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Face to Face

How Trinity is building a strong foundation on interpersonal skills to prepare every student to meet the challenges and opportunities of the future.
One afternoon this February, José Santiago and Kyle van de Kamp ’12, two of Trinity’s tech gurus, thought they had a problem. “All of a sudden, during the lunch period, we had a huge drop off in internet traffic campus-wide,” Santiago recalls. “It looked like we had an outage.”
 
It turned out, however, that the network was still humming along fine. Reason for the drop in traffic? Lunchtime. Students and teachers campus-wide were packing away their laptops and smartphones and sitting down to eat lunch and talk to one another — face to face.
 
“I love that story,” says Brian Phillips, head of campus life, excited about one tangible measurement of intentional work by administrators to foster face-to-face interactions. “We have thought specifically about that in the way that we’ve designed and enhanced in the library, the commons and other social and learning spaces around campus,” he says. “Even the new class schedule, implemented in 2015, carved out a space dedicated entirely to lunch with no club meetings or other appointments or obligations — just lunch.”
 
DIGITAL NATIVES
Much has been written recently about the concern that a generation of children is spending so much time in the digital world of screens and devices that they may be missing out on the traditional, foundational social skills that previous generations took for granted. In the parlance of some educational writers and researchers (like the authors of “Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives”), today’s students are “digital natives,” while teachers, the traditional vetters and disseminators of approved information, are regarded as “digital immigrants.” But the missing piece in this world view is the inherent and continuing power of face-to-face interaction — and the essential skills and capacities that it fosters. 
 
“A common complaint among employers is that young people do not know how to effectively carry on a conversation and are unable to do things like ask questions, listen actively and maintain eye contact,” stated a 2014 article in US News and World Report. “These skills will again be important not only in college, where students must engage with professors to gain references and recommendations for future endeavors, but beyond as well. ... High school students can improve these traits by conversing with their teachers in one-to-one settings.”
 
The same article identified five skills students should develop during high school in order to ensure future success: “collaboration, interpersonal communication, problem-solving, time-management and leadership.” These future-ready skills are built on face-to-face interaction — one of the things Trinity does best.
 
A COMMUNITY OF LEARNING
Everything from the daily schedule to the discovery and tutorial periods, to the self-directed learning that the IB Diploma Program demands, to the requirement that all students participate in athletics with a coach — all of these things encourage face-to-face interactions.
 
“One of our principles as a school is that we learn best when we learn in community. We learn from each other,” says Lee Sprague, head of faculty life. She sees this as integral to Trinity’s entire academic program. “Whether in academics, arts or athletics, that notion is bred in the bone here,” she says. In the daily tutorial period, for example, students have the opportunity for dedicated one-on-one time with any teacher. “This gives a teacher the opportunity to engage their curiosity or do some coaching,” she says. “Or they might model a math problem. It’s important not only that you get the answer correct, but that you know how you got there.”
 
Sprague also points to examples of teachers who encourage students to take academic risks in the classroom setting. “If you were to walk into an IB English HL class, you might see classes acting out Shakespeare plays — trying to figure out the intention of the playwright on the spot,” she says. “Many other classes emphasize public speaking. We think it’s foundational that a student can explain a point of view and bring evidence to bear. That’s consistent in every curricular area, whether its a critique in art or a lab report in science.”
 
SOCIAL INTELLIGENCE
Athletic Director Becky Currier sees first-hand the power of one-on-one conversations beyond the classroom as well. “Whether it is having a chance to let a student know that I have seen their confidence and skill grow, or speaking with a student after they have made a less than stellar decision, it is always valuable time,” she says. “Trinity is a place for open dialogue, and I enjoy working with students to find solutions.”
 
Communication skills start early at Trinity. Every morning at Morning Meeting, the school convenes in the same room, and phones are put away. Students stand, make eye contact and speak with confidence to their peers. 
 
“We help to balance the overwhelming influence of the digital world with the strength of our community. We believe in the personal relationships that people have with each other,” says Head of School Rob Short, noting that this is a huge challenge for schools nationwide. “The sweet spot for our students is to understand how to use modern communications, while embracing the richness of the one-on-one human experience. We try to make it very easy and natural for students to actually face someone and have a conversation as opposed to simply sending a text.”
 
“Social intelligence is one of the things Trinity teaches best,” Short says, “Our alumni report to us that Trinity has prepared them for meaningful face to face interactions, where their peers are not prepared.”
 
Elizabeth Bell ’14  is a 4th year at U.Va. “My experiences at Trinity definitely gave me the confidence and poise to interact with professionals, and specifically, to advocate for myself,” she says. “For example, when I wanted to enter the Teacher Education program at U.Va. a year early, I had to approach the head of the program and present my case. This would have been daunting if I hadn’t had so much practice speaking up for myself at Trinity!”
 
STANDING TALL
Anecdotally, Trinity students report noticing the boost to their self confidence that comes with engagement in the Trinity community. “At first it didn’t feel natural to ask for help,” says Caroline DiFrango ’19, “but then when I started to, I realized that teachers appreciate that I’m interested in what I’m learning.”
 
Summer Allen ’18  says she “most definitely” has benefitted from Trinity’s face-to-face culture. “I don’t think that I had to interact face-to-face at school with anyone until I got [to Trinity],” she recalls. In 2017, she was elected to schoolwide office, serving as school historian for her senior year. “From AP language, to public speaking, to playing lacrosse and basketball, to making Morning Meeting announcements,” she says. “My all-around Trinity experiences have really helped me come out of my shell.”
 
Molly McDonald, Trinity’s school counselor, sees the importance of face-to- face interactions in school on a daily basis. “There are many critical social, communication, and conflict resolution skills that are taught and learned through in-person interactions, such as observing body language and hearing tone of voice. Above all, we are social beings who need to feel connected,” she says. “The strong relationships students build within a tight-knit community quickly can become a significant support system when they are dealing with stressors.” McDonald says she hears from students “that they really feel how much their teachers, advisors, and coaches care. [It] goes back to how important building that support network can be.”
 
If “community means knowing that people care about you,” then Trinity parents agree. In a 2017 survey, an overwhelming 94% of respondents agreed with the statement “People at Trinity care about my child.”
 
READY FOR THE FUTURE
Families today have an ever-increasing array of choices for their children’s education. With so much of our daily face-to-face interactions being supplanted by digital ones, why do families continue to choose strong “real life” communities like Trinity?
 
“We think that being ready for the future means you understand and value the perspectives of others,” says Lee Sprague. “The future belongs to people who know how to deal with other people, to compromise, to work in teams, and to have the skills and habits of mind. It takes compromise to build. And it takes work to compromise,” she says.
 
Rob Short agrees. “Our students will leave Trinity knowing how we ought to use technology create, communicate, and learn,” he says. “But in the end, it will be their people skills that make them valued and relevant no matter what the future may bring.”

Excerpted from the Winter 2018 Titan Trail.
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