Saturday, December 31, 2011

New Year's Resolutions

     I don't make New Year's resolutions. Doing so never has worked for me. Instead, I take a different approach.
     I know that I should do something. It needs to be done. Whether for myself, for someone else, or for my institution. Maybe it's simply the right thing to do. So why wait for a new calendar before acting?
     I try to make daily resolutions. Perhaps I have to complete a specific task. I may want to make significant progress on a long-term project. More than anything, I try to do things at least a bit better than the previous day.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The College Decision--Public or Private?

     You wouldn't think that I, as head of a school ending in 8th grade, spend too much time thinking about college admission. Normally I don't. But I have been recently. The New York Times education section has been chronicling several high school seniors' college application adventures, with many of the decisions documented this past week. Also, my 9th grade daughter came home last week, full of stories about all the loud declarations of college notification and the reappearance of the Wall of Rejection. I'm not sure just what she made of it all.
     Since I used to work at her school, I know the scene. It's being repeated at schools across the nation. A certain date arrives, and crowds gather for the e-mail to be opened. Sometimes parents come to school for the event. Massive drama then ensues. Repeat several times.
     A once private event has taken on a very public dimension. That's not surprising, given how much more of life has become spectator sport. More and more we seem willing to make multiple aspects of our lives, many formerly deemed personal, accessible to all. Indeed, more and more people seem to crave the attention, no matter how it comes. Some even expect that everyone should care about each part of their lives, and they are offended at any indifference. With the college decision being such a massive rite of passage, of course that becomes a chance for a major announcement.
     To a degree that last part always has been true. However, over the past two decades, it has taken on a profound, even concerning weight. I understand why. We are living in particularly anxious times. A struggling economy, rapid and profound change, global competition, political distrust--the reasons for our discomfort are many, any one of which could prove unsettling. Because of that uncertainty, we seek guarantees, even when our rational sides know such things don't exist. For our children, those guarantees become admission into the "right" school. It can become rather narcissistic. As one of the students in The Times pieces put it, "I don't have to fit the institution; the institution has to fit me." She said this while comparing the process to buying a wedding dress. I can imagine the reaction of the admission officers feel at the schools to which she is applying.
     The idea of a single perfect school for anyone is, of course, wrong. One could go to any number of wonderful colleges and have a fantastic, life-altering and life-affirming experience. I've seen many students who were convinced a letter of rejection meant their lives were ruined. They ended up flourishing where they matriculated. Or one could, as I did, spend four years at college and enjoy it but feel no particular affinity for one's alma mater. That is not the college's fault. It's mine. I chose not to become very engaged. There is the real point. The college matters, but only to a degree. The real determinant of the experience is what any individual makes of the opportunities that appear.
     Ultimately, we have responsibility for our life-long educations. When we focus too much on one college, we cede the power we have to determine the quality of our experiences. That's true in other life arenas as well. When it occurs, we also tend to quickly assign blame. At times it seems everyone blames the media for everything. Students and parents blame teachers; one political party blames the other. The two scenarios have much in common, and the result is the same, literally and metaphorically: gridlock.
     As the adults in the situation--meaning the ones with life experience and perspective--we have to help young people break through this. That is easy to say, much harder to achieve. From the beginning, we have to be very careful about the subtle and overt signals we send about everything. Consider grades, for example. They are important, certainly. More important is how we discuss them with our children. Grades can be examined as markers of effort and progress. They also can be seen as currency which buys entry. Both are to an extent true. The pointed question involves which you emphasize. The answer has massive implications.
     In just a couple of years I will become heavily involved in the college application process with my daughter. While I have written references for students, it will be my deepest foray into this jungle since I was a college counselor over twenty years ago, when the landscape was less foreboding. We will see how well I can practice what I preach. I do know one thing: we won't let it resemble a TV reality show.

Friday, December 16, 2011


     Years ago a sportswriter named Blackie Sherrod used to write a Sunday column called "Scattershooting." Recently Dallas Morning News writer Kevin Sherrington has resurrected the tradition, and sports radio broadcaster Junior Miller does it on KTCK. I decided to take that approach in this post. Mainly for fun, somewhat as an experiment, but also as a way to put down a bunch of random thoughts which I might not use anywhere else or develop into full posts.
     Writing in this fashion reminded me of my days as a deejay on the campus radio station. My broadcast partner and I had completely different tastes in music, and we alternated songs. The show's name was Classic Whateverness in Full Operation.
     So don't expect what I want to believe you've come to see as the expected depth. But I hope you find a few nuggets that make you think.

