Teaching to Think

ess“People know how to take a course. But they need to learn how to learn,”
This quote was featured in a recent article in the Washington Post about skills that college graduates need to succeed in the workplace (Click here to read it.) While it came from an executive at Xerox, it could easily have been said by anyone committed to progressive education. At Burke we teach our students to think independently so they can make decisions about their educations, explore their own interests, exercise their organizational and collaborative skills within group activities, and balance the demands of their classes, arts, athletics, and school life. In the Post article, the vice president of Enterprise Rental describes this generation of young people as having been “syllabused” all their lives. He’s describing the way that many students in traditional settings have all the decisions made for them. They just have to learn the material and repeat it on the exam. As you know, this is a far cry from what goes on in a Burke classroom. Our mission is to give students power and responsibility, and we expect them to use it to make choices about what to learn, how to learn it and when to apply it. This approach has been supported by research, both neurological and educational. And we know it translates into success in middle and high school. Judging from what we hear from our alumni, it’s an approach that serves our graduates well in college and beyond.


Hello, Goodbye

hellogoodbyeWelcome to 2015! For Burke, January is a unique combination of both beginnings and endings. It marks the start of our relationship with prospective new students – now that the application deadline has passed, the process of opening the door to those who will join our community in 2015-16 has begun in earnest. Our intrepid Admissions office will be hard at work reading essays and finishing interviews over the next two months. At the same time our seniors have started down the path toward leaving Burke. Several members of the Class of 2015 have already received early acceptance letters for college (congratulations!), and most of the deadlines for regular applications have passed. Our hard-working College Counseling office is now beginning the shift to our junior class – their college kick-off meeting is this month. Underlying all these transitions is a myriad of emotions: applicants to Burke are full of questions, seniors are preparing for the inevitable separation, and juniors are facing the reality of the college process. While teenagers everywhere experience these feelings, Burke’s community is uniquely prepared to support students. Applicants feel comfortable in our relaxed and inclusive atmosphere, and juniors and seniors rely on the close relationships they have formed with teachers and advisors. Our faculty and staff are skilled at both welcoming and guiding those who are new, as well as challenging and nurturing those who are finishing their high school careers. Burke’s culture is a critical part of the educational experience here, regardless of whether you are beginning or ending your journey with us!

Approaching The Problem

marchMany students across the country are responding to the recent events in Missouri, New York and Cleveland. They are raising questions and engaging in challenging conversations. At Burke, our progressive pedagogy fosters inquiry and encourages students to ask difficult questions about both academic subjects and social issues. We ask our students to use research, discussion and analysis to examine complex problems, assigning them projects not so much for the product as for the process required to complete the task. We want the children in our care to develop the skills to approach complicated assignments as well as to contend with big issues such as race relations in this country. We teach them that both good scholarship and good citizenship require an open mind and an ability to articulately and thoughtfully express ideas. This week I’m seeing students work on these skills in classrooms, in assembly and in the hallways. Although the topic at hand is far more emotional than presenting a completed project in class, the tools required to grapple with it are similar. I am proud that Burke is helping students acquire and use these critical skills. —Damian Jones, Head of School

Compelling Conferences

fauxconfStudent-led family conferences are one of the Burke’s distinguishing features – you’ll be hard-pressed to find another college-prep school in the area that gives students as large a role in the assessment of their progress as Burke. Our unique advisory system pairs each child with an adult who monitors his or her academic progress and social/emotional well-being, provides guidance and support, and serves as a contact for that child’s teachers and parents. When the advisor, student and parents sit down together, the discussion is rich and productive. This is because the child takes responsibility for his or her own work, (in a way that feels safe for the student,) and he or she is well known by all the adults in the room. Many Burke alumni tell us how connected they still feel to Burke and to the teachers here. The strong bonds between them and the faculty, combined with the freedom to make choices about their educations, gave them the support they needed to push themselves and excel. So, parents, when you hear your child present his or her work during your conference, please note the confidence and maturity that is the hallmark of a Burke graduate. Whether it is just a glimmer in a middle schooler, or fully realized in a senior, it is not an accident. It’s the result of our excellent teaching, effective advisory system, and student-centered approach. Our students truly have a voice – we know you’ll enjoy hearing it!

