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The first-graders are on an insect safari. They explore the athletic field, the marsh, and the forest. They look under rocks and logs to see who’s there. “I found one,” shouts a boy peering into the grass. As all the other children crowd around, he adds “Quiet, he’s trying to go to sleep!”

The children capture bugs (later they will release them) and take them back to the classroom to compare to pictures of insects in books. They see that insects have three main body parts and six legs. Then they create a giant model and label the parts.

“We talk about what is similar among bugs, about their habitat, about how the bugs are connected, about food chains—how this bug eats another bug,” Chris said. “Then we talk about the interconnectedness of nature, how all creatures rely on each other.”

When the children lifted a rock to look for a bug, they replaced it carefully because it might be an insect’s home. Later they commit to helping the bugs and protecting insects’ habitat. They put up signs saying “Don’t smush the bugs,” and they put together a guide to insects on the OES campus to share with others. As the school year progresses they learn about other creatures and their habitats and how to protect them.

“As we continue exploring habitats, they start thinking about ways they can help protect the planet,” Chris said.

In their study of insects, the first-graders explored their environment, created a model, connected bugs to their habitats, and committed to protecting bugs. Although the topics may be different, those same themes permeate the activities of all students, from prekindergarten to their senior year, and also the lives of their teachers and parents. The better we are at exploring, creating, connecting, and committing, the more successful we are as human beings. These are essential competencies that help us thrive.

These competencies do not take the place of skills such as reading, writing, and arithmetic. Rather, they encompass those skills. For example, writing about what we observe is part of exploring. It’s also a way of creating something and it can be a way to connect with others. Through writing, students can promote the ideas and causes they commit themselves to.


Teachers at OES teach better when they think about how their lessons involve students in exploring, creating, connecting, and committing. Bettina Gregg teaches math in the Upper School, and she has found that her lessons that touch on most of those areas are more successful.

“By success, I mean the kids are engaged, I don’t have to push them to do it, they’re proud of their work and want to post it on the wall,” she said. “And they learn the concept without even thinking that that is what they are doing.”

For a project in her Individualized Algebra class, students bring in a photocopied image. They look for the lines in the artwork and mark 8 to 12 lines that best represent the work. For example, a picture of a cat could be reduced to two lines for each ear, a line for the tail, two lines for the shape of the back, three lines for a paw, and so on. They sketch their lines on graph paper, choose two points on each line, then use those points to find the slope and equation of each line. They plot the equations with Geometer’s Sketchpad software, limit the length of each line, and print out the graph.

They show their work to each other and talk about why they chose a particular piece of art, what problems they encountered, how they solved those problems, and what they learned in the process.

Bettina’s project did not progress in a linear fashion through exploring, creating, connecting, and committing. Students explored artworks at the beginning of the project, and later they also explored how to use Geometer’s Sketchpad for this project. In addition to collaborating with one another while working on the project, they also connected the realms of art and math.

Giving them the option to explore something relevant to their own interests (the picture) and then translate it into a concrete mathematical skill (equations of lines) nurtures their intrinsic motivation.


Each of these broad areas—exploring, creating, committing, and connecting—encompass six or seven more specific competencies that the faculty developed to be more specific about the skills students need. For example, creating includes nurturing imagination, designing and applying solutions, adapting to a changing world, and other abilities.

Former Upper School Head Jordan Elliott taught a class on Islam, believing that students need to understand Muslim culture to adapt to our world. To do that, they need to do more than learn about Islam. They also need to connect with Muslims beyond the few Muslim students who attend OES.

“There is God, there is Muhammad, and there are the five pillars, but if you only teach that, you are not preparing kids to live in this world,” he said. “You also have to know that there are Muslims living down the street who are not extremists. You have to go and talk with them.”

His students went to the Oregon Islamic Academy, where they had lunch with students and talkes about what it is like to be a Muslim in Portland. They discussed the experience of wearing the veil, the relationship between science and religion in Islam, and who decides what religious practices should be followed. Katie Savino ’12 had learned in class about discrimination against Muslims in this country, but it made it very real for her when a Muslim student told her that a store manager lied to her about the hiring age because he didn’t want to hire her. And it surprised Katie that the girls liked wearing the hijab.