Scattershooting while wondering what ever happened to Lumpy Ward (my best friend in first grade) ... Recent New York Times article talked about how some colleges have sharply reduced length of application essays while trying to give more "clever" topics. Some are even giving prompts such as "If I had to wear a costume for a year," to be completed with 25 or fewer words. I guess it's part of the Twitter phenomenon. It's worrisome that universities are lessening the premium on higher-level thinking and clear, developed expression ... I think there is a logical link between this and the growing scandal from Long Island, where dozens of students hired people to take the SAT for them. The test simply doesn't mean much when it comes to key skills and attitudes, particularly not the way the world is changing. But we want to quantify everything. It gives us some assurance. It also has too much weight ... Anyone actually remember your SAT scores? How about particular grades? I was kind of floored the other day when I overheard a woman who looked at least 60 talking about how she had done on a test in college ... How would I do on a high school exit exam? ... Now that scientists have discovered a planet that could support life, any knowledge we've safely assumed has to be questioned ... Recently the Yale quarterback had to choose between playing in "The Game" against Harvard and his Rhodes Scholarship interview. He chose to play. My question: Why should he have had to choose? He seems to exemplify what we should want in all our student-athletes. But we end up seeing much more press about sad events such as the brawl at the end of the Xavier-Cincinnati basketball game ... Watching our lower school choirs, I'm reminded why schools need arts programs, far beyond the current argument about creativity (although that is key): the arts are an intrinsic and gorgeous form of human expression. Cutting arts equals cutting an essential literacy program ... Managing enrollment, balancing classes, and cobbling a schedule is a massive challenge at time. Imagine trying to do it in the high school I just read about, where students and teachers have to go in shifts--and class size is still way too big ... I recently received an e-mail from the Race to Nowhere folks, calling for "no homework weekends." Nice idea, but it doesn't work. The kids just end up slammed on either side of it. This highlights the problem with movements such as RTN: complicated issues are reduced to over-simplified "solutions" when what's really needed is sustained, thoughtful dialogue ... Harvard Business Review blog recently ran a post on the law of disminishing returns. Here's the basic idea. Let's say you have two people who put in equally long days. Person A goes as hard as possible the entire time. Person B takes some well-timed breaks. As the day goes on, A's productivity lessens so much that even at less than full effort B can end up having accomplished significantly more worthwhile work. There are so lessons there for how we structure school--and kids' lives in general ... For however long, the universal brand logo of a teacher has been chalk, a book, or an apple. Not sure what it should be now ... Similar to the logo idea, I keep trying to thing of great tag lines for a school. I wish I had thought of the one The Rivers School in MA uses: "Excellence with humanity"... Recently I've heard many people talk about a quality education in terms of "maximizing potential" (a phrase I've used). I don't like it, particularly not when referring to kids. I'm 50, and I hope I haven't maximized my potential. A great education should set people up to approach their potential far down the road, when that potential may actually be clear...

Thursday, December 8, 2011

I Would E-Mail You The Link to This, But...

     I'm quite jealous of Dana Boyd, who is a renowned researcher on social media, particularly its use among adolescents. Recently she announced her annual e-mail sabbatical. Here is the basic idea. She works "obscene hours"--travelling globally, researching, writing, presenting. To keep that up, she rightly argues, she needs a total break, one in which nothing is building up in her inbox. So for about a month starting in early December, she sets her e-mail so that all incoming messages are automatically and totally deleted. Only her mother can reach her. If someone wants to reach her, he or she will have to resend the message. (Read her full post on the announcement here. As a bonus, there is a link to a post on taking an e-mail sabbatical. Her blog, though not updated that often, is amazing.)
     Imagine that: logging in and opening your e-mail. The inbox is empty. Imagine that ever. After a couple of days. A month! Sounds like a technological fantasy, some sort of virtual Xanadu. For a while I had managed to have my inbox empty at the end of the workday. It was a great feeling, but it was fleeting. It meant that e-mail drove my task list in some ways. Plus inevitably my phone would buzz as I drove home, and the inbox would have plenty of messages (most deletable) the next morning. I could have made Sisyphus my avatar.
     Recently I gave myself a mini-hiatus. During the Thanksgiving break I went three-and-a-half days without checking my e-mail. It was very nice, and I didn't miss anything pressing. Still, the entire time I felt guilty and wondered what was in there. I couldn't really detach. Of course, I hadn't set up any sort of announcement and process such as Dana Boyd had. I'm not sure I ever could. I want to rationalize that my job really won't allow for it. There is some truth to that. But when I'm truly honest with myself, I also know that I would never be able to do it because of wanting that connection, that semblance of awareness and control, however illusory. I would wonder about what was being deleted and who might become angry. I used to joke when I would see people compulsively checking their phones that "I control the Blackberry; it doesn't control me." It used to be true. But last weekend our e-mail went down for about 18 hours and I started to have withdrawal symptoms. It was reminiscent of a time at my former school when we lost all our e-mail.
     So on some level I really am quite jealous of Dana Boyd and admire her confidence in doing this. Most of us could never do such a thing because of temperament or demands or both. Yet it holds an important challenge for us to consider, even beyond e-mail questions. It raises some big, hairy questions about how we communicate with each other: the volume (in all meanings), the tone, the impulsiveness, the expectations. These questions become even more pointed when you consider platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Questions that could lead to dozens of posts, but no clear answers.
     Meanwhile, I am trying to become much more conscious of my use of e-mail. I'm going to try to change some of own habits, such as not feeling I have to shift from whatever I'm working on to deal with e-mails right away. Also, I know how much I receive almost every day, and I know other people feel the same way. So I plan to be more thoughtful about how much I send. After all, I can't do much about what ends up in my inbox. But I can do my part to give others a bit of a break.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

