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What is Aerie? An Interview with Mark Harris

Allison Gaines Pell, Head of School
“Children are the research and development division of the human species. If they are permitted to do that research - to raise and explore their own questions, through various forms of experimentation, and without being burdened by instructions - they exhibit more creativity and curiosity.” -- Alison Gopnik, author The Gardener and the Carpenter

There are many who have heard the story of the Aerie program before, and certainly, most of our students are reaping the benefit of it daily, but personally, I cannot get enough of it, and the story of its founding is a great lens into the Wheeler spirit and current practice.

Read my interview with Mark Harris, Director of the Aerie program, 45-year Wheeler faculty member and institutional spirit-keeper, and the list of course offerings below!
 
Q: How did the Aerie program start?
A: In the late seventies, there was a lot of national interest in “gifted and talented” education. A group of Lower School Wheeler parents were strong advocates for curriculum enhancement. It started as a pull-out model when I was a part-time classroom teacher and dorm parent, and gained steam each year as a grade was added. Along the way, here and there a math team was revived, a debate program introduced, a mock trial program started. When Bill Prescott took over as Head of School in 1980, he took the plunge and made me full-time as the Aerie guy. At that point, the Lower School program morphed from a pull-out for a select group of kids to classroom support and enrichment for all. We started bringing in talent (legends like Susie Dorr and Suzy Williams)  from outside Wheeler through the elective program and it grew and grew from there.
 
Q: What would you say the mission of the program is? How does it represent Wheeler values and ideals?
A: To ignite sparks. To fan flames. To manage the resulting fires! Our school was founded on developing the creative side of the human spirit. To respond to children’s interests and talents has always been key to our mission. The challenge was to build a flexible program that worked organically in each division of the school to provide opportunities for committed and passionate students of whatever age.
 
Q: What was the inspiration for putting a name to the Aerie program? Why "Aerie"?
A: Everybody loves a label, but I am not fond of proliferating acronyms. My office, retained since the boarding school days, was up on the “platform” in Hope Building. (At that time the 4th floor was not in use except as storage space.) Kids coming to see me had a long trek up the stairs. The “Eagle’s Nest” from which our fledglings launched their flights seemed to be a nice description of what we were all about.
 
Q: How many students benefit from Aerie now?
A: Everyone in K-8 — through classroom enrichment K-5, electives programs in Lower and Middle Schools, and access to chess, robotics, broadcasting, music and extra math opportunities. The program is also responsive to teacher curriculum initiatives and ideas. There is also individual programming for kids with unusual interests and needs in math and world language. Contests in history, geography, spelling, and mathematics are open to all. In Upper School there are numerous academic teams, clubs, and projects open to all, and specialized options like Sign Language, Neuroscience, Entrepreneurship, Radio Broadcasting, and Architecture.  There are 50 to 60 extra enrichment classes open to all. (See the full list below.)
 
Q: What is your favorite Aerie offering ever?
A: A few years ago a freshman named Ava said she and several friends were interested in philosophy. The problem was that their 9th Grade schedules were already jam-packed. So we started a weekly “Philosophers Lunch”, and each week was devoted to a new figure: there was Aristotle Lunch, Plato Lunch, etc. It was a hoot. Another time a student named Whitney came to my door and said that in a school he’d attended abroad there was a cool program called Model United Nations. Behind him stood eight kids he’d personally recruited to help make the pitch. Today there are 70 students in our MUN program. Finally, there was the day in 1986 when a junior named John Corrigan came up and said he’d like to start a radio station. That one certainly took off!
 
Q: How many teachers come and work with Wheeler students to support the program?
A: In addition to our own teachers and coaches there are about 80 adjunct instructors, mentors, tutors, and coaches hired each year, the bulk coming from the college community here on the East Side.

FULL LIST OF AERIE OPPORTUNITIES

Middle School Electives
Acting, Art, Aspiring Novelists, Chess, Chorus, Comedy Writing, Dance, MathCounts, Radio and Video Broadcasting, Science Olympiad, Robotics, Advanced Math, Advanced Spanish, Chinese and French, Portuguese, Latin, Band, Book Club, Literary Magazine, Murder Mystery Games, Stock Market, Yoga, Garage Band

Lower School Curriculum Units
Kindergarten: Rocks and Minerals, Simple Machines, Oceans, Insects & Trees, and China
First Grade: Native Americans, Dinosaurs, Solar System and India
Second Grade: Colonial Times. Kenya and World Geography
Third Grade: Whaling, US Geography through National Parks, Medieval Times
Fourth Grade: Westward Expansion, the Civil War and Struggle for Freedom, and American Immigration
Fifth Grade: Ancient Egypt, Invention Convention, World Geography

Lower School Electives
Dance, Newspaper, Chess, Garage Band, Art Workshop, Drama and Animation, Math Club, Language lunches

Upper School Clubs and Teams
Chess, Math, Parliamentary Debate, Mock Trial, Envirothon, Academic Decathlon, Model United Nations, Science Olympiad, Robotics, Film Studies, Filmmaking, Puzzle Hunters, Playwrights: One Acts, Nerds of Wheeler, Hip Hop/ Rappers, Genes in Space, Broadcasting, Quiz Bowl, Dungeons & Dragons, Classical Music, Cosmos, Latin, Programming Team, Entrepreneurship
 
Upper School Courses  
Astronomy, Marine Biology, Advanced Physics: Mechanics, 3D Modeling/Digital Design, Music Composition/Production, Multivariable Calculus, Architecture, Comic Books, US Government, Screenwriting, Engineering, Anatomy, Chinese Literature, Sports Agency, Entrepreneurism, Film Studies, Music Theory, Advanced Molecular Biology, Dance, Real Analysis, Applied Mathematics, Neuroscience, Hip Hop Composition and Electronic Music

Language Offerings
Through Aerie, the following languages are currently offered, in addition to Modern Languages Department courses in Chinese, French and Spanish, Latin, Italian, German, Korean, Russian, Arabic, Hebrew, Japanese, Ancient Greek, Portuguese, Haitian Creole, Armenian, Persian, Thai, American Sign Language, advanced Chinese, French and Spanish.


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216 Hope Street
Providence, Rhode Island 02906-2246
Phone: (401) 421-8100
FAX: (401) 751-7674

Founded 1889

The Wheeler School is an independent coeducational college preparatory day school for Nursery, Pre-K, K-Grade 12 serving Providence, RI, Greater Providence and Greater Boston. The Hamilton School welcomes Grades 1-8 with language-based learning differences.