As we embark on a strategic planning process, I felt inspired to look back over the archives of the school to discover those elements that are central to the Graland values. Throughout my search, and with a bit of help from the legendary teacher Phil Hickey, I found a letter that the founding head of school Georgia Nelson wrote to be read many years later at the school’s 75th anniversary in 2002. In this epistle, she declares, “It was the goal, and time and again is the reality that this school was created not only to teach children, but to help them live their learning and by doing so, live their lives.” The phrase “live their learning” captured my attention. What does it mean to “live the learning”?
As I continued to research, I saw a continual commitment to intellectual excellence, experiential learning, innovation, the arts, athletics, and service learning. I saw a deep dedication to infuse the learning experience with joy, engagement, and meaning and came to realize that to live the learning meant three things: to live the questions, to live your passions, and to live on purpose. Over this year, I will explore these three concepts, beginning with “to live the questions.”
Curiosity is fundamental to life-long learning. Last spring, in my graduation speech to the eighth grade, I encouraged the graduates to foster the traits of a scientist, telling them, “Scientists see life as a catalyst for questioning. Why does that happen? How does that work? As Albert Einstein once said, ‘Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.’” The second graders took this to heart last year as they studied Newton’s laws of motion. They first brainstormed queries about natural phenomena, learned how the laws could provide answers, and then put the laws to the test with experiments about speed, gravity, friction, and energy. Finally, they used a design challenge, in which they released ping-pong balls down a block-plank contraption, to reveal many of Newton’s laws in action.
Invention is another important realm of inquiry. At Graland, for over twenty years, inventors have been motivated by the question: “What is your problem?” In the case of Gates, this question inspires students to identify a problem, explore their own experience with that problem, and then most importantly, delve deeply into other people’s same experience of that problem. Last year, two students developed a way for those with walkers or wheelchairs to carry their luggage more easily, entitled The Suitcase Aid 2.0. These inventors, Cate Whalen and Elle Guillot, saw a problem that did not relate directly to them and required them to stretch their curiosity to understand the hardships of others. The original question “What’s Your Problem?” inspires a combination of curiosity and empathy that leads students to iterate better and better designs, 1.0, 2.0, and even the rare 3.0. Inquiry fuels the innovators’ journey each year, resulting in more problems solved and more people supported.
Over the last several years, we have seen more and more of this inquisitive spirit beyond the Gates Lab in the form of project-based learning. During the summer of 2020, as teachers prepared for three separate learning modalities—in-person, hybrid, and remote—they took professional development courses from the World Leadership School, specifically focusing on project-based learning and how to adapt it effectively to either the remote or in-person environment. Project-based pedagogy begins with a driving question that launches the learning. In seventh grade, students complete a constitutional project, entitled “A More Perfect Union,” driven by the questions: How have the amendments helped the Constitution adapt and grow as the years go by? How does our government reflect the will of the people? How do we, as a nation, help to “secure the Blessings of Liberty’’ for future generations? These questions inspire the students to research an amendment of their choice, write an argument for the positive impact of that amendment (or propose a new amendment that fills a need), and then represent their amendment in an individual tile that becomes part of a larger mosaic in the shape of our country. Every year this mosaic demonstrates the power of questions to drive learning.
These question-driven projects remind me of my early career at Graland as an English teacher, as I used guiding questions, such as, “How does encountering difference help us grow?” and “How do stories help us heal?” to direct our exploration of literature. Often during these conversations, I would empower students to utilize the Socratic method to deepen their study of literature. Following a tradition of education that spans millennia, students would ask each other questions to uncover character traits, themes, and symbols embedded in the literature. Eventually, by the end of these rich literary dialogues, students would develop unique thesis statements, statements they would defend with evidence revealed by the inquiry. The power of the question propelled students to refine their thinking. Like problems leading to solutions, guiding questions fostered discerning and substantial arguments.
In a 1934 Graland brochure, it states that Graland was “begun in protest to the factory psychology that was invading the school area.” It was founded by educators and parents “who wished to preserve in their children the explorative, inquisitive, and wondering mind.” In the 1958 Graland Philosophy statement, Graland educators elaborate on this initial objective, “We value the creative, the imaginative, the curious, and the skeptical mind.” To follow in this tradition, we must continue to live the question. By ensuring that inquiry defines the Graland experience, we can live up to that initial vision and achieve our current mission to foster intellectual excellence in our students.
“And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
- Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet