I can’t exaggerate how tired I got of trying to explain PEL to folks who asked me over the last few months what I was going to be up to next. For one thing, I can’t stand answering the same question over and over again – Hah! I bet your heart just skipped a beat reading that, considering I’m in this program to become a teacher, after all. No worries – I just mean I can’t stand giving the same mundane or coldly factual type of answers over and over again, like, “yes, I did get a haircut.” In this case the question I found myself answering on repeat not only got to me because of the frequency with which I was asked it, but also because, to be honest, I didn’t really know how to answer.

I’ve heard friends who started grad school this Fall remark that the difference in communication and preparation they received going into their programs as compared to undergrad was astounding, and PEL (despite being a Grad School alternative), it turns out, is of a similar nature. But no big deal! I’m only partially using this as a *cough cough* device for the heads of the program. Really, I’m just commenting on how hard it was to explain to friends and family what my program was going to be like because, in truth, I didn’t know too well myself. And, like I said, that got tiring.

The difference now, luckily, is that I haven’t left campus since Labor Day, so I haven’t seen anyone not from CSW – and haven’t had to explain PEL to a single person. Just kidding (??) No, the real difference now is that I’ve been steeped in the PEL schedule and curriculum, and any fears I may have had that we were just going to be free labor – any difficulties in trying to surmise just what we were going to do for a year – are vanished. (“Get on with it already! Did anyone ever teach you to write without a million tangents and convoluted branches of thought, or terrible displays of dry humor??) FINE!

I’m pleased to say that our schedule here at CSW is varied and dynamic; I don’t think any of us, least of all myself, would be happy with mundane routine. We can wait until we actually get a job for that (definitely a joke; a dynamic and varied routine/roles is one of the main reasons I’m interested in teaching!) So while one day we might have a workshop with an educator from a local university or professional development organization, another day we work within our cohort and with our mentors to analyze and discuss readings on various topics like Progressive Education (duh), Privilege in the Classroom, and so on. Most days, we co-teach a class with our mentors, and on another day of the week, we get to formally observe a teacher’s class of our choosing with the guidance of our mentor, and then debrief the experience.

Outside of the school day, we’ve had a couple projects to work on. The first was an assignment to design a Student Learning Self-Portrait. The idea here was to come up with a template or idea for a portfolio or figurative self-portrait that students could create to document and reflect on their learning. This Self-Portrait would also serve as a resource for faculty and administrators to be more well-informed in their dealings with students. The four of us showed a unique variance in our ideas for this project, but in completing it we all learned about the importance of Evidence, Reflection, and Collaboration for student learning, as well as some of the effects of metacognition.

Currently, we’re just starting to work on our second and final project, which is to design, in pairs, a curriculum for an Integrated Studies class. So far, Emma and myself have gotten wrapped up in lofty and abstract ideas about culture, identity development, mental health, and social media. Kyle and Caleb, on the other hand, seem to be on the road to artfully researching the possibilities of a class that combines Art and Science. I can’t wait to see what we all come up with.

However assuaging and informative the last few weeks may have been only adds to how shocking and odd the idea is of moving on to a new school in just a few weeks. To know that we’re in for the same routine we just went through another 3 times is exhausting, but that is far outweighed by how exciting the prospects of new routines, new assignments, new roles, and new dining halls are. Here we come!

I hope you’ve made it to the end of this blogpost unscathed, and haven’t caught self-deprecation like a disease nor used up your lifetime tolerance for self-referential dry humor. But more than anything, I hope that those of you reading this whom I haven’t met yet don’t establish expectations for what I’m actually like based off of this post. I promise I’m not actually expressive, outgoing, or funny, nor do I use exclamation marks when I speak in person. Just fair warning. (But I do use parentheses in person. A lot.)

Be well!

– Jeff

Eleven days ago, the four of us arrived on campus!  Since then, we’ve all gotten acquainted with CSW, gotten to know each other, and helped to order and reorder chaos.  We’d like to introduce ourselves and give you a chance to get to know the four of us.


