Reflecting on a day in the life of a Proofnik.

Reflections from the Head of School, delivered as opening remarks at our back-to-school night on September 23, 2016.

As part of our SEL curriculum later this fall, students will be identifying the narratives that shape how they interpret their circumstances: stories they tell about themselves as well as stories impressed upon them by other influential people in their lives. This may come across as a bit abstract, but let me convince you that stories (of a certain type) have a very significant impact on how students respond to common situations at school.

For instance, consider the possible narratives that one might tell concerning the taking of tests, a not-so-hypothetical situation that will overtake most of our students in the next several weeks, if it hasn’t already. One story goes like this: "A test is an instrument for determining the level of mastery of a specific body of knowledge or set of skills, that has been attained by the individual taking the test." Viewed through this lens, a student who scores low will experience indifference, disappointment or even despair, while a student who scores high will check off a box and move on to the next academic task. Regardless, this perspective on the purpose of testing brings with it an air of scientific finality—a measurement has been taken, recorded, and that’s that.

Earlier this week, however, I told a very different story about tests to the assembled student body during our Wednesday morning meeting. We began by talking about why one might test a steel beam; for instance, using the magnetic apparatus that my son and I perused this past weekend at the historic Mare Island shipyard that produced nuclear subs commissioned for this nation’s cold war fleet. Such a test is intended to pinpoint weaknesses in the metal, of course. I proceeded to ask, “Well, what’s to be done once we find a flaw?” Student opinion varied on this point, but included suggestions such as not putting much load on the weak spots, strengthening the beam at its weak points, or simply throwing the whole thing out. (I’m not at liberty to reveal the identity of the student who made that latter proposal.) 

Depending on the severity of the flaw in the steel, I suppose that any of these answers might be appropriate, but I chose to highlight the option in which the steel is strengthened. The parallel to classroom learning is obvious: if the purpose in revealing gaps in understanding is to strengthen our knowledge, then less than satisfactory outcomes are an opportunity for growth, rather than an occasion for disappointment.

I’m not claiming that we will change deeply ingrained attitudes towards testing overnight. And I realize that some tests (such as SAT subject tests, for example) are specifically designed to measure a student’s level of mastery of a specific body of knowledge or set of skills. But imagine that a ninth-grader hears me talk about tests on a Wednesday morning, then on Thursday Mr. Basu indicates that he should write “I want to know” instead of "I don't know" for a physics quiz question that has him stumped, while on Friday Zachary carefully reviews his oral presentation and coaches him through the poetic art of saying more with less. If the story about the purpose of testing that our students hear is consistent, and persistent, and insistent, then it gradually but inexorably seeps into the core set of narratives that defines their worldview. And believe me, it’s important to have a healthy outlook on tests because, in one form or another, they just keep coming.

Who tells these pivotal stories to your children? For a long time it was you, their parents. But increasingly that role is being filled by other influential adults in their lives who are gathered around us: myself, Ilyse, Mr. Gregg, Kathy, not to mention their peers at Proof School, in addition to themselves. So I commend you for carving time out of your week and navigating your way to 555 Post Street this evening. It is good for you to become better acquainted with us!

Shortly you will have the chance to do just that by spending twenty minutes with each of the four teachers that instruct your child during the morning time slots. You will discover what it is like to be a student in that classroom. We want this to be an authentic experience, so feel free to spin around in the orange chairs in the Lab, or to draw on the desks with markers on the Pool Deck! Naturally, you will also hear about learning goals for the year, plans for upcoming projects; that sort of thing.

To complement these sessions, let me do the same right now for life at Proof School beyond the classroom. What is it like to be part of this community on a daily basis? Well, yesterday, my day began with a refreshing 25-minute walk from the Transbay Bus Terminal to this address with seven students in tow. I spent the majority of the time talking with a sixth grader about why it’s not possible to plot eight points on the surface of a bagel and then draw non-intersecting paths joining every point to every other point. Somewhere around Union Square that student then adapted the argument to find the upper bound for doing the same with points on a two-holed surface.

Upon arriving in the office I was greeted with the news that another student had gifted the faculty with a banana cream pie and a lemon meringue pie, out of gratitude for the assistance provided by no fewer than four different teachers (including myself) this past weekend as he worked to polish a seventeen-page research paper for submission to the Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology. I had a slice for lunch earlier today—it really hit the spot.

During morning meeting I reminded students that the final three banonagons would be released into the school building for eagle-eyed students to track down and return to a whiteboard dedicated to this purpose. As promised during Tuesday’s morning meeting, once all nine of them had been safely captured, we would celebrate with a donut break coordinated by the math teachers during the afternoon. (I should explain that a banonagon is a somewhat whimsical nine-sided figure made out of bananas.) During morning snack break the first was found by a sixth grader, tucked among the cardboard recycling in the large green bin downstairs, while the second was espied during lunch by a ninth grader out on the patio. But by the time clubs began the third was still at large, jeopardizing our donut break later during math class.

I spent club time introducing six budding pool sharps to the fine art of putting English on the cue ball, which causes it to move in interesting directions after striking the target ball. I then set up a few challenges in which the only way to sink two balls in succession was to use English effectively. A couple of kids made it onto the scoreboard; a sixth grader was especially chuffed as the only one to successfully complete both challenges. Towards the end of club time a team of students led by a high schooler unearthed a clue concealed within the four four-letter words that had made an appearance during morning meetings this week (recall that Wednesday’s word was TEST), leading her to accost the student in question, who had just finished making giant poster art on the patio. Sure enough, the last banonagon was tucked in her backpack and was triumphantly pinned to the whiteboard with its comrades just as the Pokemon Go club returned, flushed with the excitement both of hunting Pokemon along the Embarcadero as well as of making it back to school on time for the start of math.

Students in Doc Durst’s Problem Solving 2 were treated to a guest talk given by Naoki Sato, best known to our older students by his Art of Problem Solving username of “nsato”. For many years Naoki headed up the Worldwide Online Olympiad Training Program at AoPS, developing the majority of the content covered by the most mathematically advanced secondary school students in the United States and around the world. Meanwhile, Zachary covered for me partway through my Problem Solving 1 test so that I could pinch hit for Sachi in Enumerative Combinatorics, which allowed her to make it to an important appointment. Teachers at Proof School look out for each other, just as Proofniks do. At precisely 2:40 the entire school descended upon the snack bar for a festive donut break, and all was well. 

Yesterday was a great reaffirmation that in the midst of rigorous coursework and a structured school day, we are still able to playfully and creatively engage with our world; we haven’t forgotten how to have fun.

-- Sam Vandervelde