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!
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.
As a social studies teacher for grades seven and eight at St. John’s, Jared Rodriguez ’09 is constantly reminded of his own middle school experience. In particular, he recalls that lunch period was sacred. Just as quickly, he notes that he never had access to anything like the Middle School’s weekly Treehouse gathering.
The concept is simple: To recreate the easygoing interlude that comes with boys climbing up into a treehouse to share their thoughts and swap stories. Every Tuesday inside the Ford Family Student Center, Middle School students flock to a roundtable discussion—during their lunch period—to exchange ideas and observations on a variety of themes and subjects in a staff-moderated setting.
“At its core, Treehouse is a space for kids to engage in culturally diverse conversation about subjects that mean more than just talking for the sake of talking,” says Middle School Counselor Mark Gafur. “Some of our topics are impromptu, some are chosen in light of what’s going on in the world. We also draw upon the curriculum, for example, integrating aspects of social studies and religious studies classes.”
Treehouse topics are wide-ranging. Students who attend Treehouse have pondered gender stereotypes (in sports, the workplace, and even among superheroes), learned about the varied holiday traditions of different cultures, delved into the implications of a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, and explored why some NFL players chose to kneel during the national anthem this past season.
“Everything we select is developmentally appropriate, and for the most part, the kids are fairly well-informed coming in,” says Gafur. “For the ones who are not, I think they become informed during or by following up on our conversations. Everyone is encouraged to have their own opinion, but we also make sure they understand we have norms, and that when you come into the space, you respect the space and participants. What’s exciting is that these students are able to have a real conversation.”
Since its establishment in the winter of 2017, Treehouse has drawn 15–20 students in both sessions each week—the first at 11:25 am and the second at noon. Most of the students who began attending in grade six have continued their participation now that they are in grade seven.
“I think Treehouse is inspiring,” says James Maestranzi ’24. “I come because I like all the teachers and I like the stuff we talk about. I get insights.”
In acknowledgement of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and in anticipation of Black History Month, students were asked to offer up a cause that might inspire them to cross a symbolic bridge, like the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, one of the most hallowed places in America's civil rights history and a symbol of racial equality since Dr. King’s marches there in 1965. Using a photo of the Selma bridge for inspiration, students sketched their own “bridge” ideals, raising issues like affordable healthcare and equal pay for women.
“I come because I like to hang out with friends and the teachers are fun,” says Ben McGee ’24. “My interest depends on the subject, but something like building our own ‘Bridge to Selma’ really made me think.”
Hands in the air
“I think some people think Middle School boys don’t know what’s happening in the world or don’t have an opinion, but there’s a real willingness to share in these sessions,” says Rodriguez. “Hands are up, and that’s what ignites conversation. I think that makes it unique. It’s a half-hour conversation in a micro community, but it continues outside this space and into the greater community.”
Balance is a key component as well. “Sometimes we dig deeper and sometimes we keep it light,” says Middle School Counselor Liz Liwo. “There may or may not be popsicles.”
Throughout Black History Month this February, Treehouse continued to touch upon themes of race and inequality. St. John’s football and track coach Ken McClendon appeared as a guest speaker to share his experience growing up in Denver, Colorado, throughout the Civil Rights Movement. Coach McClendon, 61, related anecdotes about being forced to ride in the back of a public bus with his mother, his chance meeting with American icon Jesse Owens, the race riots of 1967 and ’68, and his memory of his parents embracing in tears upon hearing the news of President Kennedy’s assassination.
“It was a first-hand account of a turbulent time and the kids hung on every word,” says Liwo. “They were so enthusiastic. Every one of them got out of their chairs and shook his hand and thanked him for coming. That was unprompted by staff or faculty. That’s when it really hits home that things like Treehouse are helping our students acquire the tools they need to be thoughtful and compassionate citizens of the world.”
