Custom Class: post-landing-hero

Once upon a time in a middle school, an entire class was lost in the pages of other worlds…

In the front row, one student hunched over a glossy magazine, while another sat immersed in the thrills of a YA, or young adult, novel. Another, eyes closed and headphones in, listened to a rich voice narrate an audiobook bestseller. There were few sounds in the room: whispers of pages turning, the hum of a fan, the shuffle of getting comfortable in a chair. At that moment, thanks to the magic of reading, the students were both present and not—while in their chairs on the Lincoln Street Campus, they were also, somehow, far away, exploring new places, trying on new identities: Detective. Basketball star. Dragon tamer. Field biologist.

“Reading is often described as the keys to the kingdom of learning,” seventh-grade English teacher Jill Gerber recently wrote in an article for Middle School families. “Once someone falls in love with reading, they can go anywhere and be anyone.”

The benefits of reading are well-known. Independent readers are more successful across the academic spectrum—in arts and humanities as well as sciences and mathematics—and enjoy higher levels of empathy, reduced stress, and mental stimulation through their lives. But helping students discover a love of reading, and an internal drive toward it, isn’t always easy, especially once students enter middle school, a phase of life in which many stop reading for pleasure.

Choice empowers middle schoolers: it allows for autonomy, builds engagement, and develops students' interests and skills. When teachers give students choice, they allow a variety of perspectives, interests, and increased enthusiasm into the classroom.—Pam Smith, Middle School principal

Knowing this, Rowland Hall’s Middle School English teachers have long focused on methods that help students rediscover the joy of reading, with one rising to the top: giving them more choice in what they read for school. With choice, teachers introduce students to a wide variety of genres, perspectives, and topics, and then let them pick what they want to read. Supported by research by teachers like Nancie Atwell and Penny Kittle, choice has become a popular approach because it works: by offering students a variety of texts, they’re more likely to find something they like, encouraging them to continue to seek out books that meet their interests.

“It’s so simple to give choice, and the benefits are so profound,” said sixth-grade English teacher Mary Lawlor. In fact, the benefits of choice are so powerful at this developmental stage that the approach is utilized across the Middle School, from student-led project collaboration in social studies to self-pacing opportunities in math and world languages classes.

“Choice empowers middle schoolers: it allows for autonomy, builds engagement, and develops students' interests and skills,” explained Middle School Principal Pam Smith. “When teachers give students choice, they allow a variety of perspectives, interests, and increased enthusiasm into the classroom.”

Chapter 1: A Seat at the Table

Student choice takes different forms within an English class, from the almost limitless options available for independent reading to the extension texts teachers pair with the all-class novels that headline their learning units. Whatever the form, choice provides teachers a way to support students wherever they are as readers.

“Kids are on a journey; they're not all at the same place,” said Jill. This means that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to reading—while some students are ready for advanced texts early in the year, others are challenged by the first all-class novel.

“Choice allows me to target toward reading levels, giving me a lot more flexibility in terms of reaching readers and getting them engaged,” said eighth-grade English teacher Chelsea Vasquez.

Middle School students reading in class.

Seventh graders reading Show Me a Sign, the grade's first all-class novel of this year.

For instance, if a student is struggling with an all-class novel, the teacher can balance that challenge with an easier independent read, ensuring that at any given moment the student has access to a book they actually want to read and helping to avoid the frustration or resentment toward reading that can build when a student doesn’t feel connected to the all-class text.

“Having more choice allows kids to really get into a book and enjoy it,” Chelsea explained. “They get excited, and it builds excitement across the class.”

Choice also helps build students’ confidence when it comes to analyzing literature, an important aspect of the English classroom. For instance, graphic literature—including comic books and graphic novels—has become more common in English classes because of its ability to help students better understand literary terms like theme, symbolism, mood, and imagery.

By meeting students where they are using books that are targeted to each person’s reading level, teachers are helping them feel seen and appreciated on their educational journeys. This is important, because when children feel valued, they’re more likely to believe in their own capabilities and engage on a deeper level.

“For a lot of kids, it's easier to identify symbols and mood when it's a graphic image, before they jump to prose,” explained Jill, an authority on graphic literature (she’s been invited to share her expertise at places like the 2020 Comic-Con Books for All panel and co-authored an article about graphic literature in the classroom). “That switch from the concrete to the abstract, that's kind of the nature of middle schoolers—they're starting to be able to get those abstract concepts.”

Benefits like these add up in a powerful way: by meeting students where they are using books that are targeted to each person’s reading level, teachers are helping them feel seen and appreciated on their educational journeys. This is important, because when children feel valued, they’re more likely to believe in their own capabilities and engage on a deeper level.

“Everybody has a right to a seat at the table, and that's important—we're a community of learners,” said Jill. “I want my kids to see themselves as readers, writers, and thinkers, no matter their skill level.”

Chapter 2: Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors

In addition to giving middle schoolers a seat at the table, choice also helps them understand the importance of making room at that table for a variety of human experiences and perspectives. Through choice, teachers can introduce students to a wider range of books and voices, demonstrating to them the value in lived experiences that differ from their own, and helping to build their empathy and understanding of a diverse world.

“We really try intentionally in the Middle School to make sure we are incorporating all kinds of identities, and that includes both authors and characters,” said Chelsea.

Research shows that all students benefit from diverse stories, including both books in which they see themselves and books in which they don’t. Rowland Hall teachers utilize the concept known as mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors when determining which texts to teach, focusing on books in which students can find reflections of themselves (mirrors), examine others’ worlds (windows), and step into new worlds (sliding glass doors). This approach has been especially important as students have been learning about racial justice movements and starting to explore how they can help create a more equitable world. Teachers play an essential role in guiding students through this process, and can use texts to help them make sense of current events and learn from the experiences of others.

“I can change my curriculum based on the culture of the time,” said Mary, who this year introduced sixth graders to a new graphic novel unit, Other Voices, that featured Jerry Craft’s New Kid, a contemporary story about a young Black student starting a new school, along with John Lewis’ civil rights trilogy March and George Takei’s World War II internment novel They Called Us Enemy. She, along with her fellow English teachers, said they appreciate the flexibility of working in an independent school, which allows them to more easily adjust reading options to meet students’ needs and to help them explore the top issues of the day. “I have the resources to get those novels to them, and parents really want that to happen,” Mary said.

Two eighth graders discuss All American Boys in class.

Eighth graders chatting about All American Boys during class.

Choice also helps students make connections across subjects. For instance, this fall eighth graders read the all-class novel All American Boys—which examines the aftermath of an act of extreme police brutality through the eyes of a young Black man and a young White man—while studying slavery and abolitionism in their American studies class, allowing them to examine the history of slavery in America alongside modern-day racism and racial justice movements. To help students further explore and process racial justice activism as they read the novel, Chelsea presented them with a variety of nonfiction texts featuring activism in poetry, sports, and arts and music.

“I wanted them to see that there are movements outside of this novel,” she explained.

This experience not only grew students’ reading skills and knowledge of these areas, but also helped them feel more confident about engaging in some of today’s most important conversations.

“The kids really became able to talk about race and racism in a way that I hadn't seen before in middle schoolers,” Chelsea said.

Chapter 3: Readers, Writers, and Producers

Helping students learn how to have, as well as to lead, constructive conversations is essential in preparing them to live lives of purpose in an increasingly interconnected world.

“We're a global society,” said Jill. “We have to be able to communicate to a wide audience.”

Middle School students writing in English class.

Studying how writers use language helps students sharpen their own writing skills.

Choice prepares students for this by getting them comfortable with thinking deeply, examining ideas, and seeking out information—habits that are built through reading. In the safety of class, students learn there truly is something for everyone, and they can experiment to find what works for them: physical or digital publications, novels or magazines, graphic novels or comic books. They can even listen to audio books, which build reading comprehension skills in the brain in the same way print books do, and are especially beneficial for students with dyslexia and other learning disabilities (at Rowland Hall, these students have access to Learning Ally, an audio book resource, thanks to a generous grant from a family in the community).

“Students are moving through so many texts and making reading a daily practice, which is one of the best ways to grow as a reader,” said Chelsea.

And it’s not only students’ reading skills that are improving. The more language that kids are exposed to via books, the teachers said, the better writers they become.

“Good readers are good writers,” said Jill. “I'm starting to see the nuance of language emerge, and it's all organic: they're looking at the way writers write, and how they connect to it, and what it makes them feel.”

Books are human experiences, human stories. Humans connect through books, and you can really see kids grow through books.—Jill Gerber, seventh-grade English teacher

In other words, students are beginning to connect the stories they read to what it means to be human.

“Books are human experiences, human stories,” said Jill. “Humans connect through books, and you can really see kids grow through books.” She pointed out that stories are the building blocks of our collective history—before we could write, we told stories around fires and painted the first comics on cave walls—which is why students who explore them are more likely to connect, and better communicate, with others, a skill that can serve any path they choose to take. After all, Jill pointed out, the best doctors are the ones who know how to connect with people. “To be a really good doctor you have to understand the human experience,” she said.

This connection to the human experience also might just spark the inspiration students need to become tomorrow’s producers: writers of the articles, the graphic novels, and the bestsellers that continue this long tradition of storytelling, that help connect us through our shared humanity, and that, perhaps, inspire the next generation of readers.

