IDENTITY OF Riverdale Country School: MIND, CHARACTER, COMMITMENT & COMMUNITY

[ September 24, 2010 ]

When I interviewed here over three years ago, I heard again and again that this was a good school, but that it lacked a strong sense of identity. Again and again I heard the refrain that Riverdale is “neither…nor”. Neither Horace Mann, nor Fieldston, and I felt in those meetings and when I came here that there was a strong desire on the part of the community to develop a firmer sense of identity that differentiated us from other schools and also capitalized on our strengths.

What I am going to remark on are trends, an emerging sense of self, and also aspirations as we move forward. We have not necessarily arrived, but I hope that these resonate with you all. These are also strengths that I believe link explicitly to the school’s past—to Hackett’s view that students from NYC should spend time outdoors and that the school should actively prepare people to be global citizens, to our historically strong belief in interdisciplinary studies.

I would like to spend a few minutes talking about what I consider to be our strengths—linked to the type of school we are aspiring to be. This is, of course, idealistic, but I think that many of us entered this profession so as to willingly suspend belief and try to live our lives brushing closer to ideals we hold dearly. One of the things about Riverdale that makes me excited is that I think that we are closer to living our ideals than many schools can ever imagine or dream about. Now I want to see us push more actively in these directions over the next few years. So I will talk about directions in which I think we are heading and link these strengths to some goals for us all to focus upon in the next few years.

We are a school that is more than a school—we are primarily a community. We care about our students, our families, our parents, and each other. What that means is that you cannot just teach here. We get involved in understanding each other and each other’s lives. We believe in basic human values of respect, honesty and trust. We are not here for profit—we are here because we are idealists and we are proud of our idealism—even though, at times, it is masked behind a veneer of NYC cynicism. All of us care about the work we do here and about the people we work with. We maintain rigor with each other as colleagues and with our students, while also being supportive and caring. We care about groups and grades in our classrooms and with our strong dean structure, but we also care about individuals and give feedback that is individualized to the student in our reports, in our meetings and in our chats with students. Even though we are here for a portion of the day, we are proud and happy to be connected to this place and to the people in it.

Some examples:
• The work in all the divisions on building community: the assembly in the Lower School; the community meeting in the Middle School; the work of the deans with the grades in the Upper School.
• Community Development Teams and their good work in having us think about what it really means to be an inclusive community
• Dialogue around current events and difficult issues, such as race and gender equity with events that focus on issues that include the entire community such as One World Day
• The strong showing at all sorts of school events from the Alvin Ailey Dance Concert on the River Campus to Homecoming to our athletic competitions
• Our new 9th grade advising program

We are an intellectual community. As I have said to you in the past, I use the word intellectual intentionally rather than academic. I feel that intellectual summons up for me several ideas regarding our community. As a school that prizes interdisciplinary work, we want students to think both within, across and outside of disciplinary boundaries. This requires a type of roaming intellect that is curious about all sorts of fields and areas of knowledge. We don’t want our students just to become knowledgeable or smart. We want our students to be thinkers, to be wise in the way that they conduct themselves and lead their lives. We also want our students to take what they learn here and do something with it. Intellectuals tend to be more public and engage in the “dirty affairs” of the world more often. We want our students to take theories and ideas and put something into practice. Therefore, we explicitly link mind and character in what we do throughout the school. We expect our students to think on the athletic fields and demonstrate character in the way they conduct themselves in our classrooms. We prize debate. We like the idea that people have interesting conversations, read interesting books, and create provocative art. We like the idea of youthful engagement. We model it and like to foster it in our young charges.

Some examples:
• C.A.R.E. program + C.A.R.E in Action / character ed / Center for Social Change
• dropping AP’s and changing the schedule in short order
• curriculum work, especially our interdisciplinary program and developing strong language and quantitative skills in the Lower School.
• Riverdale Reads and our promotion of reading on both campuses
• the varied speakers who come to both campuses who engage our minds and link our classroom work to the world outside
• senior projects
• One Big Thing project

We are more and more traditional and innovative—usually a dialectic / polarity, but I think that we can be both. I hope everyone in this room feels comfortable and feels that there is permission to try out new things in the school and in your classrooms. We want our students to take risks—to write a paper with a provocative thesis, to try and solve a challenging problem that might be just beyond their ability, to take the ball and run with it, to ask intriguing questions. If that is so, we have to also model that in the way that we work here at the school. We want people to reflect upon their teaching, to reflect upon their learning. It is great if you can be successful in your teaching using a traditional methods such as Socratic dialogue. It is also great if you find a way using a blog or a discussion board to take that discussion and extend it beyond the time and space of the classroom.

