The energy is vibrant in the Life and Leadership classroom. Boys are buzzing around the room and brainstorming ideas about friendship in pairs or small groups, pausing every now and then to fill in parts of their worksheets. They are considering the attributes of a good friend, how friends treat each other, and the responsibility of being a friend. This activity at the start of class is a “walk-and-talk,” designed to get their brains and bodies moving.
Each day the class begins with this type of warm-up activity. Then, through group discussion or teacher presentation, they learn about the topic of the day. Other topics include community building and decision making, and the class always concludes with reflections and a mindfulness activity.
The Life and Leadership course, new this past year, is based on social and emotional learning, “the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” Fifth graders take the class during the first half of the school year as a way to help them transition from Lower School to Middle School, and sixth graders take it in the second half of the year to help prepare for Upper School. This class functions as a bridge into a new stage of development, with a special focus on social-emotional well-being.
Developed during the summer of 2018 by three Middle School teachers, this course utilizes content and techniques from Responsive Classroom and Connected and Respected: Lessons from the Resolving Conflict Creatively Program by Jane Harrison and Ken Breeding. Responsive Classroom is “an evidence-based approach to education that focuses on the strong relationship between academic success and social-emotional learning,” and Connected and Respected offers a variety of ways to understand social awareness, social dynamics, self-awareness, conflict resolution, and bullying prevention. Working together to cultivate the course themes and develop the lessons, former Wellness Coordinator and Latin Teacher Stacey Smalley, Math Teacher Katie Currie, and former Science Teacher Graham Oxman merged methods and content from these two programs with thoughtful written reflections and discussions.
The goals of Life and Leadership in the Middle School are to encourage boys to become more cognizant of themselves and their surroundings, develop an awareness of their connections with classmates and teachers, and cultivate the tools and skills needed to make sound decisions as they move through their time at Fessenden and beyond. Ray Ducheine, who taught the course this past year, shares, “I aim for the boys to see a concrete skill, see how it’s applied across every facet of their lives, and see why that skill is important to develop.”
In this class, students roleplay real-life scenarios, engage in critical thinking activities, and reflect both verbally and in writing. The course covers several themes, such as identity, self-esteem, empathy, social dynamics, boundaries and conflict resolution, sense of belonging, and community. By engaging students in these topics, Stacey highlights, “the course truly embodies the School’s mission to develop each boy’s character, mind, and body in an inclusive and joyful community.”
Students benefit from their experience in Life and Leadership in a myriad of ways. Katie remarks that, through this course, they are building trust in their community. Furthermore, former Head of Middle School Lulu Kellogg notes, “This class has given students a sense of belonging outside of their homerooms, and they know that it is a safe space for them to ask questions and discuss anything that may be concerning them.” The course provides the opportunity for boys to discuss what they are seeing and hearing in the world outside of Fessenden and process it together.
As students explore topics such as identity and decision making, they learn about life in Middle School—but they also learn about life itself. And in the process they become leaders. For some, this means being the vocal one at the front of the group. For others, it means staying after class to help a teacher clean up. No matter how these boys embody leadership, in this course they develop skills that will serve them well throughout their lives.
NuVuX AT FESSENDEN
The Ciongoli Center for Innovation(CCI) has welcomed hundreds of visitors annually since its inception three years ago. Teachers, administrators, admissions officers, technologists, librarians, artists, and more have come to learn about this exciting new space at the forefront of a much larger movement in the field of education. Visitors’ initial reactions are mostly of awe at the striking physical space and intrigue about the “creative buzz.” After learning more, they realize that the creation of this vibrant, collaborative makerspace has more to do with pedagogy than it does with specific tools or applications.
The School has worked closely with NuVu, an innovation school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, since the creation of the original innovation lab in 2013 and through the design and launch of the CCI in 2016. NuVu was founded to train students to develop innovative approaches to realworld problems, which is an essential skill set for success beyond primary and secondary education. The NuVu pedagogy utilizes the principles of the architectural studio model and is centered around hands-on learning-by-doing under the guidance of experts in their given fields. With multidisciplinary projects, the goal is to help students navigate the creative process through collaboration, iterative design, and critique.
This past year marked the beginning of an even more meaningful relationship with NuVu through NuVuX, a relatively new initiative developed to bring design, creativity, and innovation to schools around the world. NuVuX works with each partner—of which there are only 12—to develop the program within their school and train teachers who engage with students using this curriculum.
New Innovation Studio Class
At Fessenden, NuVuX designs and implements studio programs as part of Innovation Studio, an Upper School elective course. This class is managed day-to-day by the CCI and Wheeler Library staff along with NuVuX Fellow Tiandra Ray. In addition, the program is overseen by the NuVuX team in Cambridge. The on-campus group includes Director of the Ciongoli Center for Innovation Curt Lewellyn, Innovation Coach Lauren Maiurano, Upper School Librarian Erika Hoddinott, Middle School Librarian Marie St. Germain, and Lower School Librarian Lulu Kiley, along with Tiandra, the on-site NuVu curriculum expert. This group mentors students to develop their projects through an iterative process over the course of a semester.
