Why ‘knot’: Learning in unexpected ways

By: Chelsea Snyder
Upper School Math Teacher

Sheer frustration. Do you know that feeling?

Back hunched, eyes squinting and straining to see what my inept fingers fumbled to do. Teeth clenched. I closed my eyes briefly for a short break. Without sight, I became aware that the muscles in my legs were contracting. Inwardly, I waffled between belittling myself and giving myself a pep talk.
img_2696This is how I felt last year during Special Studies week while trying to learn how to knit. That is, before I found inspiratio
n and confidence from an unexpected source.

That week, I was part of the group that tackled various life skills, from learning how to check the oil in a car to making a basic dessert. We also took an American Red Cross First Aid/CPR/AED class and a self-defense class at Spartanburg Martial Arts. One of our life skills was giving a homemade gift, so we learned how to knit.

Two SDS teachers who are enthusiastic knitters agreed to help us on our quest. As these teachers instructed our group, I admired their patience. It is no small feat to teach 14 people a completely new skill! At moments, it felt that every person had made a unique mistake and needed specific assistance to his/her own project. I felt obligated to help our struggling students with their projects but also very unqualified to do so. My frustration was rising, but I – an adult in the room – tried to mask it.


And then there was Sarah, one of the girls in our group. She came over and patiently walked me through each part of a basic knitting knot. Sarah did several knots for me, showing me how her hands moved and clearly explaining what to do. Then she gave the project back to me. It was my turn again. Slowly but surely, I completed stitch after stitch.

I imagine that, in the few minutes it took for Sarah to explain the steps to me, we made a beautiful picture. We were the image of student teaching teacher – the exact opposite of what one would expect to find in a school. The teacher who was helpless and impatiently requesting assistance learned from the student who was knowledgeable and graciously sharing her skill.

In reality, teachers learn from students every day at Spartanburg Day School. The process, however, is not always so tangible as learning how to knit. Often, we learn resilience from tutoring students one-on-one. We learn courage while watching students compete in athletic events, or stepping up to give a speech. We learn to see the world with optimism and a healthy dose of reality when discussing students’ future plans. If we, as teachers, expect our students to learn from us, then why shouldn’t we learn from them? Why should we shy away from situations where we know we will be challenged and grow – intellectually, personally, musically, athletically or otherwise?

knittingAs for my knitting, it didn’t take long for me to get the hang of it and find myself enjoying the project. Knitting was something that required my focus, but I recognized that with a lot of practice, it would become mindless. Recently, I completed my first project and started my second. I currently look forward to knitting as I can in the evenings, and eventually to learning more about the possible projects that I can complete – with a much lower stress level than when I started.

Here’s to another year of learning from and with students.

Why we play

By Ashley Stokes
Head of Lower School

Bob Dylan is known for his music and not for his philosophy of childhood development, but the lyrics from Forever Young speak to how play is the foundation for a life well-lived.

May you always do for others and let others do for you. May you build a ladder to the stars and climb on every rung…may you grow up to be righteous, may you grow up to be true, may you always know the truth and see the lights surrounding you. May you always be courageous, stand upright and be strong, may your hands always be busy, may your feet always be swift, may you have a strong foundation when the winds of changes shift. May your heart always be joyful, may your song always be sung. May you stay forever young.


When you hear the word play, what is the first thought that comes to mind? Perhaps it is a childhood memory of your parents locking you out of the house and forcing you to use your imagination to keep you from being bored. Or maybe you thought of building a fort, riding bikes all day, or my personal favorite, spending hours upon hours creating a wedding for Barbie. I bet when you reflect on those experiences, they bring a smile to your face. Play is happy. Play is fun. Play is learning.

We know, because research tells us, that there has been a drastic shift over the past 10-20 years in the amount of time children spend playing versus the amount of time they spend on academics and structured activities such as extracurricular activities, sports and after-school tutoring – even for our youngest students. In general, educators are seeing an increase in the level of anxiety in these children as well as an increase in students’ lack of executive functioning skills such as impulse control, emotional control and flexible thinking. These skills are developed through unstructured play, through opportunities to acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes and skills necessary to express their emotions, take turns, become independent, interact with peers, engage in meaningful relationships with others, control their emotions and develop a positive self-image. These skills are crucial for children’s success in school, at home and for their overall growth.


