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Why Mastery?

By Todd Shy, Head of Upper Division at Avenues New York

The Mastery program is a key component of the Avenues Upper School curriculum and is a reflection of the school’s commitment to graduating students who, as outlined in the mission statement, are “confident because they excel in a particular passion.” The goal of the program is to allow students the opportunity to engage in a field of activity or study that is of particular interest to them and to provide support and guidance as they pursue those passions.

Teacher Todd Shy (who was then the Director of the Mastery Program and is now head of the Upper Division) inaugurated the Mastery program in this speech to Upper School students at their first assembly on September 3, 2014:

“What is the Avenues mastery program? At its simplest level, it begins with the belief that all of us learn the most when we care about what we’re learning. That seems so simple. We learn the most about what we care about the most. Now, obviously, all of our learning is important. Your teachers aren’t in this tough job because they enjoy piling huge burdens on you—testing your shoulders like a game show stunt to see how much you can hold before you buckle. But, here’s a little secret about school: if all the things you do here are important, they’re not equally important to you, and that is not only okay, it’s how it has to be, because you get your one life, and you can’t do everything with it. You certainly can’t master everything. Part of your education is figuring out what, in the midst of all your obligations, you really care about and are energized by such that it starts to feel like something that’s part of you and about you, not just something we’re asking you to do. We sometimes call this intrinsic motivation. You’re motivated from the inside. I’d call it very simply, figuring out what makes you feel alive and engaged in the world. And when that thing begins to grow inside you, it starts to feel like real passion, real investment. It even starts to feel like identity, who you really are.

One writer, trying to help us see what passion like this looks like, framed it as the Saturday morning rule: What do you do when you have an unplanned, unorganized Saturday morning free, and there aren’t any restrictions or demands on you—what do you want to do with that time? The unlucky person can’t think of a single thing. The unlucky person just turns on the TV or logs on to random web sites. The lucky person pulls out the pages of a story or screenplay on which she’s been working and can’t quite figure out how to move forward but can’t stand not to try. Or the lucky person goes into the garage and works on the surfboard he’s been designing and crafting, or the golf putter, or the model of a building. Or the lucky person heads off to an exhibit at the Natural History Museum because, while she isn’t quite sure what to do with it, something about astronomy fascinates her like nothing else, and she wants to see a new film at the planetarium, even though she has no idea to what it might lead or to what it connects. She’s just interested. Or whatever else, right? Or maybe you’re browsing books or letting yourself daydream or running, but still you’re after something. You’re on the way. You’re starting your journey. Even if you’re not sure where you’re going, you’re moving. Something is pulling you forward, and you respond to it.

I was reading recently about Vincent van Gogh. We think of the genius pouring out those incredible late paintings like the ones at MoMA, but in earlier years, he had to learn how to draw. And in a letter to his brother he described an afternoon out in the woods making sketches of dug-up earth. Van Gogh had a tough life. He was always broke, always hitting up his brother for money. But on his Saturday morning, he was out sketching piles of brown and gray earth. He’d been there sketching for quite a while one time when a violent thunderstorm struck, and it went on for at least an hour. In a letter to his brother, Van Gogh wrote this: “I was so keen to resume work that I stayed at my post and sheltered myself as well as I could behind a large tree.” Setting aside for the moment the wisdom of standing against a tree in a thunderstorm, it’s lovely to think of Van Gogh there, eager to get back to drawing chunks of earth, waiting out the rain in the rain. The Saturday morning rule for him would be a no-brainer.

The power of a life filled with a sense of real engagement like this is the beginning of real passion. The beauty of the mastery program, if we’re lucky—the mission of the mastery program—is to take seriously your quest to discover an interest that holds you deeply over a long period of time, that draws you to do it on that Saturday morning when nothing is scheduled, that makes a thunderstorm insignificant, that allows you to be happily lost in an activity or a function. What a gorgeous thing that is. In the midst of all you have to learn here—and all of it is important—we want to support your quest to find that thing that matters most, and that, if you’re lucky, begins to feel like a passion and maybe a calling, and that may play a big part in shaping your life, or that at least shapes this stage of your life—the Avenues stage.

This isn’t just about what kind of transcript you’re going to have when you apply to college—although we do think you can make yourself look impressive with a thoughtful mastery experiment; this is about what kind of person you want to be and what kind of trajectory you want your life to be on, whether you’ll be a lucky one with fire inside for something or just the beginning of fire, little sparks, and not someone who can’t think of a thing in the world he wants to do on that open Saturday morning. The adult world is filled with people who are lost to themselves because they never figured this out. Maybe the infamous mid-life crisis is a delayed attempt to find a mastery project.

So, that’s the idea behind the mastery program. Discover something meaningful. Chase it for a while. Chase it in depth and with crazy zeal. At its highest level mastery will involve in-depth projects or portfolios or performances or what we might call mastery experiments that reflect your journey, the path you followed a while. These projects or experiments will reflect a lot of experiences, a lot of interactions with people and with books or films or other media, or even other cultures—China comes to mind—and then you produce something that shows you’ve really given yourself over to one thing for a long period of time. You tell us about that journey, whether it involved politics or shoe design or playwriting or something entrepreneurial or music production or filmmaking or community engagement or cosmology or math, or something so quirky and interdisciplinary we can’t even conceive of it until you describe it to us. Something made you stand out in the rain, something woke you up on Saturday mornings, something absorbed your best attention over a long period of time. And you’ll share it with us. We’ll probably be dazzled. But you won’t really care about that, because the reward for you will have been in the process of finding and expressing something that held your attention for all the right reasons.

I think that’s probably more than enough for now. The school is excited about mastery. So am I. It’s an incredible opportunity Avenues is offering you. I remember the first hint I had in high school that I might want to be a writer. I was reading novels that seemed to me to matter more than anything else in the world. They were on a different plane of existence for me. I saw the world through a new set of eyes, and it was thrilling. And while I was a good student and did all my work across the board, whenever I had time, whenever I could, I wasn’t pushing on with economics or science, I was reading novels. I remember taking Moby-Dick to a wedding one time, to read before things started. Something in me was stirring, and I had no idea whatsoever what to do with that. Mastery exists to give you space, support and advice on what to do with things that feel like they’re moving inside you and like they might lead to something interesting, even if you don’t yet know what that will be. That’s probably why I took on this job. The most important thing that happened to me in high school was my discovery of powerful fiction. I could have used a mastery program. The most important thing to you will be something else. But there are ways to give that tiny fire lots of oxygen, and that’s what I hope we can do for you. So, some Saturday morning in your next two or three or four years, may you stand in a downpour in Central Park staring at a piece of earth, wondering how to draw it.”