Academics

With Choice, Middle School English Teachers are Engaging Students and Inspiring Lifelong Learners

Once upon a time in a middle school, an entire class was lost in the pages of other worlds…

In the front row, one student hunched over a glossy magazine, while another sat immersed in the thrills of a YA, or young adult, novel. Another, eyes closed and headphones in, listened to a rich voice narrate an audiobook bestseller. There were few sounds in the room: whispers of pages turning, the hum of a fan, the shuffle of getting comfortable in a chair. At that moment, thanks to the magic of reading, the students were both present and not—while in their chairs on the Lincoln Street Campus, they were also, somehow, far away, exploring new places, trying on new identities: Detective. Basketball star. Dragon tamer. Field biologist.

“Reading is often described as the keys to the kingdom of learning,” seventh-grade English teacher Jill Gerber recently wrote in an article for Middle School families. “Once someone falls in love with reading, they can go anywhere and be anyone.”

The benefits of reading are well-known. Independent readers are more successful across the academic spectrum—in arts and humanities as well as sciences and mathematics—and enjoy higher levels of empathy, reduced stress, and mental stimulation through their lives. But helping students discover a love of reading, and an internal drive toward it, isn’t always easy, especially once students enter middle school, a phase of life in which many stop reading for pleasure.

Choice empowers middle schoolers: it allows for autonomy, builds engagement, and develops students' interests and skills. When teachers give students choice, they allow a variety of perspectives, interests, and increased enthusiasm into the classroom.—Pam Smith, Middle School principal

Knowing this, Rowland Hall’s Middle School English teachers have long focused on methods that help students rediscover the joy of reading, with one rising to the top: giving them more choice in what they read for school. With choice, teachers introduce students to a wide variety of genres, perspectives, and topics, and then let them pick what they want to read. Supported by research by teachers like Nancie Atwell and Penny Kittle, choice has become a popular approach because it works: by offering students a variety of texts, they’re more likely to find something they like, encouraging them to continue to seek out books that meet their interests.

“It’s so simple to give choice, and the benefits are so profound,” said sixth-grade English teacher Mary Lawlor. In fact, the benefits of choice are so powerful at this developmental stage that the approach is utilized across the Middle School, from student-led project collaboration in social studies to self-pacing opportunities in math and world languages classes.

“Choice empowers middle schoolers: it allows for autonomy, builds engagement, and develops students' interests and skills,” explained Middle School Principal Pam Smith. “When teachers give students choice, they allow a variety of perspectives, interests, and increased enthusiasm into the classroom.”

Chapter 1: A Seat at the Table

Student choice takes different forms within an English class, from the almost limitless options available for independent reading to the extension texts teachers pair with the all-class novels that headline their learning units. Whatever the form, choice provides teachers a way to support students wherever they are as readers.

“Kids are on a journey; they're not all at the same place,” said Jill. This means that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to reading—while some students are ready for advanced texts early in the year, others are challenged by the first all-class novel.

“Choice allows me to target toward reading levels, giving me a lot more flexibility in terms of reaching readers and getting them engaged,” said eighth-grade English teacher Chelsea Vasquez.

Middle School students reading in class.

Seventh graders reading Show Me a Sign, the grade's first all-class novel of this year.

For instance, if a student is struggling with an all-class novel, the teacher can balance that challenge with an easier independent read, ensuring that at any given moment the student has access to a book they actually want to read and helping to avoid the frustration or resentment toward reading that can build when a student doesn’t feel connected to the all-class text.

“Having more choice allows kids to really get into a book and enjoy it,” Chelsea explained. “They get excited, and it builds excitement across the class.”

Choice also helps build students’ confidence when it comes to analyzing literature, an important aspect of the English classroom. For instance, graphic literature—including comic books and graphic novels—has become more common in English classes because of its ability to help students better understand literary terms like theme, symbolism, mood, and imagery.

By meeting students where they are using books that are targeted to each person’s reading level, teachers are helping them feel seen and appreciated on their educational journeys. This is important, because when children feel valued, they’re more likely to believe in their own capabilities and engage on a deeper level.

“For a lot of kids, it's easier to identify symbols and mood when it's a graphic image, before they jump to prose,” explained Jill, an authority on graphic literature (she’s been invited to share her expertise at places like the 2020 Comic-Con Books for All panel and co-authored an article about graphic literature in the classroom). “That switch from the concrete to the abstract, that's kind of the nature of middle schoolers—they're starting to be able to get those abstract concepts.”

Benefits like these add up in a powerful way: by meeting students where they are using books that are targeted to each person’s reading level, teachers are helping them feel seen and appreciated on their educational journeys. This is important, because when children feel valued, they’re more likely to believe in their own capabilities and engage on a deeper level.

“Everybody has a right to a seat at the table, and that's important—we're a community of learners,” said Jill. “I want my kids to see themselves as readers, writers, and thinkers, no matter their skill level.”

Chapter 2: Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors

In addition to giving middle schoolers a seat at the table, choice also helps them understand the importance of making room at that table for a variety of human experiences and perspectives. Through choice, teachers can introduce students to a wider range of books and voices, demonstrating to them the value in lived experiences that differ from their own, and helping to build their empathy and understanding of a diverse world.

“We really try intentionally in the Middle School to make sure we are incorporating all kinds of identities, and that includes both authors and characters,” said Chelsea.

Research shows that all students benefit from diverse stories, including both books in which they see themselves and books in which they don’t. Rowland Hall teachers utilize the concept known as mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors when determining which texts to teach, focusing on books in which students can find reflections of themselves (mirrors), examine others’ worlds (windows), and step into new worlds (sliding glass doors). This approach has been especially important as students have been learning about racial justice movements and starting to explore how they can help create a more equitable world. Teachers play an essential role in guiding students through this process, and can use texts to help them make sense of current events and learn from the experiences of others.

“I can change my curriculum based on the culture of the time,” said Mary, who this year introduced sixth graders to a new graphic novel unit, Other Voices, that featured Jerry Craft’s New Kid, a contemporary story about a young Black student starting a new school, along with John Lewis’ civil rights trilogy March and George Takei’s World War II internment novel They Called Us Enemy. She, along with her fellow English teachers, said they appreciate the flexibility of working in an independent school, which allows them to more easily adjust reading options to meet students’ needs and to help them explore the top issues of the day. “I have the resources to get those novels to them, and parents really want that to happen,” Mary said.

Two eighth graders discuss All American Boys in class.

Eighth graders chatting about All American Boys during class.

Choice also helps students make connections across subjects. For instance, this fall eighth graders read the all-class novel All American Boys—which examines the aftermath of an act of extreme police brutality through the eyes of a young Black man and a young White man—while studying slavery and abolitionism in their American studies class, allowing them to examine the history of slavery in America alongside modern-day racism and racial justice movements. To help students further explore and process racial justice activism as they read the novel, Chelsea presented them with a variety of nonfiction texts featuring activism in poetry, sports, and arts and music.

“I wanted them to see that there are movements outside of this novel,” she explained.

This experience not only grew students’ reading skills and knowledge of these areas, but also helped them feel more confident about engaging in some of today’s most important conversations.

“The kids really became able to talk about race and racism in a way that I hadn't seen before in middle schoolers,” Chelsea said.

Chapter 3: Readers, Writers, and Producers

Helping students learn how to have, as well as to lead, constructive conversations is essential in preparing them to live lives of purpose in an increasingly interconnected world.

“We're a global society,” said Jill. “We have to be able to communicate to a wide audience.”

Middle School students writing in English class.

Studying how writers use language helps students sharpen their own writing skills.

Choice prepares students for this by getting them comfortable with thinking deeply, examining ideas, and seeking out information—habits that are built through reading. In the safety of class, students learn there truly is something for everyone, and they can experiment to find what works for them: physical or digital publications, novels or magazines, graphic novels or comic books. They can even listen to audio books, which build reading comprehension skills in the brain in the same way print books do, and are especially beneficial for students with dyslexia and other learning disabilities (at Rowland Hall, these students have access to Learning Ally, an audio book resource, thanks to a generous grant from a family in the community).

“Students are moving through so many texts and making reading a daily practice, which is one of the best ways to grow as a reader,” said Chelsea.

And it’s not only students’ reading skills that are improving. The more language that kids are exposed to via books, the teachers said, the better writers they become.

“Good readers are good writers,” said Jill. “I'm starting to see the nuance of language emerge, and it's all organic: they're looking at the way writers write, and how they connect to it, and what it makes them feel.”

Books are human experiences, human stories. Humans connect through books, and you can really see kids grow through books.—Jill Gerber, seventh-grade English teacher

In other words, students are beginning to connect the stories they read to what it means to be human.

“Books are human experiences, human stories,” said Jill. “Humans connect through books, and you can really see kids grow through books.” She pointed out that stories are the building blocks of our collective history—before we could write, we told stories around fires and painted the first comics on cave walls—which is why students who explore them are more likely to connect, and better communicate, with others, a skill that can serve any path they choose to take. After all, Jill pointed out, the best doctors are the ones who know how to connect with people. “To be a really good doctor you have to understand the human experience,” she said.

This connection to the human experience also might just spark the inspiration students need to become tomorrow’s producers: writers of the articles, the graphic novels, and the bestsellers that continue this long tradition of storytelling, that help connect us through our shared humanity, and that, perhaps, inspire the next generation of readers.