This week I was in our three-year-old classrooms. Each child’s parent was asked to write a story explaining how they chose their child’s name. As the teacher read each child’s story, they gleamed with pride. Their classmates were so interested to hear about them. They were attentive, they were supportive, they even took turns asking really great questions. I was amazed. I stayed for a while and observed the children in centers. In the housekeeping center, one little girl was holding her baby and on her cell phone calling the babysitter so she could go to the grocery store. Another little girl came to her side to help calm the “crying” baby. They communicated about the baby’s needs, they problem solved about what to do next, they took turns holding the baby. These skills that they are developing are the reason why they are able to sit in a circle at three years old and act as if they have been in school for years. They are interested, they are motivated, they are learning through play.


Our philosophy about play, unstructured learning and balance follows students year after year. It doesn’t stop in 3K, it continues on throughout the child’s school experience here. We don’t look at kindergarten as the new first grade. We don’t look at fourth grade as just a year to prepare for middle school. We focus on the year at hand and the development that needs to take place.

We continuously see evidence of the benefits of unstructured play throughout students’ years in the Lower School. Last year a few of our third grade students saw a need in the community to raise money for the Humane Society. They worked together as a team and devised a plan for collecting money all on their own. They created buckets and placed them in each division in the school.


The students raised over $100 in donations. These students showed service orientation, creativity, problem solving and the ability to coordinate with others which according to the World Economic Forum, are four of the top skills/behaviors employers are currently seeking. These skills can all be attributed to the numerous opportunities that these students have had since 4K to learn through play.  

So while you will find a challenging independent school curriculum here, you will also find play. And as our preschoolers grow and eventually leave halls of the Lower School, it is my hope that they will take some advice from Bob Dylan…and stay forever young at heart.


The gift that keeps on giving: Dent Arts Enrichment Endowment


By Nancy Corbin
Coordinator of Fine Arts

It is an honor and a joy to coordinate the events in the Mildred Harrison Dent Fine Arts Center.

Who wouldn’t love hearing peels of Lower School students’ laughter as a juggler on a unicycle careens around the gallery?

What could be more fun than watching Middle School students spend an hour trying out tap techniques after watching the North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble put on a show?


And what visual arts teacher’s heart wouldn’t just about bust with pride when a former student fills the gallery walls with a series of paintings?

Last week Harrison Blackford ‘05 hung an exhibit of colorful and lively landscapes, cityscapes and seascapes, and the entire community turned out for her opening to celebrate her artistic accomplishments.

This week Mrs. Pell’s sixth grade writing classes spent time in the gallery finding inspiration in the imagery.


To complement our wonderful Mildred Harrison Dent Fine Arts Center which opened in September 1999, an endowment was set up to make sure the walls of the building were filled with engaging arts opportunities that went beyond the expertise of the arts faculty.

The Dent Arts Endowment produces exciting, fun and enriching performances, exhibits and artist residencies for our students.

A few days ago our third and fourth grade students viewed The Children’s Theatre of Charlotte production of New Kid, a empathy inducing play about what it feels like to be thrust in a situation where you do not speak the language all around you.


In October, music historian and gifted musician Scott Ainslie will present Before Rock ‘n’ Roll for all Upper School students and then hang around after lunch to spend time with Mr. Barnes’ Concert Band students.

Later in the year under the direction of Hawk Hurst, Middle School students, over the course of three days, will turn gourds and bamboo into musical instruments.

The Dent Arts Enrichment Endowment produced $34,700 this year and provides seven resident artists along with more than two dozen exhibits and performances. All without spending one tuition dollar! The Dent Arts Endowment is truly a gift that keeps on giving.

