“Meeting for Learning” at Princeton Friends School

As the founding head of Princeton Friends School, I’ve been asked time and again during the past 12 years the same questions: What inspired me to start a school? And what is it that makes Princeton Friends School a Quaker school, anyway? My response to these questions has evolved over time, but the core message has remained the same over the years, harking back to my own first experiences with Quaker meeting for worship.

I began attending Friends Meeting in 1982. When I first entered the meetinghouse, I experienced that which so many convinced Friends speak of—that feeling of coming home.

As I became more familiar with Friends worship, I began to feel connections between this experience on Sunday and my work in the classroom during the week. At the time I was quite involved with Junior Great Books, a literature program for my fifth graders. As teachers explore a short story with students, they are encouraged to put forth questions for discussion to which they themselves do not have a clear answer. This approach completely transformed the dynamic of my classroom. Suddenly, students were no longer jockeying around, stabbing at the answers they thought I wanted to hear, but rather began putting forth their own observations and insights, from their different perspectives, supporting their ideas with evidence from the text. The underlying assumption of this pedagogical approach was that everyone in the room had a piece of the truth, and together we were constructing a more complex understanding of a text than any one of us could have done alone. I remember vividly the day in meeting when it struck me that what was happening in a literature discussion in my classroom, in those best moments, was essentially what was happening spiritually in meeting for worship. Just as religious insight emerges through the many voices in a Quaker meeting, so in a literature discussion a deeper understanding of a text is achieved through the sharing of perspectives and the holding of conflicting viewpoints simultaneously.

As I recognized this analogy between the meetinghouse and the classroom, it became clearer to me that as people come together in the search for truth or understanding there is little room for competition, whether spiritual or academic. Instead, just as Friends join together in meeting for worship in the corporate process of perceiving the truth that is revealed to them, so in the classroom students are served most effectively if competition is transmuted into a collaborative and mutually supportive process of constructing knowledge. We do not grow by entering either the meetinghouse or the classroom with the aim of proving ourselves to be right or in possession of more knowledge than the person sitting next to us. Rather, we grow only to the extent that we approach each of these experiences with a hope and an expectation of being transformed, combined with a willingness both to learn from others and to contribute to their learning.

It was this growing awareness of the deep similarity between meeting for worship and progressive educational practice that attracted me initially to become involved in Friends education. What would a whole school look like, I wondered, that had at its foundation the same beliefs and assumptions that lie at the heart of meeting for worship? In answer to this question, I became increasingly convinced of both the richness of multiple perspectives on a topic under consideration and the necessity of the collaborative process in bringing these perspectives to light. These became, for me, the seeds—germinated in the silence of meeting for worship—that sprouted into the founding pedagogical philosophy of Princeton Friends School. It was some time later that I came across the notion of the school as a “meeting for learning,” a model for instruction eloquently articulated in an essay by Parker Palmer.

As the vision for our fledgling school began to take shape, other aspects of meeting for worship pointed the way toward particular educational practices. The first of these was the notion that each person has immediate access to truth through direct experience of the Light Within. In Friends for 300 Years, Howard Brinton draws an analogy between a Quaker meeting for worship and a science laboratory classroom. In each, the seeker (or student) is offered an opportunity to make knowledge (whether of a spiritual or scientific nature) an experience of one’s own. This view of the individual’s relationship to knowledge has powerful pedagogical implications, as it suggests that learning activities should be constructed to offer students direct experience of subject matter. Just as a meeting for worship operates on the premise that no intermediary is appointed to stand between the worshiping individual and the truth sought, so in the classroom the teacher’s aim should be to get out of the way, as much as possible, as the student encounters and engages with the subject matter at hand. I’d come across John Dewey’s thesis regarding the importance of experience in education years before, but through the experience of meeting for worship I came to understand that hands-on learning was particularly fitting in a Quaker setting.

Despite the emphasis, both in meeting for worship and the progressive classroom, on the direct experience of truth (or subject matter), the fact remains that the seeker (or student) relies heavily on the example and guidance of those at hand who are more experienced and wise. Though in Quaker meeting no intermediary is assigned the task of praying for those assembled in worship, it is true that those present who are particularly gifted in vocal ministry serve as channels through which the Spirit flows, speaking to others’ conditions and providing spiritual nurture. The role of a teacher is analogous to that of a weighty Friend. The teacher stands beside his or her students, first and foremost modeling an openness to learning, but bringing as well a breadth of experience and a depth of knowledge to the classroom that provide inspiration and structure for everyone else.

Another significant aspect of Quaker worship is the notion that truth is unfolding in a process of continuing revelation to those seeking after it. Academic knowledge and intellectual understanding are also always expanding, altering what we know and how we perceive the world to be. The shared work of focusing on a question, peeling away that which is irrelevant, uncovering the seeds of truth beneath observable phenomena, and formulating new questions is common to both Quaker worship and scientific inquiry. This process may be seen as a model for considering any topic in any academic discipline.

