Since senior exhibitions ended last Wednesday, Putney’s famous Project Week has been under way. This is a time where, twice a year, students spend time (usually around 10 days) working on two projects. Many students choose to design their own projects but some group projects are designed by either teachers, students, or both. As PEL fellows, one of our projects at Putney was to design one of these group projects.

I don’t think I could have dreamed up a better way to end my first year of PEL. I have been captivated by the promise of Project-Based Learning (PBL) since we saw the documentary Most Likely to Succeed during our time at Unquowa, and was further inspired when we read An Ethic of Excellence by Ron Berger. Needless to say, I have been looking forward to Project Week. When faced with the question of what the focus of my group project should be, the answer was clear. Visiting a permaculture farm during my senior year of college was paradigm shifting for me; it challenged me to think about how I wanted to live my life. I now had the opportunity to develop a project that would, hopefully, allow me to create a similar experience for high school students.

So what is permaculture? It is said that there are as many definitions of permaculture as there are people practicing it, but the basic idea is to design holistic systems that imitate nature and natural processes in order to create a (more) “permanent agriculture.” The term permaculture was coined in 1978 by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, but it features practices and ethics that have been utilized by indigenous people for thousands of years. Many of those practices and ethics are considered by many scientists and agriculturalists to lack “hard data” backing their validity, or to be valid but “impractical” at large scales and overly “idealistic.” Still, the results from groups of people on particular sites are hard to ignore.

Why teach permaculture? It is a subject that can be highly theoretical, but has clear, practical applications. Like food studies more generally, it is interdisciplinary. Over the past week we’ve talked about design, biology, botany, philosophy, ecology, history, anthropology, sociology, ethics, and much more. We’ve asked questions such as: Are humans, at best, only capable of doing “less harm” to the Earth, or can we actually do good? How can we apply principles like “observe and interact,” “apply self-regulation and accept feedback,”and “integrate rather than segregate” to human-made systems, whether it’s a food forest, a bank, or a school. The prospect of teaching students in this interdisciplinary, project-based way inspires me, and permaculture/regenerative agriculture is wonderful vehicle through which to achieve that goal.

Since 1978 (as well as before), many books have been written; design courses have been developed; and experimental sites, homesteads, and backyard food forests have been established–all according to the principles of permaculture, and with the added mission of teaching and sharing with others. We had the privilege to go on two site visits during this project week: Wildside Cottage and Gardens and the Franklin Permaculture Garden at UMass Amherst, both of which had wonderful teachers and provided a great learning experience for all of us. The site visits were crucial to me from the inception of my group project idea. We can sit in class and watch videos and talk all we want, but it’s something entirely different to talk with someone who is living these systems; to see, hear, and smell the living things; to both interact with and gaze out with wonder at the landscape. As I did when I first visited Whole Systems Design in Moretown, VT, many students began to question their notion of what their backyard might look like in 20 years, and how they interact with the natural world more broadly. It also got them wondering what some of the systems at Putney look like, and what opportunities exist to implement some permaculture-based systems here.

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Our second site visit: the Franklin Permaculture Garden at UMass Amherst (featuring freshly picked, SPICY radishes)

The students in my group project ended up deciding to design a permaculture orchard, which they presented today during the school-wide project week presentation. Here’s what they came up with:

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I am proud of the work they did and, more importantly, the students seem proud of their work. Still, their design is not perfect; they were largely figuring things out on their own, and there was certainly a lot to figure out in a short span of time. They also thought they might be able to start implementing, and fell way short of that aspiration, but they seem committed to following this project through to the end (and have future Project Weeks to do so). More than anything, my goal for this project was for them to start seeing the world through the lens of permaculture ethics and principles, and to engage with big questions about how we as humans interact with the natural world. By the end of our second site visit on Tuesday, they had already achieved that goal. Everything else was an extra yield.

Things are beginning to come to an end up here at the Putney School. Summer is just around the corner and students (and maybe the PEL fellows also…) are spending most of their free time lounging in the sunshine. It’s hard to believe that this year is almost over. Classes wrapped up on Tuesday following a day of Senior Exhibition presentations.

Senior Exhibition presentations are the culmination of trimester-long independent projects carried out by many seniors. Let me start out by saying that most of these projects require so much time, focus, and motivation. They remind me a lot of the year-long senior thesis projects at my college. So I can say from personal experience that in order to develop a project like this, you must be very focused and have clear passions. I don’t think I would have had that capability in high school to produce such a project. Needless to say, I was pretty blown away with the presentations I saw this week.

