“Learning How To Make Things Work”
The sound of dishes crashing to the floor is an occasional fact of life in any school cafeteria. A teacher usually surveys the mess and then calls in the custodial staff.
Not so at Putney School, where it is students who spring into clean-up mode while teachers continue their mealtime conversations. At every lunch, a team of 24 students is responsible for everything from cooking to waiting tables and washing dishes. Any student who shows up late or does not do his or her job is accountable to the lunch boss, an eleventh or twelfth grader in charge of making sure that things run smoothly. “You learn how to manage people in a professional way, and how to keep your personal life separate from work,” said an 11th grader.
Dining hall duty is one of the many ways in which Putney students take responsibility for their hilltop community. They clean the classrooms, help in the infirmary, do campus maintenance, and take most of the responsibility for managing the school’s working farm. Students have input on the design of new campus buildings, and when the time comes for graduation, students make the diplomas. “You have a more intense feeling for the school because you work every day to keep it running,” said one student.
“Putney does a really good job of teaching you about yourself. I’ve learned how to be my own teacher” said one student.
Putney students have the same ownership of their learning. At most schools, academic tasks are designed in large measure to rate the performance of one student against another. Students have little role in designing those tasks, which must be standardized in order to be effective sorters. At Putney, students define and complete tasks that solve meaningful problems. Teachers share an important role as mentors and facilitators, but the students have ultimate responsibility. “Students here learn the ability to design something and carry it out,” said Putney Director Emily Jones, “They learn how to make things work.”
Putney’s advanced curriculum more closely resembles that of a liberal arts college than a high school. Along with traditional stalwarts such as Shakespeare and Advanced Calculus, students can choose courses such as The Middle East Cauldron: Historical Perspectives, Race and Literature in Film, and Conservation Ecology. No academic program better epitomizes the Putney experience than Project Week, at the end of each semester, in which students plan and execute both academic and non-academic projects. For one junior, a recent Project Week meant a 15-page paper on the history of plastic surgery. Another student produced and directed a production of “This is Our Youth,” a play that explores alienation among young adults in 1980s New York. A third student spent a recent Project Week developing proofs related to the Pythagorean Theorem. “It was a lot of fun,” she said with a laugh.
Putney’s curriculum is especially vibrant in the sciences, where advanced electives include Complex Systems and Climate Change, Forensic Science, and Molecular Genetics. “We teach science as a discovery process,” said Glenn Littledale, Science Chair. “Students generate their own questions. It takes time, but it is thrilling to watch students realize that they can figure stuff out.” Often, that means spending several weeks on a lab rather than just several days, as when genetics students use enzymes to isolate a gene for luminescence, insert the gene into bacteria, and then use bacterial infection to clone luminescence into sunflowers.
Littledale credits “the absence of coverage pressure” as the reason that science at Putney is so in-depth and student-centered. Fewer facts and less memorization mean deeper learning, even if the path to enlightenment is not always a straight line. “There is more benefit in a student completing a task than in having that task be exactly what I had in mind,” said Littledale.
Perhaps the most remarkable of all Putney’s offerings is its Evening Arts Program. Drawing on the rich array of practicing artists in southern Vermont, Putney offers an unparalleled array of courses including African Drumming, African Dance, Cartoon Art, Bluegrass, Chamber Music, Madrigals, Metal Sculpture, Stained Glass, and many more. “The arts program offers balance in today’s off-balance world,” said Kalya Yannatos, Director of Dance and Art Department Chair, who cites the need for “sustainability of the self” in today’s fast-paced world.
“The cows have to get milked,” said one student as she surveyed the scene, “It’s a sense of responsibility that a lot of kids don’t learn. After working here, I can envision myself being in charge and running things.”
At the heart of a Putney education is each student’s quest for passion and meaning. When students learn for themselves instead of going through paces designed by others, both the challenges and the rewards are intensely personal. “Putney does a really good job of teaching you about yourself. I’ve learned how to be my own teacher” said an 11th grade student.
In Putney’s dining hall on a recent afternoon, students and faculty lingered after lunch for a few moments of conversation before heading to their next classes. As the room finally emptied, a student waiter approached school director Emily Jones with a gentle but firm message. Lunch was over, and it was time to move along.
More information about Putney School.