At Winchester Thurston, the seeds of leadership are planted early, nurtured diligently, and designed to flourish far into each student’s future. Here is a look at some of the different ways that leadership is instilled and cultivated—uniquely and authentically — across the divisions.
WT first graders learn about leadership—and awareness of the wider world—through The Playground Project, a year-long undertaking that culminates in the hands-on, collaborative creation of a model accessible playground. Driven by student inquiry and interest, The Playground Project lessons run deep.
“The goal of The Playground Project is to teach students about disability and accessibility, as well as to recognize opportunities for greater accessibility in our own spaces,” states First Grade Teacher Elizabeth Friedman ’12. “I’ve found that children are incredibly willing to accommodate the needs of others. Our students are already kind, empathetic, and caring. The Playground Project offers them the opportunity to learn the vocabulary of accessibility and disability more directly, to understand the scope of disability in a more nuanced way, and to ‘Think also’ by learning how to advocate for themselves and for others.”
Friedman and fellow First Grade Teacher Lise-Ann Brownold lead students on a sustained journey of discovery beginning with a walk through of WT’s campus. Other field trips follow, all with an eye toward analyzing “accessible accommodations, or the lack thereof,” says Brownold. Play Days, a Zoom call with author and disability advocate Amy Webb, and meaningful conversations are interwoven throughout, challenging students to reflect and imagine how they might improve their own play spaces—then charging them to do just that.
“First grade is a time when creative thinking and collaboration allow students to expand their growing awareness of the world around them,” notes Brownold. “This project brings these skills to life in a fun and purposeful way.”
A recent chat among first graders confirms this thinking. Student Jonah Lee defines disability this way: “It’s like some people take one route, and people with disabilities have to take another route, but they can still end up at the same place.” Accessibility, said Derrick Wilson, means “everybody is supposed to be able to use this.”
Emma Pless, whose model accessible playground is named “Everybody’s Playground,” explained the importance of accessible spaces and places. “Without this, people with disabilities wouldn’t be able to do any of the things that Jonah, or Derrick, or I can do, because they have differences in their bodies.”
“First graders are remarkably capable,” affirms Friedman. “I have a motto in my classroom: ‘different friends need different things at different times.’ My students understand this motto and frequently reference it. When students use the wobble board [a balance board used as a tool for movement and open-ended play] in our classroom, for instance, they no longer say, ‘I want a turn.’ They say, ‘let me know when you’re ready for someone else to take a turn,’ because they recognize that some of their peers use the wobble board as a tool to support their learning. It can be easy for children, much like adults, to be afraid of differences. Rather than be afraid, The Playground Project supports the idea that difference is not at all scary; in fact, it’s amazing! And our students are helping lead the way in communicating that message.”
An engaging blend of programs, events, and opportunities designed to develop leadership has long been essential to the WT Middle School experience. Among them: student-run electives which encourage students to share their knowledge with peers through courses they design and teach. Now, the introduction of a formalized process for proposing student-run electives both fortifies leadership skills inherent in the experience—and builds new ones.
“We had several students interested in running electives and felt a process was needed to support their interest,” explains Director of Middle School Amanda Welsh. “It was also a great way to teach them about formal processes and how to work with teachers and administrators to develop their ideas.
“Students create a PowerPoint presentation and meet with me,” says Welsh. “The proposal includes a description of their idea for the elective, a proposed budget of materials, and a timeline of topics for each class period. They also seek out a faculty member to sponsor their elective. If the proposal meets the criteria (which may require a few iterations), I approve their idea.”
The process enables students to authentically practice leadership skills like “self-advocating, developing confidence and independence, learning time management, and how to break down big tasks,” says Welsh. “It also teaches them how to run an effective class. They truly learn what engages students.”
Seventh grade students Joya Nasr and Lucy Hine can attest to the rigors of the proposal process, and the challenges of teaching. Along with classmates Leah Krifcher, Alice Bussler, and Elizabeth Butera, they have now proposed, and taught, their elective, Creative Arts, for two trimesters.
