More questions than answers – EXCEL at Nobles by Head of Upper School Ben Snyder
Nobles students are really smart and are used to getting things right. They are curious; they work hard, and (for the most part) they master material, get results that they and their parents are justifiably proud of. Many are talented beyond the classroom and feel good about their accomplishments. We create curriculum that challenges our students at the appropriate levels so that – with hard work and persistence – they can succeed. As a result of these and a host of other factors, our students don’t fail all that much – and while I take pride in all the good things that happen for our kids, I know that for most of us as adults our greatest learning opportunities have come when we’ve failed.
I thought a great deal about this over spring break when Sarah, history and English teacher, Mike Kalin (and his wife Dr. Becky Lambert), and I took 16 Nobles students to India. The first week of the trip had a service focus, and many of our students were asked to teach English in a rural village school where over half of the students cannot afford the one dollar monthly tuition. While our group had prepared lesson plans and talked through how things might evolve, we couldn’t have fully prepared them to teach for over five hours each day – which they had to do from the morning of the first day with about 10 minutes notice (things in the developing world sometimes happen like that!).
So our intrepid group did the best they could and during our evening debriefing session, it was clear that they all had struggled and some even thought they had failed:
“The lesson plan we created only took us through the first hour – and then we couldn’t make the lesson be positive for the last four hours.”
“Because of the language difference I felt like I didn’t connect with them the way I wanted to.”
“The problems these kids face are so overwhelming – are we making any impact at all?”
This feeling of not getting the “right answer” was incredibly uncomfortable for many of them – yet in the end they responded beautifully. Following our debriefing session, they got down to work. They processed, shared ideas, “rebooted” some of their plans, created alternative lessons, and improved the experiences for their students for the remainder of the week.
Many of you have heard of the evolving EXCEL (Experiential and Community Engaged Learning) programs at Nobles. Encompassing our service, immersion (travel), afternoon and senior project programs these varied opportunities push students into areas where they confront challenges where there are no easy answers and where “extra help” is simply working with other students and teachers to solve a common problem. If one looks closely at our academic program, one will also see the evolution of more experiential opportunities for our students such as in Class IV when they contribute to the 20 plus years of research on the water quality of the Charles River or try to sort out the Middle East crisis.
All of us fear failure and want to get it right. Our EXCEL programs – be they on or off campus – provide the critical opportunities to be challenged, to take risks and, yes, to possibly fail. These kinds of experiences encourage our students to grow into the kinds of people, leaders, and problem solvers the world needs them to be.