Academics

Explore More Features

House of Light: A Teacher, A Renowned Literary Legacy, and the Reach of Inspired Learning

By Ashley Atwood and Robert Wilson
Original Watercolors by Annie Nash, Class of 2023

Editor's note: This piece is republished from Rowland Hall's 2021–2022 Annual Report.


In May, Upper School science teacher Rob Wilson embarked on an opportunity of a lifetime: a trip to Ketchum, Idaho, to reside in the home of Ernest and Mary Hemingway as a visiting scholar. There, he wrote teaching resources based on his own use of Hemingway in the science classroom, as well as conducted the property’s first biological inventory. It was both a personal journey and a chance for the educator to invite students into his experience, showing them what is possible when you pursue and cultivate knowledge and passion.


In late 1939, riding the high of celebrity built as a bestselling author and international war correspondent, Ernest Hemingway traveled to the newly built Sun Valley resort in Idaho on a publicity trip. While the writer was familiar with opportunities like this, it’s almost certain he was unprepared for the impact this trip would have on his life. From that first visit, he saw the Wood River Valley—home to Sun Valley and the former mining town of Ketchum—as a refuge, an idyllic place in which to socialize, hunt, fish, and write. He returned often over the next 20 years, and in 1959 moved to Ketchum full time with his fourth wife, Mary, after their exile from Cuba. The home they bought would be their last together, a place in which they could recharge, write, and entertain, whispers of cottonwood leaves and the rumble of the Big Wood River their constant companions. It is also where, on the morning of July 2, 1961, Ernest’s life ended in the foyer.

Mary Hemingway kept the home after her husband’s death and continued to visit it until her own passing in 1986, when she bequeathed it to The Nature Conservancy with instructions that it be turned into a nature reference library. In 2017, ownership of the house passed to The Community Library of Ketchum, which today honors the Hemingways’ legacy in Idaho through preservation work and educational opportunities, including an annual seminar that attracts those captivated by the author’s life and work. In 2019, the library completed a renovation of the home’s ground-floor garage into an apartment for visiting writers and scholars—a space in which invited guests can take in the landscape that inspired one of the greatest writers of a generation, find sanctuary in which to create, and walk away changed by this house of light.

Photos of Ernest and Mary Hemingway's historic house, located in in Ketchum, Idaho

Silkworms

That night we lay on the floor in the room and I listened to the silkworms eating. The silkworms fed in racks of mulberry leaves and all night you could hear them eating and a dropping sound in the leaves. I myself did not want to sleep because I had been living for a long time with the knowledge that if I ever shut my eyes in the dark and let myself go, my soul would go out of my body.
— Ernest Hemingway, “Now I Lay Me”

For a long time I avoided seeing the house. When I went to Ketchum, I would visit the grave in the town cemetery or the monument on Trail Creek, but I did not want to see the house. It seemed like an invasion of privacy, and it was not until I was invited late last year that I laid my eyes upon it. When I was invited to stay there, I was both thrilled and frightened; I was afraid that I might not be able to sleep knowing what happened in the foyer.

My first night in the house I did not fall asleep for a long time, until I slept deeply in the wee hours of the morning and awoke with a start from a bad dream. There was a hint of light to the east, and I could hear a robin. Ecologist Aldo Leopold calculated that “the robin will give voice when the light intensity reaches 0.01 candlepower.” I’ll take his word for it. I got up and made coffee and went outside to watch the day emerge. Four geese came downstream and turned around right in front of me and landed in the channel. A house wren commenced to sing. Eventually, some pine siskins and a ruby-crowned kinglet started talking. The sun lit up the peaks of the Boulder Mountains. Like a flash, the sun came out from behind a layer of clouds on the eastern horizon, and the house lit up. Glorious! The place was alive, truly alive. I came in to make breakfast, and only then did I realize the hour had already passed of the event that I’d been afraid would haunt me too much. The life of the land and the house outshines the darkness of the foyer.
— Rob Wilson, May 2022

* * *

Rob Wilson fell in love with the writing of Ernest Hemingway in eighth grade.

To this day, he remembers the thrill of that first reading of The Old Man and the Sea: how the novella brought to mind his own fishing trips with his dad. His mind readily painted a picture of the story’s setting: the boat, the deck, the handlines so different from his own rod and reel.

He remembers, as a high schooler, discovering a hardbound copy of Hemingway’s short stories on his dad’s bookshelf late one Friday and spending hours flipping its yellowed pages, reading long into the night. He remembers bonding with college friends over Hemingway, as well as quiet evenings during his early career as a field biologist, sitting on a cabin porch in southern Idaho and watching the sun set over the Pioneer Mountains above Sun Valley as he, again, made his way through Hemingway novels: The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls

Hemingway’s writings were one of the first influential connections Rob had into the life of an artist, his stories and novels windows into worlds different from Rob’s in many ways, but also strikingly similar, with familiar streams of human experiences running through each tale. With each passing year, Rob began to see beyond the adventure stories that had first captivated him. Each new reading, supplemented by his accumulating life experience, became an opportunity to get lost in a story’s subtext. In Hemingway, Rob also found a kindred spirit—someone who, like him, respected the natural world. “Hemingway noticed the little things around him, and how they lived,” Rob said. The author’s writings are abundant with those observations: how trout hold in a clear river, for example, or the features of a wildfire-blackened mountainside, all described in such honest, sharp ways that it heightens the real-world experience of being outdoors.

In 2015, while re-reading Hemingway’s short story “A Pursuit Race,” Rob’s connection to Hemingway deepened in a new way when he realized how well its understated portrayal of alcoholism and heroin withdrawal could be applied to his health class lesson on substance abuse. He thought it would complement the textbook he usually used for the lesson, but more effectively invite students to contemplate the human impact of substance abuse in a way a textbook can’t.

“What fiction is,” he explained of that choice, “is a way to invite you into examining life.”

It was a successful experiment, one that excited both Rob and then-Head of School Alan Sparrow. Over the years, Rob began adding more texts to his lesson plans, including Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac and Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, as well several Hemingway short stories: “Now I Lay Me” for its themes of metamorphosis, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” for its tie to the climate, and “Big Two-Hearted River” for its portrayal of earth systems. Like the living creatures he brings to campus—pigeons for genetics, jellyfish to animate the history of life on Earth—Rob has found that Hemingway texts are an effective resource to enrich students’ understanding of science concepts. They’re also unexpected.

Research continues to make it clear that interdisciplinary learning, combining two or more subjects into one activity, benefits students by broadening how they think and how they approach problem solving.

“Students can be strict about silos,” he said, referring to the kind of thinking that draws lines around areas of study: students should reference a textbook or case study in science class and read Hemingway in English class. But research continues to make it clear that interdisciplinary learning, combining two or more subjects into one activity, benefits students by broadening how they think and how they approach problem solving. Hemingway’s signature iceberg approach—the idea that an author should allow a story’s deeper meaning to be implicitly realized by the reader—is an effective method for stretching young minds, allowing students space to lean on their own interpretations and observations.

“This is a major component of my teaching strategy,” said Rob. “If I tell you something, you are more likely to forget it. If you discover it for yourself based on what I provide, you will remember it and be proud of yourself.”

Many Hemingway stories build this skill with multiple examples of inference and deduction, forms of logic necessary to the scientific process, as well as sensory details that can deepen an understanding of natural sciences. While he was in Idaho, one of the stories Rob had his ninth-grade biology students read was “Now I Lay Me,” throughout which narrator Nick Adams, a soldier convalescing behind the front lines during World War I, refers to the sound of silkworms devouring mulberry leaves in his room. It was a natural tie to the class, which had been observing and caring for their own colony of silkworms that spring. Over the weeks, thanks to their worms’ diet of mulberry leaves, the class had watched the invertebrates grow from eyelash-sized hatchlings to fat, round, white worms. And as they read the story—for many, their introduction to Hemingway—that experience both provided a mental picture and enhanced the story’s subtext.

Silkworm with moth and silk, and original watercolor of a silkworm

“It was easier to visualize the things described in the reading,” remembered Loc Ossana-Aoki, while classmate Rachel Brague added, “Having silkworms in the classroom helped emphasize the story, showed the bigger picture. Knowing about silkworms, I understood the emphasis on the man's experience.”

It was an experience that helped drive home the ideas that science isn’t static and that interdisciplinary connections enhance learning in exciting ways. Much like a Hemingway story, the students realized, there is always another layer to discover, something new to take away, to enrich overall understanding.

“Without any knowledge or experience, you can read these stories and understand what is happening,” explained Rachel, “but once you know more, the simple writing suddenly seems like the story is much longer and filled with more information than before.”

In past years, Rob has had students share Hemingway discoveries like these in class, but this year’s trip to Idaho gave them an opportunity to make even more connections among the stories, their studies, and his experience when he invited them to ask questions about his time away. “They were really curious,” said Rob. “All I did was say, ‘What would you like to know?’ and they asked questions for the entire period.” Discussion flowed around the Hemingway property’s major geographic features and how they change over time, natural selection, and the landscape itself: mature cottonwoods and blue spruces the Hemingways may have looked upon, a house wren whose call Rob imitated, and pileated woodpeckers whose strikes Rob demonstrated by knocking on the whiteboard. Rob also shared how he placed the class silkworms on the writing desk as he composed his own work, a metamorphosing muse, and his own feelings of fear, peace, and reverence for the sacred space.

