Category Archives: Academics at work

Singing in the School Year

Williston is a “singing school,” as Ben Demerath, our music director always tells us.  And surely, our boys and girls singing groups, the Caterwaulers and the Widdigers, produce memorable moments each year.  But even Mr. Demerath was surprised by what happened at Sunday’s first Upper School assembly.

Gathering in Stephens Chapel following orientation activities, the classes of 2013 through 2016, were arrayed in their class colors. As part of Associate Head of School Jeff Ketcham’s annual talk about the year to come, the words to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” were displayed on screen and the song was played over the sound system. All of a sudden, the entire assembled student body started spontaneously singing along to the anthem.

I have seen more opening days of school than I care to admit to, and the combination of activities that Williston students enjoy in the days leading up to first classes reveals the dedication of all who work here.  Not many schools, I suspect, have teachers who are willing to spend two (sleepless?) nights in cabins with ninth graders the weekend before classes; and the time and care with which the deans and dorm parents transition students into Williston regarding community expectations—with an emphasis on integrity—speaks loudly about the relevance of our mission.

So here we go with our 172nd school opening, and I look forward to every moment of the good to come.

Place to Place: Camp Belknap and Williston

Hanging in the main room at YMCA Camp Belknap on Lake Winnepausake are all sorts of banners, from colleges, universities, and boarding and private schools.  Williston’s banner has a spot in the pantheon in New Hampshire, hung many years ago by an unknown hand, I gather. The banner reveals a long connection between the two places—a connection that continues to this day.

Photo courtesy of Roger Maroni ’77

Roger Maroni ’77, who maintains an affiliation with Belknap, passed this photo along.  I had a chance to see the banner for myself when picking up our son Robby, who enjoyed a week of camp at Belknap. As a a sixth grade student, Robby got to experience the kind of connections that our students make in their own formative years to Williston.

As we gather together as a faculty to prepare for the school’s 172nd year, I think of the human connections that endure well beyond the passage of a single season.  This coming year will be filled with all sorts of accomplishments, disappointments, acts of selflessness, and acts of kindness. Above all, students and faculty alike will form connections to Williston. This is a transformative place—one which confers meaning and influence well beyond the Homestead’s gates.

Swanee’s Magic

I happened to drop by Swanee’s US History class on the day he had promised to take them outside for a “field trip,” around the corner to the cemetery where Samuel and Emily Williston’s memorial is located, among other monuments.

But first, he was putting the finishing touches on a discussion in class about the Chicago 1968 convention and infamous riots that occurred during that event.  I admit that I wondered how he was going to connect the trip to the cemetery to that lesson; but that he would pull it off was never in doubt.

As he so famously does, Swanee forces his students to see things differently than they might otherwise, by challenging their ideas, by asking, “Why?” or “How do you know?”

Swanee teaching about Sam and Emily

Sure enough—after a brief lesson about Sam and Emily’s history and the challenges of having a family, as signified by the row of tiny headstones—Swanee spoke about different epochs of Williston’s past.

He told his captive audience of the day in 1970 when the senior class walked from Easthampton into Northampton to join a demonstration in support of the students at Kent State, and how then headmaster Stephens found himself at the front of this group of young men whose youthful resolve and conviction were on display—two attributes still prized by Williston’s students to this day.

Another wonderful learning moment thanks to this particular master teacher.


We the People: A Morning with Ms. Williams’ Civics Class

In a classroom version of the highly successful State Constitutional debate competition known as “We The People”, the 8th grade students in Ms. Williams’ civic class demonstrated their prowess to a panel of judges. Luckily for me, I was one of them.

“We the People” has been promoted by Mr. Peter Gunn for over a decade with Williston Northampton’s AP US History students. Earlier this year, Andrew Syfu’s 8th grade class also tackled the debates—with great success.

The 8th graders read prepared responses to challenging constitutional questions (for instance, “do you believe there are times when freedom of expression should be limited?”). Groups of three students presented to a three-judge panel.

As judges, we were able to ask follow-up questions. The students parried and responded with thoughtful examples, clear counterpoints, and an occasional, “Could you please repeat the question?”

So what did I take away from this?  If the ability to prepare a cogent and specific written argument matters, if the skill of listening carefully matters, if collaborating with peers to achieve a common goal matters, then the 8th grade civic’s exercise was a complete success.

At one point, Mrs. Sawyer remarked on how one young person’s nuanced reply “sounded like a lawyer” and reminded us all how nimble teenage minds really can be.

Oh, and the audience of middle school students were also attentive, respectful, and engaged. All in all, it was quite a morning treat in Whitaker-Bement.