Thanks and Goodbye, Erika Guy

 This morning I have the honor of expressing the profound gratitude of everyone in this room toward a woman who has been the critical force in envisioning, building and sustaining this community.  She has had various titles assigned by different school heads over the last quarter century, but the essence of her responsibility has always been a simple one in broad design: improve the quality of the Nobles experience for every student.  This she has done with magnificent care, energy and, truly, love.  This week marks her graduation from Nobles as she and her husband Doug move on to the next challenges in their lives.

 

 

The specific list of Erika’s contributions to Nobles is amazing, and as I started to write it out, I realized the list did not capture the full magnitude of her responsibilities and contributions.  That is, until I got to the last item.  Erika is a gardener.  She has created the organic garden at Nobles.  And, indeed, it struck me that this is the apt metaphor for what Erika has done here year after year.  She has prepared the soil, planted the seeds, and with loving care and firm discipline made the garden grow.  And thanks to her, Nobles is a flourishing garden indeed.  And so, the organic garden she has created, and which is now a part of this community, will be named for her.

 

 

I know I speak for everyone in this room, and especially for the graduating Class of 2013, when I say, from the bottom of my heart, as a friend, co-worker, and grateful citizen of this community, thank you Erika Guy for a job exceedingly well done!  We love you and we will miss you!

 

Head of School Robert P. Henderson, Jr. delivered these remarks on May 30 at the final Assemby of the year.

 

 

 

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Dance Takes the Next Steps

Dance teacher Jillian Grunnah has an even bigger smile than usual these days. She will be able to teach in a brand new facility by this time next year, accommodating a growing program and rooting dance in a fully dedicated space for the first time. Fostering the dance program has long been an objective of the school. Nearly 20 years ago, well before my arrival as head, planning for a new athletic center was underway.  With great foresight, the trustees and leadership of the school at that time imagined that the athletic program at Nobles eventually would place greater emphasis on fitness and wellness activities (in addition to interscholastic athletics), and the design of the Morrison Athletic Center (the MAC) reflected that philosophy.  There was a very small, struggling dance program at Nobles in those days, existing as a limited one-season option in the Afternoon Program.  The leadership of the school envisioned that dance might someday flourish and burgeon, and so they included a space for dance in the MAC; it was assigned the “other half” of the wrestling room.  And dance did grow, albeit fitfully and slowly over the last two decades.

Roughly a decade ago, as planning began for the Arts Center, many people pointed out the limitations of the dance space in the MAC. Most notably, the surface of the floor there is inadequate.  The Performing Arts Department advocated for inclusion of dance in the new Arts Center as a natural adjunct to the overall arts program.  The early drawings of the Arts Center did, in fact, show a dance studio. Then, however, we were forced to prioritize and scale back that immense project in order to meet our funding capacity.  Dance was the smallest of the performing arts programs at that time, with the shortest history at Nobles as compared to music and drama, and some argued that dance already had space in the MAC.  So the dance studio disappeared in the “value engineering” process and the Arts Center opened without it.

Yet, as predicted by trustees in the 1990s, interest in dance continued slowly to grow.  Emphasis on excellence in choreography for the spring musical productions in particular fueled interest and need, and the MAC was too far away to serve as an adequate or useful space to prepare for a major theatrical production.  Indeed, dance classes and rehearsals were being held on the carpeted concrete floors of the Arts Center lobby. With the arrival of Jillian Grunnah at Nobles in the fall of 2009, interest in dance soared, a tribute to her charismatic presence and her emphasis on both inclusion and excellence. Over the last year we have seen roughly 40 students, between Afternoon Program and school day options, involved in dance in single seasons.  Dance shows have repeatedly drawn enthusiastic full houses, and performances in morning Assembly have been regular occurrences.  The time seemed right to take the next step and provide a proper home.

