The Learning Curve

Welcome to The Learning Curve - insightful educational commentary from Dr. Bob Bowman, Assistant Head of School for Upper School.

The Wisdom of a Metal Shop Teacher

I read an intriguing article at the start of the summer, Resilience is the New Happiness by Ephrat Livni, on the Quartz website. This article has stayed with me, particularly the following quote: 

We can’t always be happy. Pleasure is a relative state, contrasted by discomfort and pain. In between fleeting, pleasing moments are many challenging ones that make happiness a relief. So, to be happy, you have to first learn how to be strong; to pick yourself up after a fall, detach from sadness when you don’t succeed, and find the will to persist instead of getting depressed when things go awry, which they often will.

I was struck by the wisdom and simplicity of this concept; I had never heard this stated so succinctly. Clearly, on some basic level, I understood this, but how had I become resilient (or was I just assuming I was)? Distant memories of my youth recall phrases we use in jest now, such as “rub some dirt on it” or “suck it up, buttercup.” I guess we now call that the tough love approach. This article resonated with an indelible memory from my high school years.

My 11th grade metal shop teacher, Mr. Ski - I never knew his actual last name - was a card carrying professional in the tough part of tough love. He was a tall, highly intimidating man who scared me more than any teacher I ever had. To say that I was a poor shop student is an insult to all former poor shop students - I was atrocious. Our projects for the semester were to design and fabricate a coping saw, a tool bit for a milling machine, a pick hammer, and a dust bin. I only completed the coping saw; you should now be getting the picture of my level of ineptitude. Actually, I completed more than a dozen coping saws. I’ll explain. 

Our class procedure was that once you completed a project, you brought your mechanical drawing with the appropriate piece to Mr. Ski. He had three responses, the best of which was a grunt - that was high-level work. Then there was the snort/laugh - you did just well enough to move to the next project. I spent the entire semester craving either of those non-verbal passing grades. Instead I got the dreaded “Holy crap Bowman” screamed at high volume. Mr. Ski would speak (well, yell) so the whole class could hear over the din of the machinery as he explained in great detail the flaws in my project culminating with the complete mismatch of my coping saw to my sub-par mechanical drawing. It was nothing short of a public shaming. It got to the point that the other boys (it was the 1970s - girls took Home Economics) would ask me how soon I would be going to see Mr. Ski again. They enjoyed the spectacle.

While I was aware that I was being made fun of and that I was certainly the target of ridicule, I never, ever considered stopping. (I firmly believed Mr. Ski would kill me!) I just kept starting from scratch. A couple of the really strong students offered to do it for me, but I never acquiesced. There were many tears and gargantuan amounts of frustration and self-pity at school and at home on my part. My parents were completely fine with this. Shop was required and it was a skill that might come in handy in the future. Suck it up, buttercup!

On the second to last class of the semester, I approached Mr. Ski for what I knew was going to be my final opportunity. If I fell short, I would get an F and have to take the course again. You had to complete at least one project satisfactorily to pass. The thrill of my classmates watching his reaction to my “work” had faded by this time, so no one really noticed when I walked up to Mr. Ski. He took my piece and my drawing, snorted, put it in the pile and told me to tag it with my name. I was flabbergasted; I walked away speechless not really knowing what to do. This is not a movie, so there was no triumphant music or cheering from my classmates or inspirational words from Mr. Ski. The only real acknowledgement was from my benchmate Paul who, without looking up from his work, said, “About time.” He actually added some colorful language between “about” and “time” but this is a family-friendly blog. I felt a little let down. My heartbeat slowed to something near normal, a rarity for me in metal shop. But as I thought about that snort, a huge smile slowly grew on my peach-fuzzed face. I am sure that smile stayed there until bedtime.

When I finished the final class, I retrieved my coping saw and took it home - yes we walked the halls with saws and hammers; again, it was the ‘70s. I took my saw and put it in the utility room of our house with the other assorted tools my less-than-handy father had. I even used it a couple of times through the years. But the thing that really sticks with was my report card from that semester. I received a hard-earned D in metal shop; I was glad it was not a D-. What surprised me was the number by my grade indicating that Mr. Ski had added a comment. It wasn’t even a complete sentence, but to this day it means as much to me as any accolade I received from grade to graduate school: “Never gave up.” 

The Mr. Skis of the world have gone the way of the dinosaur, and I am not advocating a return to his approach of fear and intimidation. There is an abundance of research that shows praising effort and focus over getting the right answer has a great deal of long-term benefit for developing confidence and resilience in students. In the Wardlaw+Hartridge Upper School, we often spend time as a faculty in small groups discussing how best to help our students develop the ability to bounce back from failure. 

An approach I advocate for the adults in our community to use is to share stories and examples of when you failed, how you felt when it happened, and how you found the will and the way to recover. I have shared this story countless times with students and while I think they get the message, I usually get a response that includes, “What’s Metal Shop?” or “You got a D and still got into college?” or “So you still kind of failed.” But with some patience and a little cajoling, I usually get my students to understand the importance of finishing and that sometimes your best is not going to earn a good grade and that is okay.

