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The purpose of Durham Academy is to provide each student an education that will enable him or her to live a moral, happy and productive life. The development of intellect is central to such a life and, thus, intellectual endeavor and growth are the primary work of the school.
By Lee Hark
Associate Head of School
One of my favorite activities at Durham Academy is the take-apart project in the Lower School science lab. Using hammers, mallets and screwdrivers to reveal the inner workings of household items like computers, keyboards and cellphones gives students a better sense of the engineering behind them, but they also use the deconstructed parts to create their own art. It’s a powerful blending of the destructive and constructive impulses in young children — and it also just feels good to smash things every once in a while.
Essentially, the Durham Academy Graduate: A Mission-Driven Life project was a “take-apart lab” for our mission statement. Over time, school mission statements can calcify; words that still reflect important school principles and values can feel a bit disconnected from the lived experience of those in the community. This year, we deconstructed our mission statement, re-identified its component parts and created new art with it — and in the process, defined what a “moral, happy, productive” life looks like, during a student’s time at DA … and beyond.
The origins of the Durham Academy Graduate project were rooted in DA’s Strategic Plan, specifically Goal 2, which calls for “A cohesive, connected and collaborative student learning experience.” It quickly became clear to the task force overseeing this goal that it would be impossible to begin without first identifying the aims of the DA experience (the kinds of young adults we’re trying to produce) before tackling our curricular challenges. Defining the aspirational character of a DA graduate would provide a lens through which we could examine our curriculum and make decisions about it in a much more focused way.
Many schools have what is generally called a “portrait of a graduate,” and many of the portraits we encountered felt lukewarm — both in term of text and presentation. But it helped to know what we didn’t want ours to look like. At the beginning of the school year, I met with faculty in each school division and with the Alumni Board to talk about DA’s values and to collect reactions to those sample portraits. As a follow-up, all faculty, staff, and members of the Alumni Board were invited to respond to the following questions:
- What are the traits or attributes that characterize a moral, happy and productive life?
- What should our graduates be able to do — and how should they be able to live — after experiencing an education at Durham Academy?
- What are the ways we operationalize these attributes at DA? Where do they show up in our curriculum, in the daily schedule, in our activities, in our interactions, etc.?
In September 2016, faculty were invited to serve on a task force charged with shaping this input into our portrait. The following were selected for the group:
Preschool: Jessica Whilden
Lower School: Chris Mason, Rosemary Nye, Debbie Suggs
Middle School: Gib Fitzpatrick
Upper School: Kathy Cleaver, Tara Eppinger, Jen Rogers, Harry Thomas
Administration: Bryan Brander, Lee Hark, Xandy Jones, Leslie King, Michael Ulku-Steiner
Beginning in October, the task force met multiple times and worked to find patterns and themes in the extensive faculty feedback. Agreement on several parameters helped guide our efforts. Specifically, we wanted our results to cohere with existing messaging (the mission statement, admissions material, etc.); support admissions, development and communications efforts; provide a barometer to help measure the success of our curriculum; serve as a lens through which we could view future curricular design and revision; and contain and retain memorable elements (like “moral, happy and productive”).
A turning point for the group occurred when we realized the best guide posts for our work were right in front of us — the three-legged stool of the school’s mission statement. Defining what we meant by wanting our graduates to be moral, happy, productive people and how that manifested itself in the daily lived experience of 1,200 students ranging in age from 4 to 18 constituted the bulk of our discussions in later meetings. It wasn’t an easy task. What qualities would we identify as universally important, regardless of the age, stage or tenure of a student? After innumerable debates on meanings, connotations and implications of words, we identified the following as the shared characteristics of a moral, happy and productive Durham Academy graduate:
While “portrait of a graduate” is a title widely used by other schools, the word “portrait” itself felt too static, too fixed in time, and not future-oriented. The group wanted a title that would imply that students were hopefully infused with these characteristics while at DA, but also that we are just as interested and invested in the adults they will become and the citizens they will be as we are when they are our students. In the end, “The Durham Academy Graduate: A Mission-Driven Life” seemed to capture all of those elements: a sense of striving, a set of characteristics that spoke to every division and values our alumni would carry with them throughout their lives.
The task force incorporated feedback from the results and presented the project for a review by the Administrative Team and the Board of Trustees, both of which were positive.
