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.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Definition of Progressive Education We Have Embraced

Two weeks ago, High Meadows Center for Progressive Learning Director Kate McElvaney and I attended the Progressive Education Network Conference in New York City. In attendance were hundreds of public and independent educators who are proud to embrace the tenets of progressive education, just as we do at High Meadows. As you might expect, schools that call themselves "progressive" often apply different practices and, therefore, have varying definitions of what the word means.

For this reason, the big buzz at the conference was around a new book, Tom Little's Loving Learning. The book highlights several examples of progressive school programs around the nation (High Meadows is given a shout-out in the index). Our teachers and administrators have all read it and continue to discuss it (and be on the lookout for a parent group study of the book this winter).

Tom (who, sadly, has since passed away) provides a compelling definition of progressive education based largely on the writings of John Dewey and Francis Parker as well as his own observation of dozens of schools. Many of the schools at the conference have embraced the definition, as have we:

Progressive Education prepares students for active participation in a democratic society, in the context of a child-centered environment, and with an enduring commitment to social justice.

Tom further highlights six core strategies shared by progressive schools:

1. Attention to children's emotions as well as their intellects;
2. Reliance on students' interests to guide their learning;
3. Curtailment or outright bans on testing, grading, and ranking;
4. Involvement of students in real-world endeavors, from going on field trips to managing a farm;
5. The study of topics in an integrated way, from a variety of different disciplines; and, not least,
6. Support for children to develop a sense of social justice and become active participants in     
    America's democracy.

For those of you who know High Meadows well, can you see where our mission fits into the above? Our faculty and staff will be continuing to discuss and identify our progressive practices with regard to these core strategies. I hope you will join us and feel free to comment!

Thursday, September 10, 2015

What Jody Knew

One of my favorite things to do in the new school year is to meet with new families. I love it because they tell stories about how their children, after only a couple weeks as High Meadows students, are thriving like never before.

They're blossoming.
The light is back on in their eyes.
Mondays are anticipated with excitement instead of dread.
When sick, they pretend to be well so they can go to school.

So what's behind all this joy? High Meadows Co-Founder Jody Holden was the original magician, and her magic is as strong and true today as it was in 1973. What did Jody know that makes kids thrive at High Meadows? The truths are simple and timeless.

She knew that relationships between students and teachers should be based on trust and respect. Ever the advocate for putting children first, Jody still reminds me (and the Board--she is a lifetime trustee) that we should follow children, taking our cues from them to show us how we can best help them learn. We trust that children are capable of learning for the sake of learning, and when we don't sit them in rows and talk at them all day, they will take ownership of their learning and enthusiastically strive to meet the goals we set for them. Jody also knew that children are far more capable than most grown-ups think. Give them fallen sticks and branches, they will build forts--or the exoskeleton of a rocket (true story--ask a third grader!).

Jody knew that being outdoors is good for children. Room to run with grass and dirt underfoot. Fresh air to breathe. And nature's wondrous beauty to behold. Jody knew that a place like the 42-acre utopia that is our campus would inspire kids to use all of their senses to help them understand the world around them.

She knew that play is at the heart of learning. She knew that a child's creativity is inspired by simply letting them be. And play does not need to be guided by plastic toys that suggest a specific function; a store-bought toy rocket does less for a child's creativity than a fallen branch that becomes an imaginary rocket. Jody knew that play is a perfect way for kids to learn how to communicate with each other, to work together, to solve problems.

Of course, Jody knows a lot more than the above; she holds deep knowledge of the research behind the best practices in learning. But it's her intuition that has been especially powerful in driving High Meadows as it has grown into the place it is today.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Look Where You Want to Go, Not Where You Don't

A few years ago while vacationing at the beach, something possessed me to take a surfing lesson. I struggled mightily to even get on the board--I'm not exactly athletic. Miraculously, I did learn to stand after an hour or so, and I even caught a couple of waves. But the rides never lasted for more than a few seconds and each ended the same way: I crashed into another surfer. "Why does this keep happening?" I asked my instructor with exasperation. His reply has resonated with me ever since: "Dude, stop looking at those other surfers. Look where you WANT to go and not where you DON'T." He explained that surfers will inevitably go in the direction they are looking, even if they think they are trying to do otherwise.

Some months later, I was observing an after school bicycle program for young kids and witnessed something I had never seen before. The instructor was teaching kids to ride their bikes on a long two-by-four beam--that's right, two-by-four. So these kids had to keep their bike wheels within a four-inch range or they fell two inches to the ground. The kids who were having the most trouble kept their heads down, looking worriedly at the ground in an attempt to keep from falling. They fell off every time. "Keep your heads up and look where you want to go!" admonished the instructor. With great surprise I watched child after child ride the length of the beam without faltering--and each one looked toward the finish instead of at the ground.

So these two experiences flipped on a light switch. Does this wisdom apply to most every pursuit in life? By worrying and over-focusing on our fears, do we actually manifest what we are trying to avoid? I can name a handful of personal instances in which that idea rings true. More than once I have confronted angry people with my own anger--solely because I was anticipating a fight. Such anger was always counterproductive. Had I imagined a gentler conversation, might that have been the result? I can say for sure that the times I have visualized a positive outcome ended successfully more often than not. I looked where I wanted to go instead of where I didn't. 

I would love to hear other examples of this--or refutations if you have any to share. Please comment!

Thursday, March 5, 2015

"The High Meadows Way"--What Exactly Is It?

"We have our own unique way of doing things at High Meadows: We call it 'The High Meadows Way'." 

When I began as head of High Meadows almost five years ago, I heard variations of this statement multiple times from many different people. So I began the journey of understanding just what the "way" really is. I'm still on that journey, and here are some things I have learned:

High Meadows is a progressive school. As such, we have always been about
    • encouraging students to ask questions, 
    • valuing unstructured play time, 
    • organizing classes in a multiage setting, 
    • integrating the arts and connections into all areas of our program, 
    • evoking in students curiosity and love of learning for its own sake, 
    • promoting social justice, human dignity and social-emotional growth,
    • engendering in students a deep appreciation of and sense of responsibility for nature, and
    • trusting that children are capable of being more than the world often allows.
These practices are just some examples of how we live our mission and guiding principles--the guideposts for everything we do.

I've also learned another important lesson: The High Meadows Way is not a wholesale adherence to a fixed set of practices and traditions. Such a belief would be short-sighted and inflexible. Instead, The High Meadows Way is about exploring, examining, innovating, and assessing life in such a way that our actions continue to grow and evolve in service to our students and our community.

One more lesson learned: Our mission and guiding principles are well balanced between being specific directives and open-ended ideals. As with anything open-ended, responsible interpretation is necessary to make those words come to life. Just as the U.S. Supreme Court interprets the broad scope of the Constitution, so does a faculty, administration, parents and students interpret a school's mission. And, as with a Supreme Court decision, interpretations vary widely. The true spirit of the High Meadows Way is to foster conversation and fearless communication about our mission and principles and the differences of interpretation we may hold. 

Ultimately, The High Meadows Way is a path in the woods. It goes on and on and sometimes diverges, but it ultimately leads toward the same place--a place where children and adults grow ever closer to understanding themselves and each other.