Experiencing Our Teachers’ Intellectual Passions

Dear Academy Families,

I get to sit in on our wonderful Academy classes whenever I want (and even get to teach our students, in 10th grade English this year and with Senior Theses). I can affirm that the intellectual energy is palpable and exciting, from both students and teachers!

That’s one reason we began our series of Faculty Lectures in the last few years, so that other adults (like you!) could enjoy the amazing experience of our teachers’ intellectual passions. So I encourage you to try to attend one or more of the remaining three lectures in the spring semester:

Wednesday, January 15: Mr. Nick Dent
Lecture Title: “An Extreme Beginner’s Introduction to Number Theory”

Thursday, Feb. 27: Dr. Gordon Harvey
Lecture Title: “Making a Renaissance Epic: Heaven, Hell, and Chutzpah at BUA”

Monday, April 7: Dr. Sarah Dawson
Lecture Title: “Water in the Roman Republic: Sanitation, Medicine, and Murder”

Just from these titles, I think you can feel the heat rising on the page. So go to our BUA homepage online, and register for one or more of these great evenings. You can even bring your friends.

Hope to see you there!

Warm regards,
James S. Berkman
Head of School

Juggling Life as Our Students Do

December has always struck me as the most fertile month academically…meaning our students have hit their stride in fall semester and can now accomplish an incredible amount of intellectual synthesis in just a few weeks. It’s called exam period, with all the prep leading up to the actual exam week!

Teaching a section of 10th grade English students myself, I see this fertile process in my own class. My students are wrapping up an essay on Merchant of Venice, working in class on Shakespearean sonnets, and ramping up their exam review. That’s a lot to juggle, yet they do it with grace and insight…truly remarkable!

And, of course, they have four other courses to prep for exams, while Seniors also have to worry about ongoing Senior Thesis deadlines as well as college applications this month…I jokingly say it’s like having three jobs (but I do sometimes think it’s nothing to joke about).

Too much work? Too much stress? The faculty and I keep a sharp eye out with these questions in mind, and at our weekly Faculty Meeting we discuss any students who might be in distress, in order to design ways to support each one. The truth, however, is that even in this hectic and jammed month, most of our students are giggling in the halls, volunteering to give admission tours, competing in sports, putting in long hours for Robotics and other clubs…in short, overall they seem able to balance their academic work and the rest of their commitments, while still looking happy. It’s a wonderful dynamic, and few schools I know with our intellectual rigor actually achieve this balance as successfully as we do.

That said, the students will all heave a sigh of relief on December 18 when their last exam (English!) is over,  and then their teachers will sweat a bit to grade them, in time for a full-day faculty review of every student’s fall semester results on January 6 (the day before Academy classes start back up). Families will get semester grades and comments shortly thereafter.

Hard work, exam prep, exams, grading, discussion, sharing with families…between now and January, a lot happens. I wish we all can juggle life as well as our students do.

In that spirit, have a very restful, happy holiday season and a healthy New Year!

Warm regards.
James S. Berkman
Head of School

Getting the Word Out about BUA

This week the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), which is the accrediting body for BU and BUA, is holding its annual conference at the Copley Plaza. I was invited to be on a panel discussing K-16 partnerships.

The other two panelists represented the perspective from higher education: the Dean of the Lynch School of Education at Boston College, and a Director of public school partnerships from Clark University in Wooster, MA. I represented the perspective from the K-12 point of view, working with a higher education partner.

We had about 70 participants come to hear our panel on this topic (10% of those attending), about half of whom were from higher education while the second  half came from elementary and secondary schools. Clearly, there is an interest in the model we represent (and neither BC nor Clarkson are working in our model).

Interestingly, on a later panel discussing preparation for college, we had a 2013 Academy graduate speaking about her experiences at Yale and how our Academy’s hybrid high school/university curriculum prepared her well.

So, two Academy presenters got the word out about BU Academy on the same day at the NEASC conference to a wide range of our professional colleagues at colleges, universities, and independent schools. On the last day, Senator Elizabeth Warren was the breakfast speaker…but, no, I doubt she put in a plug for us!

Warm regards,
James S. Berkman
Head of School

On the Topic of Silence

I’ve been talking about silence with my students in the 10th grade English section I am teaching this year. The topic came up in two ways.

We’re doing Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice right now, in which a couple characters are ribbed by others for talking too much. Later there’s a painful speech about having a loved one nearby at one’s death, which speech ends, “…and then I care not.” This provoked a class discussion about how something so succinct could be so powerful, in contrast to the characters who ramble on comically.

The second reason we focused on silence ties into our practice of starting each class period with shared silence – a practice I learned teaching for eight years in Quaker (or Society of Friends) schools (think Sidwell Friends, where Chelsea Clinton went and the Obama girls now go, as an example of a renowned Quaker school). Quakers believe one looks for the inner light of the divine by sitting in silence, but even without such theological reasons, silent reflection can be meaningful. I had therefore at the beginning of the semester invited my class to start each period with shared silence, explaining we would review the practice periodically, and if they preferred to stop doing it, I would respect that.

