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Harley: Where teachers avoid a one-size-fits-all approach

Faculty free to tailor courses, experiences to meet students’ interests

Edna Deutsch working with Van Fisher in 1986, demonstrating Harley’s emphasis on learning technology skills for the future. (Photo courtesy of the Harley School)

Edna Deutsch working with Van Fisher in 1986, demonstrating Harley’s emphasis on learning technology skills for the future. (Photo courtesy of the Harley School)

Daniel O’Brien was a trial attorney before making his way to the Harley School as a middle school math teacher. He went through law school and worked at big law firms. Still, he said, the brightest people he knows are his colleagues at Harley.

“Some of the smartest and most interesting people are on the faculty here,” said the 14-year veteran of the Brighton college prep school. “That is our strength, having teachers who are professional and are passionate about what they are teaching. It’s not just a job for people here, it’s a passion for them.”

O’Brien said the job is fun and rewarding because the faculty is interesting and teachers are given complete freedom to develop their curriculum the way they see fit.

For Betsy Vinton, an Upper School math and science teacher, that meant designing an honors biology course so that students could better prepare themselves for a more advanced science background. Harley gave her the freedom to do that.

“My ultimate degree was in chemistry, but I had a lot of biology in my background,” Vinton said. “Harley didn’t say, ‘You really ought to stay in math.’ They saw that I had a passion for biology and wanted to develop this course.”

Middle School history teacher and former student Douglas Gilbert said Harley’s uniqueness can be felt in its culture.

“This is not a random collection of people doing stuff,” the 18-year Harley veteran said. “The way I would describe the culture is it’s a culture of thoughtfulness and kindness. I see those values all over the place, all the time.”

Students enjoy learning, Gilbert added. He does not have to work too hard to get his classroom down to business.

“Harley’s population is not your typical population. These are parents that are putting out huge efforts and making big sacrifices to put their kids in a very expensive school. So these are parents that are invested,” Gilbert said. “We get kids who show up who have been raised well, and that includes a sense of focus and curiosity, ability and willingness to learn new things.”

That makes his, and his fellow faculty members’, jobs that much easier.

Upper School math instructor James Aldrich-Moody said one thing he values at Harley is that the school is small enough to be responsive to individual situations.

“So if there’s something that needs to be done slightly differently for a particular kid, it’s possible to do it without getting caught up in an awful lot of bureaucracy,” Aldrich-Moody said.

His colleagues are keen on finding ways to reach out to students and inspire their curiosity, he added.

“That makes it a fun place to work,” Aldrich-Moody said. “People are able to experiment, to try different things, see what works well. There are lots of chances to try things out and I think that must also be good for the students.”

To that end, Harley allows its students to have a lot of say in the specific courses they take. Rather than being presented with a menu of what courses meet and when, students are encouraged to tell the faculty what courses they are interested in and then a schedule is made up that satisfies as many students as possible.

“And if that doesn’t work out, oftentimes faculty members will do things like an independent study for a kid who’s really passionate about something and there isn’t a way to make it fit,” Aldrich-Moody explained. “(There is) an awful lot of effort to make sure the students can do as much as they’d like.”

Another way in which the faculty and administration at Harley differentiate the school also involves its offerings. While many schools in the region send their juniors and seniors on trips to Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, Harley takes field-tripping one step further.

When Gilbert was a student at Harley, his physical education teacher gathered some tents and took a bunch of kids into the woods for an outdoor adventure, something many of the children had never done. That has morphed through the years into something a little more institutionalized, he said.

“We go to a place in the Adirondacks with the eighth-graders,” Gilbert explained. “It’s a pretty high-end outdoor adventure camp. But in the fall and spring they’re an outdoor ed center for schools. They’ve got a staff there that puts you through a whole series of really great activities, team-building activities that are heavy on the physical and outdoor.”

Seventh-graders also have an outdoor educational adventure. A deliberately old-style farm near Poughkeepsie, Dutchess County, run by nuns opens its doors so that Harley students and others can learn the ins and outs of farming.

“They do the chores of the farm: They muck out the stalls, the kids change the bedding in the chicken coops, they gather the eggs, they harvest the vegetables that we will eat for dinner that night, and most importantly, they milk the cows,” Gilbert said.

Equally important to Harley’s unique field trips and class offerings is its encouragement of independent thinking and giving back to the community. Some of Vinton’s students wanted to fund and build a Habitat for Humanity house, a project that might have raised eyebrows elsewhere.

“This was a student-led, student-driven project,” Vinton recalled. “At the time I was an adviser to a volunteer club. We kind of guided the students, helped with the organization, but it eventually snowballed and became a school-wide project.”

While the project originated with juniors or seniors, Lower School students wanted to get involved, Vinton said.

“So you had nursery school kids that were baking cookies for the volunteers that were onsite. The Lower School does a pageant and the theme of the pageant was based around building a home,” she said. “We had fundraisers the morning of the pageant so the Lower School parents got involved.”

The experience was an overwhelming success, Vinton said, because it gave back to the community while educating the entire school on volunteerism. And it was the result of a faculty and administrative staff that is willing to go the extra mile for its students.

“A student can come up with an idea and they really have the room to run with it,” Vinton added.

vspicer@bridgetowermedia.com / 585-653-4021

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