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.
At times, we find that it is helpful to see things not only through mirrors but as well through windows. Another voice, or in this case other voices, can bring light to the nuances of a topic that one may have never considered themselves. With that, I turn this month’s blog over to the fifth grade teachers, Liz Schultz and Tim Head, and their students.
In his 1995 book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Carl Sagan wrote the following:
"There are naive questions, tedious questions, ill-phrased questions, questions put after inadequate self-criticism. But every question is a cry to understand the world. There is no such thing as a dumb question."
When teaching elementary school students, and many times when teaching in upper grades, teachers are confronted with questions that may seem frivolous or purposefully simple. However, as educators, it is important to remember the above. “Every question is a cry to understand the world” is a phrase that resonates with us deeply. It reminds us that every question has a purpose, even if that purpose is just to reach out to see if someone is there, listening and caring.
For educators, an area of great focus is on turning questions into inquiry. Inquiry is so much more than a question. It’s the right question, at the right time, for a specific purpose.
Tanvir Virdi ‘27 said, “I learn not only the answers, but I learn how to ask questions and who questions are appropriate for and how.” Through questioning, students learn to identify what it is that they need, and then ask for that information – a skill more important than any other, and one adults use so frequently that they often take it for granted.
Inquiry and questioning require another vital ingredient – curiosity. Alyssa Ji ‘27 insists that, “if you don’t ask a question, curiosity will literally swell up inside you!!” Aava Joshi ‘27 adds that, “when you don’t ask questions, you are left wondering.”
At Wardlaw+Hartridge, we are so privileged to work with students who give in to their natural curiosity and enjoy exploration. Encouraging this curiosity by inspiring and guiding student inquiry is one of the most important and most rewarding aspects of teaching, and thankfully, it is one that comes up every minute, every hour, every day.
Questions have a power that sometimes goes unnoticed. When asked how she felt about questions, Sophie DiLaurentiis ‘27 said, “It depends on who is asking it and how it is being asked.” Her response reminds us that there is an art and a tact to inquiry, and presenting your inquiry in the proper manner can influence the response. Emily O’Neill ‘27 spoke about the importance of “using a polite voice, saying please and thank you, and always being gentle,” when asking a question. Anika Vasani ‘27 reminded her classmates that, “It’s important to remember that it’s not realistic to expect everyone to answer every question.”
Clearly, our students not only learn when to ask questions and what questions to ask, but also how to make inquiries with others in mind. We must remember to respond in kind – thoughtfully, with care for the content of our answers as well as the tone. Wardlaw+Hartridge Lower School teachers are well-versed in this, incorporating Responsive Classroom teacher language skills into their interactions with children on a daily basis. It is dangerously easy to squash curiosity and inquiry with unkindness or indifference, and sadly, many find as they get older that where they once might have raised their hand, they now choose to stay silent.
So, thank you for supporting our students in their continuing quest for knowledge, and thank you for taking the time to be curious about something today. After all, as Kimberly Zhang ‘27 said, “Adults will never stop being students!”
“But, Thanksgiving is more than eating… we should just be thankful for being together. I think that’s what they mean by ‘Thanksgiving.’” Towards the end of A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, Marcie explains to Charlie Brown that while the food that he had Snoopy prepare for dinner was not exactly the traditional dishes, that it is ok because really it is about them all being together as friends and not as much about the meal. However, with that said there is something about sharing a meal together that is special and bonding. Food is elemental to culture, and the sharing of the Thanksgiving meal seems to be the bridge across cultures in the United States.
At a faculty lunch table just before the holiday break, we were discussing what dish is a must-have for Thanksgiving dinner. There were many mentions of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and the traditional fare, and while that is true for me (I would definitely want those things at my dinner) I also feel that there are other foods, which in my family, are key to Thanksgiving being Thanksgiving. For me, it is the spiced fruit, escarole soup and cocktail-sized pigs in a blanket that my aunts make every year. Sure, almost everyone has Thanksgiving without those things, but for me, they are incredibly symbolic of a Sollenberger Thanksgiving.
