Bement Blog

The Official Blog of The Bement School

The Balance of It All
Michelle Brito

As I race down the halls of the Kittredge building every morning, I am on a mission to check in with students. This mission could range from making sure students are ready to meet the secondary school admissions representatives coming to campus, making sure an interview has been booked, or asking general questions of how students are feeling. It is this third item that I often reflect on at this time of the year: how are students doing? With the expectation for students to perform during a normal academic day, contribute to sports teams, arts, and other pursuits, it is no wonder why many students feel stressed at this time. We are asking our students for the maximum output, to work hard, and care deeply in the present as well as for the immediate future. Here at Bement, our goal is not to simply get kids into great secondary schools. We strive for students to understand that hard work, consistency, and a great attitude, among others, are ultimately the skills that they will employ to reach their goals.

But in October and November, the stress induced from this process can seem all-consuming as the competing pressures of interviews, testing, application essays, daily schoolwork, and extracurricular commitments collide. As director of secondary school placement, I certainly feel it, so I know students are coping with the balance of it all. For example, Bement students in grades 7-9 recently took the October SSAT, an exam upon which many students hinge their secondary school admission prospects; students expressed their wishes not to “fail the exam”. An NAIS article about stress in schools highlights that, in many cases, stress is the culture of schools. The author opinionates that, “most independent school students, at one point or another, experience excessive stress based on one of the following three phenomena: lack of sleep, perfectionism, and a pattern of thinking I call "futurism." While these are well-documented phenomena at many independent schools, at Bement, we recognize such pressures, and we seek to provide places during the day and in the curriculum for our students to enjoy being in an environment of teaching and learning.

From recess, daily advisory conversations, and fall bonding trips, it is not unusual to see our students smiling and joyfully engaging with their peers despite the assignment due the next day, or the upcoming interview(s) they may have. This attention to the parts of our day where students can take a few deep breaths, laugh with their peers, or run in the recess yard speaks to the philosophy of Bement. In our boarding program, for example, lights are off at 10 p.m. for our upper school students to ensure that they are getting adequate rest. Our students engage in all forms of arts and athletics, and there is a place for all of them whether they are beginning or advanced in those pursuits. Additionally, students learn the importance of mindfulness and thinking in the present through frequent community gathering times and family style meals at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

The secondary school process comes and goes each year with successes, setbacks, and a little of the unexpected. With the support of all involved in the process, our ninth grade students ultimately secure great placements at amazing secondary schools. We want all of our students to know that nothing is achieved without hard work, but that joy and balance is attainable even during the busiest times in our lives.

Authentic Connections
Chris Wilson

Schools have a tendency to be insular and profoundly local.  This is not entirely a bad thing: it creates relationships between faculty and students, and between families within a school.  It allows a school to be impactful in the lives of the people within its community. But it can also lead to a curriculum too much focused on the lived experience of a certain region or neighborhood, and not enough, in my view, on the wider issues at play in our world.

When we planned the Imago Dei partnership, it was our intention to bring an entirely different lived experience into the life of our school.  The Imago Dei School, in Tucson, Arizona, is a tuition-free independent school for students whose families could likely never consider financing an independent school otherwise.  It is a place where, like Bement, students come from all over the world to seek a bright future together. And although Imago Dei is not a boarding school, students there, like those at Bement, forge strong bonds and relationships with each other and their teachers due to long school days and, in the case of Imago Dei, an extended school year.

In bringing our ninth graders to Tucson in the fall and in hosting students from Imago Dei at Bement in the spring, I believe that we are working to address one of the most fundamental challenges in our society: overcoming what journalist Bill Bishop dubbed The Big Sort in his groundbreaking book.  Put simply, we are likely to live surrounded by people who are socioeconomically, and ideologically, very similar to us.  And this tendency to sort into similarly-minded communities is only increasing, and leading to deep and difficult political and cultural divides.

It is our hope that this partnership with Imago Dei helps our students build a sense of compassion and understanding for a world very different, in many cases, from their own—and likewise that students at Imago Dei come to understand and experience the different landscape and culture of New England.  Both communities are changed and enlivened with each encounter. Our ninth graders will soon be making presentations at an upcoming Friday morning meeting. I encourage you to join us and to learn more about their impressions of this journey and its impact on Bement.

