The Waynflete Dialogue Project

The Waynflete Dialogue Project (WDP) is a focused initiative to make dialogue a keystone habit in the Upper School. It is not a single program but instead touches on many facets of the Upper School experience, in and outside of the classroom. Dialogue, at its best, is an approach to bridging differences among individuals to find common ground and extract the wisdom inherent in a diversity of viewpoints and backgrounds. As such, the primary goal of dialogue is to learn and understand, not to persuade.

Developing dialogue as a keystone habit at Waynflete will enrich the education of all students by helping them to learn from differences rather than be divided by them and thus help Waynflete avoid the fate of many colleges, which are too often diverse but divided. Inclusive communities are also healthy communities in which no student should feel alone. In addition, because of its power to tap wisdom from diversity, dialogue promotes innovation, creativity, entrepreneurial thinking, and problem solving.  

By putting dialogue at the center of the student experience, the WDP will deepen learning, strengthen community bonds, and prepare our students to be catalysts of progress in a divided world. As the faculty and administration work at cultivating the capacity for dialogue in our students, we expect that the effort will cultivate that capacity in ourselves as well. We hope it will prove to be a model that other schools want to emulate.

The Genesis of the WDP

From our mission to our daily practices, Waynflete is fertile ground for teaching dialogue. Key elements that are necessary for dialogue to flourish have long been hallmarks of the Waynflete experience, including a climate of mutual respect; discussion as a primary pedagogical strategy in the classroom; a premium value placed on teaching students to think; and, thanks to the school’s ongoing commitment starting in the early 2000s, an increasingly diverse student population in the upper school.  

The latter development – the increase in student diversity – caused us to become more intentional with how we talk with each other. Alums then started telling us how important learning those skills in high school has been for them as they navigate the increasingly polarized climate they find in college. With that in mind, in the fall of 2015, we decided to get more systematic in how we cultivate dialogue. Recent events in the news worldwide as well as the 2016 presidential election have subsequently affirmed the choice to commit ourselves to dialogue.

With planning underway, in March of 2016 in partnership with Maine Seeds of Peace, we sponsored and hosted the first annual New England Youth Identity Summit (NEYIS). The incredible success of that event – in which nearly 300 students from 27 schools across Maine and New England converged on the Waynflete campus for an evening and a day of mostly student led workshops and dialogues on a host of topics – solidified our commitment to promoting dialogue and encouraged us to see ourselves as a catalyst for doing so in the larger community. Thanks to the leadership of Head of School Geoff Wagg and the hard work of Director of Student Affairs Lydia Maier and Development Director Sarah Plimpton, we have subsequently been awarded a grant from the EE Ford Foundation that will allow us adequate resources to support the Summit for the next three years as well as the launch of the WDP.

Early in the summer, Lydia and I started mapping out a launch plan. We defined dialogue by drafting the Waynflete Building Blocks of Dialogue, linked here. We then began to engage the faculty with the project by holding a dialogue training in July. Although that session was originally intended for Upper School faculty, interest from the other two divisions as well as the development office led us to broaden the participation. By the end of the day, the prospect of making the WDP an all-school initiative had been introduced. A month later, the Upper School faculty opening retreat focused on how best to promote dialogue, and the administrative team had discussed making the initiative school-wide.  

What Form will the WDP Take?

The WDP is now being introduced to students in a series of steps. I alluded to the goal of cultivating our capacity for dialogue in my remarks to students at the start of the year. Over the first couple of weeks of school, some of the student leaders involved with the Summit have heard more about the initiative. At a recent assembly, I explained the WDP to the entire student body and asked them to participate in an advising lunch dialogue about the concept of privilege as articulated in the MTV video. My assembly remarks are linked here. The video is linked here.

Next Thursday, October 6, Waynflete will host a hip hop performing and teaching duo, Eric and Oliver. Eric is white and grew up in Skowhegan, Maine, loving hip hop music but having virtually no contact with the people or culture that spawned the music he loved. He subsequently attended Brown University and got involved with the hip hop scene in Providence, where he met Oliver, who is Dominican and from Providence. The two have joined together not only as hip hop performers but also as diversity educators at the Wheeler School. At Waynflete, they will perform for students and then tell their story of how they bridged their differences to become artistic collaborators and close friends. That evening, with support of the Maine Arts Commission, they will host a public event in Franklin Theater entitled Hip Hop, Racial Inequality, and Cultural Appropriation: A Night of Cultural Dialogue and Hip Hop Performance.

As the year progresses, we will practice dialogue in advising lunch sessions, in our various dialogue-based activities, and in our classrooms. In addition, the Upper School team has adopted the Building Blocks as our meeting agreements, which will give us the chance to practice what we teach. In the spring, we will again co-sponsor NEYIS with Maine Seeds of Peace, which will give our students the chance to practice dialogue as facilitators and participants with students from across New England. By year’s end, we hope to well on our way to establishing dialogue as a keystone habit as well as having enjoyed the many benefits of making the effort.

A Final Thought

As noted earlier, Waynflete is fertile ground for dialogue. In fact, dialogue is so closely aligned with the school’s identity that the basic elements of dialogue as we have defined them in The Building Blocks – curiosity, caring, and courage – are also descriptors of the school’s core values. We are currently running ads extolling the importance of questions; when asked to describe Waynflete in one word, “kindness” was always former Head of School Mark Segar’s answer; current Head Geoff Wagg gave the same response when asked to summarize his philosophy in a word; and we ask students to take positive risks daily as a prerequisite to growth. As such, when we work at getting better at dialogue, we strengthen our core identity, which in turn makes us better able to learn from each other in dialogue.

It is exciting to think of where this initiative might take us.

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