The First Chapter - Lower School
Welcome to The First Chapter by Silvia Davis, Head of Lower School, a blog featuring wonderful stories about our youngest students.
Mrs. Davis will be posting here regularly. Please be sure to scroll down to read more and check back frequently for updates.
The summer provides the opportunity for more reading. The author Jeanette Walls aptly phrases it in her memoir, The Glass Castle, “One benefit of summer was that each day we had more light to read by.” Perhaps it is the added daylight hours, or perhaps it is the warm days which relax one’s state of mind; regardless, it is true that many of us tend to read more in the summer. Among my more recent reads was a book called Tribe: On Homecoming and Belongingby Sebastian Junger. Tribe takes a sociological and anthropological perspective on the human instinctual need for belonging and community as a matter of survival.
The idea of community and belonging immediately brought my mind to our work with the Responsive Classroom Approach over the last two years. In schools that use Responsive Classroom practices, there is a living ethic of care which exists in a thus optimal environment for academic and social growth. This idea is well-described in another book from my summer reading pile, All Learning is Social and Emotional: Helping Students Develop Essential Skills for the Classroom and Beyond, published by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. The authors use the term public spirit to name an “active interest and personal investment in the well-being of one’s communities.” It is the public spirit that enhances the community to that of strong interconnection. As we continue our journey in Responsive Classroom, it is important to understand how the consideration of public spirit and social/emotional learning enhances academic achievement.
The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) spends a good deal of their work in case studies and longitudinal research regarding the connection between academic and social/emotional learning, and their findings indicate that this work is incredibly important. At our November Coffee and Conversation, we’ll discuss this idea more.
Each day we continue to live our mission. We continue to prepare students to lead and succeed in a world of global interconnection. We continue to provide an educational atmosphere characterized by academic challenge, rigorous inquiry, support for individual excellence, diversity, and a familial sense of community.
The Center for Responsive Schools begins one of their school leader books with this final thought in the preface, discussing the topic of “we.”
When school leaders say “we” are improving, who exactly is “we?” The authors continue to quote the poet Marge Piercy in her poem “The Low Road” speaking about the power of people working together to bring about change: “it starts when you say We / and know who you mean, and each / day you mean one more.” The authors challenge school leaders to develop a better definition of “we” saying, “When all constituents at school are included in this important work, all constituents can pull together. That collaboration is crucial to our children’s learning and growth.”
The inside of the dust jacket of Tribe, says, “We have a strong instinct to belong to small groups defined by clear purpose and understanding - ‘tribes.’ This tribal connection has been largely lost in modern society, but regaining it may be the key to our psychological survival.” While the book’s main topic is understanding the originations of war veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, it is an exploration into what we can learn from tribal societies about loyalty to one another, a sense of belonging within a group who share an ethos, and the eternal human quest for meaning. Tribe asserts that we are stronger as individuals when we come together as a group, and in today’s world, divided by modern conveniences such as, cars: so we do not have to commute with anyone else; grocery stores: so we do not have to share food with anyone else, and social media, so we do not need to physically see or be present with anyone else, the understanding of tribal life is crucial to our survival.
At the beginning of September, we welcomed over 100 new students and their families to our tribe at The Wardlaw+Hartridge School. In tribes, you find a shared ethos, living ethics of care for one another, and an unexplainable feeling of being important to the group. Junger writes, “Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact, they thrive on it; what the mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary. It’s time for that to end.” In the coming days, weeks and months of the 2019-2020 school year, each person here at W+H will learn how necessary they are.
In the words of the late Toni Morrison, “Books are knowledge. Books are reflection. Books change your mind.”
“Ever since I came to school here, I like to come to school now.”
Recently, I was interviewed by two fifth grade students as a part of their Capstone Program. This year, we made some shifts to the program by working from an essential question. The idea was to allow students to dig deeper and pull together some of their own essential truths based on research. Yet, this year we looked to change the perspective of that research and have the “answers” come from students’ conversations with others. I have had the distinct pleasure of listening to the podcasts that our students have produced in the last few weeks of school.
The fifth graders have had the courage to interview their parents, faculty here at school and do a good deal of reflecting themselves in an attempt to answer this question. When interviewed myself, I was faced with a really challenging question: “What is the mark you hope to make on this school while you are here?” In thinking about my answer to this question, I realized that the journey the fifth graders are taking is representative of the mark I hope to leave. In our conversation, Mohisha said, “Ever since I came to school here, I like to come to school now.” This is the mark I hope to leave
As a daughter of a teacher, and a teacher myself for so many years, I often think about what it is, in truth, I value in education. Why am I doing what I do?
Teaching is hard. While I confidently believe in the importance of the practical is what matters in education, of equal, or even perhaps, slightly more important, is, the emotional. It seems that empathy or the ability to recognize feelings in another person is a major key to reaching all of our students. It is true that not every student comes to school excited to learn. We do not have the classroom ideal of the one-room schoolhouse where all the children sit quietly and do everything the teacher asks of them even in the more fortunate environment of the independent school. Quite frankly, on the whole, I would not want that. (Though, some days it might be nice...)
Students come to our classrooms with such a variety of experiences, interests, and thoughts, creative and academic talents. And, consciously or subconsciously, they are looking to have someone make the connection with them, that is share something in common with them, as really all humans do. The human condition is predisposed to making connections and finding commonalities. While being unique and valued for it is important, at heart, we all want to feel a sense of belonging.
I don’t really think that the reason I do this is about the math facts I have taught (disclaimer: I love math, teaching math, and doing math) or the books that I have read (I am a voracious reader and miss the days of teaching the novel, Number the Stars) but really I want to impart a love of learning through as many avenues as possible. Learning itself is the center of all I care about as an educator, and at my core, as a human. I don’t necessarily mean academic learning, while that is a big piece of it. I mean learning about everything and anything: academic learning, social learning, emotional learning, interpersonal learning...the list goes on and on. I just want to share my love of learning with everyone and anyone that I can.