Part of Something Beautiful
Terry Shields

The theme for our boarding program this year is, "Part of Something Beautiful."  At orientation, we discussed how puzzle pieces are pre-cut to yield only one pre-determined outcome no matter how many times it is put together.  We contrasted that with a mosaic which is created by fitting tiles of different shapes and colors together to form something beautiful depending on the decisions of the artists.  Like a mosaic, each student’s school year is comprised of many choices and our collective brilliance will depend on how we choose to put all our tiles together.  As a reminder that we are responsible for determining our individual and collective achievement this year, each dorm created a mosaic that will be the centerpiece of our dorm meetings and circles each Sunday evening. 

I was reflecting on this theme when I visited our Bement families in Asia this summer.  It was thrilling to be welcomed by our families in Tokyo, Shanghai, Beijing, and Hong Kong and to learn and experience the sites, language, food, and culture with our students as guides.  I was there in late June soon after President Trump’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and just as President Trump imposed tariffs on trade coming into the United States.  It was interesting to hear and read the response, which similar to reactions in the United States, ranged from supportive to dismissive.  What intrigued me was the lens which was the basis of their perspective; envisioning the best future for their country, family, and self.  

On our van ride returning to Beijing from the Great Wall, one of our recent graduates asked, “So what do you think Mr. Shields?” It was an inquiry more profound than my thoughts on the expansive Wall.  He wanted to know my impressions of China and its future as a country.  The ensuing conversation, sharing my observations and listening to his hopes for and potential contribution to that future, accentuated the mission of the Bement School.   We are shaping minds and hearts that will impact individuals, communities, countries, and ultimately, our global future.    

Earlier that morning, I had visited Tiananmen Square.  Though quiet that morning, the meaning and past of that space conveyed a powerful notion of people and country.   My experience there prompted me to watch a documentary on the history of Tiananmen Square leading up to the student protests in 1989.  That’s when it struck me that the college-age students in that film could very well be the parents of our boarding students from China.  More so, given that our students are influenced by the lens of their parents, the voices and experiences of those students are present in the space, conversations, and lessons of our classrooms. 

This is the beauty of a Bement education.  We are a diverse population of students and families who bring a diverse abundance of thought on the future of our world.  Whether student, teacher or parent, we are a part of something beautiful and what we teach, learn, and share here today will shape the world everywhere someday.

The Play's The Thing
Emily Lent Hemingway

Last week, Bement students met with their buddies for the first time. Every grade level is partnered with another grade a few years younger or older, and throughout the year, they meet to read, learn, and play together. On Friday, every corner of our campus was abuzz with the excitement of meeting these buddies. Delighted lower schoolers ran back to their classrooms chanting the names of their older buddies while confident upper schoolers reminisced about how long ago it was that they were once so small with a buddy who seemed so big.

In a school like Bement that cultivates student growth over a ten-year span, the differences between our youngest students and our oldest are often obvious, and never more so than when those students are working side by side. Not so apparent are the many ways our students, from five year olds to fifteen year olds, are similar to each other. No matter their age, height, or grade level, all of our students share an important connection: a love of recess.

Now, it’s no secret that students enjoy recess, but Bement students, and the school itself, are uniquely invested in it. In the lower school, we begin our days with a few minutes to play, connect with friends, and settle into the day. Every Bement student has a lengthy mid-morning break, and our youngest students have a break in the early afternoon, as well. All of this time is in addition to daily athletics and routine trips to our outdoor education center at Pine Hill. Our founder, Grace Bement, believed deeply in the connection between physical activity, the natural world, and brain development, and research over the decades since she started our little school has proven those instincts to be revolutionary.

While many schools today are reducing time spent outside playing in order to increase time spent inside at a desk, Bement has never been mainstream. According to Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, authors of Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells Us About Raising Successful Children, free play is a catalyst for developing skills like collaboration, problem-solving, and creativity. These skills are vital for success later in life, and they are best learned on the playground. As for those minutes of sacrificed instructional time, it’s all for a good cause; a 2010 study by the CDC found that students with longer recesses ultimately earned higher grades, anyway.

