I have been walking our hallways hearing and seeing teaching and learning as the 2020-2021 academic year has taken off. Teachers are working hard to engage our on-campus and online learners to build one classroom community. When I drop into our classes, I see virtual and in-person connections being established—student to student, teacher to student. The foundation of the year is building. Learning at Emma Willard starts with relationships.
During the first week of school, I joined our student-led virtual Philosophy Club meeting. We discussed the components of a “Good Life.” Our pre-reading was The Experience Machine by the late Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick. Nozick asks us to imagine being hooked up to a machine that gives us any experience we desire. If you’ve always dreamed about winning an Oscar, a gold medal, or being elected into office, this machine will give you that experience! Our conclusion, however, was that a life hooked up to such a machine would be unfulfilling and extremely limited. Our experiences would be restricted to what our own mind could imagine, and our lives would lack purpose and the ability to do good in the world. Life is richer, deeper, better, when it is shared with and influenced by others. Our Philosophy Club is one of many examples of a shared meaningful virtual experience among students and faculty this year.
We have more than 60 clubs conducting virtual meetings weekly or bi-weekly. On Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, on-campus learners have been enjoying swimming, tennis, pickleball, conditioning, and recreational running. We are celebrating various events virtually; most recently we enjoyed the Mid-Autumn Festival. Our class officers have been offering weekend movies and I hear that weekly hall teas and student-run Mind, Body, Soul programs are flourishing.
If you want to be inspired, check out some of our early Inspirational Speeches, a mainstay of Morning Reports. We’ve enjoyed English Instructor Emily Marchese’s Ode to Television and Math Instructor Brett LaFave’s My Little Brother Elijah. Rumor has it that some inspirational handiwork from our students is forthcoming! This summer our entire faculty and staff were trained by the Stanley King Institute on deep listening. Adolescents need to be heard, really heard, as they navigate a pivotal time in their development. The pandemic and upcoming United States presidential election add to our need to listen to each other. Learning is more challenging when we are full of emotion. Deep and compassionate listening can bring about a sense of peace, a release of the turmoil that we are all experiencing in this world, and an ability to focus and learn. Our students need tools and practice to listen to one another. Having the adults in the community model this listening behavior is the first step toward this important skill acquisition. (See our blogpost for more information on this professional development.)
School opens new worlds, ideas, and possibilities through personal connections. As we listen to one another our curiosity is fueled. Our ability to think, problem solve, imagine and act expands and deepens. The enormous challenges we face—a global pandemic, environmental crises, social justice issues—demand that we equip our students with the skills to meet this moment with strength. Deep listening—leaning into different perspectives, hearing fully, holding judgement at bay, not rushing to respond—will be at the core of our work this year.
May we listen deeply to one another, have sustained conversations, and allow our empathy and common humanity to soar. Our 2020-2021 conversation has begun!