Riverdale Country School

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Riverdale News & Stories

Frank Hackett: An Educator For The Ages
Posted 09/18/2017 02:42PM

Dr. Kelley Nicholson-Flynn, head of the Upper School, spoke at Parents Day on Saturday about the enduring legacy of the school's founder, Frank Sutliff Hackett. Hackett and his wife founded Riverdale in 1907, and Hackett served as the head of school until 1949. Here is an excerpt from her speech:

This summer, as I spent some time thinking about our world, our kids, what they are experiencing and what they need, I tried to take myself out of the present a little bit, to learn from others, especially others connected to our wonderful school.  I got myself thinking about Riverdale’s founder, Frank Hackett and discovered that he was a truly inspirational human being, far ahead of the game in terms of understanding how learning happens (as has been confirmed by many modern cognitive and social scientists) and on why it matters so much. So, for today, I’d like to offer you what I believe were Hackett’s top five hopes for Riverdalians and how I interpret them in our modern context.

A Country Day School

Our school’s founder was one of the early generators of a movement called the “country day school movement.” Because he believed in “abundant play in the open,” Hackett aimed to give city kids a different kind of experience ... of leaving the hustle and bustle of the city to go to a place where they could connect with the natural world and experience a bit of quiet to have an opportunity for reflection. The story of him picking this site is kind of lovely. He and his spouse took a ride on the subway from Manhattan all the way to the end at 215th street where they got on a trolley to Van Cortlandt Park. They hiked up the hill that had the occasional shack or cabin but not much else until you got up on the hill. They came across a house for rent and jumped on it to start the Riverdale Country School right across the street from us in Tower House, which is where Dominic Randolph lives today.

On the one hand, our amazing campus provides this concept of experiencing the abundance of the outdoors outdoors. But given the way our city has changed over the past 110 years, coming to the Bronx isn’t actually getting us truly out in the open anymore. So, I believe that the growth in our Outdoor Program is a logical extension. Our current 9th graders and many of the 10th graders participated in the outdoor orientation at Harriman State Park. It was challenging. As it was intended to be. But finishing that trip (or for our current 10th graders, the 8th grade trip) was a triumph. The students not only had time to appreciate the glory of our earth, but they realized that they’d be okay being uncomfortable and felt the feeling of accomplishment. Some of them also learned to appreciate the modern benefits of indoor plumbing and a soft bed, which isn’t too shabby either. But I think Hackett would be proud that we were leaning into his vision of a country day school AND these opportunities yielded important lessons for all of our kids as they navigate high school and beyond. I hope that you will encourage your kids to take advantage of these opportunities to connect with the natural world in experiences offered by our Outing Club.

Scholarly and Intimate Teaching

A second concept that Hackett introduced that has really stuck with our school is the idea of  “scholarly and intimate teaching.” You know that our faculty — young and veteran, alike — are all scholars. Not only have they been the beneficiaries of wonderful educations, but to a person, they continue to be learners in their disciplines and outside. (Sidebar: If you haven’t seen the faculty “learners for life” video on social media, check it out. Jason Curry, sign language.  Sarah Banks, fiddle.)

What’s more impressive, though, is that our kids are both emerging and bonafide scholars. You should see them in class. You see them do their reading, but probably rarely get to hear them say “well, as Edmund Morgan said in our reading last night, America is a paradox.”  or “I think we need to consider the variability of the data in determining how strong that conclusion is.”  As they wind their way through high school, our students are increasingly more comfortable at making meaning when faced with uncertainty or contradictory data, as scholars do.

But what about the “intimate” part of teaching? Just the other morning, I came up to school early to have hot breakfast with my daughter and got a glimpse of the early morning cafeteria vibe. It was only the second week of school, but I saw teachers and students sitting alongside each other, discussing ideas from class over a cup of coffee.  

Was it scheduled or spontaneous? I don’t know or care, but Hackett would have been proud. I encourage you to urge your children to take advantage of getting to know their teachers in this way, whether through informal interaction like I described or through meetings with teachers or work with them in the writing, math or language center. Though there are countless trends in education that come and go, there is no replacement for this type of relationship.  

