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Bringing Humane Education to the Poughkeepsie Day School: An Interview with JJ Morrissey

JJ Morrissey is the Head of Upper and Middle School at Poughkeepsie Day School in Poughkeepsie, NY. He runs the daily operations of a 6-12th-grade independent school whose mission is to offer a progressive education that liberates the mind, ignites passion and purpose, and provides the world with agile, resourceful, self-directed, community-oriented citizens. JJ graduated from IHE’s M.A. program in 2018.

IHE: As head of the upper and middle schools at Poughkeepsie Day School (PDS) you’re in a position to bring humane education to many students in a cohesive, far-reaching manner. Can you tell us some of the ways that real-world social justice, environmental, and animal protection issues are integrated into learning at your school?

JJ Morrissey: In our progressive independent school, the very threads that we focus on from PK-12th grade are social justice, environmental stewardship, and animal protection. I can name a dozen different ways that we engage our students with these topics, but one of the most impactful is our “Intensive Studies” program. At PDS, one day in every ten we skip the normal school schedule and engage in what we call “Intensive Studies” (or “IS”) for the entire school day. IS classes allow our teachers and students to engage in topics in a deep and meaningful way. There are no tests and no other work requirements – only engaging real-world experiences for our students. These classes change every year, and for the most part are designed based on student interest and in response to current events. Here are a few examples from this year’s IS classes:

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics: In this class, students work to discern fact from fiction and bias from impartiality. Specifically, students work to build skills and strategies to identify when statistics are being used to manipulate an audience and when they provide a biased narrative. This course develops skills that can be powerful when deconstructing and undoing systemic oppression. 

Adventures in Food: Students in this class learn about and gain first-hand experience in the journey of food from farm to table. They visit local farms and interact with farmers. They help with harvests, bringing food back to our campus, and find recipes to cook meals for each other in our test kitchen. Students study different cultures throughout the semester and learn how food and culture are closely linked. It has been wonderful watching our students connect with their environment, gain respect for the land their food comes from, and begin to build a cache of healthy recipes.

Upcycled Animal Donations: This last example is one that has been enormously popular this year. In this class, students have sourced recycled material from all over the community to design and build toys for animals in local shelters and sanctuaries. They speak with the shelter directors, learn more about how animal shelters and sanctuaries work, and spend time with the animals. They have also raised a lot of awareness about animal protection issues in our community through posters and presentations. 

IHE: Do students at Poughkeepsie Day School identify as solutionaries? Are there any stories you’d like to share about students’ efforts to make a difference in their school, community, or in the world?

JJ Morrissey: Students at PDS absolutely view themselves as solutionaries. One of the driving engines of our pedagogy is to empower our students to take ownership over their education, and to find ways to take the knowledge and skills they learn within our program and use them to make an immediate difference in their communities. 

As an educational leader, I do not like the word “potential.” Our students aren’t underdeveloped adults, they are kinetic, alive, and driven to interact with the wider world right now. We encourage this, and we see it play out in a variety of ways. All of our community service work is student-led and driven by the interests and passions of the student body. For example, we had a group of students last year who sourced materials to make their own brand of organic granola, which they sold at local farmers markets. All of the profits from their small company went to help fund programs at a teen shelter in the city of Poughkeepsie. 

IHE: How did your studies at IHE help you in your work as both a teacher and education leader and administrator?

JJ Morrissey: My studies at IHE have been invaluable to my personal and professional growth. The most impactful thing I learned, especially during the residency portion of the program, was how to bring my work from my head down to my heart. In education, we have a tendency to over-intellectualize everything, but in our profession, an absence of heart makes the interactions, program, and pedagogy become robotic and a bit soulless. The IHE program required me not just to challenge myself intellectually, but it also required me to explore the heart work as well; to connect with myself and center my work on compassion, empathy, and equity. The joy this has brought me and enabled me to experience is immeasurable, and it is something I’ll always be grateful to the IHE faculty for.

IHE: As you help shape the direction of your school and the education your students receive, what do you envision will shift and/or expand in the coming years?

JJ Morrissey: It is a fascinating time to be in education, especially in the middle and high school levels. Access to information and online courses coupled with passion and drive to make a difference have created a unique opportunity to reimagine education entirely. We know the current structure of schooling was largely designed by turn-of-the-century business owners, who wanted to mass-produce obedient and reliable factory line workers. They wanted to know that they could hire someone right out of high school who would be used to bells, schedules, and following orders. The ‘Carnegie Unit’ is still used to determine how much ‘seat time’ each student should receive in each subject! That is totally at odds with today’s world. 

The future I see, especially in high school, is one that I like to refer to as ‘edgeless.’ That means that education will no longer be about what happens within the walls of the school, but will encompass a variety of options both online and in the community. These can include taking classes at local colleges for high school credit, taking a semester to do an internship within the community, blending in-person classes with online courses. One idea that is beginning to pick up steam is to bring the college model of ‘major/minor’ down to the high school level. If a student knows they want to study medicine, or sustainability/climate change, or social entrepreneurship, then they should be allowed to design their own course of study. We have the opportunity to unlock the intellectual firepower of an entire generation; we just need to give them the key. 

IHE: What do you hope graduates of Poughkeepsie Day School will remember most about their experiences at your school and might say about their education ten years after graduating?

JJ Morrissey: I hope each student leaves PDS having cultivated habits of mind and soul that will serve them well into their future. I hope they say that their time at PDS instilled in them a love of learning and discovery, and a recognition that there is joy in addressing challenges.