On Friday, July 10, Elena Gosalvez-Blanco sat down with journalism students of Phillips Exeter Academy Summer School to discuss her new position as Summer School director.
Question: What is it like to be the director of Phillips Exeter Academy Summer School?
Elena Gosalvez-Blanco: It’s great! I strongly believe that the Summer School at Exeter really changes lives. We are the biggest and oldest Summer School in the country, and having worked the regular session a few years I’ve always liked the Summer School better. I believe it has more of an impact in such a short four or five weeks. I love the diversity especially. I feel very honored to have my position that I have in this program.
Q: What is your position during the school year and how is that different from the Summer School?
A: I’ve been at the academy for eight years. In the beginning I was teaching Spanish and I was a dorm head first in Hoyt then in Merrill. For the past three years I have been the associate director of the Summer School, so I was working with the previous director just helping him with everything. My job became almost like a preparation to become the director so I did a little bit of everything. In the past, the director only had a dean of admissions that would only help with admissions, but I helped with admissions and worked with departments higher in the faculty: promoting the budget, everything.
Q: What is your favorite task you do on a regular basis?
A: For Summer School we start preparing in September. Right after you guys leave, we are going to be preparing the following summer, so what I like is a lot of different things. Each month is different: September we promote, October we open applications and recruit, and in November I start reading applications. I would say that is my favorite part; reading applications and getting to know you.
Q: How well would you say you are acquainted with the students at Summer School?
A: Obviously I don’t remember all 777 folders, or when I see the face I don’t say “Oh! There’s the girl who said whatever in her essay,” but I have a good sense of who you are as a group. I’ve always worked in the dorm. This is the first summer that I am not working in a dorm, but my husband is working in a dorm and that is a huge connection. I live close to Main Street, Ewald, and Dutch House, so I am getting to know some kids in that area better. Every time I see kids I stop and ask them how they are doing and how their experience is, so I really try to keep up with the kids. I plan to — last year I visited a lot of classes and I feel as if going to the classes is a good way to get to know the kids around the table. So this week has been a little crazy for me, but next week as things quiet down I plan to visit some classes.
Q: Where are you from?
A: I am from Madrid, Spain.
Q: What would you say is your biggest aspiration for the Summer School?
A: I want to keep making the Summer School more and more diverse, and I want to promote it more so that kids from all over the place can find out about this great opportunity. We are very lucky to have about 35% of our students in some sort of financial aid, and that is very rare for summer programs. So, I want to keep finding more donors and create more of an alumni connection so you guys can stay in touch. I know a lot of you stay in touch forever through Facebook and other ways, but to create a more organized way to network alumni is a goal.
Q: What would you describe as the biggest strength and biggest weakness of the Summer School so far?
A: The biggest strength is that we have a known value. We have kids who have come because they have heard about it from their parents, grandparents, and neighbors. We are really well established in the market. I know some programs struggle to get good students and we don’t; you guys find us very well so that’s a huge strength. Our weakness, that I also observed in my professional life before even coming to Exeter, is that when something is very strong that becomes a weakness because you can get to comfortable. So, the weakness of any institution that is the strongest is to get comfortable so we always have to keep working to make it better and to make it more efficient.
Q: Did you ever go to Exeter as a student?
A: No, I grew up in Madrid, Spain. I went to The British School of Madrid. I went to college in Madrid, and I only came to the U.S. for graduate school. I went to Boston. I was a book editor. I was an executive editor in Barcelona, Madrid for years, and then because my husband was American we decided to move. He knew about the independent schools because his father was a long time teacher and principal, and basically Exeter hired me. I had a little bit of experience teaching college, and so Exeter thought that I had enough experience to understand the Harkness table.
Q: As a director, what do you think of the Harkness method?
A: I am a big, big, big fan of the Harkness method. This is the reason I decided to come here, the Harkness method. I had not taught very much before I came to Exeter, and I immediately fell in love with the Harkness method. The key of the Harkness method is that it is student-centered and gives ownership to the students so it works. I walk into my classroom when I teach in the regular session with very high expectations from my students and they live up to the high expectations, and that to me is the magic of learning. They are so proud after they read A Hundred Years of Solitude in ten weeks in Spanish and these are non-native juniors and seniors. When I tell people what we do, they can’t believe me and they assume it’s the students, and yes the students are very smart just like you all are very smart, but it is about the expectations and the ownership.
Q: Are there any shortcomings to the Harkness method?
A: Some people say that it isn’t for all students, but I disagree. In my experience it is the shy kids who benefit. But also the kids who talk too much, or think they know more than they do also learn about themselves. No system is perfect, but I think it is the better one I’ve seen in action.
Q: How do you suppose you use the Harkness method in a math class or a language class where solutions aren’t debatable?
A: When I first came to Exeter I first had a mentor that said the subjects are gasses and liquids; gasses are the ones without a right or wrong answer and liquids are the ones with the right or wrong answer. If you think about it, it is about the process of learning and not so much about if you get the right or wrong answer. My kids, let’s say, in an intermediate Spanish class, learn new verbs or new vocab by reading the book and there is nothing we can do about that. But then when they come to the classroom they teach each other and they speak in the language, so I don’t care so much if they get the subjunctive wrong because they are using the language, correcting each other, and learning from each other.
Q: What happens when students do poorly in the Harkness method?
A: It’s okay to have silence in a Harkness class. I know some students new to Harkness have the perception that ,“Oh that class was bad because we didn’t know what to say,” and that’s not necessarily the case. I think the Harkness discussions that go wrong are probably what the teacher and students have learned the most from. Harkness encourages failure. That is how you learn. If you think about everything you learned as you were a kid, you learned to walk by falling, you learned to speak even if it wasn’t perfect. So failure is invited in the Harkness table. So that failure is actually a good thing.
