Evolving Tradition

I sometimes joke with my students that in this era of innovation, I could hold English class on a remote desert island, without electricity or phones. We could sit in a circle with our books in our laps, reading poignant passages aloud to one another while embracing all that it means to be human.

Yes: my students also undertake a major project involving “Beloved” using digital technology and then post it to a class blog. But I still teach English in much the same way I learned to teach it nearly 20 years ago from my mentor here at USM, Mary “Peetie” Basson. Our English classrooms have long been distinguished by their round tables, prompting students to engage in thoughtful discussions addressing shared texts. Our model of instruction is traditional, and one we work hard to maintain amidst the onslaught of technological tools that can distract our students.

In 2017, however, we must first ask students to drop their cell phones in a bin at the door. We must encourage them to be comfortable with the silences that punctuate deep conversations, and intentionally work to hone their conversation skills. Under such circumstances, they discover their own unique voices and learn to express themselves as readers and writers. This style of instruction will remain a signature part of our program because we know the transformative power it has. It’s no accident that returning alumni repeatedly note that often they’re the most prepared writers in their college courses.

And yet. Even as we hold fast to tradition, we understand that we have to remain relevant, addressing the need of today’s students and the shifting expectations of universities. We recognize that students need to initiate more independent projects, to collaborate more frequently, and to do more hands-on application of their classroom learning. Multifaceted projects build what many psychologists say our nation’s young people, sometimes called “the anxious generation,” lack: grit. More important, students need to relate to technology not just in the obvious and easy way—as consumers—but rather as producers and entrepreneurs who shape content to solve problems.

Just as our English classrooms are designed to promote a culture of reading that allows students to interpret the world, our new Lubar Center for Innovation and Exploration will produce a culture of creativity and making that allows students to affect the world. In this space, students will explore solutions to real-world problems using the knowledge they have gained in the classroom. In this sense, traditional learning and entrepreneurial thinking are not oppositional, but rather two methods that at their best support a tradition of excellence and a future of innovation, as we prepare our students for their journey beyond USM.

Elaine Griffin is the assistant head of Upper School and an Upper School English teacher. She has worked at USM since 1998.

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