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What does good learning look like?

Reflecting on the Success of David Hemingson ’82

By Head of School Teri Schrader

It wasn’t exactly professional development, but we were there as professionals. 

It wasn’t quite personal time, but it felt remarkably personal. 

It wasn’t loud, showy or grand, but it was a big deal. 

Late Wednesday afternoon, approximately forty or so colleagues and trustees traveled to Real Art Ways in Hartford, where our viewing of The Holdovers became our faculty meeting. We had reason to be there. In addition to being one of the hottest films in theatres around the world, its setting is a New England prep school and therefore of interest to a group of educators. It’s doubly relevant because the film was written by David Hemingson, a Watkinson alumnus of the Class of 1982. To say the experience was profound is an understatement. 

Movies about schools, like movies about childbirth, usually get it wrong. They seem incapable of resisting the urge to turn students and teachers into caricatures, making easy fun of the tender vulnerabilities of their subjects. Sitting with my colleagues watching The Holdovers was an experience of slowing everything down, the way we actually do in real life here, and re-raise the questions at the center of our teaching lives: What does it mean to teach? What does it take to create a school earnestly and truly dedicated to helping students find their way to their true selves? What can teachers do to clear the path for students to tackle challenging and meaningful work, the kind of work that not only provides structure for deep and disciplined thinking, but also asks them to find something that reaches them and draws them in to their best learning? What does it mean to strive to meet every single student where they are, and compel them to move up and out of their today selves into the selves they are meant to be? 

And what does it look like when that actually happens, little by little, day by day, and over the decades they traverse when they leave us?

It could mean that there is no better place to be than here, in classrooms that are the meeting ground where tentative answers to teachers’ questions eventually turn into lively conversations driven by increasingly confident versions of students. Where weak writing, over time, becomes stronger and clearer, backed by evidence and powered by ideas. Where our students step into their emerging selves and risk exposing who they really are and who they are becoming.

Dave Hemingson pretty much knew he wanted to write when he was a student here at Watkinson. And to this day, he holds this school close to his heart as he was challenged and nurtured here by teachers he remembers and loves to this day. 

A long time ago, when I was the newly arrived theatre director at Watkinson, a parent took me aside and asked me to honestly assess their child’s chances of ever being a successful, professional actor. I told them the truth as I knew it then and as I still believe. Someone has to get those acting roles. Someone has to be the next great poet. Someone in second or sixth or eleventh grade today is going to discover the cure our parents need, save our trees, and be exactly who they and we need. Why not your child? Dave wanted to write and he’s been writing for the past 40 plus years. Everything he has known, felt, seen, done, and imagined is at his command and discretion. Some of it is evident in The Holdovers, a film whose power is quiet, beautifully paced, heartbreaking and breathtaking all at once. Seeing it with Watkinson colleagues was layers deep. 

I hope you have a chance to see this film. In and of itself, it is layers deep.

Yes! Save me a spot.

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