The Learning Curve
Welcome to The Learning Curve - insightful educational commentary from Dr. Bob Bowman, Assistant Head of School for Upper School.
Hope. Is it possible to be optimistic when on a personal and global scale we are experiencing catastrophic loss of life, economic devastation and social isolation? I have had this conversation numerous times with family, friends and colleagues. I certainly do not have any definitive answers, and, like most everyone, I have had to balance my feelings of intense grief for the tragic experiences of so many around the world and my duty to those about whom I care most: my families - the Bowman/Pickard clans and the Wardlaw+Hartridge community. Is there a way to stay encouraged in these challenging times? I believe there is.
As Upper School Head, I have the privilege of witnessing acts of care, joy, selflessness, support, giving and love, to name a few, every day from students, parents and faculty. Let me share a few from the past several weeks that keep me encouraged and demonstrate the indomitable W+H spirit.
I remain so very hopeful when
- More than I can remember in my lifetime spent in schools, folks are genuinely checking on each other and offering support in both words and deeds;
- Teachers give up their vacation and weekends to try to do the impossible - completely transform themselves as educators;
- Students, with great trust and courage, continue their learning in this entirely new way, and do so with positivity and earnestness;
- We have the honor to watch our students share their musical gifts in our virtual Music Recital - a true manifestation of the “show must go on”;
- Faculty and advisors find new ways to continue to stay engaged in their students’ lives and emotional well-being outside the classroom;
- Our seniors work with us to find alternative ways to celebrate milestones and new ways to preserve honored traditions;
- My conversations with parents focus on moving learning forward, not outcomes;
- Teachers with young ones at home perform miracles by teaching their children andour children;
- An international sports figure and philanthropist spends an hour with our teenagers to inspire them to never give up on their dreams;
- The Parents’ Association brings our community together to play online bingo;
- Students spend a Friday night watching movies together through the use of technology;
- Students and faculty continue to finds ways to support our first responders, folks less fortunate than ourselves, and seniors who are truly isolated;
- Parents have overwhelmingly given faculty the time and support to learn how to create a curriculum and pedagogy compatible with an online learning platform;
- Student athletes continue to train hard because they are dedicated to the process as much as the competition;
- A student sends me an email to ask me how I am doing.
My mother always preached, offer solutions not problems. She would be so very proud to know that I have found such a home as Wardlaw+Hartridge where we embrace that ethos. Where, despite the palpable sadness permeating the fabric of our society, we have found ways to endure and dare I say shine. Hope lives.
I dedicate this piece to Katharine Moir McCready Bowman, whose love of family, abiding pragmatism and boundless optimism set a shining example for all who knew her. Rest in peace, Mama.
Over the last couple of decades or so, the words diversity and inclusion frequently appear together. Yet I am not sure many of us have taken the time to parse their meanings and understand the important distinction between the two. My colleagues in the English Department will not be pleased that I am starting my blog with a definition, but in this case I will throw best writing practices to the wind and give you definitions presented by Amanda Hagley from the Verb website in an article entitled Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace. These definitions are similar to those found across platforms.
Diversity: The range of human differences, including but not limited to race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, social class, physical ability or attributes, religious or ethical values system, national origin, and political beliefs.
Inclusion: Involvement and empowerment, where the inherent worth and dignity of all people are recognized. An inclusive workplace promotes and sustains a sense of belonging; it values and practices respect for the talents, beliefs, backgrounds, and ways of living of its members.
In our case we replace the word workplace with school, but in doing so we need to be careful. In public education, an “inclusive school” is one that welcomes learners of all intellectual abilities and every student with special needs. This is not the type of inclusivity that is typically found in independent schools like Wardlaw+Hartridge.
Let us start with a simple question: Is the Upper School at W+H diverse? If we are speaking about the student body, the answer is a resounding yes. I would venture that we are one of the most diverse high schools in New Jersey. Diversity in other aspects of our community is also of paramount importance, but it is the students that bring our worlds together, so that will be the emphasis of this piece.
Inclusion is a much harder thing to quantify. For my purposes, I am going to focus on the concepts of involvement and belonging. Through that lens, the following question is much more challenging to answer: Do students in the Upper School experience a sense of inclusion? As a former practicing scientist, the answer is quite disturbing: It depends where you look. Let me explain.
The level of academic involvement and collaborative classroom work taking place in our Upper School demonstrates a high level of inclusiveness. Much of this is a result of intentional pedagogical approaches utilized by our teachers. Through designated seating, thoughtfully constructed pre-assigned groups, and clear communication of shared expectations, students work with a variety of folks in almost every class. Our W+H high schoolers organically learn from and about others whose lives are often significantly different. Students have similar experiences in athletics, the performing arts, clubs and other activities throughout our numerous extracurricular programs.