In December of this school year, the trustees approved a concept for a new dance studio.  The site they selected is where the dance studio appeared in those original drawings of the Arts Center – on the north side of the building, behind the recital hall on Campus Drive, attached to the building adjacent to the current “green room.”  The dance floor will be 3,000 square feet in size, determined after careful study of dance studios at other schools and with the current and future needs of our program in mind.  The floor, to Jillian’s relief, will not be concrete. Instead it will be a multilayered surface of springs, hardwood and marley flooring, which will allow for a full range of locomotive training. We also will include other amenities, such as viewing space, that will enhance the quality of the dance program.  Seizing the opportunity presented by this project, the trustees also authorized the creation of two new classrooms and several new offices on the second floor of this addition, addressing additional needs of the school.  Construction will begin late this spring, and the most disruptive elements of the project will occur over the summer.  Assuming all the planning, permitting and construction elements fall into line, this addition is scheduled for completion by January 2014; we plan to use all these facilities in the second semester of the next school year.  Funding has been secured, and we have had the enthusiastic support of some generous donors who have long hoped to see dance emerge as a full partner in the performing arts program at Nobles.  In the next edition of the Nobles magazine you will be able to see the full designs for this exciting addition to the Arts Center.  I hope you will view this project, as I do, as both the fulfillment of a long-held vision for dance at Nobles, as well as an exciting opportunity for the future of the school.

This article originally appeared in the Parents’ E-newsletter in March 2013.

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Hope and Anxiety

“The popular media reflect a cultural and psychological landscape,” argues Pat Bassett, president of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) in a March online newsletter article. Bassett says that the movies and TV shows that are made and consumed by the American public reveal a national “state of mind.”  Citing popular TV shows of the 1950’s (i.e., Father Knows Best, I Love Lucy, Bonanza, The Honeymooners), he suggests that these programs were “projections and reflections of a country that was characterized by strong, intact families, effective and positive authority figures, and a promise of prosperity that cut across all classes.”  In contrast, he points out that many of the films that have been most popular and successful over the last year are indications of the uncertainty, anxiety, class tension, and disrupted psyche of our times—in contrast, they present “impotent and conflicted authorities on the one hand or stories embracing nostalgia for heroic but doomed leaders on the other” (i.e., Silver Linings Playbook, Lincoln, Les Miserables and The Twilight Saga).  I could certainly offer other mass media examples that support Bassett’s perspective.

Our children consume this media in vast quantities, now with online access that adults find exceedingly difficult to control, especially as students enter their middle and later teenage years.  And, indeed, it is my observation that my students today are generally more anxious about the times they are living in and their futures than my students were when my career in education was beginning over three decades ago.  While I can point out that every generation has had to confront significant anxieties of the times as it came of age (i.e., the Cold War in the 50’s, Vietnam in the 60’s, etc.), I think it may be true that the current generation is the first since the end of the Second World War in which there is a deep undercurrent of concern that they will not be able to attain the opportunities, success and affluence of the generations that came before them.

The role and significance of Noble and Greenough School is greater than ever before in this context.  I should point out, first of all, that never before in my career have I encountered students with deeper and more genuine commitments to service than I have in the last several years.  This generation of students, in my experience, and despite its anxieties, is frankly as hopeful as any I have known; remarkable numbers of them are dedicated to individual and collective action to make the world a better place.  Perhaps this is a balm to anxiety, but I think at a deeper level it is because they are inspired and motivated by the remarkable parallel possibilities of our time for connection, communication, productivity, empowerment and action.  Nobles provides exceptional opportunities, encouragement, support and inspiration for these activities.  Moreover, there is a clear and immutable structure of values at Nobles, evident in the daily life and function of the community, that frames the need and purpose for service to others and society.  While intellectual growth and achievement are the primary framework for the daily responsibilities of students, it is the concomitant emphasis on inspiring leadership for the public good, regardless of what professional fields our students will eventually choose in life, that offers adolescents the reason and context for their endeavors, today and in their futures.

Despite the anxieties of our times, the students I work with every day give me ample reason for optimism and hope for the future, and more than ever it is our job as a school community to foster and develop that sense of possibility and its moral focus.

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Why Teach?

Every head of school at Nobles has been a classroom teacher. Every one. Teaching has been an important part of the personal and professional identities of each leader. Former headmaster Dick Baker, in fact, continues to teach at Nobles, working his magic every day. When I was hired 13 years ago, my desire to teach likely gave me an advantage during the selection process, given the weight of this tradition. I continue to teach—and continue to love it—meeting with my AP European History class four days a week.

