Thursday, August 18, 2016

Employee Sketchnotes from Summer Reading

       This past summer our employees chose from a menu of books for their "required" professional reading. The titles people chose were Jessica Lahey's The Gift of Failure, Susan Cain's Quiet; Tony Wagner's Creating Innovators, Sir Ken Robinson's Creative Schools, 's Mahzarin Banaji's Blindspot, Marilee Adams' Teaching That Changes Lives, and Todd Rose's The End of Average. On our first day back people broke into small groups. (Some books had several groups; some one.) I then gave each group one poster-sized sheet of paper. The task: to produce a single-page sketchnote synthesis of their book. You can see all the results below. Once again, I'm blown away by the St. John's people.
       To share and expand the conversation, groups posted their sheets at various points around the school. When they did, another sheet of paper was put up for people to pose thought and questions so that we could expand each group's conversation. Now I invite you to do the same in the comments section of this post.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Joy of Summer Endiing

       In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, "I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people's interests. The library was open, unending, free" (48). I immediately thought of Twain's famous line, "I never let my schooling interfere with my education. Also, perhaps because school is shortly to resume--teachers come back Tuesday--the line made me think about the joys of summer.
       I've always worked through the summer*, especially now that I lead a school. But it's a very different kind of pace and energy. The hours shift, and while there is plenty to do, the tugs are not as urgent or multi-directional. Basically, summer provides a gift of time. Time to read, to reflect, to dream. It's restorative. It creates space for moments of serendipity, of random connections. The professional and the personal no longer feel in frantic competition. Instead, they sometimes feed each other symbiotically. I had one such moment this summer on our family vacation. We had hiked to Inspiration Point in the Grand Tetons. As we gazed across Jenny Lake towards the distant horizon, suddenly a puzzle I'd been struggling with at school came together for me.
       Coates' reference to the library suggest another way summer benefits me so much: I have the chance to read even more voraciously than usual. Beyond that, consider the way I go at it. I have a running list of books I hope to read. It's rather esoteric, built as I see different things I find at all interesting. During the school year, I choose from it quite pointedly, picking books I see as a priority for work. But during the summer I choose more randomly, checking the public library's database to see what's available. When I go to pick up my selections, I usually end up with something unplanned. In fact, two of my favorite books from this summer (McKeown's Essentialism and Seelig's Insight Out) were ones I discovered near something else I was getting.
       When I enjoy such moments that feed my autodidactic self, I wonder why school can't be more that way. Why we can't allow students to set more of the agenda, to pursue their own interests, to make it all more personal. And I think we a degree. While school should be about kids, it can't be all kid driven for one simple reason. Kids don't know. Or, more accurately, they don't know enough. Just as I rely on mentors and experts to steer my learning to a certain degree, kids need that even more. As with most of life, the challenge lies in finding that sweet spot between structure and freedom, between the individual and the collective. In various forms it has vexed philosophers for millennia.
       And it's all wonderful, important reverie, the likes of which educators really only have time for in the summer. Then we jump back into the reality of doing the work. And this is not a lament. Quite the opposite, actually. As Coates reminds us, engaging in in the work of life immerses us in "the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope" (71). Life is not a thought experiment. It's the hands-on, make-a-mess, clean-it-up, learn-and-do-better work of helping young people make a life. What work could have more meaning and purpose? So no matter how many joys fill the summer, one of the greatest always comes when it ends.

*Contrary to what it seems the general public thinks, I've never known any good teachers who don't work on school stuff in some form or fashion during the summer.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Litmus Test for Leadership

