Carolina Friends School
“Working For Your Own Education”
The Advanced Dance class at Carolina Friends School is typical of the school’s all-out approach to learning. The students don’t just dance; they choreograph, write sound scores, and create dance interpretations of work in media ranging from poetry to visual art. Recently, the dance students visited a retirement home, interviewed the residents, and created dances to dramatize the stories that were shared – to the delight of their new senior-citizen friends.
Advanced Dance includes a cross-section of CFS upper-school students – and one 40-something year-old man. He is Mike Hanas, the principal at Carolina Friends. And no, he did not intern with the Bolshoi Ballet as a teenager. He simply wanted to learn more about dance and was willing to risk sore muscles and occasional embarrassment to do so alongside the students. “It is crucial that our students see faculty members modeling lifelong learning,” explained Hanas, “We set a powerful example when we show our curiosity. And we keep ourselves alive and vibrant.”
“Our teachers use all of their energy to design courses that work for everybody – not just the students who are interested or the ones who do well, but every student,” said Philip M., ’09.
Alive and vibrant are good words to describe the entire CFS community, and it all begins with a learning environment that honors the passions of both students and teachers. One student explains it this way: “My friends at other schools have a ton of work but it doesn’t seem that meaningful. They are at school only to get into college. At Friends School, the focus is on each student getting a real education. If you choose to work for your own education, you get so much out of it.”
The students at CFS take ownership of their learning in myriad ways. A prime example is CFS’s Senior Seminar, which allows students completing the course to choose the theme to be studied the succeeding year. A recent theme was “Public and Private,” an analysis of freedom and responsibility in various spheres of life. The students read authors ranging from Plato to Foucault, but the life-blood of the class is interaction with other students, and with co-teachers Jamie Hysjulien and Elise London. “Class is exciting when people are willing to share their ideas,” said one Senior Seminar participant, “It builds up the individual as well as the community.” The class culminates in a series of public oral presentations in which each student defends ideas expressed in 10-page paper related to the theme. The crowd of attendees invariably includes a cross-section of the community, including fellow students, family, and faculty.
CFS’s curricular freedom allows it to teach advanced courses on engaging themes. In the fall of 2008, the presidential election transfixed the nation and it was only natural for CFS to offer Campaign ’08 as a full-fledged class. (Since CFS operates on a trimester calendar, the class ended only days after the election.) As part of their work, students volunteered for candidates, contributed to a “wiki” devoted to the election, and kept classmates apprised of on-going developments. An election-night party, thrown by the class, attracted more than half of the upper school.
One of the most eagerly anticipated events on the CFS calendar is the annual Student Teaching Day, in which faculty step aside and students teach classes on a variety of topics. “It was the best academic day of my life,” said an 11th grade student, who taught two Spanish classes during a recent Student Teaching Day. “I was really excited and wanted to get there on time and be as involved as possible. It was proof that people wanted to listen to us,” she said. Another student, who recently taught about the Cold War, was thrilled when graduating seniors showed interest in his topic. “I will never forget what I taught in that class,” he said.
“Our purpose is not to create a safe haven for our students,” said Principal Mike Hanas, “We have an obligation to engage the world.”
Though many schools shoehorn in occasional student-centered events such as these – before getting back to the “real” work of covering a prescribed curriculum – the beauty of CFS is that events like these are the real work. “It a student comes up with an idea, our teachers will take that idea and expand it into a full day,” said one student. The fact that students help define learning at CFS feeds an atmosphere of mutual respect. “It comes naturally to Friends School students to interact with their teachers, and sometimes to challenge them. It is a meaningful relationship in which you can actually get something out of it,” said an 11th grader.
Perhaps because they feel as though they own it, students are intensely proud of Friends School, and of the faculty who so skillfully share control with them. “Our teachers use all of their energy to design courses that work for everybody – not just the students who are interested or the ones who do well, but every student,” said one student. Adds another, “CFS is a place that is always changing. It’s about the students.”
Learn more about Carolina Friends School.