View from Glen Hill: Cinderella and success

I was blown away by the Wilton High School production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella as part of a standing-room-only audience in the Clune Center three weeks ago for its final performance.

This is a production in which everything came together perfectly: magnificent voices, remarkable costuming, set design that worked beautifully in its detail and flexibility (and with a royal coach worthy of a princess that I’m told, in a different production and differently configured, had formerly been a Conestoga wagon), and with a pit orchestra with a dozen high school musicians (augmented by nine guest artists) that was truly superb. Supporting the actors and musicians was an extraordinary stage crew that covered lighting and sound in addition to all of the other skill sets that go into making an exceptional production.

These high school productions engage a large number of students in enormously time-consuming as well as technically challenging undertakings. The elaborate set design alone is daunting to imagine constructing, yet the professionalism among these students is astounding. This excellence is something we see year after year in Wilton High School’s productions. While only a few of the performers and stage crew are ever likely to pursue a professional career in theater or film, the skills honed in these productions reflect remarkable educational experiences in themselves: in musical performance, in presence on stage in a variety of settings in which public speaking and engagement are crucial, in working cooperatively with others on tight schedules and with complex critical paths to completion, and in confidence-building at being able to accomplish the extraordinary.

As graduation day approaches, it’s a good time to reflect on all that our students achieve across so many different fields, for many of which there is no explicit grading or other traditional academic recognition. Students find their passions in these endeavors and are encouraged by inspiring teachers, coaches, directors, producers, choreographers, musical directors, and volunteer workers to bring their very best to what they do. And in a real sense, that is what education at its most foundational level is all about: helping students find their passions and supporting them in pursuing them while not neglecting their need also to acquire other foundational skills as well.

That sounds really challenging, and indeed it is. But the good news is that it’s being done every day in our schools in classrooms where students find a passion for everything from the classics to engineering to bio sciences. It’s facilitated by teachers who are not only masters of their subject areas but who also — in the words of Wilton Warrior columnist and Wilton High School senior Maya Fazio writing in this newspaper several months ago and speaking of her own experiences at the high school — “cheer you on … reassur[ing] me that hard work does not go unnoticed and that they are proud of me, … remind[ing] me that it is OK to reach out for help when you need it. … [and offering me] a safe place to go if life gets overwhelming.” Two such teachers, Chip Gawle and John Rhodes, were specially honored last week with induction into Wilton Schools’ Hall of Fame.

Our schools’ new visioning process under the leadership of Superintendent Kevin Smith began with a two-and-a-half-hour session last month and is continuing this coming Monday. It involves 100 Wilton teachers, administrators and residents in a process aimed at imagining what our schools could look like in a half-dozen years. For example, how could more instructional time be devoted to cultivating and nurturing students’ passions in specific areas? That’s not so easy a task given necessary “seat time” for learning required to complete such things as state standardized testing, and it’s also not so easy when certain subjects are ones that all students need to master to at least some reasonable degree of proficiency.

But it’s not impossible to imagine a setting in which cultivating educational passions — and doing so in a supportive and welcoming teaching environment — is not only possible but is actually the norm and expectation, as is the situation even now in more than a few cases such as those previously mentioned. The technical teaching tools exist in the interconnected world in which we live to make this realizable even as we blend in the more prosaic but equally essential elements of the learning process to meet standardized-testing goals.

What is required is careful visioning to meet the challenges, and that is very fortunately happening as this visioning process progresses on a broad community basis right now.