Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Notes from Riverdale School Visit: NYC

Riverdale Country School, Bronx NYC
November 12th, 2013
One Sentence Take Away: A character based school culture is oftentimes less about direct instruction and more about teachable moments and adult priorities that are emphasized in varied approaches over time. 

Riverdale is an independent (private) school in an affluent New York community. I visited the middle and upper schools. As a visitor, I was welcomed warmly by everyone I met. Both students and adults were friendly, thoughtful, and curious about my work. Classes were filled with focused, academically curious students. I was really impressed with some of the 7th graders' abilities to discuss some complex taxation concepts in early America and their annotate complex readings. I spent the day visiting three different classrooms (grades 7, 8, 11), speaking with three different deans, meeting with the director of learning, the school counselor, and attending a school-wide assembly that honored UNICEF child protection agent, Pernille Ironside. I had heard about Riverdale because it is featured in Paul Tough's book, How Children Succeed. Around six years ago, leaders from Riverdale collaborated with David Levin of KIPP (a graduate of Riverdale!), Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman to determine which character skills to champion in the their respective schools. The picture of their red poster illustrates those characteristics.

I had a great day and learned a lot from the folks at Riverdale, including the incredible opportunity to hear Pernille Ironside speak. She is currently heading UNICEF's gaza strip office and was heading to the Philapines today to help with the typhoon recovery efforts. A couple areas of learning for me included:

Report Cards: Riverdale has a concentrated effort to provide a substantial narrative report card to each student during 1st and 3rd quarters. Teachers are encouraged to keep notes on each student so that writing a personalized and meaningful progress report will be possible. After the reports have gone home, middle schoolers spent time during their advisory time (meets as a whole school for three 20 minute sessions per week in addition to home-room times each day) going through their report cards and highlighted strengths and areas of opportunity for growth. The opportunities for growth are then linked to one of the character strengths the school emphasizes. Once the area of growth is articulated, students are to write a detailed and measurable goal for the upcoming quarter. Report cards are released on a staggered schedule to give teachers more time for thoughtful remarks, and the deans (much like a guidance counselor) reviews the report cards and remarks before they are shared with the student and family.

Avoid Being Too Heavy Handed: Almost to the person, the educators I spoke with at Riverdale talked about how much they valued the momentum that is building in their community around character education. But they also spoke about the importance of a varied, and in many cases, subtle approach to conveying the message to students. They reported, and I agree, that as students get older their eye rolling for direct lessons on how to be gets too frequent for that kind of lesson to be consistently effective. They spoke about direct instruction having more success at the early middle level while action projects and micro-moments proving to be more valuable at the upper school. In either case, building a culture of character takes time, and Riverdale seems to be well on their way.

Riverdale middle schoolers chose someone famous or in their life that exemplified one the characteristics. Here you can see see a painting of Carmelo Anthony and a write up explaining why "Melo" exemplifies grit.


  1. Sounds like a great school.

    I like both the words they have chosen for their "character strengths" and that they have included icons for each that, I imagine, helps to make these characteristics accessible to younger students.

    Also, the "eye-rolling" factor makes me think about how youth are often portrayed in the media, on television. The tween/teen as the most disgruntled member of the family is not the best role model.

  2. Thanks Tim. I agree about the media portrayal of the teen, though I do think a big part of the distaste for adult lectures amongst teens is developmental. Developmental psychologists suggest that it is very much natural and necessary for teens to reject the adult way of doing things to strike out on their own. If we accept that to be true about teens, than we have be practice more of an artful mentor-ship than direct lecture instruction on how to be your best. As you know, because you did that so well for me!