Earlier this year, I visited a kindergarten class to take on the coveted role of “Mystery Reader.” When I entered, the students were in the midst of choice time. One student was writing a birthday note for her brother. At the same table, another was quietly drawing. Near the door, a group of kindergarteners was building a Jenga-style tower of blocks, as tall as the tallest student. One more boy was on the ground surrounded by plastic gears that he had connected into a spinning machine.
Since choice time is a daily occurrence, I’m sure this range of activities was not unusual. Still, for me, this scene was far from mundane; it was emblematic of our mission at Graland, a school founded on whole child principles. Throughout my recent research of the school archives, I have found many references to this seminal philosophy. In 1943, the school educational policy declared, “the school life is a rounded one and includes a wealth of interests, activities, and outlets for creative ability.” This approach continued through the twentieth century as demonstrated by the school purpose statements from 1965, “it is our aim to guide our children to use their talents to the fullest possible extent,” and from 1972, “It is this school’s purpose to provide its students an environment broad in offering.” Throughout the school’s history, its guiding documents demonstrate the conviction that every child is an artist, an athlete, and much, much more.
When I first started to give tours for Graland, many years ago, I would tell prospective families, Graland helps students become lifelong learners, lifelong artists, and lifelong athletes. Then, as time went on, I added lifelong inventors, problem-solvers, and leaders. If my children are any indication, it is true. My son was introduced to electronic music here at Graland, and now producing music is his most all-consuming interest. My daughter first played competitive field hockey here in sixth grade, and now she hopes to play in college. The seeds of passion that are planted at Graland blossom throughout our alumni’s lives.
Following in that tradition, we currently strive to expose students to diverse opportunities as they move through their specials in the Lower School—science, tinker time, library, visual arts, music, performing arts, Spanish, and physical education. Then, in the Middle School, they continue to deepen their exploration of these disciplines and demonstrate their interest in events like the Gates Expo, an athletic contest, or a band and choir concert. In November, we were able to bring back live theater after a two-year hiatus when Grade 5 presented How I Became A Pirate. Watching those fifth graders give their all on the stage through singing, acting, and dancing reaffirmed my commitment to student demonstrations of skill and talent. To perform, whether through arts, athletics, or innovation, is essential to the Graland learning experience. Each of these experiences set the foundation for students to share and to live their passions, whether as a personal or professional pursuit.
Our mission specifically states that the learning here at Graland is enriched by this choice of activities from the arts to athletics. I believe that introducing that range to students has been essential to our past and present and may prove more important to our future. In October, Ross Weiner came to speak to us about purpose and shared that students straddle two worlds, the standardized world of the past and the personalized world of the future. One of the definitions of standardization was “picking from limited options,” and the final criteria of personalization was “finding ‘fit’ among limitless options.” If we are going to set up our students to thrive in an ever more personalized world, they will need to learn how to navigate all of the opportunities and begin their journey to a “fit,” a life aligned with their passion. Of course, many won’t discover their destiny in elementary school, but ideally, that discovery won’t feel quite as overwhelming as they enter their adult lives because they have had the chance to try out many possible “fits” here at Graland. Later on in life, they will be able to reflect, connect the dots, and follow that life thread back to that Lower School science class or that Middle School visual arts elective. That is the gift we give.
As I think back to those kindergarteners, I wonder what world they will live in, how many jobs from today will still exist, how many new jobs will have been invented, and how they will find their place in that world. The educational thought leader Tony Wagner is also consumed by this question. In his book, Creating Innovators, he describes the life of Kirk Phelps, one of the inventors of the iPhone, and stresses how he moved through many interests until they ultimately evolved into his life’s vocation. He moved from passion to purpose. By allowing children to explore so many possible passions here at Graland, we will help them develop the awareness to find their ultimate motivation in life, that pursuit that fills them with meaning. Georgia Nelson wrote in her letter to be read at the 75th anniversary, “Some people say each life is like a blank canvas, ready to be transformed into a work of art.” I envision the lives of those kindergarteners with their gears, blocks, and crayons becoming that work of art, fulfilled by both passion and purpose.