To Tweet or Not To Tweet?

                By now you likely have heard about Emma Sullivan, the teen girl whose derogatory tweet about Kansas Governor Sam Brownback went viral rather quickly. Perhaps the original tweet somehow made it into your account if you have one. You may even have re-tweeted it yourself. Just do a quick search and you’ll find all kinds of things about it. In case you want, here’s a link to a search on CNN’s site.
                I don’t know what prompted the tweet or what issues people may have with Governor Brownblack. Even if I did, I’ve promised myself that I would stay away from political topics on this blog. If I do venture into that dangerous area, I intend to try to be as neutral as possible. I say that because I may be treading a fine line here, as I’m going to start by referencing the first amendment and the notion of free speech. That’s because most of the teen’s defenders have used that rationale in their arguments.
                Per Wikipeida, “The First Amendment (Amendment I) to the United States Constitution is part of the Bill of Rights. The amendment prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, impeding the free exercise of religion, abridging the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press, interfering with the right to peaceably assemble or prohibiting the petitioning for a governmental redress of grievances.”  I’m not a Constitutional historian or legal maven. I think of the Constitution growing out of the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence. Even if that’s not factually true, I believe we can fairly connect the two, with the rights reflecting  the idea that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Ultimately, it strikes me that all these notions were an attempt to articulate and to some degree codify the emerging social compact that lies at the heart of the vision of the United States. In that compact we willingly exchange some natural rights for social rights and responsibilities.  People often cite the pursuit of happiness as an individual right.  But when Jefferson included this idea in the Declaration of Independence, he meant it as a moral claim.  He believed the right to pursue happiness involves a reciprocal obligation: that it can happen only in conjunction with others’ happiness.
                I’m not about to condemn the girl’s right to criticize the governor, or even to say that she shouldn’t have done it via Twitter. Actually, I’m thrilled to see a teen involving herself in public dialogue, assuming that she done some thinking on the issues before tweeting. I encourage all of that. I used to have kids write letters to the editor before we had blogs and tweets. My concern lies not in that she did it, but in how she did it.               Just in case you don’t know even the basic details, the girl tweeted that she had told the governor she didn’t think much of his performance, using a once-vulgar term that has become commonly accepted. The hash tag was more vulgar. It also boasted that she had done so to his face.
                The case captures the difference between a right and a should. Yes, we are fortunate enough to have the right to free speech, something people all over the world protest to gain. Yet with rights come certain responsibilities. If we ant to express our concerns about something, we need to do so respectfully and thoughtfully. Certainly this is true when addressing people in particular positions. In this case, whether I agree or disagree with a public official is immaterial when it comes to the language and tone I use. The person deserves my respect because of his or her commitment to public service. I also contend that everyone deserves basic respect.
                And that is what I fear is getting lost as our electronic media becomes more ubiquitous and easier to use. Combine that with the hectic nature of our lives and the general anxiety about economic/cultural issues, and mixture can be combustible. Check out a few random chat fora. Most of us have received and/or sent e-mails that we wish we hadn’t. Even the most benign e-mail can lead to misinterpretation. I’ve taken two approaches to try to help with this. First, I’ll tell people when I think a topic needs to be handled via phone or a meeting. Second, sometimes I will use my word processor to write the e-mail my emotions want to send but my mind knows not to. It’s cathartic and, and least for me, helps to defuse the issue.
                We have some powerful tools at our disposal, right in our pockets. Tools that can do some real damage. Because of that, we need to remain very cognizant that we are helping young people become not just adroit users, but humane users. Modern technology provides mazing ways for us to engage in the life of the mind. When we do that, we acknowledge that thoughtlessness is a crime, with ramifications in our daily lives.  The mind is our unique powerful gift.  It raises us above other creatures.  It can elevate us even higher.  Tying all these ideas back to our Founding Fathers, eighteenth century philosophers such as Jefferson assumed illiteracy and ignorance cause barbarism and violence.  They believed the spread of education would lead to superior ethical judgment and social justice.
                That sort of idealism seems worth re-tweeting. Much more so that some superficial, nasty comment about a public figure.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Be Like Steve?

