An Independent School • Grades 5-12

by Sue Belcher, head of school of The Downtown School

I recently had the opportunity to spend a week with fifty independent school leaders as part of the NAIS Fellowship for Aspiring School Heads. During the week, our cohort worked with a highly-respected group of current heads, learning about many aspects of leading an independent school.

One of my key takeaways was the importance of identity development. For a person to do their best work, they must feel able to be their authentic self; the unique aspects of a person's identity are strengths they bring to their work. This is true for students, teachers, and heads of school.

This was particularly exciting to me, because identity development plays an important role in The Downtown School's grade-level themes. Each year, students will have a theme that will be woven into all curricular content. The school year will start with a three-week interdisciplinary intensive class related the theme. Here's the themes:

Grade 9 – Identity and Learning

Grade 10 – Networks and Complexity

Grade 11 – Leadership and Decision-Making

Grade 12 – Change: Creation and Navigation

Here's a sneak peek of how 9th graders will explore the theme of Identity and Learning through a variety of disciplinary lenses, asking questions like: Who am I? What aspects create an identity? How do others see me, and does my identity affect the world around me?

Students will start the year with a three-week intensive, How Do I Learn?, during which they'll examine the latest research about how our brains work, with a special emphasis on the adolescent brain. They will explore current theories in disciplines such as neuroscience and psychology while working with citywide partners to gain a broad view of learning. They'll explore questions like:

  • What does it mean to learn?
  • How does learning differ from person to person?
  • What are some common myths about the brain and learning?
  • How do I learn, and how does the way I learn change?
  • What do you do when you encounter something challenging, that is not easy to learn?

At the end of the intensive, students will shift their focus to themselves as learners, starting a learning portfolio that they will use and expand upon throughout the next four years. They'll also move into their first semester with some shared core concepts, including a basic understanding of the neuroscience of learning; connections between learning, thinking, memory, and problem-solving; and the necessary role of failure in learning.

Students will continue to investigate Identity and Learning throughout the year. They will read and write about identity through "coming of age" stories in their English class. In World History, they'll study how the definition of citizenship has evolved over time. They learn Spanish through a focus on what defines them at this moment in time, including family, friendships, school life, and youth culture. Biology and math will continue the focus on learning and identity by developing students' capacity to see themselves as scientists and mathematicians.

Finally, an end-of-year intensive on wellness will invite students to continue learning about themselves in terms of physical, personal, and social development.

We're currently putting the finishing touches on our curriculum guide, which we'll share when our website launches next month. Stay tuned! And keep in touch with The Downtown School on our new Facebook page and Twitter feed.