“It was really personal for him,” said student Winston Hoffman, “but I think all of us appreciated what he had to say because he was trying to include us in the experience. It was like we had been there too, almost.”

Grasshoppers

As he had walked along the road, climbing, he had started many grasshoppers from the dust. These were just ordinary hoppers, but all a sooty black in color. Nick had wondered about them as he walked, without really thinking about them. Now, as he watched the black hopper that was nibbling at the wool of his sock with its fourway lip, he realized that they had all turned black from living in the burned-over land. He realized that the fire must have come the year before, but the grasshoppers were all black now. He wondered how long they would stay that way.
— Ernest Hemingway, “Big Two-Hearted River, Part One”

I headed north on Highway 93 around 1 pm. It was cool and windy, and I could see flurries of snow in the mountains ahead of me. I always feel such great anticipation during this part of the drive, and I remembered making the drive at other times of the year, doing other things with other people, and always having the sense that I am gravitating toward Ketchum. It’s funny to think of the warm summer nights on Big Cottonwood Creek, when I sat on the porch and looked across the Magic Valley to the Pioneer Mountains and wondered who had watched them fill with snow and returned to see that the snow had melted. Nothing about the drive reminded me of my dad except loading the car, driving past the duck club on the Jordan River and the other one on the Bear River, looking for ducks when I passed canals, geese in fields, bridges over rivers, and birds circling; the exit at Tremonton that we used to take to hunt and fish in Swan Valley (in the winter, the ducks would circle over the cottonwoods and disappear and reappear over the channel under the branches, closer than you were ever used to seeing them); looking out into the sagebrush, wondering if it held sage grouse; and the drive to Magic Valley where we took our last hunting trip that winter, when I broke through the ice on the Big Wood River, and I didn’t know if it would be 10 inches deep or 10 feet.

What I did not know going north is how much better I would understand this way when I took it, just a few days later, going south. I drove on knowing that I could share this experience and return to it.
— Rob Wilson, May 2022

* * *

Rob’s journey to his Hemingway House residency began in September 2016, when he received an invitation to that year’s Ernest Hemingway Seminar from his best friend from graduate school, Jeff Motychak. Titled Hemingway and Nature, the seminar was to feature discussions on “Big Two-Hearted River” and aimed to, in the words of The Community Library, “stimulate deep thinking about the role of nature in Hemingway’s works.” It was a perfect opportunity for two natural scientists fascinated by Hemingway and would play a transformative role in Rob’s life. “I was so deeply inspired,” Rob remembered. “I came back different.”

Rob has participated in the seminar each fall since, and in 2019 joined the planning committee to assist in its arrangement. His annual journey north is a pilgrimage of sorts, where he observes the landscape, reflects, and recharges. It’s also a chance for him to connect with Hemingway enthusiasts—literary scholars, scientists, art curators, educators, writers, and the curious public—who gather to examine a Hemingway novel, topic, or even passage. It was through these discussions that Rob built a relationship with the library, which in September 2021 extended a writer-in-residence invitation, initially hoping Rob would use the time to write the Hemingway lessons he had developed into teaching resources for other educators, a goal that would expand in the intervening months. And though he knew the experience would be deeply personal, he and Upper School Principal Ingrid Gustavson also knew it was a valuable opportunity, a chance to further help students perceive, seek, and discover connections in their learning, and they decided he would schedule the trip during the school year.

Watercolor of grasshopper; photo of Upper School science teacher Rob Wilson in the classroom

“So much of what we're doing with kids in education is modeling lifelong learning,” explained Ingrid. “This opportunity allowed Rob to explore, through his biologist lens, his observer lens, the home of a literary giant and give a new perspective on it.”

So many scientists know the quantitative evidence of what they’re looking at, but the quantitative evidence doesn’t matter unless you know who you’re impacting.—Annie Nash, class of 2023

It’s this kind of thinking that can change students’ lives. For upper schooler Annie Nash, who was first introduced to Hemingway in 2020 as one of Rob’s ninth-grade biology students, and who identifies as both a scientist and an artist, the confluence of subjects in Rob’s classroom felt natural, freeing her to think about how she can apply both sides of herself to her life’s work.

“I never really imagined art separate from the sciences,” she explained. “Science is artistic, nature is artistic, math is artistic—we can’t separate them.” And the older she gets, Annie said, the more she realizes an interdisciplinary approach to education is preparing her for a dynamic world that needs creative-minded and collaborative thinkers to take on its big challenges. “So many scientists know the quantitative evidence of what they’re looking at,” she said, “but the quantitative evidence doesn’t matter unless you know who you’re impacting.”

An aspiring pharmaceutical scientist, Annie knows her personal definition of success depends on more than an understanding of analytical chemistry and biostatistics. One area she’s especially concerned about is the historically negative impact of medicine on marginalized communities. She worries that the traditional approach to science education, one that focuses strictly on data, leaves scientists removed from the real-world impact of their work, and she believes applying topics like English, art, and history to her science studies helps her recognize worrying trends in her desired field so she can do her part to interrupt them. Novels and short stories are especially powerful ways to frame this history, she’s learned. More than other media, they effectively invite readers to reflect on humanity’s shared history and paint an understanding of how the human journey—what we’ve believed, what we’ve valued, how we’ve lived—has shaped the current world so readers can take away lessons for their own lives.

“You understand the time period but also separate the good and the bad—and then further the good in your own studies,” said Annie. “Scientists are sometimes viewed as being antisocial hermits who are detached from real-world issues. I want to break this stereotype so that I can encourage others to be empathetic in their research, to always strive to better the world.”

Cottonwoods

Best of all, he loved the fall. The leaves yellow on the cottonwoods, leaves floating on the trout streams, and above the hills the high, blue, windless skies.
— Ernest Hemingway, eulogy for Gene Van Guilder

I can track with my eye the flow through the deepest part of the channel that would have ruptured the beaver dam. The flow is deflected off of the bedrock wall. Parts of the channel are visible from the east-facing windows, and it is easy to imagine that residents of the house would have watched the river shape this bend over the years. They would have seen cottonwoods bloom with beet-colored catkins, fill in with lush green leaves, and fill the air with a distinct perfume; leaves yellow on the cottonwoods; and the transformation to black and white skeletons against the winter land. From here, they could watch the plumes of snow raised by the wind from the highest peaks. They would have heard the gossip of geese and had a view into the nests of hawks and private lives of kinglets, and been witness to the comings and goings of myriad birds throughout the year. It saddens me to know how much Ernest would have enjoyed this setting over the decades he could have lived here and did not. He has left us his gifts of perception so that we may enjoy it ourselves and teach others to experience the sublime and to protect it.

Teaching is a service of paying forward knowledge, skills, and values that enable another to cope and thrive in an ever-changing world. You can’t be a beacon if your light doesn’t shine. Mary could have walked away, and she chose to stay and have the house protected in perpetuity. The house on the hill of bedrock above the sea of cottonwoods is a beacon that both signals danger and radiates hope.
— Rob Wilson, May 2022

* * *

The house on the hill is designed to maximize its view.

From its wide patios, large windows, or broad lawn, visitors gaze upon a landscape of colors and textures: snow-capped peaks of the Boulder and Pioneer mountains, the Big Wood River flowing over gray stones, the dark trunks and lush foliage of black cottonwoods that, in late spring as they burst into new life, fill the warming air with a honey scent.

Cottonwood forests, or galleries, tell a story of resilience: their survival depends upon the ability of seedlings to keep their roots in contact with capillary fringe, the area of soil that draws moisture from the water table. When flood conditions are met, the trees grow in cohorts, but most years, due to weather or human disruption, those conditions are not met. As a result, one cohort of cottonwoods matures to nurture the next, a process that strengthens the entire gallery.

Water color of cottonwood tree; photo of Big Wood River in autumn; science teacher Rob Wilson documenting Hemingway land

There are times, though, when a cottonwood forest stops regenerating altogether, a process that happens so gradually the untrained eye misses the first signs. For the caregivers of the Hemingway House and its estate, a loss like this—of Mary’s desire for how the property would continue on—would especially hurt, and so Rob volunteered to conduct the first biological inventory, a task necessary to fully realize Mary’s vision.

“It's the library’s mission, as stewards, to protect that little bit of land,” he explained. “The biggest thing I could offer was to describe the living landscape for them.”

In addition to writing teaching resources, Rob spent hours of his residency walking the property’s 13.9 acres looking for cottonwood saplings as evidence of regeneration and documenting the landscape, from the bedrock on which the house stands to the kinglets and house wrens calling into early spring mornings, all of which he included in a reference document for the land’s ongoing protection and conservation—his personal contribution to its stewardship. “This idea of stewardship is: if you're here, it's your job to take care of things,” said Rob. “That's maintaining a landscape, if that's what you have the opportunity to do, or a place, or a relationship.”

A recurrent theme at Rowland Hall is: be the change you want to see in the world. That’s stewardship. My message to students is they can be interested in something and cultivate it and watch it become bigger and better than they ever imagined.—Rob Wilson

As a scientist, Rob has too often seen how our time in history is marked by a collective lack of stewardship, from climate change to the imperiled animals he studies, and he believes each individual plays a role in stewarding our world. He knows that if in his classroom he can tap into our shared humanity by breaking down learning silos and showing students how their passions, whatever those are, connect to something bigger, he can better prepare them to be the people the world needs.

