Habits of Mind: Writing the Next Chapter


By John Syme

Davidson’s graduates are taking their liberal arts experience into today’s classrooms, adding some new lesson plans to the tried and true.

Back To School

In January, Newsweek editor Jon Meacham (a University of the South alumnus who spoke at Davidson two years ago) wrote: “The next chapter of the nation’s economic life could well be written not only by engineers but by entrepreneurs who, as products of an apparently disparate education, have formed a habit of mind that enables them to connect ideas that might otherwise have gone unconnected.”

That next chapter, of course, depends on the current chapter of the nation’s educational life. How are liberal arts graduates writing that chapter in today’s classrooms? We asked a few alumni in the trenches of K–12 education, and we found that their “habits of mind” are flourishing in elementary, middle, and high schools across the land.

“Davidson Classroom” teacher Shelby Casassa joins school co-director Tim Saintsing ’98 with Wildcat scholars at Excellence Boys Charter School.

“Davidson Classroom” teacher Shelby Casassa joins school co-director Tim Saintsing ’98 with Wildcat scholars at Excellence Boys Charter School.

They’ve Got ’Cat Class

Tim Saintsing ’98 is a teacher and codirector of Excellence Boys Charter School of Bedford-Stuyvesant, a New York City public school. Saintsing brings an unmistakable Wildcat roar to his work: he has outfitted a “Davidson classroom” with red-and-black wares imported from alma mater and established pen-pal relationships between Excellence scholars and Davidson’s Black Student Coalition.

In an e-mail to President Tom Ross, Saintsing wrote, “I had a mom a few Saturdays ago call me at 3:30 in the afternoon. She had taken seven of our rising fifth-grade boys, as a celebration for doing well on their state English and math exams, to any movie they wanted to see that was playing at the Brooklyn theatre…. One of the boys spotted the Barnes & Noble three doors down. And he said, ‘Hey, let’s not go to the movies, let’s go read at Barnes & Noble….’ And from the second-floor stacks came the call from the mom, who said, ‘Mr. Saintsing, I don’t know what kind of school you’re trying to build, but you’ve got seven 4th grade boys from BedStuy, Brooklyn, on a Saturday afternoon deciding not to go see Saw 6 but to spend three hours reading in Barnes & Noble.’”

By the Book

Elizabeth Devlin ’04 is focused on underserved girls, an interest she began as a student and continued after graduation in Teach For America. With a Leonard Grant from Davidson in her sophomore year, she began a girl’s book club at Ada Jenkins Community Center, a seedling that grew into PageTurners, a network of afterschool book clubs that harness the power of literature and female community to inspire at-risk adolescent girls to become better readers and future leaders.

Devlin left her day job to devote full time to Pageturners, now being piloted with 32 middle-school girls in Dorchester County, Md., and expanding to serve 140 girls next year in three Eastern Shore counties and several Baltimore city schools. “I have a national vision for this program,” she said. “It’s easily replicable, and beginning to gain traction.”

Two Davidson folks who sit on Devlin’s national board will help realize that vision— Shireen Campell, professor of English, and Devlin’s longtime family friend, Peyton Marshall ’77. More hometeam help came from Bonner Scholar Tamara Munroe ’12, who spent three weeks interning this summer with Devlin, returning to lead a PageTurners book club in Davidson’s summer program, Leaps and Bounds.

Partners in the Process

Kemmer Anderson ’67 knows how fortunate he is to have strong parental involvement as an English teacher at the McCallie School, a private boarding school for boys. “Kids can be equal academically,” said Anderson. “Having conferences with parents makes all the difference. It can happen at public schools, too. The real heroes are in public schools.”

Public or private, setting a real and strong example counts for a lot: “If students meet someone who’s crazy over Milton or salamanders or Battle of the Bulge history,” Anderson says, “that’s the greatest gift you can give them, enthusiasm, because they don’t get it off a flat screen or an iPod.”

Early social-work experience in North Mecklenburg’s public schools on the heels of his own English major showed Anderson the need for strong educators. It also taught him something about his own best strengths. “I felt the making of the difference was with words, in my case,” he said.

On a Mission

When it comes to the liberal arts mission in the educational workplace, Ann Clark ’80, chief academic officer of Charlotte- Mecklenburg Schools, and Molly Shaw ’02, founding director of the Charlotte Teachers Institute, have teamed up to bring it all home—and then some.

The Charlotte Teachers Institute is a partnership of CMS, UNC Charlotte, and Davidson that brings talented K–12 teachers into the classrooms of college and university professors for reinvigoration and renewal. Then the teachers compose classroom modules based on their studies and take their new ideas and energy back into the classroom. Based on the Yale National Initiative that began in New Haven 30 years ago and has spread to public-private educational partnerships nationwide, CTI is the first program of its kind in North Carolina.