       In many ways, leadership is complicated. And the larger the organization, the more public the role, the more complicated it becomes. Still, no matter what variables, it's multi-faceted. Psychology, sociology, vision, small details, policy--we could create a lengthy list of all the elements a leader must consider. That said, leadership can be distilled to one overarching objective: fostering and preserving the desired culture.The litmus test comes when something or someone threatens that delicate framework.
       Observing the US presidential campaign this year has provided some important lessons in leadership. Now, I suspect you may be thinking that I am about to join either the anti-Trump or anti-Clinton side. I'm not. Nor am I about to defend and/or support either one of them. I could, but I won't, even though I have my opinions. But I am going to focus on Trump's campaign in making my argument because it captures a larger question about leadership: when to take the strongest possible stance despite the possibility of personal loss.
       While many express surprise at his becoming the nominee, perhaps we shouldn't be. After all, in deciding to follow, people often become a cult of personality. (Anyone else remember the song by Living Colour?) Plus Trump has tapped into what seem increased levels of frustration, fear, and loss. Those are much easier to whip up than confidence and optimism, meaning they can overwhelm rationality. Ironically, in a very basic way--though coming at it from a very different angle--Trump is delivering the same message that Obama used to fuel his successful run in 2008--that politics as usual is broken and we need change.
       Of course, that very different angle is what has so many people upset about Trump. His comments and tweets on just about every topic have infuriated people. These include many prominent Republicans; they worry that they have lost their party and may never get it back. People like party leaders Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell state their "strong disagreement" with things that Trump says, but they go only so far in their denunciation. As leaders--as the educators of their followers--everything they do sends messages subtle and overt.
       I understand the political delicacy of their position. But I also know, no matter how hard it may be, what I would need to do with an employee who were to rip at my school's cultural threads. It's part of honoring all those who have built something and all those who strive to preserve its best qualities. If the leader doesn't do that, it slowly crumbles and then collapses.
       Meanwhile, many wonder if the latest Trump-ism will be the straw that breaks the back of his campaign.  I wonder at what point supposed leaders have flunked the litmus test.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Creative Discipline

       For the past year, here at St. John's Episcopal School we've been immersed in the early stages of some large-scale marketing work. After the initial research, we moved into all the areas of branding, design, copy, et cetera. The process has proven fascinating, and I've learned a great deal. As part of that, I've spent extensive time talking with various "creatives." Fortunately, we've engaged incredibly talented people for this work, and I'm in awe of their work. I've also enjoyed learning about them and their work because I've been calling for more creativity in schools for quite a while. (See this or this.) It's in line with the work of people such as Tony Wagner and Sir Ken Robinson.
       One thing which has surprised me--but probably shouldn't have--is how tied to process these people are. They are, contrary to the assumption and stereotypes many people have, quite committed to certain rituals and disciplines. In fact, in the only case where we weren't pleased with some of the work we received, I realized we had basically forced the creative to operate in a way that was not his normal methodology and thus out of his comfort zone.
       I've read enough about creativity that I should have realized this basic truth. Creativity, Inc, for example, spells out in great detail the systematic process that Pixar uses. Most writers and artists have very specific work routines, whether the times they work or how they lay out materials or follow certain steps.Some of this is the sort of exacting discipline required for success in any area. Too often people forget, or perhaps never understood, that creative pursuits share a great deal with other areas. We seem to think that creative work is somehow different, that it strikes at random moments of inspiration; and that when it strikes, somehow stunning art suddenly appears.
     But in many ways creative work is not that different than any other. Just as an athlete must practice a skill over and over, a painter works on brush strokes. Just as a scientist studies all the theory in their field, a musician studies past songs from many genres. More than that, it's simply a matter of getting the work done. And a great deal of it, because the misses far outnumber the hits. Picasso produced 79 different drawings in coming up with Guernica. In fact, while we know of several famous Picasso works, his total output numbered more than 1800 paintings, 1200 sculptures, 2800 ceramics, and 12000 drawings. In music, beyond their noted compositions, Mozart composed over 600 pieces;, Beethoven, 650; Bach, over a 1000. Compare that to the number of papers of Einstein's 248 publications or patents of Edison's 1093 had real impact. So even beyond creativity, it's about persistence.
     It also affirms my belief that we can teach creativity. Or, to be more accurate, design educational experiences that nourish our innate creativity. Well, at least not tamp it down, let alone beat it out of us. There exist plenty of practical and philosophical arguments for this, and I don't need to reiterate them here.They all seem to have one underlying commonality: life as a work of art. How does that happen? Creative discipline. So perhaps as we rethink these intellectual conveniences that we call academic disciplines, we need to make creativity one of the new disciplines of future education.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Shocked Out Of Silence