Is this true when students are given the choice to gather in social groups of their own choosing? Where do they feel comfortable? Where do they belong? Lunchtime is an excellent place to explore these questions. In 1997 a must-read book for teachers (and really everyone) burst onto the scene, Beverly Daniel Tatum’s Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria (A 20-year update was released in 2017). This was one of several seminal titles that set the stage for the challenging, but extremely important work of discussing identity and racism in schools and beyond. More than 20 years later, have we moved beyond this paradigm? Frustratingly, the answer is not straightforward.
The lunchroom tables are filled with social groups that mirror the diversity of our school. The common interests that draw students to want to share free time are likely no different than when you attended high school. Sports, music, art, academic passion, local geography and even social media (e.g. Tik Tok) create fascinating cohorts. And there is a certain amount of fluidity to the groups. We are a small school; our students know each other through numerous contexts and feel comfortable expressing multiple interests as they choose their seat. But there is one group that is reminiscent of Dr. Tatum’s cafeteria thesis: our international students (IS) from China.
On any given day, with a few exceptions, international students sit together at lunch. These relationships are also seen before and after school. While international students participate and lead in academics and in all aspects of school life outside the classroom, when completely free of obligations, they choose each other’s company. Dr. Tatum provides a thoughtful analysis of this common behavioral dynamic, providing reasons which include maintaining identity, common life experience, and safety. Additionally, the familiarity and comfort of speaking Mandarin adds another basis for IS making these choices. We are so very proud of our IS, half a world away from home, and I certainly respect and honor their choices.
So back to the question: Do our international students feel they belong? I believe they do given their level of engagement, happiness and success. Should we be doing more to create opportunities for all students to socialize and share experiences? Yes. Ideally, would we like to see completely heterogeneous groups during students’ free time? Absolutely. A sea change of this magnitude and complexity is deeply connected to and dependent on engaging the entire school in the challenges of understanding identity. Like the world in which we live, the work of diversity and inclusion is demanding and messy. It involves people’s authentic, sometimes painful, experiences and requires each of us to recognize that we all have a great deal to learn about ourselves and about each other.
As a responsible and ethical school, we at W+H realize the privilege we have to work in our wonderfully diverse school and the imperative we have to help our students engage in addressing possibly the most important questions in their lives: Who am I? What is my place in the world?
So do Upper School students experience a sense of inclusion? Like most institutions learning to thrive in our global society the answer is: Yes, but we still have more road to travel. And heavens, is it amazing to have the opportunity to share this journey with our incredible W+H community.
I have always loved science and for more than a decade I was a card-carrying scientist and enjoyed all the accompanying fame and riches… or maybe it was the fun and adventure? I’ll get back to you. Unsurprisingly, I have always followed the progress researchers are making in many disparate fields. Recently, I came across an article about dark matter and how the universe continues to bewilder even the most learned of physicists. (Wait! Do not stop reading. This blog is not about dark matter or anything scientific.) As with a lot of my reading, I was using my phone more for convenience; squinting at tiny fonts on a little screen is not one of my favorite things. (Wait again! This blog is also not about the evils of smartphones.) Dark matter is a subject about which I am fascinated, so I began reading with great anticipation. The article was well-written, yet I found myself drifting; the information I wanted was not in the first few paragraphs: What was the controversy provoked by the latest dark matter experiments? I scanned ahead but lost focus completely. So, I stopped reading it, bookmarked it for later, and searched for more enticing clickbait.
As my phone notified me of its impending shutdown, I began to reflect on this experience. I have lived through the birth, the explosion and now the ubiquity of connectivity. In parallel, there have been scientists and pundits who have presented treatise on the harm to our children’s brain development and the loss of attentiveness (and the evils of multitasking) of digital natives. Two similarly titled books that were shared with me, written a decade apart, address these issues: Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age by Maggie Jackson and The Distracted Mind - Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World by Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen. While I do not share the Sturm und Drang of these and numerous other like-minded scholars, clearly the availability of information and skill sets of our students are far different from even 10 years ago. We need to understand this if we are to work productively with teenagers.
Today’s students have developed the ability to (too?) quickly access and assess media and research with lightning speed from an excessive number of sources ranging from SnapChat and YouTube to JSTOR and Google Scholar, and hundreds of sites with which I am not familiar. I believe my AARP brain was manifesting similar behavior (at a turtle-like pace) as I scanned my news feeds for articles interesting to me. I was seeking quick information on a Jeopardy! level, not an in-depth analysis. Yet, this is the catch - it is imperative that our students have a completely different gear, a much lower gear, when it comes to distilling information and thinking deeply as they start on the path towards creating authentic scholarship. They are naturally talented at collecting the raw materials, but can they be architects? Can they synthesize this disparate information into cogent and well-documented essays, papers and literary criticism? Students need to be able to focus and refine their arguments, connect their resources to essential questions, and finally create a written thesis that moves knowledge (or at least their own understanding) forward. That is the challenge of rigorous inquiry, slowing down and cogitating, straying away from the comfort of fast and easy, and trusting that the frustrations and challenges are a natural step in erudition.
