Experiential Learning

I had the opportunity to speak to many of Jackson’s civic clubs during January and February. I talked about all of the things we have going on at USJ and briefed them on our strategic plan and my vision for the future. During each visit, I mentioned we are committed to using research to help us with teaching strategies to meet the needs of all students. One of the approaches I mentioned was experiential learning. Invariably, there was always a question about what experiential teaching and learning meant.

We have examples of experiential teaching and learning throughout USJ. In fact, this morning, I wandered into an 8th-grade science class in which Megan Thornton had students building roller coasters then using marbles to measure kinetic energy and velocity. Eventually, they will also do a sales pitch to their classmates on why their roller coaster was the safest and should be selected for a theme park. I witnessed students who were moving around their classroom, building, testing and measuring, totally engaged in the learning process.

It would have been easier for Mrs. Thornton to lecture the class on how they measure kinetic energy. She could have easily written KE = 0.5 x mv2 on the board, then given the class a few word problems to figure an answer. Instead, she purchased materials, designed a lesson and a method of assessment, divided students into teams who then proceeded to turn her classroom into a messy lab designing and building roller coasters. As I walked around, every student I spoke with could tell me exactly what they were doing and why.

Have you ever looked back on your days in school? Do you remember a lecture or a particular lesson? Try it sometime. I remember a project in 4th grade where we had to design and build a bridge out of popsicle sticks. Eventually, each bridge was given weight until it ultimately broke. I am happy to report my bridge was able to hold the most weight, a feat that I am sure many of my classmates remember 42 years later! I cannot recall one lecture. Pretty sad, I know. However, recent studies suggest humans have an attention span of eight seconds (it was 12 seconds before the digital revolution). We were not designed to “sit and get;” we need to incorporate other methods of teaching that will impact learning in a positive way.

The 8th-grade science class I witnessed will no doubt remember this lesson for many years to come. More importantly, they will remember how to measure kinetic energy because they used their hands and heads to experience it!

See you around campus!

Our Core Values

A few days ago, I had the opportunity to show Susie Oliver around our campus. Susie is the wife of the President of Union University, Dr. Dub Oliver. She had reached out to me a week before and requested a tour of the school. Some of you may recall we were dancing partners at Dancing with the Stars, which was a benefit for the Star Center. I can’t say enough about the great work Dave Bratcher and the rest of the staff are doing at the Star Center; I will save that for another day.

As I walked Susie around the upper and middle school, she said, “The kids leave their sports bags out and aren’t worried about things being taken?” It made me feel really good about our school. I mentioned to her that not only do our kids not worry about stuff being taken from the foyer; there are also no locks on their school lockers.

Our students at USJ have been raised in a school community where the words Honesty, Integrity, Respect, Responsibility, and Excellence are more than words on a page; they are a way of life.

We have so much to be proud of on our campus. We have a school that has recently been reaccredited through one of the most challenging processes a school can go through. We have a brand new strategic plan that involved many wonderful people who gave so much time and energy to a school we all love. We are embarking on a campus master plan, which also includes a lot of individuals who are committed to making USJ a place where future generations of students and families can enjoy a campus that is student-centered and pedestrian friendly. All of these are wonderful things, but in my mind, none compare to the facts that we don’t have locks on lockers and our school is grounded in our core values.

See you around campus.

An Important Week for USJ

Each week in a school year is important, but this week at USJ is particularly more significant. This Wednesday afternoon, USJ will be visited by a team from the Southern Association of Independent Schools (SAIS). It is a five-person team, and each holds a leadership position in an independent school. We are seeking reaccreditation from SAIS and the Southern Association of College and Schools (SACS). The term of the reaccreditation is five years. The team will be on campus for three days.

Taken from the SAIS website: Accreditation is a voluntary process of self-evaluation and continuous improvement that reflects compliance with required standards/indicators; involves a self-study; includes a peer review by educators from outside of your school. Independent schools that seek accreditation through SAIS understand that our process is designed specifically with you in mind. SAIS accreditation allows you to tell your story, to set your goals, to be ‘independent,’ while still fulfilling the stringent and focused compliance requirements of our process. SAIS accreditation focuses on your school and your efforts to fulfill the school’s mission.

