Monday, August 14, 2017

Making Our Mission Real: How We Can Help Our Children Navigate Reality

“We empower each [community member] to be a compassionate, responsible, and active global citizen.”
--The High Meadows Mission Statement

It’s easy to read such words as platitude. They certainly sound noble. But how does an elementary school make these words really reach students? Aren’t the elementary years about teaching reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic? Or do we have a greater calling to use tragic events such as the recent terror in Charlottesville as touchstones to teach our children how to overcome hatred and injustice?

Image result for charlottesville
Photo Credit: The Boston Globe
When I was a kid, school was lockstep-simple. I had no idea that the economy was tanking, that the Vietnam War had left an indelible scar on society, that the Cold War was simmering and creating fear all around me. That racial strife and social injustice were alive and well, despite how I was taught that Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King had fixed all of that.

Things are different today. News is inescapable. It’s delivered in a flow that is constant, ugly, and sound-bitten, and in social media venues that didn’t exist in the late ‘70s. All but our youngest kids (hopefully) are exposed to the realities of the world. Our instinct is to protect them, just as we were protected, but we really can’t. And even if we could, would that be the right way to raise them today—in blissful ignorance?

The answer is yes…and no.

Five-year-olds are amazingly perceptive. They may not know about the world’s injustices, but they certainly feel them. Nine-year-olds are built to see life in a binary, right-and-wrong way. Thirteen-year-olds are savvy with at least cursory knowledge of and opinions about truths, half-truths, and alternative truths, but can’t naturally distinguish one from the other.

These days, we need to meet children where they are.

Kindergarten teachers and parents know that these children need nurturing above all else. They need reassurance and comfort and should be shielded from terrible facts they cannot possibly understand. They can learn to be compassionate, responsible, and active global citizens by creating and maintaining strong friendships. They can learn that there is a place called “the world,” where there are people just like them who are looking for the same things in life that they are. They can be empowered to be kind to everyone at all times, no matter what.

Third graders are entering the age of reason, and parents and teachers know that their children’s questions cannot be brushed aside. Though adults might not initiate a conversation about events such as the horrors in Charlottesville, they should be prepared to field a child’s questions honestly. They should invite children to reflect on why people hate and guide them to create ideas about how hate can be eliminated in this world. They should empower children to take action on those ideas with the promise that their action can really make a difference.

The adults in the lives of seventh graders should be truthful and direct with them. It’s reasonable to be open, even provocative. It is right to initiate a conversation about facts and morality. About what white supremacists believe, what they did in places like Charlottesville, and why they are wrong. To distinguish between empty rhetoric and words that inspire moral action. Most importantly, adults can help activate their innate propensity to be compassionate, responsible global citizens by encouraging them to take action to ensure that the evils of bigotry and hatred don’t take root in their own world.

Children of all ages today feel and know much more than we think, certainly more than we did in our day. We need to honor where they are developmentally and to take them seriously. Most importantly, we need to model for them—in our words and actions--what it means to be good and just. 

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Making Connections, Studying the Greats: My Fellowship at Columbia University

Connecting with other professionals...studying educational philosophy and perspectives on social justice...writing, discussing, and reflecting...these are just a few of experiences in which I engaged during my two-week fellowship in February at the Klingenstein Program for Heads of Schools at Teachers College, Columbia University.

 Our cohort 

I could fill 20 pages about the program and its impact on me. Put simply, it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my career. Here are some highlights.
  • Our cohort consisted of 21 heads of independent and international schools, from places like Ghana, Germany, South Africa, Hong Kong, and Brazil. 
  • In week one, we read and discussed the great educational thinkers, from the 17th century philosopher Michel de Montaigne to John Dewey, the father of progressive education.
  • A requirement of the program was to write a ten-page literature review on a topic of particular impact on our schools that would yield value to other school leaders. My paper was entitled "From Surviving to Thriving: Helping Transgender Elementary Students Feel Connected to their School Community."
  • The second week, we studied Leadership for Social Justice, which was extremely inspirational and energizing. We worked together to determine how our schools can be agents for social change at a time in history when such action is desperately needed.
  • Working with master's degree students in the educational leadership department, we analyzed case studies from our own schools. The idea was to hear ideas about how school leaders can best handle the thorny situations of our profession, from personnel issues to fundraising conundrums.
Though there was great value in every aspect of the program, connecting with my colleagues was precious to me. We shared our own stories, school experiences, and formed friendships that will certainly last. I have already reached out to several of them to get their perspectives on a variety of issues (the "WhatsApp" communication app keeps the conversation going wonderfully).

In the end, the program’s content and approach was affirming of High Meadows and our mission. We are doing things here--putting children at the center and giving them a strong sense of agency--that have been talked about for years. We have much to learn, but much to give. I would love the opportunity to talk with you about the experience--please comment or email me if you like.