“A recurrent theme at Rowland Hall is: be the change you want to see in the world. That’s stewardship,” said Rob. “My message to students is they can be interested in something and cultivate it and watch it become bigger and better than they ever imagined.”

It’s a perspective that can be found in hundreds of ways across Rowland Hall classrooms, from cross-disciplinary teaching partnerships in the Upper School to experiential learning in the Beginning School. “Adults at Rowland Hall model so well how to see connections in the world, to get excited about learning across disciplines,” said Ingrid. “No one is too young or too old to discover things we really care about, then go deep and figure out how to teach them to others, support a cause, or further someone else's learning.”

This sharing of knowledge is often viewed as a pinnacle of education, a way of students continuing the journey their teachers set them on. Just as a younger cohort of cottonwoods benefits from the stability and nourishment provided by an older cohort, students benefit from their teachers’ examples, then go on to share what they know. “The true test of a student's learning is not the answer they write on an exam,” said Rob. “It is how they share what they learned with the people around them.”

Ingrid remembered seeing evidence of this truth in May when she stopped by Rob’s classroom to find him and three earth science students caring for tanks of betta fish and the class jellyfish, Calypso. Rob encouraged the students to tell Ingrid about the creatures, which they excitedly did, showing her how they harvest brine shrimp for jellyfish food and test the water, and sharing who was caring for the animals over the summer. In that moment, Ingrid said, she realized the students had fully taken ownership of their learning. “This is theirs now,” she thought.

Rowland Hall science teacher Rob Wilson, with the Ketchum, Idaho, home of Ernest Hemingway behind him.

“I always thought science was supposed to be very straightforward—not bringing your own opinion, your own feelings into it,” said Hope Thomas, one of the students in the classroom that day, and Calypso’s summer caretaker. “For a while, it made it a hard subject for me because I’m a very creative person.” But being in Rob’s classes, where she’s encouraged to see connections among areas of study that another science teacher may never approach, Hope realized that making science personal wasn’t just okay, it was necessary to understanding, and taking on, the challenges of today. 

“It makes it more applicable to us when we can think about science in a more personal way,” she said. “When you care about it more, you are more willing to take action.”

And ultimately, this is the goal of education: to help students make meaningful connections about what matters to them and take action to leave the world a better place than they found it. It’s a lesson, Rob has found, that means more to him with each passing year and is especially clear when he returns to The Old Man and the Sea, the book that started his journey, and the one Hemingway himself called “an epilogue to all my writing and what I have learned, or tried to learn, while writing and trying to live.” With the benefit of time, study, and lived experience, said Rob, it’s now more than just a fishing story—it’s a reminder of what is most precious in the time he has.

“What gets me now,” he said, “is the poignancy of how brief a moment is going to be.”

Authentic Learning


Banner photo credits: Ernest Hemingway by Robert Capa (c) International Center of Photography/Magnum Photos; Mary Hemingway courtesy of the Jeanne Rodger Lane Center for Regional History, Dorice Taylor Collection. Other photographs provided by The Community Library and Rob Wilson.

Special thanks to The Community Library for their partnership on this story.

Rowland Hall's class of 2022 throw their caps into the air following their graduation

Rowland Hall’s class of 2022 is a group of 80 hardworking, resilient, and kind individuals who have inspired those privileged to teach, learn with, and know them.

Like the two classes that came before them, their high school experience occurred during a time of unprecedented challenges, which they not only faced but deeply examined to better understand themselves, others, and the world around them. There is no doubt, based on their achievements, drive toward lifelong learning, and demonstrated care for one another, that this class will use the knowledge built during these years to truly become people our world needs.

There is no doubt, based on their achievements, drive toward lifelong learning, and demonstrated care for one another, that this class will use the knowledge built during these years to truly become people our world needs.

The class of 2022 has amassed an impressive list of academic achievements. The group includes a winner, two honorable mention recipients, and a Utah finalist of the National Center for Women in Information and Technology awards; a winner of the University of Utah Science & Engineering Fair; and several top-tier debaters, including six individual state champions, four national qualifiers, two Academic All-Americans, and the captains who led the team to its second straight overall 3A state title. They enrolled in extracurricular studies, in subjects from calculus and digital media arts to comparative religions and Arabic. They dove into chemistry, physics, and fiction writing at the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth and artificial intelligence with Inspirit AI. Some pursued summer studies at schools like Harvard, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Michigan, or in programs offered by the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, the School of the New York Times, and the National Outdoor Leadership School.

Through internships, members of the class of 2022 explored fields such as health care, auto repair, and production accounting. Organizations that supported our seniors in building real-world knowledge included Huntsman Cancer Institute, McNeill Von Maack, the Submarine Force Museum, Survivor Healthcare, the University of Utah, the Utah House of Representatives majority staff, Utah Spine Medicine, and the Yellowstone Wolf Project.

The class includes various creators, from a University of Utah Youth Theatre's Conservatory actor to several musicians—a pianist recognized as superior by the National Federation of Music Clubs, several members of local jazz bands, two violinists for the 2022 Utah All-State Orchestra, and a trumpeter, and former first chair, for the 2021 and 2022 Utah All-State Band.

Winged Lion seniors led our athletics program to top-five finishes in the Deseret News 2A All-Sports Awards each year of their careers. They were instrumental in the capture of 26 region and eight state titles as teams, and also earned several individual region and state championships. Twelve seniors were named All-State, 13 earned All-Region honors, two were selected to play in postseason All-Star games, and five signed athletic commitments with NCAA Division 1 colleges. Seventeen Academic All-State and 29 Academic All-Region honorees led their teams to top-three GPA rankings among 2A schools over the past four years. Rowmark Ski Academy's eight graduating seniors achieved career-best performances this winter, including 25 top-10 finishes, 11 top-five finishes, and five podium finishes in Fédération Internationale de Ski races. The class also boasts a three-time state wrestling champion, a member of the US Ski Team, a dual-sport athlete who competes in the Enduro World Series, and a member of the Utah Girls Tackle Football League, as well as rock climbers, club lacrosse and soccer players, and local crew, water polo, water skiing, and hockey team members.

The class of 2022 created welcoming spaces, and their care for each other is apparent.

The class of 2022 created welcoming spaces, and their care for each other is apparent. They honored varied lived experiences by leading affinity groups and Dinner & Dialogue conversations, and represented Rowland Hall at the Student Diversity Leadership Conference. They normalized mental wellness discussions as founders and members of the Mental Health Educators group, as well as served as tutors, Zoom buddies, and writing consultants. Most importantly, they worked to build back community after remote learning, connecting as teams, friends, and supporters, and cheering on one another’s achievements, big and small.

They also gave back to the wider community, donating hundreds of hours to organizations like the Alta Environmental Center, Crossroads Urban Center, the DIVAS Mentoring Program, Grassroots Law Project, Guadalupe School, Huntsman Mental Health Institute, the National Ability Center, the Park City Kimball Arts Festival, the Park City Police Department, Salt Lake Community Mutual Aid, the Utah Food Bank, and Utah Refugee Goats. Two members traveled to Washington, DC, to further causes they believe in, one as a delegate for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, another to lobby for the protection of LGBTQ+ housing and employment rights. A member of Salt Lake’s YouthCity Government spoke on a panel discussing the importance of teaching Black history in schools, while a Decoding Dyslexia advocate discussed hybrid-learning challenges on Good Things Utah and a mental health educator talked about attending high school during a pandemic on the Utah House of Representatives Podcast.

Congratulations on your graduation—just the beginning of the next chapter of your extraordinary lives.

This class earned admission to 128 colleges and universities, with 58 percent of them receiving at least one merit scholarship. A few have chosen to take a gap year to work or pursue interests. Whatever comes next, we know their lives will be filled with purpose. Congratulations, class of 2022, on your graduation—a major achievement and just the beginning of the next chapter of your extraordinary lives.

Students

Rowland Hall kindergarten teacher Melanie Robbins speaks with a student.

Research is clear: Investing in early childhood education is a smart move. Not only is it one of the surest ways to set students on paths of lifelong curiosity and well-being, but it’s also been proven to enhance both individual lives and society at large. At Rowland Hall, thanks to a focus on evidence-based education, we have long been crafting a top-tier early childhood program centered around best practices for young learners during crucial years of their development. As a result, students leave the Beginning School viewing themselves as capable knowledge-makers, ready to thrive in the next stage of their joyful educational journeys.

In Melanie Robbins and Mary Grace Ellison’s kindergarten classroom, a small sign hangs over a row of student cubbies. It’s inconspicuous, but, once noticed, seems to summarize the day-to-day happenings of the energetic and vibrant room.

“Play,” it states, “is the work of childhood.”

This Jean Piaget quote, beautifully succinct, is a reminder that the activities that take place in Melanie and Mary Grace’s room, and in all Rowland Hall Beginning School classrooms, are not just fun—they’re incredibly meaningful, and essential to children’s development. By tapping into the most natural and essential of early childhood activities—play—educators are building crucial connections in young brains and setting a joyful foundation for discovering, exploring, embracing, and creating knowledge.

On a Thursday morning in February, the Piaget quote kept watch over a bustle of activity among the kindergartners. Walking by, a casual observer may have thought the activity was free play, but there was a thoughtful academic purpose behind the fun: the five- and six-year-olds were busy making their way through an array of learning centers designed for their Animals in Winter unit, a study of how animals hibernate, migrate, and adapt during the coldest months.

