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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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grappling- 1.27.13

Posted by: 
01/27/12 12:00 AM   | reply

I have only been at this job for little over a year, but we have much to be proud of here. So many ideas that have been brought to the Center are only in their fledgling stages of development, but they hold great promise. We are still, in some ways, just setting the stage. But, it has been heartening to see that we are a community committed to what I like to call the work that matters: the uncovering of what is best for girls.

The Center will be a hub of research on girls that will inform the work of teachers, support parents and inspire girls. Based on the mission of The Agnes Irwin School and the greater perspective of the world in which we will launch our students, we identified four areas of study. These pillars of wellness, leadership, teaching and learning in the 21st century, and global citizenship relate to girls, not only at Agnes Irwin, but also well beyond our campus. The work is challenging and, at times, frustratingly slow. But, it is satisfying in a deeply sustaining way, and the excitement that comes along with it is what gets me out of bed each morning.

A recently completed strategic visioning document, our “blueprint for success” so to speak, has helped me to focus on a few initiatives at a time. I bet that it will prove to be my guiding beacon during those times I feel overwhelmed by the task ahead.

One such initiative came directly from conversations about homework and its impact on well-being in our Upper School. Our girls are not immune to the extreme pressures to be quite perfect: as students, athletes, artists, activists, leaders. Several books, movies and blog posts have addressed this issue for all students, boys and girls. An administrator of a well-known girls’ school halfway across the country told us recently about the conundrum she and her colleagues find themselves facing: how do we give girls the opportunities they deserve without taxing their health and well-being in fundamental ways? How do we help them define what it means to be successful when our culture prizes competitive college placement as the ultimate goal for such an educationally advantaged population

A survey (through the Challenge Success project at Stanford University) helped us identify the experiences of our students. While our girls overwhelmingly describe their school as caring and yes, even fun, we also found that in their pursuit of perfection, they sacrifice sleep at an alarming rate.

A Challenge Success researcher presented the data to our faculty and then, a few months later, to our parents. We all care about our girls – we wouldn’t be in this business if we didn’t. The answer to the question: “How do we make this better?” is not easily answered. This pressure to perform and outperform others does not come from one direction. I have come to believe that it is so deeply embedded in the culture in which I work and live that an alternative appears difficult to imagine.

And so, the Center’s first initiative is at that part of its execution that I call “grappling and resistance.” There are no easy answers. If homework, for example, were largely abandoned as a practice, would our girls be as prepared for their lives beyond graduation as they are now? Would it water down our educational mission? If we told them they had to limit the number of AP classes they take, even if they are able to handle the increased coursework, are we doing them a disservice in the college marketplace? If we tell them they must limit their after school commitments, are we taking away those times when they are able to learn, grow, develop confidence and have fun in important, non-academic settings? We have many questions to ponder and many different answers to consider.

Just for this initiative, we have undertaken multiple projects, big and small. Our Lower School was not part of the original survey, but it was deeply affected by the outcomes nonetheless. Since they heard the results, members have been engaging in ongoing conversations about the need for homework in the elementary grades. They have already changed their homework practices, restricted homework time and defined what it means to give meaningful homework.

Our faculty in-service committee has identified the homework conversation as the one they feel they want to focus on for our next in-service day. A dozen faculty members in the Middle and Upper Schools have volunteered to shadow a student for a day and participate in pre- and post-shadowing surveys that will contribute to our collective understanding of our girls’ experiences. A report will describe teachers’ observations and will uncover how (if at all) the experience has altered their practice 

Most excitingly, a newly formed student organization, called the Board for the Advancement of Girls, will serve as a liaison between the Center and the student body. They have identified the topic of sleep as their action research project for this year. Their campaign, which they named “Got 8?,” will encourage girls to seek a greater sense of well-being by getting the rest their bodies and minds need so desperately.

I am not naïve enough to think that change will happen overnight. I, however, believe that if we keep questioning the status quo and learn to see what is right in front of us, we can uncover how to solve this problem together. I am fortunate to work with teachers and administrators who are deeply committed to girls. And that, I believe, is half the battle.

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