A Note from Chris | May 2024

A Note from Chris | May 2024

Dear Whitfield Friends,

May is a busy month at Whitfield! There are the obvious and typical forms of end-of-school-year busy-ness: APs, awards ceremonies, final exams, and, of course, graduation on the horizon.

But it’s also a time in the year when students have the opportunity to demonstrate in real and powerful ways the increasingly sophisticated skills and understandings they’ve developed over the course of the year–or their career at Whitfield.

In the arts last week, we hosted our annual senior art retrospective, which turns the halls of Whitfield into a literal art gallery, and we staged “Ranked,” the largest and most ambitious musical theater production in many years–and then we have performances by our instrumental and choral ensembles this week and next. 

In sports, we are in the midst of end-of-season competition. We’ve had a couple of hard-fought and disappointing losses in esports, boys volleyball, and boys tennis–but our track and field, boys golf, baseball, lacrosse, and girls soccer teams are still in the thick of district and state championship play.

On the academic side, we have three special exhibitions in the next two weeks:

  • Juniors will present their culminating interdisciplinary projects at “The Story of America” exhibition on Thursday.
  • Seniors from the “Human Rights and Genocide” course will debut their documentary films at the St. Louis Kaplan Feldman Holocaust Museum on Tuesday.
  • And then the following week, all of our seniors will present the results of their Capstones, sharing the fruits of a year-long deep-dive into an individually designed passion project. 
  • (I would be remiss if I didn’t also give a shout-out to the 8th Grade Lit Fest!)

All of these are perfect examples of the kind of experiential learning I wrote about last month–examples of students learning, deeply, by doing. Not only do these kinds of exhibitions provide students opportunities to share what they’ve learned and offer valuable experience in public speaking and presenting–they also provide opportunities that are rarer in traditional academics*:

  • Authentic audience. During most of our lives in school, the work we do has a single audience–our teacher–within the narrow context of demonstrating some specific skill or understanding. By contrast, exhibitions like these challenge students with a broad, diverse, authentic audience of viewers and listeners and questioners–people who will push our students to communicate what they have learned outside the safer but artificial boundaries of the classroom setting.
  • Student as expert/Experience of mastery. For some very good reasons, much of our schooling involves covering broad stretches of material, especially in the humanities, where typical courses might range over hundreds, even thousands, of years of history and culture. To be sure, we need citizens with a basic understanding of the sweep of human civilization, but that breadth has to be balanced with opportunities to go deep, to experience that unique and energizing thrill of pursuing a curiosity or passionof mastering a skill or body of knowledge--and becoming an expert.
  • “Playing the whole game.” David Perkins, professor emeritus in the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has argued that traditional American education doesn’t provide students enough opportunity to “play the whole game” at school. For example, in traditional language instruction, students spend years memorizing vocabulary and conjugating verbs–and never learn how to have an actual conversation. As Perkins notes, it’s as if we tried to get students to love baseball by spending three months on catching, then three months on batting, and then three months on running bases–without ever playing a baseball game. Kids love baseball because playing baseball is fun–and that pleasure is motivating and leads them to want to work on their catching and batting, etc. Likewise, if you want to motivate students to become scientists or historians or entrepreneurs, you need to give them the opportunity to do these things. These projects and exhibitions are great examples of our students “playing the whole game.”

* It’s an irony of traditional schooling that the experiences of authentic audiences, expertise, and playing the whole game tend to happen outside the core academic curriculum: in the arts, athletics, clubs, etc. It is perhaps unsurprising that these are also the places where many students spend their discretionary time and energy. Experiential teaching and learning of the sort we do at Whitfield attempts to correct this imbalance.

As you may recall, back in the fall, I wrote about the faculty summer read Make It Stick, which explores the “science of successful learning.” At our most recent professional development day, we hosted two of the book’s three co-authors, Henry L. Roedigger III and Mark A. McDaniel, both of them professors in Wash U’s Department of Psychology. During their visit, Professors Roedigger and McDaniel presented on their most recent research and did training with our faculty, offering practical applications to help our students study and learn more effectively. 

Their visit is a great reminder that our teachers, too, are always growing, learning new and research-based ways to support our students. As we head into finals and end-of-year assessments, I also thought it might be useful to share my earlier note, which offers some practical tips for parents who want to help their children be successful at year’s end.

Looking forward to a wonderful final month of school–


Chris Cunningham, Ph.D.
Head of School