Reflections from a school head…

Week 17 Senior Debates, January 2014

Upon completing her/his Senior Debate, each senior rings the school bell in celebration of completing this capstone experience at George Stevens Academy. We are finishing Semester I debates this week. All debates are open to the public. Semester II debates will be in late May. Look for a schedule of those debates and debate topics in early May.

Week 17--A Chilly Academy Building, January 2014

While it might be warm and active inside as students and teachers prepare for exams, it has been sub-zero outside the Academy building as the now famous polar votex makes things absolutely frigid in Blue Hill. For over 115 years, GSA students have been entering, laughing, learning, and taking exams in this historic building.

Week 17-- Student and Teacher, January 2014

Science teacher Jeff Goldman checks in with an honors chemistry student while on lunch duty. GSA teachers and students are learning all the time. Active, engaging relationships between students and teachers are at the core of a GSA educational experience.

Week 17--Semester Exams Study

All GSA students sit Semester I exams. This week, our libary has been full of study groups, teacher help desks, and volunteer tutoring sessions. The purpose of the exams is to give students a opportunity to draw together a large body of information and communicate their knowledge, command, and original insight.

The Work of School: A Back to School Night Talk to GSA Parents 9.21.2013

Head’s Welcome To Parents                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

I want to welcome parents to our Back to School Night.  We have so many George Stevens Programs to share with you.   We have so many people for you to hear from, and so many curricular experiences that we believe will enrich the lives of all members of this community.  Thank you for coming this evening.

Tonight marks the end of the start of the school year.  It is one of many benchmarks in the rhythm of our community.  How schools start up each year, how they morph from beautiful but empty buildings to vibrant human communities, how newcomers learn and gradually embrace the school ethos and traditions, how an institution prepares physically for the arrival of 334 young learners, how teachers prepare themselves and their classes for that important first day, how coaches and music directors introduce that powerful dynamic of team play or working within a repertory, how students adjust to early wake ups and independent academic work, these are all dynamics that have endlessly fascinated those of us who choose to spend most of their waking hours amongst teenagers.

Your children and our charges have been very busy.  Since the start of school, your sons and daughters started reading The Autobiography of Fredrick Douglass, the poetry of Seamus Heaney, Beowulf, Agatha Christi, and John Steinbeck.

Your kids have learned new cross-country courses and renewed their love of team play on a soccer pitch.

They designed and built objects of beauty and use at Haystack Mountain School of Craft.

They learned the mathematical concept of “continuity” in Calculus.

Students assessed the political and cultural impact of America’s Great Awakening and the idea of American Exceptionalism.

They assembled and disassembled polynomials in Algebra II.

They elected student leaders to student council.

Students completed T diagrams in Accounting.

GSA students launched canoes in the beaver pond, studied the hemispheres of our brains, began their study of Greek and Latin, interpreted ancient burial rituals, surveyed the political impact of 9/11, and learned Herby Hancock’s jazz composition ‘Chameleon.’

And one 10th grader, in class discussion of Beowulf’s braggart nature as he presents himself in Hrothgar’s house, concluded “Not only is he lying, he is lying stupidly…about dumb things.”

Teachers challenged students to think like a critic,  to think like a systems engineer, like a furniture designer, like a diplomat, like a prosecuting attorney, like a scientist, a president, a tax collector, a composer, a physician, a poet, and a teacher.

They have been busy and engaged in the very complex yet natural act of learning and growing. We have seen effort, passion, conviction, and triumph.  And this will continue for the next 262 days until graduation next June.

At George Stevens, we seek to be an antidote, to be a foil to what Ted Sizer observed in Horace’s Compromise that “American high schools are not thoughtful places…but only places of routine and boredom.” We seek to be a thoughtful place where students are excited and furthered by new ideas everyday.

Leon Botstein observed in his work Jefferson Children: Education and the Promise of American Culture  that “our schools fail to challenge the critical faculties of young learners and that this is a dangerous thing to do.”  We seek to be the rebuttal to that argument.

We want students to thoughtfully consider.  We want them to talk about books, about ideas, about subjects, about tragedies and problems, about glorious success, about heroes and demons, about numbers and combinations and possibilities.