The most enjoyable part of my job as the Head of Lower School is that I can share in the joy of learning with so many more students, teachers, and parents. As I spent the last few weeks listening to the podcasts of the fifth graders and sitting in their panel discussion yesterday about the synthesis of their year-long study of culture, I realized that they can express my thoughts about the value in their work better than I can myself. I was asked questions that really required me to dig a bit deeper. Here we were in a crossroads where the student became the teacher.
And thus, I am going to turn it over to them, as linked below are the podcast episodes our fifth graders have produced with the guidance of their incredible teachers, and the expert advice of friends of mine at WXPN 88.5 out of the University of Pennsylvania. In the collaboration of the fifth grade students’ work, they are my blog post this month.
MBS without the B
Breathe with Me
Who Are You Radio
Who Are We 101
I have learned a great deal from them through every single podcast episode. I hope they are proud of their work as we are immensely proud of them. In answer to the question of “What is the mark I hope to leave on the school” it is complex and quite simple as it is about the people our students become in their time at Wardlaw+Hartridge. It can be summed up in a quote from Braelyn, a fifth grader who provided an insightful response to a question at the Capstone Panel Discussion.
Their teacher posed the question, “What is a way you guys feel you could get involved to help and know different cultures of the world?”
“You should have conversations with people about their culture, so they feel like they matter,” Braelyn said.
Teaching children that it is important to make others feel like they matter. This is the mark I hope to leave.
As a young child, I was asked the question millions of children are asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I’ll let you in on a secret, I didn’t say “a teacher.” It’s not that I didn’t play school with my dolls, because I did. My mother shifted from her career in business to become a teacher herself when I was in the third grade. Yet, I am confident I never said teacher for any real reason other than I just did not. In fact, I might be wrong, but I don’t really know that I had an answer with any truth behind it. As a child, I was painfully shy and quiet, and even the smallest question from an adult caused me to hide behind my mom’s leg until I was about 8 or 9 years old. I always have loved and cared for animals, and so when pushed, I replied “veterinarian” from time to time. Anyone who knows me well knows that I truly love (most) animals and try to pet them (with permission) every chance I get. However, those close to me also know that I cannot take graphic or gruesome visuals unless in an emergent situation. Most often, during a movie or television show, the moment the first drop of blood appears, you can find me under the blanket on my couch waiting for my husband to let me know when it’s over. One can easily deduce that veterinarian is absolutely not the appropriate career path for me, unless I could be the veterinarian who only gets to hug and play with pets. Fun for me, unhelpful for the health of the pets and their families.
In a 2016 interview with NBC News, Jaime Casap, Chief Education Evangelist at Google, talks about his journey in education. He is the son of two immigrants, with his mother from Argentina and his father from Syria. Casap is quoted as saying that being raised by a single mother on welfare gave him a unique understanding and appreciation of the power education has on changing the destiny of a family in just one generation. In talking about his work with deploying Google Apps for Education and working in an industry which is always looking to anticipate the future, Casap says, “We’re 16 years into a new century and when you think about it, the purpose of school is to prepare students for the future – but it is now.” He talks more about his home state of Arizona, where despite the prediction of job growth in the STEM and computer science arenas, there are 10,000 open computer science jobs, yet in 2015, only just over one thousand graduates in Arizona did so with a computer science degree. Clearly, there is an unidentified disconnect. As the interview goes on, Casap is then asked, “When we consider the impact of technology on education, what really, should we be thinking about?”
“We need to get kids interested and excited about computer science, obviously, but I also think it’s about the critical skills that are needed for the future - whether it’s the skills needed by employers or the ones the students will need to build their own companies. We’re talking about problem-solving, critical thinking, communication and collaboration, and building those skills. A big driver for me is that we need to ask new questions in education. We used to always ask, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ That question has no relevance anymore. A long, long time ago there were jobs like firefighter, police, astronaut that you could envision becoming but now we live in a world that is creating new jobs in new industries every day. We need to ask students, ‘What problem do you want to solve?’ That allows educators to follow up with, ‘OK, what do you need to learn in order to solve those problems? What blogs, what readings, what classes can you take, online and offline to really dive into and understand the problem and solve it?’ That changes the conversation for students.”
In this vein, I think more about our mission as a school, and how is the question, “What problem do you want to solve?” implicit in our work.
In an April 1, 2019 article in the New York Times, writer Adam Grant writes more about this question of naming your profession when you have not really been on the planet for much longer than a decade. It sounds odd when you think about it, in truth. We ask children what they want to be when they grow up (with of course, the best of intentions) but, as my father will often say, I have a pair of pants that are older than the child I’m asking to commit to a career. Grant says that as a child he dreaded the question as he didn’t ever have a good answer. He felt that adults were always disappointed in his lack of sophisticated answers. As Grant progressed through college, he realized he wanted to do many things, leading him to organizational psychology. This allows him the opportunity to enter the fields of others and live vicariously in a multitude of jobs. His work in organizational psychology led him to a personal truth: “Asking youngsters what they want to be does them a disservice.”
Grant pursues this line of thought with the feeling that forcing children to define themselves in terms of work in the vein that were a child to answer something like “a father,” “a mother,” or “a person of integrity,” they would violate a grand social norm. “This might be one of the reasons many parents say their most important value for their children is to care about others, yet their kids believe that top value is success. When we define ourselves by our jobs, our worth depends on what we achieve.” Additionally, Grant continues, “The second problem is the implication that there is one calling out there for everyone. Although having a calling can be a source of joy, research shows that searching for one leaves students feeling lost and confused. And even if you’re lucky enough to stumble into a calling, it might not be a viable career. My colleagues and I have found that callings often go unanswered: Many career passions don’t pay the bills, and many of us just don’t have the talent.” As I finished reading, I was left with a lasting impression and a theme emerging. Grant writes, “I’m all for encouraging youngsters to aim high and dream big. But take it from someone who studies work for a living: those aspirations should be bigger than work. Asking kids what they want to be leads them to claim a career identity they might never want to earn. Instead, invite them to think about what kind of person they want to be – and about all the different things they might want to do.”
