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Meg Campbell

Meg Campbell

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Laughter, Joy and Friendship in School?

Posted: 04/25/11 01:23 PM ET

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I was taking photographs at our recent College Speed Dating event and snapped this one of our Principal, Thabiti Brown and Dean of Enrichment, Nora Dowley, sharing a laugh. We are a pretty serious bunch at our school, but this photograph got me thinking about the role of laughter, joy and friendship in education, and the role of emotion in creating communities where learning happens best.

Fifteen years ago, my younger daughter, Adrienne, was in the first class of a semester-long immersive study of New York City called Cityterm, a great program for high school juniors and seniors. Cityterm is academically challenging but its small size, intensity and emphasis on thoughtful, caring communication virtually guarantees life long friendships. Interestingly, the richness of the experience also transcends across classes, so that a Cityterm alum is predisposed to feeling a bond with another Cityterm graduate.

When I conceived of Codman Academy Charter Public School eleven years ago, I hoped our school could also - by its purposeful immersion in a community health center (Codman Square Health Center) and theatre (The Huntington Theatre) and small size -- jolt students into connecting with each other and adults in more meaningful ways. Cityterm's success in this domain inspired me.

When Adrienne was first learning to play the flute when she was six, her teacher at New England Conservatory Extension, Nina Barwell, called to talk about the way Adrienne went about practicing. "She can either really learn to play the flute or she can play-act learning to play the flute." Naturally, Adrienne chose the former. But that idea of "play acting" resonated for me. I wanted Codman to be a place where we didn't "play act" but instead taught and learned to high levels of performance, fully engaging cognitive and emotional dimensions of our students and ourselves.

I am not talking about free form, endless self-expression without standards and accountability. I think one of the most important features of charter schools is that we are held accountable for meeting standards, or we are shut down. States that are weak holding charters accountable for results, weaken all charters.

But with the determined focus on meeting standards, are we overlooking at times more nuanced learning, and the power of human connection in its varied forms including laughter, joy and friendship? In 1992, this was certainly a driving idea behind the development of the school design and principles of Expeditionary Learning (a model for school design) , and I'm happy and proud that it is an idea that has only been deepened as the network of Expeditionary Learning schools has grown. Codman Academy is proud to be a mentor school for Expeditionary Learning.

The need for joy, laughter and friendship is as true for students as it is for adults. At Codman we have several structures which are specifically designed to foster friendship among students and a holistic connection with adults. We didn't originally conceive of these as an anti-bullying program, but I see now that is a side benefit. Specifically, drawing on Outward Bound's idea of, "We are crew, not passengers," our advisories are called and function as crews. They are also single gender and multi-age, so that a boy entering in ninth grade would go into an all male crew and stay with that crew until he is a senior. (We believe students need a break from what I call "hormone display behavior" which can be exhausting for adolescents. The crews are named after historically Black colleges and universities, and we also have various crew competitions and chores). Students refer to their crew members as "family" and "sisters" or "brothers" and their advisers as crew leaders.

Each fall, our entire school community travels two hours north to the American Youth Foundation's Camp Merrowvista near Wolfboro, New Hampshire. The camp motto is "My own self, at my very best, all the time." Students' laughter literally changes over the course of those three days, as their vocal chords relax in the beauty, challenges and fun of focusing on leadership skills at camp. When we were faced with needing to cut our budget, there was a universal cry, "Don't cut Merrowvista!" Camp has become a placeholder for us for the importance of laughter, joy and friendship in school.

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On Friday night, the seniors organized a talent show to raise funds for their social action project on drop-out prevention; they have decided to create a scholarship to award to a student in another school who overcame the odds of dropping out. I have always harbored a secret ambition to be one of the Supremes, and I had my chance when I joined a trio of senior girls (and we all dressed our parts!) to lip sync "Stop in the Name of Love." The sound of forgiving, gentle laughter rained down on us. I'm glad we made space for that at school. It was a joy.