The self-study was an all-inclusive exercise that was led by our own Don Roe. The process started in November 2015 with training from SAIS. This process of reflection is important and valuable and helps us improve as a school. Don organized us into teams. Each team looked at the SAIS standards and indicators and then evaluated and documented USJ’s practice and policies for each.

The reaccreditation process is important for a number of reasons; having an official authorization and stamp of approval from an external source validates to our families that USJ is doing things the right way. It also confirms for colleges and universities that a USJ graduate is coming from an institution that has maintained high standards and quality and is ready for college-level work.

The visiting team will meet with parents, teachers, administrators, students, and the board of trustees. This process is truly all-inclusive.

I want to thank Don for his leadership and all of our faculty, staff, and administrators who gave of their time to help formulate the self-study. Now it is time to enjoy the visit and learn ways we can improve from the team.

See you around campus!

The Power of the Empty Chair

January 23, 2017

I first heard of this idea through a podcast by Daniel Pink. He said the idea originally started with the old Sears Roebuck Company and later Amazon.

In a nutshell, the idea is to have an empty chair around a table during a meeting. It could be a staff meeting, a board meeting, or some other meeting where decisions will be made. The empty chair represents the most significant person that is not in the room: your clients, your customers, your families, your students, etc. It begs those sitting around the table to answer the simple question, “What would our customer think about this decision or policy?”

This simple idea is a way to keep leaders focused and disciplined on what matters. In my opinion, individuals can use the empty chair method of decision-making as well. For example, teachers who are planning lessons for their students could employ the empty chair idea to focus on how their students might respond or receive the lesson. Another example might include sitting at your desk crafting an e-mail, the empty chair being the audience to whom you are addressing the message.

This quiet yet symbolic gesture is a powerful reminder to keep a spotlight on those who are most important to people in the room but not actually in the room.

I look forward to seeing you around campus.

Did you Know?

January 17, 2017

I had just finished working out at my gym the other day, and as I was wiping down the Stairmaster, a familiar face smiled and said, “That machine is a killer!” I smiled back and asked how her kids were doing. Both had graduated from USJ and had just returned to college for their spring semester. She told me they were doing extremely well and were so prepared for the academic rigors of university work. I acknowledged that we hear this same story from many of our graduates. I also mentioned that her children had acquired a strong work ethic while at USJ. They knew how to work hard and manage their time.

We are proud of our graduates and are happy to see them doing well in college and life. As we enter the admissions season for the 2017-2018 school year, I would like to share some facts about USJ.

Did you know?

  • USJ awards over $400,000 annually in need-based financial aid. We are committed to helping families achieve their dream of a USJ education.
  • The graduating classes of 2015 and 2016 were awarded over $15,000,000 in college scholarships.
  • 91% of our students pass the AP exam compared to 58% in Tennessee and 60% globally.
  • The average ACT score at USJ is a 27.
  • The school appropriates over $125,000 annually for faculty professional development.
  • USJ is beginning a campus master plan that will shape the future for our campus. It will also focus on improving existing facilities.
  • The Lower School will soon begin implementing a new literacy program that is world-renowned for its ability to turn children into powerful readers and writers.
  • USJ is committed to using research-based teaching strategies to maximize student learning.
  • USJ is a thoughtful and compassionate learning environment dedicated to all students.

Our primary focus at USJ is to prepare students for college, but I would also add, even more importantly, our job is to prepare our students for life. We take this mission seriously and celebrate their success when we have the opportunity to hear how well they are doing. Thank you for allowing us the opportunity to work with you all on this important journey.

See you around campus!


Learning from Our Youngest at USJ

January 10, 2017

I normally steer clear of discussing politics because it tends to be a subject that leads to contempt and disdain.

Why is it that we can teach our kids in pre-kindergarten to work together, and yet the adults who are charged with governing us can’t seem to do the same?

When Abraham Lincoln was elected President in 1860, he added all three of his Republican rivals to his cabinet and later added a Democrat, Edward Stanton, as the Secretary of War. Lincoln believed he had no right to deprive the country of its strongest minds simply because they sometimes disagreed with him. His “team of rivals” knew they had to work together for the betterment of our country.