My name is Caleb.  I graduated from Mount Holyoke College in 2015.  I majored in biology and minored in chemistry.  I worked as a science teacher in a special education setting this past year.  Now, I’m ready for my next adventure in teaching.  Ever since I took a course in educational psychology in college, I’ve wanted to apply some of the progressive principles that I learned about in the course.  I’ve come to PEL with the hope of learning how to teach to my values.  So far, I’ve had a lot of fun here.  I’ve gotten an excellent welcome from the faculty of CSW, especially the former Pellows, Caleb and Kevin, as well as Michael, a second year Pellow.  I’ve even formed an all-Caleb rock climbing team!  I’m looking forward to seeing what I can learn in the year ahead.


body-shot-3My name is Jeff. After finishing high school in Sharon, MA, I went on to get a BS in Human Development with a minor in education from Binghamton University. Through learning transformative and crucial (yet often subjugated) information in my studies, as well as a thing or two about personal growth and development, I realized that I felt compelled to pass these same ideas on to younger students. After graduating I worked as a full-time volunteer on a non-profit farm, traveled to Nicaragua and around the United States, and worked at Whole Foods. I’ve been really enjoying getting to know the faculty, staff, and students here at CSW, as well as being back in an academic setting. And my cohort is okay, too  🙂



img_7131Hi! I’m Emma. It’s hard to know how personal to make this introduction but I’ll just start by saying that I am a Virgo (with an Aquarius moon and Scorpio rising), an INFJ, a 4 on the Enneagram, and a Hufflepuff. If all that means nothing to you, I’ll interpret for you by saying I am a sometimes elusive, brooding, highly independent perfectionist who also loves people. I’ve spent the past year and a half living in Portland, Oregon teaching preschool, and before that I studied English/Creative Writing at Bates College. I want to teach for the same reasons I want to write: so I can share life and energy with people, so I can grow, and so I can become and help others become more free. I feel embarrassed about how intense that sounds! But it’s true. I’m so glad I found PEL and so so excited for all the experiences and growth in the year to come.


img_2861Hi, my name is Kyle. My favorite food is frosting. In May I graduated from Smith College where I studied Studio Art and Education. I grew up in Durham, North Carolina where I attended a small quaker school for 1st through 12th grade. My teachers there, are my inspiration and my family.

One aspect of progressive education that excites me is the relationship between individual identity and endeavor and collaborative engagement. I think that what a student or teacher brings into the learning environment shapes the experience. So I wanted to share where I come from using one of my favorite writing prompts: I Am From.

I Am From

I am from Petter Rabbit’s garden play set, from the Lizard Blanket and Penny Dog
I am from yellow flowers surrounded by endless trees beneath which pathways sprawl out over a green campus laden with stone buildings and gothic architecture, friendly faces everywhere.
I am from the Lizard Rock, the Stone Circle, the Children’s Garden
I am from digging holes to make mud pies to sell for acorns on the playground
I am from Killary, Wendland, Lehr and Gouchoe, from Hajdys, Pauline and Hanas
I am from undefined calves and picky eaters
I am from “the truth is continually revealed”
I am from cul de sac wiffle ball and back yard pool parties, from dad pitching to us always saying “keep your eyes on the prize”
I am from the millennium falcon and the purple fairy bus, from beanie babies in the back seat
I am from sky and mountain
From low stonewalls and microwave chicken nuggets
I am from green hills in the summer, from watercolors and ice cream
I am from baseball in the summer, hoops in the winter
I am from pink pre-wrap, purple nail polish and slide tackling
I am from bare feet at graduation, from a proposal in a gym before the big game
From “every child has the capability to change the world” and
“do all that you can with all that you have in the time that you have in the place that you are”
I am from waffles on Sundays, the blue bullet and the “mega-bed”
from “all teaching and learning is improvable”


Here’s a pic of all four of us coming home from dinner the other day:



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.


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:

13389257_10210391827738975_1340129982_o (1)

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?


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. 


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