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Discovering a Personal Pathway

Last year, I thought about how we could systematize things so that students would be more likely to meet that vision. Many eleventh and twelfth graders have told me that they wished they had known about all of the opportunities at Derryfield when they were younger and how they felt that they had just bumped along, joining activities or clubs or taking classes because their friends were taking them. Some felt they had missed valuable experiences. Finding one’s passion starts with knowing one’s interests and strengths, a challenge for some younger students. Others have invested a lot of effort into one endeavor or sport without knowing what else is available or the breadth of their own aptitudes. Over the years, as an advisor and division head, I have helped students identify new areas to explore—ideas about which they were curious, then interested, and then passionate. These reflections led to a system: our evolving Pathways Project.

Last spring and summer, I created and piloted this Pathways Project with a variety of upper school students. The goal was to provide each student with personal coaching that led to the development of a document called a Personalized Pathway, which identifies a student’s interests and the myriad Derryfield opportunities that match those interests. I soon realized two facts: 1. the ideal age for a student to receive a pathway is in eighth grade, to shape her upper school experience, and 2. despite my best intention, I couldn’t do a pathway for every eighth grader. As a result, I am collaborating with four colleagues who have admission interviewing experience to share responsibility for the Pathways Project. We have embarked on an effort to develop a pathway for every current eighth grader and the new students who join their class next year.

So how is a pathway generated? The process includes two meetings with me (or a team member). I relish this one-on-one time with students, getting to know and appreciate them. To begin with, I ask the student a series of questions that unearth strengths and potential interests and areas of service. The questions range from “What were your favorite forms of play as a child?” to “What do you worry about, for the community or the world?” After the visit, I take everything I learned from the student and create a graphic document showing his interests, his strengths, and all the Derryfield opportunities that are a match for him. Using the course catalogue, a list of clubs and activities, a list of global trips, a list of service and internship opportunities, and my notes from the meeting, I propose three to four areas of interest that the student has or could have. These interest areas don’t usually fit the classic academic disciplines, but are a combination of a subject and a way of seeing the world, like “Voice/Storytelling” or “Life Sciences/Quantitative Thinking,” “Creativity/Imagination” and “Technology/Problems & Solutions/Cause & Effect.” The areas might lead to adult volunteerism, a career, or just be intellectually satisfying.

I also try to guide each student to a form of leadership that suits her personality. If she loves being outdoors, then she may be interested in Environmental Science, or if she loves pattern and color, then she may be interested in design. I also try to identify a service area of interest; I’m captivated by the idea of a student who feels passionately about homelessness, for instance, having experiences volunteering in high school and college at places like Families in Transition or the New Hampshire Food Bank. What a difference it would make for that adult graduate to eventually sit on the board of a homeless shelter or be a volunteer after years of service and knowledge in that field. I also list all the members of the faculty who share the student’s interests, explaining that a big part of being happy is finding one’s people. I list all the things that the student mentioned liking or loving, just so she could look back later in life and remember.

In order to give the student insight into himself, I start our second visit by listing all the admirable qualities that I see in him as a result of our first discussion. For example, one boy’s list included “compassionate, kind, musical, athletic, curious, optimistic, a voracious reader.” There is a power in a student being praised, out loud, by a faculty member stating one’s specific, good qualities. We then review the document together. I ask each student if this document “sounds like you,” and he says “yes!” He expresses excitement about getting started experiencing the courses, online classes, clubs, activities, internships, and service tailor-made for him.

The pathway document is intended to be a set of inspiring ideas. It contains more opportunities than a student could possibly try and is a living document, because some experiences will be tried and crossed off the list as life brings new interests to light. The idea, though, is for the student to be directed in her Derryfield journey in the hopes that both identity and happiness are found along the way. I connect each student to Ms. Danielle Llewelyn, our leadership coordinator, whose role is to listen to the student’s desires about what to try and then to help arrange it. She is the Derryfield adult who makes contact with the engineering firm, for example, to set up an internship, or connects the student to the faculty member advising the current events club. This Pathways Project is part of our burgeoning Leadership Program, a program that, while still in development, is being implemented so well it won a $50,000 challenge matching grant from the E.E. Ford Foundation to help make it financially sustainable. More information on the broader Leadership Program will be coming to you from Ms. Llewelyn in the spring.

Mary Halpin Carter, Ph.D.
Head of School
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