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St. George's School
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Teaching and Learning Centers grow and evolve

Since its inception in 2011, St. George’s Merck-Horton Center for Teaching & Learning has been not only a model for other schools, but a distinguishing element of both our professional development and academic coaching programs. Now, in an effort to expand its impact inside and outside the St. George’s community, the center is evolving into two distinct, yet collaborative entities.

History teacher Justin Cerenzia ’01 has been appointed Director of the Merck Center for Teaching and Chair of Instructional Services Joe Lang has been appointed Director of the Horton Center for Learning.

In his new role, Mr. Cerenzia has been demonstrating his enthusiasm for the craft of teaching along with championing and encouraging his fellow faculty members through a series of blog posts he creates with Sway, a digital storytelling app.

“If we can illuminate unknown elements of teaching and learning, then we might become better teachers. That’s a theme of shifting educational research and theory into educational practice,” Mr. Cerenzia wrote in his blog. “Knowing who we teach, where they're from, what motivates them, and what they dream of … is a powerful set of questions.” Other posts have addressed educational psychologist John Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory and psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan’s "Self-Determination Theory" as it relates to student motivation. 

In the fall, Mr. Cerenzia also began to offer optional drop-in sessions to the Merck Center he’s calling “Walk-in Wednesdays,” and he has arranged for education scholars to give talks throughout the year that he’s dubbed “Merckshops.” (Mr. Cerenzia, also an active Twitter user, appreciates creative wordplay.) Pooja K. Agarwal, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and an adjunct professor at Vanderbilt University's Peabody College, was on campus in October to discuss “retrieval practice.”

When Mr. Cerenzia presented some of his ideas for the center to fellow faculty members at the start of the school year, he projected the image of a pencil, saying it was to serve as a metaphor. “We're going to be scribbling. We're going to be drawing. We're going to be erasing,” he said. “We're going to be always trying to be different things ... seeking to push the envelope in terms of how we think about teaching at St. George's.”

As the re-imagined Merck Center evolves, Mr. Cerenzia also hopes to share knowledge among educators – both on the Hilltop and beyond. “Good teaching is happening here and I just want to lower the fences a bit and have us see it with one another — and have others see it,” he said.

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A new home for Horton

The Horton Center for Learning, which now operates mostly in the area adjacent to the Merck Center in the lower level of the Hill Library, eventually will find a new home in the former Study Hall in Memorial Schoolhouse. Efforts are now underway to raise the $9.5 million needed to restore and renovate that building.

As Mr. Lang and his colleague in Instructional Services, Sarah Mason, continue to ponder what the new space will become, “One thing is that it will certainly be a collaborative space,” Mr. Lang said, “somewhere where students can come to study together, students can come to relax, students can come to meet with teachers — just a really comfortable space that's hopefully populated by kids who are interested in helping themselves and helping others.”

Under the umbrella of the Horton Center will be not only academic coaching — Mr. Lang and Mrs. Mason working one-on-one with students — but also peer tutoring and collaborative learning efforts. Mr. Lang also wants to bring parents into the loop, particularly around assessment periods, to update them on current research about learning. And he wants to share our findings and initiatives with our peer schools. “The fun part of what we’re doing now is that we can be on the front lines,” he said. “We can take what student support and centers for learning look like … a step ahead.” 

Currently one of the key aspects of SG’s academic coaching program is ACES, which stands for “Academics plus Commitment plus Effort equals Success.” Every new student takes part in ACES, which meets once a week the first five weeks of school and aims to help students adjust to the academics and community at St. George’s. Topics discussed include how to develop a productive nightly routine to complete homework and review material, and how to best make use of on-campus academic resources, such as peer tutoring offered in the Writing, Science, Language and Math Labs.

Mr. Lang and Mrs. Mason this year will also begin further examining the student experience by conducting what they’re calling “course ride-alongs.” Each of them will attend a course session once or twice a week for the trimester, following along with assignments, tests and quizzes. “We want to be able to report back on what our students are doing in class and how they're feeling, based on our experience and when we talk to them afterwards,” Mr. Lang said. “We want to be able to report back on the challenges the kids go through, the questions that they ask — and the breakthroughs that we see.” 

Overall, Mr. Lang said he wants academic coaching at St. George’s “to touch every demographic of the student body, whether that’s a third-form student coming in not knowing what to expect and what to do — or a sixth-form, third-trimester, very talented student already admitted to college. What can they do either for themselves or to give back to younger students based on their own experience?” he said.

Mr. Lang’s hope is that by exposing St. George’s students to the idea of examining their own learning, they’ll be even better prepared for their future education. “[The Horton Center] could very well springboard them to take advantage of resources and services that will exist in their next endeavor at college,” he said. “If they didn't hear about it, if we didn't have it, if they're not exposed to it, if they didn't benefit from it, it might be an opportunity that passes them by.” 

In expanding both the Merck and Horton Centers’ efforts and reach, the school continues to embrace a philosophy held strong by the centers’ namesakes: the late Albert Merck ’39, P’76 — who served the school as a trustee from 1967-76 and as an honorary trustee from 2006-2014 — and Beth Horton P’79, ’85 — who became the school’s first director of instructional services in 1975, retired in 1999, and remains an emerita faculty member whom many alumni credit for her academic support and compassionate counsel.

Throughout his adult life Mr. Merck imagined a future in which more students would be able to learn on their own terms and teachers would be continuously reinvigorated with new methods and the ability to use new technology. 

At the center’s opening in the fall of 2011, Mrs. Horton remarked, “The center’s flexible learning spaces, the personal engagement, the collegial exchange, the cutting-edge innovation — it’s the dream come true.”