We want to engage their imagination and their intellect so as to make them part of community of knowledge makers.  We invite them to envision solutions that did not exist.

We invite them to think of their world both materially and spiritually and to see and feel the connection between those two worlds.

We hope this evening you will get a better sense of what happens at George Stevens Academy on a typical day.

It will be a fun and enlightening night…just like most of our school days.

I would ask you all to turn and look at the teachers and staff who make this happen every day.  Besides you parents and guardians, they will be some of the most important adults in the lives of your children and I wish to take this the opportunity to commend and salute them for their good works.

In order to get them to their rooms in anticipation of your arrival, please excuse them so that they might do final set up.

(Teachers depart)

This is not an evening for individual discussion of students.  If you have specific questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to set up an appointment to meet privately with a teacher.

This campus can be complex.  If this is NOT your first GSA Back to School Night, please stand up.  Those of you sitting…know that you can ask them for directions.  We can give you reasonable directions.  We will ring bells to change classes.  Attend to them.

I welcome you all.  Let us head to your advisory.

Paul B. Perkinson

Head of School

George Stevens Academy

9/11 Assembly Talk

September 11, 2013                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Assembly Talk                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Paul B. Perkinson

You might see in some of your teachers and perhaps your parents a mellowness or a tenderness or a softness today and I wanted to briefly address that in our assembly.

On this day twelve years ago terrorists changed the world by slamming passenger jets into the World Trade Building, into the Pentagon, and in a field in Pennsylvania.

You seniors were perhaps in kindergarten then and your memories might be vague and unclear.

For those of us who were working that day…many of us working with school children, there is really no lack of clarity.  The memories are vivid.  They are not just the memories of the tragic and horrific…but also memories of kindness, of sacrifice, and of love.

Memories of selfless firefighters and first responders who in doing their job, lived and acted far above and beyond their call to duty.

We remember stories of individuals electing to help others when they could have simply walked away.

We remember the heart-wrenching phone calls that women and men made to loved ones when they knew that their loved ones would live through this tragedy but that they themselves would not.

I encourage you all to take the time to consider this tragic affair and its consequences.  I encourage you all to talk about it…and share.

I will leave you with what Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said about September 11th…in part because it is a message not just about a day but a message about how to lead a life.

Giuliani said on that day “We met the worst of humanity with the best of humanity.”

Let us remember that every day….but especially today.





After The School Shooting

George Stevens Academy  Wednesday Assembly Talk

December 17, 2012                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

We are about to go on a two-week break…a time to be with family, a time to reflect, rest, remember, reconnect, and reconsider.  There is a luxury about winter break that I want you to lean into and savor.

But before you go, I thought it important to pause and take some time to share some thoughts about the tragic shooting from last Friday.  It is important because that is what it means to be a community…and to take the act of being a community seriously; we sometimes have to talk about very difficult things like the profoundly disturbing and inexplicably tragic loss of 27 lives in a small, quiet town in the corner of CT.

Tragedy brings out from us so many emotions…fear, insecurity, anger, sympathy, powerlessness, hatred, hope, retribution, and forgiveness.  Give room in your life to better understand whatever you are feeling. Take the time to really feel it.  That is when you will begin to understand it.  You can do that by simply thinking about it or talking to another person.  You do not have to have complete thoughts or decisive opinions…just talk and see where it takes you.

Your faculty set aside time yesterday to talk about how our school is doing in light of this shooting.  It was a wide-ranging, open conversation that showed the variety of responses….just like faculties across the nation. And like those teachers, some of us are quietly shattered and incredulous and some of us are sad but accepting.  Some of us are interested in the details of the shooting and some of us are too sickened to read more about it. There is no right way or wrong way to feel or respond.

A college classmate of mine is a cartoonist for the New Yorker.  She always used to say that she was an illustrator not a writer.  But she wrote beautifully yesterday and I wanted to share her short piece with you.  “The tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut is the kind of thing that shuts me down as a cartoonist for a bit.  I have trouble working and I imagine I am not alone. But I can try to say something with pictures.  Imagery can often express feelings better than words, yet it still is difficult to find words and pictures to express emotions about such a horrible thing.  I heard on the radio today that young children are often asked to draw instead of speak with learning how to cope with trauma. Our culture has elements that are too violent, and it is seeping down to our children in ways we don’t understand.  It’s time to reflect on what we are doing.  In the meantime, everyone should go and find a pencil or crayons and a piece of paper.”