At The Wardlaw+Hartridge School, we begin a speech program in the third grade and it concludes with a speech in the senior year in front of peers, teachers and family members. Often, students will reveal some essential truth they have discovered in their time at W+H. Yet, one of the last senior speeches of this school year felt like it had a lighter air to it. In my own understanding, I heard (or inferred) much more.
“When you’re little, people ask you what you want to be when you grow up. And if you're anything like me, you’ve probably said something along the lines of fashion designer, FBI agent or even president of the United States. But as you get older, people expect you to give more realistic answers. Careers such as lawyer, doctor or even stockbroker. Careers where you can make a decent amount of money, and come home every night to your family. Yet, I am 17 years old and a senior at a pretty snazzy high school, and I still want to be a fashion designer. And I still want to be an FBI agent. And trust me when I tell you that once I turn 35 I will be running for president. And after my two terms are up, I will be an astronaut. And when I’m too old to go to space, I will be a journalist or maybe even a travel blogger. And you know why? Because I can. That fact that we are all sitting here in this five-million dollar performing arts center is because we are all graced with the opportunity to do what we want. So, why not do something because we can?”
As I watched the recording of this speech so humorous where there were audible laughs throughout, I felt the entire speech was grounded in the essential truths of our school: our core values and mission living and breathing in a student who has been here since her first day of first grade. As the ideals of Integrity, Opportunity, Support, Diversity, Community and Sustainability sit posted on the walls of every classroom and office at Wardlaw+Hartridge, truly where is there better proof than listening to a student who sat in those classrooms tell everyone “we are graced with the opportunity to do what we want. So, why not do something because we can?”
I have always been a driven student, and my grandmothers were incredible influences in my life with regards to the passionate pursuit of education. I always felt there was something curious about the fact that I felt that two of the smartest people I knew, were in fact, not very well educated. Recently, I came across a video of a Dr. Rick Rigsby’s commencement speech to California State University Maritime Academy from 2017. The title of his address as found on YouTube is The Wisest Man I Ever Met and as I watched his ten or so minute talk, I found myself furiously writing down quotes, rewinding and rewatching, laughing, crying and laughing again. Dr. Rigsby talks of his father, a third-grade dropout, but also, the wisest man he had ever met. Dr. Rigsby tells the graduates his father spent his days quoting the wisest orators and philosophers such as Aristotle to Mark Twain. Yet, Dr. Rigsby firmly states, “I learned how to make an impact from the wisest person I ever met in my life: a third-grade dropout. That third-grade dropout who taught me to combine knowledge and wisdom.”
He continues to say that that opportunity students have been provided at Cal State is unique. The curricula, that is rigorous and demanding, forces them to be their best, and to whom much is given, much is required. He charges students to couple their knowledge with wisdom from family, friends and their teachers. The combination will keep them grounded and to use their leadership to make an impact. As we live our Mission Statement, “The Wardlaw+Hartridge School prepares students to lead and succeed in a world of global interconnection. We provide an educational atmosphere characterized by academic challenge, rigorous inquiry, support for individual excellence, diversity, and familial sense of community.” We think daily about how we provide our students from Pre-Kindergarten through 12thgrade, how to couple knowledge with wisdom, to grow every student’s influence to cause them to make an impact on the world, now and in the future.
The Economist has released a Worldwide Educating for the Future Index: Building Tomorrow's Global Citizens Report for the last two years. The report and the index has been commissioned by the Yidan Prize Foundation and also contains in-depth interviews with 17 global experts on education. In the Executive Summary, we find a similar theme emerging.
“As educators seek to identify the right skills and teaching approaches to ready students for tomorrow's challenges, the ground is shifting beneath their feet. Projections of future job markets and work environments vary widely. New technologies give rise to both optimism and trepidation about their impact on the workforce. Climate change appears to be accelerating. Political headwinds against globalization and all it entails are gaining strength. And in many parts of the world, once firmly held assumptions about the virtues of democracy, civil freedoms, and respect for diversity are being questioned.”
The Executive Summary distills some of the core findings as follows:
Wealth (of a country) is not all-important when it comes to future skills.
Reviews are essential amid constant change.
Teachers must also engage in continuous learning to stay ahead of the curve.
Diversity and tolerance should be instilled as universal values.
Rigid approaches do not suit future-skills learning.
As I read through the report, I spent time looking at the highlights of best practice in education around the globe to consider how our work in the Lower School, and as a whole school mirrors these programs. The correlations of findings which research shows to be the key to building tomorrow’s global citizens and those which are found embedded in our program beginning in Pre-Kindergarten emerge time and time again.
In reading of the Shanghai school system, which emerges to the top as well-performing, one hears of the important work they have done to strengthen their educational system. Highlights include that of, “According to the World Bank, Shanghai’s educators recognize the need to move beyond academic performance and help their students improve their social and emotional well-being, their environmental consciousness, their creativity, and ultimately, their appreciation of what global citizenship means.” So often, we hear of these elements as the “hidden curriculum” when described in schools. Here this curriculum isn’t hidden. The work of incorporating the social and emotional curriculum as the cornerstone of what we do in the Lower School is what we proudly display whenever possible. You can see this in the everyday interactions of our students from the fifth graders sitting with their Kindergarten buddies at lunch, helping them get what they need, and participating in a symbiotic relationship of mentor and mentee.
Continuing further, the report highlights School21 in London, England. Oracy, the ability to speak publicly, fluently and grammatically, is a core part of their curriculum, placed equitability with reading and writing. According to the Headmaster and co-founder, Peter Hyman, “students must learn how to argue and advocate with confidence, individually and in groups.” Thus, School21 is seen as a model for challenging the canon of curricula. As we head to the spring, this is also known as speech season in the Lower School. The third and fourth grade classes are knee-deep in the research of the topics for which they will write, memorize and deliver a speech in front of their peers, teachers and parents at the end of May. Fifth graders are working on the products of their research in important topics such as: no poverty, good health and well-being, and climate action, for their Capstone Projects anchored upon the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNSECO)’s Sustainable Development Goals. I often joke that the third, fourth and fifth graders physically grow a bit after they deliver their speeches as they just seem to stand that much taller once they have shared with others.
