Hilary Harris

31 Jan 2019
ByWesley Yiin

Most people can name at least one teacher from childhood who profoundly changed their lives.

For Hilary Harris, a math specialist at Fieldston Lower, that person was Kelvina Butcher, a woman who was her teacher, summer camp counselor, and eventually graduate school professor. They first met in Butcher’s Kindergarten class when Harris was five. Kindergartners went to a class called “Rhythms,” which involved dancing, and Harris remembers her five-year-old self to be very shy and, therefore, immediately nervous. When Butcher saw that Harris didn’t want to dance alone in front of everyone, she made one simple choice that forever shaped Harris’s educational philosophy: she offered to dance with her.

“That sort of willingness to meet your students where they are has always been a goal for me as a teacher,” Harris says.

Harris has had a long relationship with ECFS: she attended Kindergarten through high school, graduating in 1990; her kids go to ECFS; and now, she teaches at Fieldston Lower. Despite all the time that has passed, her early memories from attending ECFS as a student left a lasting impression. “The pieces that I remember the most are the curricular pieces that have been here for decades and decades,” she says.

One example: the birds. “If you know anyone who went to Fieldston Lower,” she prompts, “ask them what bird they had in first grade, and they’ll know exactly what you’re talking about.”

Hilary Harris reads to a class of students

She’s referring to the school’s in-depth study of birds, in which first graders choose a bird that they then research over the entire academic year. These lessons don’t just take up social studies class time — they extend to other disciplines as well. In shop, students might build bird feeders. In art class, they might make a habitat.

This seminal piece of Fieldston’s curriculum existed when Harris was a student decades ago, and it persists even today — and with good reason. It’s become a sort of educational marker for Harris and many other Fieldston alumni of all ages, she believes. Once, at a holiday dinner with friends and family — many of whom were Fieldston graduates — someone identified what looked like a snowy owl outside the window. “That’s not supposed to be here,” they said.

Of course, the identifier’s knowledge of snowy owl traits came out of the bird unit, and everyone at the dinner table contributed bird facts that they themselves remembered. Harris considered it a small miracle that, after all these years, so many of them could recall such highly specific facts. “Almost all of us, if not all of us, have these same things that we remember as so important,” she says.

Harris believes that, in giving young students the time and freedom to explore one unique subject, these projects help young students learn to take ownership of their educations. She herself brought this sensibility to the Upper School and then to Yale University, where she majored in English. As an ECFS parent, she sees her teenage children investing in their educations through their elective choices in technical theater and vocal training. She admits that she often gets jealous, as ECFS’s course offerings have only expanded since her time at the school.

As a teacher at Fieldston Lower, Harris tries to impart the fundamentals to her students in fun yet comprehensive ways. In a way, she’s channeling Kelvina Butcher, her teacher from decades ago, by meeting her students where they are and using methods they understand. But she’s also helping her students learn how to investigate and understand concepts more broadly so that they’re impressed into memory — just as Harris herself remembers the birds.

Consider Harris’s use of base ten blocks. Common fixtures of most grade school classrooms, base ten blocks are generally used to teach place value or addition and subtraction. Combine ten unit blocks to form a ten-block rod. Combine ten rods to form a hundred-block square. Combine ten squares to form a thousand-block cube.

That sort of willingness to meet your students where they are has always been a goal for me as a teacher.

Most third-grade classes probably stop there, but Harris and the third-grade team at Fieldston Lower have their students push on. They combine ten of these cubes to form a large rod, composed of ten thousand blocks. Then they put together ten of those to get one hundred thousand, a square. And ten of those make one million, a cube. In the end, giant cubes of blocks stretch across the entire length of the classroom to help students visualize what ten million looks like.

Harris hopes to demonstrate to her students that a pattern — cube, rod, square; bigger cube, bigger rod, bigger square — exists here. Ideally, several years down the line, these same students will be able to recall these hands-on lessons as they visualize what it means to square and cube different numbers.

But for now, Harris isn’t finished with the base ten blocks. “Up until a million, it all fits in the room,” she says, full of excitement. “For ten million, it’s not going to fit in the room. We’re going to have to go out into the hallway. A hundred million wouldn’t fit on the floor, so we would have to go outside. When does it become so gigantic you can’t even picture it anymore?”

For the probing mind of Hilary Harris, the answer is: probably never.