For me, the peculiar tension between silence and words was a particularly compelling aspect of Quaker worship. How could it be, I often wondered, that through the process of stilling myself, of entering into a deep and wordless silence, vocal ministry would spring forth that captured experience in new and unexpected ways? From where did these words come? Existing alongside this paradox regarding language was another tension—that of honoring the individual on the one hand, and upholding the community on the other. Within meeting for worship, anyone may have access to and speak the word of God; it is this vocal ministry for which we all wait in expectant silence. Given that there is that of God in each person, each member of the community is due an equal measure of respect and is encouraged to give voice to inner stirrings. Yet it is only through relationship with others, whether sitting together in meeting or living together in community, that the transcendent spirit finds expression. These tensions between silence and words, between the individual and the community, lend vitality to any school that consciously embraces the values and assumptions of Friends. And finally, the Friends testimonies of honesty, equality, simplicity, and harmony—all of which derive naturally from the basic Quaker tenets that there is that of God in each person and that it is our responsibility to live with one another in accordance with this understanding—express themselves in a variety of ways in Quaker schools.

As Princeton Friends School launched itself in the fall of 1987, all of these aspects of Quakerism, so intricately intertwined with one another, began playing out in various ways through the school’s program and curriculum. These core assumptions were expressed in the school’s program and curriculum at the school’s founding, and they have continued to guide our practice ever since.

The scheduling of “settling in,” our school’s version of an unprogrammed meeting for worship, defined us as a Friends school from the start. Once a week, ever since that first day of school in 1987, the entire Princeton Friends School community has gathered in the meetinghouse. At times the settling in period is completely silent, though more often it is punctuated with a variety of vocal offerings provided primarily by younger children. Older students tend to hold back out of an adolescent self-consciousness, but they are willing to come forth at critical times—during meetings that are held in memory of members of the community who have died, for example, or at the end of the year when they find themselves taking stock of their school experience. At the rise of each settling in, the head of meeting invites afterthoughts. At this time students who have not previously spoken raise their hands and volunteer something that they would have said if they’d had the nerve during the settling in itself.

Through the experience of settling in, week after week and year after year, students learn to be silent, to find a place of stillness within the busyness of their lives, and to pause and reflect. Students come to understand that each individual is a valued member of the community whose voice will be listened to deeply and respectfully. Even the youngest Beginning School children, by June of each year, have discovered that they may stand in settling in and speak their thoughts to the rest of the school community and that if they do, others will listen.

This honoring of both silence and individual voice has informed work in the classroom. Just as silence and the spoken word lie together at the heart of Quaker meeting, so the companion notions of individual voice and individual choice are central to the school’s program and curriculum. Whenever students select their own books for independent or shared reading, draw on their own life experiences in composing personal narratives, carry out an art assignment in an idiosyncratic manner, or choose a science topic of personal interest for independent research, students are asked both to search within themselves for direction and to be present in the community as the individuals they understand themselves to be.

Regardless of whether students ever choose to speak in meeting, it seems that the feel for an effectively delivered message—from the ability to recognize the inspiration necessary to breach the silence to begin with, to the appropriate use of story and metaphor and the proper balance between the personal and the general—is developed in all of the students simply as a result of being present at settling in. The evidence for this is in the poetry that students write and then read aloud at our annual Poetry Reading, the letters they write as part of the community outreach program expressing concern about human rights and environmental abuses, and the eighth graders’ reflections on their elementary education as they graduate each June. Students not only recognize that their voices will be heard, but they learn how to enter into a reflective state of being and how to express what they discover there to the greatest effect.

The honoring of individual voice and choice extends beyond the spoken and written word. Through the art program students discover aspects of themselves—their talents, affinities, and particularities—that might otherwise go unrecognized. Assignments are always open-ended, presented within a defined framework that simultaneously provides necessary structure and allows students’ individuality to emerge. Students are encouraged to be bold, take risks, and express themselves freely. This approach to the teaching of art, unlike the formulaic approach that dominates so many elementary school art programs, is in harmony with the Quaker underpinnings of the school.

Similarly, music lies at the heart of community life at Princeton Friends. All major school events use music to bring the community together, drawing our many individual voices into one song. Whether singing around a dying campfire until midnight, or sending off our eighth grade graduates with an Irish blessing set to music, members of the school community clearly understand and appreciate the power of music to express soul-lifting qualities of our shared experience.

Practically every pedagogical choice we made in the early years of the school related, in one way or another, to the myriad underlying assumptions that frame Quaker belief and practice. Embracing the notion that we are all searching together after knowledge and truth, the founders concluded early on that the more “excellence” (success defined as “excelling” over others) lies at the heart of a classroom culture, the more learning is undermined as students equate achievement in absolute terms and are discouraged from taking risks and from communicating openly about their learning with their teachers and peers.