I encourage any and all parents to take a moment to share your struggles with your children. They need to know it is okay and that it is part of the cycle that Livni refers to as the need to experience failure to truly understand the meaning of happiness. So in our lifelong search to become ever more resilient, I hope we follow the words of Mr. Ski:

Never give up.

Posted by bbowman on Thursday October 25, 2018 at 09:21AM
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Integrity: Our Bedrock Core Value

Upper School at The Wardlaw + Hartridge School is back in session and we are off to a wonderful start. Our new students and teachers are acclimating nicely, and everyone is settling into the rhythms of a new school year. As always, we begin with a great deal of joy and optimism. That is the magic of school: new beginnings for our children every September and an opportunity for each student to learn more in the academic realm and, as importantly, about themselves personally. 

While the summer is often a time away from the rigors of school, those of us who remain spend a great deal of our time reviewing and planning for the upcoming academic year. One of the areas we try to better understand is what determines whether a student thrives in school. Much effort, quantitative and qualitative, has been put forth by academic scholars to understand which student characteristics are the best measure of future success. During the past decade or so, researchers have posited that grit, resilience, adaptability, empathy, creativity and others are the most important indicators. One that does not seem to be mentioned as often is integrity, our bedrock core value at Wardlaw+Hartridge. 

In our current political and social climate, integrity, listening to your better angels, has never been more important. Yet currently, there are fewer places to look for role models on the national stage. The news is overwhelmed by the misdeeds, poor choices, and in some cases, crimes, of the leaders across the spectrum in entertainment, news, sports, business and government. A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (link here: The Big Lie) illustrates how pervasive prioritizing the drive and need for success over ethics and the truth is. In an effort to get tenure and better facilities, an assistant professor at Colorado State University forged a job offer letter from another university. This convinced his superiors to fast track the awarding of tenure and increased his funding. If not for a twist of fate, he would have succeeded. To me, this story is beyond belief but is becoming almost commonplace.  

As educators, we are extremely troubled by this apparent loss of integrity in society. Students have unprecedented access to information and are now being overwhelmed by these salacious stories and not with the accounts of people making good choices and doing the noble, possibly unremarkable, thing. What is the reward for adhering to an ethical framework of living? 

In response, the Class Deans, the Dean of Students, the Director of Student Life and I have given character education an even larger part of our advisory curriculum this year. Our emphases will include integrity, issues of student isolation and bullying, academic honesty, and student wellness. These topics are also integral parts of peer advisory, the athletics program and are the foci of a number of our clubs and activities such as Ethics Bowl, Gender/Sexuality Alliance, Empowering Young Women, Model UN and Club Interact, to name a few. In every aspect of our school curricula, we are working to help students understand the importance of integrity and making morally sound choices. As importantly, we want to stress the gravity of the consequences for not doing so. 

So, as the year begins anew, we plan to continue our partnership with parents in preparing our students intellectually, emotionally, and ethically for life beyond W+H and college. It is imperative that we inculcate the ideas of honesty and integrity in both our teaching and in all aspects of school life. Unlike much of our classroom instruction, these lessons will last a lifetime.

Posted by bbowman on Wednesday September 26, 2018 at 01:12PM
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W+H Mission Comes to Life in China

The first line of our Mission Statement is “The Wardlaw+Hartridge School prepares students to lead and succeed in a world of global interconnection.” My overarching understanding of global interconnection focused mostly on the instantaneity of technology. Cell phones (or any connected devices) allow us to interact, react and transact, in real time, with a large portion of people and institutions around the world without leaving our own communities.

As an Upper School we also live this aspect of our mission. W+H faculty often bring unfamiliar aspects of the world to our students by expanding the canon to include works from writers with unique global perspectives in required and elective courses across departments. We provide the opportunity for motivated students to dig deeper by becoming a Global Scholar culminating with a comprehensive project in our Capstone course. Every day our students come to school and share their experiences in one of the most diverse independent day schools in New Jersey. And for the more adventurous, W+H has travel programs where our students stay with families in villages in Peru and Guatemala (with emphasis on service learning and leadership) and with families in China and Spain (with emphasis on language and cultural immersion). 

I am and have been proud to be part the W+H community and our commitment to global interconnectedness. Yet all of this was very academic and cerebral for me, until two colleagues, my family and I traveled to China on an admixture of school business, cultural and kitschy tourist activities. It was on this trip that I was reminded that it is the immersive, interactive connections that you make with individuals that truly defines being part of a global community. Equally important was the joy my family experienced getting to know Mr. Althouse and Ms. Liu on a personal level; better companions I cannot imagine.

I am not a travel writer nor could I do justice to the vast splendor and magnificence of the sites and people of China, so this will not be an eloquent travelogue of our adventures. But I do want to highlight a few of the personal experiences that made this trip so memorable.    