Liza is suggesting that we each find our own way through tragedy.  Drawing works for her and that you might try it.

For me, it is important that we not step away from the challenges that this tragedy presents.  It is so very important that we not feel powerless or daunted or overwhelmed or emotionally dulled.

We can do something that demonstrates care for another.  We can do something that, however small or insignificant, is still something and thus be reminded that the greatest mistake is to do nothing because we can only do a little.

From a moral and an emotional standpoint, this is uncharted territory for all of us.  That is why most of us do not have helpful, confident advice for this tragedy.  We rely instead on something of a wish-and some might call it a prayer-that we respond with all that is good in all of us….all of our boundless empathy, all of our extended care, all of the hope and love we hold for those around us.  And that is my wish for you.  To extend yourself to others be they family, friends, or distant strangers.  Know that you are cared for here at school and at home.  As adults in your life, we want to do our very best to keep you safe.

Unfortunately, there will be more tragedy in our lives.  But, know that a tragedy does not define us as much as our response to that tragedy defines and profoundly affects who we are becoming.  So let us become who we want to be…who we aspire to be both as individuals and as a community.

Lastly, take the time to look around you.  Now….later today, in class or at lunch…when you get on the bus or are driving home with a parent or when you are in a team huddle or when you are home tonight….Pause and take the time to look around and appreciate those who care for you and those for whom you care, and savor that moment.  It is a small thing…but it is something we can all do and we will be better in this simple act of connection.

I would like to settle into some silence in honor, in reflection, and in memory of the school children and the school teachers we have lost.


In the next 48 hours we will be going our different ways… be safe, be smart, and be good.

Students and teachers, have a good break.  I will see you in January 2013.

Paul B. Perkinson


No Child Left Untested

The exponential growth of standardized testing in our schools has become a popular target of dismay and concern. For all the talk of “essential knowledge” and “accountability,” teachers are increasingly required to “teach to the test,” developing curriculums and pedagogies that are lifeless, irrelevant, and uninspiring or both teachers and their students. If the testing craze continues, no child will get through school without mastering the bubble test. No child will be left untested.

My own view of testing might surprise you.

I love testing kids. I think all kids should be tested constantly. I believe in teaching to the test. I believe we do this at George Stevens Academy and that this makes us abetter school than most.

One idea too often lost in this reaction against standardized testing is that tests can be good and purposeful. Meaningful testing can be a wonderful experience. Good tests can be powerfully transformative.

I am interested in tests that are good, purposeful, and that transform students one by one—not tests that reinforce one-size-fits-all standards.

In particular,

I am interested in tests of courage when a student is asked to speak their truth in a discipline meeting or willingly confronts an adult with a problem or plays their dulcimer publicly for the first time ever.

I am interested in tests of co-operation where students write and give senior debates or when sailors pull each other out of Penobscot Bay after a capsize.

I am interested in tests of integrity when a basketball player could cheat in a game without anyone knowing and still elects not to or when a chemistry student could fudge the lab results but does not.

I am interested in tests of imagination while performing Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” or designing and answering a calculus question in a novel way or in shooting and editing a video of the sailing team.

I am interested in tests of resiliency when jazz combo members practice two or three times a day in preparation for state competitions or when a student studies diligently and with resolve in preparation for taking a re-test.

I am interested in tests of leadership while serving as band captain or in leading our Wednesday assemblies.

I am interested in tests of kindness when caring for an injured friend or helping collect dry and can goods for a local food bank.

I am interested in tests of creativity in preparing a portfolio of AP Studio Art or when designing an Independent Study or when drafting plans for constructing a go-cart.

And I am interested in tests of mastery of self when a student is strong, resolute, and self-governing in mind, heart, and spirit.

These tests can be difficult to design. Assessing their results is more complicated.

There is nothing standard or standardized about the teachers who give these tests or the students who take them. These are authentic tests of soulful things. And these tests happen all the time at our school.

Let us make sure that no student at George Stevens is left untested—robbed of the potential to grow into someone he or she could not have predicted yesterday or a year ago. Let us make sure that these tests are memorable and meaningful precisely because they forge courageous and strong adults.

