Thinking Allowed

At SCEGGS we recognise the benefits of exchange and immersion experiences not just for students but for teachers too! One such experience was undertaken by Drama teacher Vivienne Rodda to the Nightingale Bamford School in New York. In this issue of Behind the Green Gate, Ms Rodda writes about the community behind the "Blue Door". 

I had the tremendous good fortune late last year of being selected to visit The Nightingale Bamford School in New York. This was a wonderful opportunity to engage with the teaching and learning in a like environment, in an international city, and be a fly on the wall to the similarities and differences in pedagogy and our 21st Century learners.

The Nightingale Bamford School is located on the Upper East side on the corner of Madison Ave and East 92nd street, adjacent to Central Park, and right around the corner from The Guggenheim. While being slightly smaller, enrolling approximately 650 students between its Lower School and the Upper Schools, it is remarkably similar to SCEGGS; just as we have the Green Gate, through which our girls enter, the Nightingale students all come through their "Blue Doors", an entry way on 92nd Street. The Blue Doors is also coincidentally the name of the regular publication Nightingale produces just as we have our own Behind the Green Gate!

BTGG 2019 05 23 Teacher Exchange View from the LibraryThe building in which the school operates is, like SCEGGS, a combination of the old and the new, with a beautiful, expansive, Edith Wharton-like window that provides picturesque views from their library. It is very old New York, and part of the original 1920 school building. In more recent years, several modern buildings and additions have been integrated with the original block, and the school now occupies approximately seven floors of its building, with each year group or stage occupying a floor.

In my two weeks at the school, I was fortunate to have a wide variety of experiences, attending an excursion to a glass blowing factory in Brooklyn with Year 8, serving lunch in a soup kitchen on a visit with the lower school, attending a PE class in Central Park, and seeing the school production of Noises Off among many other things, all of which were routine when you are as well located as Nightingale.

It was fascinating to learn of the differences in subject and course selection and how a school creates a program of study in an Independent New York School. The school follows no approved or endorsed program or curriculum and are permitted to create their own. This provides a great deal of freedom in the devising of courses and the programs set for study. Some subjects such as English are mandatory until Senior Year. Staff and Heads of Department (Chairs) write course proposals, which are submitted and approved, before they are offered to students. An elective English course in a Senior Year of study may include an intensive analysis of a poet or playwright or be more thematic covering a topic such as New York City Literature or Shakespeare’s Tragedies.

Nightingale was very proud of its strong focus on student-centred learning, and its belief that the school’s role was to prepare students for a largely unknown future. Everyday Nightingale timetables a half-hour for the entire school community, called "Enrichment time", simply designed to allow the students the freedom and independence to pursue whatever they best felt fit. This was used variably, covering everything from meeting with teachers, completing homework or study, playing in the playground, or spending time in one of the student lounges with friends.

Many of my observations and experiences at Nightingale came from informal discussions with staff during lunch, as well as sitting in formal meetings and discussions where people were very generous and willing to share their thoughts about their school community. A topic among some long-standing staff was their disgruntlement at the direction in which the school was heading, particularly around things such as the allocated half an hour for enrichment, which they felt lacked efficacy. Accompanying this pursuit of student freedom also was the reduction of formal assessment tasks and formal reporting. Staff were both thrilled and baffled to learn that we held formal assessment blocks, where students were assessed, graded and reported upon formally twice a year.

Additional to the organisation of their secondary school, I further developed an understanding of tertiary entrance requirements, which were, again, vastly different to our own. As we have seen in the recent College Admissions Scandal, university entrance in the U.S.A. can be skewed towards those from more advantageous backgrounds, and as such, the system lacks the equality available in our own university entrance schemes. Without a prescribed syllabus to follow, courses taught at a high school level have a depth and breadth available to them in terms of choice, but also seem to have the pressure of making decisions as to what and how to prioritise the courses that students must include for the various requirements needed for entrance to their preferred university.

Accordingly, to prepare for college there is no standardised test like our HSC that significantly determines admission. American students do sit for their HSC equivalent, the SATs, but primarily there is a deeper, more complex process of essays, references, community involvement and submission of academic reports and GPA scores that are submitted for consideration. I was privy to numerous discussions amongst staff about the system of college entrance and the drive of students to appear to have achieved a well-rounded educational experience through numerous participation in extra-curricular activities, clubs, volunteering for a school newspaper, or being involved in community outreach programs, and the careful preparation and writing of the all-important college essays which were being taught in the junior year class I sat in on for a few days.

When I wasn’t at Nightingale I was absorbing all that New York has to offer and of course spending plenty of time on Broadway. The opportunity to see (and meet!) Bryan Cranston in Network, Daniel Radcliffe in The Lifespan of a Fact, Jeff Daniels in To Kill A Mockingbird and the exceptionally fabulous production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was all wonderfully inspiring and enriching.

My learning and observations can only be touched upon in this article, but it was a tremendous opportunity and I look forward to supporting further collaborations between SCEGGS and the Nightingale Bamford School ahead. Their Head of School Paul Burke and Director of Global Operations Damaris Maclean were wonderful hosts and supported an experience that was enriching and impossible to forget.

Vivienne Rodda
Drama Teacher