Month: September 2015
As our students just returned from the first “open weekend” of the year, I’m reminded of a couple of things. The first is how necessary these breaks are for everyone on “The Hill.” Our students have acclimated to the school year and the consistent routine was on the verge of becoming “the grind.” An open weekend changes that. A disclaimer: As our student body represents 28 States and 19 Countries, not all students left campus. For those students who remained, social activities, off-campus trips and good old-fashioned down time was a great respite too. I could sense the re-energized mood in homeroom today.
The second thing I’m reminded of is how the Oak Hill Academy school year is similar to the typical college schedule. Our school calendar offers three major breaks when campus closes and students must leave campus – to join family trips, return home to reconnect with family and friends, or in the case of many of our international students, to join a host family for a cultural experience. In many cases, these scenarios are combined – students become close and often families will invite an international student to join them for significant breaks. (Thanksgiving, Christmas and Spring Break).
Open weekends are those in which we do not have the typical half-day of classes on Saturday and students also get a Monday or Friday off (In the case of mid-winter break in February, they get both). Part of what we are teaching with this schedule, intentionally and organically, is that life requires, at times, that gratification be delayed. While they are on campus between breaks, they are busy. Breaks are frequent enough that there is always one within sight, but there is no “shut down” as we approach those breaks. Educational psychologists will call this grit. Educators will call this perseverance. Parents will understand this as a necessary part of our students’ maturation toward college rigor and life.
I heard the above said by a student at Oak Hill Academy yesterday and it struck me as significant. It stuck with me most of the day and the more I thought about it, like peeling the layers of an onion, its truth became more and more apparent. I don’t think he was trying to be profound, and the context in which he said it was pretty mundane, but he said it with sincerity and a sense of surety – he was stating a fact.
From an academic standpoint, at Oak Hill Academy nothing IS invisible. Our small class sizes (8-10 on average) mean students can’t hide from a teacher or “take a day off.” Good luck getting away with incomplete homework (I think that was the context of the original statement). Learning styles are not ignored – as our teachers learn each student’s strengths and weaknesses, we can become very personal with our approach. With our webgrader program, daily performance is communicated back to the student AND THEIR PARENTS, cementing the idea that every day matters. Back to the small class size, if a lesson doesn’t land on a student, our teachers know it – that is what the 8th period tutorials that happen every day are for (think of it as “office hours” for our teachers). Students can be brought in, notebooks are checked, and a student receives personal attention. They know they are not invisible – and our students like that!
From a social standpoint, students are not invisible to their peers. Nobody sits alone in our cafeteria – grade level doesn’t matter socially here. Our students are engaged in each other’s lives and actually enjoy helping each other through the inevitable bumps of a school year. They often study together. Our location contributes to this. We are located in a beautiful area of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Southwestern Virginia and there is no “mall across the street.” Our kids look around and know that we are all they’ve got, so we had better take care of each other. And they do.
From a community standpoint, there is a lot of structure and a lot of “eyes on campus.” The majority of our faculty and staff live on campus with their own families and faculty housing dots campus. We are everywhere! We enjoy knowing our students outside of class as much as in class and they get to know our own children and even our family pets! This gives incredible opportunity to be there for our students with unlimited, informal, teachable moments. There are resident managers who live with the students in the dorm. Yes, we are everywhere.
We are a small boarding school and this is significant. Everyone is plugged into one or more of the many clubs and activities taking place each afternoon. Weekends are filled with on-campus social activities and off-campus trip offerings. Students discover their talents and interests and each student has a real place in our community. As one student put it to me recently, in my old school I was my “school self” and then I had my “home self” but here, I can BE MYSELF.
“At Oak Hill Academy, nothing is invisible.” What a true statement!
This year, I will frequently invite colleagues and students to share their Oak Hill Academy experience with our blog readers. Mr. Julius is a young, highly educated English teacher who has a way of connecting with his students through compassion and an engaging style. I am happy to share his perspective as the first in the “My Oak Hill Academy: Through the Eyes..” series.
M.Ed., Delta State University 2012
M.F.A., UNC-Greensboro 2014
I’m standing in front of a fresh class of ninth graders, coffee in hand. We’re reading, sluggishly through the first short story of the year. It’s the beginning of my second year at Oak Hill Academy. I know this game, I’m thinking, let’s see what these new kids can throw at me. And then it happens. The refusal to participate. The student who, for whatever reason, on this particular day, simply doesn’t want to do. We’ve all been there (even us teachers). He denies it. “I’m not sleeping,” he says. “I just had my head on my desk,” he says, wiping the drool from his lower lip.
It’s only the second week of school. I’m at the top of my game. I’m feeling fresh. So I give him a chance to rebuttal. I tell him he has two options. First, he can come see me after school to make up the time he’s spent snoozing in my classroom. This is generally what happens when things go wrong attitudinally or a student has an off day. But he responds with a cool, “I can’t come. I have after school work with another teacher.” Of course, now I’m feeling stuck. As a teacher, I always want to feel empowered, and I wan’t my students to feel empowered. But I also need my students to understand that they must deal with the consequences of their actions, even if they have obligations to someone else. So I tell the student to see me after class.