I feel the loving embrace of Mildred Harrison Dent at every event we host, and I swear the very walls of this building smile upon us and radiate good vibrations. Mrs. Dent loved children, the arts and the Spartanburg Day School. What a fitting memorial.





be more


How do you condense all that Spartanburg Day School is into one meaningful sentence? How about two words? Impossible, right?

Nearly two years ago, our teachers, leaders, parents, students, alumni and many other constituents put heads together to begin the important process of defining not only who we are as a school, but what sets us apart. That is, writing a new mission statement and five new values.

After walls of sticky notes, notebooks of input and countless references to the thesaurus, we collectively settled on 19 very true, very purposeful words that just felt right: “To provide a superior educational experience, in a community of trust, that prepares students for a life well lived.”

Boiled down to its essence, that mission statement (who we are and who we aim to be with each and every action) can be summarized even more succinctly. Yes, in two words: “be more.”

Those two words have become our mantra this year as we launched our new messaging and new brand. Here, we are proud to say that EVERY student really can be more. How? Just ask them, or their teachers or their parents. The answers depend on the individual, and we love that. There is no one way to be more; there is only YOUR way.

Here’s what they had to say:


“Our parenting philosophy is that we are not raising children but we are raising adults to be a part of a community and Poppy can and does practice that every day at SDS. The school doesn’t tell its students what to be; it doesn’t need to. The Day School gives its students the ability to ‘be more’ with the opportunities they present and expects that each student takes advantage of those opportunities to learn who they are, what they want and, you guessed it, ‘be more.’ Will that ‘be more’ mean that one day she learns how to be a great friend and a great student? Changes her community for the better? Becomes a president of her own company? All of these would make us proud, but for now we are content to be a part of a school that allows us to watch just how ‘being more’ looks every single day.” – Alice Dawson, mother of Poppy Dawson, first grade


“Spartanburg Day School has taught me to work to my maximum potential because my teachers, coaches and peers expect nothing less. Everyone encourages each other to be their best selves. It’s not just about being an above average student; I have been encouraged to be a  leader, curious, creative and to be more involved.” – Anna Stone, junior


“Bennett is more because he can express and explain his brilliant ideas clearly. He always brought up amazing ideas in class and started many fantastic projects that everyone enjoyed. For example, students collaborated to created a hand-made Christmas tree and stockings from scratch based on Bennett’s suggestion. The tree was part of our classroom during the holiday season, and the stockings were used for our fun gift-swapping activity. Bennett is more because he can create his learning based on his curiosity. He discovered the similarities and differences between the number 7 and the letter L that he made by cutting out paper, freehand! He creates learning moments in the process of figuring things out! Bennett is more because he can spread fun learning to others. When he demonstrated how a bean tossing number addition game works to the whole class, everyone quickly learned how to play it by listening to and looking at him full of wonder and excitement!” – Chika Burnham, current kindergarten teacher and Bennett Johnson’s 4K teacher last year

“Opportunity is a key part of what makes my school great. There are so many things for SDS students to try. We have amazing teachers and coaches that are always encouraging us to try new things. I can ‘be more’ because opportunity is perfectly matched with encouragement.” – Eli Page, eighth grade
“I think about this concept of ‘be more’ a lot for my children. The world gives us every chance to ‘be more’ if we desire it. The reason I support and strive to have my children at the Day School is that this passion to be more, to learn more, to give more in physical, emotional and spiritual ways is expressed every day my children go to school. The teachers know my children. They know their likes, their dislikes, their strengths and their areas where improvement is possible. This allows them to encourage my children on the path to be all that they can be. In terms of Amin,  every bone in his body is curious. He is constantly testing limits like how high can this go, how fast can I run, how big can we build this.  Amin’s teachers respond by saying,  ‘well let’s try and find out.'” – Leslie Rodgers, mother of Amin Rodgers, kindergarten


By Rachel Deems
Head of School

If you are a Griffin, you know how special it is to belong to the Spartanburg Day School community.   Whether your years as a Griffin happened decades ago or you are brand new, there are many aspects of this school that have remained constant: a dedication to excellence; a focus on community; and a commitment to “being more.” I like that.

