Q&A with Faculty Member and Senior Thesis Director Sarah Barton, MA, MEd

Suzanne Dewey and Sarah Barton
We often “catch up” with long-term faculty members in our magazine, Holderness School Today, and thought spending some time with English teacher and Director of Senior Thesis, Sarah Barton would also be enjoyable for our digital readers especially after sharing what many of this year's seniors have done for the March Experiences, part of the Senior Thesis endeavor. Sarah Barton MA, MEd  joined the faculty in September 1993. She and her husband, Bruce (Director of College Counseling), live on the Hill and are both vitally involved with the school. They also are the parents of alumni Jake '13 and Maggie '16.
Tell us briefly about where you grew up and what educational experiences that you’ve had?
I grew up in New Bedford, Massachusetts and attended New Bedford High School. For the last two years of high school, I was in the first coed class (one of eight local girls) during Tabor’s transition to coeducation. I went to Trinity College, planning to play the organ and row crew, but I ended up majoring in English and Art History and realized I don’t enjoy performing and am thoroughly uncompetitive.

My professional interest clearly resides in education, and I earned an MA from Middlebury College and an MEd from Plymouth State University as a Reading and Writing Specialist.

What are your roles at Holderness?
My roles at Holderness have changed over the years, but this year, I am a 10th grade Global Literature teacher, a college counselor, and a Senior Thesis teacher and director.

When did you come to Holderness and what compelled you to do so?
Bruce Barton! We got married, and I came to teach English in 1993. I was sure that we'd not last long in rural New Hampshire, but here we are 26 years later for me and 31 years for Bruce.

What is your favorite thing about teaching?
I love setting kids up for success -- however, that looks for different people and with different needs. Collaboration in any form -- whether it’s full class discussions, pairs of students working on writing together or the group cheering on a poetry reciter. My absolute favorite thing is when we’re all laughing. Teenagers are funny.

You’ve been at Holderness for some time, have you seen changes in the program or the students?
Holderness has always been loaded with excellent teachers and coaches who are energized by working with teenagers. Now we’re more deliberate and intentional with our work. We scaffold, we plan, we share -- all with that same commitment to kids.

Do you have a favorite teaching moment that you can share?  
Poetry Out Loud recitations are one of the most intense, revealing, and elegant things that happen in our classrooms. Every year, I have my favorite teaching moment -- without question -- when a student is pouring their soul into their words and forgets, for just a few seconds -- that they’re standing fully exposed in front of their classmates.

What is one of the things you like most about working at Holderness?
Our students are willing to go for it -- whatever it is --and they love to play. The faculty children, big and small, are also at the top of my “what brings you joy?” list.

What lesson(s) have you learned this year?
I’m realizing that trust may be at the center of the most successful teaching and learning. If kids know that I have confidence in their abilities and am fully for them, good things happen. Teaching books, ideas, and practices that are new to me is most effective when I’m open and trust that the kids will join me for the work and for figuring out how best to move us all forward.

What are you currently reading that you’d recommend?
I found a hidden gem recently, a book that was recommended by Kathy Blake who is on the food service staff. That Quail, Robert by Margaret Stanger is a charming little book about a pet quail and her (surprise!) exploits in and around her people’s home. 

How has Senior Thesis changed over your years as the program lead? What are some of the advantages of these changes?
The most dramatic change in our capstone program is that it is now required for all students. It’s interesting to watch a range of seniors flourish with their thesis work. For some, digging into something that fascinates them is ideal. For others, the design of the class, with largely independent work, is hard. Although they may have little interest in the deep dive of research, I’m confident that they’ve had exposure to and practice with the skills of research and communication that will benefit them in their lives and give them a jump start in meeting college expectations.

What do you see as the two or three strongholds for the Senior Thesis program?  
Some of the biggest challenges for seniors in the program have to do with reaching out to experts in their field of interest. This is a first time for many to send a formal email and then to follow up on a response or to give a nudge to even receive a response. Phone calls and interviews are all intimidating, at first, but with the practice of this year-long pursuit, seniors grow confident. This transformation is also evident in public speaking. In September, the idea of talking to a large group for 20 minutes seems impossible, but as with all of our special programs, the group support, and, in this case, practice, elevates students. Most kids present with nothing more than a notecard, and quite a few with no notes at all. They own their Essential Questions!

In your experience, what are some of the useful stepping stones in the Senior Thesis program?  
As laborious as the research of the fall term can be, when seniors are ready to interview and work with experts in their field of interest in March, the payoff for having enough knowledge to be a legitimate part of the conversation is exciting. And then, ultimately sharing their knowledge and making it clear that they often know more than most others in the room about their topic is thrilling. At least it is for me!

When you hear from alumni about their reflections on the Senior Thesis projects, what are some of the highlights?  
In my experience, alumni are ready to talk about their Senior Thesis experiences. Some might be appreciative that it helped them get over their dread of making phone calls. Others might say it prepared them for the research and writing they would do in college. Often, I hear that it either set them on their path for the future or gave them the confidence to fully pursue what most interests them. We had a panel of alumni share their thoughts about their Senior Thesis experiences recently. All of them indicated it impacted their professional pursuit. For one, it helped her know that she didn’t want to go into farming as a career, but for others, it was a direct path into what they wanted to do.

I also hear from alumni that they now recognize the time given to them for this experiential endeavor was unique and impactful. They want to know what
topics kids are choosing today and hope that they go as big as they can with their experimental work. It is a great opportunity!


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