Risky Business

vuvuselaOne Tuesday afternoon I found myself on a bleacher in the “Burke Dome” surrounded by cheering volleyball fans. The noise was deafening as Burke racked up the points and math teacher Steve O’Keefe blew his vuvuzela while Dean of Students Aaron Plantenberg banged the cowbell. Our varsity girls rode the wave of support to their first victory of the season – hurray! It was another display of Burke spirit and community, as well as an illustration of an important characteristic of Burke life – risk. I’m not talking about the physical risk of spiking the ball (or even sitting next to a vuvuzela,) but rather the risk of joining the volleyball team as a novice player. Burke’s no-cut policy means that every student can play on a Burke team, and many students who have not thought of themselves as athletes discover that with some hard work and practice they are indeed great players. While the game was going on in the gym, drama students were upstairs in the theater rehearsing their scenes for the fall play – another example of risk. To sign up for an audition and put yourself on stage in front of your peers takes courage and support. Taking an AP class or offering to lead a club requires students to challenge themselves and to take the chance that they may fail. Current educational thinking emphasizes the importance of risk and failure in the learning process. We also know that teaching a group of students with differing abilities makes for more creative and effective lessons. Of course we don’t want to stretch teachers too far or let children hurt themselves academically or socially, but we do want them to leave their comfort zones. Recovering from the occasional setback is what builds confidence and fuels a love of learning. This is why we create an atmosphere of acceptance and camaraderie here at Burke – we make it easy for both students and teachers to try new things and discover hidden talents. And the result is success – in the gym, on stage, in the classroom and also in life. Go Bengals! — Damian Jones, Head of School

DJ in DC!

BWDamianI’m so glad to be in Washington, DC! Thanks to the thoughtfulness of the Burke community, I’ve already been to see the Nationals (and came away with a splendid bobble-head,) and spent time in Politics & Prose – clearly a DC institution. I’ve learned the Metro system and seen the Washington Monument – the first of many trips to the Mall I know my family will be taking. Equally enjoyable, I have been meeting with faculty and staff who are in the building this summer. I was inspired by a terrific two-day administrative retreat where we shared personal stories about the role that education has played in our lives – I discovered that the adults at Burke are as diverse as the students. They truly embody our mission of bringing together those who are different from one another! Despite the range in backgrounds, it’s clear that everyone here agrees that Burke’s strength lies in the close relationships we build between teachers and students, the inclusive environment that allows each student to feel appreciated for who they are, and the high expectations we set for students and teachers. I’m looking forward to working with these fine people (and you) on making sure that Burke’s unique mission is well understood by those who are already in our community and those who are looking for a great school. See you in September! — Damian Jones, New Head of School

ImageIt is with mixed emotions that I find myself writing my final message. As I look around the school, the very same aspects of Burke that brought me here in the first place continue to move me. The energy in the building is palpable. Students are comfortable, focused, accomplished and, of course, playful. The teachers are visibly generous with their time, masterful in their interactions with teenagers and engaged in remarkably creative projects. There’s a healthy mix of veteran and new faculty, along with a diverse student body from a wide variety of backgrounds. Music still pours forth from the band room, the walls are covered with extraordinary art and the Atrium hums with student life, just as it did when I arrived. The differences since 2011 (increased enrollment, healthier finances, enhanced reputation) have not changed the soul of Burke. It remains a school uniquely dedicated to bringing together students who are different from one another and helping them become thoughtful, productive citizens of the world. Thank you for these years – I look forward to watching Burke thrive under Damian’s leadership! — Andrew Slater