     I'm typing this post on my ipad2, which I got the day after Steve Jobs died. I can't say I was inspired by his passing, as I already had placed the order. Similarly, Walter Isaacson's superb biography of Jobs came out soon after his death, on the previously set date.  I would have read the book anyway, because of both the subject and the author. Years before Jobs had requested that Isaacson write the book, and he had amazing access to Jobs and many other people. Jobs wanted the book to be honest, and it certainly seems to be, given the complexity in which it presents him.
     The book is stunning in many ways, from the level of research to the quality of writing. I found myself reading bits whenever I had the chance, even a couple of pages at a time. The entire time, I found myself wondering about one basic question: Would I want to be Steve Jobs?
     Near the end of the book, Isaacson makes a list of the innovations that Jobs spearheaded. You know the details, so I won't bother running it down. Surely Jobs, as he set out to do, made "a dent in the universe." If you want a more objective measure, based on rate of return, Jobs is the most successful CEO of all time. No one can seriously question his singular greatness and historical significance.
     Yet, I have to ask, at what cost?
     If asked to choose one adjective to describe Jobs, I would say haunted. Whatever his demons--and, in classic armchair psychiatrist fashion, I diagnosed him with bipolar disorder, type 1 with some raging narcissism--Jobs found life painful. He raged. He sobbed. He abandoned. He embraced. He scoffed. He honored. All these often in rapid succession, frequently at the same target. He ended up enemies with some he had seen as best friends; he even basically abandoned Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and kept him from getting some stock options. One thing I don't recall him ever doing, and that is apologizing.
     Jobs obsessed over every detail of each product--not just the function, but the design. In fact, the latter sometimes overruled the former. Once Jobs decided on a design, he simply expected engineers who called it impossible to achieve Herculean feats to make it work. Usually they succeeded. But Jobs could become neurotic about certain design aspects, such as when he wanted internal screws on a computer, which had nothing to do with performance, to have a certain finish that added greatly to the cost. Jobs had to control everything, mainly because he was truly convinced that only he could be right. For this reason, he also was known to blast ideas, change his way of thinking, and then take credit for having had the idea in the first place.
   Brilliant? Truly visionary? Revolutionary? Without a doubt. Greatest CEO ever? Maybe.
     In pondering that, I have to raise questions about my leadership as a head of school. After all, as one of my trustees likes to ask when we're discussing something, "What does the CEO want to see happen?" Well, I certainly don't ever see myself operating like Jobs. I like to think I still function like a teacher, but with a different classroom. The greatest teachers help others realize what they can become and help them fulfill that potential. They also know how to set things up and get out of the way. Yes, I want to be a great head of school. But that doesn't mean that I have to set out to change the world on my own. Instead, I have to strive to make the most positive difference I can in my corner of the world, the trust that the ripple effect will spread the benefits. That's my goal in all aspects of my life. Then my life and work will have mattered.
     At the same time, I hope that I can keep my ambition in perspective. True excellence comes with costs. If he weren't so driven, Jobs could not have achieved all he did. Therein lies another lesson for us a educators. We need to be very careful about the mixed message we send to young people when we encourage them to achieve excellence and to maintain balance. The concepts are mutually exclusive. Similarly, we preach the values of altruistic service, yet we remind students to build their resume. We also need to make sure that we don't let the wrong payoffs cause us to forget our values. Recently a Dallas principal was receiving all kinds of accolades for how much the reading and math scores had risen at her school. Then it was discovered that her teachers had been told to abandon all science and social studies instruction to focus on test preparation. Now what is her legacy?
     When he died, Jobs was with several family members. His last words were "Oh wow! Oh wow! Oh wow!" People have interpreted this in a positive fashion--that he was finally gratefully in touch with the people who had stuck with him. I'm not so sure. Jobs always had been obsessed with his own mortality, and I think he was commenting on his imminent death more than anything else.
    So back to that one question: Would I want to be Steve Jobs? I am in awe of his talents and grateful that he saw what people wanted even before we knew it. As I learn more and more about what I can do on my ipad, I believe it is the best device for kids to have in school. Yet rather than being the creator of the ipad, I'm very content conceiving of the possibilities it holds for education. What about you?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Giving Thanks