Paul B. Perkinson

May 2012

What the Bell Told

The Senior Debates

As a first year Head of School, it is rare when something happens around my new campus and I know what it is about and everyone else in the room does not. For a brief five seconds I basked in the knowing of what others did not know. . . and then continued to enjoy its meaning after explaining to two trustees with decades of GSA experience what the pealing bell was telling us.

The bell in the belfry was ringing—loud and clear and proud. Thanks to a gift from the Class of 2011, the school’s old and broken bell—silent for years—had been restored and rededicated. And thanks to Marie Epply, we have created a new purpose for that venerable bell: that every senior who completes senior debates will let the community know by ringing it for all to hear.

If we cannot call this a tradition yet, it will be soon, very soon.

We have been ringing bells for thousands of years and each time the ringing signals a passage and a commencement. In this case, seniors announce to the community that they have completed one of several key rites of passage, that they have mastered a very specific view on a controversial topic, researched it extensively, drafted and edited and published a paper on their topic, and—finally— debated their topic publicly in front of classmates, teachers, family members, spectators and interested parties.

Ask GSA alums from the last twenty graduating classes— “what did you debate as a senior?” They will respond at once, with the clarity of an event that happened yesterday.  Senior debate is a richly textured learning experience, and students know that, when it is over, they have done something of great significance and they are, in some way, different.

And that is what the bell told.

From Away…far away

More so than any other phrase I have heard in my two weeks here living in Maine is the wording “from away” as in “Paul, you are from away.” or “Paul, you will be from away for a long time.” or “I was not born in Blue Hill but I have lived here for 52 and a half years straight and I am from away.”

Being “from away” is not a unique human experience nor is it new to me.  From 1981-83, my wife and I lived in the hills of northern Japan for two years.  We lived and taught in a village that had never had anyone other than Japanese live there.  We taught in schools that had no experience with non-Japanese teachers.  They were taking the very first step of introducing international curriculum to their students who, without exception, came from rural, farming families.

Living in a rural Japan taught me that village life institutionalized culturally and linguistically the idea that most people are “from away.”  They will always be from away no matter how long they live there, no matter how well they speak or write the language.

When we first arrived to Moichi-mura, a mountain village in northern Honshu, the children of the village ran up to us with a joy-fear grin on their face.  They knew to not get too close and to keep just the right distance as if there was a force field around us.  I thought then it was about the same distance you would give a bear on a chain leash.  The kids pointed and yelled “Gaijin da….gaijin da.”  The literal translation is “It’s a foreigner…it’s a foreigner.”

In Japanese the word gaijin is written with two pictograms.  The first-gai- comes from the word for ocean.   The second-jin- comes from the word for person.  Literally, a gaijin is a person who comes from the ocean.

But the word, as is the case with many words in many languages, means so much more than ‘person who comes from ocean.”  A gaijin is a foreigner, someone who is not like any Japanese, and someone who was not born in Japan and not born to two Japanese parents.  The unspoken connotation very often is a person without sophistication who is not as pure or complete.  Very often gaijin is used in a derogatory sense. Sometimes gaijin is a racist statement.

Generally, that was not the case however.  It was used far more as a statement of amazement and surprise.

Amongst school children, gaijin is used to identify, mark, and exclaim.  I will forever remember the first day I taught at the most rural most distant school in Kawai County.  I got off the old train that had been snaking its way up into the mountains for decades and stepped onto the dirt field that separated the station and the school.  As I was walking across the field windows opened and 6th graders yelled out “Gaijin da….are…kuma da kuma da!” (It’s a foreigner…what? It’s a bear…it’s a bear.)  Indeed bears and monkeys lived in the woods but I was not one of them.

I must admit that the initial disdain I held for being called an ‘outsider’ gradually gave way to an acceptance to their worldview and their traditions that had hundreds of years of practice.

A gaijin is indeed a foreigner or stranger… and that’s ok.

They are from away. I am from away. And being from away allows a person to see, hear, and appreciate things that others who are not have grown so used to that they do not see, hear or appreciate anymore.  There is, after all, something good about being from away.