The Chengdu Shishi School: Through the incredible work of Ms. Liu, Wardlaw+Hartridge is a Confucius Classrooms school and a member of the Chinese Language Programs Network of the East Asia Society. We have been partnered with the Shishi High School in Chengdu and established our Chinese student exchange with them. Shishi was founded in 141 BC and resides on two sites, one of which has been the same for 2,155 years. It is recognized as the oldest school in the world. After having the honor of meeting assistant principal Lu and discussing our future collaborations, we witnessed something pretty spectacular: dismissal for lunch. At exactly 12:30 p.m., a group of 2,500 race-walking students (they are not allowed to run) moved en masse. Every sidewalk looked like a blue and white (Shishi school colors) stream flowing towards the five-story cafeteria. I will never complain about the lunch line at W+H again!

W+H Family Hospitality I: Anyone who has driven outside of the United States knows it can be challenging. Fortunately for us, the families of W+H students in both Shanghai (Alex Yan’s family) and Beijing (Jack Yang’s family) made sure we were provided excellent transportation. Our drivers were the paradigm of calm in the chaotic, and often non-existent, traffic patterns. Both families met with us and made sure we were taken care of in any way possible, always checking in to see if we enjoying ourselves. For me, this was such an unexpected display of care and concern. All of us were truly touched by their genuine affection.

W+H Family Hospitality II: Three of the truly wonderful experiences our group enjoyed were the two dinners and a luncheon provided by the families (underlined students attended) of W+H in the cities of Shanghai (parent(s) of Eric Wang, Alex Yan, and Jerry Zhang) and Beijing (parent(s) of Mandy Fan, Steven LiAble Xu, and Jack Yang). The menus were filled with local delicacies including sea cucumber, duck tongue, soup dumplings, and fish tripe - I ate and enjoyed them all! The entertaining and dangerous part of the gatherings was the toasting traditions with Maotai, also known as Chinese white wine (Google it if you are interested). Let’s just say there were a lot of toasts. While there were certainly some language barriers, our mutual support for the students and W+H allowed us to communicate and to share great company and epicurean delights.

Superlative Adjectives: China’s combination of ancient and modern cultures is striking and results in the use of words ending in -est constantly. This is not done in a boastful way; it is the result of having a civilization dating back more than 4,000 years. Some sites we visited that fall into this category include the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, the New Century Global Center, and the Shanghai Tower, all of which are the oldest, longest, tallest, biggest, etc. Of course, our trip to China would not have been complete without a visit to see the cutest bears – the pandas – which we did at the Chengdu Panda Base.

The end of our mission statement speaks to a “familial sense of community.”  Our trip to China reminded me that the Wardlaw+Hartridge family is not parochial but indeed reaches halfway around the world. To Central America, to South America, to Europe and to Asia – our small school’s community is truly global in nature.  

Posted by bbowman on Friday August 10, 2018 at 10:18AM
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Four Cs Stimulate Student Engagement at W+H

One of the great privileges of my job is getting to walk the hallways while classes are meeting. Surreptitiously listening and watching our students and teachers in action is one the highlights of my day. I am often only privy to a snippet of each class, without a great deal of context, but it affords me the opportunity to have a lens on our educational process at Wardlaw + Hartridge, to see how our teachers teach and how our students learn. I am struck by how much instruction and pedagogy has evolved from my high school days from four decades ago.

The fundamental designs of our classrooms are not that much different from my old high school (which is still in use): there are whiteboards (instead of blackboards); there are chairs and writing surfaces for the students; and the walls and benches are frequently covered with student work. There is a paradigm-shifting fundamental difference: the addition of powerful technology such as Smart Boards, wifi and laptops, which have dramatically changed education. We have evolved from the three Rs of my youth: reading, writing and arithmetic (really only one R; this always bothered me as a child!), to the 4 Cs of the 21st century learner: critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity.

Cogent arguments can be made that the “Rs and Cs” have been present in the classrooms of great teachers for more than a century. Yet, there has been a fundamental shift in the level of involvement of students in their own learning. This is not driven solely by the availability of technology; it is based on extensive research encouraging teachers to rethink the model of a teacher-centered classroom. Through my many, many years of schooling, I can count on one hand (with the exception of science laboratory courses) where I did something besides listen to a teacher, take notes (if possible), and then demonstrate through an assessment tool that I understood the material being covered. Teachers lectured, students learned. 

But then there were those magical moments in school where I felt like Dorothy moving from the black and white of Kansas to the technicolor wonder of Oz. Mr. Phalen in seventh grade English incorporated games into learning; we were grouped into new teams every week. I have never had more fun learning grammar and vocabulary. Mr. Bond in ninth grade geography had pairs of students become the experts on a nation of Africa. We were required to teach the rest of the class for two hours, however we chose. This included writing to the consulate of our country to get the necessary resources; that is what is meant by old school! Finally, there was Professor Flynn, who made his graduate students demonstrate difficult concepts of chemical kinetics in a project that I can only describe as a Rube-Goldberg machine on steroids. To this day, I remember those courses and those teachers who chose to challenge their students to collaborate and communicate.

