Eliza Foster: At the Intersection…

Groton, MA — Academic experiences that stay with you are hard to quantify; you’ll often find them outside “direct systematic instruction.” When history and English teacher Eliza Foster reflected on her school years at the Academic Awards Assembly on Wednesday, September 20, she emphasized this point.

“I want to tell you about my 23 years in school in a way that represents where my best learning has happened,” she said. “And by ‘best learning,’ I don’t mean every academic success or accomplishment.

“I’d like to tell you about the kind of learning that has actually made me who I am.  The kind of learning that is exhausting, overwhelming, but also makes me feel more alive than anything else.”

The How and Where

For Ms. Foster, this kind of learning is not so much about the “what” as it is about the how and where.

“As I thought of these moments, I realized that they all had something in common,” she continued. “They all happened at the intersection of so many factors other than just the process of giving or receiving systematic instruction.

“The best way I can explain this to you is by telling you about two places where I constantly feel like my brain is on fire:  Bread Loaf, which is my graduate school program, and LA.”

Perhaps most rewarding is the connection between her time at Middlebury’s Bread Loaf Graduate School of English and LA has shaped itself into a kind of positive feedback loop.

“This system actually works in both ways for me,” she said. “Being a student in the summer makes me a better teacher, and being a teacher makes me a better student.

“My experience as a teacher in the classroom is something I can’t separate from my best learning moments. I teach because I love reading, writing, and thinking with you all…and that’s because of what you bring every day.”

Final Draft

After a seven-week struggle with a creative assignment during her first summer at Bread Loaf, Ms. Foster remembered standing before the printer, “watching the ink hit the page” of her final draft.

“I wrote much of that assignment at a picnic table with three of my classmates,” she recollected.  “The moment I watched my work print was surrounded by all the moments before it—all of the relationships to the people, and to this place.

“That’s the kind of learning that has shaped who I am.”

by Allie Goodrich ’13

One in a series of occasional features on Lawrence Academy faculty…

An Honest, Flexible Approach: Mike Culley

Groton, MA — “I’m the Assistant Director of Studies, and I teach history,” began Mike Culley during a recent interview with the LA Communications Office. “I’ve been here 13 years, I also coach basketball, work in the dorm, serve as an advisor, do Winterim… that’s pretty much it.”

That’s pretty much it? Lol.

A Full Schedule

Culley M.It’s a full schedule, and a workload not unlike many faculty members at Lawrence Academy, but it’s an aspect of the job that Mr. Culley — who is also a husband and father — takes on with gusto. However, most would be surprised to learn that Mike, who pulls together the weekly Spartan Newsletter, works to tackle tasks, games, and classes one at a time.

“One of the reasons I don’t project out what’s going to happen in class for the next three weeks is because the students will dictate [the pace] to me; because they’re going to be honest with me when they don’t understand something,” he said of his flexible approach.  “And if we have to spend more time on it, we will.

“And that reflects in everything we do, especially with the skills and habits that we’re trying to build with reading and writing, note taking, organizing, being able to handle a long-term project, or writing an in-depth research paper.

“Sometimes you have to slam on the brakes a little bit,” admitted Mr. Culley, normally a full-speed-ahead kind of guy.  “For me, being able to get the kids in a position where they can be honest with that feedback from me, they know that I’m going to respond.

“And so my classes, yeah, they’ve been known to slow down, they’ve been known to pick up speed, because the kids will tell me to move it, and I do.”

Listening and Noticing

Given his athletic background, his physical stature, and his current work as a firefighter, it seems funny to think that anyone is telling Mr. Culley what to do.

However, as a mentor, he takes pride in his ability to listen, notice details, and be malleable.

“That has been one of the biggest sources of pride, but also admiration I have for this place,” said Mike of the LA mindset. “We listen to what the kids say, and we respond accordingly.”

Mr. Culley’s advisees certainly benefit from that approach, as well.

“I think the advisor program is one of my favorites,” said Mike with a broad smile. “It’s one of my favorite parts of what we do here because you get to engage and talk with students on a very personal level, and what you find is not always what you expect.

“You’ll find students who, in the classroom, are not the same person that you deal with on a personal level,” he explained.  “You’re able to take what you learn about that student, and you’re able to sort of build up their spirit, and do that by not just encouraging the kid, but also by talking with the teachers and being able to build on that experience.”

Making Experiences Memorable

“Experience” is an important word for Mr. Culley, as he admits his high school years were not as memorable as he’d like.

“I went to school and thought I’d probably be an English teacher, and I’ll never forget that first English paper I got back in college that taught me a real lesson about high school because I couldn’t write,” he said.  “So for me, to be honest with the kids and have them be honest with me is part of the conversation we have throughout the year.

“They know that now, and I’ve been here long enough that I have that reputation, and I embrace it because while I’m tough, I’m also fair.  And I think that reflects in what my kids will say about me.  They know that I’m tough, but they know I’m going to be fair to them as well.

“And to be able to be honest with them is something that I take pride in…”

One in a series of occasional features on Lawrence Academy faculty…