     Each work day, I finish by making a mental list. I select the three best things that had happened that day. There are no specific criteria. One might be some way I believe I had helped someone. A finished task. A great meeting. Positive feedback. Even negatives can usually reveal a positive glimmer if you look hard enough.
    I do this somewhat for practical, personal reasons. It helps me sleep better at night, and it keeps me optimistic. But there also are some larger philosophical reasons: as I've written previously, I think our society--individually and collectively--is losing a sense of gratitude.
     So here we are, near Thanksgiving; and at the risk of being totally cliched, I want to share with you some of the things for which I am grateful. Since this is my head of school blog, I'm going to stick to professional points. I could go on and on about my family and personal blessings. For many reasons these also will be generalities. More than anything, don't want to hurt anyone through inadvertent omission.
  • I feel very fortunate to head a school with a meaningful mission--and that the school is true to its mission. At a time when many schools are cutting programs and taking a very narrow academic approach, we continue to take a truly holistic approach. We work on every aspect of human development: intellectual, physical, artistic, social, emotional, spiritual...and probably some I'm forgetting. We also see them as totally integrated.
  • The faculty here (and when I say faculty, I refer to all the adults who work at a school and thus somehow influence kids). They work tirelessly and truly care about the students. Even though many have extensive experience, they are quite growth oriented, always seeking ways to improve their craft and thus better serve the students. The relatively long average tenure speaks to their dedication.
  • We have a committed board of trustees. Individually and collectively, they take their responsibilities very seriously and provide tremendous support. Their talents mesh beautifully. I always feel enlightened--and a bit in awe--after watching them in action, either working on a task force, doing committee work, or convening as a full board. Like the faculty, they strive to grow even stronger.
  • Our school community is a very generous one. People here give and give in many ways--time, talent, and treasure. Two amazing statistics bear this out. A recent study revealed that approximately 85% of our parents volunteer in some way at the school. That's an amazing number, and it doesn't capture how much energy and time so many of them give. For some it's like a second job. The second is our five-year streak of 100% family participation in our Annual Fund.
  • Parents here are involved in their children's education, and they place great trust in the school. Many studies show that parent engagement is perhaps the most important factor in a successful school.
  • Great kids, who work hard, act respectfully, and inspire everyone mentioned above. Two quick stories. Recently our dean was talking to a student about a small disciplinary issue. Rather than make any excuses, the student simply said, "I wasn't being a very good person." In the second story, a teacher heard during a class from an alum whose mother has died. A student instantly wrote a letter for the teacher to deliver.

      I wanted to avoid being cliched in taking on this topic, and now I realize that my list of items is rather cliched. There's a lesson there. The things that make for a great school are not that complicated. But they can prove elusive. Often at least one is missing, or they are out of balance in some way. It comes down to culture. So, along with being so thankful for the opportunity to head this school, perhaps I'm most grateful that our culture is so healthy. It's what will enable us to keep growing better and better as a school and as people.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Educational Value(s)

