Portrait of a Penn Charter Learner:
A student who engineered a 3-D printed tool that enables a child with quadriplegia to create art. Latin students who learn to challenge the Eurocentric bias of ancient civilizations. Second graders who collaborate with community partners to address food insecurity in Philadelphia.
In August 2021, a committee of Penn Charter faculty and staff engaged in a year-long process to develop the Portrait of a Penn Charter Learner. The new portrait evolved from the Portrait of a Graduate, created in 2000, and reflects how much has changed in our school and in education over the last two decades. Across all academic disciplines, the Portrait articulates the skills, attitudes and competencies Penn Charter seeks to nurture in our students.
“The Portrait serves as an important touchstone as we move forward into the next era,” said Nora Landon, chair of the English Department, who clerked the committee. “It builds upon the excellence that we already have. It’s not a checklist or a punch list for a graduate. It's an aspirational look at everything we can be — and who we want to be. It’s a living document that even our youngest learners can see themselves in.”
Alexandra Will: Independent Study
Alexandra Will, a junior, chose to engage in an Independent Study — the pursuit of an academic passion not regularly offered in the curriculum — to use technology to create something that would benefit a marginalized population.
She connected via Zoom with Caroline, a quadriplegic teenager who attends high school in Bucks County. Caroline loves to draw and paint. Alexandra, with the guidance of her project advisor, Corey Kilbane, redesigned the assistive device Caroline had been using — a rudimentary headband that relied on a wooden dowel and tape to fasten a paintbrush or pastels so that Caroline could draw by moving her head. But the tool wasn’t steady.
Alexandra has used computer-aided design (CAD) software to engineer several 3-D printed iterations of a headband that would securely hold a cylindrical art tool. Function is key, but so is form.
“Comfort and personality and the way it makes you feel are a big part of any product you are designing for a population or an individual,” Alexandra said. “Caroline likes pink and purple, so we’re designing it like a crown so that she feels good when she’s wearing it.”
Alexandra sees both the opportunity and need for additional tools to support people with disabilities, such as a modified zipper that people with limited function in their hands could use.
Through this one independent study, Alexandra exemplifies each domain of the Portrait of a Learner, but the one she sees as perhaps the most important to her work is Constructive Communicator.
“One of the first things that Mr. Kilbane told me,” she said, “is that you have to understand the population you're trying to reach. …For this project, we really wanted open communication with the client, her loved ones, her mom, caretakers, occupational therapists. How does this work for Caroline, and how can we apply this to people with similar challenges?”
Colby Reagan: Seventh Grade Latin Class
Jim Fiorile teaches his seventh grade Latin students about ancient Carthage through a game played with 10-sided dice. One player represents Carthage, and the other Rome, which the class has already studied a lot. It’s not a game of skill or of chance. It’s a game where the society with the higher technology — naval technology, for instance — wins the game. And so, Carthage wins.
But the lesson is not just about Carthage, the sprawling, seafaring civilization that was located on the Mediterranean along the African coast and the Iberian Peninsula. It’s a lesson, Fiorile said, about the Eurocentric version of history most of us learn.
Carthage, at points in time, was larger and wealthier than Rome. And yet, Fiorile said, “most students haven't really studied Carthage that much. The great civilizations of Africa are unstudied compared to Greece and Rome.” This game — and the classroom discussion it sparks — “is a chance to shine a light on an advanced civilization that is not as studied as other advanced civilizations of the ancient Mediterranean.”
Plus, Fiorile said, “the experiential nature of the lesson makes it more likely that the kids will internalize the takeaway, rather than just me standing in the front of the room and telling them.”
Colby Reagan and his Latin 7 classmates are Courageous Learners, engaged in questioning and critical thinking, as they begin to challenge implicit bias in the study of ancient cultures.
Until this Latin class, Colby said, “I had never heard of Carthage before. I always thought that Rome, Greece and Egypt were the most advanced civilizations in ancient times, but then we learned about Carthage and how they are much more advanced because they knew how to fight on land and water and could overpower their enemies by switching to water.
“When Carthage is introduced,” he said, “you might start to change your ideas.”
Fiorile is excited when his students begin to challenge power dynamics in society and confront privilege in the study of history. “We’ve got to name some of these truths,” he said. “It takes courage for some of our students to sit in the discomfort of facing the Eurocentric bias in the study of history.”
“We wanted to have something nimble, something that will inspire students. The message is, ‘We want you to be four things and to be them very differently.’ And that’s exciting, I think.” - Nora Landon, clerk of the Portrait Committee
Madeline Dudley: Second Grade
When second grade teachers Meg Merlini, Joe Maguire and Sue Shelly began talking to their classes about their project-based learning study of food insecurity, they began with two guiding questions:
How am I learning about the power of change?
How can we as second grade students make a positive change in the world?
The second graders have kept these questions at the center as they have connected with community organizations as well as members of the Upper School Food Security Club to learn about hunger in Philadelphia.
PC’s longtime partner, Share Food Program, visited to kick off the project, sparking students’ curiosity and empathy, Merlini said. Throughout the year, students will meet with other community partners such as the Coalition Against Hunger and those who support community fridges in Germantown and East Falls to deepen their understanding of the causes and effects of food insecurity.
“The kids decide how to engage with this issue — maybe gardening at Share, maybe stewarding the East Falls Community Fridge or facilitating a Lower School Run Against Hunger,” Merlini said. “They are designing the project; it’s not coming from [the second grade teachers]. When they are in the driver’s seat, it’s 100 percent engagement.”
Second grader Madeline Dudley is a Compassionate Friend who is particularly engaged in food security work. “One little person can make a giant difference!” she said. “I earned two badges in Girl Scouts, and my favorite one was for the food drive. I read that Philadelphia has more hunger issues than some of the rest of the United States, so I need to work extra hard.”
Maddie is also a Change Cultivator: an upstander, collaborator and problem-solver who sees the Light in others. She already has a long-term plan of being part of the Food Security Club when she’s in Upper School. “It makes me want to help even more to change the world,” she said.
– Rebecca Luzi