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Newark Academy: A Mosaic of Opportunities

 

If you were to converse with a Newark Academy student at random, you might find yourself talking with a computer programmer who competes in dance competitions, a lacrosse player who volunteers at a local food bank every weekend, or a jazz musician who has already published a paper in a scientific journal.

Indeed, it’s rare to find two NA students who are alike; the remarkable mix of talents and interests found among the student body distinguishes each cohort and the school as a whole. NA students are encouraged to develop their gifts and to pursue their passions in and out of the classroom: to follow their bliss, as Joseph Campbell put it. They are given choices and opportunities to chart their own paths –to challenge themselves and to flourish in a wide variety of academic, athletic, artistic and service endeavors.

That no two students follow the same path reflects the diversity of the NA community, the dynamism of the school’s educational program, and the drive of its faculty and students, who have a deep passion for pursuing excellence in every domain and at every level. Guided by the wisdom of teachers, advisors and coaches, all students – from 6th graders to 12th graders – are able to craft a unique educational program from a mosaic of opportunities. Here we highlight a few of the pieces of that mosaic.

Math Placement: Finding the Best Fit for Every Student

When Sebastian Dias-Sotiriou ’24 came to NA as a 6th grader, he was placed in Algebra 1 Honors 7, a course often taken by Upper School students. “It was a hard but not overwhelming course, definitely the right fit for me,” reflects Sebastian, now a 7th grader taking Geometry Honors 8. While Sebastian’s experience was unusual –almost all 6th graders are placed into either Fundamentals of Mathematics or Topics in Mathematics – it reflects a Mathematics Department policy that seeks to place incoming students in classes that will both meet them at their level of readiness and challenge them.

To find the best-fit course, incoming 6th graders take a placement test before the year begins. These initial placements are then reexamined in mid-October, when adjustments are made as appropriate. Students entering 9th grade also take a placement test, and the roster of courses in which they are placed is quite diverse: from Algebra 1 to Algebra 2/Trigonometry Honors and occasionally even Precalculus Honors. “Because of the wide range of mathematics experiences students have had in middle school, 9th graders land in a wide range of courses,” notes Mathematics Department Chair Mike Thayer. Carrying out the math placement policy is as much an art as a science. While a single placement test may serve as one measure of cognitive readiness for advanced coursework, deep understanding of math concepts often requires a level of intellectual maturity and experience that is rare in younger students, even those who perform well on such tests. Thus, the department seeks to consider what is in the best interest of every student over the course of their entire high school career and beyond, not just in their first course. In this way, placement is an ongoing process.

Creating Community Around the Harkness Table

In the Wilf Middle School, the 8th-grade English experience is anchored by what every student is immediately drawn to upon entering room 407 for the first time: the undeniable beauty of the Harkness table. Its single-ness of purpose is symbolized in its construction: one uninterrupted oval slab of wood. “Are we going to be like King Arthur’s knights?” at least a few students inevitably ask upon entering. “I take advantage of this comparison to reinforce the age-old Harkness directive,” says English Department faculty member Dr. Betsy LaPadula. “The teacher, like Arthur, is not the sole voice of wisdom. Sitting around Harkness tables as a student myself, I absorbed what would become a central tenet of my pedagogy: everyone’s voice matters. But who speaks, why and how often can be as complex as the quests Gawain and Galahad pursued.”

Eighth graders must come to grips with identifiers that have either been foisted upon them or that rise up out of the fog of adolescence. Finding out what truly defines them is a years-long process. Despite this natural confusion and discomfort, it is a rare day when a student stays silent around the Harkness table. It does not matter what text is up for discussion. The simple act of looking into other students’ eyes – and having Dr. La, as the students call her, either seated with the group or circulating – creates a sense of community, continuity and purpose.

Harkness tables grew in significance during the first decades of the 20th century as a way to encourage students to “lean in” to learning. They continue to offer students a way to find their own voices during adolescence. Seated around the table, students can begin to speak confidently, write clearly and, most importantly, inhabit their own skins with pride.

Upper School Humanities: Choice and Depth Across Disciplines

The Humanities Department at NA takes its name seriously. While helping students become scholars of history is a foundational component of the Humanities program, teachers seek to help students examine the human experience using the tools not only of the historian but also of the anthropologist, the sociologist, the political scientist, the economist, the geographer and the philosopher.

“We are in the business of educating individuals,” observes Humanities Department faculty member Benson Hawk, “rather than in delivering any one particular curriculum. Our goal is to meet the students where they are – to recognize that they have particular passions and strengths –and to provide them with a rich, intellectually challenging and interdisciplinary course of study.”

