In a week that saw a morning meeting with the Agency of Education on Monday and late starts on Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, I only got the chance to speak in Chapel once this week, and that was in South Church Hall to the Class of 2022 on Wednesday. That morning, I presented to our newest students about all of the opportunities that stood before them as they charted their course toward graduation. In reflecting on all of those opportunities, I was a bit overwhelmed myself; I can’t imagine what it must have been like trying to take in all of the exciting options being presented.
I started out explaining that the courses I was describing were largely just the newest electives being offered by the various departments. I told them that there were many that I was not presenting in the interest of time but that every department had opportunities to learn how to create, to design, to innovate, and to produce high-quality, professional-level products for real audiences or clients. I began with just listing some of the courses open to them in our Career and Technical Education department: introductory courses in natural resources management, woodworking, electricity, construction, business, culinary arts, automotive technology, and welding. I stressed to them that many of these courses and the ones I would talk about later are courses that adults choose to take later in life at a cost. I pointed out that they were being given a chance to experiment, to explore, and to find a passion during these teenage years. And then I launched into the rest of the presentation.
In English, I highlighted the courses in creative writing, media studies, public speaking, and college writing, all of which had real audiences beyond the classroom. In Science, I highlighted astronomy, which uses the Peacham Observatory to do real research and astrophotography, and the Field Semester, which uses the Dussault Environmental Center as its Field Campus during the first semester as a school within a school. The Field Semester program enables students to earn credits in natural resource management, technical communications, and environmental science as they spend their whole day off campus learning about and conducting real work in the field and learning about the ecological, social, and economic aspects of land management in northeastern Vermont. I paused here to highlight that students in this program not only create mountain bike trails, build solar fields, and grow vegetables for our Hilltopper Restaurant from the greenhouse, but this year they also worked with the local food network to harvest berries and turn them into a marketable product: Hilltop Harvest Wild Harvest Blackberry Syrup. Though this program is focused on juniors and seniors, I wanted the freshmen to know about this unique opportunity as they designed their future.
Further combining science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, I described our robotics program, our introduction to design course, and our game design course, all of which allow students to create and innovate in fields that are growing in the contemporary marketplace, creating and improving products that make our lives better. I also highlighted a new course which, like the Field Semester, will be a school-within-a-school experience. The SJA Makers program will allow students to investigate firsthand the design, communication, and cultural implications of cutting-edge technologies such as virtual reality and 3D design. Also like the Field Semester, this program will allow students to immerse themselves in an intensive program, earning credits in physics, computer science, engineering, and media studies.
I then explained that we had established a new department in computer science and that students could enter that curriculum either through an introduction to computer science course or through a Java programming course, depending on their skill level and future goals. Moving to Social Studies, I highlighted a new elective in Vermont history as well as last year’s new electives in modern East Asia and economics and public policy. In languages, I highlighted that we offered experiences in both modern and classical languages, as well as both western and eastern cultures. In Health, I highlighted the new Health II course that helped upperclassmen develop further understanding of healthy relationships, mature decision-making, healthy nutrition and fitness, and prudent financial management.
Finally, I highlighted our extensive offerings in the arts. Beyond our new offerings in art history and our relatively new offerings of ballet and dance for athletes, I mentioned a few other programs that other schools do not offer: Intaglio printmaking, fashion design, and filmmaking, for example. However, my main point here was that each member of our art faculty—whether in 2D, 3D, visual or performing arts—is a professional artist in his or her own right, often winning awards, recognition, or honors around the country and even internationally. I returned to my exploration theme again, highlighting that many adults take art classes only later in life, having to pay for the opportunities being offered to our students at a time when they are able to experiment and try out new experiences.
At the end of my presentation, I could see a variety of emotions in the audience: excitement, nervousness, and an overwhelmed daze. In trying to empathize with what it must have been like to hear all of those choices laid out in 10 minutes, I came upon a word that is often overused to describe something that is really good: awesome. Without a doubt, the opportunities that we offer our students are awesome in that sense, but they are also awesome in a much more precise way. They inspire a combination of excitement and fear as students face the prospect of having so many excellent choices in a comprehensive curriculum. Thankfully, they have a network of guides—parents, counselors, advisors, and teachers—to help them chart their paths. And I am even more thankful for the faculty members and educational community that has helped make so many awesome opportunities available to our students.