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Living Learning

By Rich Schellhas
Head of School

At GA, those who can, teach.

Of course we still hear the typical refrains of, ‘When am I ever going to use…’ (fill in the blank with a subject you don’t like or aren’t great at – for me it was always geometric proofs). As a teacher of one of the less ‘practical’ subjects (German), I have two standard replies to this query: 

1. It’s extraordinary training for your brain; and

2. It’s great to have a secret language that only 2.7% of the world’s population can understand!

Kidding aside, I have actually reworked my entire curriculum to emphasize the doing part of the learning (while still squeezing in a lot of brain training to provide the foundation for a secret language). While my predecessors in the field emphasized the instruction of reading German over speaking it (to prepare people for advanced degree programs where reading one or more other languages remains a priority today), I am now free to indulge in achieving two goals in my classroom:

1. Inspire my students to fall in love with the language (who wants to speak or continue to learn a language they don’t love?!); and

2. Give them the basic tools they’ll need to go to Germany and interact with people in a variety of settings in their native language.

As a result of this shift, my final exam each year takes place at Brauhaus Schmitz down on South Street in Philadelphia. From the moment they cross the threshold until 90 minutes later, the students are required to order and banter in German without letting a peep of English interrupt. Daunting? Perhaps. Doable? Definitely (but it helps to mix up the seating every 15 minutes so they can recycle some vocabulary after just a year’s worth of study).

At GA, we have transformed physical spaces and added significant programming to emphasize the doing aspect of learning. Without fail, whenever I’m conducting Senior Exit Interviews with our 12th graders shortly before they graduate, our lifers (who arrived in PreK or K and spent 13 or 14 years at the Academy) invariably highlight the active learning moments from across our three divisions as their favorite, most meaningful memories. Whether it was their role in an AP history simulation, a completely hands-on minimester called Things Ever Young Person Should Know, Honors Engineering, robotics, the 3rd grade Wax Museum or 4th grade Industrial Revolution immersion or 5th grade Forest Fest/Eco-Expo, students make deeper connections when they are personally, often physically, involved in their learning.

During my own senior year of high school I received a scholarship from the US and German governments to spend 12 months living with a host family and attending German high school. It’s safe to say I never did less homework in my life and that I learned more in that time than in the rest of my schooling combined. And not just German, of course. I learned how to navigate the complicated dynamics of a family other than my own, how to make new friends in a completely different culture, how to truly persevere, and how to live my own ethics and decide what I wanted to stand for in the world. Affectionately, I think of that year as my personal Advanced Placement Life course; there was no credit for it in college, but it made all the difference.


In the past 10 years at GA, we have worked hard to provide our students with similar experiences. In our Beard Center for Innovation and Tinker Lab, students build their ideas. We now sponsor intensive exchange and travel programs in London, Seville, Freiburg, Krakow, Quebec, Beijing, and Shanghai (not to mention other ‘floating’ trips to different locations like SCUBA and team tours). For three years now we have sponsored the Germantown Academy Experience Program (GAXP) in the Upper School, offering to date eight fully funded trips for students to engage in immersive learning experiences in the areas of service learning (Taos and New Orleans), outdoor education (Costa Rica, the waters of New England, and the mountains of Pennsylvania), and the arts (NYC underground arts tour, Philly Mural Arts study and creation).

At GA we frequently refer to the ‘Fort Washington Bubble,’ that cozy suburban nest of safety, as something important to metaphorically pop or from which we need to guide the students to explore new horizons. We invite students to defy limitations: geographical, cultural, creative, and intellectual. By hiring and growing teachers who can, who eagerly stretch their classrooms and the learning experience into active hubs of engagement either virtually or physically, we give students the tools to shape the bubble as they choose, to give it an entirely different form, or to revel in it the way children savor the bubble’s ephemeral splendor before moving on to greater challenges and wider worlds.