On the Journey 

news reel: stories of People, places, and learning AT Aspen Country Day School
Great Ideas: an "eye-opening" seminar experience for ACDS students
Posted 01/15/2018 05:43PM

In a round room, at a round table at the Aspen Meadows, 28 young people are discussing challenging texts, listening to each others' insights, considering new points of view, and pondering their own values. What kind of classroom is this?

It sounds a lot like the Aspen Institute Executive Seminar, which for more than 65 years has been drawing leaders from around the world to grapple with questions about leadership and creation of a good society. But instead of corporate titans around the table, these are Eighth Graders from nine schools across the Roaring Fork Valley.

They're gathered for the Middle School Great Ideas 2017 program, part of the Hurst Student Seminars of the Aspen Institute. Thea H. and Stella M. represented Aspen Country Day School at this winter's program.

What was it like?

"Instead of a teacher standing up in front of the class, we were all equal," says Thea, explaining the four days of afternoon seminars moderated by experienced Institute facilitator Stephen Holley, also a former ACDS parent. "He would draw people out and sometimes just help to steer the conversation back to the topic," explained Thea. "It was eye-opening and amazing."

Before the seminars began, all participants received a hefty volume of texts. All while preparing for their own semester exams at ACDS, Thea and Stella devoured the readings, which included excerpts from works by Plato and Aristotle, The Declaration of Independence, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," and many more.

Students are expected to come to the seminars with the assigned reading "fully read," says Jillian Scott, manager of Aspen Community Programs at the Aspen Institute. "We read some excerpts out loud, just to get more voices in the room," she notes. Sessions run 1-6pm daily Wednesday-Saturday, all while students attend school for the mornings of their regular school days.

"Every day we would have a different theme, like morality, life and death, that kind of stuff," said Stella. Her favorite reading was the excerpt from the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes' 1650 treatise, Leviathan. "I asked my mom to get it for me for Christmas. It's about human morality, our place in the universe -- kind of heavy, but good."  

Practicing civil discourse

Aside from the content of the readings, the most valuable part of the seminar experience for both girls was the practice in respectful listening and debate.

"I used to just say what I wanted to say, and let other people listen," says Stella. "This taught me that I have to really pay attention to what other people are saying, because it could alter my opinion or offer different points that I hadn't considered."

For the 28 students from schools all up and down the Roaring Fork Valley, friendships formed easily around the seminar table, Thea explained. "What we talked about in the room kind of made us closer, because we could argue and have different sides, but then we would come out of the room and just be friends."

This is the seventh year of the Middle School Grade Ideas program, says the Institute's Jillian Scott. A high school version has been going on for 17 years.

"First, we try to help each young person identify their values and what's most important to them. We talk about common themes every human will deal with – what is honesty, what is justice, how do I bring my authentic self to the table," Jillian says. "Especially at this age, it can be really difficult but so rewarding."

The early teen years are "an opportune time to begin to develop a true sense of self," says Brenda Stockdale, head of Middle School at Aspen Country Day. The Great Ideas program is "an incredible opportunity for students to really examine who they are as individuals and define the values that are important to them. I want to thank the Aspen Institute for giving this unique experience to youth from schools in the Roaring Fork Valley."

What does Plato have to do with me?

Students sometimes look askance at the timeless texts, says Jillian. "They ask, 'What does Plato's Republic have to do with me?' We ask them, 'Did anyone every do anything unjust to you? How do you seek justice? Is that the same as revenge?' These are timeless texts that bring so many great conversations to the table."

The ultimate goal, she notes, is for participants to "go out into the world and lead from those values they talked about... so that when you have to make a hard decision, it comes from a place of good."

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