Recognizing that developing the skills of critical, reflective thought is more important than the particular content of any given course, the Humanities Department recently changed its graduation requirements: students can now craft a program that reflects the range and depth of their interests. In particular, while juniors and seniors can choose from a range of elective courses, they can also now specialize in one of three fields: history, economics or philosophy. In courses that span two years, students develop a facility with the analytical tools and content germane to the discipline of their choice at a level rarely found in secondary school. At the same time, all courses ensure that students are exposed to relevant themes and content from the 20th and 21st centuries, so that they graduate with a strong foundation in modern world history.

Some students have even opted to specialize in two disciplines. Senior Spencer Glassman took the first-year courses in both history and economics last school year, and he is taking the second-year course in each discipline this year. Having a depth of knowledge in both disciplines has offered him the unique ability to pursue his varied interests at a high level. “I struggle dealing with the limited amount of time I have to acquire knowledge and the infinite amount of knowledge there is to acquire,” reflects Spencer, adding, “I needed to ensure I was absorbing as much information as possible in my last two years at NA.”

Middle and Upper School Writing Lab

Teaching writing has long been a passion for English Department faculty member David Beckman. Having worked one-on-one with student writers since his sophomore year of college, he is acutely aware of the difficulties developing writers face and how to support their growth. “Every writer has their own process, needs, strengths and weaknesses,” David observes. “Individualized writing instruction, while obviously very time-consuming, is the best way to help students develop their writing skills.” As NA’s writing specialist, David has the opportunity to provide individualized instruction to both Middle and Upper School students. In this role, he offers one-on-one support to students who seek out his expertise in the Writing Lab, and he holds lunchtime writing workshops on specific elements of the writing process that are open to all.

Students arrive at the Writing Lab seeking help on assignments they are in the process of completing, and while David offers support on these assignments, he also teaches them strategies and skills that they can apply to future writing tasks. His process is collaborative and holistic. “When I meet with students, the discussion component is crucial,” he says. “Any student who expects to come in, hand me a piece of writing and have me ‘fix’ it is bound to be disappointed. The most important thing we do is talk: I ask the student to explain what they’re working on, to sum up the ideas they’re trying to convey, to describe feedback they’ve gotten from their teachers in the past, and to share their experience working on the assignment at hand.” These conversations inform how David guides the student’s efforts.

“Individualized writing instruction… is the best way to help students develop their writing skills.” – David Beckman

David has found great success and enjoyment working with students in the Writing Lab. “Of all the different types of work I’ve done as a faculty member at several independent schools, working one-on-one with student writers has always been among the most fulfilling,” he says. Equally, David’s work has impacted the young student writers whom he mentors, especially those who regularly seek out his help. Junior Sophia Emanuel first visited the Writing Lab during the spring of her freshman year. “Mr. Beckman was so helpful that I continued to see him several times during my sophomore year and this year, too,” she says. “I can’t imagine not having him as a resource.”

Giving Artists Voice: The NA WAM Blog

In 2013, author and Advanced Creative Writing teacher Tess James created a blog to share the works-in-progress of two students who had participated in National Novel Writing Month. The online platform enabled the students to receive useful comments on their work – comments that shaped the trajectory of their novels. “I immediately saw the site’s application for art and music as well,” notes Tess, who then launched the Writing, Arts and Music blog, affectionally called WAM. She encouraged faculty, staff and alumni to share their work alongside students. “Soon a popular football player posted his poetry,” recalls Tess, “and gradually the culture around creativity began to shift. Self-expression became a safer, more inviting prospect.”

While the in-house, password-protected version of WAM gives space to polished as well as fledgling pieces, some students and alumni sought a larger audience. In 2014, Tess created a sister “Selected Works” site open to the public, which highlights winners of Scholastic Medals, Young Arts scholarships, Essentially Ellington awards, a cappella competitions and more. Alumni have shared their work as journalists, filmmakers and graphic designers. “I enjoy the chance to celebrate creativity,” says Tess, “from whiteboard doodles to professionally staged plays.”

This school year, in her role as WAM editor, Tess has engaged four student interns to work with her, encouraging participation among those in the community and helping curate the blog. The interns, she notes, “bring an explosion of energy and vision to the blog. I can’t wait to see where they take WAM next.”

Mapping the NA Curriculum

During the 2017-18 school year, the NA faculty engaged in a comprehensive curriculum review exercise that involved departmental and grade-level conversations about the experience of students from the first days of 6th grade to Upper School graduation. “We wanted faculty to gain deeper wisdom into the full student experience and a deeper understanding of how they function as a unified whole in creating that experience,” says Dean of Faculty Von Rollenhagen, who spearheaded the initiative.

At the start of the year, faculty wrote course maps that served as springboards for detailed analysis of the NA program. During subsequent conversations, faculty used the maps to identify areas where skills and content in one realm reinforce work done in others, as well as areas where programs could more fully complement each other. “While ambitious, the undertaking was healthy and productive,” notes Von. The conversations have continued this school year and will drive changes to NA’s dynamic educational program in years to come.

“While ambitious, the undertaking was healthy and productive.” – Dean of Faculty Von Rollenhagen

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