Our energies now shift to identifying the people, programs and experiences within DA that already exemplify these characteristics and where we can create new opportunities to emphasize them. In the fall, we will unveil new design iterations (both internal and external) of this project, and we will be tracking where, when and how we teach these characteristics across the 14 grade levels through a portal in our curriculum mapping software.
Subsequent focus group discussions with students, faculty and staff about these characteristics have been some of the most enlightening and inspiring parts of this project — and personally enriching as well. I asked teachers or advisors to select the characteristic that might mean the most to their respective groups. With each group, I focused on the following questions:
- Why is this characteristic important?
- Where at DA is it celebrated or reinforced?
- How does the school intentionally teach it?
- How might we be better at doing so?
As with many parts of our current strategic plan, thoughtful, deliberate and intentional discussion about these attributes will clarify what they mean to us individually and help refine what their value is to us as a community. It will also help us identify where we are doing the work we need to be doing to develop character, and where we need to do more.
Patti Donnelly’s sixth-grade advisory described the Middle School as a community that celebrates and values empathy. “The school teaches empathy by congratulating students when they show it,” said one student. Students help each other and regularly recognize empathy in others. Most impressively, the students seemed to agree with this sentiment: “I don’t think our school tries to teach empathy; it’s just sort of expected in everyone.”
“Every year I try to help my students find their way to it, both by my own example and through my teaching,” explained Upper School English teacher Jordan Adair. “If they can put themselves into the shoes of another person, truly try to understand the world from that person’s perspective, then they will know something of what empathy is.”
Tyrone Gould’s sixth-grade advisory and I discussed kindness. When I asked why they picked that particular word, several students remarked that they saw kindness at the center of the entire list of 15 traits, with the other traits flowing outward from it. “Kindness is the center of these words,” said one student. “Everything else matters, but not as much.” To these students, most expressions of kindness focused on belonging or inclusion. One student said, “Kindness is making sure people know they can sit next to you at lunch or in class.”
“We dedicate valuable time within advisory to writing notes that allow students to extend kindness and generosity,” Gould said. “Most importantly, these notes capture honest and heartfelt kindness.” It was nice to hear that the students also saw their teachers as exemplars of kindness.
There was an inspiring moment in the Mission-Driven Life course last fall that had to do directly with integrity. Julia King proclaimed that the word that drives her personal mission statement more than any other is the concept of wholeness. “Yes!” said the class. It reminded me of the importance of integrity (a word that, Michael is quick to note, comes from the Latin integer, which means “intact” or “whole”). At Durham Academy, having integrity not only implies a moral rectitude, but also an internal coherence. It guides and innervates almost everything we do, and it is a word I hope people associate with me.
Tom Barry’s fourth-grade class chose to focus on responsibility. Not surprisingly, the most obvious examples of responsibility to these 10-year-olds are chores. As the students listed them, one thing became clear to me: the domesticated animals in the Triangle are well cared for. [Another revelation: It’s time for my children to learn how to fold laundry.] Impressively, they were able to distinguish between jobs they had in the classroom and the larger task of role-modeling for younger Lower School students. There was a sense that more responsibility came with fewer rules. “Mr. Barry calls us ‘mini-adults,’ ” one student said, “and we do have freedom.” Another student said: “Whenever there is privilege, there is responsibility. So when we have less rules, we have more freedom, but we have to not take advantage of that privilege.”
“At Durham Academy, courage is everywhere,” seventh-grade teacher Mike Harris said. “One student became a hero to his peers for the first time doing skits during week two of seventh grade. Another took a stand in a seminar against a barrage of dissenting views. Yet another faced the crowd, alone on a stage, and her voice shared the poetry of her pain and the beauty of language with the hundreds who snapped in unison with praise.”
“Curiosity should be embedded in the curriculum with opportunities to inquire and wonder. But curiosity is also part of the social curriculum,” said third-grade teacher Jeff Burch. “In morning meeting, students learn to listen to each other and ask thoughtful questions. As the year progresses, students learn that questions help us understand other people’s perspectives.”
“I’m glad curiosity is on the ‘happy’ list,” said Upper School English teacher Tina Bessias. “It is, indeed, a happy state. It implies the hope of finding answers, and it propels action.”