When President Nixon, a Republican, came into office on January 20, 1969, Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. During the next two years, our government worked together to form the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), both progressive movements at the time. Both parties worked together because they knew it was in the best interest of our country.

In 1981, President Ronald Reagan appointed a commission to study solutions to the looming problem of the Social Security Trust Fund. It was Republican Senator Bob Dole and Democratic Senator Patrick Moynihan who led a bipartisan group to amend the program. It was intense and bitter, but Moynihan reminded his colleagues to focus on solving the problem at hand and not get swayed by partisan debate. Moynihan was quoted as saying: “everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.” In the end, the reform passed.

Regardless of one’s political ideology, we should all hold our elected officials accountable for working together to solve problems. This is something our youngest learn at USJ daily.

See you around campus!


The Growth Mindset

January 4, 2017

I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday break and that your New Year’s resolution is still in tact.

I decided I would watch at least one Ted Talk each day of 2017. This seems like a pretty easy goal to keep since many are only between 8-15 minutes long. It is certainly easier than working out each day or eating healthier, both of which were former “intentions” of mine that ended before March.

So here goes… The first Ted Talk of the New Year I watched had to do with rejection. In fact, being rejected 100 days in a row and what was learned through the process. I have included the link below for those interested in watching.

The reason I chose this talk is because of our commitment to the Growth Mindset at USJ. We know we learn more through failure than success, yet so many of us are afraid to take chances and try new things for fear of failure and rejection. Those with a growth mindset know that their talents can be developed through hard work, good strategy, and input from others. They achieve more than those with a fixed mindset. They achieve more because they worry less about looking smart and put more energy into actual learning.

The individual on the Ted Talk clip below learned a great deal using the right mindset. I learned a great deal from watching it. Now, only 364 more to go!

I look forward to seeing you around campus!

Happy New Year!

Why Is A Quality Early Childhood Program Important?

December 14, 2016

Last winter, I had the opportunity to spend two weeks at Columbia University’s Teacher College, researching early childhood education. My time as a Klingenstein Fellow was spent buried in books and online journals studying educational trends and philosophy.

I decided to focus my research on early childhood education because it tends to get overlooked by school leaders. Oh, sure, we love how cute and innocent the little ones are, but my experience indicates most of our focus in education tends to be in our high schools. We look at graduation rates, test scores, college acceptances, etc. Of course, all of these things are important and demand our attention, but so do our early childhood programs. In fact, I would argue, the early childhood programs deserve more of our attention. We all know that a solid house starts with a good foundation. The foundation of a good education starts with an excellent early childhood program.

So what did my research unveil? For starters, I found studies that suggest 90% of a child’s brain is developed by age five before many children have been exposed to formal education. I also found that more than one-quarter of American children start kindergarten vulnerable in at least one area of development. More-over 66% of these vulnerabilities can be considered preventable. The number one way to help children start kindergarten with a solid footing was participation in a quality early childhood program. I found that children enrolled in formal educational programs before kindergarten were more behaved, had higher IQ scores upon enrolling in kindergarten than their peers who did not have a formal education before kindergarten. I found research that showed children who were educated in good early childhood programs had improved social skills, better grades, were more likely to attend college, and less likely to become involved with crime as adolescents and young adults.

I also found that much of what you need to succeed in life is established before you enter kindergarten. During the early years, how a child learns and develops, socially, emotionally, and intellectually is critical. If you were to read and study brain research, you would understand the human brain undergoes rapid development, especially so in the years leading up to kindergarten. It is during this period when a child builds cognitive skills which are the foundations for math and reading, as well as social skills associated with things like impulse control and character development.

The last question I had during my research tackled this issue; Do children show larger gains in the areas outlined above, in higher quality preschool programs versus a typical daycare setting? The answer is a resounding yes. The aspect of quality that seems to be most important to a child’s gains during the early years had to do with the teacher-child interaction. The research shows that teachers whose interactions were aimed at supporting learning that fosters higher-order thinking skills in specific areas like math and language as well as learning across multiple domains in the context of a caring and loving teacher-child relationship were the difference makers in gains made. Also, early childhood programs with teachers who were formally trained in their profession was the number one difference maker in the quality of a program.

