All of us attending the school’s 170th Convocation exercises knew we were in for a high flying talk when Professor Jim Ralph (dean of faculty and professor of history at Middlebury College) took the podium just as an F-16 screeched by on exercises from the nearby National Guard base in Chicopee. That airplane, with its telltale sound and unmistakable power (in what seemed like choreographed timing), ushered in Professor Ralph’s stirring endorsement of what a Williston education can accomplish. Institutions like Williston, he said, “Are remarkable vehicles for inspiration and creativity.” As a Harvard-educated professor who began his teaching career with a year-long internship at Williston, Jim has a perspective born of time and place.
As if Jim’s words were the script for what followed, we were all treated to the creative imagination of our Fine Arts department on exhibit and at work during the Reed Center reception that followed Convocation. Williston’s Fine Arts teachers are second to none, and guests who were able to spend some time in the galleries would affirm the truth of this statement. Professor Ralph issued a call to arms for all students to “conceive of themselves as citizens of the world and thus recognize how interconnected they are to other peoples across our planet.” All of us in education, and particularly here at Williston where the resources are in place to accomplish just about anything, know how attainable and noble a goal this is.
When Williston’s seniors and assorted faculty gathered for their annual dinner at the end of the first week of classes—courtesy of our alumni office—our students dressed for the occasion. The full spectrum of colors appeared that much brighter given everyone’s high energy and festive mood, and senior class president Timi Onafowokan hit the perfect note when he told his classmates that individual success lay in each of their hands this year and beyond. He urged his classmates to try new things and to reach out to make new friends—achieving a global experience right here in our community given that we have students from all over the world (I am thinking of recent arrivals from Brazil, Mexico, Russia, and the Czech Republic to name a few).
In the two times that I have heard Timi address large audiences, it is abundantly clear that we are fortunate to have this young man leading our student body. Although others who spoke that evening at the dinner emphasized that the Class of 2011 will, in a blink, become Williston’s alumni, we were living in the moment and enjoying the night. The entire crowd then migrated from Birch Dining Commons to the Hill’s house for still more dessert and conversations.
One of the great features of life at a school like The Williston Northampton School is the opportunity for students to test their talents on a big stage. And what’s bigger for two of the nation’s oldest high school singing groups—our own Widdigers and Caterwaulers—than Fenway Park for a Red Sox game against the Toronto Blue Jays? Thanks to the inspired leadership of Ben Demerath and Catherine Kay, 22 of our students performed both “Oh Canada” and “The Star Spangled Banner” before the 30-thousand-plus Fenway faithful last Friday evening.
Mr. Eric Yates, Williston’s chief advancement officer, and I had the tough duty of accompanying this delightful group of young people, which meant watching the game with teenagers possessing all degrees of baseball knowledge. I was seated between a young woman from North Carolina who had never seen a major league game and a young man from Seoul, Korea, who was eager to learn the English vernacular of baseball terminology.
You can watch a video of the Widdigers’ and Caterwaulers’ performance on YouTube. Our Williston ambassadors made us proud.
A familiar car campaign aimed at linking a younger generation to an older-sounding brand reminds me of what I witnessed when I visited an algebra class during the first week of classes. Tablet PC technology has replaced standard whiteboards (my teaching career began with true chalk boards) because smart boards that “talk” to the teacher’s tablet PC have transformed the modern math classroom. Math teachers are now liberated from familiar positions in the front of the classrooms—where they traditionally had to demonstrate and explain problems and techniques within arm’s reach of a white or chalk board affixed to a wall.
In the class I observed, students—clustered in groups of three or four—busily interacted as they collectively problem solved, bringing a modern twist to the old adage that should now read: “Many minds make for smarter work.” Practically speaking, teachers today have tools at their disposal that tear down the classroom walls once and for all. The problems displayed on the whiteboard can be saved to an account so that students can access the notes from a dorm room, library station, or smart phone connected to our wireless servers.
With our first week of classes completed, Williston teachers and students are doing what they do best—creating limitless opportunities for meaningful interactions.
I couldn’t resist heading over to the Middle School as they prepared to depart for an overnight orientation experience at Camp Becket, under the guidance of our incredibly dedicated faculty. Students carried their gear in any manner of expedience, from duffle to plastic bags. I looked for a protruding teddy bear and found one gingerly stowed in one student’s belongings. What I did not see were iPods, cell phones, Blackberries, or other assorted electronic “necessities” of the contemporary teenager’s life.
On their trip, middle school students had a chance to unplug—and in the case of ropes course work, harness up—as they got to know one another better and enjoy camp life for a day and a half. Their learning experiences at Camp Becket were personal, interactive, and intentionally “old school.” In contrast, their world at Whitaker-Bement this year will be defined by one-to-one laptop computing so students can access the work they did at school while doing homework by virtue of cloud-computing—it’s a learning environment of truly astonishing and limitless potential!