Rising to the Challenge
Belonging as a lifelong learner
Which attributes of the Signature of a BSS Girl stand out, as students dive into the curriculum and embrace the school’s Culture of Powerful Learning? What advice would be most helpful to students, especially those new to the BSS environment? The Link explores these questions with Head of School Angela Terpstra and BSS Principals Catherine Hant and Ian Rutherford.
In creating the Signature of a BSS Girl, says Catherine Hant, Junior School Principal, the school put a framework and structure around the attributes of Curiosity, Self-Awareness, Grit, Voice and Leadership, viewed through the lens of a Growth Mindset and Ethical Citizenship. These are values that administrators, teachers, parents and students have striven for, and valued, for generations.
At its heart, the Signature’s attributes help drive forward a sense of “belonging,” says Ms. Hant.
It can be tough for some new students to feel that they belong, especially within the context of the challenging scholarly learning at BSS. Many of the girls who switch to BSS in the Grade 9 entry year, says Ms. Terpstra, Head of School, are coming into a situation where there are 125 Grade 9s, which might have been the total number of students in their previous school. They are introduced to the highly regarded Ontario curriculum, which at BSS is enriched with interdisciplinary projects, advanced reading, and a focus on writing and thinking across all subjects, including science.
If you ask Ms. Terpstra which attributes of the Signature contribute to a sense of belonging for new students, indeed, perhaps for all students, she is unequivocal. “Grit” and “Self-Awareness,” two of the more challenging attributes, she says. “But I also hope students come to the school with some Curiosity.”
“Starting as early as Grade 1, we ask the girls about being self-aware; we discuss with them the question ‘Do you know your strengths and challenges?’ and then help them to build strategies that empower them to persevere,” says Ms. Terpstra. “We want the girls to be confident; to say, ‘I know this is going to be hard for me, but I will be able to get through it.’ And that takes Grit.”
The transition from Middle to Senior School is not just about the evolution of curriculum content, it also requires students to adjust their learning expectations, Ms. Terpstra explains. “While there is plenty of support, there is an expectation that students are nurtured into becoming independent, keen learners. Taking those steps beyond the guidance of the teacher is very important. Developing our own initiative and problem-solving skills is crucial to becoming a scholar.”
Very intentionally, she says, every girl in Grade 9 is placed into a Teacher Advisory Group (TAG), consisting of 8-10 girls and a Faculty Advisor, who all meet regularly throughout the four years of high school. Within these groups students quickly form close relationships with their Advisor and fellow students, creating bonds that last throughout their time in the Senior School. Read more about the sense of belonging students find through the TAG program on page 10.
Carry Attributes Forward Throughout Life
“Curiosity” and “Voice,” working in tandem, are integral Signature attributes for new students, says Ian Rutherford, Middle School Principal. “Many students enter BSS in the middle school years. For students coming into a brand new environment, being curious is essential to finding their way. It’s important that they not pass judgment quickly, taking the time to step back and observe what’s going on.”
This is advice Mr. Rutherford says he tells not only to new students, “but all students, although for new students the intersection of Curiosity and Voice can be more challenging.” And, gaining a mastery of these attributes is important. In essence, feeling that you “belong,” feeling part of a greater whole, as Ms. Terpstra and Mr. Rutherford say, is essential to a girl’s well-being, to her ability to gain all she can from her years at BSS and carry the Signature attributes forward throughout her life.
Voice isn’t about saying whatever is on your mind, whenever you want to say it, continues Mr. Rutherford. It’s actually knowing the context in which you are speaking. And being able to understand the people you’re speaking with, to ensure that your voice is heard. “If you’re curious, then what you’re doing is seeking first to understand, to clarify, and then to put this knowledge through a sieve; so that you don’t rush off to a quick conclusion, especially where there are differences or disagreements.”
In contrast, when you take the time to reflect and show that you’re curious about others, people will hear themselves reflected in what you’re saying. And even if the disagreement is still there, “it gives someone an opportunity to say ‘well, I’ve been listened to, and we’re not going to land on the same page on this one, but I have respect for the other person.’”
Voice Also Means Advocacy
Girls instinctively think Voice means participation, raising your hand or having the bravery to stand up in front of the assembly and make an announcement, adds Ms. Hant. She says as girls move through the grades, and begin to integrate the various attributes in the Signature, “they understand Voice also means advocacy; for example, speaking up beyond your classroom, beyond the school itself; in the neighbourhood, within the community-at-large. And that is a lovely building block to Ethical Citizenship.”
In September 2017, BSS celebrated its 150th birthday, which Ms. Hant views as a good example of bringing together the Signature of a BSS Girl and the Culture of Powerful Learning in a way that perpetuates and validates “belonging” to the BSS Community.
During the year, a lot of time was spent talking with the girls about what it means to be 150 as a school, exploring ideas around the long history of BSS girls who shared the same attributes as in today’s Signature. “We emphasized that current students are adding to the history, far beyond what happens to each of them on a day-to-day basis,” says Ms. Hant. “We’re building an important legacy for women as we think about Leadership and Ethical Citizenship.”
BSS is a research-based school and we have relied on the most current studies on girls’ learning, child and adolescent development, as well as emerging trends in post-secondary education to develop the Culture of Powerful Learning – the vision that guides our world-class program. Through this vision we foster intellectual discovery with kindness and empathy, based on the belief that learning should be individual and interdisciplinary, involving a range of perspectives. The principles established through the Culture of Powerful Learning set a framework for all faculty to follow, specifying what is taught and how it is taught throughout all levels of our forward-thinking, scholarly program.
Bev Cline is a Toronto writer, editor and author of nonfiction books for children and adults.