It’s no coincidence that our faculty book club chose Daniel Pink’s new book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing to read this fall. Pink emphasizes the importance of taking breaks during long periods of work or school. “Recess isn’t a break from learning,” he clarifies, “It is learning.” Pink includes tips on scheduling and structuring recess for schools and administrators who are changing their students’ schedules to reflect current research and best practices. The ideal recess, according to Pink, is a period of unstructured play, preferably at least twice a day, in which children can interact freely and openly in a natural environment.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because Bement has been doing it since 1925.

The Nature of Learning
Amie Keddy, Head of Upper School

The Lebanese-American writer, Khalil Gibran, once wrote: “Forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and winds long to play with your hair.”

We are fortunate to live in a time where what writers heralded, and educators intuited for centuries, neuroscience now widely endorses--the power of nature to transform human experience.

According to experts, spending time in contact with nature, even if that contact is as brief as a daily walk through green space, can boost immunity, improve focus, diminish depression, strengthen observation skills, increase creativity, and even extend life-expectancy.

It is no coincidence, then, that writers and artists have immersed themselves in nature, creating poems, paintings, treatises, and essays, resplendent with images of flora and fauna. Yet, what do these creations and these findings have to do with children and teaching? Naturalist John Lubbock, who was writing in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries observed that “earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters, and teach us more than we can ever learn from books.”

Of course, Lubbock, who was no stranger to books, having authored at least 28 titles ranging from Ants, Bees and Wasps to Happiness and Thrift, primarily demonstrated his expertise through the written word. However, he felt it essential that students spend time outdoors engaged in hands-on experiences. Lubbock knew what twenty-first century science has come to document: The human brain benefits from all things natural.

In a world where we and our young people are increasingly scheduled and bound to devices, witnessing a child marvel over an iridescent red dragonfly that hovers within arm’s reach, or seeing a student carefully press a buttercup between the pages of her English journal, reminds me of the importance of pausing, and more essentially, the importance of carving out time during which those pauses can occur.

And why is pausing so necessary? The pause is literally healing, and can contribute to a more successful future for our children.

In one of numerous studies, the pause lasts just a few minutes: “A 15-minute walk in the woods causes measurable changes in physiology. Japanese researchers led by Yoshifumi Miyazaki at Chiba University sent 84 subjects to stroll in seven different forests, while the same number of volunteers walked around city centers. The forest walkers hit a relaxation jackpot: Overall they showed a 16 percent decrease in the stress hormone cortisol, a 2 percent drop in blood pressure, and a 4 percent drop in heart rate. Miyazaki believes our bodies relax in pleasant, natural surroundings because they evolved there. Our senses are adapted to interpret information about plants and streams, he says, not traffic and high-rises” (Williams 5).

In another study, “researchers from the University of Exeter Medical School recently analyzed mental health data from 10,000 city dwellers and used high-resolution mapping to track where the subjects had lived over 18 years. They found that people living near more green space reported less mental distress, even after adjusting for income, education, and employment...Those living on blocks with more trees showed a boost in heart and metabolic health equivalent to what one would experience from a $20,000 gain in income. Lower mortality and fewer stress hormones circulating in the blood have also been connected to living close to green space” (Williams 4-5).

At Bement, our school color may be blue, but we are surrounded at every turn by green, and we are supported in our desire to pause with students as they splash in the stream, pull water samples from the pond at Pine Hill, gather leaves to study from ginkgo trees lining the street, or build fairy houses in the grove near Kittredge...the list of opportunities for us to help raise healthy, creative, and intellectually curious children continues to be inexhaustible.


Additional Resources and Works Cited

https://www.businessinsider.com/scientific-benefits-of-nature-outdoors 2016-4#11-reduced-risk-of-early-death-11

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Lubbock,_1st_Baron_Avebury

https://www.huffingtonpost.com/mara-karpel-phd/pause-in-life_b_8985624.html

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2016/01/call-to-wild/