Optimistic Resilience in Gaming

Before I begin, let me announce that BU President Bob Brown — with regrets — has had to reschedule our February 19th BUA community evening. An unavoidable conflict has just arisen, so we will let you know when he can be with us in the future.

Last week I heard a speaker on…wait for it…video games! Her thesis revolved around what educators can learn from these games.

Did you know that the average “failure rate” on a video game (think of your avatar being killed — again and again) is 82%? And yet kids go back undiscouraged — again and again — to try to make it to the next level. How many of our students would be so optimistic if they failed a Math or English test 8 out of 10 attempts? Wouldn’t they just say they aren’t good at it, and give up?

What accounts for such optimistic resilience in gaming, and how can we tap into it in academics? The speaker suggested that games have a “noble purpose” (save that princess, kill that evil emperor), which day-to-day school work seems to lack on the surface. With this in mind, do we do enough to expose our students to higher principles and to show them the real-world benefits inherent in our subjects? In addition, gamers know that any failure can be a learning opportunity (watch out for that hidden booby trap next time), while in school a bad test seems over and done, not a way to do better in future. So how can we bring to learning that same sense of experimentation and growth, rather than an “all or nothing” despair?

I could go on, but you get the gist of the thesis. At the Academy, I believe we have a culture that does indeed capture much of what good video games provide, and that our students bring to their studies a real sense of adventure and enthusiasm. Much of this is due to our superb teachers, who have their own high sense of noble purpose and love of their subjects. Maybe we should dress our faculty in long robes with tall pointed hats to give them more of that wizardly look as mentors of the young…well, maybe not.

Warm regards,
James S. Berkman
Head of School

BU President Meeting with BUA Community

As our mission is to be a full-service high school embedded in a major research university, I have two exciting announcements to share about our University connections.

First, as most of you have already received an invitation, BU President Bob Brown will join members of the Academy community – parents and faculty – for an evening forum on Wednesday, February 19. Coffee will be served at 7:45 p.m. in the new Drama Room (former Dance Studio on the third floor above Sargent Gym); then President Brown will share some insights on BU at 8 p.m., followed by Q&A to 9 p.m. I hope you can join us for this exciting talk with President Brown; please RSVP on the electronic invitation to help us anticipate numbers.

Second, and also connected to the third floor spaces above Sargent Gym, the Provost has just this week given final approval to the third phase of our construction project: the elevator to that arts floor. This was always a significant component of our original design to be able to use the new Drama Room for regular public events and performances, such as admissions events and plays, as this floor is otherwise not yet ADA accessible. Some of you might recall that we had first planned an exterior (and striking) atrium in the corner of the parking lot, but due to budget constraints, we last year scaled the plans back to install the elevator in the corner of the gym. We now have the “green light” to order the parts and to do the installation this summer. Yippee! The only final phase of this construction project still to be pinned down remains upgrading the parking lot doorway to our lobby…so stay tuned!

There are many reasons to be excited about these two University announcements: first, it shows that the top administrators of BU know, support, and value the Academy’s hopes and dreams (as formulated in our strategic goals). Second, the successful completion of the arts floor renovations, growing out of our former Strategic Plan and first-ever capital campaign, positions us for positive momentum as we move into our current Strategic Plan and upcoming second capital campaign supporting its goals – two key ones being to support faculty and financial aid. So I repeat — stay tuned!

Warm regards,
James S. Berkman
Head of School

Deciding Snow Days

Snow days….can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em!

It’s one of the worst duties a Head of School can have, balancing the need to protect class time with the need to keep the safety of our students front-&-center (the latter always wins). Most often, announcing a decision the night before seems considerate of families needing to plan for the following morning, while also opening up the high risk of making the wrong call. Once at my former school, a horrible blizzard was forecast for 6 a.m., so I announced “Snow Day” the evening before…only to have the storm not arrive till 6 p.m. (on a Friday night). The next week in school, a first grader asked me, “Mr. Berkman, do you live underground?” “Why do you ask, Andrew?” “Because you called a snow day…,”  he began, to which I finished his sentence:“…and there was no snow!”

Why do we care not to miss school? Clearly, at the Academy we cover a lot of material in relatively little time, so every day counts. That said, it is tougher to stay open if a third or a half of our students come from commutes that are unsafe or they can’t get to school at all – easier to push a lesson back for everyone by one day (or cut it out completely) than to have to make-up that lesson for a sizeable chunk of the class.

Obviously, we hope every family makes its own decision about safety when conditions vary around the city, as our Closing Procedures (sent out in the fall and available online in the Parent Resources page) instruct. We are most happy to honor a late or absent student who stayed home because local conditions so warranted, in the same spirit that we are happy to help a student who was out sick make up any missed work.

In this week’s case, though BUA closed a few hours ahead of BU’s decision for a delayed 11 a.m. opening, that latter university action would have forced a BUA decision anyway….and opening BUA at 11 a.m. for only lunch and two class periods would likely have made it more prudent for us to close for the full day. Again, having some class sections meet while others missed that day could have created havoc for students and teachers alike.

So I am pleased we closed, and most folks seem to think the day “off” was productive as well as restful. That certainly was my personal take on it, and I hope it worked that way for all of you.  Keep this “right” decision in mind, please, so next time I have to make a “Snow Day” call, if you don’t agree with it, I have some credit in the bank. I always have said that these decisions leave half a community happy and half upset – and that the two halves often live under the same roof!

Warm regards,
James S. Berkman
Head of School

The Role of Teaching History & Civic Values

I had the privilege this week to attend a conference focusing on MLK Jr. Day and the role of teaching history/civic values in a k-12 education. The event, hosted by an organization run by an Academy parent, included an extraordinary group of “blue chip” speakers: two Pulitzer Prize winning authors known for their works on Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights movement; a MacCarthur “genius award” winner who was a close colleague of MLK; a Tufts professor…you get the gist.

Crucial to the debate was the statistical reality that each generation of high school graduates knows less and less about American history. Why that is – and what we might do about it – occupied the core of the conversation. The results of less time on task and a breaking away from the “dead white male” political/economic canon – in favor of an evolving lens on race, gender and social issue – all reduce both the critical thinking skills necessary to analyze key core documents as well as the civic habits needed to maintain our democratic culture. More often the goals of education are becoming viewed as necessary for individual financial success and national economic health, and less as fundamental to maintaining the values of our culture found in a deeper understanding of our heritage.

One speaker shared his experiences trying to get illiterate black sharecroppers registered to vote in the Mississippi of the early 1960’s: when taking such aspiring voters to register one day, the driver of his car was shot in the neck by a passing vigilante, and the car crashed.  His point in sharing this vignette was that our most accomplished national achievements (such as the Civil Rights Act of 1965) resulted from a dark and troubling process, and that our history classes fail to paint that fuller picture.

Clearly, I found this conference provocative, and so I shared some of my reflections on it with our students at this week’s ASM. I suggested that during this three-day holiday weekend honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (who is truly one of our greatest national heroes, despite his own dark and troubling issues behind many of his significant accomplishments), our students remember that education is not just to position themselves individually for a successful career, but in addition – and more importantly — to make them worthy citizens ready to sacrifice for the common good, as they inherit a nation with a noble but dark past, and a future in jeopardy if they forget the lessons to be learned from our history. At the Academy, it feels like our kids “get” this basic lesson.

Warm regards,
James S. Berkman
Head of School

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