                Three things recently have converged to prompt this post. The first two are entwined: it’s budgeting season, and that means we have to look at tuition rates for the coming year. Those topics have been foremost in my mind. In fact, early Monday morning I was thinking about them when CNN had a piece on whether or not a college degree is a worthwhile investment.
                In fact, that’s a rather hot topic right now. I Googled “Is college worth it?” and received 725,000,000 hits. The recent press about the Thiel Fellows who were granted $100,000 to skip college and begin start-up businesses drew some attention. It’s prompted, of course, by the epic tales of people like Gates, Jobs, and Zuckerberg having not completed college and endingd up incredibly rich and influential. (I’m reading Isaacson’s biography of Jobs—stay tuned for my thoughts when I finish.)
                I understand the concerns. After all, in a few years my ninth grade daughter and sixth grade son will be deciding on college. The costs have skyrocketed to what a few years ago would have been incomprehensible levels. Most of the anger is directed at the colleges, but I think there is plenty of blame to go around. Certainly colleges took advantage of the economic prosperity we enjoyed for a while, and they also reveled in the demographic bubble and consumer anxiety that led to hyper-competitive admission activity. At the same time, though, people began looking for features and amenities that really had little to do with the ultimate goals of college. Take a look at some of the luxurious student centers. Heck, take a look at some dorms.
                Let’s briefly recap the general points on each side of the argument. Yes, I know that I will be oversimplifying.
The anti-college side argues that one can succeed without college. After all, look at the examples above. These are people who dented the universe, and they didn’t finish college. The anti-college folks also say that most of what one needs can be better learned through experience; that one needs to be in the real world, not the ivory tower.
The pro-college side points out that the average person’s potential income is much higher with a college degree. The CNN piece pointed out how unemployment levels drop as degrees grow higher, i.e. people with a master’s are less likely to be unemployed than those with a bachelors, who are less likely than those with just a high school degree, and so on.
With just a little bit of basic Internet research and a modicum of logic, I could support or refute either one of these arguments. Even without the research, I would ask some simple questions. For example, I’d ask if Steve Jobs really makes for a compelling example since he is such an outlier. But I’m not interested in intellectual debate here, particularly over what strikes me as an ultimately unsolvable issue.
My issue with both sides is much more basic than that. It’s one in which my idealism trumps my practicality. It’s one at which I can hear some people scoffing. It’s one that I sometimes forget amidst the realities of life. It’s one I hope I never lose.
My issue is simple…but it’s not. Both sides reduce the value of a college education to pure dollars. To return on investment. By extension, I guess this thinking applies to all education.
It’s worth more than that. At least, it is when done right.
It’s about the growth that happens when someone discovers potential she had never perceived in herself. It’s about a person becoming enamored with a topic he had once dismissed. It’s about being challenged by the experiences and perspectives of those around you. It’s about those aha moments. It’s about a young person figuring out what sort of person he or she wants to become…and doesn’t want to. It’s about pondering the ever-morphing complexities of the human experience. It’s about training the mind for even heavier lifting. It’s about making a contribution. It’s about life-long learning.
I’d also contend that society would be much better off with a more highly-educated populace. Imagine, for instance, if people were better critical thinkers when it comes to political elections. In another example, we might be less doomed to repeat history if we understood its arc better. Perhaps we would consider meaningful discourse to be more than the current cacophony of sound bites and vitriol.
I know these are rather quixotic musings. Sometimes I also wonder if all the tuition I pay for my kids is worth it. But I believe that, ironically, when we think of education in purely financial terms, we actually cheapen it. We shouldn’t think of it in terms of price point. After all, ultimately it’s priceless.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Successful Thinking?

     This morning Ian Jukes’ Committed Sardine blog alerted me to John Maxwell’s How Successful People Think: Change Your Thinking, Change Your Life. More specifically, a link brought me to this slideshow highlighting the main topics of the book. If you don’t feel like clicking over, here’s the list:
·         Figure out where you need to focus your energy, and then use the 80/20 rule
·         Smart thinkers expose themselves to different ideas and types of people
·         It's one thing to have an idea, another to follow through
·         Thoughts need time to develop. Don't just settle on the first thing that comes to mind
·         Smart people collaborate with other smart people
·         Reject popular thinking (which often means not thinking at all)
·         The best thinkers plan ahead, while leaving room for some spontaneity
·         To think differently, do different things
·         To appreciate others' ideas, you need to value other ideas
·         Have an agenda -- for the day, and when you meet with people
·         Reflective thinking gives you perspective and confidence in your decision-making skills
·         Get over negative self talk. Winners think in terms of "I will" and "I can"
·         Creative people are dedicated to ideas
·         Naturally optimistic people find it hard to be realistic thinkers
·         At the end of the day, it's important to remember we can all change the way we think
·         Smart people make good decisions
This, of course, prompted some big, hairy questions:
·         How is success being defined in here?
·         What do I think about each of these items?
·         Can these be taught/learned?
·         If these are common to successful people, and they can be taught, shouldn’t these be near the top of any curriculum?
What do you think?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Gut Check

            Consider two people. First, think about someone in a typical student leadership positions—team captain, student council officer, et cetera. Now, think about a student who reaches out to the “weird new kid.” Who shows greater leadership? Who may grow up to become a stronger leader?[i]

Leadership is a hot topic right now, particularly in independent schools. Many schools have added leadership to their mission statements. It seems simple enough. After all, of course we want to foster leadership. And I believe that leadership can be developed in many ways. Plus I think everyone has opportunities to lead and must be ready to grasp them when they appear.
I appreciate all the traditional ways schools have helped students develop their leadership skills. Many schools have added special leadership programs; kids go off for special leadership experiences; and I’ve toyed with the idea of teaching an elective on leadership. Many such programs are excellent, and I’ve certainly grown through participating in some. Still, I feel we’re missing something.
I think about great leaders from history. (Rather than name them, I encourage you to create your own list.) I recall examples of truly inspired leadership shown by young people. They all have one common secret ingredient.
For kids to develop leadership, we have to allow them to face discomfort. Even more, to wrestle with big, hairy challenges. They must be able to stare at themselves in the mirror and promise themselves that they will do what is hard and uncomfortable and right. They have to grow more and more resilient.
Contrast this to another hot topic in schools—snowplow parents. Unlike helicopter parents, who hover and are ready to swoop whenever necessary, snowplow parents try to clear any obstacles from their child’s path. They jump out in front and smooth the way.
That leads to a logical question: How does a child learn to lead if he or she is always following?
The quick answer is that he or she can’t, except in theory. And in theory leadership can be taught. But in practice leadership is learned mainly by discovering what lies in one’s gut.