A strong case may be made, however, that the head of school should not teach. The
majority of my colleagues at schools around the country do not. Increasingly, school
heads do not attain their position by rising from the teaching ranks. Instead, they
enter through various administrative roles, learning from the business end. Many
started in teaching but then turned to administrative positions. Others have given
up one small classroom for a much larger forum, and in this respect, will suggest that
they still teach every day.

The best reasons for heads not to teach are time and professionalism. One class of
students can, and should, consume many hours a week, between grading, preparing,
extra help and classroom activities. This can be a distraction on the head’s calendar.
Moreover, being a good teacher at the secondary-school level requires reading and
research in an academic field, staying abreast of pedagogical theory and technological
innovations, and being able to implement new developments in classroom practice.
Heads argue correctly that they should be fully dedicated to acquiring and managing
school resources and setting the institutional imperatives. Many heads must also
travel extensively, and they have to be available for minor and major crises breaking
over the bow of the school.

I teach because I enjoy it. However, I have built a rationalization that is more
compelling than that. Teaching forces me to practice what I preach every day. I have
to forge the relationships with my students that are at the heart of our institutional
purpose and methodology. I have to write comments and college recommendations
like my teaching colleagues. As long as I can retain credibility that I am reasonably
competent at classroom teaching, it bolsters my profile with the teachers at the school.
In the broadest sense, I think it has helped me to talk more powerfully about the
impact and purpose of this community, and thereby to envision and articulate the
future of the school. I recognize that these imperatives are true for me and do not
apply to all school heads. Furthermore, I understand that it may not be possible or
appropriate for every future head at Nobles to teach an academic class. For me, however,
the two roles are fundamentally inextricable and lead me to a more profound
understanding of our school mission.

This post originally appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of Nobles magazine.

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Break a Leg?

A great deal of snow dumped on the mountains of Maine in late December of this year, and the ski conditions were ideal.  There have not been a lot of great ski days over the holidays over the last few years, so I was very excited to get an early start on the mountain at Sunday River on Saturday, December 29.  I pushed my boys, as well as my brother and nephew, out of bed early so we could be among the first on the lifts at 8:00 a.m.  We took a few fast runs, making our way across the resort to an area where we knew the crowds would be lightest and the snow optimal at that time in the morning.  My boys don’t rest when skiing, jumping off the lift and skiing all the way down, directly to the bottom, to get on the chair and do it again.  I pride myself that I am an expert skier, and that I can more than keep up with my kids, often setting the pace and choosing the trails.  The day was glorious, the snow plentiful and soft, and I was happy and a million miles in my mind from the worries of school.

Greek mythology is rife with warnings of the price of human hubris.  The Irish offer endless version of Murphy’s Law, cautioning that if something can go wrong, it will.  I believe these things, so I should have seen it coming.  At the start of the sixth run of the day, at 9:30 a.m., I went first, shooting down a steep section near the top of my favorite trail on the mountain.  At that moment, a cloud passed over the sun and the light went flat.  I misjudged a ridge in the snow, lost my balance, and kicked my right ski loose.  I fell hard, but my left binding never released.  As I twisted through the air, I knew I had broken my left leg before I even hit the ground.  It also is a fact that I have broken my left leg skiing twice before, so the sensation was not a mystery to me.  As I lay there in the snow, and my family skied up to me, it hurt a lot, but mostly I was just really angry that I had done it again. My son, Patrick, told me later that he learned some new words from me that day as the ski patrol loaded me in the toboggan for the ride down the mountain.

So I missed the first six days of the second semester, after reparative surgery, with my leg in the air.  I am delighted to be headed back to work this week, albeit on crutches for a long time.  So what have I learned?  There are six quick lessons I have taken away that I will share in Assembly soon:

1)     Even when things are bad, they could be much worse.  I am inconvenienced, but I’ll recover, and I am very fortunate in that regard.

2)     You have to let people help you.  They want to, and nothing is to be gained by being heroic and stoic.  And you don’t get better faster by doing it all yourself.

3)     Life goes on, and things are fine, even when you’re not there.  There are lots of competent people around who can temporarily pick up the slack.

4)     Being immobilized is a good experience, not one that I would have chosen, but which nevertheless reminds me of small blessings in this life, of good health, good friends and loving family.

