Letter from Steve Piltch - February 2017

February 28, 2017

Dear Shipley Families,

The month of February is by its very nature paradoxical: although it is the shortest month of the year in days, all too often it is the month that feels the longest. Whether it is caused by the shortness of the days, the usually cold and difficult weather, or some other reason, it is a month where people seem more anxious, there’s more challenging behavior among students, and the general frame of mind is not as positive as other times. On some levels Joseph Wood Krutch, a writer who was born in 1893 and passed away in 1970, captured the essence when he said, “The most serious charge which can be brought against New England is not Puritanism but February.”

For whatever reason, that has not been the case this year. Don’t get me wrong – we have had a snow day, have seen more than our share of illness, and have experienced some moments of concern. But the overall atmosphere and sense of things at School has been remarkably positive. This has been particularly true of our students. A teacher who was interviewing for a position captured the mood when she wrote, “Everyone I met – students, teachers, and administrators – were intellectually engaged, perceptive, and kind. I was especially struck by the rigor and sense of intimacy in every single classroom I observed.”

The attitude and involvement began with our second annual Swamp Night at the end of January. We served dinner to well over 700 people and had many of our younger students (and parents) enjoy a movie together, while many others got to enjoy our basketball teams compete against GFS. One parent said to me after the night: “This is what community is all about. It may be the most special time we have had at Shipley.” This “positivity” continued through the month during different festivities, such as the celebration of the Chinese New Year in all three divisions and our All School Assembly last week, where our students presented on the importance of developing a voice and reaching out to others. You would have been impressed to hear the students of all ages share who they are and what is important to them, such as the environment, finding a place in the community, and the appropriate and understanding treatment of others regardless of “gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, and more…” The essence of the assembly and the School was captured by one of our sixth graders, Sarah Shoumer, who spoke of the initial fear she felt upon being new to Shipley just this year and the importance of having the courage to face the challenge. She captured the feelings in a wonderful song she wrote, “You Are Courageous,” that was performed by our sixth grade chorus. She and the chorus received resounding applause.

Indeed, whether it has been the good weather, the terrific performances of our winter sports teams (congrats to our volleyball team on winning its fifth consecutive league championship and to our girls’ basketball team on winning its fourth state championship!), the celebration of numerous events, a combination of all of these together, or something else, I know we at School want to bottle it and use it every February (and during other challenging times).

As we have noted the positive attitude in the community, we have also witnessed some terrific growth in our students, both in and out of the classroom. Although there are examples in every grade throughout the School, one of the events that captured the essence of this growth and speaks strongly to the Shipley Method is the fifth grade Think, Care, Act Project, which has each student picking a cause to learn about, support, and teach others about. The process and projects were particularly impressive this year. As is true in everything we do, the more the student owned his/her own work, the better the project and the more permanent the impact and message. The students clearly demonstrated that the balance of being challenged and supported in their academic world, combined with character development, yields a greater level of understanding and success. I am looking forward to following our students’ ongoing work in these areas with the knowledge that their passion will influence their work in every area of life. (If you want to see a list of their projects, visit Shipley's blog.)

While I loved Think, Care, Act, and so many other things this month, the experience that almost overwhelmed me involved our first graders. A number of weeks back, I read a book to them entitled What Do You Do with a Problem? by Kobi Yamada, a book worth reading regardless of one’s age. (Yamada also wrote What Do You Do with an Idea?, which is thought-provoking and also well worth reading!) I asked them to write their own stories about a problem they had faced and how they dealt with it. The problems they chose were ones I might have expected, including dealing with their siblings, their allowances, and their challenges in learning new skills. The thing that struck me was that as they described their problems and solutions, they were able to incorporate lessons they had learned and extrapolate how those lessons would help beyond the moment. For example, here are three of the first graders’ answers to “I had a problem” with the lessons they learned bolded; the anecdotes will bring a smile to your face, and the lessons are ones that many of us are still trying to learn:

My sisters and I were arguing about my necklace. They wanted my necklace. I solved the problem by saying that we should take turns wearing the necklace. I learned to work things out calmly and together.

My problem was learning how to read musical notes without numbers. I solved my problem by practicing. My problem taught me to work hard and never give up.

My problem was I wanted to play a Lego game, but my brother was already playing the game that I wanted to play and he would not share. I solved my problem by talking to my brother and asking him to share and play together. I learned to work things out and work together with my brother.

While many of the first graders may have had some help with this work, the level of critical thought was nevertheless well beyond what one should expect of such young readers and writers. For me, the experience reinforced the importance of holding our expectations high, believing in our students, and reinforcing their belief in themselves. At a very young age, it is clear that students develop the creativity and confidence to explore, which in turn allows them to accomplish more than one could imagine.

The experiences and the messages shared by our students at our All School Assembly underline our need to meet our students where they are, appreciate them as individuals, and support them in their endeavors. It also pushes us to do everything we can to create, support, and reinforce a positive culture, a culture that is at the heart of Positive Education, a psychology-based approached we plan to integrate into our program in the coming year. Positive Education, as described by the Geelong Grammar School in Australia, “brings together the science of Positive Psychology to help individuals, schools and communities to flourish; it marries the skills of well-being and the skills of achievement.”

You can read more about Positive Education at the Institute of Positive Education website. When you do, you will see how much we already have in common with such schools and the difference it will make in the quality of our community and in the lives of everyone associated with the School. While it may not prevent us from ever experiencing a difficult February again, it will help us deal with the challenges of such a February and other things we face in a positive and effective manner. I am excited by what is front of us – I will be inviting you to be part of it.

Warmest regards,

Steve Piltch
Head of School

P.S. I would like to invite you to consider attending an event by the DMAX Foundation that will be happening here at School on Monday, April 3 at 7 p.m. The theme this year is "It Takes a Caring Community" and the event will be focused on the individuals and programs that have a positive effect on mental health and the overall community. I hope to see you there.
The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.