“Even though they are obviously looked at differently, and sometimes in a negative way, every girl there said they were proud to wear their hijab because it made them feel special and unique,” she said. “I also found it interesting to hear how they are so similar to us. They go shopping at the mall, and they have sleepovers, and they text their friends, and they eat pizza. Of course they have different practices and different traditions, but they are really so much more similar to us than they are different.”

Because all teachers study the essential competencies and apply them to curricula, Jordan knew his students would have the communication and interpersonal skills to connect with the Muslim students. As long as students have been at OES they have learned to respect the dignity of others and to communicate effectively using multiple methods.

“I can rely on my kids to have skills they are picking up in English and history and other courses,” he said. “I put the kids in the situation and they use their skills from class to interact with their Muslim peers. All we provide is the pizza.”

Other teachers will build on what Jordan did in his classroom. For example, students in the International Relations class will use the Platt Global Classroom to videoconference with students in Afghanistan. Their experiences in the Islam class will help them formulate questions and be more cognizant of the values of the Afghan students.


The beauty of the essential competencies is that they apply to everything students do. The same strategies can be used to succeed in sports, to prepare a drama production, or to play an instrument. They even provide a guide for social relationships. In her role as Middle School counselor, Cindy McEnroe relates the competencies to resolving a conflict between students.

“Say you have two kids in the Middle School who are angry with each other and are busy making each other’s lives miserable,” she said. “They don't speak to each other. They try to get their friends to take sides with them. I bring the kids in, first individually, and I ask them, is that working for you? What have you tried? What can you do differently to change this situation? Would you be willing to sit down with this other person and talk about this problem?

If the students own up to their part in the situation, they are deepening the competency of 'I take responsibility for my actions.' If they can get to the point of seeing the other person’s point of view, they have made progress on 'I recognize and respect perspectives beyond my own.'As they work out their differences, they are increasing an important skill: 'I design and apply solutions.'"

Although the essential competencies underlie many lessons in an implicit way, students also need to learn to explicitly recognize the skills they are learning. At the end of her work with students involved in a conflict, Cindy reviews with them the process they have just gone through.

“We are building those essential competencies and the last step is building the metacognition around that,” she said. “We look at the work we are doing and say, which of the competencies are we actually building?”


When teachers ask themselves what competencies a particular lesson can build, it can lead to interesting outcomes. Sophomores in Upper School read Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, in which the character Pip grows up without his parents and navigates the complex social classes of 19th century England. English Department Chair Rick Rees and the other English 10 teachers do not want the students to merely read the book as a literary artifact but to relate it to contemporary life. This year the book will be a jumping-off point for an urban studies project that includes learning what happens today to children who lose the protection of parents, what poverty and class look like in Portland, how access to the legal system works for different groups, and who is working on those problems.

Rick hopes the urban studies project will help students connect to service learning so they can play an active role in addressing the social problems they encounter in the book and in their study of Portland. That involves competencies related to “I Commit,” such as “I act with courage and compassion” and “I work for justice and peace.”

One reason students read novels is to develop empathy with the characters, but empathy without commitment is can be hollow.

“I believe that a deeper life happens through commitment,” Rick said. “There are many ways to drift through life and not be committed to anything, but the better way to be is to have that sense of commitment and engagement. These are ideas that have always had meaning for me.”

Interim Upper School Head Corbet Clark says the competencies of caring for others, working for justice, and respecting the dignity of others are very much a part of the Episcopal tradition, which emphasizes seeking knowledge from experience. Corbet says his job is not just to transmit knowledge but to engage students in playing an active role.

 “How can I help students not just theorize about ethics but also learn how you live an ethical life?” he said. “How do you plan and carry out a just action?”

He envisions the essential competencies as four quadrants in a mandala, which is a circle from the Buddhist and Hindu traditions that can represent a sense of oneness with the ultimate unity of the cosmos. It relates to the OES mission, which calls for enhancing all aspects of a student—intellectual, physical, social, emotional, spiritual, and artistic. The essential competencies are not limited to academic pursuits but to everything a student, or indeed any human being, needs to learn about life.

“Our mission statement talks about educating the whole person,” Corbet said. “A big element of an Episcopal School is we are consciously emphasizing more than just skills and knowledge. To be a good, happy, successful person you need to cultivate all areas of your life.”

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