It was a time of play—and yet it was about so much more than the play. The longer the class was observed, the more apparent it became that a trove of educational and developmental benefits were taking shape just below the surface.

At one table, two girls bent over the covers of the animal reports they were creating for the unit; using library books as guides, they illustrated their chosen animals, a chipmunk and a fox, on the report covers. Nearby, a group of students, sprawled across cushions, worked on core literacy skills on iPads, while another, more rowdy, group rolled an oversized die and moved animal figurines across a homemade playing board. On the far side of the room, students looked through a pile of materials—empty oatmeal canisters, bits of cardboard, string—to be crafted into an animal habitat. In between these stations, children sorted animal pictures into groups or practiced writing letters, some with crayons on paper, others with fingers in sand. For an hour, the students enjoyed the freedom to sample whatever most appealed to them at any given moment, and to take from the group what they needed—for a few, it was a time to step back to reflect and quietly work on activities alone; for others, to engage with peers.

It was a time of play—and yet it was about so much more than the play. Like taking a cursory glance at a frozen winter landscape, which doesn’t reveal the rabbit blending into the snow or the entry to an animal den, just glancing at the fun would have limited the viewer’s understanding of what was occurring in the classroom. The longer the class was observed, the more apparent it became that a trove of educational and developmental benefits were taking shape just below the surface: Students cutting materials for the animal habitat or practicing writing the letter S with stumpy crayons were honing fine-motor skills. Those at the game board were mastering math by matching the number of dots on the die to the number of spaces they had to move. And all around the room, students were building social skills, whether while waiting for a turn or while navigating a disagreement.

“This is the power of early childhood,” said Melanie.

A Solid Foundation

At Rowland Hall’s Beginning School, an emphasis on well-grounded early childhood research, such as that around the benefits of purposeful play, is at the heart of the student experience—and for good reason. Between the ages of three and six, the time during which they begin to attend school, children’s brains are in the midst of a tremendous evolution that educators need to understand to fully support.

Rowland Hall students enjoying outdoor classroom.

It's important that early childhood teachers understand young children's brain development to effectively encourage early learning. One best practice for this age group is to move outside—research shows that being in a natural environment heightens young learners' cognition.


“The three-to-six age range is marked by huge transformation in the architecture of the brain, and the structures that get laid down during that time will persist,” said Principal Emma Wellman, who has led the Beginning School since 2018, and, in the 2021–2022 school year, took on the expanded role of Beginning School and Lower School principal. During the preschool and kindergarten years, Emma explained, foundational behaviors, aptitudes, skills, and values are ingrained in the brain, so it’s essential that children’s first teachers know how to positively impact this development.

“Early childhood teachers are laying the foundation for lifelong learning in terms of how students relate to school and to one another, and to themselves as learners and workers,” said Emma.

During the preschool and kindergarten years, foundational behaviors, aptitudes, skills, and values are ingrained in the brain, so it’s essential that children’s first teachers know how to positively impact this development.

Through thoughtful play and other proven early education tactics, educators can boost brain-building in ways that last: studies show that students who attend early childhood programs are more likely to later demonstrate high-functioning skills, such as strong emotional and social intelligence, curiosity, and discipline, and more likely to report high rates of fulfilling relationships and fulfilling careers. And it’s not just individual lives that benefit; there are also economic advantages to investing in early childhood education. Dr. James J. Heckman, professor of economics at the University of Chicago and an expert in the economics of human development, has found that investments in early childhood education result in the highest rates of economic returns, both for individuals and society at large. Simply put: investing in early childhood education is one of the best ways to greatly impact lives.

“You’re giving extra support in a time when it matters most,” said Emma.

An Emphasis on Relationship

When it comes to how children relate to school, teachers are often the key factor, and this is especially true in early childhood classrooms, where the trust educators build with young students sets them on paths of learning, curiosity, and self-discovery. In fact, said Emma, because warm, trusting relationships are strongly shown to be vital to early learning, they’re the first thing she recommends people look for when exploring preschool and kindergarten programs.

“The most important thing is the teacher-student relationship, because learning happens in the context of relationship,” she explained. “Everything is built on that.”

In the Beginning School, a focus on relationship, alongside an emphasis on reciprocal respect between teachers and students, guides everything from class sizes to division specialties; as a result, students remain at the center of decision-making. A focus on relationships also encourages more natural student participation in classroom happenings, an essential component to building brain connections in young learners.

PreK teacher Lynelle Stoddard reads to three-year-old preschoolers.

The Beginning School emphasizes relationships as well as mutual respect between teachers and students, alleviating tension around power struggles and showing students that their contributions to the classroom matter. "Children who are respected do amazing things," said Emma. 


“We want to make sure that kids remain in charge of big chunks of their own learning so that they don’t become dependent on the grown-ups to drive it for them,” said Emma.

This ownership over learning expands during children’s time in the Beginning School. As they build strong relationships with their students, teachers can encourage them to work on mastering both early academic skills and self-care activities. Through a process known as scaffolding, teachers support students as they make their way through the zone of proximal development—that is, the difference between what a child can do without help and what they can do with guidance and encouragement from a teacher. It’s a way to meet each learner where they are their own individual development, and it can be applied to both academic subjects, like building foundational skills in number sense and phonological awareness, or life skills, like putting on a coat or a mask.

“School is the perfect place for that practice to happen and to develop those skills, which are critical in other learning,” said Beginning School Assistant Principal Brittney Hansen ’02. “We take our time to let everyone learn that they can do an activity all by themselves and feel that confidence, that sense of pride, and carry themselves a little bit taller because of it.”

A Child-Sized Experience

It’s not difficult to find students owning their learning in the Beginning School: the process can be observed in the 3PreK student working to zip her coat, the kindergartner choosing a quiet-time book from the classroom library, and the 4PreK student sorting a pile of twigs, pine cones, and leaves gathered during outdoor classroom. Active learning is around every corner.

“All of our learning is entirely exploratory and we foster kids’ natural curiosity,” said Kelley Journey, the Beginning School’s experiential learning specialist. “We give kids a lot of authentic opportunities to learn in real-world situations.”

4PreK students peel and cut apples.

Faculty look for a variety of ways to actively engage students in learning, including by giving them access to tools and materials that build life skills.


The design of the building even encourages this exploration; you don’t need to walk far into the Beginning School to realize that the place is built for young learners. Bulletin boards, supplies, and books are set at the children’s eye level. Easy-to-access cubbies provide space for each person’s belongings. Child-sized restrooms are attached to classrooms, encouraging independence (while also providing reassurance that trusted adults are nearby, if needed). Simple decor and minimal reference material leave room for imagination. All of these choices, explained Brittney, are based on sound research and made mindfully and intentionally to encourage natural curiosity and to empower students to move effortlessly among spaces as they follow their interests or learn to manage their personal needs. 

“A key function of early childhood education is for students to learn, to be able to take care of themselves and their belongings, to feel ownership over their space and learning environment, and to feel confident navigating the school,” said Brittney.

Educators in the Beginning School are very intentional about integrating areas of learning in meaningful, authentic ways for children.—Brittney Hansen ’02, Beginning School assistant principal

Beginning School days are also set up to harness the ways in which children learn best: there are moments of active play as well as quiet time, and educators stretch young brains with both structured lessons and space for choice and self-exploration—what Rowland Hall often refers to as choice and voice. This inclusion of choice, explained Kelley, is important for all students, but especially significant to young learners who often don’t feel they have a lot of control over their lives: when much of your day includes being told what to do, and when to do it, by adults, having choice in how you want to learn—alongside access to child-sized structures and materials that allow you to work without a grown-up’s help—you begin to view yourself as a capable knowledge-maker. Students given choice can see themselves as scientists, engineers, or artists, and they believe in their ability to find solutions, improve processes, or add beauty to the world.

And because Rowland Hall is an independent school, Beginning School teachers (like teachers across all of the school’s divisions) have the flexibility to explore the topics that spark their students’ interests. They’re naturals when it comes to identifying subjects that light up students’ eyes, and they enjoy the flexibility to adjust lesson plans in order to follow these paths, weaving foundational academic knowledge into the areas their individual classes wish to explore.

“Educators in the Beginning School are very intentional about integrating areas of learning in meaningful, authentic ways for children,” said Brittney. “We are less about saying, for instance, ‘Now is our time for science.’ Instead, we think of something that’s captivating and interesting for the child and then say, ‘It’s my job to figure out how to weave science into this.’”

A Community of Learners

There is a common refrain about Rowland Hall’s Beginning School: “This is a happy place.” Visitors frequently comment on the division’s warm atmosphere and often report feeling a sense of joy during their time there. For Emma and her leadership team, these reactions to the school aren't a coincidence; they’re confirmation that Rowland Hall is providing support exactly where it’s needed—for young learners, as well as for the adults who make their education possible.

Rowland Hall is so special. All faculty members are complete lifelong learners and continually challenge themselves to practice the best theories and pedagogies for children.—Kelley Journey, experiential learning specialist

“One way we show respect to teachers is by giving them opportunities and responsibility to be learners in their own right, to continue their own professional lives,” explained Emma. And this is important because early childhood programs that prioritize the well-being of their educators see numerous benefits—for instance, teachers with supportive administrators spend more of their time focused on students, and they’re more likely to stay with a school for the long haul. Professional development opportunities at Rowland Hall range from growing personal passions or areas of growth, like when kindergarten teacher Melanie Robbins helped incorporate outdoor classroom into the division’s curriculum, to exploring ways teachers can support Rowland Hall’s mission and strategic priorities, such as when 4PreK lead teacher Isabelle Buhler studied equity and inclusion in the early childhood programs.