5)     While I am inconvenienced and others are willing to help, my injury is nevertheless a burden on others, especially my wife, and I am reminded to say thank you often and express gratitude to everyone for helping me out.

6)     I need to seriously reconsider, if not my commitment to skiing, at the very least the way I ski.  Maybe I am not such an expert any more!

I expect to be fully mobile again by the time of graduation in the spring, so I can issue diplomas and say goodbye to the class of 2013 while comfortably standing.  Although hobbled, I should be back to full speed in my office by the end of this month. I look forward to being again fully immersed in life at 10 Campus Drive!

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Mid-Year Reflections

Every school year is shaped by a unique combination of salient external and internal influences. As I reflect at the end of the first semester, I am struck that these six months have been successful in most ways, and I always feel challenged to examine why and how—and to consider whether the formula might be reproduced. This year, many of the influences and factors were grand in scope and unlikely to be repeated. Throughout the many recent changes and challenges of last semester—on campus and around the world—the Nobles community responded by creating opportunities for positive action, intellectual engagement and personal growth.

Physical transformation
We will probably never again open a school year with the sort of physical transformation represented by the renovation of and addition to the Castle. It was exciting to get into that space after many months of inconvenience and curiosity about the construction outcome. Yet, for most of us at least, the new Castle significantly exceeded expectations. In my view, the most important impact was the effect of the Castle on the culture and morale of the school. The new facility, conceived and constructed to enhance dining, also served to bring a bright new collective experience to us, conveying openness, a welcoming spirit, and a sense of being part of something special every day. The Castle will serve permanently as a boost to the tone and morale of the school.

Learning with mentors, step-by-step
The routine functions of the school are easy to take for granted. Yet it is in classrooms and studios, and on playing fields and stages, that there are critical small triumphs every day. The school mission asserts that, “through mentoring relationships, we motivate students to achieve their highest potential and to lead lives characterized by service to others.” This is not generally accomplished in sweeping, dramatic gestures. Rather, it occurs step-by-step, through persistence and steady modeling of behavior, by upholding unrelenting high expectations and standards, and with the investment of caring and support. One measure of our success is when there are immense challenges from the outside world to that routine. Almost invariably at Nobles under such circumstances, there is a call to service, channeling emotion, concern, and sometimes even despair or horror, into deliberate, empathetic and inspirational action.

Political process and intellectual engagement
Despite the sometimes-apocalyptic rhetoric of divisive election campaigns this fall, the tone of debate in the school remained civil and productive. National issues were articulated in assemblies, various classrooms, hallway discussions, and the Nobleman with admirable directness, intellectual engagement, passionate concern for the future, and pragmatic, creative inventiveness in regard to solutions. This process served as a counterweight to the more toxic general political climate, and provided a model for how our students might enter the world with a commitment to finding paths to progress, while motivating others to join them in that endeavor.

Challenges, and the Nobles response
When Hurricane Sandy ravaged parts of New Jersey and New York, our Community Service Board immediately conceived ways that student energy and concern could be channeled to help. Milton weekend this year, for instance, as always a wonderful celebration of athletic skill and competition, also provided the chance for over 70 volunteers from our extended community (including students, parents, faculty, graduates and even a few grandparents) to take a break from the sidelines to help package over 10,000 meals to send to the relief of folks facing hunger in the storm areas, as well as for people in need here in Greater Boston. Indeed, several varsity teams made service a priority this fall, undertaking projects to provide aid for a remarkable variety of local, national and global causes. And when unthinkable savagery was unleashed in Newtown, Connecticut, students and teachers from this school immediately sought ways to reach out, creating welcoming and comforting snowflake decorations for the new school the children will attend.

What’s ahead
The stretch in the school year from January to March is long one, yet I am heartened by the spirit and momentum generated to date. There are many challenges ahead, both for everyone as individuals trying to reach goals, and for the community as a whole. There will be tests and games to complete, paintings and essays to compose, and many performances in various forums. There will be seniors making college decisions and Sixies engaged in their “Round the World” project. The outside world will surely intrude on us often, making us evaluate and reconsider, yet always inspiring the remarkable students here to think of answers and ways to help. And I know, in the end, there is no formula for the success of a school year; rather, the key is the sustenance of this school culture, the continual brewing of what one parent described to me as our “special sauce,” as well as our determination to uphold our mission to inspire leadership for the public good. Indeed, it is that mission that enables adolescents here to develop their identities and ambitions in the context of causes and possibilities that are bigger than themselves.