Shaw and Clark see their Davidson educations in light of their current work.

“The fact that we’re up to our necks in public education says a lot in terms of the kind of people that Davidson attracts,” said Shaw. “It’s exciting for me to see Davidson make this choice. It’s a strong message.” “I’m looking to bring the Davidson experience to as many people as I can,” Clark agreed. “I see Davidson interacting in my world every day: classroom, July Experience, partner in diversity, admission and guidance counselors….”

The CTI program for 50 high school teachers last fall included a Chemistry of Color seminar with Professor of Chemistry Ruth Beeston and a Drama and Science seminar with Associate Professor of English Ann Fox.

Conchita Austin, a CMS biology teacher who participated in Beeston’s seminar summed up, “I like learning. When I tell the kids that I’m going to school and I have to write a paper, they love it!

“You keep learning; you don’t stop when you graduate.”

A Bridge Between Two Cultures

The very concept of “the liberal arts” is only now beginning to be understood in Shanghai, China, reports Dan Plaut ’85. He is director of the ELS American Education Center there. Business is booming. “We start by showing that the American classroom is more geared for a ‘production’ orientation, more interactive, after their more passive classroom experience. We have to cover research, plagiarism, how to present results,” says Plaut. “China is a very young market that looks mostly at national universities as ranked by U.S. News &World Report. It will be three to five years before liberal arts is truly understood.”

At Davidson, Plaut was an economics major aiming for high finance. Then he did “this insane thing” of studying abroad in India during his junior year. “It basically gave me a clue about the world.” So, off to the Philippines with the Peace Corps, then ELS in 1987 in Taiwan as an instructor for six months. “That turned out to be the longest six months of my life! Who would have ever guessed? If you had ever told me in 1982 that my life would end up this way, I would have laughed you right out of E.H. Little Library.”

And he would not change a thing. “It’s an honor and a privilege to be a bridge between two cultures of arguably the most important countries in the 21st century,” says Plaut.

Clear as a “Bell”

Gene Guill ’72, who studied his junior year in Germany, is a managing director at Deutsche Bank’s New York office. He serves on the board of directors of Building Educated Leaders for Life (BELL), a national organization of summer and after-school programs for children in low-income, urban communities.

Guill’s classmate Lester Strong ’72, BELL’s chief development officer, invited Guill several years ago to join the board of directors. The two men, with help from classmates at a Davidson reunion, soon focused on extending BELL’s success from northern cities to the southeast. The summer 2009 program in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools engaged 55 sixth-grade scholars for six-and-a-half hours a day of academics, social enrichment, field trips, and parental engagement. Students gained 8.7 months in grade-equivalent math and literacy.

Anatomy of Change

At age 60, Ty Finch, M.D. ’67 still loved the patient contact in is Nashville, Tenn. surgical practice, but he was getting “worn out” with all the rules, regulations, and HMOs. He said as much in conversation one day with a patient, who happened to be the dean of the college of education at Tennessee State University. In the course of conversation, the dean looked at Finch and said, “We’re in the wrong office.” Finch went back to school, ended his medical practice with no regrets for a rewarding first career, and started teaching at Nashville’s Hillsboro High School. His five-class load of AP biology, physiology, and anatomy included three freshman classes in a student body with seven native languages. “I lost 18 pounds the first semester. It was harder than being a surgical intern,” he says. The next year, he had all seniors, stuck with it, and added football coaching.

“Building the relationships and seeing the kids follow through, making a difference with kids whether they came from a rough neighborhood or came from an affluent home, and seeing them work through issues and get into college, that was worth it,” says Finch. “I learned so much about the culture of poverty, about the effects that the absence of a middle-class vocabulary can have. I think the attribute that was most important for teaching in public schools is a willingness to be patient and compassionate with them. Patience and compassion, the same thing that was important for me,” says Finch, looking back now from his fully retired status. Advice for new teachers: “Stick it out. Gird your loins and stick it out.”


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  1. Just when I thought the only information being published about the current state of education was negative, I find this uplifiting article by John Syme.

    As a father of 5 school-age children, I was so happy to read the inspirational stories of these liberal arts graduates.

    The negative press surrounding school districts, teachers, budget woes and so on far outweighs the positive. Thanks so much for going against the grain!

    Looking forward to more success stories,


  2. Thank you John Syme for this inspirational article. My daughter recently graduated from a liberal arts college and it was a wonderful experience for her.

    This quote from your article is one I want to print out and hang on my wall:

    “You keep learning; you don’t stop when you graduate.”

    That is a wonderful attitude to have and leads to a more meaningful life.

    I feel that teachers and writers are the heroes of our times, they are what make our nation great, improve our culture and civilization, and help us grow as people.

    Every successful person can tell you about a teacher that “believed in me.”

    Thanks again for the wonderful article.