All that said, there is also a time in every school’s life to reexamine its identity, affirm exactly what its beliefs are and put a fresh foot forward. For the past two years, hundreds of Griffins and some key leaders in the Spartanburg community have dug deep into the meaning and mission of Spartanburg Day School. We have considered what is most important to us and how we feel about it. We have researched what others know about us and what they still need to know about the many opportunities here. We have consulted independent school experts in marketing and messaging. And, after two years of building consensus and making a plan, we have unveiled a mission statement and key values that are at the center of a rebrand of this school.

The successful and fun launch of our new brand and look coincided with the beginning of school, and it was a happy celebration of all things Griffin. As the word implies, the “launch” was just the start of a comprehensive and intentional plan to share our story with future Griffins and with this community.

From this work we have a brand identity and know what sets us apart. Yes, here there is a difference. There is an energy about this work of rebranding and about the focus and clarity that we now have regarding who we are and what potential lies before our students.

This is so much more than tweaking the Griffin (doesn’t he look handsome though?) or a new word mark or ads and new signs. This is about a spirit that has run deep at Spartanburg Day School for 60 years. The voice is clear, and the message is strong… here, you can be more. That is our promise.

A festive first week

Welcome to the start of 2016-17 – a brand new school year for the Spartanburg Day School Griffins. And, just three days in, what an exciting one it has been already.

Students, faculty and staff arrived bright and early Wednesday morning, fresh off the heels of our Griffin Launch Party (more on that in a later post) and the annual back-to-school picnic.

There were smiles – lots of them – hugs and an overwhelming feeling of happiness that is truly unique to a first day of school at Spartanburg Day School. Here, students WANT to come to school, and, even on that very first day, it shows.

Thanks, Griffins, for another successful start to what is sure to be another successful year.

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Lower School students enjoyed having a first day photo made by one of our painted griffins. See a photo gallery here.


All smiles on the Middle School halls

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Mrs. Burnham loves take photos with and of her students throughout the year.

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A big welcome to Mr. Roark (Upper School English) and all of the other teachers new to Spartanburg Day School this year


First graders in Mrs. Roush’s classroom were hard at work on the first day.

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This year’s senior class continued the tradition of escorting kindergartners to the first day assembly. 

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We all love the newly redesigned Spartacus, our Griffin mascot!

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Student Body President Devin Srivastava and Vice President Haley Sinsley welcome all students, faculty and staff back to school for a new school year.


Congratulations, Class of 2016!

Diplomas now in hand, 36 Spartanburg Day School seniors became alumni Friday morning – the Class of 2016.


Remember that with everything you’ve done here, you’ve left a piece of yourself behind… With everything you’ve done, you’ve affected someone… You, probably without even knowing it, made an impact. – Aimee McVey, valedictorian

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Today ends a chapter, and the end of this ceremony turns the page. The page is turned to a lifetime of opportunity, leading you to new places, new people and new experiences. Your futures are bright. You are well prepared. You have much for which to be grateful and so very much to give back. I know that you are going to do your part and more to shape the future of our world. – Rachel Deems, head of school


SDS is more than just a school; It’s a place to call home. – Anne Brady Moore Carlson ’01 – commencement speaker


From here, this accomplished class of students will go off to attend 24 different colleges and universities in 14 different states, the District of Columbia and the Netherlands – to new schools, new experiences and new journeys. But they will forever be Griffins.

Click here for full graduation details, including this year’s award winners.

Forty-five years and counting and the remarkable Class of 2016

By Bill Pell
Upper School English teacher

As I conclude 45 years in the classroom, which includes nine and one-half years at Spartanburg Day School, I wonder, as I always do in May, what exactly brings me back year after year after year. I should be long retired, but, no, I continue to labor in the vineyards of academe, and, I hasten to add, I do so happily, remembering that the most enduring pleasures of teaching are working with students and developing positive relationships with them.

I am so lucky to work at SDS. Classes are small. I have total academic freedom. I have an enlightened administration. Most important, I work with wonderful, talented, and curious students. Each day, to borrow from Hemingway, is a movable feast. Which brings me to the Class of 2016. I had heard that it is really something, and it is and then some. Please see the following for an explanation.