Penobscot Floats July 10, 2011

Everyone gives a fair amount of leeway to family floats in small town July parades.  Most people smile, remark how cute, wave, and applaud as a half-baked float sails by with slightly embarrassed people riding it hoping that not too many people feel sorry for them.

Then there are floats that have THE three key ingredients that make for a first rate, top shelf, golden, awarding winning float that captures your imagination and creates a wave of clapping and general whooping-it-up as it lumbers down main street.

I attended the Penobscot July 9th parade yesterday.  Penobscot has their parade the Saturday after the 4th so as to not compete with the other towns for space and fire engines. For two hours, Main Street is shut down and all thru traffic isn’t.  The parade had every fire truck on the peninsula in line blasting siren after siren.  It even had a barely decorated garbage truck.

Then this float came, I snapped the picture, and pronounced it the winner, which it was made official by far more experienced judgestwo hours later.  It had the three ingredients that are crucial for great small town floats.   First, there was the happy kids riding the float and having the time of their lives.  Second, there was the proud parent who was having even a better time even if they are somewhat hidden.  Third, there is the waving American flag.

Happy kids, proud parents, waving flag, homemade float.  Now that’s a Maine parade in July.

Paul B. Perkinson

Discovering Creative….

I have just returned from three days with thirty of my students.  We were all studying at Haystack on Deer Island, Maine.  It was a marvelously and luxuriously creative experience not for the work I did but for the gift of watching so many artist at work creating from 8:30 AM to 10:30 PM.  Watching GSA students study  under the instruction of Haystack teachers reminded me of the event that I experienced and named ‘creativity.’

Mrs. Jones was my 8th grade art teacher.  She was the first art teacher who was actually an artist.  She encouraged us to go to museums, art openings, and craft fairs.  Her class was project based and she gave us freedom to explore and invent in ways that were unfamiliar and even exotic.  In no other class had I been given the leeway to conceive and develop my own ideas.  Before then, all art was by explicit and strategic assignment.  I did not have bad art teachers before then…only very directive and, in retrospect, unconfident teachers whose expertise was elsewhere.  They taught art as a consequence: not as a conviction.

In spring of 8th grade, and I remember distinctly as the pine pollen was ubiquitous at the time, Mrs. Jones announced that we were to begin a project using batik.  She gave a perfunctory lecture on the history of batik and set us to work with small projects.  Once accomplished, students were asked to conceive a larger project that was at least the size of our worktables.

I did the sketches and completed the batik in several weeks.  It was time-consuming and I spent many of my study halls and lunches working on the project.  I remember the smell of ironing out the paraffin and drying the piece nears the windows.  That was when public schools had gigantic windows that allowed breezes and sunshine. Blues and browns with only hints of red and yellow foreshadowing the colors of the collision dominated the piece.  The cracks in the plane hinted of what was to come.

Mrs. Jones thought the piece should be entered in an all city art competition and it won several awards.  Everyone was proud.

After the competition, Mrs. Jones asked me if it would be ok if she kept the piece.  I remember saying, “You mean you want it?”  She simply said yes.  I gave it to her and never saw it again.

I have not thought of that piece for a very long time.  It remains one of the more creative pieces of art I have ever accomplished.  I am mystified now why she asked for it, why I gave it to her, and why no one else intervened.  The piece marks an awakening in me…an awareness of my own creative spark that flourished for that time in spring.  Mrs. Jones was responsible for creating the conditions for that growth.  She is also responsible for taking the art away from me.  I do not harbor longings for the piece nor do I have bad feelings for her.  I never did even though I think my mother would have trashed her.

Do wonder where that piece is now and where it would be if I still had it.  I really liked it.

I think there was something in it that was novel and worthy.

I think it was creative.

Touring with Tim…

Sitting in my office minding my own business and in walks Tim who is a junior in my school.  I am the new head of school to his school.  Tim set up an appointment with me to introduce himself and give me a tour of the school.  “A new head should get a tour from a student.” Tim led me out of my office bumping into the half open door and saying that he did not know my office very well nor did he know the area just outside my office but “I’ll be ok once we get going down the hallway.”

Tim is blind and has been since childhood. He wears very fashionable sunglasses and is a strong block of a young man who is a mainstay on our wrestling team.

