This post is an excerpt from Making a Difference in Education, a story featured in the Fall 2014 issue of Among Friends magazine.

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Don Orth ’91

  • B.A. Tufts University
  • M.F.A. Vermont College, Poetry and Modern Letters
  • Ed.M. Harvard University Graduate School of Education, Teaching and Curriculum
  • Worldwide Education Markets, Apple, Inc., Los Gatos, CA

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How did you first become involved in the world of education?

I majored in English and followed a pre-med track at Tufts. After college, I found a job as a lab assistant in a molecular biology lab at Harvard. It was wild, particularly when the whole field changed with the sequencing of the human genome at the end of the century. But I still cared about writing, so I pursued an M.F.A. in poetry while I was feeding cell cultures and cutting DNA. I eventually decided to pursue a master’s in education so that I could teach. In the fall of 2000, I landed my first job teaching English, at Gloucester High in Massachusetts.

What are you most passionate about in your line of work?

While I’ve been working in schools for 15 years, I’ve played many different roles — from teaching English and math, to directing marketing and leading a technology program. I like a challenge and I love exploring possibilities. I do best when I have the freedom to create. While I loved teaching English, I found grading papers and designing formal lesson plans difficult — I never felt like I was doing enough for my students.

In education and all areas of my life, I relate most to what John Keats refers to as “negative capability”: the idea that one can inhabit a place of “uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” I’ve found that wonderful, creative things happen when I allow myself to slip into this space and watch the challenges spin and float and collide into each other. In other words, I love throwing all the challenges at hand into a single space and looking for connections, without letting logic and reason limit the solutions. For me, poetry is a tool I use to solve problems by making unlikely connections. That creative process helps me discover and make meaning where it didn’t exist before.

What was your role at Hillbrook School in California?

As Director of Technology and Strategic Partnerships, I was hired to rethink how technology played a role in education at Hillbrook. We brought in iPads, and a world of possibilities opened up. We redesigned the traditional computer lab to develop an agile learning space called the Idea Lab (iLab for short). We filled the lab with mobile flip-top tables and mobile whiteboards and whiteboard walls. And we changed the way teaching happened in that space: students had more choices about how and where they learned. This significantly changed the dynamic of the classroom: the “front” of the classroom often disappeared, and students didn’t rely on the teacher as often. So the teacher’s role changed.

This year, Hillbrook is redesigning nine or ten more classrooms. It was wonderful to help grow a school. We became an Apple Distinguished School in 2012, one of about 100 in the world, and in 2013 I became an Apple Distinguished Educator, joining a remarkable community of teachers.

Where do you hope your career takes you?

I always look to collaborate with passionate, smart people, who are dedicated to what they do. Silicon Valley is filled with people like this and it’s exciting to be in the middle of it. It feels like anything is possible.

It’s an amazing time to be focused on education. Human beings are built to learn, and I think the technology available now taps into that. The challenge for schools is to make changes and take advantage of it. It feels like education is at a crossroads, and we need visionary leaders to help shape a new generation of learning.

How have your education and interests informed your work?

Language and poetry have been essential in every place I’ve worked. Before I started teaching, I worked as an editor for scientists who were brilliant but couldn’t communicate their ideas. If they couldn’t explain their work coherently, the work wouldn’t be funded and their research would end. Eventually, I became the Director of Communications at Cate School, and I needed to define the school for those who didn’t know it, who hadn’t lived it. I realized again how language shapes perception, and in a way, reality.

I’ve always found that distilling language down to its essential elements is powerful. When you do it well, it lives with those who read it, hear it, see it, and it affects them deeply. And that’s poetry. And poetry can change the world.

Did your experience at MFS influence your professional life and interests?

Yes. All of it. From Ms. Binder’s art class in Lower School, to Ms. Opalenick’s music, to Mr. Smith’s sixth grade science class, to Mrs. Gagliardi’s fourth grade, to poetry with Mr. Goodman, to literature with Doc LaVia; ceramics with Mr. Marcucci, woodshop with Mr. Boothby, science with Mr. Wilhere, soccer with Mr. Koski, and of course two years of kindergarten with the wonderful Mrs. Marino. These teachers loved what they did, but more more importantly, I felt like they loved me.

In fact, I learned more (and remember more) from my classes at MFS than any other formal learning experience. And I was a real handful, too. I visited the principal’s office more than a couple times. I couldn’t sit still and I couldn’t stop talking, but I never got shut down by my teachers — it must have taken a lot of patience on their part. I can’t imagine what I would have done if I had me in one of the classes I taught!

What’s one MFS project that stands out in your memory?

My tenth grade teacher, Mark Goodman, assigned us a poetry journal. We had to collect different types of poetry and write our own. It was hard, and my poetry was pretty horrific, but I remember enjoying it. I’ll never forget some of my friends reading their poetry, too: Raj, and Wendy, and Larry. There was something liberating about that class. Mark gave us the freedom to be creative. That combination of elements helped shape my life.

Overall, MFS gave me a deep and unshakable confidence that if I worked hard at something, I could become competent and even excellent. From singing, to writing, to math — it always felt like I could accomplish anything. Over the years, I’ve realized that I’m not wired to be an astrophysicist or an opera singer (although I’ve had my moments). But that general confidence and sense of possibility has given me courage to try new things and to trust myself when I face challenges.

If you could share one insight about your educational philosophy with others, what would it be?

I believe children should have choices. So often, kids go to school and every moment of the day is predetermined, structured, defined. I think that’s why I loved MFS so much — the arts were an important part of the curriculum, and other classes gave us permission to make our own choices as well. The more children are supported in making their own learning choices, the more likely they are to find and pursue their passions, care about the work they do, and ultimately, live deeply and make the world better.


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