Moments of Curiosity and Connection

Connie Biewald's Big Night Out Speech
In growth ed class a couple of weeks ago a group of 8th graders fretted about their graduation speeches. “I just don’t want to be cliche,” one student said. I reminded them, “Be specific, include memorable details and anecdotes from your time here, through the years.”

“I don’t remember anything before the pandemic,” another student said. Heads nodded in agreement. I can relate both to not wanting to be cliche and foggy memory. But here we go.
I’ve grown up at Fayerweather and I love this school. Right away I was drawn to the authenticity of the irrepressible, joyful learning bubbling throughout the school and the comfortable relationships between kids and adults. I spent my first years at FSS teaching 29 kids in a  K-1-2 class with Karen Economopoulos who is here tonight. Parents were not happy about the class size. On curriculum night we actually had a parent measuring the floor to figure out how many square feet each child had (and that was way before covid).  We survived those years. Then, after I had my first child, I oriented new teachers in a 3-4 class, taught writing and sex ed in 5-6, taught 1-2 again, had my second child and became the librarian. I developed the growth ed curriculum with a committee of parent educators and health care providers, and facilitated diversity work. I have been constantly learning–from kids, colleagues and parents. It has never been boring. Except for the occasional meeting when I tuned out–after a few years the same discussion of recess rules gets pretty old, and I don’t like most recess rules to begin with–but for the most part, every day of the 37 years of this job holds more moments of curiosity and connection for me than not. What a delightful (and privileged) way to live! (you’ll be hearing more about privilege in the next 7 minutes.)

I’d like to share just a few of these moments of curiosity and connection that stick in my mind.

The many-times-a-day moments–when a kid connects with a book and I know I had something to do with it. Growth Ed wonderings, questions and fun facts such as how various animals mate and the size and shape of their genitalia. Knock knock jokes and complicated riddles and admiring unusual shop projects like a wooden briefcase with two master locks and inside, working lights and a mirror, or a dictionary chair–a red wooden “Webster’s Dictionary,” that opens to reveal comfortable pillows ready to sit on; or memoirs with titles like “Beachy Business” or “Mo the Clown and my Experience with Public Nudity.” 

And so many special projects–neighborhood studies that ended in books and publishing parties, where our interviewees like the feisty female auctioneer from the Boston Fish Pier and the elderly male captain of the Nantucket Lightship showed up, dressed fancy and proud to be invited.

The Mother Tongue Book Project where we wrote books for kids in Haiti and they wrote books for us. And our powerful teacher exchanges with the Matenwa Community School, a school in Haiti that eschews corporal punishment and teaches in Kreyòl instead of French. Haitian teachers visiting us. Sharing their eye opening impressions of our school and culture. And Fayerweather teachers, experiencing progressive ed in rural Haiti.

The biographies project that has given me so much joy and taught me most of what I know about historical figures.

I could go on and on. Every classroom at Fayerweather has memorable project-based moments of curiosity and connection.

And recess. Like many students, I love recess.  Rich with opportunities for cooperation, conflict resolution and creativity.  Multi-age sports games. The years of the elaborate forts built over weeks from sticks and bark and giant logs dragged from the woods. “Look, Connie. I learned this technique from the Wampanoag homesite.” The fascination with flora and fauna (dead and alive). I’ll never forget the basketball-sized puffball mushroom kids found that Chela took home to cook. Winter sledding and climbing on giant piles of snow. Recess–child directed learning in action.

And speaking of child led learning…

Most of you here know my commitment to progressive education. There is always a lot of discussion about what exactly “progressive” means. We know it has to do with keeping a child’s innate desire to learn alive, freedom to explore and learn from mistakes. It has to do with teachable moments and finding passions and following them. But I believe it has most to do with power–adults being thoughtful and careful about using power with, not over, students, Saying yes, encouraging, unless there’s a good reason to say no. This is not always easy to figure out.  When students were using pogo sticks as jack hammers, sometimes damaging them in the process, our former head raised the question, “Is it progressive ed, or is it vandalism?” 