The Riverdale Crest

I’m not sure if any of you have ever taken a look at the Riverdale Country School crest. Here it is. I hope you’ll notice a few things ... First, that evergreen tree harkens back to my earlier point. But second, you’ll see the school’s motto: “It is the spirit that quickeneth.” This was a really important idea to Hackett, something I found out by reading his biography, aptly titled "A Quickened Spirit." It didn’t take me long to develop sincere admiration for Riverdale’s founder. To some extent, he shared similarities in his upbringing with our kids. He went to Trinity (which was okay because Riverdale didn’t exist yet). As a high school and college student, he was involved in a plethora of activities including athletics, the choral program, the literary society, and debate.  He traveled more than many of his contemporaries and worked as a sports reporter (for pay) when he was in college. He was an athlete, in fact a champion in the mile walk. He didn’t make the crew team but blew people out of the water in the mile walk. How fast?  7:11.  In the mile walk!

But really, I think you get the picture that Frank Hackett was a man on the go. He was described as someone who “read fast, walked fast, spoke fast, wrote fast and grasped situations quickly.” On the one hand, that’s great. I like fast. I am someone who refuses to believe that she talks fast. (I just think other people listen slow). At the same time, I started to feel exhausted by Mr. Hackett, but at least understood one of his conceptions of  “It is the spirit that quickeneth.”

"Catch The Other Man's Point of View" 

It is not surprising that Hackett built a school that a few years in, was clearly a busy and happy place with good challenges and lots of support, not that different from what we look like today. But ... there is something more to education than that. It’s  not just about being busy, working hard and enjoying yourself. In order for education to work or to matter at all, learners of all ages need the opportunity to reflect. And we need to work together despite our differences. And more importantly, we want to intentionally learn from each other because of those differences. Was this in Hackett’s original vision?

Indeed, the evidence is clear that it was. I would like to share with you a journal entry he made in 1913, so only six years into the life of this school. Hackett wrote a “to do” list of sorts. He said:

    • Exercise more.

    • Incorporate a daily reading of the classics — for example — re-read "Odyssey" and share it with my son.

    • Be more considerate of Frances (his spouse).

    • Find a permanent spot for the school (sidebar: This was really important in that moment because Tower house was just for rent. Thankfully, he ultimately found this spot right across the street.

    • Stop talk of other schools — he clearly tried to get himself, and those who worked and learned here to avoid comparisons within the school or among other schools.

    • “Try far harder to catch the other man’s point of view and to draw it out, rather than repress it.”  

    • Find a permanent spot. [Yes, that was super important, made the list twice.]

    • Think more of God, pray harder and more sincerely morning and night.

    • GROW - in all capitals

I was really moved by this “to do” list. He’s a guy with a pressing work issue (find a spot for the school), who appreciates the classics and wants to be a good family and community member. But he emphasized that he must take care of himself physically and spiritually. And, he made it clear that he can only learn and grow if he listens to other people. He felt it was his responsibility to draw out someone else’s ideas instead of shutting them down. And that is my fourth ideal that Hackett put forth ... I think he’d be proud of today ... that we work to listen to each other and to “catch the other man’s point of view.”

This critical set of capacities has been part of our school for 110 years and couldn’t be any more critical today. The life of an adolescent in 2017 is far from easy. They face incredible pressure to achieve and succeed. Some of that is from society, some from school and their peers, some from you, but largely from themselves. They have hard decisions to make about social issues — decisions about parties and substance use, decisions about romantic and physical intimacy in a world with shifting terrain around consent laws. And they face these challenges in a time where discussion of important issues in the political arena is just really tough…

Let me address what I think today about each of those challenges. First, a focus on mental and physical health is critical. To that end, based on student feedback and known best practices, we have made some changes in our health programming, beginning it in 9th grade and adding some more in depth experiences involving discussions about consent in relationships in each of the other grades. [The current 10th grade will take health this year.] In addition to our great deans, I’m grateful to Christina Young, our new Director of Student Life, for helping me make those changes. 

