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