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In the Middle of It All

Middle School Musings by Trevor O’Driscoll, Bancroft's Head of Middle School

Most weeks, MS Head Trevor O’Driscoll writes a short note to parents and faculty about middle school, education, parenting, and other topics relevant to our community. We share these Middle School Musings here for the benefit and enjoyment of all who are interested. Read recent entries, browse the archives, and delight in Mr. O’Driscoll’s take on our Middle School and the amazing people who inhabit it.



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Painting Fences: MS Parents Night Remarks

MS Parents’ Night Welcome, 2016

Tom Sawyer illustrationFor those of you familiar, you might remember the scene in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer when Tom is tasked with whitewashing Aunt Polly’s fence. Of course Tom doesn’t want to whitewash the fence, and he first tries to get Jim to do it. But Jim wants no part of it. Tom begrudgingly begins painting the fence. 

Eventually another kid, Ben Rogers, comes along on his way to go swimming, and gives Tom a hard time about having to do work.

His gears churning, Tom asks Ben, “What do you call work?”

A confused Ben asks, “Why, ain’t that work?” 

Tom and Ben go back and forth a bit more, and Ben finally says, “you don’t mean to tell me you LIKE it?”

“Like it? Well I don’t see why I oughtn’t to like it. Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?” As Twain writes, for Ben “that put the thing in a new light.”

“Say, Tom, let me whitewash a little,” Ben begs. 

What eventually happens is not only does Ben end up giving Tom his apple for the privilege of painting, but kids flock to the site and Tom ends up with a veritable bounty of stuff including “twelve marbles, part of a jews–harp, a piece of blue bottle-glass to look through, a spool cannon, a key that wouldn't unlock anything, a fragment of chalk, a glass stopper of a decanter, a tin soldier, a couple of tadpoles, six fire-crackers, a kitten with only one eye, a brass doorknob, a dog-collar — but no dog — the handle of a knife, four pieces of orange-peel, and a dilapidated old window sash.”

Getting kids to “paint the fence” is a phrase I often use to describe characteristics of great teaching and a great middle school. Great teachers hook students into going on a journey with them — a journey students might not take on their own. Great teachers get students excited about doing hard work. Fortunately for us at Bancroft, your kids are very excited to paint the fence. They are hungry for meaningful work. 

I see examples everywhere:

  • Carrie Whitney “hooking” 6th graders by showing them designs and examples of greenhouses built from recycled bottles. Eventually a student raised his hand and implored/almost whined, “Why don’t we get to do that at Bancroft?” Of course Carrie had them right where she wanted them, revealing that building a greenhouse was exactly what they were going to do.
  • In another classroom students gave a presentation about the Five Themes of Geography by making a video that used Pokémon Go as their own hook and undergirding framework for the lesson.
  • There was the note I got from Angela Sigismondi who was overjoyed at how much 8th graders were geeking out over the opportunity to create from scratch a Middle School literary magazine
  • And there are the smaller moments, like when a student exclaimed in a math class, “This isn’t half-bad!” 

There is no trickery involved in all of this. What your children’s teachers strive to do is create meaningful opportunities for students.

I think returning to Tom is illustrative. His ability to get others to paint the fence resulted in something like an epiphany. Quoting Twain:

“[Tom] had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it — namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain. If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is OBLIGED to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.” 

Bancroft teachers are constantly striving to understand what makes your kids tick. By blurring the lines between whatever’s obliged and whatever is not obliged, Bancroft teachers are surrounded by willing fence painters. I hope tonight you get to see a little bit of how our talented faculty do this.

Before I send you up to McDonough, two things I want to impart: 

First, if you need to talk to a teacher about your child specifically, please feel free to drop them an email and set up a time to talk. I’m sure you can understand that tonight is not the right night to have individual conversations.

Second, parents’ nights are in many ways, by necessities of logistics and maximum efficiency, nothing like a reflection of what it is like to be immersed in the life and daily routine of a school. I think that this truth is especially the case tonight as the evening’s program stands in stark contrast to the schedule that your children are living each day. Tonight you are on a tight, one-class-right-after-another, only-two-minutes-of-passing-time schedule. Please realize that what your children experience is a much more humane experience.

With that I invite you to see glimpses of the fences we will paint this year. 

Posted by on Friday September, 23, 2016 at 03:56PM

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