The comparisons are endless and as I think about what Ong Ye Kung, the Minister for Education in Singapore says, “As we prepare our students for the future, it is critical that we also strengthen our values-based education. We want our students to learn socio-emotional skills, such as communication, perspective-taking, and active listening, that enable them to engage in meaningful dialogue, appreciate diversity and develop respect for one another.” In truth, isn’t it these skills that are those at the intersection between knowledge and wisdom? Aren’t these the skills which one needs to determine, “What problem do you want to solve?”
Dazlyn concluded her senior speech by saying that in Lower School she remembered reading a book called How to Dig a Hole to the Other Side of the World. She says that soon she will begin to dig that hole, and despite recognizing that it sounds outlandish she continues, “As you grow older people will tell you that you need to be more serious. However, I’m telling you that you can and will be anything you want to, because you have the ability to forge your own future.”
Dazlyn began her tenure at Wardlaw+Hartridge in the first grade. In the years which passed of her time in the Lower, Middle and Upper Schools, the experiences, environments and education she received could not possibly have been focused solely on the content which existed at the time. It had to have been grounded in the rigorous inquiry of the intersection of knowledge and wisdom to allow her to reject the question of “What do you want to be when you grow up?” with any singular answer. This work does not arise in a few days or months but really it is the culmination of years of education amongst teachers who engage in continuous learning themselves, who embody diversity and tolerance as universal values and who create the environment for social and emotional learning knowing that without it, true academic learning cannot happen.
From time to time, people I meet will ask me why I work in independent schools knowing the need that exists in public schools. To this I always answer, the freedom to teach not only the overt curriculum but also the “hidden curriculum,” the ability to see a child start at 3, 4 or 5 years old and suddenly they are 17 and considering what is next in their journey, and the pride to know that the problem I work to solve is that of providing children the opportunity to know the question isn’t What do I want to be when I grow up? but rather, What problems do I want to solve?
Every New Year, I, along with millions of other people, seek resolutions to improve myself in the next 365 days. Most often, my resolutions follow the same theme as everyone else’s including exercising more, eating healthier, drinking more water, etc. In truth, it seems all of our resolutions can be categorized as making improvements to be happier. I recently began following a blog called Becoming Minimalist as I have been actively working to reduce the amount of extra “stuff” in my life. In a recent article on a blog entitled 11 Resolutions for a Better You - Proven By Science, the writer describes a few different ideas for improvements to consider making to improve one’s life in this New Year based on different scientific studies. Ideas such as exercise, going outside, reading fiction, displaying gratitude and smiling more often, had me thinking of the Danish practice of hygge (pronounced HOO-GA). There are hundreds of articles about the Danes and their incessant happiness. There are many things which contribute to this state of bliss, but one major ingredient is hygge. The word hygge is derived from a Norwegian word which means well-being. Yet, the question you may have is how are hygge and happiness linked?
It is difficult to explain precisely what hygge is, but a book on the topic calls it the Danish practice of happy living. In The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living by Meik Wiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute, Copenhagen, the author begins in the introduction by saying that, “hygge is about an atmosphere and an experience, rather than about things.” Especially in the consumer-based climate, I find great value and solace in the idea that there are specific things one can actively do to be happier, but they are not focused on materialism.
It is no secret that the key to happiness is not stuff, but yet, we find that it is difficult to obtain without having something concrete to anchor ourselves with. The principles of hygge help you actively focus on happiness, but with the little things rather than the big ones. Without giving too much information, the author says that “while hygge can be an intangible and abstract concept, I do believe that we can use all our senses to detect it. Hygge has a taste, a sound, a smell, and a texture - and, hopefully, you will start to see hygge all around.” Considering that we can be happier by actively recognizing blissfulness in our space is a principle I wanted to pass along to our students. We all know that the younger one begins a habit, the easier it is to stick with. Thus, I began to research and I came across Kid President’s Awesome Year Challenge.
"Those who are not looking for happiness are the most likely to find it because those who are searching forget that the surest way to be happy is to seek happiness for others.” - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
You may be familiar with the YouTube sensation, Kid President. Fourteen-year-old, Robby Novak is from a small town of Henderson, Tennessee, and in 2012, he was making videos at home in front of a cardboard set, dressed in a suit fit for a then, eight-year-old, spreading his messages of joy. Meanwhile, actor Rainn Wilson of the series The Office had joined with a friend with the purpose of “sparking dialogue about art and philosophy, spirituality and creativity.” In their initial pursuit, Rainn and his team were happy with the following they had garnered, but they were beginning to feel that their content was too heavy. In thinking about what was missing, they determined they were missing a critical element in their work: joy.
Robby Novak and his brother-in-law were making Kid President and someone sent one of their videos to the folks at Soul Pancake. As Wilson describes it, the first words they heard from Robby was, “People of the internet! Get off your Facebook, and listen to me! If it doesn’t make the world better, don’t do it!” I, myself, am not sure that a truer statement has ever been uttered. From this, came hundreds of videos, meet and greets with celebrities and an actual President, and more notoriety than Robby and Brad (his brother-in-law) could have ever imagined. In the preface of the book Kid President’s Guide to Being Awesome, Rainn Wilson writes, “But the final factor that I think is often forgotten in what makes Kid President magical is the power of encouragement.”
Robby’s introduction to the guide to being awesome begins with a pep talk.
I think we all need a pep talk.
The world needs you to stop being boring. Yeah, you. Boring is easy. Everybody can be boring. But you’re gooder than that.
Life is not a game, people. Life isn’t a cereal, either. (Well, it is a cereal.) And if life is a game, are we on the same team? I mean really, right? I’m on your team; be on my team.
This is life, people. You got air coming through your nose; you got a heartbeat. That means it’s time to do something.