Learning how to embrace and refine a more reflective approach to research is one of the fundamental responsibilities of any enlightened high school. At Wardlaw+Hartridge, our teachers focus their curricula on developing a number of requisite skills in parallel including conducting research, narrowing scope, critical thinking and compelling writing. The research process is disseminated in meticulous detail in our ninth grade Global Humanities course. The subsequent History sequence builds on this foundation culminating with one of our most challenging and rewarding courses: Capstone. Our English classes begin with an emphasis on writing mechanics and culminate with sophisticated approaches to composition in both fiction and non-fiction. There is a universal truth that our graduates share with us almost without fail upon their return from college: They know how to write and what to write. Their confidence is confirmed by their professors and classmates. This is a priceless benefit of a W+H education. We prepare our students to utilize rigorous inquiry as they advance their education and in all future pursuits.
As far as that unfinished article is concerned, eventually my phone was charged; I read it completely and followed several links to other supplementary material. As I anticipated, it was absolutely engrossing (if you are intrigued click here for the link to the piece). The universe with all its dark matter is a crazy place. I for one am excited to be living in these times, even if I have to squint to learn more about it.
My blog this month does not support or oppose any particular political viewpoints, but it will address the realities experienced by children in our world which is a result of choices made by powerful leaders around the globe.
Can one child change the world?
On January 25, 2017, Bana al-Abed, a 7-year-old Syrian girl, tweeted an image of a letter along with the following statement to President Donald Trump: “I beg you, can you do something for the children of Syria? If you can, I will be your best friend.” This past Tuesday, Nov. 19, now 10 years old, Miss al-Abed, presented a talk entitled The Power of... Hope (link here) at the Reykjavik Global Forum - Women Leaders 2019. In this talk she speaks of the terror and desperation children experience in wars that they do not understand and in which they have no voice. She makes a passionate case for peace and education for the youth still remaining in war zones in Syria and displaced in refugee camps. UNICEF estimates that there are 2.6 million children displaced in Syria and an additional 2.5 million living as refugees in neighboring countries. Bana al-Abed speaks of her hope that the leaders around the world will focus on ending conflicts and provide meaningful education before these children become a lost generation.
A recent Frontline/Associated Press presentation, Kids Caught in the Crackdown (watch here), highlights the children’s refugee crisis at the United States’ southern border. This year alone the U.S. has detained almost 70,000 children, many of whom were separated from their families. Frontline/AP present data for comparison: “In Canada, immigrant children are separated from their parents only as a last resort; 155 were detained in 2018. In the United Kingdom, 42 migrant children were put in shelters in 2017, according to officials in those countries.” Even when adjusted for total country population, the U.S. number is significantly higher. The limited resources necessary for the shelter and sustenance leave little or no funding available for the education of the displaced youths. We are facing the possibility that a significant population of children around the world will not be provided an education during the years when their brains are primed for learning. The results of this could be catastrophic.
The numbers and scope of these crises (along with numerous others around the world) make it difficult for all of us to feel like we can make a difference. What do the educated and the educators do? At W+H, we firmly believe it is our responsibility to challenge our students to take notice and to help them find their voice and leverage their empathy in meaningful and productive ways. This is the reason our mission statement places the following statement front and center: “to lead and succeed in a world of global interconnection” and is also the reason our Global Scholars Program was created. We provide thoughtful and strategic ways for students to participate in activities, many personal in nature. We challenge them not only to engage in service learning, but to dig deep into the issues that affect their world and draw their own conclusions and propose their own solutions.
Two of the most recent opportunities that put our kids on the front lines of the child refugee crisis are our collaboration with Interfaith-RISE (developed by Nicole Nolan, Director of Global Scholars and Community Outreach) and a service learning trip to El Paso/Las Cruces (developed by Ms. Nolan and Russell Althouse, Director of Global Experience). Interfaith-RISE is an organization that helps in the resettlement of immigrants from around the world. While our students participate in numerous aspects of the process of supporting families as they relocate to New Jersey from outside the U.S., the experience that is transformational for our students is tutoring young folks who may have little or no ability to speak English. These relationships can last over several years and even after W+H graduation. During Upper School morning meetings, we are privileged to hear the testimonials of our teenagers who have seen the immense difference their efforts have made. They speak of love and respect and often the awe they feel for these families who have lived the traumatic lives of refugees but have now found a new home away from war and camps. This is how one student makes a difference.
