The best parts of my job are when I am able to get into classrooms and observe the work between students and our faculty. In the last two days I had the opportunity to visit classes in history, Latin, art, math and science. Needless to say, it was a busy but very rewarding few days.

Despite the variety of disciplines and the ages of the students (from sixth-grade to seniors), there were a few common themes I observed. I was particularly impressed with the high level of student engagement in each classroom. In each setting and no matter what was happening, students were eager to participate and excited to share. Of course, this won’t matter much if the teacher has not set up an environment that encourages participation, fosters curiosity, and rewards risk taking. In two days, I observed students discussing the rise of the US as a world power, diagraming sentences in Latin, analyzing the symbolism present in artwork about nature, building rollercoasters, and comparing cell structures to human communities.

In each of these cases, our students were being asked to draw connections between material they had been studying and think a bit deeper about how it might relate to something else. Students were eager to share their understandings with the teacher and each other, and everybody’s participation was expected.

In one particular moment, I walked by a class of sixth-grade scientists who were building rollercoasters out of foam and duct tape. They have taken over half of the MS commons with their projects stacked on tables and chairs across the great room. It looked like a neat activity, but I wondered if it was more of a craft than a science lab. The kids looked like they were having too much fun to really be learning. To check this out, I stopped and asked one boy what scientific principals he was analyzing with this project. He responded without hesitation: motion, friction, and kinetic energy. His friends nodded.

OK, then.

We like to say that Marshall is a community of achievement-oriented students, where it is “cool to like school” — and my observations this past few days confirmed how transformative that environment can be when applied across an entire institution.