A poem: ‘Two roads diverged in the woods, and I took the road less traveled…’ and it hurt man! Really bad! Rocks, thorns, and glass… My pants broke! Why?
Not cool, Robert Frost.
But what if there really were two paths? I would want to be on the one that leads to awesome.
Just like that dude Journey said, ‘Don’t stop believing… unless your dream is stupid, then you should get a better dream.’ I think that’s how it goes.
Get a better dream, then keep going, keep going, keep going, keep going.
What if Michael Jordan had quit? (Well, he did quit. No, he retired. Yeah, that’s right; he retired.) But before that, in high school, what if he quit when he didn’t make the team? He would’ve never made Space Jam. And I love Space Jam.
What will be your Space Jam? What will you create that will make the world awesome? Nothing, if you keep sitting there. That’s why I’m talking to you today. This is your time. This is my time. This is our time.
We can make every day better for each other. But if we’re all on the same team, let’s start acting like it. We got work to do. We can cry about it or we can dance about it. We were made to be awesome. Let’s get out there!
I don’t know everything; I’m just a kid. But I do know this: It’s everybody’s duty to give the world a reason to dance. So get to it!
You’ve just been pep talked. Create something that will make the world awesome. Play ball.
At our first Lower School Assembly of the New Year, I showed the students the Awesome Year Challenge, which directs the viewers to consider a new type of resolution: make this year awesome for someone else. Each Lower School student came up with an idea of something they can do to make this year awesome for someone else. This, I think is the secret to happiness: making life better for someone else.
Recent brain research shows that doing nothing can, in fact, provide us the space to be the most productive. In this age of technological overload, we often forget what being still is like. In my career, I have had a few opportunities to step away from the hustle and bustle of life to unplug, and have found the rewards to be invaluable.
Writer Anne Lamott took the opportunity of her 61st birthday to write down all she felt she has learned thus far in her time on Earth. The author of books such as Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace and Imperfect Birds, is known as “The People’s Author” and wrote on a Facebook post and a subsequent TED Talk about 14 truths, or things she has come to know in 61 years. The second truth, I often come back to myself, time and time again: “Almost everything will work again if you unplug it, including you.”
Quiet time, mindfulness and rest are our best analytical tools. Functional MRIs and constantly evolving research says this time and time again, yet for whatever reason, we always forget, and try to cram in as much as possible. Multitasking is shown to be ineffective, and “pushing through” almost never results in high-quality work. Yet, we still multitask and we still burn the midnight oil, in efforts to get more done.
A 2015 article in Psychology Today was titled, Give Your Mind a Rest: Practice Not-Thinking: Mindfully quieting your discursive thinking is restful, calming, and restorative. Discursive thinking is the type of thinking that is often described as our minds racing. We think about one thing, which leads to another thing, which leads to another thing. This is also why we begin to complete one task, and suddenly, we find ourselves working on something else. Ayya Khema, 1923-1997, a Buddhist teacher, said:
“If we didn’t give the body as rest at night, it wouldn’t function very long. The only time the mind can have a real rest is when it stops thinking and only experiences. Once verbalization stops for a moment, not only is there quiet but there is a feeling of contentment. That quiet, peaceful space is the mind’s home. It can go home and relax just as we do after a day’s work when we relax the body in an easy chair.”
This is hard for us to do as adults, for sure, yet I feel that if we teach and train children to do this “work” they will become as facile with it as they do other learned skills.
It is possible that the environment in which one spends their time is a contributing factor to their ability to have productive thought as well. I, myself, have had experiences where I have been able to not only unplug, but to do so in nature. Aside from the restorative benefits of nature itself, which countless studies confirm, one is certainly able to unplug when there is no plug, both metaphorically and literally.
For centuries, people have practiced meditation. As scientists observe those who do practice, they find that downtime actually strengthens the muscle of attention. A common misconception of meditation, or mindfulness as it is often now known, is that one is just sitting there zoning out. The complete opposite is true. When following a practice of guided meditation, the instructor walks the student through quieting the mind, quieting the body, and breathing exercises. Additionally, the practice guides its students through maintaining sustained focus on one’s thoughts, emotions and sensations in the present moment: a be here now, if you will. All of this takes a good amount of practice.
The Responsive Classroom Approach values the practice of Quiet Time. When we consider the energy and freneticism that comes in a school day for students and teachers alike, we forget to consider the length of time that students are required to “be on.” Recess is incredibly valuable for allowing students the time to blow off steam, but we fail to consider the time they need to just be. The practice of Quiet Time offers students the opportunity to transition from the lunchroom and playground in an intentional way to prepare their minds for an afternoon of learning. In just 10-15 minutes per day, students can take that physical, mental and emotional deep breath. This allows them to be more engaged in their academics in the second part of the day. In addition, this might also provide the space for their minds to actually think more clearly. In many of our classrooms in the Lower School, our teachers walk students through mindfulness activities, providing children with instruction in a hugely important skill for analytical thinking: not thinking.
In a sense, checking out allows us to be more checked in. I often think about the humor in the fact that whenever I have a problem with my cable box or internet, I call the company. The first thing they have me do is unplug it, count to 20 and plug it back in, to reset the system. It seems, Anne Lamott’s words ring true, if we want to work again, we need to unplug for a few minutes.
Have you filled a bucket today? This is a question, I can assure, unless you are a teacher, you likely have not been asked before. Yet, as a parent of a student in the Lower School at Wardlaw + Hartridge, you may have heard murmurings of Bucket Filling from your children. The book, Have You Filled a Bucket Todayby author Carol McCloud, has been the anchor for our year-long character education. Character education, or social-emotional learning, is having a moment in the landscape of education.
The October issue of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development’s publication, Educational Leadership, is wholly centered around “The Promise of Social-Emotional Learning.” As phrased in the opening pages, the call to put the social-emotional on equal footing with the academic curriculum is growing louder. The most caring teachers in the strongest programs have always put emphasis on “character traits,” “interpersonal skills,” “non-cognitive abilities,” or quite mis-named, “soft skills.” Yet, over time, the research base is growing and providing practitioners with evidence to support the work.