Second, some of you know that we periodically have One World Days where we cancel classes to take a deep dive into a topic. This year, we will reprise a successful OWD focused on mental health and wellness to give the entire community a jump start, a reminder that we all struggle from time to time, that sometimes professional help is needed to get us through, and that we need to take time to take care of our internal life through practices like mindfulness, journal writing, or simply taking a quiet walk.

A Diverse Community

Finally, I’d like to spend some time on this idea of “listening and drawing out the other person’s point of view” and will incorporate the fifth pillar that Hackett would recognize and be proud of if he were her today.

Riverdale is, and has always been, an intentionally diverse community. First, on religion. The motto “it is the spirit that quickeneth” is biblical and you already gathered that Hackett was a religious man. Yet, this school has always had students of multiple religions — Christian, Jews, Muslim or something else — because he believed that what we shared is greater than what differs. At the same time, he believed having differences among individuals in the community enriched everyone. Yesterday, members of the Class of 1957 were here on campus and we discussed this point. I didn’t know this, but during their time here, Riverdale had daily chapel and alternated days studying the Old and New Testament and applying those lessons to their lives. They had all sorts of practices to ensure that they were consistent with their own beliefs while still learning from religions that were not their own.

Furthermore, in its early years, Riverdale was a boarding school, and the school intentionally brought kids together from very different environments — there were students from China and Cuba in addition to those from the US  — so that they could learn from each other. In fact, Hackett had wanted to expand Riverdale or start a new school called the Global School, to bring people together from VERY different places together to learn. Today, we are a day school which makes this harder, but Jenna King and her team push themselves to create  a community that has that global representation by inviting into this community families who have a long history in the US and with Riverdale and families who are new to this country. In addition, we are the most diverse school with regard to race and ethnicity that we’ve been in my time at Riverdale.  

All of this is exactly what Hackett intended because he —  like all of our leaders here — believed that schools are sacred spaces where students can engage in the profound work of thinking about complicated and exciting ideas in a space where if we listen and draw out someone else’s ideas, we can grow. To do this when the outside world is not modeling this or engaging in this behavior is exceedingly difficult.  Indeed, one could have a rich discussion about how to handle monuments like the one that prompted “Charlottesville.” But what happened there bears no resemblance to what we want our kids to be able to do. People who are trying to learn with and from each other wouldn’t use the language, images or tactics used in Charlottesville. That is just hate and it has no place in civil society or in an educational community like ours.  

So, how do we help kids get better at this, talking through ideas even when we bring different experiences and have different ideas?  A lot of it happens in the classroom, as they read and consider literature and history.  Some of it happens through assemblies. I had a great suggestion for an assembly from a parent last year: Why don’t you have some of the school leaders engage in dialogue about challenging political topics? I would love to do that, but there are some limitations on what I think school members can share given our non-profit status. So Gina Cantelmo who works with me on assemblies helped me identify a pair of commentators — one conservative (Tara Settmeyer) and one liberal (Kevin Powell) — to tackle some of the challenging topics in the news today. I am pretty sure they’ll disagree, but I know that they will listen and engage in courageous and respectful dialogue to learn from each other.

A final way that I hope kids will learn from others in addition to learning from texts or assemblies is by engaging in our Global Studies Program. In a few weeks, you’ll hear from Susan Polise about this year’s offerings. When our kids travel to China, Ireland, Japan, Peru, or South Africa, they are not doing so as tourists. We work to create spaces where kids deeply engage with the authentic communities of the place that they are visiting. And we provide opportunities for discussion so that they can make sense of what they experience. There really is no replacement for global travel which is why we work to make this an opportunity for every student in this school. I urge you to take advantage of it.

In closing, I hope that through sharing with you some of Frank Hackett’s intentions for our school, you recognize that what we do here is grounded not only in tradition but in the ideas of one of the great educators of our time. The world outside our gates can be unpredictable, but by focusing on these core goals  — connecting with nature, learning in scholarly and intimate settings, taking care of ourselves physically, mentally and spiritually, listening and drawing out the other person’s ideas, and working to build a diverse community where everyone thrives — we will “change the world for good” as our mission states.


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