This line between empowerment and entitlement can be confusing for kids and educators and is a real issue in progressive ed at Fayerweather and beyond. Where’s the line between experimenting with materials and wasting them?  Where’s the line between rights of an individual and responsibility to a group? Where’s the line between a welcoming, well used library with some books strewn about and a big careless mess? Is it a line at all? Or something else? Maybe it’s a space for an ongoing conversation. I appreciate Fayerweather’s willingness to struggle with complexity and, for the most part, avoid rigid either-or thinking.

I looked up definitions of empowerment and entitlement.
  1. Authority or power given to someone to do something.
  2. The process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one's life and claiming one's rights.
1. the fact of having a right to something

That works for me–all people should have rights. Sounds a lot like empowerment.

It’s the following definition that is problematic:
2. the belief that one is inherently deserving of privileges or special treatment

Progressive education, at its roots, was about educating citizens to participate critically in a democracy, without separating academic education for the few and vocational training for the masses. At Fayerweather we understand that people  benefit from both. Kids, parents, staff, we are all privileged to be here. We adults have to counteract an empowered privileged person’s  drift toward a sense of entitlement, in ourselves and our kids, by working to encourage listening and awareness of multiple points of view and experiences, gratitude for our resources and a true commitment to equity and social justice. This struggling, inequitable world needs empowered, NOT entitled, people.

Okay, the lecture part of the speech is over.

I want to share one more story that has stuck with me. I was facilitating a conversation about gender stereotypes with a 5th/6th class. Those kids are now 33-34 years old. Most kids were expressing the wish that boys could wear dresses and openly cry and girls wouldn’t have to wear shirts when it was hot and could openly express anger without risking criticism. One student who hadn’t said much, spoke up. “Well, you know, I think this is kind of like slugs on a porch.” Everybody stopped and looked at him. I raised my eyebrows encouraging him to go on. “You never watched slugs on a porch?” he said. “They’re over there on one side and you think they’re not going anywhere, and then later you look and they’re on the other side.” Quiet from the class and lots of puzzled looks. He went on. “This stuff is like that. You might think nothing’s changing, but it is. Like slugs on a porch.”

The last time I gave a speech was in 1975 at my high school graduation in Ansonia, CT–Women’s Liberation: The Key to Human Freedom.” I still believe every word of it, except the “the.” My time at Fayerweather (along with being a parent in Cambridge public schools) has taught me about structural inequalities, racism, ableism, classism, genderism, heterosexism. If I were to give that speech again, I’d change “the” to “one.” One key to human freedom. I’ve learned over these years there are many.

I look at our students today, clothing choices, pronoun choices, biographies choices and see those slugs sliming across the porch, and feel encouraged. I see more engagement in diversity work, questioning of white supremacist values, and more black and brown faces at this school and feel encouraged. I see deeper awareness and understanding of neurodiversity and feel encouraged. I see an unwavering commitment to kids’ social emotional well-being and feel encouraged.

I think of all the kids I know who would thrive at Fayerweather who can’t afford the tuition, including the kid who made that astute observation about slow and steady slugs that has kept me hopeful all these years. I dream that our financial aid budget continues to grow and that Fayerweather intensifies its commitment to social justice. To whom much is given, much will be required.  (Luke 12:48) My favorite bible quote.

I can’t end this without thanking Dorla, my unwavering partner in diversity work all these years and Maxie, my work spouse, who jumped in as a parent volunteer during my first year to rescue me and Karen when we had to plan and buy food for a whale watch/camping trip for 29 kids and their parents. Maxie, (this is the trying not to cry part) my beloved co-librarian who with her many skills (all of which I sorely lack) daily impacts not only our lively library, but so many aspects of the school.

I will close with my favorite quote about education. “Teaching is mostly listening and learning is mostly telling.” Deborah Meier, founder of Mission Hill School, said that.  

I hope and trust that Fayerweather will continue to be a place where students have a strong voice and adults will remember to listen. And where we all, students and adults, continue to examine our privilege, turn it into opportunities for people less economically advantaged, and work to care for each other at school and in our wider community. 


  • Watch Connie's Speech Here!

    Watch Connie's Speech Here!

Fayerweather Street School | 765 Concord Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02138 | 617-876-4746
Fayerweather is a private PreK, kindergarten, elementary and middle school. We engage each child’s intellect.