We believe strongly in the strengths of a liberal arts education. We believe in close-reading and discussion-based learning. We believe that students need to develop habits of mind, skills that will serve them in their lives and knowledge that enrichens their views on this world; however, we do not do this in a fixed way. How we teach, changes and evolves continuously and should do so. Therefore, as all good teachers do, we try and find certainty while also questioning the certainty of assumptions. We all know how to teach, and yet keep on questioning how we should best teach. This can be disconcerting, but it is also exciting and wonderful and I hope that we all can feel more and more comfort in doing what we do well while also seeking to improve what we do.

Linked to our traditional and innovative spirit, I also believe that we need to be a leader in education. This means that we have to import and export best practices from the world of education. To that end, we also need to, as the best corporations and institutions do, engage in Research and Development. I am happy to support big and small ideas if I think that they are aligned with the direction the school is going and could further the mission of the school. We have developed good projects with interesting implications for schools. I hope we continue to do that in the years ahead.

Some examples:
• Our work with IDEO on Design Thinking that has led to changing the way that we have structured a number of retreats
• The One Big Thing project and our goal of inspiring passions in young people
• Our joining the Center for the Study of Boys’ and Girls’ Lives consortium of schools that are concerned with racial, gender and socio-economic equity
• Our partnership with the Independent Curriculum Group—a group of schools thinking about a curriculum independent of the Advanced Placement program / our stellar interdisciplinary work
• Faculty who have attended and presented at conferences
• Visitors such as Grant Wiggins, Tony Wagner, Anglea Duckworth, Veronica Boix-Mansilla who connect us to research and trends in education
• Our peer coaching groups on the River and Hill campuses that have formed from faculty interest in visiting each others’ classrooms.

Finally, we are both disconnected and connected. I believe strongly that we are strong because we are disconnected from some of the pressures and constraints in the real world, but we are also strong because we are not too much of a bubble—we are also connected to the real world in tangible ways. Our entire community comes here for part of the day and then goes back out to the real world. Our community brings issues from the world and NYC to Riverdale and it is a community that loves debate. We are both connected and disconnected and that is a strength of ours. We engage in reflective navel-watching on our green campuses, but we also are connected in wonderful committed partnerships with other schools and places around the nation and in the world. We are connected with schools and communities in New Orleans, France, Spain, India, Botswana, and the Bronx. There is a Japanese term “dochakuka” that means global localization that has spawned the bizarre neologism “glocal”. Even though I don’t like the sound of the word, we are indeed “glocal”. There is a sanctity in these campuses and the place-based education that we aspire to do here with our gardens on the River Campus and our outdoor classroom space on the Hill Campus, and yet, we are also linked explicitly to one of the world’s greatest cities and beyond in concrete exchange programs and service opportunities around the globe. This is a strength of our school, and I hope we become even more “glocal” in the years ahead.

Some examples:
• Our programmatic belief that it is good to read a book quietly, think reflectively, just sit outside and enjoy our green commons, use our hands to make art with others.
• Our exchanges with schools in Spain and France. Our service-learning programs in New Orleans, Botswana and India and our commitment to sending students on semester-study programs.
• Our shift in the focus of community service to focus even more on social change and social entrepreneurship and our connections within the local NYC community.
• Our focus on sustainability and improving our community’s awareness of environmental issues on our campuses and beyond.

I think that these four ideas can provide us with a better sense of identity and a better sense of directions:

⇒ THAT WE ARE A STRONG COMMUNITY
⇒ THAT WE ARE AN INTELLECTUAL COMMUNITY
⇒ THAT WE ARE BOTH TRADITIONAL and INNOVATIVE
⇒ THAT WE BELIEVE IT IS BEST TO BE DISCONNECTED at times as well as CONNECTED at well-chosen moments

They also provide us with a sense of direction—and I would like to talk about that sense of direction by outlining a few goals for this year and next…

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