Consequently we decided to issue no grades, nor rank students in any way on standardized tests or on the playing field. Instead, from the very beginning we consciously worked on creating a community in which academic competition would be replaced by a culture of high intellectual challenge and expectation. In this community students would be encouraged to pursue learning for its own sake, support one another’s learning, and celebrate one another’s accomplishments, whether offering feedback to a friend on a piece of writing or expressing appreciation of an opponent’s move in a soccer game. It was our aim to channel the hunger for learning that all human beings share, along with the naturally competitive desire to stretch beyond one’s current capacities to emulate those perceived as more capable or knowledgeable, into healthy, vibrant, intellectual exchange. In this setting students would be accepted at whatever level of skill or expertise they possessed and encouraged to press forward from this point, using the performance of their peers as inspiration and as benchmarks for their own progress, in the process of developing competence and confidence in their own learning.

Finally, we decided that we would regularly mix students across age groups in academic and extracurricular settings, acknowledging that we all can learn from one another and that there is much to be gained by dissolving the arbitrary boundaries that traditionally separate children from one another and young people from adults.

Nowhere in the Princeton Friends School academic program is the concept of the meeting for learning more evident than in a Problem of the Week class, where math problems or assignments that invite multiple approaches offer the opportunity for all voices to be respected and listened to, and where divergent thinking in the service of corporate learning is encouraged and celebrated. As students interact with one another in pursuit of an understanding of mathematics and share their multiple perspectives on a particular assignment, all come away with a deeper appreciation of the subject than they could have achieved alone, combined with an understanding that there are multiple “right” ways to solve a problem.

Just as Quaker worship is experiential in nature, so the instructional program at Princeton Friends is designed to engage students directly with subject matter. In science classes students dissect owl pellets to reconstruct the skeleton of a vole, or observe firsthand the hatching of a chick. As part of the thematic Central Study curriculum, students participate in field trips to distant locations and write dramatic monologues in which they enter into a culture under study in immediate and personally compelling ways. In foreign language and Central Study classes students cook, engage in craft projects, and participate in hands-on activities particular to a culture under study.

Our unique Central Study curriculum weaves together inquiry and learning across all grade levels, across the academic disciplines, and throughout the year, and lies at the heart of Princeton Friends School’s academic program. Each year’s thematic study aims to present the world to students through a particular lens so that geography, history, science, literature, art, and music present an integrated picture of human experience. Through this curriculum we live out the conviction that all of life is connected and that learning cannot and should not happen in isolated pockets of single-discipline focus. Teachers model for students the learning process as they explore side by side whatever theme is currently under investigation, and no one is expected to be an expert. In Central Study class we think about people—the fascinating diversity of civilization and culture across time and geography, and the similarities that bind us all together. Through this process we examine ourselves in relation to other people and the world, developing through this intellectual discipline a sense of responsibility to the Earth and to one another.

Across the disciplines and across the grades, the Princeton Friends School faculty make programmatic and curricular choices through which the testimonies of honesty, simplicity, equality, and harmony are reflected. Literature selections are regularly chosen with an eye to exposing students to cultures that are currently the focus in Central Study classes. Foreign language study is introduced in the youngest grades, building an understanding and appreciation of others with whom misunderstanding may at first predominate. The science program reinforces daily the notion that all of life is interconnected and interdependent, touches upon challenging ethical issues, and leads students to an aesthetic awareness of the diversity of life and the wonder of all creation. Community outreach, Princeton Friends School’s version of Quaker witness in the world, sends first through eighth grade students, along with faculty members and a core of dedicated parent volunteers, to a number of locations in the surrounding community, including nursing homes, childcare centers, and a variety of service, environmental, and community development organizations. The cumulative effect of this service over many years is that students develop an awareness of the world beyond their immediate environment, exposure to broad societal issues, compassion for those struggling under difficult circumstances, ability to view problems from a variety of perspectives, and recognition of their own capacity to actually do something useful in the world. Integral to the Princeton Friends School culture is a commitment to nonviolent resolution of conflict, and toward this end students are taught skills in talking out problems, seeing others’ points of view, and mediating disagreements.

Princeton Friends School’s curriculum and culture should certainly not be claimed as exclusively Quaker, as this would be callously dismissive of other religious and humanist traditions that embrace similar values and practices. For a good number of members of the community, in fact, these highly valued aspects of the school’s program do not derive from a religious base at all. We must be ever-vigilant about the ways the school can feel non-inclusive—albeit unconsciously—when the perspectives of the wide variety of religious and non-religious backgrounds represented in the community are not adequately considered.

Nevertheless, many aspects of how we do business at Princeton Friends may be seen as natural outgrowths of the Quaker underpinnings of the school. The concluding sentence of the school’s Statement of Purpose and Practice reads, “It is our aim that all who are connected with Princeton Friends School become each year a bit more fully themselves—physically, intellectually, artistically, socially, emotionally, and spiritually.” If we believe that there is that of God in each person, the guiding of students through the process of discovering (and uncovering) that Inner Light is the primary work of the school. And in that search we find, paradoxically, that this transcendent spirit lies not within any one of us, but among us, transforming us daily as we live together in this meeting for learning that is Princeton Friends School.