Learning out Loud
Inspiring Leadership in the Junior School
Snacks are routine within the Junior School, meant to boost energy and improve concentration. The offerings are the usual healthy choices, fruits and vegetables in addition to grains. Nothing out of the ordinary. However, last year the Grade 3 girls found themselves still feeling hungry after snack time. The students decided they wanted something more substantial, a protein dish, perhaps, and in hopes that they could get it they did what they have been taught to do as part of a multi-pronged leadership initiative at BSS: They drew up a proposal and went as an organized group to petition the Principal for change.
They landed on hummus, a Middle Eastern dip made of puréed chickpeas, as a nutritious addition with that extra bit of protein they’d been missing. The girls proposed making it themselves, which they were eventually permitted to do, working in the kitchen alongside chef Leroy Whisker and learning firsthand the thought that goes into meal planning, including recipe modification to address allergies. When they served what they had made to other members of their class, everyone ate up and asked for seconds. Success never tasted so good.
“The girls took a lot of pride in making the hummus,” said outgoing Junior School Principal Patti MacDonald during the
final days of the 2016–17 school year. “They made it in groups, on a rotating basis. Soon the Grade 5 and 6 students started to take notice: ‘Look, the Grade 3s made snack today.’ That boosted their feeling of accomplishment even further.”
Delightful things happen at BSS when girls take initiative.
It’s a philosophy informing not just co-curricular activities like the making and sharing of food but also new collaborative teaching practices aimed at developing students into leaders who will make a difference in the world.
Leadership training begins early in the Junior School and rises from a commitment to the Culture of Powerful Learning, a programmatic approach to education aimed at giving everyone enrolled at BSS, from day girls to boarders, a supportive environment in which to fulfill her potential. The new approach entered the curriculum four years ago, at the start of 2014–15 academic year, and is noticeably yielding results.
“It’s a vision that incorporates the whole school,” says Catherine Hant, Principal of the Junior School. Ms. Hant took on this new role in August 2017, after serving eight years as Vice Principal and many years in various teaching and leadership roles throughout the school. “It involves a scope and sequence of skills development and experience that would really foster leadership abilities. We try not to see it as an add-on but as an integral part of the curriculum.”
Supporting that vision is the set of student expectations outlined in the detailed Signature of a BSS Girl document highlighting a challenging academic program as well as a whole girl approach to learning and personal growth.
Based on extensive research into the psychology, wellness, character development and role model needs of girls today, the list of attributes includes transformative leadership as an inspirational goal. The school encourages all students to explore their potential as leaders in age-appropriate ways suited to their grade level.
In the Junior School, leadership starts with students encouraged from a young age to think and act responsibly in ways that benefit themselves, their peers and their surroundings. Explains Design and Technology Teacher Jillian Fisher, “I think what we have tried to articulate in the Junior School is that leadership, starting in the youngest grades of JK and Grade 1, can mean many things, from cleaning up to setting up the tables and getting dressed themselves. In the past, these are the types of tasks the adults would do”.
“Transferring the responsibility to the students allows them to acquire a greater appreciation for what’s involved in maintaining their own classroom. It encourages them to solve their own problems.”
Responsibilities increase as girls advance in age. In Grade 1 they are picking up after themselves. But by Grade 6 they are leading Chapel and organizing events such as the annual Freezie fundraiser, which raised money for the Grade 6 Leaving Gift.
Additional leadership opportunities take place outside the classroom, in the playground and nearby ravine, where girls put into practice the school’s outdoor connection agreement, and allow dirt to get under their fingernails.
“We had an incident this past year where a girl fell into the mud and it was a very big deal for her, completely outside her comfort zone,” recounts Gillian Matthews, a physical education teacher within the Junior School.
“The other girls helped pull her out, and then we talked about what had happened. It was a great learning experience for them. It gave them a sense of responsibility, and the awareness that they can do things if they put their mind to it and figure out ways of working together.”
Other students will work alone to benefit the greater good. They include a Grade 4 student whose pragmatic challenge of a skirt-only-after-Easter rule introduced changes to the school’s uniform policy. “She had asked a good question,” Ms. Matthews says. “Why couldn’t girls wear pants after Easter? No one really knew.”
But not all queries have positive outcomes. Some initiatives die from a lack of preparation or completion.
“Students are trying things on and really finding their passion,” Ms. Fisher says. “They have sign-up sheets and sometimes they aren’t completely aware of what it is they are volunteering themselves for, and so sometimes initiatives fail.”
But it’s a supportive failure, with no shaming involved. “We let things fall through,” Ms. Fisher continues, “to show students that if they don’t put the effort in, things just won’t happen.”
When they do, girls take on new responsibilities and grow as leaders.
They also make great snacks. Everyone at BSS now knows that. “The Grade 3s made so much hummus last term that we had some in the staff room,” Ms. Hant says. “It was delicious.”
Deirdre KELLY ’79 is an award-winning arts journalist, dance critic and staff writer withThe Globe and Mail, based in Toronto.