Using the architectural design studio model, coaches guide students as they work to solve complex, comprehensive problems. Within each multidisciplinary studio, students explore problems rigorously by focusing on a single, semester-long project. Throughout their months-long work, they are required to document their progress through the use of a digital portfolio on the NuVuX platform. The curriculum incorporates skills such as robotics, three-dimensional printing, and laser cutting, while working broadly through the lens of a given theme. On a broader scale, studio learning also requires synthesizing, incorporating, and navigating the delicate balance between technical skills, creative acumen, and human empathy in an effort to form a cohesive creative proposal and final project.
This past fall in the “Activist Installations” studio, one group explored the issue of redlining by designing a board game aimed at creating awareness about the inequity inherent in the systematic denial of services to residents in particular communities. Another pair of students worked to create an immersive “virtual experience” that helped shed light on the issue of access to education and the plight of many young Boston public school students due to a lack of resources.
For the spring semester, in one studio, students designed and prototyped “evolutionary body extensions” that respond to the effects of climate change and the impact that warming temperatures will have on humanity. In another studio, they created games that use play to invoke connection and empathy. The key to all of these projects? Moving from a base of technical knowledge and skills cultivated in the CCI to a higher understanding of how to apply the iterative design process to real-world problems. Another crucial piece of this work is developing the ability to receive critiques from peers and teachers, and then interpreting and incorporating that feedback moving forward.
Erika notes, “The CCI has become a hub of learning, exploration, empathy, and problem solving in an increasingly relevant way.” Speaking about how the CCI has continued to hone its mission and approach to teaching and learning, she adds, “The evolution of this space and the ways it has come to be used is really inspiring to me as an educator. Early on I watched boys pursue passion projects and experiment with new technologies, but with the addition of NuVuX—and with Tiandra’s guidance—we have been able to help the boys use their new skills to delve deep into relevant issues and create solutions to real problems.”
Using the Studio Model With Younger Students
The studio approach is not isolated to Fessenden’s oldest students. The School’s innovation coaches and librarians, as a result of working with Tiandra, incorporate the NuVu studio model into their practice and instruction with boys in Middle School classes—through CCI Bootcamp (Grade 5) and Middle Makers (Grade 6). They also integrate principles of the NuVu pedagogy when working with Lower School classes in the CCI. For example, this past spring, the third grade classes embarked on a month-long studio guided by the theme of “Changemakers.” Third grade teachers Jillian Collito and Maggie Amorello collaborated with Tiandra and Lauren to develop a studio that took a creative look at historical, cultural, and political changemakers through the lens of superheroes— likening their leadership, innovation, and compassion to real-life superpowers. For example: What if Harriet Tubman had had the ability to make both herself and others invisible? Working in pairs, the students designed and prototyped wearable devices that embodied these superpowers, such as an invisibility cloak that Harriet Tubman could deploy as she wrapped her arms around those she sought to free.
Lauren shares, “The growth that comes from young boys collaborating and navigating a partnership is a large part of the work we do in this space. They must begin to understand how to respect one another’s views and ideas while merging their thoughts and feelings together.”
The studio model is applicable to our youngest students for multiple reasons. Their natural sense of playfulness and imagination makes them ripe for this type of learning. In addition, the self-contained classroom, where the possibilities for multidisciplinary work are much more flexible, makes the Lower School an ideal setting for exposing boys to this method of engaging with material at a very young age.
Changing the World With Innovation Skills
Throughout this process, boys exercise research, imagination, critical thinking, and self-reflection skills while engaging collaboratively in the iterative design process and the art of storytelling. Not only are they learning about the qualities and traits necessary to make a change in the world, but they are managing peer relationships and failure in a safe and constructive environment.
Looking ahead, Fessenden will explore new and exciting avenues for boys to engage with current issues through the collaboration with NuVuX. Students will continue to develop the skills to analyze their own ideas for change and channel them into creative, innovative expressions of advocacy and empathy. Tiandra notes, “We are moving beyond the realm of just making cool things, which is key in the beginning to get students comfortable with the space, process, and tools.” She explains, “The most impactful part is when the boys gain the confidence to take this design process and make the connection between the world they want to see and their own capacity to effect change. It’s when they realize the power of their own creativity, and that no problem is unsolvable.”
