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CAG Blog: Powered by Optimism

"Powered by Optimism" captures my reflections of life in and around an all-girls' school and highlights the values of C.A.G.: leadership, global citizenship, wellness, and teaching and learning. Underscoring it all is a deeply ingrained sense of optimism that we are preparing a generation of boldly creative women who will help change the world.

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designing the girls' classroom-4.27.17

Posted by:  alison
04/27/17 08:06 AM   | reply

Every year, a few academic departments at Agnes Irwin participate in a retreat, led by CAG, that focuses on one central question: How do we best teach our subject to girls? What does the research tell us?

In preparation for each department's retreat, I engage in a focused observation of the content area, visiting classes throughout our Lower, Middle, and Upper Schools. I seek evidence of research-based pedagogy and find it in abundance.

What follows is an adaptation of the introduction I used to kick off our recent English and Language Arts retreat.

It is easy to see why, for many decades now, popular belief has been that English and Language Arts are the purview of girls.

If we believe the premise that girls are relational and that their capacity for empathy comes naturally, we can see how that plays into the learning that happens in the English and Language Arts classrooms.

From the time we read our youngest girls a story, to when they are reciting Macbeth, or creating their own tale, we are asking girls to put themselves in the shoes of another.

When you teach girls to make text-to-self connections in first grade, and you expand upon that in 5th grade, and then, in 11th grade, you ask them to cast those connections through the lens of the author and the author’s intended impact on the reader, you have amplified their ability to empathize and by extension, to be in relationship with others.

At the same time, you are building skills. I have been amazed how carefully lower school teachers build the skills that blossom into the analytical prowess of an upper school girl.

I have been blown away by the scaffolding that is carefully built over the years in our English/Language Arts program — then thoughtfully dismantled as students learn to evaluate, research, form and defend their own well-reasoned conclusions.

In Kindergarten, for example, girls write their “true facts” books and are urged to add pictures with an abundance of detail. These details, later on in their development, turn into descriptive vocabulary that helps them become compelling writers.

In third grade, girls are engaging in “reader’s theater” and talk about why it helps to understand text by acting it out. In tenth grade, girls are memorizing Macbeth and their ability to act out the scene shows, in fundamental ways, how this aids in their understanding.

But, in the English and Language Arts classroom, there is more. There is a drive to understand humanity, to push our collective thinking — but to do so in expansive, heart-felt ways. One English teacher told me recently that she wishes for all of our students to understand why English class is relevant to their lives. I wish for them to know that in order to become the ethical decision makers we want them to be — to be value-driven leaders — they need to understand the human condition. They need to understand the experiences of the boy who harnessed the wind in Malawi*, and the blinding hunger for power that drives Lady Macbeth. They need to be able to make connections from text to self, from text to text, and from text to world.

Recently, I heard the head of the conference of Sacred Heart Schools speak about spirituality in children. She told us about the premise of the Sacred Heart schools — that the energy in a classroom, founded in relationship (she said, love) — was the force we need to educate children so they become the ethical adults we need in our world.

It struck me how this happens in the English and Language Arts classroom in a most natural way. I am profoundly grateful to our teachers for creating this love, this relationship, for our girls every day.

*The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind, by William Kamkwamba

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