This is the difference I see in my journeys through the Upper School at W+H. Now this level of innovation and engagement that was so rare for me is occurring in all disciplines and grade levels. I would venture that almost every day our students are asked to form an opinion or make a conclusion based on current learning and then share and defend their thinking in pairs or threes (or to the whole class). We understand that successful communication involves active listening, assessing and reassessing understanding, and ultimately making persuasive arguments.  

Collaborative projects and presentations are routine and expected for all of our students. Technology, including GoogleDocs, presentation software, video/audio capabilities, and access to resources, greatly enhances the way information can be shared amongst collaborators and the way it can be communicated to an audience. The engine that drives these creative and engaging methodologies is our W+H teachers. Our faculty are lifelong learners. They are committed to using teaching approaches and seeking professional development that allow them to incorporate exciting forms of instruction that greatly differ from the anodyne lecture-based models of the 20th century.

So, in the car or at the dinner table or on a walk, ask your children about not just what they are learning but how they are learning. We want your children not to be able to count the number of transformative teachers they had on their hands and their feet in their time at Wardlaw + Hartridge.

Posted by bbowman on Wednesday May 9, 2018 at 01:31PM
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W+H Storytellers

What makes an independent school unique? Extraordinary? Desirable?

Independent schools lay claim to these and other superlatives in an effort to encourage parents to trust our schools with their most precious children. In the end, the choice often comes down to the feeling a family gets when they visit a particular school. They listen to the members of the community as they share their stories of why and how and what makes their school the place that it is. I posit that it is these stories that are the most important measures of a place of learning; these conversations, classes and collaborations range from small moments to serendipitous encounters to transformative lessons. If you walk the halls you will hear these stories, the bits and pieces of exchange that resemble, in some small way, the oral tradition on which education first began. These shared experiences between community members create the unseen but palpable ethos of learning: frustration, discovery, then joy... start again. These stories permeate through every part of the school. We try our best to share these stories through our written comments, website, social media and direct engagement, but they are personal and fleeting and can be lost in the telling. But they are there, and they are what makes the Upper School at Wardlaw + Hartridge a place that I believe is truly special. 

Undaunted by my own warning that stories can be difficult to encapsulate, let me briefly share three very different, but quintessential examples from just this past week that I believe highlight all that I love about W+H. All that makes us a place like no other.

Stan the Man– Stan D., pictured with me above, has a passion for learning languages (as well as most things academic). While in middle school, Stan began taking Mandarin at W+H. This is an incredibly challenging language that requires a great ear and an ability to pronounce sounds in unfamiliar ways. Stan quickly excelled in learning the language and eventually found himself as an interpreter for his chaperones on last spring’s exchange trip to China. You may also see Stan giving tours to families from China; that is the level of his excellence. Encouraged by his instructor, Ms. Hua Liu, Stan entered the 13th Chinese Bridge Speech Contest for U.S. High School Students. Working tirelessly, outside of class time, Ms. Liu and Stan prepared for the competition, which was to take place in Boston. Stan competed in the highest level: Advanced. From Ms. Liu: “His competitors all spoke fluent Chinese…. Some visited China multiple times, interned in China or began Chinese language study at the age of 4 in an immersion school.” After the completion of the three stages – speech, Q&A and talent – Stan finished in second place. This is a phenomenal result demonstrating his passion for the language and the culture and his willingness to take those extra steps with a teacher he trusts.

Everybody’s Gone Researchin’– Loyal readers of my blog will remember my award-winning piece entitled Pass with FLYing Colors- STEM Research at W+H. Well the story continues. Dr. Susan Zusman, along with students Kelly L. and Olivia T., applied for and were accepted into the prestigious year-long 2018 Waksman Student Scholars Program (WSSP). This will include a three-week Summer Institute. Olivia and Kelly will get intensive training on STEM research projects in the July program. During the 2018-19 academic year, these students will assume leadership roles in our Honors Research course sharing their knowledge and guiding the research directions under the watchful tutelage of Dr. Zusman. This is an incredible opportunity and continues the upward trajectory of our research initiatives at W+H. It often only takes an encouraging push from a dedicated teacher to get students excited about the endless possibilities of scholarship.

Ms. Smith Goes to W+H– Schools often have visiting scholars and speakers throughout the school year. This past Wednesday, April 4, we hosted the United State Poet Laureate, Ms. Tracey K. Smith, to present to our students in grades 8-12 and lead a more intimate workshop with 50 Upper School students. For those unfamiliar, Professor Smith from Princeton University is the official poet of the U.S. I repeat, the official poet of the U.S. presenting in our still pristine Berry Performing Arts Center. It was sublime. This incredible opportunity arose through the passions and hard work of English teacher Ms. Stephanie Cohen, motivated by her students’ adoration of Ms. Smith's works. It is no easy task to convince someone as sought after as Ms. Smith to visit a small high school, but Ms. Cohen succeeded where many would have been discouraged. You will read more about Ms. Smith’s performance in future blog(s); in short, it was absolutely phenomenal. From the stellar introduction by Sanjana P. to the sharing of student work based on opening lines of a poem from Ms. Smith, this was a transformational experience for many of our students and faculty. 

