AcademicsFeb 6, 2020

Setting the stage for discussion

Rebecca Cook-Dubin, our Leonhardt Family Teaching Chair, excels at building a place for conversation

The discussion starts slowly — it is 8:30 on Monday morning, after all.

Divided into two groups of six, the sophomores in Rebecca Cook-Dubin’s English classroom dig into their reading of Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi’s memoir of growing up during the Islamic Revolution in Iran. The students share answers to three prompts: I like…, I notice…, and I wonder…, before their discussion moves on to larger questions, “Why does Marjane’s family stay in Iran when others leave?” and “How does a community determine its rules and values?”

Ms. Cook-Dubin periodically checks in on the students. She asks them to consider additional questions, gently nudging the conversations, which only stop when the bell rings 50 minutes later.

“The best classes are when everyone is speaking and has a role in the conversation, and everyone’s voice is valued and heard,” says Ms. Cook-Dubin, the Phoebe Goodhue Milliken ’37 English Department Chair. “My job is to make sure that environment exists, and if something is in conflict with that environment, I need to bring us to a place that helps us all learn our best.”

In the eyes of students and colleagues alike, Ms. Cook-Dubin does that exceptionally well. She was named at Commencement 2019 as the Leonhardt Family Teaching Chair, an honor bestowed every four years to recognize outstanding teaching at MHS. That several of her students nominated her for the award speaks to the role Ms. Cook-Dubin’s plays in shaping their experiences at MHS.

Ms. Cook-Dubin’s path to the classroom began in 2001, after moving to Charleston, South Carolina. There, she applied for a job as a permanent substitute, which led to a position in a ninth-grade English classroom. Two years later, upon moving to Boston, Ms. Cook-Dubin was coordinator of the student theater at Brandeis University, and realized she missed the classroom.

“Even though I am a theater person, I wasn’t a theater teacher,” says Ms. Cook-Dubin, who earned a B.A. in Theater from Dartmouth College. “I found that I loved working with students on writing and reading skills, and I appreciated the kinds of discussions you can have in English classrooms.” So, she returned to the classroom, earning an M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction from Boston College.

From 2007 to 2011, Ms. Cook-Dubin taught English and was the English Department Chair at The Wellington School, an independent school in Columbus, Ohio. That school, she noted, went through many changes MHS is currently making, including a shift from Advanced Placement classes.

“I found that I loved not only working in the classroom but also thinking more broadly about curriculum and assessment,” says Ms. Cook-Dubin, who joined Miss Hall’s in 2013, after her family moved to the Berkshires. She became Department Chair in 2016 and has been in the vanguard of progressive changes in the classroom, including project-based learning and growth-based grading in the English Department and collaborations across departments.

In her classroom, Ms. Cook-Dubin believes in cultivating a positive, respectful environment in which there is equity of voice, where students can take risks that do not feel risky, and where they are constantly exposed to new ideas and new ways of thinking. “You can do that authentically and deliberately in an English classroom, where every day pushes students forward,” she says.

Of her decision to join MHS, Ms. Cook-Dubin notes that she liked the autonomy offered at an independent school and was interested in all-girl education. “I saw why an all-girl environment would be a positive environment for me as a teacher,” she says. “It’s an environment that gives voice to girls and allows them to be leaders in the classroom. I saw in a co-ed environment the obstacles that prevented girls from being their bold, authentic selves. I very much appreciated the idea of being at a school that has a mission of empowering girls. This school lives its mission, and I love that about Miss Hall’s.”

About the Leonhardt Family Teaching Chair

The Leonhardt Chair, the first endowed teaching chair at MHS, was established by the Leonhardt Foundation in 1988 through the efforts of Melissa A. Leonhardt ’76, who is also a former MHS Trustee. A recipient is designated every four years. Previous recipients are former Expressive Arts Department Chair Gary Miller, former Math Teacher Dr. Carol J.V. Fisher, former Math Teacher James K. Ervin, former Latin Teacher Mary Quirk, former Spanish Teacher Helena Cevallos St. John, Science Department Chair Donna Daigle, and, most recently, History Department Chair Matthew Rutledge. The Leonhardt Chair is a permanent recognition of a faculty member who possesses the highest personal and professional ethics, who has made a life-long commitment to young people, whose skillful instruction enlivens the experience of learning, and whose wise counsel and guidance to students extend beyond the classroom.