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Boulder Country Day students challenged in seminar


January 22, 2020

Courtesy Photo

BCD students studied a variety of texts during Seminar week. Among the titles: "An Unlucky Man?" A Tale from Nigeria (6th grade); Luther Standing Bear, "Indian Wisdom" (7th grade); and Chimamanda Adichie, "Danger of a Single Story" (8th grade)

From Jan. 7 – 10, all Boulder Country Day middle school students participated in the BCD Seminar. The seminar is modeled after the Aspen Institute Seminar and is intended as an opportunity for BCD students to stretch their intellectual thinking. With over 60 years of experience, the Aspen Institute Seminar is designed to help people of all ages and walks of life to reflect upon the most important questions facing us as human beings and as leaders.

Each night, BCD students were assigned texts by various authors, both ancient (including Aristotle) and current (including J.K. Rowling). The texts were used to prompt students to think about complex human issues such as: Is goodness something that is in humans or is it something that needs to be taught and learned? Is it something we as humans are born with or must choose to act on? In-school discussions were then led by guest moderators, Todd Breyfogle, Director of Seminars for the Aspen Institute, and Allyson Sudbourough, Teacher Effectiveness Coach for Denver Public Schools.

The texts present some really big concepts. Students were advised that while the texts are difficult, to not be discouraged because Seminar is intended to be a laboratory in which-together-they will try to figure out what the texts say and mean, both on their own terms and for us as humans today. They were also reminded that seminar discussions thrive on questions. So, very often it is the seemingly simplest questions that can provoke the most meaningful discussions.

Students began the seminar by examining the painting of "Icarus" who is seen plunging into the water after his wings have melted. The bystanders seem unfazed by Icarus' fall and do not appear to be making any effort to rescue him. An open discussion of human nature then began on whether or not Icarus should be saved. The conversations remained lively from there on out.

Moderator Todd Breyfogle shared that his discussion of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics (on friendship) with the BCD seventh-grade students was one of the best he had ever had, with students or adults. This is quite a compliment coming from the Director of Seminars at the Aspen Institute. There seemed to be a sense of pride in the students as they realized they could read, understand, and discuss Aristotle. Another thing the moderators and Mr. Welch noticed was how BCD students appreciated the opportunity to discuss big topics that do not necessarily have a right or wrong answer, are not designed to lead to any particular conclusion, but rather serve to stretch them intellectually and personally.

"BCD students are remarkably capable. They devoured a dense selection from Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics and were ready to engage in conversation, armed with questions and opinions. It was one of the best conversations I've had on Aristotle's understanding of friendship, whether with adults or younger people."

–Todd Breyfogle, PhD, Managing Director, Seminars, The Aspen Institute

At the end of the week, students created personal mission statements or wrote letters to their future selves about some of the important things they had learned about themselves from the process.

The school extended special thanks to alumni parent and former board member, Jay Orris of Peak to Peak Management, for bringing this opportunity to BCD many years ago and for his ongoing support of the program.

Texts used in BCD 2020 Seminar

6th grade: Risk and Reflection

Session 1: What is our nature?

Intro, Painting (Icarus)

Plato, “Ring of Gyges” (shortened version)

Session 2: What is success?

Ayyappa Paniker, "Horse Play" (Poem)

Sandra Cisneros “Eleven”

Session 3: What is resilience?

J.K. Rowling "The Fringe Benefits of Failure"

“An Unlucky Man?” A Tale from Nigeria

7th grade: Commitment and Community

Session 1: What is our nature?

Intro, Painting (Icarus)

Mencius, On Human Nature (short excerpt)

Session 2: What do we commit to?

“Story of Fire” A Sufi Tale

George Orwell “Shooting an Elephant”

Session 3: How do we live together?

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (on Friendship)

Luther Standing Bear, “Indian Wisdom”

8th grade: Courage and Purpose

Session 1: What is our nature?

Intro, Painting (Icarus)

Chuang Tzu, “Woodcarver”

Session 2: What gives us Purpose?

“Seneca: On the Shortness of Life” Translated by John W. Basore

Chimamanda Adichie, “Danger of a Single Story”

Session 3: What gives us Courage?

“The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” Ursula K. Le Guin

Constantine P. Cavafy, “Ithaca” (poem)


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