Topics ranged from An Exploration of Birth and Death on a Molecular Level Expressed Through Etching and Photography to Planning a Sculpture Business and The Beginnings of a Roll-off Roof Observatory.  From looking at the lists of titles, it is clear that this graduation class has diverse and unique interests. 

I tried to snap photos at some of the presentations I attended:

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Attending these presentations was a great way to begin Project Week–which is now in full force! I am looking forward to wrapping up this year with more project presentations next Saturday. The work done by Putney students is remarkable and, as a teacher, it has been truly inspiring to see what they can accomplish.

Here at the Putney School, everyone is busy. Personally, I’ve found the schedule to be spacious in terms of the amount of time in between scheduled activities; still, everyone here is asked to do a lot–classes, afternoon activities, work jobs, evening activities, dorm responsibilities, homework, etc, all with the expectation to practice self care and be an engaged member of the community. This busyness is especially evident during this time of year. Seniors are crunching to get their exhibitions finished; final papers, projects, and portfolios are due; culminating performances and presentations are being pieced together; students and teachers are working to devise and sponsor individual and group projects for the upcoming Project Week. The energy on campus is tangibly different as students, faculty, and staff alike have ever-growing lists of things to do and are growing stressed out and sleep deprived.

Now, this is not at all an indictment of Putney. In all it asks its students to do, the school provides so many wonderful opportunities for them to find places to thrive in an incredibly supportive environment. Whether it’s in the classroom or the lab, at their work job, on stage, in the studio, or out in the fields, students can exercise their skills in a breadth of different areas, explore their curiosities, and find their passions. I have to admit, I find myself envying this on a regular basis.

Instead, I point to these observations of mine in the context of a wider cultural phenomenon. Conversations I’ve had with students and faculty this week have reminded me of this article that I first read it in December of 2014, soon after I returned home from a three-month farming internship at the Spannocchia Foundation in Italy, and six months after my college graduation. The author, Omid Safi, Director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center, claims, “This disease of being ‘busy’ (and let’s call it what it is, the dis-ease of being busy, when we are never at ease) is spiritually destructive to our health and wellbeing. It saps our ability to be fully present with those we love the most…and keeps us from forming the kind of community that we all so desperately crave.” He calls attention to something that’s quite familiar to me: conversations that consist, essentially, of both people listing all of the things they have to do, counting the few hours of sleep they’ve gotten, and claims of just how busy they are. Interactions like these probably made up the better half of my day-to-day conversations while I was in college, and, at times, seemed like a sort of contest to see who was “busier” and, thus, more intelligent, engaged, and productive. I was certainly a victim of this mindset, and probably was as far back as high school. When I think about it, have probably only partially shed those old habits of mine.

I’d say the culture at Putney is starkly different from that at my alma mater. Yet, I see evidence here, too, that a culture of being busy is becoming pervasive, particularly in places like boarding schools, liberal arts colleges, and upper-middle class/wealthy homes where the stakes for achieving, however they might be defined, are high. Students keep busy so that they can get into prestigious colleges; adults keep busy either out of the necessity of providing for their family, or out of the privilege to be able to participate in a sort of arms race to maintain or improve status. These adults then schedule the lives of their kids, and the cycle repeats over again. I am thus reminded of the way in which so many of us fill our lives up to the point of not having time to be present, to spend meaningful time with family and friends, to become a part of a community, to prioritize our own individual well being: to become, as Safi says, “fully human” (although I’m not sure I know what that means) through the process of reflection and “examination.”

Like Safi, I don’t claim to have a universal answer to fix this phenomenon, but I worry about the effects this cultural shift in the US and elsewhere will have, particularly on children. Personally, I try really hard to be aware of it, and to think about what it is that fulfills me and why it is that I make the choices I make when deciding how to slice up my time, and when deciding how much to ask of my students. What sticks with me from this article is this:

In many Muslim cultures, when you want to ask them how they’re doing, you ask: in Arabic, Kayf haal-ik? or, in Persian, Haal-e shomaa chetoreh? How is your haal? What is this haal that you inquire about? It is the transient state of one’s heart. In reality, we ask, “How is your heart doing at this very moment, at this breath?” When I ask, “How are you?” that is really what I want to know.

Since last December, I have been trying with varying degrees of success to be more deliberate in how and when I ask someone, “how are you?” and how I respond when I am asked that question in turn. Cheesy as it might sound, I’m quite sure I would love it if, every now and then, someone asked me, “how is your heart doing?”