Early in 2019, a group of 23 students experienced the situation at the Texas-Mexico border in their visit to El Paso, TX and Las Cruces, NM firsthand. While a great deal of effort was spent preparing food and lodging for newly released immigrants, one of the most moving experiences for our students was the trip to the border. At the physical barrier between the U.S. and Mexico, the students were provided an opportunity to speak with Border Patrol agents. The agents spoke of carrying water and light foodstuffs for the refugees who they turn away or take to detention centers, and they stressed the need for more agents. They talked about the human interactions and the clear distress and fear, as well as the hope, of those wishing to enter the U.S. The students began to see how nuanced and challenging the Border Patrol role was. This was not something they could have learned through the soundbites of the news cycles. This is how one student deepens their understanding.
Like Bana al-Abed and Greta Thunberg and Malala Yousafzai and many pioneering thinkers before them, change often begins when a single child is willing to voice their concerns. Human connections such as tutoring refugee children or speaking with folks on the front lines still provide the greatest impact on the capacity for our students to comprehend these seemingly insoluble problems of the world. These experiences will allow W+H students to see themselves as global citizens, and most importantly, as change makers. We have never needed their passion and imagination more than now.
I have to admit that I am tired of hearing, and yes saying, “you need to think outside the box.” I just used this exact phrase in my engineering class recently during a brainstorming session (more on this later). I get it; we want our students to move beyond the binary of right and wrong and to embrace the challenge and messiness of finding novel solutions to complicated issues. For some time now, educational innovators have been promoting the 4 Cs of the 21st century: critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. Sprinkle entrepreneurship, STEAM-based approaches, sustainability, hacking your learning, and real-world problem solving into the mix to get a sense of where many folks (occasionally referred to as disruptors) believe learning is headed. Entire school infrastructure and curricula have been developed around these ideas, e.g., see Brightworks in San Francisco and Green School in Bali.
I greatly admire the amount of innovation that extremely intelligent, creative and dedicated teachers and administrators are displaying as they rethink what school is and what it should be. We need to be challenging old (and sometimes tired and ineffective) ideas of teaching, and brave people around the world are doing just this. Yet, I am not still not convinced that entirely scrapping the traditional teaching model is the best path forward. This could be because of my age or fear of change or maybe I am just an educational troglodyte, but I like to think it is somewhat based on the wisdom I have gained in my lifetime spent in schools.
A wee piece of this wisdom was apparent to me in the aforementioned Engineering Your World brainstorming session. But first, a fun fact: the concept of brainstorming was formally introduced 80(!) years ago by advertising executive Alex F. Osborn. I had no idea it was that old. In my class, students are in the initial stages of designing a pinhole camera (Google camera obscura if you are interested in more details.). We are using very low-tech materials including cardboard boxes, felt, foil, duct tape, Velcro, etc. After learning how to develop film, we began to think about some of the design details. One feature that caused a lot of consternation was how to hold the film in the box in a reproducible and sturdy way. We had a brainstorming session, and it really did not go well. The students in my class are quite bright and motivated, and we have had informal brainstorming sessions on improving cell phones and air pods that were very successful. So, what happened?
At first, I thought maybe it was the discomfort that students often feel when they are not sure of the answer. They let their reticence keep them quiet. After further discussion, I realized that this was not the case; none of the students in my class had ever taken a picture with anything other than their phone (one student shared using a disposable camera once). They had no concept of how a camera with film actually worked. This is despite our work on the history of photography. Non-Epiphany I: Reading and doing are worlds apart. The majority of high school students in 2019 lack a basic tactile understanding of how a camera physically works: loading film, advancing film, setting exposures, etc. Thus, it is hard to solve a problem you do not really know exists. It was the equivalent of me asking them to design a better typewriter. What’s a typewriter?
Eventually, after more discussion on camera form and function, the students did develop some clever options. Non-Epiphany II: Context is everything. Once the class understood the how and the why of using film, they were able to brainstorm numerous, novel ways to solve the problem. Taking their ideas from their notebooks to crafting their pinhole cameras is the next step and will certainly present a new set of challenges.
Our Engineering Your World course is a microcosm of the concepts behind the aforementioned schools. The founding principles of both are shared below:
Brightworks: “We use real tools, real materials, and real problems to encourage students’ love of learning, curiosity about the world, ability to engage, tenacity to think big, and persistence to do amazing things.”
Green School: “A campus which ignites the senses and the natural curiosity of children, a place where innovation, creativity and learning flourish. We educate for sustainability, through community-integrated, entrepreneurial learning, in a wall-less, natural environment. Our holistic, student-guided approach inspires and empowers us to be changemakers.”
These schools have big ideas and big dreams, and I have to admit, they sound exciting. If I was untethered by familial and fiduciary responsibilities (i.e., 30 years ago), I would seriously consider joining in a community like this (if they would have me!). It will be decades before we know how successful these approaches are, but I believe it is still worth attempting to change the education paradigm.