The great John Dewey and I at Teachers College, Columbia University

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Embracing Spontaneity in Learning

“Spontaneity, in my view, is the best antidote to fear and habit, both of which are part of our repertoire but should not dominate. Fear and habit hold us back and make us predictable. Spontaneity opens the door to creativity and happiness, in part because of the unpredictability it brings.”
                                                                                   --Joachim Krueger, behavioral psychologist

There are lots of things to see on our expansive campus—flowers visited by interesting insects, lovely gardens, friendly ponies.

So I was a little surprised when Ethan, a first grader, stopped on our campus stroll to stare at a dripping downspout on the side of a building. “Where is the water coming from?” he wondered. We imagined the water’s downward path and our imaginations traveled upward to its origin: a gutter. In short order, Ethan determined that the gutter collected rainwater, which flowed into it from the sloped ceiling of the building. From there, we talked about the force that causes all things to be pulled downward to the lowest point: gravity.

Having goals for a child’s learning and a plan to get there is important. Our teachers have created curriculum continua to enumerate objectives at each stage of a child's development, and they plan rich learning experiences accordingly.

At the same time, spontaneity is a critical part of learning. It sparks curiosity, stokes wonderings, and sets questions ablaze. Ethan might have become interested in gravity if he were told to read in a textbook about how a downspout in a gutter system is an example of water traveling via gravity. But by discovering this simple, elegant system on his own, his innate sense of wonder made the “lesson” all the more powerful—and memorable. 

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Think Kids Aren't Capable?--Think Again

Is a 10-year-old capable of higher-order, sophisticated thinking?

The traditional factory-like system of education would say "absolutely not." Kids are meant to be passive. They are in school to absorb knowledge, to listen to the teacher, to sit quietly and follow along, to behave. These are the standards on which they are judged.

At High Meadows, I regularly observe powerful evidence of the capability of young people that flies in the face of such small thinking. On Thursday mornings this spring, I am mentoring a group of fourth and fifth graders who are engaged in inquiry through our International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program. We discuss the progress of their inquiries that will lead to a capstone public exhibition at the end of the school year. 

The central idea of the students' inquiry is Humans have the ability to act on their beliefs and values to improve the relationships and health in their communities. From there, my small group narrowed their focus to Supporting medical research improves the quality of life for people today and future generations. Individual students are studying advances in research in ovarian cancer and cystic fibrosis. One student is studying how medical research on humans in space can help people here on earth. They share research studies, email responses from experts, and questions they have devised for interviewing more experts and those affected by disease. The sophistication of their thought--and their ability to accurately and passionately speak about their work--is nothing short of remarkable. 

These mornings always remind me of how capable our young students really are. It saddens me that some schools treat kids with what amounts to intellectual and social disrespect. It's no wonder so many of them dread going to school. 

This morning, the students were brimming with vivid excitement as they told me about their visit to a science museum yesterday. "There was just one thing," one of them said. "They wouldn't give us a tour guide because they said fourth and fifth graders are too young to understand and don't behave well." Despite that caveat, they led themselves through the exhibits with fascination and purpose. And good "behavior." Another student continued, "We almost told them that we were older kids who are just small for our age." Now there's some higher-order humor for you.

So back to my original question: Are 10-year-olds truly capable? At the best schools (including High Meadows, of course) the answer is an emphatic "absolutely!"

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Redefining Rigor

“Demanding, difficult.” “Thorough, exhaustive, accurate.” “Strictness, severity.” All are modern definitions of “rigor" I found in various dictionaries. And I also found one particularly troubling  synonym: "misery.”

Lots of parents are looking for an “academically rigorous” school experience for their child. But I know no parent who want their kids anywhere near an “academically miserable” school.

So let’s take that word and reframe it. It’s good for kids to experience discipline, thoroughness, and challenge. But the best schools present rigorous experiences that are also deeply thoughtful, mind-expanding and exciting.

Which of these rigorous experiences do you want for your child?

Do you want plodding, closed-ended, multiple choice bubble tests with only one right answer? Or assessments that require students to analyze real-life situations and dilemmas that have more than one answer?

Do you want kids to have mountains of repetitive homework that robs them of family time and sleep? Or do you want homework that is meaningful and reasonable—like reading or practicing a modest number of math problems?

Do you want kids to memorize facts that will soon be forgotten? Or do you want them to learn how to find facts for themselves and use them in an authentic way?

A few years ago, teachers at The Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, a school widely regarded as the pinnacle of traditional rigor, conducted a powerful experiment. At the end of the academic year, the teachers administered highly traditional science tests to high schoolers. The tests were replete with facts and formulas that required significant memorization. Lawrenceville students being high achievers, it was not surprising that the average grade was 87%. In the fall of the following school year, the teachers, without prior notice, administered a nearly identical (and even simplified) test to the same group of students. The average grade? 58%. You read correctly. Students retained virtually nothing over the summer. What, then, was the value of what they had “learned?” This experiment set Lawrenceville on a new path of designing cognitively rich and meaningful experiences for its students.

