College is Just a Pit Stop: Mr. Dan’s Experience as a CCS Upper School Student
Written By: Dan Miller, Dean of Middle & Upper School
Last year, I spent the day as a fifth grade student to investigate the quality of our Middle School Program from a student’s perspective (Click here to read “Am I Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?”). I was blown away by the dynamic and engaging experience I had, and understood why Middle School enrollment grew by 300% in only four years! Well, this year I have the honor of being the Middle School AND Upper School Dean. Since we have made many recent enhancements to the Upper School Program, I wanted to give them the same quality assurance test that I did for the Middle School.
Before I get into the details of my day as a CCS Upper School student, I want to give you some perspective on my actual high school experience. I attended Washington Township High with about 4,000 other students. Feeling like a mere number to most of my teachers, I certainly couldn’t have told you the names of the thousands of students with whom I attended school; in fact, I probably couldn’t have told you the names of the 35 students in each of my classes. For the most part, I knew exactly what I needed to do to survive the traditional, systematic institution of high school. As most of my high school friends would attest, you either thrived in high school because you knew how to navigate bureaucratic structures within the education system, or you struggled to find your place because you had trouble seeing it for what it was: a predictable system of limitations. Think about this for a second: who was your favorite teacher in high school? It probably wasn’t the boring teacher that always followed the state standards and unit tests. It was likely the fun teacher that challenged the system and used his or her creativity to make the teaching material come to life. It was that teacher who you looked forward to seeing every day, and who caused you genuine sadness when he or she was replaced with a sub. Now, imagine a school full of those teachers. A school that inspires teachers to use their passions and interests to guide the lessons and use project-based learning concepts to engage students at multiple entry points… well, welcome to Charleston Collegiate School.
As the Dean of the Middle and Upper School, it is easy to brag about the amazing programs and phenomenal teachers at Charleston Collegiate. But would I feel the same way if I walked in the shoes of an Upper School student? The only way to truly understand the dynamics of student life at CCS was to immerse myself in the daily routine of a student, all the way down to the smart-casual dress code. With our new college readiness schedule, I knew it wasn’t possible to experience all of the new program enhancements in just one day, so I cleared two days of my schedule to experience our Jobs Program, Majors Program, student assembly, and some of the new course offerings.
My first day started with Mrs. Ellis’ Forensics class. Now, who doesn’t like a good investigator show on TV? Whether you enjoy CSI, NCIS, or Bones, you probably have a basic understanding of forensics and how it is used to solve crimes (well, at least TV crimes). Mrs. Ellis’ Forensics class made me feel as if I were the character Jack Hodgins from Bones. I learned about trace evidence, and watched other students present cases in which investigators used trace evidence to convict innocent people. I presented my own case, too – but I forgot to do my homework (such a bad first impression I made!). After the presentations, we completed a lab in which we examined the 12 characteristics of handwriting analysis and attempted to identify who wrote on the bathroom wall. (Don’t worry, no one actually wrote on the wall.) Once we finished discussing our handwriting results, we then used the infamous Jonbenet Ramsey case to put our newfound forensic knowledge to the test. Each of us was assigned a suspect from the case, and had to use forensics to prove his or her innocence. (P.S. I really think the mom did it.)
After a very short break, it was time for Mrs. Boyd’s 11th grade Humanities class. If you know me, you know I am more of a math and science type of guy, but I figured, what is the worst thing that could happen? Well, this certainly wasn’t the traditional English or history class I experienced in high school. I mean, we weren’t memorizing Beowulf or reciting dates that generals died. Instead, we spent the class dissecting the poem “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus. By the end of the class, we didn’t just understand the meaning of that poem, we also understood its connection to Greece, the 1880s, the U.S. Government, our definition of liberty, and the symbolism it provides today. Mrs. Boyd used the poem as an introduction to this semester’s 11th Grade Exhibition Project. This year’s theme is “How Choices Have Defined American History.” I was a bit disappointed at having chosen that Thursday to be a student, because the very next day Mrs. Boyd had former U.S. Representative Sue Wilkins Myrick come speak to the class about the branches of government – a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
After a delicious lunch provided by FLIK, I decided to dive into our new Majors Program where students declare a Major of Study at the end of their sophomore year. A declaration of majors allows students to get a completely individualized education experience designed to help them pursue their passions in life. I decided to shadow Sydney Linscott, a Chemical Engineering Major. Sydney currently interns at a chemical supply and manufacturing company called Xytrus (http://www.xytrus.com/). During my amazing experience with Sydney, I was able to view the chemicals Xytrust creates and distributes. Even more impressive is that Sydney is working directly with one of the Xytrus clients to create a new line of custom bath and beauty products. The internship goes far beyond chemicals and mathematics, where Sydney is learning real-world skills such as problem-solving, relationship-building, communication, and financial literacy. Sydney has quite a phenomenal, real-world experience to add to her college application and résumé.
I started my second day as a high schooler in my element – Honors Geometry with Mrs. Taylor. I aced this course in high school, so I walked into the class with confidence. I was pretty certain that fundamental Geometric Theorems, Postulates, Laws, and Rules have not changed in the last two decades. Well the good news is that they haven’t – but what I didn’t take into consideration was the discovery education approach that our CPM (College Preparatory Math) Curriculum uses. Mrs. Taylor made sure that I wasn’t able to simply regurgitate the information that I had miraculously retained over all of these years. Instead, she challenged us to demonstrate our mathematical abilities by creating our own unique units of measurement (I called my units Cute Bits), then using the new units to solve real-world problems. Although each of us was working on solving the same problem, no one in the class had the same units of measurement, so none of us had the same numerical answers. It was mind-boggling! This math class wasn’t just about getting the correct answer; it was about understanding and mastering the mathematical process.
