For more than six years now, the Teaching & Learning Center has provided a convenient venue for adults in the PC community to share their expertise and passions and improve their craft as educators. Wander up to the second floor of Gummere Library during lunch and you may find yourself audience to any of an extensive array of topics, from design thinking to ukulele playing to digital storytelling.
In a recent measure of the TLC’s appeal, founder Ruth Aichenbaum and David Brightbill, PC’s academic dean for curriculum and professional development, were selected to give a presentation about the center—one of the first of its kind in American independent schools—at the National Association of Independent Schools’ (NAIS) annual conference in Long Beach last May. Their presentation was a big hit, prompting a flurry of responses from educators interested in starting similar initiatives at their schools.
Perhaps the most telling indication of the Teaching & Learning Center’s allure, though, is that even Penn Charter students have started getting in on the trend.
Enter Haley Joyce, who was so inspired by her experience co-leading a Lunch & Learn session at the TLC with French teacher Marianna Allen that she decided to create an equivalent venue for students. With the help of Aichenbaum, her fifth grade teacher, Joyce founded the Student Learning Center (SLC) in the fall of 2017.
The SLC prides itself on being a “stress-free environment” for students interested in learning for its own sake, with “no grades and no judgments.” Now in its third year of operation, the SLC, like the TLC, has already offered a breadth of sessions on topics as varied as yoga, bullet journaling, hair care, fundraising, fly fishing, and music production.
Sessions were initially few and far between. Briana Hill OPC ’19 kicked things off with Freestyle Rapping 101 in October 2017; in December, Alex Eley OPC ’19 led a workshop about navigating difficult conversations in the social media age. But by the spring, interest in the SLC had grown so much that Joyce was able to schedule three to five concurrent sessions during the Yellow Monday block 9 time slot she’d been allotted in the Upper School schedule. The following school year, SLC sessions were held quarterly, with five to seven sessions running at once.
Joyce, who is charismatic and trained in presenting through Eva Kay Noone’s public speaking class, took a personal interest in helping her peers deliver compelling workshops.
Her best advice for an engaging presentation? “Make it fun for the audience and yourself.”
During training sessions for new SLC presenters, she generally relied on a handful of practical tips:
Pick a topic you’re passionate about. Practice with a teacher beforehand to verify your information and get comfortable speaking in front of people. Engage your audience with questions and activities whenever possible. Try to pick a topic most people don’t know about already.
And of course that time-honored tradition of successful gatherings the world over: provide snacks.
That first year was hectic for Joyce, who took on much of the work for the center—with help from Aichenbaum—on top of the notoriously heavy course load that saddles most college-bound 11th graders.
In an effort to spread the workload and ensure that the center would continue to flourish beyond her graduation, Joyce formed an SLC Committee in the spring of 2018. The group worked with school administration to secure a budget and establish an official social media presence.
When Joyce graduated in 2019, leadership of the center fell into the hands of Sophie Stevens and Nieve Kelly, both now Penn Charter seniors and members of the SLC’s executive board. The two are no strangers to presenting, either. Last year, they co- led a workshop about making friendship bracelets, and Stevens hosted a session in October 2018 called “The Food Lab,” an introduction to “cooking high-quality food that is quick [and] affordable.”
Kelly and Stevens are supported by the SLC Committee, which divides into three subcommittees to tackle different aspects of planning, from publicity to booking to training presenters. But with a relatively small group overall, everyone usually ends up doing a little bit of everything, which Stevens thinks is valuable. “It builds important life skills to see what it takes for an organization like this to run smoothly,” she said.
This year, the SLC Committee members hope to grow the profile of the SLC through social media and word of mouth. They also want to secure more workshop days throughout the year so they don’t have to run as many sessions simultaneously. “It gets a little chaotic with so many sessions on one day,” Kelly said.
She and Stevens remain committed to the vision of the Student Learning Center as a fun, stress-free learning environment—and, as Stevens noted, “a great opportunity to get to know your classmates better.”
But hosting an SLC session can also be beneficial for students who want to hone their public speaking skills in a more casual environment than the classroom.
“One of the perks of hosting a workshop is you get good practice for bigger things” like graded presentations, Stevens said. It’s a win-win.
Aichenbaum, meanwhile, is thrilled to see how the TLC model—which she was inspired to develop after a visit to an Apple Store—has taken on a life of its own, at Penn Charter and beyond. The Penn Charter Parent Community has also started its own TLC-inspired initiative called Parent- to-Parent, a workshop series where parents can “share expertise and common interests... enjoy the company of fellow parents, and connect outside of school-related volunteer efforts.”
“It’s really wonderful to see so many people in our community sharing their passions with one another,” Aichenbaum said.
During the final SLC session of the 2018-19 school year, she was stationed in a workshop room as an adult facilitator. It was just days before Aichenbaum would leave for California to give her own presentation about the Teaching & Learning Center, and when she found out the topic of the SLC session she’d be sitting in on—“Who’s Afraid of Public Speaking?” by Ayana Opong- Nyantekyi OPC ’19—she was delighted by the serendipity.
“This session is for me!” she remembers thinking. “Ayana had a lot of really great ideas about body language and articulation. It helped me with my own presentation to think about those things.”
It was a beautiful moment for Aichenbaum who, for maybe the thousandth time since starting the TLC in 2013, felt like a student again. Lifelong learning, indeed.