I am the youngest of four children, my father is the second of six and each of his brothers and sisters have one to three children themselves. Therefore, as I became an adult along with my cousins, and our nuclear families grew themselves, Thanksgiving turned into a dinner of almost 50 people spread throughout several rooms of my Aunt Bunny (Joan is her given name, but she was born on Easter. I have never called her Aunt Joan, and I never will.) and Uncle Ed’s house outside of Ocean City. Each year, I lived for this day. As adults with our own lives, jobs and children it was one of the few times I got to spend true quality time with my cousins. I am the third youngest of my grandparents’ 14 grandchildren and we are, on the whole, very close in age.
I will never forget the first time my husband (though not yet at the time) joined The Sollenbergers for Thanksgiving. As we lined up in the kitchen to get plates to walk around the tables and islands, buffet-style, as there were way too many people to try to leave food on a table in front of everyone, Andrew said, “This is how you all eat dinner?!?” Now, that our tradition has disappeared due to sheer size and the amount of work it takes to host such an event at one’s home, both my husband and I wistfully recall those days and miss them greatly. We spent hours doing so many of the same things year-after-year that at the time seemed just like “what we did” and now I realize the importance of those traditions as formative, bonding rituals which brought us closer as a family. My Uncle Todd running the football pool which we are confident was rigged as the same people won time-and-time again. Sitting down to eat the first course of escarole soup which was, in fact, the official start of Thanksgiving dinner. Everyone wrestling to get the first of the pigs in a blanket as they came out of the oven and refusing to wait until they cooled down, then immediately complaining that they were too hot and burned our tongues. I could go on and on, but again, I know that the important parts were the rituals and the act of sharing meals together as a family.
Going back to Charlie Brown, the last time I watched it, it struck me that Charlie Brown may have had the first Friendsgiving, even though Peppermint Patty forced hosting the event upon him. For those of you who are unfamiliar, Peppermint Patty asks to stay with Charlie Brown and tells him she invited all of their friends over without even waiting for a reply. Then, when he is ill-prepared for the day and Snoopy only can make popcorn, jelly beans, and toast, she is furious that there is nothing she expected and loses her patience. Marcie then points out to her that she was a little rough on Charlie Brown given she invited herself over. Peppermint Patty agrees and asks Marcie to talk to Charlie for her. It is then that Marcie points out to Charlie Brown that while he is upset about letting everyone down, it is not the food that is the most important part. She says, “But, Thanksgiving is more than eating… we should just be thankful for being together. I think that’s what they mean by ‘Thanksgiving.’”
Last week, we celebrated the second annual Lower School Friendsgiving. We are, after all, a community and a family ourselves. When we hosted the first Friendsgiving, we thought it would be nice for each Lower School student to be able to have an invited guest with them for lunch on the last day before Thanksgiving Break. Mixing up the grade levels and creating spaces for families to get to know one another more whether their children are in Pre-Kindergarten or Fifth Grade, provides opportunities for conversation over a meal. The energy in the room is palpable and both children and adults alike are happy to spend this time together. This year, while taking in the spirit of the room, I stopped to look up at the backdrop of the AP Room. It was not lost on me that in our diverse community as we all (279, to be exact) sat under the flags of which are representative of the countries from which our students’ families originate, we are living our mission of global interconnection: right on our campus. For in truth, learning to be a globally connected citizen starts by becoming a locally connected citizen.
Our hope is that as our tradition continues as the years go on, that students look back at their time at Friendsgiving as I do my own Thanksgiving, with joy, care and value for the “family” who spent that time together.
“Traditions touch us, they connect us, and they expand us.” – Lessons About Tradition from a Little Brown Bag
What do you mean by ‘pioneering thinkers?’ Recently, I joined our Associate Director of Admission on a tour with a newly enrolled family. After walking through the Lower School, we sat down in the Lower School Library and talked in more depth about some pedagogical and philosophical questions the parents had for me. After a few softball questions, I was thrown a hardball straight down the middle of home plate. What do you really mean by pioneering thinkers? Are you grooming all of your students to have careers in STEM? Or, are you grooming all of your students to be musicians? Artists? This might be my all-time favorite question I have been asked. And, in truth, I have never been asked it before that day. The answer is incredibly simple and incredibly complicated all at one time.