I glory in the diversity of students. Each is, of course, different from the others, but each is also different from one day to the next, even from one minute to the next. Time spent with a class of students at any age or level of development shows the vastness of human experience and potential. Unlimited!

To have the ongoing and amazing opportunity to work with this potential is a serious pleasure, and I help students shape their interests and talents so that they will find their careers as rewarding as teaching has been for me. To help this happen, I need good relationships with them because I want them to know that I am sincere in all that I say and do, that I am not simply blowing smoke. Sometimes a total class responds, which happened this year.

Humor is important in our shared pursuit, and it is, I think, an underappreciated component of life in the classroom and life in general. (See, for example, the current political campaigns. I haven’t laughed yet!) My classroom is both serious and raucous, with everyone free to make everyone laugh, even if off topic, which gives me openings to sneak in learning. In short, our 45-minute daily gatherings are verbal and mental free-for-alls, which I love, which students appear to love. They are fun! Teaching is fun! Learning is fun!

Students enjoy creating humor themselves, as I daily enjoyed in the classroom and also evidenced by the pictures of shirts they came up with that accompany this blog. For the record, Herman is my middle name, and the picture on the back of one of the shirts is the scowl I apparently make when looking at my computer. A clever student took the picture with her cell phone, surreptitiously, of course.

Praise and acknowledgment are paramount to relationships. Everyone needs, indeed craves, both, and I give them aggressively. I say something nice as often as I can to as many students (and others) as I can. At times, this “praise” may be in the form of an ironic “insult,” intended to cause laughter, not consternation. I tell students I only insult those I like, which is almost always everyone and especially so this year in this super talented, super nice Class of 2016. Go, Griffins!

The only negative this year is that I will miss both honors night and graduation, but this blog gives me the chance I won’t have on honors night publicly to deliver thanks, praise, and exhortations to the seniors as they launch themselves into the next phases of their lives. I wish I could write a paragraph of praise about all 36 of them because they deserve it, but they know how I feel about them. We said farewell last week.

So, seniors, here goes with the final pontifications. Do not use the word “great” and feel guilty when you do because you will. No puns allowed (remember the gong). When you eat candy, have fond memories of Presnell 932. It was a smashing year all around, wasn’t it?

You are remarkable individuals, the best. Fifty of our fiery language’s most positive adjectives would not do justice to all that you are. Let it to suffice here to restate for all to see that you are creative, purposeful people of character. The last, I think, is a major foreshadower of success.

I suggest that success also depends on your always reading, thinking, discussing, and writing. As you find your roads not taken, please never abandon your stunning sense of humor, your keen sense of irony (a must in a participatory democracy), your startling passions, and your invigorating energies. How joyful they are. We need you in the future. Be great! (Oops!)

As Shakespeare (I saved him for last) puts it: “The past is prologue.” Enjoy! Thank you for being you! Thanks to your parents, too!


Feel the Fern

By Farrar Richardson
Head of Middle School

(A very clever and apolitical 6th grader adapted the title of this blog and slogan to fit our Fern…because we do feel the Fern; especially when she is away at obedience camp and we really need her. This week has been full of those days, and we can’t wait for her to come home.)


For a long time, I have wished for a big dog at school; not a large dog, but a giant dog.

My husband asked a lot of good questions such as: Did I know what it would mean to have a dog bigger than me? Did I know how much it would cost to feed a dog that may weigh over 150 pounds? Did I know anything about training a dog I could not pick up to correct? Had I thought about which entire couch I was willing to give over to such a dog? Did I think my car was big enough for her to fit safely inside? Would school allow such a dog, and what was I going to do if the dog of my dreams wasn’t cut out to be a “therapy dog?” And…the most concerning to him: Was I aware of the how much such a dog would poop?

I did not have adequate answers to any of them. In fact, “I don’t know,” was all I could respond over and over again. Still, on Valentines’ Day, he gave me a Great Dane, and I named her Fern.


