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From the Schoolhouse: A Year of Listening & Learning
John McVeigh

Oh no- PLEASE don’t call on me.  

Madame Taffe’s eyes were darting around the classroom for someone to call upon.  And my mind and eyes were trying to will her away.  Anyone but me!  Anyone who’s ever been a student knows the feeling.  In this case, the difference was that I was sitting in a Holderness class as a visitor, having dedicated my first year as the Head of School to sitting in every teacher’s classroom at least once.  Despite my desperation, our terrific French teacher directed a question my way. My complete lack of knowledge of French was about to be exposed.

I had started my quest to sit in on every class assuming that I would learn a lot about our teachers, which I certainly did.  But as I reflect on it now, I also learned and witnessed so much about our students.  I saw firsthand how Holderness students are enthusiastic, curious learners, quick to jump into a meaningful discussion or explore more profound meanings. They enjoy new topics and willingly dig deeper to discover the why.  And they are terrific partners to each other, taking as much pleasure from their classmates' successes as they do their own.

Thankfully, I had one such scholar sitting right next to me.  Henry quickly read my look of panic and explained what we were doing. Then, he connected it to my own experiences to help me to come up with the answer. It was a small triumph, but I felt palpable joy at learning something new. Thank goodness for Henry!

I also learned that the classroom isn’t always the classroom at Holderness.  I visited an environmental science class and never went inside a building.  Our students had each picked a small plot of land on our campus to study over the course of the year.  Each week, they’d journey out to their site to document the growth and changes in the natural environment.  When I accompanied the class on one such outing, I followed a path I’d never seen before and walked by a breathtaking waterfall created by the spring runoff of newly melted snow.  This campus never fails to amaze and inspire me! When I reached the site, Owen walked me around and talked in great detail and depth about how the land had changed with the seasons. He even pointed out and picked for me a newly-sprouted fiddlehead, a tightly-coiled spiral of fern considered a tasty New Hampshire delicacy.  He described the land with the affection that he might have for an old friend.  

On other visits, I was gratified to see our teachers fostering critical thinking and reasoning skills.  In AP English, students spent the first half of class constructing arguments to support one side of a debate… and spent the second half of class doing the same with the opposite position.  A geometry class of sophomores tackled proofs in groups, testing potential solutions until a consensus was reached on the path forward.  Robotics students puzzled over a rocket that just wouldn’t fire.  That class ended without them solving the issue, but I smiled a few days later when, walking by our quad, I saw them launch the projectile high into the sky.  Clearly, they had stayed with it!     

Perhaps most gratifying was how often I witnessed students applying their newfound knowledge and skills.  One of the most memorable moments of my year was riding in a minibus with a science class that focuses on nutrition.  Our destination was the supermarket, where groups of students had to apply their knowledge of macromolecules, nutrients, and energy needs in constructing a series of meals.  It was not hard to imagine seniors putting this experience to good use next year when they are living on their own.  I joined members of our photography class as they explored camera settings and the impact of light as they meticulously captured and framed their subjects, then enjoyed their work at an art show later in the year.

It was an extraordinary year of visits, confirming the powerful teaching and learning in and outside of the Holderness classroom.  Our community leans into curiosity, which is not only a core value but, more importantly, an authentic behavior that we foster in our students daily.  These threads of exploration and discovery, of critical thinking and design, cross over through the various classes and modes of learning and stick with our students well beyond their Holderness years.  

There is, perhaps, no better example of this than the fact that after I finish this blog, I will be flying to Prague to join more than thirty students and six teachers who have chosen to start their summer by supplementing their time in our Advanced History of the West (AHOW) class with an in-depth exploration of Eastern Europe.  It is telling that we have so many students, including recently-graduated seniors, who had such a powerful experience in that class that they signed up for even more, more profound, real-world learning.  I’ll continue to visit our classrooms in the future because I’ve been inspired just as much as our students have.  Life-long learning is about learning because you want to, not because you have to.  And this mindset is fundamental to our vision of developing people the world needs most.


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