A later article begins by saying, “Empathy is at the core of everything that makes a school caring, a teacher responsive, and a society civilized.” If we could say that one of the social-emotional skills to be the most important, or rather the one from which all the others stem, it would be empathy. The ability to figuratively step into another’s shoes provides the space for our children to lead and succeed in a world of global interconnection.
In the first Lower School Assembly, we read the book, Have You Filled a Bucket Today: A Guide to Daily Happiness for Kids. McCloud uses metaphor to allude to empathy and kindness. She begins by writing, “All day long, everyone in the whole wide world carries around an invisible bucket. You can’t see it, but it’s there… Your bucket has one purpose only. Its purpose is to hold your good thoughts and feelings about yourself. You feel happy and good when your bucket is full, and you feel sad and lonely when your bucket is empty. Other people feel the same way too.” As the picture book continues, McCloud provides examples to readers as to how they might fill others’ buckets while filling their own at the same time. As in this she makes an important point, which many children do not initially consider. When you do good things for others, not only do you fill their bucket, but in turn you fill your own. And, in the converse, when you are unkind to others not only do you empty their buckets, but you as well empty your own. This connection to the invisible bucket gives the youngest children an anchor to consider their empathetic behavior, even at the youngest ages of 3, 4 and 5 years.
In the past month of school, if you were to walk around the Lower School, you would see evidence of Bucket Filling all over the building. Children are talking about being a bucket filler, and they are pairing this with doing kind things for others merely for the sake of doing it. You can see the difference the Kindergarteners and first graders are making by traveling around the school filling the buckets of others. There is genuine joy evident in receiving a token of happiness from a 5-year-old, that is only expressed in the thousand words painted by a picture.
Educational psychologist and parenting expert, Michele Borba author of UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, writes in Educational Leadership, that “students with high levels of empathy display more classroom engagement, higher academic achievement, and better communication skills.” While there is obvious value in investing in the social-emotional health of our students, there is also a clear academic by-product, or rather connection. Yet, this work is challenging as the curriculum is not as straightforward. We might find the boxed curriculum, approach or kit of social-emotional learning, yet it is not a one-size-fits-all program. In the educational landscape, research shows that framework is most often best-practice rather than opening up the box and reading fully from the script. Framework allows teachers with deep pockets of professional expertise to craft the work to fit the students in front of them rather than the other way around.
Borba also writes, “Educating for empathy is not about using a toolkit or a one-off program; it requires ongoing, embedded work guided by strong school leaders who are empathetic themselves.” The work our teachers do with the Responsive Classroom Approach and the time spent learn how to “Be a Bucket-Filler” shows the importance the Lower School puts on the other side of the academic curriculum, in order to prepare the foundation for the traditionally academic curriculum. We know that our students at Wardlaw + Hartridge are receiving the social-emotional education they do, because their teachers are bucket-fillers themselves. We ask our students to do as we do, not only do as we say.
When touring a prospective family around the Lower School, we stopped in the fifth grade classrooms to learn more about the program. After discussing the day, one of our teachers remarked that Morning Meeting, while something he was not familiar with prior to this year, is his favorite part of the day. To paraphrase, the time spent, or rather, invested in the social-emotional learning of the fifth graders has paid exponentially as only one month into the school year, the connections with students are further along than they have been in the past.
With our Fall Fair and Homecoming quickly approaching, I think of what former students remark as memorable in looking back at their time in school. It is a rarity that adults say, “I remember that really fantastic math problem in class.” Might the problem and the instruction have been excellent, yes. Yet, adults say, “I remember my really fantastic math teacher. He/she connected with me.” It is these connections and the social-emotional learning that impacts students’ lives well beyond their formal years of education.
The traditional 3Rs (reading, writing and arithmetic) are important, valuable and need to be taught. But, the moment that SEL (social-emotional learning) is having proves that the life-altering lessons as shown through the smiles and joy on the faces of the students in the classrooms, lay the groundwork for the 3Rs to really stick.
There are various quotes about the promise and hope which come with a new year. In education, we have the unique opportunity to have two New Years: one in January and another in September. The Responsive Classroom text, The First Six Weeks of School, guides teachers in creating the classroom community and culture most conducive to learning. In its first page, the authors write, “There’s something fresh and exciting about a new school year - a sense of boundless optimism and crisp new beginnings. And every year, the first six weeks present us with a wonderful opportunity to help students transition smoothly back into school routines and start to connect with each other.” Our teachers are the guides for children into these routines, and as guides, we are seen as the experts to help children along the way, creating the space for learning to flourish.
No matter our first-year teaching or our 40th, I’ll tell you a little teaching secret: no teacher sleeps more than an hour or two at a time in the first days of school. As we approach mid-August, or what a former colleague of mine used to call “The Sunday of the Summer,” our minds begin to race with all the things there are to get ready for the year. Teachers worry about getting their classrooms set up. Teachers worry about having all of the supplies labeled for every child. Teachers worry about having everything laminated to keep papers fresh throughout the year. Teachers worry about planning those first days and the activities in those first days so all students, new and returning, feel comfortable in the classroom.
I could go on and on about all the details they check off their lists to be prepared for that first minute when children come in on the treasured First Day of School. These details, to the outsider seem trivial or like minutia, but to the teacher, and more importantly, to the student, they are the difference between feeling welcome in your classroom due to the smooth transition back into a routine, and feeling like a stranger in your class. In these first weeks of school every detail the teachers attend to is carefully planned in order to do a few important things. Teachers care for the details of creating a climate of warmth, inclusion and safety. They care for the details of teaching the classroom routines and behavioral expectations. They care for the details of helping students get to know their home away from home by caring for their classroom and school. And, teachers care for the details of establishing expectations for academic work.
