Ten Minutes with BCD’s new head of school – Jenifer Fox
Jenifer Fox has a mission: to make schools more human. The incoming head of Berkshire Country Day School (BCD) is widely considered a national leader on developing school programs that make learning meaningful for children. Fox comes to the Berkshires from The Delta School, a project-based learning program she founded five years ago in Wilson, Arkansas. On September 3, Fox looks forward to shaking hands with the 110 students she will welcome to the Lenox campus for the school’s 73rd opening day.
What is your most basic philosophy when it comes to educating young people?
Every kid has something to offer the world, and it’s our job as adults to guide them toward that contribution. A strength is something that energizes you—it’s not necessarily something that you’re good at. If we can help kids find what that is, they are going to do it a lot and get good at it consequently. We’re looking for that thing inside to make a lifetime out of. We work, some of us for 50 years. That’s a long time! So, you better figure out what you love doing not just what you’re good at.
What are you most looking forward to in this new school year?
There’s a lot of wonderful opportunity here buffered with the challenge of creating change in a place that has a long history. We are looking at 2020 with a vision for the future that’s based on the cherished tradition of the past. We have to figure out who we are in the next 20 years, and it’s going to be a little bit different than who we were in the past 20 years. Because other places within this county are up against the same sort of challenges, I’m really looking forward to partnering with those people to discover how we can best maximize all of our assets to create success and abundance for all of us.
What is intention and how does it affect outcomes in the classroom?
Intention means you are mindful and conscious of just about everything you do and how it affects growth. Everything you do can be infused with meaning. When kids show up in the morning at BCD, a cherished tradition is that the head of school greets them, shakes their hand, and looks them in the eye. That’s an intentional moment of arrival. This is something that elevates the child in terms of their awareness about character, about belonging, about civic responsibility. And it speaks to developing a kid’s sense of confidence and self-worth.
What is your approach to bridging differences?
Everyone is a unique individual, so we are all different. We have to question our biases, the place where we start to form the idea of binary opposites; we have to get out of the world of this and that, us and them, black and white. This is the mental paradigm we are trapped in—not just in school, but everywhere in society—and this is what we’re trying to break down. The idea that there is a difference means there is a norm. Let’s pretend there is not a norm; then the difference goes away and let’s see what we have in common.
Why all the buzz about project-based learning?
Many of us grew up in an education system that relied on gathering knowledge which, in many respects, was alien to what we were going to do with our lives—it didn’t really help us find that. For kids today, the question is: What are we going to do with this knowledge? Rather than leave that to chance, I think we should start there. There are many problems in this world that kids today are going to inherit. Why not have them start working on solving those problems right now? Kids love doing work that is real. You get a kid a little fake kitchen, or you give them a real kitchen and you let them go, 100 percent of the kids are going to go right to the real kitchen and work in it. The real kitchen of life is projects. Projects that aren’t fake. I don’t subscribe to doing work that is made only for the bulletin board or the backpack or the refrigerator door. I believe that the work kids do can be real and meaningful.
You are an award-winning poet. How has that strength served you?
I love poetry and theater. I started out as a theater teacher. I always wanted to be a writer—I took a novel-writing class—but I can’t write a novel now, I don’t have a story to tell. But I can write poetry because I have all these impressions of life that I feel deeply and that I see keenly. I think poems. I just spent a sabbatical year in Taos, New Mexico, and I decided that I’d write as much poetry as possible. My partner is a landscape painter, and he was preparing for a show. And I started writing poems about his paintings. We created a volume of work together called One Man’s Home, One Woman’s Heart because all my poems are love poems.
What has surprised you most about your wanderings in the Berkshires?
There is a lot of wilderness here—it’s a bit mountainous, there are trails, hills, and forests—and I’m not afraid to be alone in nature. I feel really safe here. I love theater and I am also a big fan of live music. I’ve been to the Egremont Barn and the Dream Away Lodge, the Lion’s Den. I really like bookstores and coffee shops, so you’ll find me in those places on the weekend. And I really like art museums. It’s strange to me—and great—to have museums, theater, music and nature, all together. I love it.
Do you have any advice for parents keen on reengaging their children in learning?
Adults need to trust that children are curious and really want to learn. When left alone, they will learn and discover; when overly programmed and prodded toward success, they will be frustrated. When parents pressure kids to be successful, the way their parents want them to be, they end up bending themselves and adjusting who they are in order to conform. In doing so, they end up giving up an essential part of who they are, which is their real opportunity to be super successful. I think parents need to engage their kids, to trust that they will be engaged, and then back off a little bit and let them explore.