A few days ago, one of the Putney faculty sent out a New York Times article about the idea of “monotasking,” or as the article describes it ‘Not the same as mindfulness, which focuses on emotional awareness, monotasking is a 21st-century term for what your high school English teacher probably just called “paying attention.”’

I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, and how little time I spend actually doing one task at a time. Even as I write this, I will probably respond to an email or text on my phone, or turn on music. For the sake of the topic, though, I’ll try to refrain…

In faculty meeting today, someone was responding to a question but began by apologizing for having been in the middle of texting. As everyone listened, multiple people were knitting or sketching in their notebooks. Keep in mind, this is a brief, informative faculty meeting — presumably these people are invested in the discussion and are effectively multitasking. Is there really such thing? Or are there some tasks (ie listening at a meeting) that only require so much focus, that we simply have some to spare?

To be fair, often at Putney I find myself literally trying to think about and act on multiple things at once (“Am I prepared for class? What time is assembly today? I wonder if I should go on a POP trip this weekend… I should check what that hike is like. Where’s my mug? Are those students supposed to be doing that? THE PEL READING I need to do the reading!”) and then catch myself taking out my phone to look something up, while my class notes are up on my computer, and I’m supposedly also reading My Dyslexia for PEL class. Such is the nature of Putney, or of boarding school in general. I think about students doing the same thing, trying to answer emails while also reading books and listening to music and snapchatting and eating an apple and engaging with friends and doodling.

And then I went to the farm afternoon activity. I forgot about all the little things I was trying to think about and look up and respond to all at once. I stood in a full hay feeder, forking out old, fermented hay until it was empty. I didn’t think about anything except not accidentally spearing a cow, and I most definitely did not take out my phone. Just get the hay out. That’s it. And it felt so, so good.

It made me wonder when students find these blissful moments of monotasking throughout the day. Is it during class? In the library? How about in weaving, lacrosse, or during their lunch prep jobs? In Norman Doidge’s The Brain that Changes Itself, he discusses how paying attention is the only way to create lasting changes in the brain. He says that “While you can learn when you divide your attention, divided attention doesn’t lead to abiding change in your brain maps.” And as Times article argues, monotasking is just paying attention. How can we find that degree of undivided focus during class time? Is the student who is doing needlework during class also thinking critically about the discussion? Some might argue that the multitasking actually improves that specific student’s focus. So when are we truly multitasking effectively? Is it worth it for the times that we’re not?

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Standing in the hay feeder, watching the cows head in for afternoon milking.

Read the NYT article here:

Upon our arrival at Putney we were told that each of us would have the opportunity to lead our own project during Project Week.

A snippet about Project Week from the Putney Website…

Project Week offers students the opportunity to propose and successfully complete two projects at the end of each academic semester that employ skills they have acquired in their academic and non-academic program during the semester. Students are encouraged to develop a project that allows them to pursue their passions and to investigate topics inspired by their recent study, one of which must be academic in nature.

As well as students developing their own individual project, teachers have the option to lead a group project. As PEL Fellows, part of our curriculum is to create and offer our own group project and I could not be more excited. One of the hardest parts about this year has been coming into classrooms that have already been established. Then, after a two months, we have to say goodbye. Sometimes we leave without being able to see a project or unit all the way through. It has been our job to figure out how to best fit in and contribute as much as we can in that small window of time. This has been a great lesson on how adaptable and flexible we can be and I think all of us have come out more reflective and resilient because of it. That being said, I am so excited for project week. We finally get to run  a class from the beginning stages of planning through the first day of class to the end for the first time. It seems like the perfect way to end our first year of PEL. 

 

Music has been a big part of my life since I first picked up a guitar at age 13. I soon found out that I was, according a friend, “decent” at singing, thus beginning my musical progression from rock bands, to musical theater, to choir, to song writing lessons and four years of college a cappella. Though I don’t think I had the words for it at the time, I think I was drawn to music because of its ability to bring people together, whether in the pursuit of an excellent performance or an enjoyable night around a campfire. Since graduating from college in June of 2014, this part of my identity has, unfortunately, been steadily on the decline.

