Heads Up

Welcome to Heads Up, a blogging experiment that aims to: 

  • connect the people, parts, and principles of Durham Academy;
  • share ideas about learning and human development;
  • spotlight a few of the many wondrous things I get to see every day at Durham Academy. 

Thanks for reading the posts below — and sending news, links and ideas worth sharing. 

Michael Ulku-SteinerHead of School 


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Take normalcy . . . please!

Last week I found myself thinking a lot about neurotypicality and the ways in which the DA community can celebrate and/or denigrate behaviors that fall outside the norm.

On our good days, we do excellent work in this realm. As I wrote in our “welcome to DA” web page:

Students here can be their most unique and best selves. We like "weird." We expect students to chase passions in many directions. In the words of one senior during his exit interview: "DA does a great job of supporting the ventures of students. Even if you fall on your face doing something, you still feel supported doing it." 

Twice on Thursday, I felt deep pride about this strength of DA.

In the morning, Senior Eliza Granger orchestrated a beautifully moving Upper School assembly about autism spectrum disorders and her work at Camp Royall, the nation’s oldest and largest summer program for people on the autism spectrum. Campers, parents, and counselors took turns sharing experiences and reminding our students that every single person has unique potential . . . and is more likely to flourish when we expand our definition of “normal” behaviors.

A few hours later, I opened an email from Joyce and Bill Pardon, parents of alumnus John Pardon, now a professor of mathematics at Stanford -- at age 26. John was valedictorian at Princeton in 2011, the winner of the Morgan Prize and, for the coming 5 years, a Clay Research Fellow, one of the most prestigious distinctions in the field of mathematics. John’s latest talk (last week while giving a course at the Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques in Paris) is linked here. I’ll give a DA T-shirt to anyone who can understand and explain it to me.  

DA has often enrolled students on the autistic spectrum but John was not among them. He was, however, one of many students who stretched our curriculum and program, challenging us to rethink our definitions of “normal” abilities. The Pardons chose to keep John at DA in part because his math teacher neither flinched nor squelched him when John started doing Calculus in 6th grade, and in part because John was pushed and allowed to cultivate his social life and interests in the cello, history and computer science as he made his way through our liberal arts curriculum.

As an intellectual outlier, John added pleasure and depth to the experience of his classmates and teachers. As the Pardons have told me several times, DA was a safe, happy and productive place for John to learn.

We ought to be that for all children – every day they are on our campus.

Knowing that we sometimes fall short of this ideal, we have put our culture of diversity and inclusion on the top shelf of our strategic objectives. As we say in our 2015 Strategic Plan:

Durham Academy believes that diversity enlivens, improves and enriches the school – and the daily experience of every learner. We have long acted to make all kinds of diversity a priority from our boardroom to our classroom. . . . . We commit to strengthening the Durham Academy community in ways that make all families, students, teachers, alumni and visitors feel welcome, valued, supported and integral.

Race, religion and gender might garner more attention here but learning style and personality require similarly focused efforts in our culture of inclusion.

This point was driven home recently by a DA parent who shared an article from the Atlantic: “When Schools Overlook Introverts.” Its subtitle: “As the focus on group work and collaboration increases, classrooms are neglecting the needs of students who work better in quiet settings.”

While small class sizes and abundant personal attention help most learners, our introverts may in fact find classroom projects and interactivity more stressful than quieter modes of learning.

This parent helped remind me of the need for teachers to reach out to every single child – not just those for whom such reaching out seems natural and fun. As she put it:

Based on my (albeit limited) observations, it seems that extroverted kids make connections happen organically, almost by definition.  I believe introverts, however, need teachers to make these connections intentionally. Circling back to the Atlantic article, I think this commenter hit the nail on the head: “Squeaky wheels get the grease… To continue the analogy: We've lost the expert mechanics who know when the other wheels need to be greased too.”

As we convert our strategic plan to action in the coming years, I hope we interpret “diversity” in the broadest possible way. Whether we are adding grease to wheels in need, making room for behaviors that seem initially strange, or helping individuals stretch their talents to unprecedented heights, we must beware the steamroller of conformity and resist the tyranny of the merely “normal.” 

Posted by mulkus on Sunday October, 25, 2015


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