“There were a lot of steps,” says Lucy. “We had to meet with Ms. Welsh a couple of times, make a video, have everything ready and scheduled, order supplies, and outline our plans.”
“Ms. Welsh helped us to think about budgeting” adds Joya. “She saw that our budget was $100, and said we would have to use our budget carefully to find good quality supplies, and still have enough money for other things.”
Creative Arts is a creative and performance-based elective. The students originally designed a rotation of dance, drama, and art activities, but soon discovered that they — like teachers — had to adjust their plans to maintain student interest. “Last trimester, we learned that dance might not have been the class favorite!” says Joya, with a laugh. Lucy nods, “This year, we aren’t going to do as much dance.”
The formal proposal process—and the experience of running an elective—complement and reinforce Developmental Designs, a framework for advisory, classes, and building a strong Middle School community whose four major tenets (competence, autonomy, fun, and relationships) integrate social and academic learning while meeting the needs of adolescents.
Lucy and Joya say the achievement of producing an approved program proposal, and being entrusted with the responsibility of teaching a class, has been rewarding.
“It felt nice because we’re only in the seventh grade, and we’ve never been in charge of anything,” reflects Lucy. “It’s been nice to be the leaders. It has been a really fun experience.”
Three musicians + eight instruments = one great idea. As a mathematical equation, the numbers don’t quite add up—but as an example of WT student leadership, it is the ovation-worthy formula behind Music for Good, a program created by rising seniors Marco Cardenes, Alexander Sayette, and Rohan Sykora. Introduced this year, Music for Good provides musical instruments and weekly private instruction, at no cost, to local public elementary school fourth and fifth graders.
Alex, Marco, and Rohan have been connected through Pittsburgh’s music community since childhood. All together, they play eight instruments, and they have played for years as a jazz trio. Music is essential to their lives, and they love sharing it.
“During the earlier stages of COVID-19, we were invited to perform in outdoor neighborhood ‘porch’ concerts that raised funds for various groups hard hit by the pandemic,” they recall. “It felt good to bring the gift of music to people during a time of isolation and uncertainty. Around the same time, we read an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette stating that funding for music programs in the Pittsburgh Public Schools had been severely cut. The article also mentioned research showing that music programs can benefit children in ways far beyond music, including academic performance. This was consistent with our own experiences, and we wanted to create a way to give the joy, excitement, and creativity that comes with music to children who might not otherwise have that access.”
The students orchestrated a plan, and over the course of a year, Music for Good emerged.
“We had to initially assess the need for music instruction and instruments, identify and build a relationship with a partner school, raise funds for instruments and supplies, develop a transportation plan and COVID-19 protocols, and select students.”
As their enthusiasm grew, so did their leadership expertise—honed over time, trial, and error.
“Starting a program from scratch that requires support from more than one group is challenging. Without the patience and tenacity to be able to simultaneously see the long-term picture, and work on the short-term goals, none of this would have been possible.”
“We are grateful to Principal Zwieryznski and Mr. Christopher Corbett at Liberty Elementary School, who agreed to work with us to develop the program. With their generous help, we have finally begun lessons! We are equally grateful to Dr. Anne Fay, [former Director of Upper School], who was an incredible source of guidance and encouragement in this process.”
“Alex, Marco, and Rohan embodied the persistence necessary to bring an idea to fruition,” observes Monica Manes Gay, WT’s Executive Director for Institutional Advancement. A seasoned fundraising professional, Gay understands the challenges of such an undertaking. “They kept moving forward, finding alternative avenues, and creatively solving any problems they encountered. I can’t wait to see how their efforts grow and am excited about the numbers of students they will influence.”
Rohan, Marco, and Alex hope that Music for Good will long play on, continuing to impart the power of music throughout the region.