I have written quite a bit about the power of community. While many students have been with us in Lower School for several years, every year, we are essentially rebuilding the community. Given the few days we have in a school year and the amount of learning which takes place, there is not much time to waste in creating our classroom communities within the Lower School community. So, it seems with the promise of a new year comes the urgency of the fresh start as well. In this timeframe, we feel the pressures of getting “things done.” It is then that the new year becomes the double-edged sword: on one hand we have hope, promise and excitement, and on the other we have the pressure of a finite amount of time during which to accomplish much. It is in the latter that we forget the former...rather quickly.
Hope is a fascinating thing. We look to it rather quickly, and we seem to dismiss it rather quickly. When I think of the fragility of hope, I am reminded of the Greek myth about Pandora. According to the ancient Greeks, Pandora was the first human woman created by the gods as a gift and punishment for Prometheus’ stealing the element of fire from Zeus. Pandora was a beautiful woman, but was cursed with incessant curiosity. Zeus sent a jar along with her to Earth with explicit directions not to open it under any circumstances. After not long, Pandora opened it, and inadvertently released all the world’s evils of humanity such as pain and suffering. All that was left by the time Pandora and Prometheus closed it was hope. While the Greeks used this myth to explain why there are awful things which exist in the world, they also used it to explain the fact that we should always hold on to hope. I would also like to think that there is a metaphor for the fragility of hope as well due to its vulnerable vessel. In the frenzy of getting things done, we toss the jar aside.
The time that our teachers take to plan the first weeks of school and to create their classroom community saves hours later. And so, with all the sleepless nights, labeling, organizing, cleaning, planning and creating, comes a solid foundation for which each child enters feeling welcome and cared about. Perhaps, it is also creating a solid foundation on which we can sit the jar of hope so that it is cared for and thrives. As it is on this foundation, the learning environment is set as a safe, joyful space where all students thrive.
I began this school year in my welcome letter by sharing my love of a good story. What can I say, I am still a teacher at heart. Throughout the 2017-2018 school year, we as a community have shared hundreds of experiences, which contribute to our own individual story. At the Fifth Grade Moving Up Ceremony, I spoke to the students with many of the following words, as I continued the metaphor of the story, to liken this to our experience as a community.
“Fifth graders, each of you contribute to one another, you contribute to your class, you contribute to the Lower School, and most importantly, you contribute to The Wardlaw+Hartridge School. Yet, today, you turn the page to look to a new adventure: Middle School.” It is also true that every single student in the Lower School contributes to the story of The Wardlaw+Hartridge School.
While I’m confident no fifth grader knew much about Ferris Bueller or his famous day off, I quoted the movie at Moving Up regardless. “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Life does move fast. And, though they do not believe it, every adult remembers some parts of their fifth grade year. It wasn’t really THAT long ago.
John Lennon and Paul McCartney began one of their more famous songs, “There are places I remember, all my life, though some have changed.” I asked each fifth grader, and I ask you now to stop and look around to let this place, and let this time be one you remember all your life.
I cannot promise our students that they will remember every moment of every day of their Lower School experience. I can promise that they will remember the important moments. They will remember their teachers. To paraphrase a well-known teacher quote, they may not remember what their teachers said, they may not remember what their teachers did, but I am quite confident they will remember the way their teachers made them feel. They have made an indelible mark on each of our students.
There are many incredible storytellers. And, the best storytellers tell their tales in such a way that cause audience members reflect and think about their own experiences. But, I want our students to know, that within their experiences are their own story.
In my first blog post, I said that the story of the Lower School is a compelling one. In the beginning, one gets to read about the characters. The Pre-Kindergartener who now learned how to do things for herself every day in this school year. The fifth grader who rose to the occasion by becoming one of the leaders of the Lower School through his daily interactions with the younger children. Each of these protagonists settled into the narrative of the 2017-2018 school year, and every student, parent, and teacher, contributed to the plot. While this chapter is complete, another one begins in just a few short months. I, for one, can’t wait to read more.
So, as I said to the fifth grade students, I say to each of our students. In the words of Dr. Seuss, “You have brains in your head, you have feet in your shoes, you can steer yourself in any direction you choose. You’re off to great places. Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting...so get on your way!”
It has been said that necessity is the mother of invention. Our fifth grade students recently explored the idea of inventions that greatly affect our world today, in their Capstone projects. Throughout the second half of the school year, the fifth grade students, with the guidance of their teachers, have researched different inventions and inventors. Topics varied from the contact lens, blood transfusions, paper currency, and the telescope.
I was surprised to know the idea of the contact lens predates our country’s birth by well over 150 years as Leonardo da Vinci is credited with the originated idea. The Capstone project is a key piece of our Lower School curriculum, and, as well, of the curriculum here at The Wardlaw+Hartridge School in each division. Students in grades 5, 8 and 12 research, write and present on a variety of topics from year-to-year.
This year, the fifth grade’s overarching topic was Inventions Prior to 1900. Initially, students were paired up based on their topic choices to complete elements of the project. As they begin their research together, the children are able to experience one of the most important pieces of a project-based learning education, which is the art of collaboration and communication.
Throughout the process, they continue on to complete other elements of their work: a three-dimensional representation of their invention, which is created with the consultation of teachers in the art department; a stop-motion video, which is made over weeks of classes with our STEM teacher; and their presentation, which is birthed from months of immersion in the topic. The children’s writing pieces were the only portion of the work that was completed on their own. When the teachers initially explained the project to the students, they cheered with excitement. Their teachers quipped, “You know this is actually a ton of work, right?” Rather than simply writing a long paper, and presenting it via PowerPoint, the children wrote their research paper, but also wrote a script for their movie, and prepared to speak about their topic off-the-cuff.
Recently, I kicked off the Experts in Education Speaker Series here at W+H on the topic of project-based learning. In project-based learning, commonly known as PBL, students spend time on an extended project that engages them in addressing a real-world problem or answering a complex question. Students demonstrate their skills and knowledge by developing a product of presentation, which they make public to people beyond the classroom. As a result, they develop deep content knowledge as well as 21st Century success skills. PBL has unleashed a contagious, creative energy among students, teachers and families. That, in truth, takes a good deal more confidence than reading your writing and reading from your PowerPoint. While those types of projects certainly have their purpose, it is the level of comfort in speaking from a place of knowledge about a topic, in and informal way, which is a true test of communicative ability. As I stood listening to our students present months worth of their hard work, I was amazed by their eloquence and ability to convey their ideas in such a comfortable manner. For it is one thing to know something, but quite another to be able to communicate it to another person.
