Catching the Train

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Steve Wilkins, Head of School Blog


Gec Washman - Carroll’s mythological guru whose name is a loose acronym for “give each child what she or he most needs” - inspires our thinking about how to educate children. In this edition, Gec extends the notion of what it means to give each child what she or he most needs.

Mythology can serve us with explanations of the unimaginable, such as creation stories of how the earth formed. For the Carroll School community, our mythology helps give us a shorthand for our lofty, unique, and complex goals for each child. In this episode of the Life and Times of Gec Washman we develop another mythology, this time it is about “Catching the Train.” 

One of Carroll’s most senior and revered alumni, David Arrow ‘79, recently commented that he used to think that education was a train that he was supposed to catch up to and jump onto. If he could run fast enough, he might be able to jump onto the train. Carroll helped him realize that “I am the train” and teachers need to learn how to catch up to me.

The image David paints is profound. Typical trains follow tracks that have been spiked to the ground well in advance. They cannot divert from the tracks without peril. They follow preprinted schedules of arrival and departure times. They are designed for mass appeal and convenience.

Could Carroll Be the Uber or Lyft of Schools?

Maybe we should think of Carroll as more of an Uber or Lyft service that is customized. Based on the needs of the traveler, these on-demand transportation services provide what is necessary for each individual.

In stark contrast to traditional schools, whose train is a prescribed curriculum defines what teachers deliver to children each day, Carroll’s engine is the child. We have 419 versions of one detailed learning profile called “language based learning difficulties.” This requires 419 unique programs at Carroll. This is an unthinkable complexity for most schools. For Carroll, it is our daily reality and firm commitment.

What Makes Carroll Successful for Students with Dyslexia?

Carroll children have itineraries designed solely to address their personal needs. The process by which we structure a child’s day is intricate. A student’s profile -- personality, interests, age, gender, and approach to learning -- form a homeroom group. Then, students are regrouped according to their English language arts skill levels for their double language class experience. Next, a student’s greatest needs are addressed in a focus block that is small group or tutorial. The focus block is the most specific example of how education can be tailored specifically and solely on what a child most needs.

Groupings that make sense of language arts do not necessarily make sense for learning mathematics. So, Carroll shuffles the deck again to create math classes that meet a child’s needs most directly. During flex block we work on developing the underlying cognitive skills that will better support learning. And we make certain that a child’s day also includes classes and activities directly designed at her or his strengths and passions.  

The skillset of the person driving the Lyft or Uber is all important in taking the student to the desired destination. The metaphor may fall apart at this point because I am not convinced that Uber drivers are highly trained. But Carroll teachers and tutors are. Our educators are trained to a higher level than typical teachers, because they have to be. They need to succeed where others have not. Our students’ previous teachers were undoubtedly caring and committed, but in most cases they lacked the skillset necessary to deliver what our students most need.

Nevertheless, the mythology that “each child is a train that teachers need to catch up to” is a viable image. Every teacher/tutor needs to understand each student’s departure and arrival schedule, where the child is currently located in terms of skill development, and what fuels the child’s learning progress.

Brown University in Providence RI also has a mythical character who represents some of the core personality of an educational institution. Dr. Josiah Carberry is a fictional professor in the psychoceramics department (focused on crack pots). Carberry’s lore adds humor and personality to the Brown community.

For Carroll, Gec Washman, yet to receive a doctorate, is anything but a crackpot. Gec (gender unknown) gives Carroll a shorthand for describing our mission to look at each child’s needs before making any class placement, curricular, lesson plan, or peer grouping decisions. Gec reminds us constantly that our mission is to give each child what she or he most needs. 

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