The rigor of today is not what it used to be. It still implies hard work, discipline, and completeness. But it also means that students engage meaningfully, cognitively, and authentically in learning experiences.

And it certainly doesn’t have to mean misery. 

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Vocabulary of Violence

Monday marked the third anniversary of Sandy Hook, the worst school shooting in our recent history. We all remember the sadness and anger we shared with the nation. I also remember thinking that this would be the horrible catalyst for us to finally take action to prevent such violence. Sadly, and not too surprisingly, we continue to argue over how we can make the world a safer place for our children.

Beyond the politics, violence is everywhere--even in our daily speech. Our metaphorical vernacular, which can add clarity and meaning to verbal communication, is littered with the insidious vocabulary of violence.

We "shoot from the hip." We use "bullet points" in our writing. We are sometimes "dressed to kill." We "shoot off at the mouth" "on the front lines" while someone drops a "bombshell" and we "take a stab" at fixing it. Eventually, someone is responsible or "heads will roll." It's only through "boots on the ground" with people who are "straight shooters" "who are quick on the draw" that we can get ourselves "out of the cross hairs." It's time to come out with "guns a-blazing" and to "have each other's backs."

I invite you to name more; they are countless. And try to go just one day without using such metaphors. I've yet to be successful.

I don't know how such speech affects us. It's easy to dismiss metaphors as harmless words that are simply embedded in the way we communicate. 

But our children listen to what we say--and how we say it--and it teaches them. If violence is normalized in daily speech, might they be learning that it is a simple, harmless fact of life? That the way we get ahead and achieve success is through might, militarism, and brash pronouncements of conquest?

As politicians continue to debate how to keep us all safe, maybe we can do our small part by measuring our words, by finding gentler metaphors to enliven our communications. However subtle the change might be, maybe our children will learn that it's possible to live in a world where words can create and not destroy.

Much has been written on this subject, and I encourage you to check out the classic book Metaphors We Live By and a recent article in the New York Times about the power of belligerent speech to incite violence.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

School: No Place for Fear

All hopes for a better world rest in the fearlessness and open-hearted vision of people who embrace life.

--John Lennon

Earlier this week, the City of Houston voted down a standing city ordinance aimed at protecting the civil rights of many of its citizens, most notably transgender people. At the heart of the vote was what has become the undignified threshold question that trans people face: What bathroom do they use?

Houston, like many other big cities such as Dallas and San Antonio, once honored the extensive research about (and the American Medical Association's recognition of) the complex issue of gender identity--that some people have a legitimate mental and emotional disconnect from their biological sex, and identify more closely with the opposite gender. This recognition enabled trans people to legally use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify.

But some Houstonians--fearful that such an ordinance would enable male predators to accost women in public restrooms--succeeded in repealing it, chiefly through a well-crafted television campaign that stoked terror and fear in the hearts of voters. [N.B. Neither Dallas nor San Antonio has reported incidents of such violence toward women in public restrooms.]

I cite this recent news not to promote a political "agenda"--I believe that respecting people for who they are is a simple matter of honoring human dignity and has no place in politics.

But there is one destructive reality that resides at the core of the example above: Fear is alive and well in our world.

Fear divides us. It perpetuates a simplistic, binary worldview--good/bad, black/white, liberal/conservative, us/them. Our schools should be focused squarely on the goal of eradicating such irrational fears, helping students to understand that the world is a place with endless possibilities and no limitations.

Fear is the enemy of innovation, of reasonable risk-taking. If I try and fail, then I'm no good.

Fear is what keeps us wed to educational practices that are valueless, like administering vapid, state-mandated standardized tests and training kids to crave the approval of others by giving letter grades. If I don't score well on the test or get good grades, I will not get into a good school. I won't live a good life.

Fear keeps us from truly getting to know other people and forming strong relationships. If I hang out with the brainiacs, then the cool kids won't like me. 

We are lucky at High Meadows. Our teachers know that fear is what holds us back from being our best selves.

They lovingly push children beyond their comfort zone, whether it's sitting with someone new or climbing one branch higher on the chicken tree.

They actively address when kids make "mean mistakes"--name-calling, social exclusion--helping them to feel and express empathy and self-forgiveness.

Our teachers openly encourage students to try something new, from a preschooler pouring milk by herself to an eighth grader presenting a project in front of the entire school. And if that preschooler spills the milk or the eighth grader misspells a few words in his presentation, that's OK. Our teachers will guide them to clean up their own (minor) messes, coach them, and let them try again until they are successful. And the students learn that they don't need to be afraid of making mistakes.

We are the models for our children. They take their cues from us. If we act with fear, they learn to be fearful. As parents and educators who want our children to be their best selves--happy, well-adjusted, fearless people--let's set a higher bar. We can embrace the power of nurture, inquiry, forgiveness, and love. Our children will take notice. And they won't be afraid anymore.