Yet something percolating back there in my reptilian brain leaves me disquieted. This is hard to admit, but after more than 50 years of being in schools, and suffering through many innovations, including New Math (insert screams from the balcony), I am still and always will be a card-carrying traditionalist. I firmly believe that a strong foundation in all disciplines is the starting point for future success as a contributing member of society. An education in the liberal arts opens so many doors and allows for the greatest number of future possibilities. It is why I work at Wardlaw+Hartridge; I wholeheartedly believe in what we are doing.
At W+H, we strongly embrace providing context combined with hands-on experience in all areas. Does that mean we are not working towards new and exciting teaching methodology. Of course, not! Whether it’s doing advanced lab work, engaging in authentic research for a Capstone project, recording a CD with the Jazz Band, or working with elementary age students at nearby Plainfield schools, we are focusing on the four Cs of the 21st century. And it would not be my blog if I did not say it again: I believe the most important aspect of any school (other than the students) is the faculty. Teachers make all the difference, and we have many absolutely amazing educators who are passionate and inspirational. And yes, in search of fascinating and innovative ways to engage our students, they do think outside the box.
In the words of that great philosopher, Britney Spears: Oops!... I did it again.
Several days before the start of the 2019-20 school year, two of my closest high school friends (who am I kidding, my only high school friends) and their spouses got together with me and my wife. By reasonable measures, all six of us have met with some success in our adult lives. I am not talking billion-dollar hedge fund or Kardashian-level Instagram influencer success, but we parlayed our privileged upbringings and made a decent go of it as adults. Our careers include orthopedic surgeon, CFO, television executive producer, etc… and, of course, the most highly esteemed and enviable of positions: Upper School Head.
As with many evening gatherings with lifelong friends, the spirits were flowing and the conversation found its way back to the good old days: high school. My buddies and I regaled each other with stories of our banal shenanigans (complete with almost continuous spousal eye-rolling and exasperation) and replete with embellishments that are expected when the events in question took place a great distance back in life’s rear view mirror.
During the dessert course, after a bite of some strangely named decadent chocolate concoction, I asked a question that has been rattling around my brain since I began my second career as a high school educator: What do you remember about your teachers and classes from high school? With the start of the 2019-20 school year right around the corner, I was pondering what the almost 240 Wardlaw+Hartridge Upper School students would find memorable or transformative or inspiring during their four years as a W+H Ram many decades in the future.
Those faithful subscribers to this blog (and my podcast!) know I am 40 years removed from my high school graduation, which was true, within a few years, for all six of us. We went to four different high schools that ranged from 50 (not a typo) to 1,000 students. As we reminisced, some truths (or at least anecdotal similarities) about what we recalled arose from the late evening babel. The strong, meaningful relationships are what we remembered, and to my surprise, with quite a bit of passion and clarity. I was a little shocked to learn how much I did not know about my closest friends’ relationships with their teachers, coaches and mentors from high school and the similar experiences of our spouses. The next truth was startling and took me a while to process. Very few of our most vivid and influential memories involved what we actually learned in class. We all agreed we must have learned a lot because we all went to college and graduated. But short of who taught what subject, some humorous episodes, and a few random details, the only other major theme of our discussion was who inspired us through their passion for the subjects and for inspiring a life well lived.
It would be dangerous to extrapolate our experiences to any general conclusions, but it did motivate me to do a little reading on memory. What do psychologists and neuroscientists believe cause us to store and to recall certain memories from our past and forget other seemingly equally salient experiences? An article in Psychology Today, Why do We Remember Certain Things and Forget Others by Dr. Shahram Heshmat, states the following: “A normal function of emotion is to enhance memory in order to improve recall of experiences that have importance, or relevance for our survival. Emotion acts like a highlighter that emphasizes certain aspects of experiences to make them more memorable.”
Further reading reinforces the concept that emotional connections with people, places and events serve to solidify memories that are most meaningful and influential in our lives. If you are interested, Medium.com has a compilation of other interesting resources addressing this subject entitled (with link) Nostalgia, Emotions and Why We Remember What We Remember.
As I think back to the August gathering, I recall with clarity the affection with which each of us spoke about the folks from our high schools who made a difference in our teenage years. So, as we look back, was it these instructors’ ability to teach their subject with rigor and excellence, or was it their ability to connect individually with students in a way that evoked a personal, emotional bond that made them memorable? Or was it both? Regardless, the message is clear, meaningful human connection is essential for learning that transcends the moment, that lives in the minds and hearts of students long after graduation.
In our Upper School, we understand how important these connections are. We also know that students will choose their trusted adults, their inspirations, their champions. I am confident that our faculty provides them with an array of personalities and teaching styles to let their positive energy and love of learning guide their instruction. And when given the moment, the opening to be more, they start that process of nurturing a student-teacher bond that leads to memories that last a lifetime in our students’ minds.
That is my wish for the start of the school year for all your children: find their many memory makers.
Now, if I could only recall the name of the chocolate dessert. Sadly, my memory fails.