“The first trip to the Ronald McDonald House helps to create a personal connection for students,” explained first-grade teacher Rosemary Nye. “Teachers have whole group discussions to make the connection between the work that we do throughout the year and how we have a responsibility to help others in our community. Students develop empathy, understand their responsibility to help others and what it means to be engaged with the greater community.”
“Special Olympics is another great vehicle for engagement, wisdom, empathy, responsibility and more,” said Head of School Michael Ulku-Steiner. “It’s wonderful that that day of giving back is so beloved by our students.”
“Authenticity works — helping kids to be self-aware and self-accepting and giving them the opportunities for that — is when you see what you might not expect in a student,” said Upper School learning specialist Jen Rogers. “What DA does is provide students ways to engage so they can be themselves and learn about themselves.”
“What I have learned about my own success is that it is driven by joy,” said one Upper School student. “Joy is an often-overlooked trait.”
First-grade teacher Debbie Suggs provides her own definition of joy: “There are many opportunities to joyfully celebrate our DA family, but the All-School Pep Rally is the one day where everyone from all three campuses meets in the Upper School gym to cheer for DA. Students from Preschool to Upper School, our faculty, administration, staff and maintenance crew, all in one place at one moment in time honoring our unity. One need not look far to hear joy, see joy and feel joy.”
“Balance is truly the word that encompasses all aspects of life,” explained Lower School math specialist Nataki McClain. “We model balance by being attentive to the thoughts of others. We own balance by recognizing the need for more — or less. We defy balance by showing students that the ‘impossible’ can, at the least, be attempted. We embrace balance by listening to the inner voice that speaks to our hearts. We exemplify balance by finding the best in others. We honor balance by making plans to balance our lives.”
“Creativity in the classroom means taking concepts you already know and exploring new ways to develop a deeper understanding,” said first-grade teacher Caroline Petrow. “It requires students to take risks, explore multiple perspectives, feel comfortable with failure and engage in the process of learning. It propels teachers to ask questions with more than one right answer, expect divergent thinking and encourage student choice. Creativity allows for learning in a world of meaningful possibilities.”
“Drive takes guts,” said one Upper School student. “Making mistakes and persevering beyond them isn’t a natural talent; it’s a skill you learn over time, one grueling slip-up after the other. When you notice a mistake in your work, it’s your obligation to fix it, and that’s a skill I have. Even if I’m not highly motivated, I’m inspired. Inspiration is natural, while drive is wholly, completely man-made.”
“I still have a hard time being resilient,” admitted an Upper School student. “I don’t recover quickly from difficulties; change is painful and challenging for me. But I think that resilience, like courage, is not the lack of fear; it’s the acceptance of and persistence through fear. It’s a process. I’m definitely not tough enough yet. But the resilience will come with more time and more experiences. I might never welcome the hardships of life, but at least now I can glimpse the other side of those obstacles; I know they’ll leave me with thicker skin and more perspective.”
“If someone asked me to define Durham Academy, the first thing I think of is generosity,” said maintenance foreman Randy Baker. “Over the 36 years I’ve worked here, I’ve seen our community brightening the lives of the Emerald Pond residents, packaging food, collecting coats and canned goods, and the list goes on and on. Our teachers, students and parents have made this a ‘giving’ school. That makes us more aware of the blessings of giving in our everyday lives.”
“Each semester, my students have the opportunity to earn a little extra credit by writing a thank-you note to a teacher,” said eighth-grade math teacher Gib Fitzpatrick. “And each semester, I am awed by the full-hearted gratitude they express. Many offer generous, meaningful descriptions of their appreciation, some of which are literally works of art. For the teachers who receive them, those notes are inspiring and become priceless keepsakes.”
“Each member of the Durham Academy Security Team draws upon wisdom gained through 25-plus years of police experience to keep our school safe,” said Assistant Director of Security Jim Cleary. “This wisdom gives officers unique insights into people, events and situations and the ability to apply perception and judgment to make sound decisions in keeping with the goals and mission of DA.”
If these conversations are any indication, the lessons we will learn from each other in the near future will be rich and profound. And they will help make us the school we want to be. The Durham Academy Graduate initiative has its focus squarely on the long game: the goal of creating moral, happy and productive adults. We — students, teachers and parents — were drawn to this community because of it and the work we are sustained by, the work we all do each day, to achieve it.