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Symposium: a Mystery to Most

For students nearly everywhere, the weeks between semesters one and two are stress-ridden times, defined by overcaffination and countless nights of cramming for the impending midterms. Packer kids, fortunately saved by the promise of Symposium, avoid such a fate.

Symposium is an approximately two-week-long program during which the ninth, eleventh, and twelfth grade take domestic courses taught by Packer faculty and the tenth grade travels abroad. While Symposium is generally well regarded by the Upper School, many students are unaware of the program’s purpose, and see it as a mere break from school.

“I think that most people view it as a time to just mess around and goof off,” said Evan Myers (‘20).

Grace Warner-Haakmat (‘20) has speculated about Symposium’s purpose, but said that she “really has no idea [what the objective of Symposium is].” Both Grace and Evan guessed that it is meant to give students the the rare opportunity to creatively focus on subjects which are of interest to them and are not addressed in their classes.

Evan and Grace were correct in assuming that a simple break from stress has never been the intended goal of Symposium. The program was first introduced to faculty during the 2012 – 2013 academic year, and was meant to actualize the goals of Packer’s strategic plan, which is a set of objectives intended to advance the school over the course of the upcoming years. At the time, the strategic plan focused on enhancing students’ global experiences, taking advantage of New York City as a classroom, expanding teaching methodology, and promoting interdisciplinary learning. In order to literally centralize said goals, it was decided that Symposium should be placed in the middle of the year.

Contrary to the popularly held belief that Symposium is purely a time for relaxed fun, it is, according to Dr. Carey, who is co-coordinator of the domestic program along with Dean of Student Life Allison Bishop, an opportunity for students to “learn just for the sake of learning.”

“Goal one is introducing to kids, and to adults, that learning for the sake of learning is a possibility at Packer,” he said. “We do that, or try to do that, through encouraging folks to think about…weird corners of our lives that are begging for analysis and experience, that might not read legible to colleges, or even parents or teachers elsewhere.” The experience of learning is often tainted by anxiety, and Symposium is meant to alleviate some of the academic pressure that many feel throughout the year in order to remind Packer’s community of the joys that can accompany cultivating knowledge.

Upper School Head Jose De Jesus explained that he hopes creativity and passion is sparked during Symposium, given that it is a time for students to explore interests unaddressed in their classes, and that the spark lends itself to a widened scope of what learning by experience means.

“I want inspiration,” he said. “I want students to walk away feeling inspired about their city, inspired about whatever [topic they focused on], and I want that feeling of inspiration to lead to further curiosity.”

Despite the commendable and thoughtful goals of Symposium, the program’s purpose remains a mystery to many of its participants. Dr. Carey understands how Symposium’s intent may be lost in translation; he acknowledges that tasting different cuisines, surfing at Rockaway Beach, and admiring art are not experiences which fit into the traditional mold of learning. He is, however, confident that even though these experiences take place outside of the traditional construct of a classroom, they enrich our understanding of the world.

“[The disconnect] could stem from [a lack of] communication,” said Mr. De Jesus. “We’ve definitely communicated with the faculty, but I think that, in terms of the student body, I can see how there would be a little bit of uncertainty.”

After being made aware of Symposium’s purpose, both Grace and Evan agreed that the goals were achieved, and pointed out that learning without the pressure of a grade often makes the experience more enjoyable.

Though Symposium itself is an isolated, limited experience, the effects of the singular educational opportunity have the potential to inform our day-to-day classes, and in fact already have. Both Dr. Carey and Upper School English Teacher Amy Roberts’ class on nature writing and the class “Life’s Big Questions,” taught by Upper School Art Teacher Eric Baylin, were born out of Symposium courses. While the expectation is not that all Symposiums evolve into permanent courses, the coordinators hope that some of the program’s methodology weaves its way into regular classes, and has an impact on how Packer as an institution deepens its understanding of the myriad forms effective teaching can take.

An experience unique to Packer, Symposium has the potential to remind all members of the Upper School that the process of learning does not always need to be one plagued by anxiety, and that learning for the sole purpose of expanding our minds is an attainable goal. Were we as a student body to take advantage of the opportunities Symposium presents, and were its objectives to be more consistently communicated, the program would become even more influential in the trajectory of our schooling, further enhancing our educational experience and shaping our understanding of what learning can look like.

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