This piece was originally published in the January 2013 edition of Nobles’ parent newsletter.

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Welcome to Castle!

Nov. 16, 2012, marked the official opening celebration of the renovated and expanded Castle. Head of School Bob Henderson welcomed a crowd of nearly a thousand community members to share in the festivities. Following are Henderson’s remarks from the evening.

Welcome to the Castle!

Thank you to everyone for coming to Nobles Night in this spectacular reconstructed venue, as well as for your support of the school, and for this inspiring project.  We have definitely tested the full capacity of the facility with this event and can now consider it officially broken in!

The other day I met with several members of the Class of 1970 to thank them for their gift to underwrite the creation of the school archives as part of this project.  I thoroughly enjoyed catching up with them and hearing their stories and memories, one of which was about trying to ride a mule down on the Castle field – trust me, it’s complicated!  In 1970 Nobles was, in many ways, a different place than today.  The student body was roughly half the current size, all male, and much more homogenous.  The physical plant was dramatically more limited.  And the program and opportunities here were significantly more circumscribed.  As I spoke with these men, however, it was quite apparent that, despite the dramatic evolution of Nobles over the last four decades, certain elements of the Nobles culture and experience remain stunningly consistent and fundamental.

The first of those factors was the emphasis we continue to place in our mission and daily life at Nobles on the power and critical importance of salutary and inspirational mentoring relationships between faculty and students.  Teachers with deep, multi-dimensional commitments to this place remain our single most essential resource.  When asked what they think is most important about their Nobles experience, students today respond the same way that graduates do, and that is to say they value their connections with their teachers above all else.

The second factor, however, is the Castle.  As the school has transformed itself, the Castle has remained the unifying element of our geography, both of the physical plant and the psychic experience of Nobles.  All students of every Nobles generation “own” this building equally and together.  While the mode of serving meals has shifted over generations to become more informal, the Castle has nevertheless been sustained as the one place where every student goes, every day, for repast and friendship.  Everyone knows the creaks in the floor, the quirks of design, the echoes of youthful joy and enthusiasm, and tones created by shadow and sunlight in its various corners and crannies.  Above all, every Nobles student very quickly learns the power of the Castle as a metaphor: we all become enamored of its permanence, creative inspiration, colossal aspiration, link between history and future, and towering, unmoving integrity.

Even as the Castle interior in recent years eroded and badly showed its age, its impact on students remained as profound as when Nobles first occupied the building in the 1920’s.  Yet the obstacles to an overhaul seemed almost insurmountable, necessitating adherence to modern building, fire and disability codes, and requiring adaptations to a mid-19th century structure that appeared almost impossible in the context of the needs of contemporary secondary education.  Moreover, it was hard to imagine how an overhaul could be accomplished without undermining the special and unifying character of the building.

When I met with the Class of 1970 the other day, however, they affirmed for me what I have felt in a personal sense as I have walked around the new and renovated space – we, working with our talented architects at Architerra and the remarkable folks at Shawmut Construction, have managed to revive and restore the historical Castle while at the same time rejuvenating the structure for the next century.  We have blended old and new, traditional and modern, aesthetic originality and pragmatic functionalism, in a magnificent manner.

Upstairs in the Castle there are now 17 faculty apartments of various configurations, all with kitchen and bathroom spaces.  We have a modern, open kitchen and servery, where everyone can share meals conveniently, and, as one of my advisees observed the other day, “when you walk in the Castle now, there is amazing food everywhere and all around me.”  We have dining and meeting spaces that will foster our sense of purpose, mission and community.  We have archival space that will preserve and make available the vibrant history of this institution.  Perhaps most importantly, this project has been an immense boon to the daily life, morale and culture of the school, reducing stress and buoying everyone’s sense of belonging.  We accomplished every objective established for the school schedule and program that we outlined over two years ago as we conceived this.  And we have done this in a sustainable manner, adding 13,000 square feet of space with nearly zero net increase in energy usage.  As you walk around this evening, I hope you will take in the innumerable details that were addressed in this process.