So, there you have it, three stories from many, many that happened this week. I want to point out that all of these involve commitment to excellence occurring outside the traditional classroom curriculum. They highlight the extraordinary commitment of our faculty and students and represent the fruits of the teacher/learner partnerships that shape who we are on a daily basis.  While every story in our school is certainly not as newsworthy as this trilogy, to those involved, they are as important and potentially transformative. 

I invite you to sit in our halls and listen. Our stories are who we are and what makes us unique… extraordinary… desirable… and ultimately: Pioneering. Thinkers.


Posted by bbowman on Wednesday April 11, 2018 at 02:16PM
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Keeping Our Students Ahead of the Times

The story of Steven Sasson is an oft-told cautionary tale.  In 1975, Sasson, a young engineer at Kodak, invented the first digital camera.  Sasson’s initial camera was absurdly slow, made of disparate parts, and the image resolution was orders of magnitude worse than any traditional film camera.  While not impressed, his bosses allowed him to continue the development of the digital camera.  In 1987, Sasson developed a fully functioning digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera; one that was very similar to today’s digital cameras.  A quick Google search in 2018 of the top 50 selling digital cameras on Amazon reveals exactly zero from Kodak.  How is this possible?  Kodak was years ahead of its competitors in digital photographic technology and held the 1977 patent on which all future digital cameras were based.  In digital cameras, Kodak saw a business that would compete with their dominance in traditional film photography; they did not see the virtual explosion of the digital world.  In 2012, four years after their patent expired, Kodak filed for bankruptcy. 

It would be a mistake to assume that the leaders of Kodak were not intelligent or not informed.  In fact, they were pioneers in many fields with some of the brightest and most innovative scientists.  The leadership just never foresaw a world where photographic film would virtually disappear for the everyday consumer.  When they finally realized their error, they had moved from a position of leadership to one of chasing the industry.  They just never caught up.  Kodak is not alone; there are numerous examples of missed opportunities including Blockbuster versus Netflix and Sears (and other big box stores) versus Amazon.  It is often difficult to see the forest for the trees.

What was missing in each of these instances of unnecessary obsolescence?  I would argue adaptability.  Kodak, Blockbuster and Sears were highly creative and leaders in their fields for decades, but their inability to make meaningful and daring changes in reaction to current and future innovations led to their demise.  It is incumbent upon us as educators to help our students learn adaptability and resilience at W+H.  We cannot just teach students what to think; the volumes of knowledge are almost endless.  We must teach our students how to think critically, how to appraise a situation, how to choose their facts wisely and how to make educated predictions on how to proceed.  In short, we need our students to be open to possibilities and the rapid, exponential change in the world today. 

We accomplish this throughout the high school experience at W+H by combining a rigorous academic program with an emphasis on empowering students to take control of their learning and make their own choices.  From the dozens of assessments options available to ninth graders in Global Humanities, to the excitement of the pursuit of the unknown in biotechnology in our Honors Research course, to the choices for scholarship of seniors taking the Capstone course, students are prepared to take academic risks and pursue their passions.  Embedded throughout the curriculum is the concept of correcting your course, seizing the opportunity to move forward or reassess, depending on the current state of your learning.  Moving beyond the binary of right and wrong to the nuance of what is next and how best to proceed is at the root of adaptability. 

As teachers at W+H, we implore our students to take a stand, support their views with evidence and be willing to consider change when presented with sound opposition.  To quote Charles Darwin, “It is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.”  We hope our students are part of the next Google, not the next Kodak.

Posted by bbowman on Thursday February 15, 2018 at 12:35PM
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Pass with FLYing Colors - STEM Research at W+H

Saturday mornings and early afternoons were my television times growing up.  It was the sole opportunity that I, the youngest member of our family, had control of what was playing on the only TV set in our home.  I would turn to UHF channel 48 – WKBS – adjust the rabbit ears, and watch the WWWF (now the WWE) hoping to see my favorite wrestlers such as Bruno Sammartino, Chief Jay Strongbow and Bob Backlund.  My friends and I would spend countless hours debating whether it was real or not (I was convinced it was!).  After wrestling ended, there would often be a movie.  I would often pay little attention to the movies, splitting my time between my large collections of Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars and the flickering images (I mean this literally because a lot of time was spent adjusting the vertical and horizontal hold). 