We first had tried 30 seconds, and after a few weeks had grown to about two minutes. Last week, however, all my students were at our table five minutes before the period was scheduled to start, so I asked if they would like to use the time in silence, to which they readily agreed. After five minutes I broke the silence, and commended them, asking why they liked our start-of-class habit. Here are a few of the things they told me:

  • Our lives are too hectic, and it feels good to have a break.
  • Silence helps to clear our heads before class.
  • I get to think about what we read before we discuss it.
  • It relaxes me.

So while we don’t focus on the Quaker theology of using silence to tap into the  inner voice of God, these thoughtful reasons clearly show that our sophomores have a sophisticated appreciation for this counter-cultural discipline. They like to add some reflection to an otherwise hectic day. Even Shakespeare would be impressed…I certainly was!

Warm regards,
James S. Berkman
Head of School

A Choice between Two Great Options

If a “dilemma” involves a choice between two bad options, what’s its opposite called: a choice between two great options? I can’t decide whether last week’s ASM or this week’s was more exciting to share with you!

Last week, a BU Professor of Biomedical Engineering, who happens also to be a BUA mother of one graduate and one current student, spoke on the biomechanics as well as the neuroscience of hearing. Perhaps more amazingly, she came to this Halloween ASM dressed as both Glinda the Good Witch AND the Wicked Witch of the West, in a costume split down the middle, flipping characters by turning one side or the other to the audience: half white satin/lace and blond curls, half black cloth and snarled black hair. As I like to say to my own kids, a parent’s job is to embarrass our children in public, and we do our job very well!

This week, however, was exciting in a completely different way: our annual student-musical-talent-show ASM, not with our own choral group and chamber ensemble, but with individuals who have developed their musical interests. So we had eight performances, from piano to oboe to trumpet, and acoustical as well as electric guitars, ending with our Nota Bene a cappella group singing Billy Joel’s “For the Longest Time.” I can’t adequately express the wonderful vibes of our very impressive musicians…with about 10% of our student body on stage performing for our wider community.

So you decide between these two great examples…and if you come up with the right word to counter  “dilemma,” let me know. Thanks!

Warm regards,
James S. Berkman
Head of School


Faculty Lecture Series 2013-2014

We often talk about “life-long learning,” but we rarely have such a wonderful opportunity actually to engage with it. Well, here’s your chance!

The Academy has for several years run a series of Faculty Lectures, given by our own amazingly learned teachers. This year’s roster is especially varied and exciting:

  • Monday, Nov. 11: Dr. Brett Abigana, “Vox Caeli: Sacred Music of the High Italian Renaissance”
  • Wednesday, January 15: Mr. Nick Dent, “An Extreme Beginner’s Introduction to Number Theory”
  • Monday, Feb. 24: Dr. Sarah Dawson, “Water in the Roman Republic: Sanitation, Medicine, and Murder”
  • Thursday, April 10: Dr. Gordon Harvey, “Making an Elizabethan Poem”

As in past years, you can come to any single lecture ($25 each/person), or sign up for the whole series of four lectures (at a discounted price of $80/person). We also encourage you to consider bringing your student and/or a non-BUA friend who might share an interest in these topics. They start at 7 p.m., and usually run till about 8:30 or 9 p.m. Refreshments are served.

So don’t just talk about “life-long learning,” but do something about it! You’ll find yourself prodded and poked to consider provocative propositions on profound and poignant problems (how’s that for prolonged alliteration!). And here’s the final magic ingredient – no homework, tests, or quizzes!

So go online and sign up today…or if you decide to attend at the last minute, we are happy to register you the night of the lecture, too.

Warm regards,
James S. Berkman
Head of School


The Theme is “Fun!”

With the tradition of Fall Festival fast approaching on Friday, October 11 – with afternoon fun in the gym, followed by pizza for the kids, a soccer game under the lights at Nickerson Field, and the Fall Festival dance after that – we have decided to add a new component this year: a barbecue for adults (parents, graduates, friends) from 7:30 to 10 p.m. (just in time to pick up your student from the dance!). Why should the kids have all the fun!

This BBQ will accomplish many important goals. First and foremost, it will benefit our financial aid budget, which is usually addressed in a spring gala (but we are now in a mode to scale the gala back in alternate years, which would mean the spring 2014 event is not intended to earn as much as last year’s). Second, we want to celebrate and show off our new arts floor; while this BBQ won’t be an official ribbon-cutting, which will wait until Phase III is built with an elevator and entry upgrade, it will still be worth making a hoop-la over this fall. And finally, in addition to grade-level potlucks, this BBQ will provide a chance for adults from across our community to have fun together before the winter social…and fun is good!

If you haven’t caught on yet, my theme is “fun!” And as I like to say, “We aren’t doing our job well if we aren’t having fun.” So plan to have some BBQ and a good time with others on Friday night, October 11. See you there!

