Each day students in the Upper School pass below a sign on the front of Moore Hall that says “Let Your Life Speak.” Attributed to George Fox, the 17th century founder of Quakerism, this statement is found all over our campus and is part of our school logo. It reflects a sense that one’s words are important, but one’s deeds are even more important. It is both descriptive, what we do reflects what be believe, and aspirational: let your life mean something, be a testimony of faith and action, an affirmation, and an example to others. What, however, does this mean in the context of a Sandy Spring Friends classroom? I asked three teachers this question. Not coincidentally, all three spoke from a place of personal conviction, rather than from a clinical context of pedagogy or from an attempt to define their students’ experiences for them. Here’s what they shared:
Pinki Shah is in her third year of teaching at SSFS. With a background in marketing and nonprofit organizations, she moved to teaching eleven years ago as a way of “taking my values and applying them to my teaching.” As a fifth grade teacher, she sees elementary students as they prepare to transition to Middle School and are beginning to acknowledge that the world is not perfect. Pinki speaks from a strong personal sense of social justice and works in her classroom to help students understand multiple sides of issues and current events discussed in class. Her inquiry-based approach includes bi-weekly debates on topics of interest to the class, including water rights, coal mining, gun control, the death penalty, or should election day be a holiday. These may seem like heavy topics for fifth graders, but Pinki observes that these are the topics students are hearing about in the news and are the source of questions the students bring to school. Pinki guides the students through how to debate an issue in civil, respectful manner. As part of this, she requires students to sometimes argue from a position that they may not personally hold, and Pinki feels that this is often when the most learning takes place. Students understand an issue far better when they have to look at it through another lens. “Some of the best conversations I’ve had in my life have been with 10 year-olds,” says Pinki, “They are so thoughtful.”
Middle School is where Aimee Farley sees students develop their sense of self and refine their opinions. Especially with racial tension being so present in the media and society over the past two years, Aimee sees students bring to school confusion and a hesitation to speak about race and conflict. This is where good teaching can empower students, providing them the tools to talk effectively and compassionately about sensitive topics. Passionate about diversity, Aimee seeks to help students explore diversity from many angles, not just “black-white,’ but also socioeconomic, religious, and other dimensions through which we define our identities. She sees the progress students make during the year, speaking on difficult subjects with increasing confidence and skill. As a Social Studies teacher, Aimee feels she is has a great opportunity to help students place current happenings in an historical context, helping students walk the line between objective information and real life perspective. “I seek to lead by example,” says Aimee, “and to model some confidence talking about challenging subjects. It’s important for students to see that making mistakes is part of life. We all have weaknesses, and it is OK to have challenges. I also work to make sure multiple sides of an issue are presented - this is what allows me to sleep at night.” Not only does this make a difference in classroom discussions, but Aimee sees that it shapes how students interact with each other. She notes that students become more accepting of each other’s differences, more supportive of each other, at a critical developmental time when middle schoolers are starting to explore and express their differences and identities. “They just do it,” observes Aimee.
Bob Hoch has taught history in the Sandy Spring Friends Upper School for the better part of four decades, and he feels a strong personal responsibility to share his experiences, and the events he has witnessed, to reduce the likelihood of our repeating the mistakes of the past in subsequent generations. As an observer and participant in the social justice struggles since the ‘60’s, Bob wants to help students to “become involved, to not be passive” about their world. “I grew up in a bubble through high school, focused on girls, sports, and cars,” says Bob. “We were not economically privileged growing up in Baltimore, but it was a homogeneous neighborhood. The first time I interacted with African-American students was when I got to college. And, learning about the Biafra genocide opened my eyes to a whole different way of looking at the world. I got involved in what was going on with the Vietnam war and the civil rights movement.” Although it is important as a teacher to present multiple sides of an issue, Bob explained, one cannot teach history in a morally neutral way. “You can’t be neutral about slavery; you have to say ‘this was wrong.’” In working to shape a better future, Bob believes “We can’t do it without the students, and they can’t do it without the adults.” Bob shared that one of his classes just had a discussion about whether democracy guarantees morality, a highly relevant issue at a time when the country is presented with starkly different visions of national leadership. It was a rich, meaningful classroom conversation. “These discussions are vital,” said Bob. “Not every day is ‘I really killed it today.’ But there are those moments when I feel that today I made a difference.”