My answer, at the time, was first, “Yes, to all of those things.” We understand that careers in STEM and the arts might seem to be almost paradoxical, but similar to the Robert Frost poem, The Road Not Taken, the paths are equally traveled though they appear to be different. I continued by saying that we are teaching our students to be pioneering thinkers in whatever path they may find academically and in their careers. It is true that in the independent school world we ground ourselves on mission-driven work and our programs are centered around certain core values and content. So, there are parameters to said, pioneering thinking, solely due to the fact that it is our jobs to teach students at the highest caliber, and due to that, several elements should be in place.
We also know through the work of educators like Tony Wagner, Professor Emeritus at Harvard University, and Ted Dintersmith, filmmaker and entrepreneur in the field of education, that most of the jobs of the future have not even been created yet. In her book, Now You See It, author Cathy Davidson estimates that roughly two-thirds of today’s elementary-aged students will end up doing work that has not even been invented yet. It would be a fool’s errand to train children to only do things that we know now. Students need to be lifelong learners and flexible thinkers. Whether it be in the field of science, medicine, performing arts, venture capitalism, marketing, accounting, or others, one needs to know how to think on their feet, how to think creatively, and how to take calculated thoughtful risks. A friend and former colleague of mine recommended I read the book, Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity through Projects, Passion, Peers and Play by Mitchel Resnick. I have just started it, but I already note so many valuable pieces. Resnick talks about the creative process as a creative spiral. Considering that creativity comes from the imagination, one begins by imagining, which turns into creating, which becomes play, which is shared with others, which one reflects on, and then turns to imagining further, and so on. From the visual artist to the research scientist, is this not truly the process of the pioneering thinker?
So, what do we mean, specifically, by pioneering thinkers at Wardlaw+Hartridge? In the Lower School, what does this look like?
Our Pre-Kindergarteners are learning about the five senses. They confidently show their self-portraits and describe the parts of their faces that are in each piece of artwork. As we talk more about their learning, the youngest learners ask me if I knew that my nose was used for smelling and my ears were used for hearing. In fact, I did, but their connecting one to the other is their sharing and reflecting. This is seen also in the Kindergarten classroom, as those students share with me what they have learned about firefighters as they are studying these types of community helpers. As the children tell me that firefighters are superheroes because they save people from all kinds of emergencies, not just fires, I watch the excitement and fervor they have for all of this new information they cannot wait to pass on to someone else. Sharing with one another is an important part of the pioneering thinking process as it allows one to begin imagining again.
In the Junior Kindergarten class, pioneering thinking is found in the dramatic play center. In the corner of the room is a pile of pumpkins that they harvested from our garden and a few donations to bolster the supply. One of our students tells me that they created a pumpkin patch in the dramatic play center. He shows me how he and his friends decided that one spot on the rug is the patch, another spot on the rug is the place you pay, and that they borrowed the cash register from another center to make it “real.” Taking something simple as pumpkins which many little ones learn about at this time of year and turning it into a pumpkin patch to enjoy one’s learning is pioneering thinking.
In the fifth grade, pioneering thinkers take a similar path, but with a bit more depth. Over the last several weeks we have noticed some structures taking shape behind the playground. As it turns out, the fifth graders have been building a small town, as it were, out of mostly sticks. One shelter went up quite quickly, and it became the talk of the Lower School. Then, one of the best things that could have happened to it, did. Other students after school, took it down. That sounds odd...how could it possibly be good news that other students damaged this creation? The children took it in stride and from this, they decided to make it bigger and better. Based on their experiences of creation in the first place, round two allowed for sharing and reflection, and thus furthering their imagination.
In the Lower School, pioneering thinkers can mean so many things, but really it is one main idea. We aim for our students to leave us with the ability to imagine the things that do not yet exist, no matter their career path. Mitchel Resnick is a Professor of Learning Research at the MIT Media Lab. He holds the LEGO endowed chair position, and through his time at MIT, his group works using four main principles: projects, passion, peers, and play. These principles guide their work to allow the pathways to creativity. We employ these same principles, and through that with the core curriculum, our students become pioneering thinkers. So, as Resnick concludes a section of his story, I’ll do the same, “With apologies to John Lennon: All we are saying is give Ps a chance.”
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.
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