Yet I remember with great clarity two movies because they scared the pants off me: The Phantom of the Opera (1943) and The Fly (1958, the Vincent Price film - not the 1986 David Cronenberg version).  Even as a young teenager, I was already attracted to things science and science fiction, so The Fly was particularly fascinating to me because it involved a machine that could disintegrate an object and reintegrate it in another place.  I will not spoil the movie - either version - but the ending of the 1958 version still gives me goosebumps more than 40 years later. 

Scientists, of a certain age, claim their inspiration to pursue their chosen fields was due to the science fiction comic books, television, movies and novels of their youth.  I know Jules Verne, Star Trek and Star Wars definitely inspired me to pursue the research on ultrafast laser spectroscopy that consumed the first 20 years of my adult life.  Yet when I was young, research was something that occurred in the hallowed halls of universities, or other prestigious laboratories and companies, by highly educated folks.  There was no opportunity for aspiring and inspired high school scientists to participate much beyond the ubiquitous baking soda and vinegar erupting volcanoes (red food coloring is in an excellent touch!).  But at The Wardlaw+Hartridge School, a burgeoning and novel research program is underway.

Under the guidance of our W+H teacher, Dr. Susan Zusman, a new frontier in STEM education is taking place in our Research Honors Course, which is available to juniors and seniors.  The star of the W+H research is not the transmogrified house fly from The Fly, but is instead a fruit fly.  Dr. Zusman explains:

Why Drosophila research?

The projects in the Research Honors course use Drosophila melanogaster (the common fruit fly) as a model for human gene function and disease. The importance of Drosophila work has recently been recognized by awarding six groups of Drosophila researchers with the Nobel Prize in Medicine (over the past 20 years, including 2017).  Dr. Zusman was a student in two of these groups.

The scientific interest in Drosophila began in the early 20th century, when US biologist Thomas Morgan used fruit flies to confirm that genes are located on chromosomes like beads on a string, and that some genes are linked – in other words they are inherited together. In doing so, Morgan established genetics as a vital component to modern science.

Ever since the days of Morgan, genetic research has relied – to a large degree – on fruit fly research, leading to breakthroughs in a vast range of human related topics. Today, scientists believe that about 75% of known human disease genes have a match in fruit flies making them a great model system for studying the causes, mechanisms and treatments for human disease. Diseases where Drosophila research have made a significant contribution include Down’s, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, heart disease, Huntington’s Disease, retinal degeneration diseases, autism, diabetes and cancers of all types.

Under the expert guidance of Dr. Zusman, our students are collaborating with research groups around the world.  They are planning and executing original scholarship focused on the following areas: 

  • The identification of a gene involved in regulation of gene function and the prevention of cancer, Collaborator: Dr. Susan Abmayr, Senior Scientist, Stowers Institute of Medical Research, Kansas City, MO.
  • Identification of genes that enhance or suppress retinal degeneration in Drosophila & Examination of the function of a gene needed for Malpighian tubules (insect equivalent of the mammalian kidney), Collaborator: Dr. Bharath Srinivasan, Sun Bio it Solutions, Bangalore, India.
  • Identification of new genes involved in the Notch/Serrate signaling Pathway, Collaborator: Dr. Robert Fleming, (Partner) Professor of Biology, Trinity College, Hartford, CT.
  • The function of hydroxymethylcytosine in Drosophila, Collaborator: Dr. Ruth Steward Professor of Biology, The Waksman Institute, Rutgers University, Piscataway, NJ.
  • Examination of Factors influencing Heartbeat in Drosophila & Examination of Factors influencing Longevity in Drosophila, Collaborator: Dr. Bharath Srinivasan, Sun Bio it Solutions, Bangalore, India.

These are cutting edge, sophisticated biotechnological research areas, and this research is being conducted on our W+H campus.  If the topics are confusing to many of you, that is okay.  Just ask our students in Dr. Zusman’s Research Honors class. They can explain, in great detail, the challenges and the implications of their research projects.  This is an incredibly unique opportunity that is rarely found in a high school laboratory.

Whether today’s students are inspired by the books they read or the videos they stream or the movies they watch, their aspirations will not end there.  Opportunities to contribute at the forefront of science are available at W+H for those intrepid students willing to commit themselves to the analytical thinking and unfettered dreaming necessary to change the world, one small experiment at a time.  As the provocateur of my nightmares from The Fly, Vincent Price, says, “A man who limits his interests limits his life.” 

We are promoting a limitless approach to science at W+H.

Posted by bbowman on Thursday January 11, 2018 at 10:53AM
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Ethics is Everyday

“Ethics is everyday – telling the truth and doing the right thing never go out of style.”  This was the mantra of my fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Crock.  Yes, I know there is a joke in there somewhere.  He was the first instructor I had whose discussions on ethics went beyond, “keep your eyes on your own paper (insert name here),” or the recitation of the Boy Scout law –  A scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful….  Mr. Crock talked reverently about trust and integrity and honesty; he elevated these words to hallowed principles to live by.  Primary school was a place to learn from your mistakes, not suffer a severe penalty, especially on the first offense.  Through conversation and example, Mr. Crock created a class culture of wanting to tell the truth – 26 children striving to do the right thing. 