“Rowland Hall is so special,” said Kelley. “All faculty members are complete lifelong learners and continually challenge themselves to practice the best theories and pedagogies for children.”

They challenge each other too: faculty are encouraged to share takeaways from their professional development experiences, a practice that supports one another’s engagement with, and investment in, their essential roles. It’s a practice that also ensures everything they do comes back to students: by staying current with early childhood research findings, the Beginning School team can provide the school’s youngest learners with what they most need, creating a solid educational foundation for those students and, at the same time, illustrating for them the value of learning.

4PreK students inspect a giant sunflower.

Teachers love to bring natural objects into the classroom to engage kids' senses while encouraging exploratory learning. Above, two 4PreK students practice observation and fine-motor skills while studying a sunflower.


And it’s perhaps this practice that best explains why the Beginning School is such a happy place: it’s a place that highlights the thrill of learning, where students see in teachers the lifelong benefits of staying curious, and where, through the eyes of children, adults are continuously reminded of the pure joy of discovery, of allowing curiosity to take you to new places, and of understanding just what you’re capable of.

It’s the magic of early childhood.


Looking for a preschool or kindergarten? Download Rowland Hall's tips for picking a top-tier early childhood program.

Academics

Rowland Hall Upper School students in disguise for the Drag Vs. AI workshop.

Editor's note: This piece is republished from Rowland Hall's 2020–2021 Annual Report.


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This story won silver in the 2021 InspirED Brilliance Awards (magazine feature article writing category).


Computer science impacts our daily lives, but its workforce falls woefully short when it comes to reflecting national racial, ethnic, and gender demographics. Solving that problem starts with K–12 education. The subject’s proponents at Rowland Hall are ensuring equity is programmed into the curriculum—and the curriculum gets the attention it deserves—building toward a computing-literate society where everyone has a seat at the table.

During hybrid learning one February afternoon, about 40 Rowland Hall faculty, staff, and upper schoolers—some working from home, others from the Lincoln Street Campus—gradually populated a Zoom room. It started off as a standard pandemic-era Upper School class, but 20 minutes later, it looked more like an avant-garde digital dress rehearsal. Students unearthed accessories from family members’ closets and Halloween costumes past: a cowboy hat, a pair of aviation goggles, a leopard-print scarf. They cloaked themselves in masks, feather boas, heavy makeup, and oversized sunglasses.

Director of Arts Sofia Gorder and her dance students comprised half of these creative camouflagers, but despite appearances, it wasn’t prep for one of their performances. It was an open workshop held by teacher Ben Smith ’89 and his Advanced Placement Computer Science (CS) Principles class to show the Upper School community how facial-recognition technologies work and how they can be harmful, particularly for underrepresented groups.

One dance student, Mena Zendejas-Portugal ’21, wore a pink wig with bangs that covered her eyes. She used makeup to draw decoy eyes on her cheeks, below the magenta fringe. Mena and her peers smirked at their laptop cameras as a web-based program used artificial intelligence (AI) to guess their ages and genders. 

Rowland Hall computer science teacher Ben Smith participating in the Upper School's Drag Vs. AI facial-recognition workshop.

Computer science teacher Ben Smith '89 aged himself for the Drag Vs. AI workshop.


Before Mena wore her disguise, the program vacillated between misidentifying her as a 13-year-old boy and a 12-year-old girl. After Mena changed her appearance, ironically, the program’s guess came closer to the reality: it classified her as a 16-year-old female. 

“It wasn’t a surprise how the AI read me since I have a rounder face along with short hair,” said Mena, one of the leaders of the student Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) Committee. “It’s just a confirmation for the thought of AI being built around stereotypes and constructed beauty standards that aren’t applicable to everyone.”

Algorithms permeate our daily lives, and flawed coding can have devastating real-world consequences, from wrongful arrests to housing discrimination. Ben educates the Rowland Hall community on these problems, and ensures his CS students are equipped to solve them.

Algorithms permeate our daily lives, and the type of flawed coding that Mena experienced can have devastating real-world consequences, from wrongful arrests to housing discrimination. Ben educates the Rowland Hall community on these problems, and ensures his CS students are equipped to solve them. “If these students are going to become leaders in technology, they need to have this perspective,” Ben said. “You can't ask people to have an interest in a career and not prepare them for the future ramifications of that.” 

Ben has long given students space to discuss JEDI issues but formally added it to his CS curriculum during the 2020–2021 school year. And at Rowland Hall, the marriage of CS and social justice is a natural development: the school prioritized science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) in the 2014 Strategic Plan, and during the past school year, longtime JEDI work escalated as a priority. 

February’s facial-recognition workshop—Drag Vs. AI by the Algorithmic Justice League, which “combines art and research to illuminate the social implications and harms” of AI—helped a cross section of upper schoolers see firsthand why this work matters: “By just learning CS and not looking behind the scenes, the future could be less inclusive than we envision,” Mena reflected. Indeed, AI researcher Joy Buolamwini, a Black woman, launched the league after personally experiencing algorithmic discrimination in her work. In one project utilizing generic facial-recognition software, the program failed to detect Joy’s face until she wore a white mask. In another, she had to ask a lighter-skinned friend to stand in for her. We can solve these problems, Joy posited in a 2016 TED Talk with over 1.4 million views, by creating more inclusive code. Teams must be diverse and driven to create “a world where technology works for all of us, not just some of us, a world where we value inclusion and center social change.”

This ethos fuels Ben’s work. The Rowland Hall alumnus, now celebrating 20 years as a faculty member at his alma mater, started teaching CS in 2015 and shifted to teaching that subject exclusively two years later. From day one, he’s made it his mission to diversify CS, a field “plagued by stark underrepresentation by gender, race, ethnicity, geography, and family income,” according to CS advocacy nonprofit Code.org. The US needs more—and more diverse—computer scientists, and efforts to broaden that workforce need to start in K–12 schools. Computing jobs are the top source of all new wages in the US and they make up two-thirds of all projected new jobs in STEM fields, Code.org touts, making CS one of the most in-demand college degrees. And exposure before college makes a difference: students who learn CS in high school are six times more likely to major in it. Among traditionally underrepresented groups, the likelihood is even higher: seven times for Black and Latinx students, and 10 times for women.

Ben currently relies on one-to-one recruitment to grow CS enrollment among those underrepresented populations. He read a book around 2014, during graduate school in instructional design and educational technology at the University of Utah, that sparked his professional goals: Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race, and Computing by Jane Margolis. The book chronicles the lack of access to CS courses for Black and Latinx students—and addresses how to change the system. “It was just one of those eye-opening moments,” he said. “There’s no logical reason—except institutional bias—for why computer science education looks the way it does today … It’s incredibly unjust.” Since then, Ben has prioritized combating what he calls the most glaring equity issue in education today. He collaborates with other schools and organizations that are trying desperately to expand CS opportunities, and works diligently to build an equitable CS program for Rowland Hall. “With Rowland Hall's support, I’m committed to a future where all computer science courses have a student population that mirrors the demographics of the school as a whole.”

Building Curriculum from the Ground Up

Fortunately, Ben isn’t starting from scratch when sixth graders meet him in Foundations of Computer Science, a required class since 2016. Since Christian Waters stepped into the role of director of technology integration in 2013, he has crafted an arsenal of computing lessons to captivate the full spectrum of beginning and lower schoolers. Christian teaches at least one unit of digital citizenship, coding, and robotics to every lower schooler. Kids engage in hands-on activities like programming colorful toy robots and building wearable tech comprised of LED lights affixed to felt. They also get the space to think big and consider computing’s real-world applications, like furthering one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. How might they use computing, for example, to remedy a problem like overcrowding or a lack of affordable and clean energy?

Director of Technology Integration Christian Waters at Lower School Maker Night 2018, on the Salt Lake McCarthey Campus.

Christian Waters with students at the 2018 Lower School Maker Night.


Christian draws curriculum from dozens of expert educational resources, including the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, Children’s Innovation Project, and Code.org. “We've built something that is really relevant, and the best combination of the best materials and resources,” Christian said. “It's not a curriculum that is sold in a big box that you wheel into a classroom, and everyone has to do it the exact same way. It's tailored to the needs of Rowland Hall and relevant to our goals and our objectives.” 

Thanks to ongoing collaboration between Christian and Ben, Rowland Hall’s CS curriculum is also vertically aligned: “We're preparing students for Advanced Placement Computer Science A Java in a way they never were before. Students in the Middle School are learning about objects, classes, functions, and variables,” Christian explained. “It's thanks in part to how we're building up from the Beginning School.”

One example of vertical alignment and mission-centric curriculum: Christian uses a Code.org activity where lower schoolers train a computer to recognize facial expressions—broaching some of the same issues upper schoolers examined in their February workshop. The crux of the Lower School lesson, according to the educator: “How do we distinguish between facial features and whether someone is happy or sad or excited, and is that even ethical to do that?” Students exercise their critical-thinking skills and confront questions involving how these programs work, and how to ensure they’re as ethical and unbiased as possible. “Ultimately what students get is that there is a lot of subjectivity in how we humans train computers,” Christian said. 