Emphasizing the Relationship Between Leadership &
"Being a leader is not having a role—it’s not having a title. It’s bringing out the best in your peers; it’s supporting others; it’s being a good collaborator and teammate; it’s being kind in all that you do; it’s stepping up when nobody wants to,” Upper School Dean of Students Kyle Beatty shares. This philosophy — that leadership manifests in many ways — was central to the creation of the Leadership Lab this past year.
Along with Kyle, Language Department Chair Megan Leahy and former Associate Director of Secondary School Counseling Pete Bidstrup worked together to create this Upper School student group that serves as a platform for the development of social-emotional skills. Leadership Lab values the implicit relationship between leadership and values-based self-development, and it emphasizes traits such as empathy, persistence, kindness, and mindfulness. As always, the School’s core values of honesty, compassion, and respect serve as the foundation for work with students.
The first goal of the group is to introduce leadership development and to cultivate these skills within Upper School students. Second, it seeks to gather feedback about students’ school experiences in an effort to improve the environment for everyone in the community, and to create initiatives where the boys can practice what they’re learning and try to effect change both within and beyond the walls of the School.
Through group discussion and project-based learning initiatives, students are asked to consider their personal leadership journey while honing their skills throughout the community. To this end, this past year the Leadership Lab focused on two initiatives, or sub-groups, that were developed from a list of ideas provided by students: sustainability and Upper School Morning Meeting. The boys chose which one to join, and their work has been student-directed. They have set their own goals and designed their own methods of achieving them. This engages them in real-life project-based learning—resembling problem-solving in the real world.
The sustainability initiative is focused on enhancing these practices on the Fessenden campus, work which has been ongoing for several years. Students met with Chief Operations Officer Mike Grossman to discuss the School’s practices, and they enjoyed learning about various processes and seeing how decisions are made. Kyle remarks, “Sitting around the table with adults who have larger roles allows the students to see what skills other leaders embody and how they utilize those skills in real life.”
The sustainability group has also focused on modeling behavior change by reducing, reusing, and recycling materials on campus. They have been encouraged to take note, during their day-to-day lives, of where these efforts can be enhanced. For example, one ninth grader noticed that cardboard from the dormitories could be brought to the Ciongoli Center for Innovation—rather than be recycled—and used for the many various projects that occur in the space.
Because all of the work in Leadership Lab is student-driven, it allows the boys to act independently in productive and meaningful ways. As they conduct discussions and make plans for next steps, the faculty leaders give them autonomy over the process while offering guidance to point them in the right direction. Kyle explains, “We are there every step of the way, and we make sure they don’t give up even when things are not going as flawlessly as they would like.” More important than the success of the product is how the boys get there. Along the way, they learn about the importance of a work process and develop the confidence to come back and try again.
In the Leadership Lab, anyone in the Upper School who wants to be involved can be. With over 40 students, Megan notes, “This model encourages participation by boys who may not be comfortable with leadership initially, and it gives them all a chance to be leaders in things they’re interested in and passionate about.”
Furthermore, the group complements Fessenden’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. By creating the Leadership Lab, Pete explains, “the School has developed a program that is more inclusive than the election-based model, which is finite in nature and could only accommodate 10–15 boys.” The students who participate are diverse in terms of age, experience, country of origin, and social group. Kyle highlights, “What’s unique is that you have so many personalities and types of boy who come to this opportunity with their own experiences, and they are all finding equal success and really learning from one another.” By working with this varied group of peers, students develop and enhance their cross-cultural competency— the appreciation of and ability to collaborate with people from diverse cultural backgrounds, and the development of skills to be successful in an increasingly global world.
The students’ work in the Leadership Lab comes together to enhance their self-awareness, authenticity, and perseverance. According to Pete, “leadership development ultimately helps kids be more self-aware and better able to persevere.” He explains that it is critical to help children be more mindful, find more meaning in their lives, collaborate more effectively, and learn to let go and be comfortable not knowing the answer. As boys learn these important skills, “they are able to keep moving forward and be authentic to who they really are.”
Eager to see how the Leadership Lab will impact both the division and the community, Head of Upper School Jason P. Lewis shares, “The potential for the Leadership Lab is as broad as it is exciting. By harnessing the energy of each boy who opts in, and channeling it through the format this group provides, the benefits will be tremendous.”
The act of teaching is all about leadership. That is what educators do each and every day. Be it in the classroom, on the field, or in the studio, our faculty and staff are always leading our boys. Our messages are conveyed verbally, by example, through practices or rehearsals, and by listening. While our leadership styles vary, we are always guiding our students.
At the core of our collective leadership efforts is the focus of caring for our students. Be they our Pre-Kindergartners or our ninth graders, these boys are somewhere on the path to adulthood, and our jobs are to help them develop into their best selves as they progress on their respective journeys. The ultimate goal for each of us is to play an active role in helping them become good young men. That is what faculty leadership at Fessenden is all about—helping to ensure that our boys become the best people they can be.
