On Friday January 16th, Project ’79 began a new phase in our exploration of technology for teaching and learning in the digital age. Thanks to a generous grant from WHS alumnus George B. Case (Class of 1959), seven students were issued HP Chromebooks with the mandate to learn as much as they can about how access to personal devices at home as well as in school can enhance the educational experience for all students. The three sophomores and four seniors were selected by p79 staff based on applications they submitted in December which required them to write about their interest, experience, and ideas for the best ways to use instructional technology. As our “Chromebook Pilots,” their charge is to work through possibilities and potential pitfalls as thoroughly as possible before Chromebooks are provided to the rest of our students later this spring.

Photo–from left: Jim Y. '15, Jack S. '17, the other Jack S. '17, Ally S. '15, Billy McR. '15, Esther N. '17 (absent: Cera M. '15)

PROJECT ’79 TECHNOLOGY GOALS (developed Fall 2013)

Communication. Students will develop skills related to electronic communication and collaboration, such as composing professional e-mails to arrange appointments with teachers for extra help and collaborating with peers through applications like Google Docs.

Inquiry. Students will refine their ability to conduct online research, including understanding why a given website might be more or less trustworthy than another.

Organization. Students will develop a system for personal organization (note-taking, time management, keeping track of work) that makes sense for them. 


“One of the marvelous things about community is that it enables us to welcome and help people in a way we couldn’t as individuals. When we pool our strength and share the work and responsibility, we can welcome many people, even those in deep distress.” —Jean Vanier 

3 Reasons We Don’t Bring Blairstown Back with Us: An Open Letter to Project ’79

Since 2002, groups of Project ‘79 students and teachers have played, cooked, cleaned and learned together on a two-day retreat in the gorgeous woods of northwest New Jersey, a few miles from the Delaware Water Gap. Led in team-building and leadership activities by facilitators at the Princeton-Blairstown Center, students have myriad opportunities to test perceived limits in problem-solving.

In a typical activity called “All Aboard!” a group of 11 students must devise a plan for all of them to stand on a raised wooden 30” x 30” platform. Groups usually discover that they need the suggestions of many members in order to find a solution. Afterwards, PBC facilitators skillfully prompt participants to specify details of what worked, what didn’t, why, and the implications for ordinary life.

Through such experiences throughout the trip, students are able to glimpse new dimensions of each other—and themselves. Project ’79 members often say Blairstown helps them push beyond their “comfort zone” physically, mentally, and interpersonally.

The retreat is equally powerful for teachers, who benefit immensely from seeing our students engage challenges very different from those we normally design. It’s also rewarding to get to know our kids more informally as we share meals and hands of gin rummy.

In recent years, on each of the two evenings we’re there, we have an open community discussion during which we share goals and reflect on what we’re learning about ourselves and each other. Because students often remark on how refreshing they find the Blairstown experience (no “masks,” being able to “let your guard down”), a common question is How can we bring the positive community vibe that we experience in Blairstown back to ordinary life in school?

Something about the especially beautiful character of this year’s retreat has prompted me to want to think about this question more clearly—which, for this English teacher, means writing. So here are my top three reasons we tend not to translate the Blairstown experience to everyday life at WHS:

  1. Our devices own too much of us. I love my iPhone (and my iPad and my laptop) for the ways I can connect quickly with people and information (and take pictures, and keep myself organized), but I also recognize what happens to me when I catch myself waiting for the next text or email or retweet: I can’t pay deep attention and quickly lose my center. This is the reason we now require participants to surrender their phones on the bus ride to Blairstown. On the retreat, we ask students to pay attention to the real people they’re with, to the real place they are (here), and to the only real moment (now).  Especially as we look forward to the educational possibilities of Project ’79-supplied devices for every student (next spring!), we need to figure out how to preserve spaces for real connection amid constant digital bombardment.
  2.  Familiarity breeds contempt. We’re so used to our Westfield rhythms (family stresses, class schedules, suburbia) that the gorgeous sylvan setting of Blairstown represents a refreshing departure. Despite the inherent challenges of pushing ourselves past the comfortable, Blairstown allows us to vacate what we’re used to, in the root sense of “vacation.” For a dozen years, students have talked about how good it feels to be away from their everyday routines. So, the obvious difficulty with returning is that we’re not in this different, stunning place anymore. In order to make our ordinary setting feel more like Blairstown, we have to be willing to make some extraordinary moves. How hard would it be to kindle a conversation in the Project Office with someone you never talk to? I believe you can do it.

Before I list the third reason I should highlight the quotation I found in this month’s The Sun (my fave lit mag after Folio, many issues of which may be found in the Proffice magazine rack) that I used as an epigraph:

“One of the marvelous things about community is that it enables us to welcome and help people in a way we couldn’t as individuals. When we pool our strength and share the work and responsibility, we can welcome many people, even those in deep distress.” —Jean Vanier 

I learned from Wikipedia that Jean Vanier (born September 10, 1928) is a Canadian Catholic philosopher turned theologian and humanitarian. Beginning with a community in France (#Frenchweek), he is the founder of L’Arche, an international federation of communities for people with developmental disabilities.

3.  We need to “pool our strength and share the work and responsibility”. Recognize that the Proffice is community space. Think about what you’re choosing to discuss there. Greet people when you enter. Push in your chair to make space for others. Introduce yourself to members you don’t know. Clean up any trash you see. Say “Please” and “Thank you.” Don’t steal from the cabinets. Community takes work and responsibility. So step up. 

BLAIRSTOWN POSTSCRIPT: #p79 members are a motley community to be sure, but isn’t that just like a family? Beautiful, broken, powerful, blessed. I’m grateful for the beautiful experience of Blairstown 2013. To those who were not able to join us: you were missed, but we’re looking forward to sharing some stories and bringing the creative energy back. 

An intensive lab such as Blairstown lets us experiment with community building. WHS is where we put our learning into practice. Let’s make this thing better.

“Red Shoes” by p79 junior Catherine Frey is the 2nd of 5 Scored Animated Stories (SAS), the newest collaborative art experiment from p79. Frey presents a tale of bullying and triumph. 

About SAS: Under the direction of p79 Artist in Residence Roy Chambers, students from his Graphic Design 2 classes selected and animated original narratives by p79 students. The stories were scored by musicians in Ray Wojcik’s Writing and Arranging classes. This experiment was inspired by poet Shane Koyczan’s “To This Day” project.