                As an educator, I’ve long held schools should teach students how to think, not what to think. Such a high wire can prove tough on which to balance, especially with older students when exploring meaty topics. Some of my proudest teaching moments came when, after particularly heavy discussions, students said they couldn’t figure out my exact beliefs about the issue at hand. Having incredible power to influence students, teachers must tread carefully. Quite often, that necessitates adopting as objective stance as one can. I feel this even more strongly as a head of school. It can be hard, both professionally and personally. You can grow frustrated with feeling that on certain subjects you must restrain, even silence yourself.
                The shootings in Dallas on July 7, 2016, have me reflecting on this stance. Dallas has been my home since 1990. Any time something extreme happens in your backyard rather than elsewhere, it ignites an ember previously only smoldering. St. John’s Episcopal School has a special relationship with some Dallas officers, as do a few employees in their personal lives. Furthermore, if my family had not been out of town, my daughter likely would have attended the peace march. I probably would have gone with her; my wife and son may have come. Our dinner conversations often become animated about political and social issues. We’ve all agonized over events of the past several years. My wife worries about what it means that for this generation of teens 9/11 is a first memory, the beginning of a grotesque panoply of violence around the world.
                It’s not just Dallas. In this country it’s Minneapolis, Baton Rouge, Charleston, Orlando, Baltimore, Ferguson, Staten Island, San Diego, Newtown, assorted schools and universities. Abroad it’s Paris, London, Baghdad, Jakarta, Turkey, Jerusalem, Somalia, Tehran, Norway. As those are just the ones popping into my mind, the list is thus sadly incomplete. The cruel irony is while statistically we live in one of the safest eras ever, we feel quite the opposite. Perhaps our anxiety stems from the random yet not-so-random nature of the violence. The terrorists—and aren’t all these acts of mayhem acts of terror?—seem to strike anywhere at any time, yet with very specific intent. No group seems immune from someone’s bile. Our fear and loathing spike off the charts. Life seems to have reached some sort of tragic singularity, the real world and the worst of the Internet having merged. In such a climate, I derive a weird tinge of gratitude that I still can be shocked.
                We also shouldn’t be totally surprised by this happening in Dallas. Yes, we have progressed greatly over the past few decades. The marchers portrayed a diverse mosaic, protestors and police swapped flowers while taking selfies, and we saw a beautiful lovefest at Potter’s House. But we suffer from the same human vices as most areas. We remain a city deeply divided, and not just by the Trinity River. De facto segregation organizes our neighborhoods and public schools and churches and civic organizations. Dallas is called one of America’s gay-friendliest cities, yet homophobia is prevalent. And Dallas is one of the more liberal areas of Texas, where state officials see keeping transgender people in the “right” bathrooms as a top priority. Right now in Dallas—everywhere, I think—the hope is that the love found within the pain endures. Only then will come deeper, more systemic healing—from not just recent events, but also institutionalized wrongs.
                Education can provide a balm. For that, we have to rethink its purpose and embrace its possibilities. School can’t be just about measurable outcomes, test scores, securing employment, and international competitiveness. Education needs soul. An education that matters helps young people gradually discern how to lead a life full of meaning and purpose. That’s intensely personal. For many young people today, that means battling injustice. For example, they wisely reject the notion we should—or ever could—be color blind regarding race. Instead, they desire to see empathetically how all our individual differences affect the way we experience the world…and the myriad ways each of us can enrich the world. I’m proud St. John’s Episcopal School strives to be “an inclusive community where the dignity of every human being is respected.”
                I still believe schools must walk a fine line. In reality all schools teach two general curricula. One is the explicit curriculum: the subjects, the defined program. The other is the implicit curriculum: the lessons a student discerns through watching adults and the cultural practices. While both matter, the latter has vaster implications. Thus, while we should not overtly proselytize or politicize, we can insist on some basic and universal human values. Ideally, a school encourages us to fly with our higher angels.
                I don’t pretend to have all the answers to our massive challenges. My current pain and confusion, combined with ongoing experience, erase any such quixotic fancy. After all, traces of festering rot have plagued humans forever. Still, I believe we can contain their spread. To draw strength these days, I find myself often recalling a story from earlier in my career, when I worked at another school. An administrator and I were dealing with a painful racial incident. As we sat in his office, he began to weep and stammered, “I’m trying so hard to deal with this as the head of the upper school and not as a black man.” Suddenly I had a tiny understanding of race in a way I never had before. As my own tears formed, I said, “You’re the head of upper school and you’re a black man. Don’t try to separate those two things. In fact, I think it’s going to be extra powerful for these kids to see how this incident has affected you in both ways.” He needed that permission not to silence part of himself. Once he had it, he helped us all move forward.
                Now I’m giving myself the same permission, even though I’m not sure exactly what it means as a head of school. I suspect it will be much like it was when I worked with students. I won’t preach or make sweeping declarations of truth. But I will ask many very pointed questions. I won’t be as silent. Then maybe together we can figure all this out.