As part of guiding students to develop their character, we are also committed to helping them develop as leaders. With this work occurring in every grade throughout the School, Fessenden believes that all of our boys are leaders. Yes, their individual styles will prove unique. Some will lead through example, some through spoken or written words, some in “official” leadership roles, and some collaboratively. Regardless of style or approach, each boy has leadership ability, and he needs to recognize this in himself and continue to develop with each subsequent year.
Teaching leadership at Fessenden assumes many forms. For example, each ninth grade boy is required to share a “meditation”—a personal story or meaningful message—with the full Upper School community during Morning Meeting. Boys work hard to write their meditations, practice them vigilantly, and, of course, deliver them with success. These are risky, challenging moments for our boys. For many, public speaking is a nerve-wracking endeavor. Yet, after each boy shares his meditation, he has gained confidence in himself as a public speaker and has developed his own leadership repertoire.
Commendations during Lower School Morning Meetings are meaningful opportunities for boys in this division to learn about leadership. When a commendation is offered, the boy is asked to stand amongst his Lower School peers to hear a tribute about him from a Fessy adult. These commendations articulate a special act of kindness, extra effort, or act of selflessness by the recipient, and they indicate how this boy has provided leadership for his peers through his actions. Good deeds are recognized, and in doing so, an example is heralded for all the boys in the division.
The Middle Makers class for Middle School boys provides an opportunity to impart academic lessons of leadership. All boys in this division partake in this class and, in doing so, are asked to engage in designing innovative academic projects. In a world prizing creative leadership, our boys get to practice this skill as part of their school lives. We believe an innovative approach to learning is a fundamental tool for every Fessenden boy, and so we help them become leaders in this area at a young age.
Building leadership in our students is a fundamental aspect of our mission to develop character, and we are excited about this work we do with our students. Our efforts begin with a dedicated, caring faculty who convene around the common value of growing boys into good young men, and it is born out in our daily efforts and through our various programs. As faculty and staff, we are fortunate to share this commitment and to impact positively the leadership skills and character development of our students. As an educator, this is incredibly rewarding work, and we see each and every day how our students benefit.
Do you remember making sugar cube pyramids as a child during your study of ancient Egypt? Or shoebox dioramas during your research of our world’s ecosystems? A lot has changed since students were asked to learn content within a particular subject area and represent it in a narrowly-defined way.
Lately, schools are coming around to the fact that dynamic projects are important ways to build 21st-century skills, and not just add-ons at the end of a unit or area of study. The standards for learning and development are higher than ever, and gone are the days when student accountability and metacognition are absent from a rubric.
You’ve likely heard the term “project-based learning” and may or may not know the nuances surrounding this term. At Fessenden, we work to demystify this for students and parents alike.
Projects With a Purpose
In the last decade, there has been an increased acknowledgment that differentiation—the practice of incorporating a wide range of lessons, adaptations, and techniques into a learning environment to instruct a diverse group of students with varied learning needs—leads to greater student learning outcomes. This practice in classrooms across the country has led to a heightened focus on the design, implementation, and quality of school projects in a way that challenges and inspires young learners.
One distinction between private schools and public schools is that private schools are often able to implement thoughtful projects into their curricula with greater frequency and originality. This is possible because they are not held to state standards or required to take standardized tests. Teachers in private schools are then able to be more innovative with their lesson planning, and because they do not have to spend valuable class time preparing students for standardized tests, they are able to use their class time with greater flexibility and creativity.
How Project-Based Learning Promotes a Growth Mindset
To understand the importance of a growth mindset, one must know how it differs from a fixed mindset, one in which a student (or teacher) sets limitations on creativity and possibility. People with fixed mindsets often avoid challenges, give up easily, view intelligence as fixed, and shut down in the face of criticism. A growth mindset is one that views intelligence as a skill and something that can be developed and improved; this way of thinking views challenges as opportunities and embraces critical feedback.
So, how do projects lead to a growth mindset? When designed successfully, they inspire students to think outside of the box, collaborate with peers, and become excited by finding solutions to seemingly impossible challenges. The open-ended nature of a project-based learning experience also allows students to take greater ownership over their learning, and by doing so help them to change the way they approach their own education. They no longer see failure as something to be avoided, but rather as a necessary part of the learning process. They begin to embrace challenge and persist in the face of adversity in ways they would not have been exposed to in traditional academic settings. When done well, project-based learning can be truly transformative for students.
You Tell Us.
Have you heard about project-based learning? Do you feel that this type of learning is beneficial to students today?
Long tenured faculty member Lila Bhan shares her thoughts on what makes The Fessenden School an extraordinary experience for students and their families. Hear what drew Lila to the School nearly twenty years ago and why she describes her time as teacher, residential life parent, and student advisor as some of the most rewarding years of her career.