Forty years ago, give or take a few weeks, I graduated from high school in Delaware. The only reason this is on my radar is because I got a call recently from an old classmate who had “found” me, no small feat given that I have no real presence on social media. This is not any sort of statement by me on the evils of the internet; I just never got around to doing it. My fellow Bulldog (my high school mascot, although I am unaware of any bulldogs native to Wilmington) informed me that in the fall of 2019 we will be having our 40th reunion. She shared that I could register on Facebook and see who will be attending and reconnect with old friends… oh yeah, you’re not on Facebook. Long pause. Well I hope you can make it. Long pause. Bye now. Click. Wow, I still had that old high school charm and magnetism. Refrains of Cat Steven’s Another Saturday Night echoed through my head. Sometimes I wonder if we ever truly leave our high school selves behind.
Intrigued, I looked on Facebook, but I had to join to get access; I’m confident most folks would have known that. Undaunted, I used Google and found a site that had a list of some of the students from my Class of 1979 with our motto emblazoned across the banner: ‘79 is fine - that is some excellent wordsmithing. I scrolled through and recognized fewer names than I would have guessed, but one name caught my eye: Scott D. The evolution of Scott’s and my friendship is very typical of younger friends who move into high school. Scott and I were in the same Boy Scout troop, and we became close friends in junior high school, frequently visiting each other’s houses. As we entered into high school, we gravitated towards different social groups. To be blunt, Scott was much cooler than I was; this was not a high bar! I was more of a nerdy kid (again I am sure my dear readers are shocked). We did not take the same academic track so we were in different classes. In a high school of almost a thousand students, our lives went in different directions and we slowly drifted apart.
I saw Scott again at our 10-year high school reunion. Everyone to whom I re-introduced myself asked me about my strange haircut (it was an abomination) and told me I should talk to Scott. We had a lot in common; we were both “still” in school in California. I had a hard time finding him because he had a big old Grizzly Adams beard. I joined him and we spent 10 or so minutes together comparing notes, sharing stories. Scott was finishing his Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University. I am not proud of what I am about to share; it is not one of my best moments, but I think it is essential to the story. I said something like this, “Wow Scott. That is amazing. I didn’t realize you were so smart.” And then I made things worse by mention of the fact that he “only” went to Colorado State University for undergraduate school and how great it is that he got into Stanford. Scott handled this incredulous slight with grace and told me it was good to see me, wished me well, and excused himself.
I doubt Scott even recalls this conversation, but it is one that shifted my thinking dramatically. I would love to blame this on the consumption of adult beverages, but I was stone cold sober. I had to come terms with the fact that I was a pompous blowhard who had used someone’s high school academic record and college choice as a measure of future success. Full disclosure: Colorado State University had and still has outstanding, top-ranked engineering programs. My bi-coastal snobbery kept me from understanding this 30 years ago.
Wikipedia has this statement about Scott’s research:
“[He] transformed the field of biomechanics by creating highly accurate computer models of musculoskeletal structures and providing them to researchers worldwide using a software system he and his team developed. [His] software has become the basis of an international collaboration involving thousands of investigators who exchange biomechanical models…. [He] invented fundamental technology for surgical navigation that is now in wide clinical use.
It continues on with descriptions of other equally groundbreaking work on “important inventions for treating paralysis, spasticity and pain.” Good luck finding my Wikipedia page!
As we joyfully approach graduation for the Wardlaw+Hartridge Class of 2019, we all should celebrate that the end of high school is actually the beginning of our students’ journeys. We have been and will continue to honor all that our seniors have accomplished as we rightfully should. Yet we need to keep in mind that the colleges our students attend and their achievements to this point do not define their future. They are prelude but not predictive. Being a pioneering thinker does not end at the age of 18. Greatness, passion and leadership can come at 18 or 28 or hopefully for me at 58.
So, as our seniors soon cross the stage, see them for what they are and dream of what they may become. Each will find their way and hopefully make their mark. And some will meet with success beyond our wildest dreams, even if they “only” went to Colorado State.
In the summer between 9th and 10th grades, I went to band camp. For some of you of a certain age, feel free to insert your American Pie jokes here. My friend Randy convinced me that it would be fun to spend a week on the campus of the College of William and Mary playing music with other high school students. All you had to do was apply and acknowledge that you had five or more years of experience, which we both did. So, after acceptance into the program, Randy and I, instruments and suitcases in tow, piled into the backwards facing seats of his family’s station wagon and headed south on I-95. Little did I know what I was getting myself into; I should have read the brochure more closely.
Two hours after arriving at W&M the auditions began. I had brushed up on a couple of pieces a few days before we left, so I was feeling reasonably confident. Randy and I went different directions, each instrument going to separate locations. The 40 or so trumpet players were told to go into a lecture hall and take a seat. There was no playing of prepared pieces; it was all sight reading. If only I had read that darn brochure. My pulse began to race. Sight reading consists of playing music you have never seen before and was definitely not one of my strong points. And it was not only sight reading; we each had to play in front of all the other folks in the room.
