All posts by Peter Gow

I've been an independent school teacher, administrator, and college counselor for over 40 years.

Facing the Music

It’s meant to be entertainment, but I’m pretty sure that every educator in the room at the NAISAC plenary sessions is entertained by far more than the sweet sounds of the student groups whose performances precede the speechifying. It’s not just the music that’s on display; it’s the kids.

A few years back I started looking around at my fellow audience members during these performances. No adult has ever listened to kid-produced music so intently just to appreciate the tunes, and it became clear to me that nearly everyone in the room—thousands of us, teachers all—was watching those kids and doing just what I do when I watch: I was analyzing, pondering, and creating backstories for the kids whose expressions, dress, body language, and apparent levels of engagement are on full display for an audience whose members lives’ work is figuring out kids.

It’s a panorama of essential kid-ness: The head bobbers, the silent starers, the earnest angels, the unmade beds, the stage-frightened automata—they’re all there for us to see, magnified on the Jumbotron screens. We can try to imagine what they are like in class, what they’re like at home, how they think, what they’re like as friends, how they feel about the experience they’re having. We empathize, we applaud, we sometimes mentally chastise; we can even imagine on occasion what the choral or orchestra director must be thinking. We can see—or guess—who is Old Reliable and who just doesn’t know the words–never has, never will. We can see who is transported by the music they are creating and who isn’t quite aware—perhaps because of the giant audience before them—that they are actually making music.

The Annual Conference has many pleasures, but I will confess that watching those kids, and imagining what three or four thousand educators are thinking and feeling and taking pleasure in as they watch along with me, gives me an enormous and heartening feeling of satisfaction and community—the feeling that we are all in this together, and that we share something truly profound.

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Designing Boston!

When you think “Boston,” what comes to mind might not exactly be a sleek, futuristic vision of a city. The streetlights and brickwork of Beacon Hill, the narrow streets, the greenswards of Boston Common and the Public Garden are all breathtakingly lovely, but they don’t always shout “design!” in our 21st-century sense of the word. Why, you might even be tempted to ask, is Boston the base for an NAIS Annual Conference whose theme is “Design the Revolution”?

The “Revolution” part is easy to wrap your head around. The one we call the American Revolution started hereabouts, and images of Minutemen, Sons of Liberty, a harbor full of tea, and smoke curling up from musket barrels at Lexington and Concord probably evoke Boston; we’re revolutionaries, we are, by heritage. (If you’re the kind of traveler who likes to steep oneself in some local history before a journey, try Nathaniel Philbrick’s Bunker Hill.)

But Boston has a pretty strong heritage in the world of design, as well. The Back Bay in which our conference will be taking place was systematically drained and laid out as a network of orderly streets and avenues (even if we don’t call all of them that) by some thoughtful urban planners a century and a half ago, and many of the city’s parklands, which in some spots gazing upward to Charles Bulfinch’s rather elegant Massachusetts State House, were indeed designed by no less than Frederick Law Olmsted, who lived in these parts. Another local, Henry Hobson Richardson, was a master of domestic and civic architecture; you can stop by his Trinity Church while you’re at the conference without having to go much out of your way.

The local universities have some architectural claims to fame, as well; I’m a particular fan of the two Eero Saarinen buildings—the Chapel and the Kresge Auditorium—at M.I.T., and if you like Frank Gehry, they’ve got one of his, too. Even if Silicon Valley is reputed to hold most of today’s patents on cool design, Edward Land’s Polaroid Paul Revere Silver (Minneapolis Institute of the Arts) camera (and even the now rehabbed-into-unrecognizability building where they were designed) was a kind of statement on technology and design in its day, and I am reminded that Paul Revere would be a household name even if he had never mounted and ridden a horse for the timeless beauty of his work as a master silversmith.

When I was a teenager I was told by a friend (a man of exquisite taste himself) that anyone with am aesthetic appreciation of the modern style would appreciate a new store in Harvard Square called Design|Research. He dragged me in and introduced me to the wonders of mid-century modern in its most forward-thinking application: a whole building full of Marimekko fabrics, Dansk housewares, and a whole range of household and office products that screamed “Design is the future!” I may not have been the most appreciative audience then, but fifty years on each D|R product I spot becomes an object of intense retro desire—and they still say “the future” in a good way, at least to me. And I wake up each day to a clock radio designed by the legendary Henry Kloss—another manifestation of Boston’s undeniable legacy to the world of quality audio-plus-design.

The stirrings of educational revolution are to be heard increasingly clearly in the land, but this revolution is not just about teaching and learning but about the culture, the environment, and even the aesthetics of education in its broadest and most provocative sense. It’s not Minutemen versus Redcoats any more, but visionaries and courageous thinkers and leaders taking on a status quo on whose obsolescence we are coming to consensus. Whether your own design aesthetic tends to Richardson or Gehry, Revere or Aalto, you appreciate the imperative to take intentional steps forward, away from group-think and toward a more beautiful and human-centered future.

See you in Boston—the countdown continues!

Boston Is Getting Ready!

This may all be a bit premature, but as a Bostonian I’m already getting excited about the arrival of the 2015 NAIS Annual Conference and all that this means.

Not that it hasn’t been exciting enough lately around here. Apparently a local football has been doing well, and then this past week Juno brought us more than two feet of snow and two weekdays at home for my spouse (also an independent school teacher) and myself. I wish I could say days “off,” but the enforced home-time meant we finally had to finish a couple of projects that we had been avoiding for years; going back to school was something of a relief from that. But tonight and through tomorrow they’re forecasting another foot of snow, with no sign of a thaw as far as Weather Underground can see into the future. Hopefully this will all change by the last week of the month, and in any event, it is all rather beautiful.

Boston in Winter, Shutterstock
Boston in Winter, Shutterstock

As always, I’m looking forward both to the conference program and to the camaraderie that comes with it. I’ve lived long enough now to see the evolution of the NAIS Annual Conference from a tweedy, New England-flavored festival of self-assurance, leavened with some good learning, into a real professional learning event characterized by intense curiosity about what is new and promising. Not only does NAISAC help us do our work more thoughtfully and more knowledgeably, it has also become a far more diverse gathering in every dimension.

There’s a hunger, I think, in the independent school community for more information, and more and more I encounter independent school people looking for opportunities not just for pleasant social connections (though there is still lots of space for that, thank you) but also for professional collaboration. I see and hear more schools becoming part of consortia or joining professional organizations to support their own evolution, and in my own extracurricular roles I see these groups working overtime to serve the needs of schools and of the educators who work in them.

Even with all of the challenges we face, this is an exciting time to be part of the independent school world. It might be safe to say that never have new ideas and new opportunities been so present in our working lives, and never have so many of us been so excited to share with and learn from our peers and from other professionals outside of our immediate sphere. And NAISAC 15 will be, for a few days, the nexus of this excitement.

See you in Boston in just a few weeks!