Next I had the opportunity to explore our Upper School Jobs Program, which consists of five Jobs (Program) Crews: School Store, Yearbook, Oaks & Acorns, Technology & Events, OEC & Garden. The Jobs Program is designed to provide each student with a tangible way to make a contribution to the greater school community and to learn how membership in any community requires active citizenship through application of certain vital responsibilities. Before selecting a “jobs crew” I brainstormed where my skills would be best utilized. Missing my previous experience as the Lower School Character Education Teacher, I decided to join the Oaks & Acorns jobs crew. If you are not familiar with our in-house mentorship program, once a month our entire school comes together to participate in cooperative activities between our older students (Oaks) and our younger learners (Acorns) to instill a higher sense of community. Our Oaks and Acorns job crew is responsible for designing and implementing these activities, making it a 100% student-led program. Imagine the level of responsibility and accountability this Oaks and Acorns jobs crew must feel – at 15, 16, and 17 years old, they have to create and execute activities for 300 students and 50 faculty members! If their planning and communication are not clear and concise, they don’t merely get a zero or disappoint one teacher – they have the potential of getting feedback from 350 members of the CCS family. If you haven’t heard from your children, Oaks and Acorns has been amazing this year because this group of students has the soft skills necessary to create and implement these events with ease and precision. As a student, I had the opportunity to get a sneak peek of the Oaks & Acorns activities they are planning for Green Week on Wednesday, November 8th, and your children are going to love them!
After Jobs Crew, it was time to dive into Creativity and the Arts, so I enrolled in a Drawing and Painting class with Ms. Howell. After the student-led class meeting, Ms. Howell gave us a teaser for the next unit: oil paintings. The class was on the tail end of the their unit on painting with watercolors, so all of the students took turns presenting their work while welcoming constructive criticism from their peers and Ms. Howell. Each student used K.I.S.H. Feedback (Kind, Informative, Specific, and Helpful) to help one another advance their painting to the next level, while Ms. Howell showed us paintings by professional artists to motivate us. The class was a masterpiece of inspiration – so much so that it inspired me to start my own painting! Considering the last time I took an art class with in 6th grade, I think I did a pretty good job. I give all of the credit to my teacher.
With my stomach rumbling, I was eager to get to lunch. As I approached the Café, I was greeted by Ms. Sowers. She handed me a yellow Lifesaver candy and explained that it was Mix It Up at Lunch Day and I had to sit with the table that corresponded to my Lifesaver color. Excited, I searched the Café for the other students that possessed a yellow Lifesaver. As my new lunchmates and I sat down, we noticed a list of questions on the table. They were talking points to get to know one another – it was fantastic! We didn’t have to focus our conversation on homework and weekend activities, but instead were able to talk about fun, interesting topics that allowed us to identify our commonalities. I am certainly looking forward to the next Mix It Up at Lunch Day.
I chose to end my second day with a major that would challenge me and force me to step outside of my comfort zone, so I selected a Mechanical Engineering Major with students Josephine Bardone and Isaac Limehouse. As I approached the Industrial Arts Center in my v-neck sweater, I stood in astonishment at three partially assembled motorcycles. Now I know a thing or two about cars, but as a person that drives a Prius, I would never consider myself a motorcycle enthusiast. I watched Josephine reconstruct an engine while Isaac was just a few steps away creating a custom motorcycle – a Frankenstein monster of raw power. The very talented and dynamic Industrial Arts teacher, Mr. Lawrence, thought he would start me out with something small – welding and grinding. Learning to use different power tools not only provides students with some useful life skills, but also instills a sense of empowerment that is not easily found in most school settings.
Mr. Lawrence’s imagination and resourcefulness can turn what most people think of as trash into treasure. (In fact, he recently used two pieces of scrap metal and an old wrench to create a one-of a-kind business card holder.) His students aren’t just internalizing the value of mechanics and industrial arts, they are also helping Mr. Lawrence write grant proposals and get donations to grow and enhance our Industrial Arts Center. Nearly all of the tools and equipment in Mr. Lawrence’s class have been donated by local mechanics and hardware stores. Please consider getting involved and helping this new program grow to the next level!
I know what you must be thinking, “Wow, can I go back to high school at CCS?” I wish I could say yes, but it is not too late for your children. The Four Pillars of the Charleston Collegiate Learning Experience (Leadership through Outdoor Education, Entrepreneurship and Financial Literacy, Arts and Creativity, and Project-based Learning), our cutting-edge programs, and innovative academics are not merely preparing our students to get into college, they are allowing our students to L.E.A.P. into a life beyond college. I have no doubt that most high schools can help your child get into college. In fact, 70% of high school students get into college (Charleston Collegiate’s college acceptance rate is 100%), but over a third of typical high school students drop out during their freshman year (www.collegeatlas.org). Now ask yourself this: if most of the country is using the same traditional programming to get students into college, but 30% of the students are dropping out, what are those 30% of students missing? Yes, Charleston Collegiate has College Seminar and SAT/ ACT Prep Courses to help our students prepare for college admission. However, we also have the additional progressive programs that instill “soft skills” in our students such as communication, collaboration, creativity, resiliency, and curiosity that will allow them to thrive in an endlessly evolving, competitive world. Why should we settle for college as the end goal for our children? College is just a pit stop along the road of life on which CCS students will travel – on their custom-built motorcycles.