software programming chops, meticulous record-keeping, astounding patience, adaptive and critical thinking, immersive collaboration, a willingness to go back the drawing board, and powerful skills of observation and self-advocacy.
Every year, students witness the value of taking healthy risks and absorb key learnings that extend far beyond the computer science lab. “One thing that never fails to impress me is the progression of the engineering and design process,” says Robotics Club co-moderator Ms. Lisa Standring. “One student will develop a really innovative approach, and then another student who was designing from a completely different point of view will suddenly amplify that first student’s idea and create something neither of them would have alone.”
Chris Jerrett ’18, the robotics team software captain, notes that success in competition directly correlates with how well participants sharpen a holistic set of skills NOT typically associated with science, technology, engineering, and math. “A vital part of what happens at tournaments is the formation of partnership alliances between teams from different schools,” he explains. “You’ve got to become very good at advocating for your robot by explaining how and why its strengths complement another team’s deficits. You’ve got to be a good campaigner, but you also have to know what you’re talking about, and that comes from scouting, surveying and making a lot of judgment calls in a short period of time.
Naturally, every landmark success is applause-worthy. But what happens along the way is invariably where most of the good stuff lives and breathes.
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