We are thrilled that we have raised the funds needed to make this project a reality. In fact, we are in the fortunate position of having exceeded the fundraising expectations we established at the time we began our planning.  The response of the extended Nobles community to the needs of this initiative has been more than impressive.  This project was indeed expensive, but I hope it is clear to everyone that it has been well worth the investment.  Special thanks to all of you who supported this incredible transformation of the Castle!

Please accept best wishes from everyone here at Nobles for a great Thanksgiving wishes from all of us here at Nobles in the week ahead!  Thanks and enjoy the evening!

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Nobles Grad Kozol Inspires in Latest Book

Jonathan Kozol ’54 has been one of the most prolific, inspiring and gifted writers on the subject of education in this country over the last half-century.  He is also one of the most extraordinary graduates of Noble and Greenough School. The publication of his latest book, Fire in the Ashes, according to some reviewers, marks somewhat of a departure from the tone of many of his works.  It offers, in short, rays of hope, whereas Kozol’s focus through his career has been so relentless and revealing in regard to the “savage inequalities” (to use the title of one of his books) that characterize the American education system, inducing considerable despair that as a society we have the compassion, perspective and political will to take decisive steps forward.  Returning to visit with some of the young people with whom he has worked over the years, in Fire in the Ashes (http://www.amazon.com/Fire-Ashes-Twenty-Five-Poorest-Children/dp/1400052467Kozol writes with passion and profound insight about their circumstances.  The hope he discovers, however, is in the human spirit as families and individuals struggle against depressingly overwhelming odds in crumbling communities.  Some of those who find help and resources manage to clamber tenuously out of their abyss, while those without such support remain mired in desperation.  I confess that I have yet to read the book, although it is at the top of my list for this fall, hoping it will serve for me as a backdrop to the presidential election conversation on education.  I also will read it in the context of the school community book we read over the summer, The Other Wes Moore, which tackles some of the same questions from a different perspective.  Wes Moore will be visiting Nobles this winter to speak with students and faculty.

Five years ago Jonathan Kozol returned to Nobles for his first visit to the campus in twenty-five years. Among the many fascinating and distinguished graduates and speakers who have spoken at Nobles during my tenure, Kozol is perhaps the most profound example of someone who has lived the school mission to offer “leadership for the public good.”  Kozol’s career has taken him a very long way from the world of independent schools, and consequently his focus has not been often in our direction.  Yet he acknowledged during his visit here that Nobles was a very important influence in shaping the direction of his life, saying, “this school taught me to speak out against cruel and evil voices in society.  I feel I have brought the spirit of Nobles with me wherever I go.”  Seeking to be a healer like his father, a renowned neurologist, but lacking interest in science, he chose the field of education.  Early in his elementary school teaching career in Boston, he was radicalized (his word) by his experience with an obtuse and inequitable system, and his career as a reformer began.  Fifteen books and countless articles later, his is an inescapable and moving voice in the national debate.

In a lively question-and-answer session with Nobles students in 2008, Kozol took on topics ranging from charter schools, to high-stakes testing, to teachers unions and federal education policies.  He asserted that the American commitment to a universal public education system dates back almost two centuries, and even longer in some states, and is a bedrock of our republic. And he closed with inspiring words encouraging students to enter public service, imploring, “When you finish school, go out into the public, work to end inequality and fight against injustice…Take lots of risks; don’t be afraid…Life goes so fast; use it well.”  I hope in the years ahead we can draw Kozol back to his alma mater yet again to challenge and inspire students.  Regardless of your political principles, Kozol’s voice is one that must be heard and addressed, and he is without question one of the most brilliant and inspiring individuals ever to inhabit the Nobles campus.  I encourage everyone in our community to read Fire in the Ashes in the weeks ahead.

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The Growth of Online Education

The president of the University of Virginia, Teresa Sullivan, was summarily dismissed and shortly thereafter summarily reinstated late last spring, by that university’s board. The driving issue behind that seesaw governance crisis was online education and whether the administration was moving quickly enough to expand the university’s Internet presence. My purpose here, however, is not to explore the specifics of that situation; rather, I want to highlight the escalating interest and debate about the future of online education that were underscored by the Virginia dispute. Here at Nobles we have taken a significant step in regard to online options, joining Global Online Academy (GOA) and making that program available for full credit to Nobles students. There are sound reasons why GOA appealed to us as an opportunity and experiment, even though we continue at Nobles to harbor significant skepticism about online teaching.