As Lower School students mature and become Upper Schoolers, the need for an ethical framework expands beyond the academic realm.  Dilemmas in social, emotional and practical situations occur more frequently, and the consequences for straying from cultural norms – giving into temptation – can be devastating.  These situations arise for all teenagers; teenagers who have underdeveloped prefrontal cortexes (one of my tried and true talking points). 

To quote from the HowStuffWorks.com article – Are teenage brains really different from adult brains? – “The brain's remote control is the prefrontal cortex, a section of the brain that weighs outcomes, forms judgments and controls impulses and emotions. This section of the brain also helps people understand one another.”  So, at a time when teenagers are inundated with challenging decisions, large and small, their brains are not fully prepared to help them make the best choices.  This is the drama of high school.

At the Wardlaw+Hartridge Upper School, we build on the efforts of the Lower and Middle School divisions; we continue to work in a variety of ways to help students choose wisely in all aspects of their lives.  In academics, our instructors work closely with their students, teaching and emphasizing all aspects of proper research, reporting and scholarship.  Our teachers inculcate ethics in a historical and modern context across the curriculum, highlighting both brave and catastrophic decision-making.  Additionally, ninth graders are paired with adults (faculty advisors) and upperclassmen (two senior peer leaders – a boy and a girl) who assist in all aspects of student life.  Techniques such as group and one-on-one discussions, role-playing, and journaling, about common challenges faced by all high school students are utilized.  The opportunity to think about situational ethics before you are placed in a compromising position is a highly effective approach for teenagers.

Additionally, students constantly seek the counsel of other trusted adults in our community.  It is common to see students meeting with teachers about academic concerns; it is equally common to find students seeking the help of members of our community about the issues (ethical and other) they face.  The trust, compassion and empathy shared between everyone is palpable.  Students seeking advice when faced with difficult choices is also a great strength of our community.

Mr. Crock was quite fond of quoting the University of Virginia’s Honor Code: Students pledge never to lie, cheat, or steal, and accept the consequence for breaking this pledge.  It was not until years later that I realized Mr. Crock had slightly modified UVA’s honor code.  He omitted the last part of the code which stated that the consequence was expulsion from college.  This made sense because his focus was on making ethical choices based on a shared respect and concern for each other, not out of fear of getting caught.  Falling short is acceptable as long as you get up, realize and own your errors, and move forward wiser for the experience.  I feel very fortunate that Mr. Crock’s ethos of “ethics is everyday” is flourishing at W+H.

Posted by bbowman on Wednesday December 6, 2017 at 09:09AM
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Globally Engaged in a Moving Way

Dark skies… heavy rain… howling winds… on a gloomy autumn Sunday – seems like the perfect time for teenagers to put on some pajamas or comfortable clothes and stay home, connecting with friends and catching up on homework.  Yet, on this very day, in this ghastly weather, 13 Wardlaw + Hartridge students chose to use their time in a very different way: helping refugee families new to the Edison community. Here’s how these W+H students found themselves soaked to the bone but never more fulfilled and gratified.

Their story began more than six months ago on March 8, 2017 at the biennial Upper School Symposium where the focus was on the global refugee crisis.  Jim O’Halloran, Director of Global Learning, Upper School teacher and one of the leaders of a group of faculty and students who planned the day, wrote this eloquent introduction to the Symposium:

“The refugee crisis is uncomfortably familiar to most of us, in a vague way. We may have some idea of the numbers (21.3 million, over half of whom are under the age of 18), the causes (conflict, persecution, human rights abuses) or the regions of origin (the Middle East, Africa, Central Europe, Southeast Asia).  Our imaginations strain, however, at relating personally to these unfortunate souls. Are they an endless stream of needy, stateless people, a pool of potential terrorists, or a source of enriching cultural diversity and economic potential?  The topic perplexes us and threatens to overwhelm us.”

On a day filled with powerful and transformative activities, Nino LaStella, a representative from Interfaith-RISE (Refugee and Immigrant Services and Empowerment), located in nearby Highland Park, spoke to the Upper School about constructive engagement.  This was the final part of the experience where students, faced with staggeringly complex issues, were encouraged to brainstorm about how one person and/or the W+H Upper School community can make a difference.

Many of our students were motivated by Mr. LaStella’s words and the work his group was doing.  Here is part of their mission statement:

“We are committed to resettling refugees in central NJ, assisting asylum seekers before and after release from Elizabeth Detention Center….  Interfaith-RISE assists with housing, ESL, social services, education, medical assistance, mental health services, transportation, and supportive community integration as families and individuals journey towards self-sufficiency and independence.”

Our students were inspired to follow the empowering aphorism: Think Globally, Act Locally.  Thus, an ongoing service relationship and collaboration between W+H and Interfaith-RISE was established.