Q: I just want to redirect the conversation in a different way and talk a little more about you if that is okay. What do you like to do in your free time outside of Exeter?
A: So, I love to travel. My family and I have two girls that are ten and thirteen and we try to go to at least a couple countries, new countries a year. So this year we went to Belize and Guatemala and we are going to South Africa after the summer school. I also love to drink good cappuccino, good coffee, D2 in town is really good, and I also have my own machine and I make a lot of coffee. I love hiking and riding my bicycle and walking outside and enjoying the good weather while we have it cause the winters are really hard here especially for me coming from Spain, I had to learn how to snowshoe cause that’s the only thing you can do outside in the winter. So, yeah. I enjoy the outdoors. I want to go swimming in lakes or go to the oceans, just being outside.
Q: Where do you live?
A: Exeter is a residential school so… almost all teachers live on campus. You’re required to live in a dorm for ten years when you are full time teacher. So, I’ve lived in a dorm for eight years and now I live in an on-campus house. I’m always here other than when I’m traveling or I go to Spain to visit my family but I have an on-campus house that is right next to Main Street.
Q: I read somewhere that you said that you want to better connect Summer School to regular session and I wanted to know what does that entail and I wanted to know how do you plan on reaching that?
A: So, as a teacher of our regular session sometimes I would talk to my girls in Merrill about Summer School and they would be like “Really? There is something happening in the summer?” They were not aware at all. And then when I was in the summer being a dorm head I would tell the girls that were maybe not treating their room nicely or the bathroom. I would say, well the kids that live here are from Ireland, from Saudi Arabia and this is their room during the year and I would sort of maybe think about the kids that this is their home for nine months. So, I think there is a little bit of a disconnect, we do have a very good amount of teachers that work regular session and summer. So, that’s good and that’s very nice for the Summer School and we do have some students that have done Summer School and then do their regular session, but I feel we can connect more maybe having just more awareness, more collaborations, and just more general awareness that this is what the camp is. The campus just doesn’t go on pause when they are gone.
Q: A student that experienced the Summer School would be prompted then to attend Exeter for the regular session?
A: Yes, yes. Absolutely. So, we have some kids that come to the regular summer and fall in love with it and apply to regular session and some of them get in and some of them don’t because regular session is difficult to get in like we have a thirteen percent acceptance rate. And we have a lot of kids that are not interested at all in the regular year. They are here for the five weeks and they are very happy have this experience and they are just not interested in the regular session because they are really happy in their school or they would never move away from home. So, we kind of have those three groups. And right now the regular session — we have a thousand students and a little over a hundred did the Summer School and in those three categories they did it first and then they fell in love, so they applied. They did the Summer School because they were serious about getting into Exeter.
Q: Seeing that you have been teaching for such a long time and been around teenagers a lot, what is one piece of advice that you would tell your teenage-self that you wish, now that you have this experience, that you wish you would have known then?
A: Wow. Wow. I really remember my teenage years very well. I got really connected with my teenage years. What would I tell my teenage-self? I guess to not take my self so seriously sometimes. The time brings a lot of change and that’s good sometimes when you’re a teenager you feel like a little trapped. You sort of find that out slowly as you get older. Um, yeah. That’s a very good question.
Q: Do you identify more with the international students that come to Exeter?
A: I identify with both cause now I’ve been in this country for almost ten years straight. I came for a masters in publishing, so I identify with both. I definitely feel like an international member of the community and there are a lot of international teachers at Exeter in the regular session as well. But I also — because my husband is American and my kids have been here for so long.
So, I kind of see both sides but I definitely understand the international kids very well like how the U.S comes [across] very different. But now I see the American side of things because I recruit a lot. I go to New York and Chicago and Memphis and I feel like I’m also in touch with the American kids. So, yeah. I’m kind of like in the middle. So, like fifty-fifty like our program. So, fifty percent domestic, fifty percent international, which I think is a great balance. We don’t want to go more domestic or more international.
Q: What do you think of the Dining Hall? I know there have been a lot of people saying there’s chaos and everything is everywhere, and what is your opinion?
A: So, it always takes a bit of adjustment to get used to the Dining Hall cause you guys are not used to it. The first week there are a lot of days where everybody goes to breakfast at the same time or classes end up at the same time, and then as we get into week two lunch and uh… Breakfast and lunch are more scattered because people have class during D or E or F. So it should get a little bit… And people learn like, “Oh I’m supposed to do my silverware here… Oh I’m supposed to do…” So it was progress this morning, I was in breakfast and it was better. People were figuring it out.
Q: Do you think that Exeter attempts to please a wide range of students through their foods?
A: Yeah, we try, to include like more international dishes in the summer. We have the vegetarian options cause we were aware there were more cultures where — like the meat is not halal so Muslim kids might have to be vegetarian during their time here. So, we try to be more aware of things like that and also label more clearly because allergy kids in the regular session –they’re used to where to find things, but kids that have allergies in the summer… I’m like ‘No it’s a week, try to cater to international kids and allergies as well as we can.” And the ice cream machine, that is very popular. There is only so much ice cream you can eat and that it is not very healthy to only eat ice cream. So, usually by week three you might get sick from eating too much ice cream.
Q: If you were to describe PEA summer school, in one word, what would you describe it?
A: Um… Growth! Growth! Cause I think that unites diversity and kindness. So, growth. I see the kids here, growing and developing and for me as the key, kindness, forgiveness, diversity and Harkness.
Q: What in your words does the Summer School want the students to gain from this experience?
A: So, I would say because we are so student-centered, we want you to gain whatever you need and that’s not always the same. Some kids are here, clearly for academic enrichment but some kids maybe more for social reasons. To make friends or to get to know the world without leaving the U.S.