Education has long been the great equalizer of any society. It is something that begins as soon as a child is born and has the biggest impact on the trajectory of a prosperous life. Enrolling a child in a quality early childhood program will help provide that child with the tools for success in the 21st century.

See you around campus!
- Stu
Stuart Hirstein
Head of School

Welcome to the 2% Club

November 29, 2016

This morning was another special day for a student-athlete at USJ. We had the opportunity to watch Eric Whisenant sign his papers to swim at Harvard. Yes, that Harvard! I checked the NCAA website and found that of all the high school swimmers in the country, only 2.8% swim at the Division I level (Harvard is Division I in swimming).

I know first-hand what it takes for a swimmer to make it to the next level. Like any athlete, it is hours of practice, training, and hard work. In swimming, all of the hours in the pool are spent trying to gain a tenth of a second. Think about it. The amount of time it takes the average person to blink their eye could be the amount of time a swimmer is trying to take off a personal best. It might take that swimmer months of swimming 3 hours a day to drop that time. This is also assuming that they absolutely nailed their turns and got a great start off the blocks.

How many of us have the mental toughness to work hours a day on a goal of lowering our best time by the blink of an eye?

To practice their sport while also paying attention to their grades and academic studies is also something to be very proud. Our student-athletes at USJ are routinely seen at ballgames with books in hand or on long bus rides looking over notes from the day in class. They come home tired, smelly, and hungry, and their day is not over. They are student-athletes.

I have been so impressed with all of our students who have realized their goals of playing college sports. They have all worked so hard and deserve our recognition for making the sacrifices necessary to realize such a dream.

I have also been impressed with our student-athletes when they took to the podium to thank all of those who made it possible. Of course, their families all played a huge part in their special day, but to also recognize the fact their teachers played a major role in their success tells all of us they have not forgotten the word student comes before athlete. They are truly blessed to have a community that genuinely cares about them and their well-being, and we are truly blessed that they have let us be a part of their journey.

See you around campus!
- Stu
Stuart Hirstein
Head of School

Let Us Never Forget

November 11, 2016

This is “officially” my first blog. I have always had the intention of starting one but just never seemed to get around to it. Finally, after the urging of Pam Stanfield, a good friend, alumna, and current parent (and our colleague who helps USJ with our marketing and public relations), I have decided to make today the day I put my blogging foot forward.

I spent the afternoon in my office catching up on emails and phone calls when my phone buzzed that I had a visitor who wanted to see me out front. I stopped what I was doing and went out to greet the visitor. She handed me a card and thanked me for my military service. I knew she had also served and I thanked her for her service. We exchanged a few words then she left, and I walked back to my desk. I opened the card and read a quote that was written inside; it said “I will tell you what bravery really is. Bravery is just determination to do a job you know has to be done.”-Audie Murphy

Audie Murphy wanted to join the Marines but was too short. The paratroopers did not want him either. He settled on the infantry, enlisting to become the most decorated hero of World War II. He was later promoted to Lieutenant because his superiors saw outstanding leadership potential. On January 26, 1945, near the village of Holtzwihr in eastern France, Lt. Murphy’s position came under heavy attack by the Germans. Against the advancing Panzer unit with six tanks and 250 infantrymen, Murphy ordered his men to fall back to strengthen their defenses. He alone mounted an abandoned burning tank and, with one machine gun, held the enemy at bay and stopping the advance. He was wounded and remained there while killing 50 Germans. He was able to lead his men in a counterattack which drove the enemy from Holtzwihr. For his actions, Audie was awarded the Medal of Honor, our nation’s highest award for gallantry in combat.

Let us never forget the brave men and women who fight and die for our freedom every day. Let us never forget that bravery is just doing a job you know needs to be done. I see heroes walking around USJ daily. The faculty member who sacrificed time with their family to make time for a student after school that needs help. The student who stands up for another classmate when they need help. The student who steps in when they see a friend about to make a bad decision. It does not require someone to risk their life to be brave; it just requires doing a job you know needs to be done.

See you around campus!
- Stu

Stuart Hirstein
Head of School