[i] The answer is, I think, “Depends.” Many factors could come into play here. I’ve seen fantastic student leadership in those positions, but also some poor leadership. Please understand I am not disparaging those roles. It’s just to start myself—and, I hope, you—thinking.

Friday, October 21, 2011

An Athletic Education

                Watching Game 2 of the World Series last night, I had one of those moments that reminded me why I love sports and their educational value.
                I think it was in the fifth inning. I say think because, despite the tension of the game, I was dozing off a bit. Suddenly there was the Rangers shortstop, Elvis Andrus, lunging full length at a sharp grounder straight up the field. He snared the ball, managed to prop himself up on his other elbow, and flipped the ball out of his glove towards second base. Second baseman Ian Kinsler arrived just in time—he had been shaded towards first base and thus had extra far to go—to catch the flip right before the runner arrived. Crisis averted. Without this play, the Rangers probably don’t win. (Amazingly, the defensive duo had pulled off a pretty sweet play to end the previous inning as well; it just wasn’t as spectacular.) I snapped wide awake.
                Let’s think about what qualities were captured in this play. There was pure athleticism on display. Both Andrus and Kinsler made great individual efforts. They reacted instinctively, and Andrus was amazingly innovative. At the same time, they had to collaborate in perfect sync. In those couple of seconds, we saw the result of thousands of hours of practice. Interestingly, in the past both players have been criticized at times for making too many errors, so they certainly have shown resilience. Andrus also put aside individual ego for the team. After game, when asked about the play, he said, “I always say when you're not hitting good, you better do something good defensively.” And he did get a key hit in the ninth inning rally.
                Certainly my experience playing soccer drilled into me the importance of these qualities. In fact, I think about the reasons I was drawn to the sport. First, I simply found it fun because it challenged me in ways no other sport did. Second, soccer provides ample room for tremendous individual creativity and flair within a strong team concept. One of my favorite players was Vladislav Bogicevic, a Yugoslavian who played for the New York Cosmos in their glory days. Bogie had magical skills and amazing vision. Rather than look to score, he continually tried to make the unexpected killer pass. He derived pleasure from untangling the knot and from making others look good. I found myself trying to play that way (admittedly, sometimes to my coaches’ consternation, when I would not take certain shots). Today, I frequently say most of the qualities that serve me well emerged during my soccer career.
                This notion calls to mind the story I once read about an upper-level math teacher’s response to the inevitable question, “When are we ever going to use this?” He told the students that they might have to, but they very well may not. Then he compared it to lifting weights as part of training for a sport or for better health. They weren’t, he explained, doing math for the sake of doing math. They really were pumping intellectual iron to strengthen themselves. The analogy works better than the response I’ve often given to that question: “You may, or you may not. But you want to be ready because you never know what life may throw at you.”
                All schools actually teach two curricula: the explicit and the implicit. The explicit is what you normally think of—the objectives, standards, content, skills, et cetera. The implicit curricula encompass all the other lessons that occur along the way, such as self-discipline and perseverance. Both certainly matter; and, structured well and intentionally, they feed each other in a virtuous circle. It can happen anywhere. I know people who talk about their theater experiences, for example, in the same way I talk about soccer. In fact, the implicit curricula is learned in very powerful, often longer-lasting ways than the explicit. I don’t recall much calculus, but I do remember the logical precision that Dr. Haytock required. And while my touch on the ball is now rather pathetic, I draw on other skills every day.

Friday, October 14, 2011

How Time Flies!