The bell rings. He saunters up to my desk reluctantly and I tell him, “I’ll see you in your dorm tonight during quiet time.” He’s stunned. “You can’t come to my dorm,” he says, as if he’s forgotten we live only a stone’s skip away. This is the joy of being at a boarding school, and I can’t stress this enough. It’s not that I have the power to go to a students dorm at night and make sure they’re doing their homework. That doesn’t teach them responsibility, and no teacher wants to give up their personal time to be a helicopter parent. It’s not that I want to make my students’ lives difficult by punishing them until they submit to my demands. This doesn’t foster a community of mutual respect or encourage them to think independently and critically. The real joy is that I can show a student, by coming to their dorm at 8:30 on a school night (when any other teacher in the country would be at home binge watching old episodes of Seinfeld) that I am fully invested in their success. What I love about teaching at a boarding school like Oak Hill Academy is that I have the unique opportunity to be there for a student all day, every day.
I can be Mr. Julius the English teacher, the guy with the beard they see five (sometimes six) days a week for fifty-two minutes. This is a role I am comfortable with. It’s the role I love. But I can also be a mentor outside of the school building, dedicated to making sure that each one of my students learns that their actions have consequences, both positive and negative, and that they must own them. No matter what.
It’s 8:30 at night. Nights like this one are cool on the Hill. The breeze is swift through the Blue Ridge. The bugs are settling down in anticipation of the coming winter. It’s quiet. And I’m inside the game room of a dorm that houses fifty odd boys talking to a student about the importance of being present, aware. How he has the opportunity to be a leader to other students and that sleeping in class not only jeopardizes his success, but communicates to me and the students around him that respect isn’t always necessary. And it clicks.
I’ve heard it said that teachers can change the world. Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach For America, said that “education is the tool to get kids out of poverty.” These are certainly daunting goals for an educator. I can’t say whether or not I’m changing the world. I couldn’t tell you if the lessons I teach on any given day are helping bring any of my students out of poverty or changing their lives in measurable ways. But I can tell you this: I spent an evening with a student on a cool late summer night discussing the value of growth and the value of change and he got it. It’s not always easy to see the returns on your investment as a teacher. You can look to SoL’s or end of the year tests, etc. etc. amen. But for me, seeing those little glimpses of growth, one student at a time, one late night pep talk at a time, is promise enough, proof enough, that I’m doing something right. That’s what being a teacher at Oak Hill means to me.
A common theme among admission calls I receive at Oak Hill Academy is the general thought that “college is right around the corner and my son/daughter is not ready.” As a truly college prep boarding school (95% college acceptance), Oak Hill Academy really excels at working with students with college-bound intentions who may not have the transcript, habits or mindset in place to maximize that ambition.
Our college-prep curriculum and rigor is supported by several academic support components:
- Our small class sizes (8-10 on average) promotes strong relationships between teachers and students. This is often the key to unlocking a student’s potential – a teacher who takes the time to address their particular learning style and engages the student personally. Pretty quickly our students have the epiphany that “something is different” with their classroom experience.
- Relationships are further cemented through our 8th period tutorial program. Our teachers, most of whom live on campus themselves, are available outside of class time. Each day, office hours are built into the academic schedule allowing teachers to call students in for specific reasons that we pick up on class – a homework deficiency or a confused look for example – and to give some shoulder to shoulder coaching. Students also regularly use this time to get tutoring for an upcoming test or quiz. Questions from students do not go unanswered…or unasked.
- Regularly scheduled tutorial sessions are provided for students who are struggling or working under potential in a class.
- Our Resource Center supports learning needs across the curriculum. Issues such as time management, critical reading, note-taking, and organization are improved through this guided after school program. Students can use this to get a jump on homework or develop a study plan for the evening study time with guidance and coaching from a faculty member.
- All of this is supported by the independent study time that is mandatory in our dorms each evening. Students also use this opportunity to form study groups or use peer-mentors. Our students love to study together!
Oak Hill Academy offers a unique approach in the college-prep, boarding school world. If you are looking for a turning point in your student’s high school experience, I invite you call or email Director of Admission, Mike Rodgers for a personal discussion. With rolling admission, quality applicants are still being considered throughout the first semester.
For most of our applicants at Oak Hill Academy, the idea of enrolling at boarding school comes with both excitement and apprehension. Going away to boarding school is a big lifestyle change and it is natural to have both of those emotions. However, our parents (and at sometime during a successful application process, our students) come to realize that in order to make significant changes, one must get out of a “comfort zone” and into a significantly different environment.
Growing: when you are transforming to a new season of life,
the people and situations that no longer fit you will fall away.
Don’t fight the process.
I ran across this quote recently that succinctly addresses the number one worry that I encounter from students as they consider the opportunity for positive changes that enrollment at Oak Hill Academy offers. Simply put, they worry about leaving their friends at home behind. I want to address this issue here briefly:
- Growth occurs outside of your comfort zone. By definition, in order to get different outcomes, you must do things differently. This is uncomfortable.
- Throughout our lives, as we grow, the associations we make change. A person simply cannot grow without making new relationships that expand our definition of ourselves. Our Oak Hill Academy student body becomes very close-knit, rather quickly. Everyone matters and has a place in our community. You’ll make close friends. Our students come to understand why as they redefine themselves in positive ways.
- Breaks, open weekends and our school schedule mean that students have fairly frequent opportunities to reconnect with friends and family at home. The friends that matter and support the growth you experience at Oak Hill will not disappear. You’ll reconnect often. The friends that do not support your growth will probably fade, and they probably should. In the meantime, while at school, you’ll be focusing on the right things for you.
Our Head of School, Dr. Groves shared this photo with me of the sunrise taken from the back of campus this morning. First of all, what a view we have up here on “The Hill!” Secondly, it was very apropos of the great start to the school year we’ve enjoyed this week. The sun is rising on the 137th school year at Oak Hill Academy and we couldn’t feel more blessed.