One of the musical directors explained that the first of five pieces was straightforward, a good way to warm up. This was followed by the dreaded statement: we will go in alphabetical order. Surely there had to be others in the room with a last name before Bowman. Adams, Bauman, Becker, anyone, please?! With sweat beginning to pool where sweat tends to pool, I listened for the first name to be announced: Bowman, Robert. Close to fainting, I went to the front of the room. When I looked at the piece there were a lot of densely packed notes up and down the treble clef. I was in trouble. My left leg began to shake, so I tried to slightly lift it off the ground. My mouth was completely dry, making it difficult to properly pucker and blow. I am pretty sure some notes came out of my horn, and a few were likely the right ones, but the rest was a blur. I remember sitting down with my heart still pounding and the girl next to me asking why I played on one foot.
It was a long week in Williamsburg, Virginia, and clearly Randy and I had vastly different experiences. Full disclosure, Randy was an extremely talented alto saxophonist, and I was a reasonably competent trumpet player. For Randy, music was a singular focus and passion; he was well-versed in composition, different musical genres and music theory. For me, playing the trumpet was a hobby; it was something I could do competently, and I really enjoyed being part of our school bands. But I learned a really important lesson; I learned what it meant to be committed to excellence. Immersed in a group of like-minded folks aspiring to greatness, I began to understand the level of rigor necessary to excel. That was not me when it came to being a musician, but it inspired me to begin my search for my vocation.
The quest of helping students find their calling is one of the fundamental goals of our teachers in the Wardlaw+Hartridge Upper School. In all of our core educational emphases, we offer a chance to dig deeply into the subject. Whether this involves exploring authentic scholarship in our Capstone course, conducting state-of-the-art research in genetics or bioinformatics, creating a portfolio of inspirational and personal artwork, independent study in multivariable calculus, or taking one of our more than 20 advanced placement courses, students at W+H have an opportunity to explore subjects deeply. They understand the rigor required to thrive in their chosen coursework while being led by passionate teachers in classes filled with equally engaged classmates. These opportunities spark our students’ imaginations and set them on the path to explore what they find most fascinating and encourage them to dive in with the entirety of their intellect. It is a privilege and a joy for all our teachers to be part of this process, to see students realize their passions and take control of their learning.
My trumpet-playing talents, as well as wood-paneled station wagons, are long gone, but the joy of finding your passions and committing to the necessary rigor and practice to achieve excellence is alive and well. The education our students receive at W+H prepares them well for the next steps of their academic journeys. I just hope they read the brochure before they go!
Today (Jan. 29, 2019) I spoke to the entire Upper School in the PAC about the introduction of more realistic lockdown procedures in case of an intruder or school shooting. At about the same time, our Head of School, Andy Webster, shared some thoughts and details with the entire community. As I described our reasoning and reviewed the procedures of the move to unannounced lockdown drills (the same approach we use for fire drills), I was struck with an almost overwhelming sense of melancholy and a little déja vu. Let me address the latter first.
I remember sitting in my grade school auditorium almost five decades ago getting an explanation of why and how we perform duck and cover drills under our desk or in our hallways as a response to a nearby detonation of a nuclear device. I even remember Bert the Turtle as the star of the 1951 video of the same name: Duck and Cover, a short film that has been satirized and dismissed as wholly ineffective as a protective measure for an actual nuclear explosion. As an elementary school student in the late 1960s, the concept of nuclear bombs landing nearby was abstract and almost never on the minds of students. Not since World War II had nuclear weapons been used; we children all felt safe. The war in Vietnam cast a much larger shadow on our daily lives than the threat of nuclear weaponry being deployed by the USSR. While we religiously practiced all the required drills, thoughts of our demise through fire or nuclear attack were not part of our daily thoughts or in the national news. It just was not a big deal.
My talk today focused on a very different story in a very different time in the history of our country. As I looked into the audience during my explanation, I saw discomfort and distress and in some cases, fear. There was a palpable reaction of grave concern amongst the students and the faculty, several of whom spoke with me later in the day. An aching sadness overcame me as I thought of what kind of world my generation, the tail end of the baby boomers, has created for our children. The idea of getting shot in a school, a place where we should all celebrate learning and be joyful and feel safe, is a reality that every single student deals with every single day. While the logical part of our brain tells us the odds are astronomically small that this will happen, the anxiety is real. We are inundated with the stories of shooting tragedies, and our minds all go there. What if…? This is their world.