In the second line of the Nobles mission we assert, “Through mentoring relationships, we motivate students to achieve their highest potential.” The student-teacher relationship is at the heart of our educational philosophy. The critical “value-added” of the Nobles experience is that connection. In the case of my own course, AP European History, I am well aware that the specific content can be delivered quite clearly and efficiently by a number of means, with a textbook or through a wide variety of resources available on the internet. My job in the classroom, however, is to make the emotional and intellectual connection with my students that will push their learning much further than is possible with a static resource. In an op-ed in the New York Times on July 19, educator Mark Edmundson argued, “With every class we teach, we need to learn who the people in front of us are. We need to know where they are intellectually, who they are as people and what we can do to help them grow. Teaching…is a matter of dialogue…Every memorable class is a bit like a jazz composition. There is the basic melody that you work with … But there is also a considerable measure of improvisation against that disciplining background.” This cannot be reproduced by the online experience, and it is this commitment to the individual student that makes a Nobles education special and powerful.

Yet it is starkly true that online education is inexpensive and efficient. It does not require athletic centers or language labs, and one teacher can theoretically reach an unlimited number of students, virtually annihilating the greatest expense in traditional education, which is labor. If you have never done so, go to the website for Kahn Academy  and explore what is available through that incredible resource at no cost. The options for online education are proliferating, and just about every university in the country is expanding their online offerings, while also advancing their technologies to deliver this material in engaging, varied ways. It is a threat to traditional schools at both the secondary and collegiate levels, with their ponderous overheads and escalating cost structures.

So the challenge for Nobles was finding a reasonable way to enter and explore this burgeoning field without undermining what we truly believe is essential to excellence in teaching and learning. The opportunity was provided by a collaborative enterprise among a number of outstanding independent day schools from within the United States and around the world: GOA. This coalition of like-minded schools sought to create an online option that mirrors as closely as possible the relational model of classroom teaching. It also permits Nobles to expand our course catalog, making available a wide variety of subjects beyond the scope of our curriculum. Classes are small, and teachers provide individual attention to students on a regular basis. Moreover, students are required to engage in collaborative projects with students from a remarkable variety of backgrounds. We are required as well to offer at least one course and provide one teacher per semester, meaning that Nobles teachers will be trained in and develop sophistication with this media (this year it will be Ayako Anderson offering an introductory Japanese language and culture class). Nobles has the opportunity to learn and experiment with online education, in manner consistent with our own mission, developing our own perspective and relationship with this teaching method as the field grows. Several students took a GOA course during the second semester of last year, all of them providing favorable course evaluations, and several more will be enrolled in the year ahead.

There is no question that Nobles will remain deeply committed to what we consider to be the best practices in secondary education. The experience of being a part of a community like this is not possible online, nor are the depth and quality of relationships that develop in our classrooms, and on our playing fields, stages, trips and service commitments. In my view, the art of teaching developed some essential guiding principles in the time of Socrates that still guide the profession and which are, at best, very difficult to replicate outside of a dynamic environment created by a skilled teacher working in person with capable and engaged students. Yet online education is here to stay, and it is now incumbent upon this school to develop a relationship with it, and best practices to supplement our program. It is likely that all of our students in the future will experience some form of online education, either here, or in colleges and universities, or in some manner of professional training, or just as a matter of personal exploration and growth. You can read more about the specifics of our involvement in GOA, as well as the way in which we will credit courses for high school students, in the Nobles Guide and on the Nobles website.

This piece originally appeared in the September 2012 parents e-newsletter.

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Remembering 9/11

Sept. 11, 2012 Assembly Remarks (Delivered Monday, September 10):

The youngest of us in this audience have no memory of September 11, 2001, although I think images in the media are familiar to us all.  Those of us who are a little older remember that day all too vividly, glued to the television, talking with friends and family, trying to retain a sense of stability, order, and security amid fear, sadness, terror and wild speculation.  All of us of the right age remember exactly where we were and what we were doing when we heard the news that a plane had struck the World Trade Center, at roughly 9:00 a.m., as the school day was getting under way here on campus.  The details of the next several hours remain vivid as well, and I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing through that morning as the appalling story unfolded.  In the early afternoon we gathered as a school community in this room, where we together began slowly to process what had happened.