Middle School science teacher Chyanne Smith is a big fan of her department’s curriculum, which takes its cues from the Smithsonian Institute’s Science and Technology Concepts program. The learning framework is designed to align with Next Generation Science Standards, whereby science and engineering practices, teachable core ideas, and crosscutting concepts are integrated in every lesson. Good stuff all around, to be sure.
As she wrapped up her first year of teaching at the Middle School last spring, however, Smith experienced a flash of insight: To take the student experience to higher heights, she and her colleagues would need three different textbooks to truly deliver upon the Smithsonian’s hands-on-execution foundation. Alternatively, she could write her own.
One semester (and one very busy summer later), Smith’s textbook—produced in iBooks Author with some advice from the EdTech staff at the Prep—is a core component of the grade six course of study.
“My vision of the end product was powerful enough to see that it would be worth it,” says Smith. “Having taught the class, I loved the flexibility of taking core content and enriching it to highlight the things that are really important.”
The result is a 36-page, interactive textbook complete with embedded video, clickable images and graphical interfaces that, for example, email students the results of a Google Forms quiz they take at the end of each section. Smith’s book encompasses the first of three units for students of her grade level. A customized text for unit two is in progress and the third will follow. Colleagues Tim Creamer and Louise Nelson, who also teach the class, offered input to the final edit.
The plan moving forward is to generate new editions before every school year. Tops on Smith’s wish list is to add interactive graphical labs as well as video instruction of lab setups.
POWERFUL EXAMPLES of a customized learning experience for Prep students are thriving at the High School as well.
PHYSICS: “One of the great joys of teaching here that we have the support and creative flexibility to meet the needs of our students in the most effective way we can,” says St. John’s Science Department Chair Gary Smith, who believes customized materials enhance the student experience in three important ways:
- First, Prep teachers can produce original content that dovetails with students’ pencil-and-paper lab experience, amplifying their ability to acquire problem-solving skills.
- Second, teachers can put the science that they’re teaching into a real-world context, using the connectivity of the iPad so students can work with key information, but also understand the methodology behind its collection.
- Finally, customization enables teachers to address student misconceptions in a broadly supportive manner. “Over time, we’ve built up a library of tutorials called ‘helpful Eagles’ that outlines new material, coaches students in our methods, and maximizes actual lab time in the classroom,” says Smith. Adds junior Will Poulin, “I think the physics curriculum allows teachers to easily convey the material because they created it themselves, rather than just handing out a universal, online printed copy. The videos that go along with many of the digital worksheets are helpful because it’s your own teacher speaking in both the video and writing the questions."
COMPUTER SCIENCE: Since 2014, the St. John’s Computer Science Department has harvested online units from a course developed at the University of Texas, and augmented it with supplemental materials selected by Prep teachers. “Computer Science has a strong tradition as a discipline of open source instructional materials,” says Department Chair Bernie Gilmore. “As a department, we also use Apple's free, open-sourced curriculum for our iOS class, which uses Apple Swift language and a textbook and materials all provided free with rights to alter and use the material as teachers see fit.” Given the latitude to customize and adapt material from the people who know the most about programming in Swift for iOS, Prep computer science teachers have seen extraordinary benefits to the student experience.
LATIN: In order to complete the AP Latin syllabus, students at St. John’s must read and analyze large segments of Latin text at a rapid pace. To facilitate this task, Ms. Elizabeth Solomon has developed a customized digital text that she updates every year to provide students with the grammatical support and cues they need to read the words of Vergil and Caesar with fluency. “Although this digitized text does not provide easy answers, it’s formatted and color-coded in order to steer students away from common pitfalls that can hamper their ability to translate,” she says.
“Customization for the benefit of the students creates a more energized learning experience,” says Mark McManmon, the assistant principal for academics, grades 11 and 12. “This approach gives teachers every opportunity to revise and update their materials to reflect changes in the field of study as well as feedback from the students. It is teachers—not an inanimate commercial textbook—who know which topics should be paired together or scaffolded in the just the right way for the benefit of the students in front of them.”
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