Now back to the story of our waterlogged students.  Led by Nicole Nolan, our Director of Service Learning and an Upper School teacher, our W+H cohort cleaned and prepared an apartment for a refugee family arriving from Afghanistan. Upper School students were sweeping floors, scrubbing surfaces and carrying furniture through the rain.  They worked with folks with little or no ability to speak English, but Jordan (all last names withheld) commented, “It was so easy and awesome to work with people from other cultures.  Despite our lack of a common language, it was a joyful experience so it was not an issue.”  Yash related, “While the work was challenging, it really felt good to be doing this.”

When asked why they would give their time to the refugee families, all the students smiled – clearly this was a ridiculous question – why wouldn’t they do this.  Dazlyn shared that after last year’s symposium “it is our duty as a citizen of W+H and of the world to help others.”  Judy added, “We are all so privileged to be here and have what we have that we are obligated to do this.” 

Yet there were still some disturbing revelations.  Victoria was “unaware that only refugee families with SIV (Special Immigrant Status) were allowed to enter the country.”  Briefly, SIV status indicates that these families helped the US government.  (Full disclosure: I was also unaware of this fact.)  Kelly was disheartened to learn that “a lot of people did not want to rent to immigrant families.”  The students understood that there is still a lot of confusion surrounding immigration and seeking asylum in the United States.

Our students have not only been dedicating their brawn to the refugee cause, they are also using their brains to tutor students of all ages (and all levels of English ability).  With little to no training, our students overcame the challenges.  As Sana shared, “eventually we figured out how to communicate, and I am pretty sure we get as much, if not more, out of it as they do.” 

This is the purpose of service learning that differentiates it from volunteerism or community service.  There is a sense of reciprocity and reflection: our students and the refugee families are learning from each other.  Both sides face challenges, but in the end, we have made the world a little smaller as we share common goals, overcome challenges, and see the humanity in all.

Wet or not, there was one thing on which everyone agreed: “It was a great day!”

Posted by bbowman on Wednesday November 1, 2017 at 04:28PM
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Wardlaw + Hartridge Cultivates Pioneering Thinkers

Across the top of our new website are the words: Pioneering. Thinkers.  Both provocative and aspirational, this guiding phrase applies to the Wardlaw + Hartridge community.  Our faculty teaches and inspires our students to combine their creativity and intellectual abilities to begin their quest to find their calling, their passion, their scholarly raison d'être.  Our work at W+H is to assist our students as they begin this lifelong journey of discovery.  Yet like any worthwhile adventure, these first steps are often the most critical.

So, what does it mean to be a pioneering thinker?  The month of October is highly anticipated for a handful of scholars across the globe. This is when the Nobel Prizes, amongst the highest and most coveted recognitions for scholars, are awarded in several academic fields of study.  For those fortunate few it is often the culmination of decades of painstakingly challenging research in areas that were often considered obsolete, esoteric or impenetrable.

Is an award or international recognition the true measure of a pioneering thinker?  I do not believe Nicolaus Copernicus, who is credited with initiating the scientific revolution with his radical theory that the earth and planets moved around the sun, or Gregor Mendel, who founded the field of genetics, would agree.  Like many people who dedicate their lives to scholarship, their work went largely ignored or disbelieved during their lifetimes. Their experimental methodology and thoroughness were exemplary, but acceptance of their theories only happened many, many years after their deaths.  Were they pioneering thinkers?  Absolutely.

Why did these scientists and myriad others pursue the answers to questions in which they might be one of only a few people who are interested?  The answer likely goes back to their educational roots.  In the Upper School, we offer all the necessary studies to start to explore areas of our students’ own interest.  It is through our Capstone program, our many new STEM and Humanities electives, the Fine and Performing Arts, or just a conversation with their teacher/mentor or a recommended reading, that our students are provided a key – the key that opens the door to a new world, a new way of thinking, and a lifetime of scholarly pursuits.

So, is the true benchmark for success changing the world?  Of course not.  The traits of pioneering thinkers that we want our students to learn and embody include originality, rigor, perseverance, introspection and above all else joy.  Whether or not fame or fortune awaits them, it is only by doing something they love, something they care about, that our students’ work will transcend the mundane and be meaningful.  Mendel looked inward and worked in the soil growing peas; Copernicus looked outward and studied the movement of celestial bodies.  Both did so because it was their calling, their vocation.  They satisfied their own curiosity, and by doing so science was never the same.

We hope all our students will be pioneering thinkers.  Some will change the world; some will meet with great success by any measure, and some might not move the needle during their lifetime, like Copernicus and Mendel.  Yet if fulfillment and passion are the measure of a life well spent, then we will be proud of them all.


Posted by bbowman on Tuesday October 3, 2017 at 01:36PM
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1295 Inman Ave,
Edison, NJ 08820
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The Wardlaw + Hartridge School is a top private and college prep school in Edison, New Jersey, which provides an independent, pioneering educational experience at the early childhood, kindergarten, elementary, middle, and high school levels.
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