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Mastery of Mistakes

Written by Kimberly Banti.

A sophomore pauses at a fork in paths on a trail in Olympic National Park. Assigned as the group navigator by chaperone Stephanie Glenn, Upper School Japanese teacher, the student has studied the map and been in charge of leading her group along their route to their next campsite. While it may be easier for Ms. Glenn to say, “go left,” at the student’s hesitation, instead she says, “I will follow my navigator wherever she leads.”

Such an approach to teaching—both inside and outside of the classroom—encourages students to enter the “growth zone,” which Upper School Director Catherine Ezzo described as the area in which students “move from their place of comfort into a place of challenge and growth without extending them to the point where they are so stressed and overwhelmed that they no longer feel successful.” The above Outdoor Ed example is one Upper School Assistant Director Laurel Webster cited as evidence of this core value of the division’s program. “Rather than spoon-feeding students all the ‘answers,’ Upper School faculty create experiences for students to work toward their own understanding,” said Ms. Webster, who also teaches math. “Students are asked to struggle with difficult and nuanced questions, work as a team, examine authentic problems, and interact with experts in the field. Students are empowered in ways they may never have been before, and although there are real-world consequences to mistakes, they are given space to make them and then asked, ‘What now?’”

Navigating the future with confidence is a tenet of the new CWA mission statement, and the Upper School program incorporates calculated and purposeful stepping stones upon which students can increasingly expand their opportunities to explore, attempt, question—and, yes, fail. From gradually building in free time throughout freshman year to expanding curriculum options sophomore year to off-campus privileges junior year to internships senior year, Upper School Tarriers have a safe space to grow, try, make mistakes, and learn in developmentally appropriate ways. “With this very intentional structure, our students learn over time how to manage themselves, their course load, and their free time with confidence,” said Dean of Students and Upper School Spanish teacher Annie Senner. “It gives them a chance to make mistakes and learn from them while in our care prior to heading off to college or whatever path they choose. Research shows—and we all know—that failure is often the best teacher. We understand this principle wholeheartedly here in the Upper School, and when students find themselves in my office because they have made a mistake, we treat it first and foremost as a learning opportunity. Often the difficult lessons learned through the hard work of overcoming a mistake and making things right change the course of a student’s life and help them better navigate the future.”

The Upper School program’s approach to academic, artistic, and athletic endeavors is predicated upon the belief that learning happens everywhere. “Learning happens in the history classroom, in common spaces, during assembly, when you’re preparing to perform a piece, or when you are losing gracefully on the football field,” Ms. Ezzo said. “Students at CWA will have a chance to experience all of these things, because we don’t want to cultivate students who are experts in only one area. We want them to have a broad range of experience in each of these areas, and then they can learn to identify multiple passions and interests and not feel like they only have one thing to be locked into.”

At the same time, Upper Schoolers need to learn how to balance the pursuit of these passions with the knowledge that one cannot do it all. “Navigating the future successfully with confidence means you cannot do everything—you have to make selective choices, and you’re beginning to seek council from adults rather than asking them to tell you what to do,” Ms. Ezzo said. “What we also want in our program is for students to be able to change direction or take on a new passion and leave another one behind simply because they’re changing as human beings and finding out new things about themselves.”

The school’s culture of curiosity and exploration creates a firm foundation on which to stand and fall back when necessary. “We would like all CWA graduates to leave our school with experiences that have taught them that it is okay to stumble and then regroup, that the shortest distance between two points may be a straight line but that the twisting path may be the preferred way to go, that there can be wonder in the unexpected, and that very little is simple or straightforward in our world,” Ms. Webster said. “We do not know what the future holds for our students, and neither do they. Our goal is for our graduates to be flexible and nimble in their approach to life and its challenges.”

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