How We Build a Culture of Deep Engagement
Gretchen Hurtt

Dear St. Andrew’s Family,
 
The other afternoon I wandered a bit during a free period. I walked through the cloister past a student reading a book—a library book, for fun—on a bench in the sun. Just down the way under the arched entryway sat another student, deep in thought, concentrating on a notebook of math problems. I walked past a classroom where students perched in the window seat, typing and thinking and writing. I headed for the library, filled with students and teachers reading, grading, or writing at tables that look out on the Front Lawn. As our students settle into the academic year, building their capacity to sustain focus and pursue challenging academic work, the St. Andrew’s campus culture of deep engagement is essential. We also know that it is increasingly precious and rare.
 
In stark contrast to SAS academic life, in most of our daily lives, a sentence or two of reading quickly gives way to interruption and distraction–phones and devices and emails consistently, relentlessly intervene. Even as I write this letter, my email tab sits a tantalizing one-inch scroll away. How do our students stay focused on their work amidst the alerts, clickbait, and pop-ups, all designed for quick responses and a constant state of distraction? I would argue that the practices of our campus culture – from our classroom layouts to our daily schedule—actively enable and reinforce deep focus. Because we put phones aside for the bulk of the day, and because we are deliberate about how we use technology and how we use time, St. Andrew’s creates the space for students to concentrate deeply and tackle complex questions.
 
James Williams’ recent book Stand out of our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy examines how phone apps and digital devices “privilege our impulses over our intentions” as they persuade us to turn away from our tasks and goals. Williams even sees these distractions as a “fundamental risk to individual and collective will” and a threat to our very values. His book forced me to look even more critically at what may be happening to our ability to read, think, form opinions and set goals. But when I walk through our SAS classroom spaces, or glimpse into study rooms during study hall, I wish Williams could come to our campus; I think he’d be quite reassured.  
 
This week my advisee Marvi Ali ’21 shared with me what it was like to immerse herself for an hour and a half in an assignment for her Global Studies class. Totally absorbed by an article on immigration, she lost track of time and found herself reading for most of study hall. Moreover, she was inspired to share and talk about the issues she was studying with her family that night, and she plans to bring the article’s points and questions to the Current Events Club she formed two years ago.
 
It’s moments like these that make me aware St. Andrew’s is truly unique in its ability to encourage capacities for learning, concentration, and connection. Because we commit to our cell phone policy and protect time and spaces for study, we can hold discussions and conversations where we focus on one another, not on our blinking phones. Our students can read deeply, answer hard questions, and generate layered arguments, and most importantly, they can respond thoughtfully to the issues and demands of the world they’re learning about.

All my best,
Gretchen Hurtt
Dean of Studies
ghurtt@standrews-de.org

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