He took me outside the administration building and into the science wing.  While he had his cane he did not use it.  He knew exactly where the hand railings were and the number of steps.  He nodded to the right saying, “That is Mrs. Bennatti’s room.” and then to the left telling me that Mrs. Jellison teaches in that room.  I looked into each classroom as he spoke.

He took me through the library and then down the stairs to the gym.  Tim showed me the Braille room where he works with his teacher. Tim nodded to the right and told me “That’s Mr. Gray’s office.  He keeps the place clean.” Tim pointed out the places where kids hung out at break and at lunch. He showed me the gym and told me the story of the sparkling new floor.

I am one of the awkward and slightly dull persons who often thinks that they need to assist the blind person navigate…who periodically reaches out to clutch the arm and guide. When I touched Tim’s elbow once, he said softly “That’s ok.  I’m good.”  Yep, Tim’s good.

I saw my new school differently that day touring with Tim.  Among the many things Tim will be quite good at, he will make a superior tour guide for a college admissions office.

I hoped future tours of my new school will be as enlightening.

To Tack

When they spun the boat, shifting their direction from right to left, they moved like dance partners from one side of the boat to leaning way out on the other side.  The girls’ feet were hooked on unseen straps. They were sailing into the wind as close as they could because they were racing ten other boats who were doing the same only less gracefully, more haphazardly, and behind them.

This crew that tacked was two young women from George Stevens Academy. They were sailing in the Becton Cup last week. They went on to win the regatta and become the best high school female crew in Maine. Some say they are the best in New England.

I was observing my first regatta in my education as a new head of school in Maine.  I was struck by the athleticism of the sailors.  Pleasure sailing is just that.  Racing sailing is grueling, debilitating, and exhausting.  Teams have been known to simply melt down not just by sheer physical strain but also from decision exhaustion.  They simply could not work together anymore and they ask to drop out.

Racing at this level requires constant vigilance of 360 degrees of the competitive field.  Missing one small puff of wind, not recognizing when another boat is readying to come about, not listening to the wind off your sails or the water off your bow or not planning several moves ahead can be the difference between winning the race and coming in seventh.

Racing at this level requires the ability to be able to dismiss the lethal air or water temperatures. Likewise, sailors must see the freezing gusts of wind as a gift to advantage rather than something to bundle up against.

Just as fluid and resolute as the team above the surface is the boat’s keel underneath the water line. It knifes through the water giving both direction and hinting a mysterious, sharklike primal fear.

Perhaps most importantly, two-handed sailing requires a unique combination of great technical skill and sophisticated communication skills.  The team members must make hundreds of small decisions sometimes on their own, sometimes by spoken command, and sometimes by unspoken consensus.  While this is no different from basketball or softball in that all three are sports that require teamwork, sailing at this level requires extraordinary communication that can only be the result of lots of hours together in a boat before and after failure, before and after anger, before and after joy and frustration, before and after capsizing in freezing water.

I thoroughly enjoyed watching the regatta. There is something so elemental in sailing, for while the Maine Maritime Academy boats were brand new and the kids are wearing high tech gear, our species has been in boats with sails out in the wind and water for thousands of years. Further, sailing involves both working with and against nature. The lessons of learning to sail and learning to race are both temporal and life long. You learn to tack on this water and with this wind on this day….and you learn to tack in life for the many years to come.

Mrs. Smith and Little Rock 10.15.11

My 10th grade English teacher was black.  In 1972, Mrs. Smith was my first formal black teacher in all of my schooling having had an excellent teacher in Miss Virginia, our maid when I was younger. Mrs. Smith graduated from the same high school in the early 60’s in Little Rock, Arkansas where this famous photograph was taken.  She framed this photo and hung it in her classroom.  She was also the first militant I had met…and she was my English teacher! (I did not know then how famous this photo would become.  Anyone who has studied documentary photography studied this photo.  The two women, the two beligerants central in this photo would end up growing up together.  The Slate piece below is the story of those two women.)

Mrs. Smith was a class act.  Serious, demanding, exact, young, friendly but, when necessary, confrontational, and, while short, she could project her voice powerfully.  I was reminded of her when I read this short piece in Slate because Mrs. Smith possessed the same cool, hardened resolve that this young woman projects.   I recommend it to readers.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.