The following day, September 12, we confirmed here at Nobles what the direct loss had been to this community.  Three current and former Nobles parents lost their lives on the doomed planes that left Boston bound for Los Angeles on that beautiful and terrible morning:

Richard Ross, father of Franklin, Class of ’02

Cora Hidalgo Holland, mother of Nate ’01 and Jessica ’97

Sonia Puopolo, mother of Mark ’90

Later we learned, after she joined this faculty, that faculty member Meg Jacobs had lost her brother John Randall in the North Tower of the World Trade Center on that day.

Richard, Cora, Sonia and John were victims of the deepest sort of intolerance, of fanaticism, of hatred driven by irrational ideology.  They were all loving people whose lives were dedicated to their families.  All four were aware of and thankful for the blessings that this life had bestowed upon them, grateful for the love with which they were surrounded, and for the opportunity to love others.  In their own different traditions, they took solace in their faith.  They were also generous and giving, with commitments to service and helping others less fortunate.  These four were from different ethnic backgrounds and religious traditions, yet they all shared a connection, through the tragedy of that day, with this community and with each other.  They represent a microcosm of all that is best in this country, and in this extended school community.  Their loss was a stunning waste.

We are left to derive meaning and purpose, not from death, but from the richness of their lives.  It is our obligation to continue that dialogue and quest, to affirm life and direction from an act still so incomprehensible, for if we do not seek to understand, it will control and direct us against our will.  From insanity and grief we must seize and restore rationality, morality and aspiration, and that will be the most profound measure of ultimate victory.  With steady determination, we must affirm our values and principles as Americans and as human beings in the face of this most stark and egregiously violent challenge.

Please join me in observing a moment of silence in remembrance of and honor for all the victims of September 11, 2001.

In a new tradition, we will now indeed affirm life with a special recognition here in assembly.  For the last several years in the opening meeting of faculty and staff we have honored a member of the staff with the Cora Holland Hidalgo Holland Award, and we have decided to make this recognition in this annual assembly as well.

Many of us in this room remember Cora Holland well.  Mother of Jessica, of the Class of ’97, and Nate, of the Class of ’01, Cora was a dedicated supporter of the Nobles community.  She boarded an airplane in Boston bound for Los Angeles to visit relatives on the morning of September 11, 2001.  She was never able to rejoin her family after that tragic trip.  Cora’s particular concern and attention were reserved for the school staff.  A person with special warmth and openness, Cora went to great lengths to welcome and befriend all the employees of the school with whom she came in contact.  Her family felt that this award would be an appropriate means whereby Cora could be memorialized in this community.

The Cora Hidalgo Holland Award expresses the deep gratitude of this community to a member of the school staff whose work has been excellent, whose dedication has been exceptional, and whose character has made this a better place in which to live and work for all of us.

I am very pleased to present the 2010 Cora Holland Award to … Tessy Smith.  I would like Tessy, to her great embarrassment, to join me before you while I share some brief remarks.

Tessy came to Nobles in 2006, and she has been a godsend.  Not only has she made the Nobles technological systems work with remarkable imagination and efficiency, she has accomplished this with the most winning and wonderful spirit and energy.  While her primary role is to develop programs and systems that improve the effectiveness and efficiency of our systems and network, she takes the customer service ethic of our ISS department totally to heart and is always willing to help others with their more mundane problems and questions.  Her list of accomplishments is long and amazing, touching just about everyone is this community.  It includes student data systems; development support; interfaces between various school databases; calendar utility; introduction of new systems and programs for various departments; integration with first class email; most recently, a published idevice app for Nobles Athletics available at the Apple app store; and many other developments that I confess I only marginally understand but which those in the know tell me have been brilliantly effective.  She does all this with humility, a smile, and a “can do” attitude.  We are so fortunate to have her in this communiy, both because of her extraordinary talent and her magnificent qualities of character.

Today we express our community gratitude to Tessy Smith with the Cora Hidalgo Holland Award.

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