Warm regards,
James S. Berkman
Head of School


Last week was our first All School Meeting (ASM), and what a great way to start! We held our now-annual “Student Summer Experience” presentation, with eight volunteers ranging across the four grades. Not only was the range of topics remarkable, but the poise and public-speaking displayed were show-stoppers!

The experiences were accessible to any student thinking of future options, as even the foreign travel examples were often done with community backing: volunteering for the local Food Project to work the farm and the co-op; going with a church mission to Kenya for three weeks, including running a medical clinic for three days that served 1,000 people; working at a local foundry, learning to weld and make bronze castings, in exchange for heavy labor (and this by a freshman girl); interning for a high tech company, de-bugging pilot apps; taking photos of our national parks and wildlife; engaging with community service in India; playing badminton for the American team at the Israeli Olympics; and teaching English to children in rural China.

The lessons learned were many, including a better understanding of other cultures; the realities of poverty (when all six children in one Kenyan family had maladies, or an Indian family had no communal garbage collection and so dumped their garbage daily out the back window); the value of social justice; the value of hard work; and the beauty of nature.

The Academy buzzed after this ASM with echoes of thoughts and reactions provoked by our articulate student presenters. I was proud of them all, and see this as a new “tradition” we can look forward to enjoying each fall. Go, BUA!

Warm regards,
James S. Berkman
Head of School

In the Chute

The fall semester is really and truly underway now! We’ve already experienced “Back to School Night” (I hope you were able to join us, and found it informative), our first sports competitions, and the start of clubs and activities. Most important, our students are now past “summer reading” and digging deeper into each of their subjects… the intellectual energy in the building could power New York City!

As we are now “in the chute,” I’d like to remind you that mid-term grades and comments come out in the second half of October – which is ample time to take stock and plan strategies for any student not having had a good start. Also, our first admission Open House is Sunday afternoon, October 6, which is on the early end and almost upon us; current students and parents are an important part of our ability to share meaningful insights into our programs with prospective families.

This perfect fall weather — crisp and bright — won’t last long, just as the start of school is fast merging into the work of the academic year. So let’s enjoy these seasonal and cyclical moments fully, as they are fleeting; truly, “time flies when you’re having fun” — and if we aren’t having fun, we aren’t doing our jobs right!

Warm regards,
James S. Berkman
Head of School

Happy 20th Birthday, Arcadia

Last week I wrote on science and math education; this week I’ll link science and math to Romantic poetry, gardens, Latin verse, love, sex and Time! Or, perhaps more accurately, I’ll reflect on how Tom Stoppard does just that in Arcadia, our all-school summer reading selection being discussed this week.

I want to encourage you to read Brad Leithauser’s recent article in The New Yorker: “Tom Stoppard’s ‘Arcadia’ at Twenty” (August 9, 2013; http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2013/08/tom-stoppards-arcadia-at-twenty.html).  For those of you who don’t know the play, his article gives a lovely overview, allowing you to discuss the play with your student at dinner. Leithauser also states that “I feel irrationally, impossibly confident that ‘Arcadia’ is the finest play written in my lifetime.” (while he acknowledges that plays such as “Waiting for Godot,” “Pygmalion,” and “The Importance of Being Ernest” are also great plays, just written before he was born). I whole-heartedly agree, taking it one step further:  I believe Arcadia is the seminal play of the 20th century!

Why do I say that? Not only does Stoppard weave science (the second law of thermodynamics), math (the main character is a math prodigy), Romantic poetry (Lord Byron figures in the plot), gardens (from an Enlightenment to a Romantic sensibility), and Latin verse (and the tutor is named Septimus) into a swirl of witty phrases, double entendres, and complex overlaps that elucidate the meaning of Time…as if all this weaving isn’t enough to justify my claim, Stoppard also has achieved a dramatic tension using “stage business” that is unprecedented.

There are two time casts (one contemporary to our day and the other one living in 1809-1812), with each cast occupying the same gracious room at a country estate, Sidley Park, in alternating scenes. First we see the early 19th century reality of what happened, and then we hear the 21st century assumptions and interpretations of what they think happened…with only the audience alert to the remarkable mix of prescient insights with abysmal presumptions.  Props never leave the set, so a book or apple handled by Thomasina in 1809 might in the next scene be handled by a character in our day. Most astonishing, however, is the moment when the two casts suddenly merge on stage, both groups appearing simultaneously together in the final scene, blind to each other’s existence but sometimes turning the pages of the same book in sync, separated by 200 years. The stage trick that actually merges the two casts is one of the highlights of modern drama, I believe, and takes my breath away each time I see it.

While most of our students had to read this play without the benefit of seeing it performed first (an especially tough task given the importance of the stage business I just described), we are blessed to have eight student volunteers doing a dramatic reading of two scenes the day before we all have group discussions of the play. Talk about type casting! A BUA student can really identify with this play.

So happy 20th birthday, Arcadia. May your complex mix of comedy and tragedy elevate the Academy’s appreciation for a humanistic education!

Warm regards,
James S. Berkman
Head of School