Later in the week, I sat in on the third and fourth grade speeches, and again I was wholly impressed with the ability of children to demonstrate learning in such a confident way. In the third grade speeches, the children also prepared for months to demonstrate their understandings about famous Americans. In a February 2018 article on Edutopia, the author is quoted as saying, “It’s been a long time since schools focused solely on the three Rs—reading, writing, and arithmetic. Along the way, we realized that there’s so much more that defines a successful student and citizen, and that schools play a central role in training students to improve on a multitude of skills and abilities.
“The fear of public speaking, or glossophobia, strikes almost 80 percent of our general population. Throw in our country’s percentage of English-language learners (ELLs), which ranges from 10 to 25 percent of our K–12 population (depending on the state), and you have an issue that requires precise scaffolding to help prepare our students to hit grade-level speaking expectations. So how can we challenge students to improve their oral presentation skills?”
One way is to work within the PBL framework as defined by the Partnership for 21st Century Learning’s framework. One of the major elements which overarches the frame is that of what they call the 4Cs: Creativity and Innovation, Critical Thinking and Problem Solving, Communication and Collaboration. These learning and innovation skills are increasingly being recognized as the skills that separate students who are prepared for an increasingly complex life and work environment in the 21st Century, and those who are not. A focus on creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration is essential to prepare students for the future. In this space, students are able to create and innovate, or invent. So, it seems that in truth, communication, is in fact, the mother of invention.
Throughout the year, I have referenced the work we embark upon in the Responsive Classroom Approach. Every Lower School teacher attended a one-day workshop learning about the basics of the program. The goals of the Responsive Classroom Approach are twofold: ensure that children feel physically and emotionally safe in school so they can learn at their best, and to develop self-discipline and the skills for learning cooperatively with others.
My latest read is that of Todd Whitaker’s What Great Teachers Do Differently: 17 Things That Matter Most. In the beginning of the text, Whitaker says, “Any teacher can fill a bookshelf with books about education. Any teacher can study lists of guidelines, standards, principles, and theories. The best teachers and the worst teachers alike can ace exams in their undergraduate and graduate classes. The difference between more effective teacher and their less effective colleague is not what they know. It is what they do.” He continues on later in the introduction to say, “Education is extremely complex, and so is classroom teaching. But we can work toward understanding what the best teachers do.”
In my days in and out of our classrooms with our students and teachers, I have the privilege of living what great teachers do differently. Charles Kettering, an American inventor, founded the Delco Company and held the position of the Head of Research at General Motors from 1920 to 1947. Kettering held 140 patents, yet he is most known for the invention of the electronic self-starter for the automobile. He is quoted as saying, “High achievement always takes place in the framework of high expectation.”
At Wardlaw + Hartridge, we provide that framework of academic excellence, to allow our students the space for high achievement. Whitaker talks of traveling the country after the first publishing of his book and spending time in schools talking with principals and teachers. He continues that as he describes how great teachers establish high expectation, treat every person with respect, and make it cool to care, some teachers reflect discomfort with the statement. Yet, what he values most is when said great teacherssay, “I know that was right!” I knew that I was right!
These great teachers always focus on the students first. Everything they do is with the best interests of the students under their care. As he continues to describe his research, he outlines a theory I have felt throughout my career in education, and likely, subconsciously, I felt this in my own educational experience as a student: There are many teachers who are well-educated and many who do not have the same pedigree of post-secondary study. There are many teachers who are incredibly organized and many who are at sixes and sevens. There are many teachers who know their subject inside and out and many who need to study up beforehand. But, all of those things do not make the greatest teachers neither in isolation nor combination. So, what does? There are factors which one finds in the greatest teachers. All of the qualities of a truly great teacher are simple, but they are not always easy.
In my reading and research for our Responsive Classroom work, I came across an important excerpt, "...when school discipline is working. There is a living ethic of care. Children feel safe. They know what the expectations are and want to meet them because the adults at school have helped them understand the reasons for these expectations. They know how to meet the expectations because the adults have taught them the necessary skills and positive behaviors. Now these behaviors become what students expect from one another. " Again, we return to the idea that the community and its expectations are what provides the space for learning. The greatest teachers focus on expectations. They expect good behavior, therefore, it is generally what they get. Just recently in a conversation, one teacher said to me, “My students know what my expectations are for them. I always hold them accountable.” It is that when the expectations are high, the students’ achievement is high.
In my casual conversations, I mentioned that our fourth graders were constructing pinball machines in their STEM work. So many, outside of our community, stopped and said, “Constructing their own pinball machines? That’s too hard for fourth graders.” When I told people that the class went to a pinball machine museum on a class trip, so many said, “Why?” My response was always, “Why not?” Setting the expectation that it is already too hard for them, just keeps the bar low, so why would they try to strive any higher? Creating a pinball machine of their own is an incredibly complex endeavor. And, yes, they are only 9 and 10 years old. Yet, they can (and did) do it. That is true academic rigor. Programs are important. Make no mistake that we not only have a strong program, but we also continually look at how to make it stronger. Whitaker makes a very important statement in his work: “It is never about programs. It is always about people.” If it were always about programs, all schools would have the same program. The solution to great schools would be simple. When I hear our teachers say, “Everything I do is about our students. That’s it. Nothing else is more important. It’s not about me.” It shows, we have great teachers. When one is focused on the students, hold them at a high expectation, and make children feellike you believe in them to accomplish challenging tasks, they do. In the words of Maya Angelou, “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Our teachers make our students feellike they can achieve, and it is in the feeling that half the battle is already won.
Choose groups to clone to: