School visits: Germantown, Episcopal, and Radnor

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Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve visited three PA high schools: Germantown Academy, Episcopal Academy, and Radnor High School. I was especially keen on learning about their different philosophies regarding libraries and learning-commons-type spaces. Here are some notes from my notebook:


Germantown Academy


Library, the Beard Center for Innovation, and the Maker Space: In using design thinking to create a space to encourage and facilitate design thinking, they ended up mapping the space according to the steps of the DT process itself.


In lieu of assembly, they have “morning meeting” (w/ the entire upper school population) twice a week

Morning meeting felt a lot like Punahou assemblies.
– A “citizen of the week” was introduced.
– The chess club apparently just came in fourth nationally against college kids
– They recently had something called Design Day (I asked about this–it sounded something like our G-term, but only one day. The theme this year: empathy.)
– Fairly diverse for this area: maybe 65% white
– 60-second dress code check

School established 1759. Totally nonsectarian, i.e. secular, non-religious. Uniforms, though I noticed many kids not in uniform (they get pre-approval for activities and such).

No one-to-one. Some students bring laptops, but in general they use paper much more than we do.

Art and sculptures by students, faculty, and professionals are displayed all around campus (I should have taken more photos of this).

I spoke with one English teacher, Chidi Asoluka, who designed and teaches a year-long class, New Com(munity) that uses a non-profit organization as its central “text” and surrounds it with readings. They analyze the non-profit as a “story” and consider characters, conflict, setting, etc. The final project involves helping the nonprofit in some way via some “product.” Last year they made a website for a literacy NPO in North Philly, Treehouse Books. They made and sold t-shirt to fund it. Lots of field trips.

Visited with music teacher Charlie Masters, who’s engaged in a really cool project, “Location-aware composition.” Students are composing music to imitate/embody/complement different areas of campus. They’ve teamed with some tech folks to create an app (that will probably be open-source) that will work with Bluetooth beacons all around campus so that anyone can hear the soundtrack of the campus (“Sounds of Self”) from their phones whenever they like. The music department is also teaming up with the art department for “Art Across the Academy,” which includes PVC soundplay (as per some playgrounds) and “Dip N Dance” (paint, shoes, etc.).

The Writing Center

– Much like Punahou’s in form and function.
– Advisors are nominated toward the end of their sophomore year and then, if interested, compose an application essay. Then they’re interviewed. There are roughly 30 advisors at any given time. (With the entire upper school population being around 500).
– Advisors participate in ongoing once-a-month training sessions–two hours, in the evening.
– “Reflective listening and lots of questioning.”
– Advisors work two forty-five-minute periods per 7-day cycle (Oh yeah, all periods at this school are 45 minutes).
– Advisors can fulfill Community Service requirement or Activity Requirement (students needs 2 activities during their four years), but only very rarely do they fill out the forms. I spoke with one advisor, Morgan, who really enjoys being a WC advisor because it makes her a better writer, and, well, she just enjoys doing it–she will not fill out the forms either.
– They have many visiting writers, some for the day, some writers-in-residence for a few days at a time. Being two hours from New York is a real advantage in this regard, of course.
– They encourage student participation in writing competitions and such.
– Not much of their “business” has to do with college essays because every student takes a college essay class in the last three weeks of their junior year (and every English teacher teaches it)–this is something like Punahou’s G-term, but at the end of the year.
– Students are not permitted to hang out and write in the WC (a stark contrast with UPenn’s Kelly Writers House, which is all about that).

Visited Robynne’s 10th grade class

– Felt very much like a P class, though sections max out at fifteen students.
– Poetry analysis; denotation/connotation; tone; “The Writer.” Notably, not a single student had out a laptop or any electronic device. Refreshing, that.
– Every English classroom has a Harkness table and only a Harkness table.

Visited Becca’s 9th grade class
– Again, felt much like one of our classes; staging Midsummer’s Night’s Dream. 15:1 ratio.


Episcopal Academy



Visited John Dilworth’s freshman English class. They were reading Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Class was discussion-based, and felt, more or less, like one of mine. 13:1 ratio, individual deskns

Kids uniformly uniformed.

One-to-one: Macs

I showed myself around campus a bit after John’s class. Plenty of student art on display, as well as sculptures and a large teepee.


No Writing Center

No Makerspace (closest analogue is the art classroom)

Nice library, though very traditional. Quiet. I spoke with the librarian who told me she thought a library ought to reflect the pedagogy of the teachers, and that at EA they still do lots of research papers and suchlike. Even if they did have a Makerspace, she didn’t feel the library would be the right place to house it.


And, as a caffeine addict, I couldn’t help noticing: well-stocked Keurigs in every lounge.


Radnor High School


Hung out in the Writing Center for an hour with Trevor. No student business. The WC, I was surprised to learn, is not staffed by students. It’s a place for students to meet with faculty advisors–every English teacher is scheduled a couple of shifts a week.


If GA and EA had radically different libraries, Radnor’s is somewhere in between. Moderate noise level. WC housed within. Chess sets available. Mandala coloring books displayed on tables. More of a Media Center really.



One-to-one with iPads.

Visited Trevor’s team-taught interdisciplinary Civics class, where kids were making “Platonic podcasts” (recorded dialogues with famous philosophers), then went to hear a visiting scholar from Cornell University, Barry Strauss, lecture on the Death of Julius Caesar. The lecture was fascinating, if traditional–auditorium, sage on the stage. I paid attention to the students and was surprised and heartened to hear how interested they were. This was reflected, too, in their thoughtful questions afterward, though some veered rather sharply off-topic to terrorism and Israel/Palestine (b/c in the intro Donal McGay, classics teacher, mentioned that Dr. Strauss was something of an expert on terrorism too). Overall, though, I was impressed with the students’ palpable interest in ancient history–I’m not sure that exists as such at Punahou. If it does, it’s in the middle school (where they do Latin).


After the lecture, I was honored to have lunch at a new Greek restaurant with Donal, Barry, and Mary, a retired classics teacher. We talked publishing and I learned loads more about Julius Caesar.

Afterward, on Donal’s recommendation, I visited Gryphon Cafe in Wayne, where I did some stillborn writing for a couple of hours. Great spot–and free refills!




(Note fake backdrop outside window–very cool.)

Then I paid a visit to Main Point Books, where I had a great, wide-ranging conversation with three young employees, and where I was glad to find my latest on the shelves. I may do a reading there, possibly with the SF book club, at some point.

And here we are.


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