I named her Fern after a character in one of my favorite childhood novels, Charlotte’s Web. While Charlotte and Wilbur were the popular favorites, I remained in awe of the loyal, gentle, but feisty young girl, Fern.

I think a few minutes of reading prior blog entries will impress upon you that we do things a little bit differently at SDS. Sometimes, we don’t always know how things will go, but we try them anyway. Having a dog in the Middle School is a pretty good example of what I am talking about.

My reasons or arguments about why having a therapy dog was a good idea were solid, I thought, and I had some research and several other independent schools to back me up. It was actually difficult to find one negative article about the experiences schools and students were having related to inviting dogs into classrooms. The trick, of course, would be finding the right dog. This was my big risk, and only time (and camp!) will tell if Fern will be the “truly right dog.”

While I knew and soundly predicted that students would love petting Fern, that faculty and staff (for the most part) would enjoy having Fern around, that certain students would take an immediate interest in Fern and love her fiercely while others would be unphased, and that I would drastically reduce my productivity during school hours those first few months, there were several things I did not know nor foresee.

I didn’t know that the students who needed Fern the most would find her first. I didn’t know that Fern would quiet a study hall so that she could sleep and students could read.


I didn’t know that Fern would immediately grasp that the Middle School office was such an exciting place.

I didn’t know that Fern would love being a mascot for Junior Griffin games and Middle School baseball and soccer. I didn’t know that Fern would also make friends with Lower and Upper School students


or that “the principal’s office” would become a place that my students came without being sent. I cannot tell you how happy it is to walk into my office and see students sitting on the rug with Fern.


I didn’t know that she would be such good company for all of my routine duties.

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As far as disposition goes, Fern is pretty laid back. This was the picture I sent to her trainer when he asked for a little information about her behavior.


Last weekend, in preparation for “camp” I thought I’d take her to the dog park to play with other animals and not just children. Well, just like Ferdinand the Bull, she hid in the flowers and watched.


Then, she climbed up on the people bench and watched over all of the dogs…just like she watches over our students at recess.


Now, I have almost all of those answers to my husband’s questions.

At four months old, she is a third of her predicted body weight, wearing her fourth collar, and growing too big for my car. When she chooses “not to budge,” I can no longer pick her up. She has her own couch. She eats six cups of food a day, and I have just purchased an extra large shovel. We love her.

As I have read over and reflected upon the collection of blog entries from this year, I am struck by the number of times that the Day School is compared to a family…and now, our family has a dog.

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Learning to lead

By Tim Fisher
Upper School teacher

Google “high school student leadership” and your results will return a laundry list of programs, blog posts, conferences, websites and books, many sponsored by corporations or universities, and each declaring some expertise. Leadership is a buzzword in secondary education and is increasingly becoming a core part of many schools’ extra-curricular focus.

Of course, SDS has long offered opportunities for students to take on leadership roles. From student government associations to Lower School line leaders, from sport captains to service club presidents, Griffins demonstrate they know how to lead. But, then, what is the value of an explicit instructional course in leadership?

The answer, oddly, can be found in hammocks.


If you take a stroll through the Wallace Taylor courtyard these days you will likely find half-a-dozen Middle and Upper School students perched in ENO hammocks. This “ENO village” was the product of hard work by many, notably sophomore Sam Freedman. But it is also an idea that emerged during the SDS Leadership Institute last summer. The institute, developed and led by Scott Cochran (previously of Wofford College and Milliken, and current president of Spartanburg Methodist College) is an intensive immersion in leadership. It tackles a wide variety of topics but, honestly, what this boils down to is that it helps students develop the skills and mindsets to get things done.

At SDS we understand that making ideas reality – be it winning the state championship, planning a fundraising event or building an ENO village  – takes leadership; it requires student leaders. And making student leaders requires more than just opportunities to lead, it requires intentional instruction.

This summer SDS will host the third annual Summer Leadership Institute, open to SDS and non-SDS students. For more information or to register, email Tim Fisher tim.fisher@sdsgriffin.org.

Scholarships are available for students who will attend SDS in the 2016-17 school year.