Excellence in Waterford’s Lower School: Waiting for Ancient Water

Thursday, November 18, 2021

An excerpt as taken from Dr. Melanie Battistone’s Parent Association Meeting talk in October 2021.

How many of you have visited Zion National Park and had the good fortune to see Weeping Rock before it was closed due to a rockfall? Weeping Rock is a geological and hydrological wonder, although there are many places like it scattered across the Southwest.  

Weeping Rock
Weeping Rock, credit: visitutah.com

When you hike to Weeping Rock you come to a large bowl-shaped rock face that is covered with moss, ferns, grass, Columbine’s and Shooting Stars—a hanging garden in the middle of the desert.  What is most fascinating about Weeping Rock is how the water got there. To understand this, you have to go back to a wet day around the year 800, when the rainfall began its journey through the permeable Navajo sandstone. Over the next roughly 1000 years the water percolated down until it met a layer of Kayenta sandstone. Because Kayenta sandstone is less porous, the water is unable to continue its path downward, and is instead pushed outward to the surface.  There, it forms drip lines where plants take root. The water then trickles down to join the Virgin River, eventually flowing beneath Angels Landing.  

Imagine it—water that rained down on a stormy day almost 1000 years ago disappears, and then reappears. Ancient, pure, life-sustaining water. Water, carefully preserved from the distant past, here to make a tremendous impact on the future.  

PreK's Outdoor Classroom
PreK Students in the Outdoor Classroom

This ancient water makes me think about a child’s life at Waterford. Our students enter in PreK (or in early years in the Lower School) and, over the course of years, experience a collective of countless interactions with teachers, other students, parents, and the environment itself. Over time, pushed through the pores of high expectations, they press through to emerge years later as these amazing young adults, ready to make a profound impact on the world. And they do!  

And just in case you are wondering, we don’t plan on keeping your children for 1000 years! 

So, how do we envision excellence in the Lower School? What does it look like during the formative years of your children’s lives?  

We think about excellence in terms of impact. 

The single most important aspect of excellence is the teacher with whom your child spends time. A teacher’s impact is powerful, deep, and lasting. When students are asked to describe the traits of a life-changing teacher, they talk about feeling known and cared for. They remember the patience of their teachers, teachers who helped them reach their highest potential and to be confident. 

We think about excellence in terms of pedagogy.

Class IV Students
Class IV students reading their writing aloud to one another while Mr. Toren observes.

Our teachers are well-trained, experienced, and pursue continuous professional development. And it shows. As the Lower School Head, one of my privileges and responsibilities is to observe a teacher teaching, for evaluative purposes. When I visit classrooms, I am not simply focusing on how well I think a teacher is teaching. Rather, I use an approach called the learning target theory of action, which is about the relationship between essential content, effective instruction, and meaningful learning. So, when I observe a lesson, I am looking for evidence that:

  • the lesson is meaningful
  • that students understand what they are supposed to be learning, where they are, and where they need to get to
  • that students demonstrate their understanding by saying, making, or writing something
  • that students are focused on learning, and not grading or points
  • and that the teacher uses effective questions to advance student understanding  

We strive for excellence in our curriculum.  

As you know, our program is based on a rich liberal arts curriculum that is vertically aligned.  We want our students to build a fund of deep content knowledge. To know how to write, reflect, analyze, and discuss as they explore concepts, ideas, and philosophies. 

This year in Lower School, we have begun the process of curriculum mapping, which will provide a clear picture of what is happening at every grade level, at any point in the year. Curriculum mapping will allow every teacher in the Lower School to more easily understand the big picture, and how what they teach contributes to the whole. As we ask the essential questions inherent in this work, we will hone in on what is essential, and ensure that we are assessing learning in the right ways. It is an exciting step for us! 

We think about excellence in terms of life skills.  

Our vision for students asserts that we inspire students to pursue lives of meaning and purpose. We build foundational skills and learning modes in the Lower School because these life skills will reappear throughout a person’s life, supporting them to achieve their highest aspirations. We focus on teaching students to set goals and work towards them, to approach challenges with a positive attitude. We want our students to believe in themselves and their abilities—because they have more than they even know. 

Lower School students arriving to campus in the morning
Lower School students arriving to campus in the morning.

We teach students how to navigate social situations, believing that social challenges are inevitable and valuable opportunities for learning. A sanitized environment is not what we are aiming for. Rather, we take advantage of natural opportunities for growth, accountability, and development. This prepares students to understand, express, and learn to manage emotions. It teaches them and helps them practice standing up for others with different backgrounds. And finally, it helps them empathize with the feelings of others and have a greater sense of the world around them. Thus, learning how to think and respond ethically as they move through their years at Waterford. Ultimately, becoming active, informed citizens.

And finally, and perhaps most essentially, we think about excellence as our partnership with parents.  

Parents and students meet their teachers at Class Gatherings in August.
Parents and students meet their teachers at Class Gatherings in August.

Sitting down with a family, talking through the challenges their child is facing, working with the teacher, creating a plan so that the child feels successful and learns how to overcome obstacles—this is what it means to have an excellent partnership. We all feel moments of vulnerability and questioning as parents, that is normal. And, we know that we are better together. It is a privilege and honor to partner with you, excellence at its best!  

Back to the ancient water—your child’s journey at Waterford will feel, at times, like 1000 years, and other times will feel like it is moving as fast as a flash flood. Like the ancient water, they will emerge from their time at Waterford with knowledge, life skills, common sense, and caring. They will follow the drip lines like so many others before them, streaming into that rushing river, to seek their meaning and purpose. 

This is what excellence looks like at Waterford.