As tragic as burdening our children with dealing with this new normal is, there is an equally challenging part to all of this, epitomized by the ubiquitous “If you see something, say something.” Not only are the concerns of school safety an everyday issue, we are asking our students (and really every community member) to be vigilant in their observations of other students’ actions, social media and habits. Our teenagers are presented with a series of potentially life-altering ethical dilemmas. Was that student serious in their threatening comments? Was that meme a joke? Are they okay? Should I talk to them? Would they actually do something? Should I tell someone? Am I just overreacting? The level of analysis and nuanced thinking required to decipher accurately the thoughts and activities of others is extremely challenging for folks with substantial training, let alone the teenage mind. Yet we preach this to all students: tell an adult and let us deal with how serious it is. And their reporting of concerns to adults around the country has saved lives. The threat of nuclear attacks with which I grew up was a fairy tale completely out of my control as compared to the concerns of school violence of today’s teens. This is their world.
Yet we should not be all doom and gloom. Our kids are resilient and their unconstrained thinking allows them to move away from perseverating on the stark reality of unannounced lockdown drills and move onto other more immediate facets of their lives. This distractibility which accompanies our children’s incomplete brain development is often a gift when it comes to dealing with overwhelming issues. And as hard as it is to believe, over time, our students will become inured to these lockdown drills as they do to fire drills. It will seem commonplace. More is the sadness. This is their world.
I ended my talk with an apology: “I am sorry that you live in a world where this is something we need to deal with, but this is the right thing to do. We do it because we care about you all very, very much.” I walked off the podium and back into the school day, just as all the students went off to their classes, thoughts of lockdowns and lunch and life rattling around in their heads. This is their world.
What is the beginning of eternity, the end of time and space, the beginning of every end and the end of every race? (From the Riddler on the Batman TV series, 1966 - 68)
I have always loved riddles. The answer to the one above is the letter “E.” As a kid I would buy books and magazines filled with logic problems and puzzles, poring over them, trying to find the solutions. I was often rather impatient and would peek at the hints and answers but still took great joy in the process. Little did I know how important solving these riddles was for my intellectual development.
One that I still remember and use with my students to this day goes like this:
You are walking on a path on an island inhabited by two tribes: one tribe always tells the truth, the other one always lies. Another peculiarity of this island is that each islander will only answer one question. You come to a fork in the road. One path leads to great fortune and the other to your demise, and you are running out of time. A person is standing at the fork; you do not know which tribe they are from. What one question do you ask to assure you find the road to great fortune in time?
This type of puzzle has many incarnations in the world of logic and mathematics (and the movie Labyrinth for those 1980’s movie nerds out there). In fact, if you take a deep dive into this class of problems you will find direct connections to geometry, genetics and computer science, to name a few fields. In fact, over the past several decades research has shown that deductive/inductive reasoning is an essential skill for everyone.
Below (taken from the website maxilliant.org) are brief definitions of three forms of reasoning:
Deductive reasoning starts from the general (rules, laws, etc.) and then moves to the particular (or from cause to effect). This leads to logical conclusions.
Inductive reasoning starts from detailed empirical reality and moves to general plausible principles.
Abductive reasoning starts with (incomplete) observations and moves to possible hypotheses (“guessing”).
Now, the term analytical thinking refers to mostly deductive reasoning and some inductive reasoning but no abductive reasoning. Design thinking emphasizes mostly abductive reasoning, and it focuses on exploration and on outcomes meeting desired objectives. At Wardlaw+Hartridge, we emphasize all three forms of reasoning across disciplines and strongly believe these are essential habits of mind. Three-year-olds to high school seniors are taught the ability to utilize all forms of reasoning; they are introduced and emphasized in an age-appropriate fashion throughout the curriculum. From building functional robots to crafting research papers applying critical analysis of primary sources to performing current, authentic research in biostatistics, our Upper School students are developing the intellectual capacity to think analytically. Providing Upper Schoolers, the opportunity to practice and to hone their reasoning throughout their time at W+H, across disciplines, is one of our most important educational emphases.
In no time in history have these skills been as important as they are now. It is essential that we teach and model for students the fundamental differences between analyzing data followed by drawing conclusions as compared to using one’s intuition to make important decisions. Global warming is an excellent and timely example. While there is unanimity around the observation that temperatures on the planet are rising, there are people, a few scientists included, who doubt the major contributions are man-made. Analytical thinkers reach data-based conclusions, while intuition might lead you to a different conclusion if you just experienced a historically cold winter. When the ultimate cost of making the wrong choice could be calamitous to the Earth, the ability to use sound reasoning to reach a factually supported understanding and future plan of action is not only imperative but possibly life-altering.
From light-hearted riddles to serious scholarship, students at W+H develop the ability to meet challenging material head-on with confidence in their methodology and in their conclusions. Their firm grasp of this process is not only an educational priority, it is an absolute necessity for our future.
For those intrepid souls who made it to the end of my blog, the riddle answer: Ask the person at the fork in the road what path would a member of the other tribe tell you to take. Then, take the path not chosen. Use your analytical thinking skills to prove this works!
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