Since arriving at The Putney School, however, that trend has begun to turn around for me. Every Thursday, students, faculty, and staff gather in the music building to sing together–an event called, simply, “Sing.” Upon arriving in Calder Hall, students are handed Sing books, which are filled with hymns, sacred music, sea shanties, and folk music from different cultures and in different languages. Sing has been a school tradition at Putney since the school was started in 1935 and, to borrow the words of the Putney website, “bring(s) us the joy of music and a life-long bond with our voices and with each other,” and allows us to “join with peoples all over the world who have used their voices, often as their only weapon against injustice and hardship, to empower themselves and celebrate their common humanity.”

Now, despite those high ambitions, it seems to me quite a task to get 200+ teenagers and a bunch of busy teachers to buy in to singing together once a week. I would expect it to be particularly challenging in the context of the modern Western cultural milieu–featuring highly produced recorded music as well as shows like American Idol, The Voice, etc, where singers are exposed to judgment, harsh criticism, and even ridicule–in which singing is often seen as something reserved only for those who are “good at it,” and where it is common to hear people claim that they “can’t sing.” This, of course, stands in contrast to cultures in which singing plays a major role in holidays, celebrations, and other rituals, and is a normal part of life.

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Music department director Cailin Manson leads the Putney School community during Sing

Yet, amidst the prevailing cultural norms surrounding this campus, a visitor to Putney on a Thursday morning will find the majority of students standing, singing, shouting, and swaying in place to their favorite tunes. I’ve asked around a bit to get a sense from faculty and students of how Sing has become so integrated into the culture of the school. Some have said that it’s self-selecting: students who choose to come to Putney know that Sing happens and like it, so they actively engage in it. Others see it as a nice break in the day and a way to come together as a school. Still, it seems that a lot of work and energy is required to keep this tradition alive and thriving. Most have credited music department director, Cailin Manson, with pouring energy into Sing and making it accessible to students with different relationships to music. Personally, I have found his energy contagious. As proof, while writing this post, I’ve been singing one of the songs we sang this past Thursday over, and over again.

As I tend to do with these sorts of things, I can’t help but look beyond the Putney bubble and wonder: How can we re-integrate singing into our lives and make it less scary and more accessible? What is the role of schools in doing this with young people? In what ways are other schools fostering community around singing?

We had eagerly been awaiting our time with Tom Wessels, as we had heard from previous PEL cohorts that it was some of the most informative and inspiring work they had done while at Putney. We spent most of our first day with Tom in a classroom, where we discussed his book The Myth of Progress. Though initially I was sad to hear we weren’t headed directly outside (But it’s 45 and sunny! …Spring!) the time in the classroom flew by. Tom explained linear systems and complex systems in regard to natural systems in the environment, but we then discussed what this model means within a school. Though we discussed a couple more attributes of a complex system, the two I felt are most relevant to understanding school systems are:

Self-organization: As complex systems grow, they increase their level of complexity over time. That means more specialization among organisms, and therefore more niches for different organisms. In these systems some of these niches cover the same functions as one another (for example, having different kinds of pollinators), but have organisms have coevolved in ways such that they are not competing for the resource. Organisms are specialized, and integrated. Because of this, self-organized complex systems are resilient, and stable.

What would it mean for a school to be a complex system? It would mean everyone’s role is specialized, but that they would understand one another’s function and understand how it benefits others. In order to promote integration, all would be aware of the overall mission of the school, and have input on all decision making. Despite specialization of roles, aspects of the students’ education would be covered repeatedly, in various forms. Linear systems, on the other hand, are static in their growth. A linear educational system would be followed in lockstep, and subjects would become finer and finer as students progress. If you miss a step, the system falters and students can’t move forward. School systems are not generally created with this kind of complex growth in mind, but what if they were? In the early growth of a school, can there be specialization built on supporting the whole, integration, and academic resiliency through the repetition of academic functions? What does that look like in project based learning, specifically?

Nestedness: This is the idea that systems are nested with one another, but are separated by boundaries that allow for the passing of resources and information. Ecosystems are contained within larger ecosystems, and you can change your scope to focus on smaller or larger scale interactions. In thinking about schools, this often means that individual classes are nested within their grades, which would be nested in the entire school culture. Ideally, these academic divides would be permeable (by materials, knowledge, etc) for the sake of further development. The school itself is also nested in its community. We considered how integrated the PEL schools have been in their communities. Do students go out, and do community members come in? Do resources and information flow between different classrooms, and across grades?

I can’t yet entirely wrap my brain around these concepts, and what it means when you apply them to a school system. I’m still thinking about it, though, and using it to frame my Putney experience. I look forward to working with Tom again, and continuing these conversations among the other PEL fellows and Putney faculty.

 

 

 

 

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