A Group Effort

Part of attracting younger and more diverse students to CS—and, down the road, reducing bias in code—entails continual, widespread exposure. Christian has not only integrated CS into classrooms, he’s also created community-wide opportunities to rally around computing and engineering. He organizes three annual events that are now synonymous with STEM culture on the McCarthey Campus: the beginning and lower school Family Maker Night in the fall, the school-wide Hour of Code in the winter, and Lower School Maker Day in the spring. “These events are designed to demystify technology and making,” Christian said. “All students can see themselves as computer scientists, coders, makers, roboticists, engineers.”

These events and the school’s CS curriculum as a whole are dominated by collaborative group work that occasionally reaches across subjects and divisions. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Ben Smith's Advanced Placement Computer Science Principles students collaborated annually with Tyler Stack's fourth graders to make an app that helps young students learn math. Upper schoolers worked in groups to devise and test app concepts on the lower schoolers and use their feedback to improve app design. For Katy Dark ’21, it was a highlight of Rowland Hall’s CS program: “The thing that will stick with me the most is using new interfaces to help people.” It’s a fitting favorite memory for Katy, who in 2020 became the first Rowland Hall student to win the top national award from the Aspirations in Computing program, sponsored by the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT). She won, in part, for her efforts tutoring students and developing a coding club at Salt Lake City’s Dual Immersion Academy, a bilingual Spanish-English charter school she attended during her elementary years.

Two Rowland Hall computer science students learning how to program a robot to write on a white board.

Two CS students learning how to program a robot to write on a white board.


The app project is a prime example of group work that can encourage underrepresented populations to pursue CS, according to Dr. Helen Hu, a Westminster College computer science professor whose work examines how educators can improve diversity in CS. “In industry there's something called agile co-programming, which is people working in groups,” said Dr. Hu, also the parent of a Rowland Hall ninth grader and seventh grader. “This is actually an important skill in computing—being able to work with others.” While some students love computing for computing, she added, a lot of others love it because of what it can do, “because of the problems you can solve, because of the impact you can have,” she said. “By doing both, by emphasizing these other parts of computing, you're helping both types of students. The students who love to code, still get to code. The students who love coding to solve problems are getting to do that. We know that students aren't going to learn it as well when you just teach it at the level of, ‘Where does the semicolon go and where do parentheses go?’”

Alex Armknecht ’20, a 2019 Aspirations in Computing regional award winner who’s now a CS major at Loyola Marymount University (LMU), appreciated learning CS at a more holistic level. “I loved the CS classes at Rowland Hall and they were consistently my favorite classes throughout high school,” she said. “I loved the way Mr. Smith taught and allowed us creative freedom … his class is the main reason I am majoring in CS. I learned the importance of asking for help, creativity, and collaboration, which all have been helpful to me in my college CS classes.”

During her senior year, Alex also participated in another shining example of collaborative group work in CS: the Upper School’s For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) Tech Challenge Robotics team. The team started off strong in its inaugural 2019–2020 year and has continued to evolve, Ben said: “It’s expanded the opportunities for young women to become leaders, compete, and see how other girls across the state are involved with technology and engineering.” 

During the 2020–2021 school year, juniors Irenka Saffarian and Tina Su stepped into unofficial leadership roles that bode well for the near future. Both have taken Advanced Placement CS A and are great coders, Ben said, and they pushed hard for the team to make it to the national semifinals in the FIRST Global Innovation Awards. Rowland Hall was the only team from Utah and one of only 60 teams internationally to make it that far. “Our theme right now is take it to the next level,” Ben said. “We realize we are right on the verge of getting to that level where we’re really competitive—where we actually compete with the best teams in the state.” And Irenka and Tina, Ben said, are committed to getting the team there. They embody the enthusiasm that Ben and Christian hope to cultivate across the school. “I hope that the future of taking computer science courses at Rowland Hall is increasingly coming from a place of excitement and interest and, ‘I cannot wait to use this skill in anything that interests me,’” Ben said. “It's not about a kid sitting in a basement all alone typing on their computer. This is about groups of people making exciting and interesting and really impactful decisions, and everyone needs to be at the table.”

Progress Made, and the Work Ahead

We are talking more about it, not just because it's zeitgeisty, but because technology has a lot of ground to make up here. We see ourselves as trying to help kids recognize that.—Christian Waters, director of technology integration

While Katy, Alex, Irenka, and Tina are recent success stories, Christian and Ben readily acknowledge that Rowland Hall isn’t exempt from racial and gender disparities. But the school is perpetually working “to change that from the ground up,” Christian said. Thanks in part to schoolwide training, JEDI values are ingrained in how Rowland Hall instructors design and teach tech-related classes. “We are talking more about it, not just because it's zeitgeisty, but because technology has a lot of ground to make up here. We see ourselves as trying to help kids recognize that.” 

Ané Hernandez, a junior who took AP computer science and robotics as a sophomore during the 2020–2021 year, appreciated the heightened JEDI focus. Ané’s parents are both engineers and she’s been interested in CS for as long as she can remember—the winner of a 2021 Aspirations in Computing regional honorable mention loves the art of programming. Ané, who is Mexican American, has also long been interested in JEDI issues and advocating for more equity and representation, including through Rowland Hall’s student JEDI committee. She found it compelling to see how two of her passions, JEDI and CS, are related. "As technology is rising, racial, gender, and socioeconomic problems still exist," Ané said, "so they're just becoming interwoven." 

While she’s grateful for how the JEDI units have furthered her passion for CS, she hopes her school also uses this momentum to self-reflect on, for instance, how to make CS more accessible to lower-income schools and communities. And that sort of community outreach isn’t unprecedented at Rowland Hall. In summer 2015, and in two summers that followed, Rowland Hall hosted a nonprofit Hackathon centered around teacher training. “That was a way that we contributed to a culture of learning and growth in our community,” Christian said. Educators from local public and independent schools convened on the Lincoln Street Campus to learn coding skills and how to use certain tools, like 3D printers and Arduino robots. The technology team helped cover some of the costs, Christian said, and teachers could earn state licensing credit for attending. Ben's resume is also flooded with conferences and workshops where he’s trained his peers. “It’s great for me to show a group of 15 or 20 educators how to teach a curriculum,” he said, “and then I can show them that I have a classroom with a majority of female students, and that I've been able to recruit and build, and that this is possible.”

Rowland Hall computer science teacher Ben Smith with a middle schooler on the Salt Lake City Lincoln Street Campus.

Ben teaching in the Middle School. Computer science is taught in all four Rowland Hall divisions.


These sorts of efforts could expand in the future. Rowland Hall is seriously considering ways to increase CS opportunities and spaces, and plans could solidify as early as the 2021–2022 school year. Christian and Ben are drafting a CS strategic plan that involves integrating CS with other subjects, training teachers, and expanding current classes. And Christian, Ben, and Director of Curriculum and Instruction Wendell Thomas are starting a CS task force and have asked others to join: one or two teachers from each division, Dr. Hu, and Sunny Washington, a startup COO and CEO who also serves on the board of Equality Utah. One of the task force’s first actions will be to provide feedback on the strategic plan draft.

For now, Christian and Ben’s work to recruit more—and more diverse—CS students is paying off. Since 2014, 19 Winged Lions have earned a collective 25 awards from the Aspirations in Computing program, including one win (Katy’s) and two honorable mentions at the national level. Rowland Hall also won The College Board’s 2019 and 2020 Advanced Placement Computer Science Female Diversity Award for achieving high female representation in our AP CS Principles class. Dr. Hu lauded the achievement. “That's pretty impressive," she said—especially for Utah. "There are some states where they have tens of teachers who received this. We have three. I think that speaks to how difficult this is in the state." 

Ben, Christian, and the faculty and staff who support them remain focused on graduating good citizens armed with the tools to make tech work for all of us, not just some of us.

Ben, Christian, and the faculty and staff who support them remain focused on graduating good citizens armed with the tools to make tech work for all of us, not just some of us, as Joy Buolamwini so wisely said. Recent grad Katy is now attending Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, and majoring in law—possibly cyber law. Anna Shott ’16 emailed Ben in December 2020 to share that she’d be joining Microsoft as a program manager the following year. “Your class truly influenced the path I chose, and I cannot thank you enough for sparking my interest in computer science,” wrote Anna, a University of Southern California grad who also worked as a K–12 CS camp counselor on her college campus. And current student Ané said what she learned in AP Computer Science Principles—that an algorithm can decide whether someone is granted a loan, for example—was a game-changer for her. “This experience has made me want to not only major in computer science, but a specific realm of computer science that maybe deals with AI and diversifying participants and coders so that there isn't such a large bias.”

Alex also plans on working in CS, another testament to Ben’s teaching: “I decided I wanted to go to my college when I met LMU's chair and professor of computer science and he reminded me of Mr. Smith,” she said. “I would not be a computer science major if it weren't for him. He pushed me to work my hardest, to try new things, and provided me with lots of opportunities.”

This sort of feedback keeps Ben laser-focused on boosting equity in CS at Rowland Hall and beyond. “I won’t pretend that it didn’t bring a tear to my eye,” he said. “It’s certainly fuel for the work that I do and it reminds me that it's worth doing. I could sit back on a curriculum and just deliver, and do fairly well at it. But this is beyond that. The work is more than what I teach—it’s who I’m teaching to.”

Timeline: Modern Computer Science at Rowland Hall

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