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Sparhawk High School Statement of Philosophy

Louise Stilphen, Founder & Headmaster

We believe that students of all ages are endowed, by nature, with enthusiasm for learning that can be cultivated, or even renewed, in our emotionally supportive, resource-rich, and creative environment. It is Sparhawk’s mission to manifest this potential.

We happily acknowledge that every person in our school has something to teach as well as to learn; therefore, we encourage a variety of social learning formats. We assume that students, as well as teachers, can meaningfully contribute to their world by raising questions, providing factual information, teaching skills to others, and generally offering insights. We listen carefully to students' ideas, and in turn, they willingly learn from us. Students and teachers also, at times, enjoy a peer relationship in studying or discovering things new to each.  Most significantly though, we honor and celebrate the notion that students can, with support and preparation, successfully teach themselves. This is, after all, the paramount goal of education. Knowledge is infinite. Students must learn HOW to learn.

We value both formal and informal learning and teaching styles, and group and tutorial approaches; and within each, students are encouraged to actively participate, that is to engage in the learning process rather than act as passive recipients. Within each curriculum experience, there is not only opportunity for students to acquire knowledge directly from teachers and other traditional resources, but, the requirement that, within clear criteria designed to ensure focused outcomes, students make choices about means to those ends that best suit their needs and interests.

For some students, this step takes time and guidance; but it is one of our principal values; and it is critical to successes at Sparhawk and beyond. Furthermore, it is our belief that self-initiated learning enables a student to study with the most enthusiasm and commitment, leading to a more enduring interest and grasp of a subject than can be externally assigned. The level of mastery achieved when a student is self-motivated, as well as the degree of retention, can be powerful.

The ability to engage in self-initiated study, with the sustained effort necessary for success, varies from student to student. Certainly, by adolescence most children are developmentally prepared; but as with any complex skill-set, guidance as well as opportunities to practice are essential. These are integral to our curriculum design and, in general, to life at school.

Academic guidance toward this goal consists of help in understanding the journey ahead, discussion about the first steps to take, and the development of mutually respectful collaborations with adults and peers wherein reflection safely occurs, and incremental achievement is celebrated. Of course, the words used above to describe academic guidance also apply to emotional guidance. Here too, students need to understand that growth is incremental, one small step after another; they need to know where to be gin; they need questions answered; and they must have effort and success acknowledged.

What differentiates Sparhawk School’s curriculum from that of many other schools is its emphasis on a balance between what we call “academic” curriculum and “intellectual” curriculum. As students learn the mechanics of reading, writing, and mathematics, for example, they are acquiring what are called academic skills; and when they are taught new information in a specific subject area and memorize facts, they are increasing their academic knowledge base. This is the style of instruction traditionally associated with schooling. There is, however, another aspect of learning that is less widely understood and fostered, although, ultimately, it is more important. We call this component “intellectual activity”, for it is based in experiences that exercise a student’s evolving ability to think. Intellectual activity is the hallmark of our purpose.

Rather than defining the intellect of a student according to the static and finite concept of aptitude, and setting our expectations by that, at Sparhawk School we set in motion experiences that allow both fledgling abilities and areas of strength to flourish – to grow. Our students are challenged to apply their knowledge, skills, and talents. As clay is not a sculpture until the artist acts upon it, students must construct meaning from what they receive in order to contour their understanding. Habits of mind are thereby cultivated, and this optimizes nature’s gift.

To innovate in this manner demands more than just the appropriation of skills and facts. Students must learn to be aware of the latent connections and potential applications that can be gleaned from their knowledge and experience. This awareness provides structure, context, and meaning for the information accumulated. Also, students must learn to invest their intellectual energy based on their intrinsic needs and goals. The resulting success provides the fuel for persisting through the challenges that intellectual activity promises. Equipped with awareness and motivation, students can experience joy and effort as one. The fruits of intellectual activity are as diverse and profound as the individuals who harvest them.

Our high school curriculum reflects these priorities. Curriculum designed to encourage intellectual engagement in students taps their innate curiosity – the natural interests of human beings of any age. We describe these challenges as open-ended or extensional, because they have inherent qualities for change and reconfiguration. They can be used in many forms and in many ways, are challenging at all levels of experience and knowledge, and invite each student’s individual stamp of creation.

In order to provide extensional learning experiences, Sparhawk does not limit learning to the confines of traditional academic disciplines. Much of our curriculum is necessarily interdisciplinary, drawing deeply from an array of scholarly domains and highlighting the ways in which these domains interact. Because the scope of content in any area of study is limitless, our Humanities Themes provide frames of reference for the integration of vast amounts of knowledge and for cross-domain insights necessary for effective consideration of mighty ideas. Consider the theme as a canvas, Knowledge as the palette of paints, and skills as the brushes. These are the essential elements of a painting, yet they are only activated and brought to life by the inspiration of the artist. At Sparhawk, it is our intention to nurture that inspiration in every student.

The intellectual calling of the adolescent is to practice and hone higher-thinking skills to bolster their burgeoning metacognition. From forming inferences, to discriminating among ideas, to making choices grounded in evidence, to acknowledging their own subjectivity, high school students need to weave their own tapestry of understanding, integrating the fabrics of their own ideas with those of peers and teachers, and also with the diverse theoretical material of the great innovators, experts, humanitarians, artists, and visionaries of our global culture.

Adolescents require the freedom to venture independently into the seas of possibility that exist for them. They also need a safe harbor to which they may return for confirmation, celebration, and reassuring support. Sparhawk is such an intellectual and emotional haven. Here there is a beacon community ready to guide and share in the complex journey to adulthood.

© 2012 Sparhawk School | Lower School | 259 Elm St | Amesbury, MA 01913 | 978 388 5354 | Middle & High School | 4 Noel St. | Amesbury, MA 01913
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