            A few days ago a post appeared on the Fast Company blog that made me think, “Wow! I want one of those gadgets. In fact, I want one for every classroom. I want one in my house. I think every family needs one."
No, it’s not some super-cool tablet that will replace the iPad. It’s not a robot that will do routine chores. It’s a clock. A clock that takes a full year to complete its cycle: “This Seasonal Clock Will Keep You thinking About the Present.”
            In many ways time is a form of currency. How we spend it sends signals about our priorities, and we never seem to have enough of it. We often say that we didn’t get something done because we ran out of time; what we’ve really done is choose to use that time doing something else. We all have 24 hours in a day, although our ultimate amount of mortal time obviously varies. And when we do toss off that mortal coil, how do we want the epitaph to read—“He simply ran out of time” or “He made the most of it, and it mattered”?
            That’s pretty big picture. As the article points out, “our obsession with small increments of time often keeps us from focusing on the bigger picture.” This manifests itself in some obvious ways in education. Curricula is organized into discrete units, usually with a defined time frame and marked by a test at the end. Add enough of those and it’s suddenly time for a “final” exam. Seat time becomes a key measurement of assumed progress. Grade levels and divisional organizations become major transitions, like flipping months on a calendar and then buying a new one (a metaphor becoming rapidly obsolete, but that’s another post). Teachers fret about having to make sure students are ready for the next level. A student having to apply to another school in 4th or 8th or 12th grade imposes another deadline.
            The problem with all this? Too often we feel that we have to finish kids. And we often want it to happen on our timetable, not theirs. Plus it should come with a certain payoff.
            Such an approach is not a healthy one for children, particularly when it comes to their long-term development. It fosters a product-focused orientation, one in which a certain result takes on too great an importance and becomes a measure of self-worth.  That can obscure what led to the result, which is what really needs to be examined for growth to occur. Similarly, struggles become “catastrophic” and provoke finger-pointing rather than reflection and lessons in determination and resilience. It undermines natural inclinations to love learning for its own sake. (Read more about this in an earlier post on Carole Dweck’s Mindset.)
            What are the not-so-long-term effects of this? Recently National Association of Independent Schools president Pat Bassett was part of a panel with the president of Georgetown, the president of Stanford, the dean of the faculty of Arts & Science at Harvard, and the Director of the Initiative for Innovation in Engineering Education at Olin College. Afterwards, Bassett wrote on his blog:
The university leaders also confirmed with what a professor at Harvard told me last year, that 30–40 percent of the undergrads are on anti-depressants, and 10 percent of girls suffered from eating disorders. While the university leaders were quick to point out that their universities were mirroring national data, it is particularly interesting to me that the students at these colleges had already “won the lottery” by matriculating at places that were nearly impossible to get into for mere mortals, and yet so many were still stressed beyond belief and needing medication (prescribed or, probably in much larger numbers, self-medicating — see the next bullet point).

Footnote to “success-driven parents and college counselors”: beware of what you wish for: What we actually do well is place students in the “best match” college, where they will be successful and can pursue interests that will keep them engaged and balanced.(
In The Path to Purpose: How Young People Find Their Calling in Life, educational psychologist William Damon cites a meta-analytic study of college students which points out that 45% of them show serious signs of depression. Per that same study, only 20% could be called “truly purposeful.” The rest possess a “foggy self-identity” and can see only the short term rather than have long-term aspirations. I can’t help but believe that this is caused in part by children feeling rushed and thus pressured at younger and younger ages.
            Helping young people remain life-long learners has longer term benefits. Particularly in this day and age, when so much changes in a constant swirl, people have to be able to react and adapt and evolve, and quickly. It’s also a matter of long-term health and quality of life.  In A User’s Guide to the Brain, Dr. John Ratey talks about the nuns of Mankato. Many live into their nineties and even past one hundred; on average they live much longer than the general public. They also show far fewer cases of all mental and neurological diseases. Why? It’s not just living in a convent and perhaps escaping many of life’s stressors. The nuns vigorously play intellectual games, engage in debates, and earn advanced degrees. Many of the nuns donated their brains to science, and examination revealed unusually great dendritic growth. The brains of those nuns who were more intellectually engaged showed more growth than others. The implication, as Ratey explains:

Like the nuns of Mankato, if you constantly challenge your brain to learn new things, you may develop more neural connections that help you delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, recover from a stroke, and live a longer life. And your life will be more interesting. It’s never too late to start: studies show that the adult cortex retains its basic plasticity. You can indeed teach an old dog new tricks. (364)

That depends largely on how we nurture our pups and make sure they get what they need when young. As a former colleague of mine is fond of saying, “It’s easier to build children than to repair adults.”
            It’s a tremendous challenge to keep the long view in mind. We want the best for our children, and in this hyper-competitive world we fear their falling behind in the race to whatever goal. Life comes with certain realities, including deadlines. Sometimes I watch both the children here and my own kids and feel as if I’m holding a stopwatch, ready to click the buttons as milestones are passed. I can grow impatient; I think, “Shouldn’t you be able to do this by now?!?” I have to take a deep breath. I remind myself of what really matters. And I realize that I need to trade the stopwatch for one of these new clocks.

Friday, October 7, 2011

I Take the Challenge

                About two weeks ago, I posted a challenge.  I asked readers to complete the phrase “School as a ___.” I would then have the challenge of completing a “meditation” explaining the completed phrase.
                There were several strong suggestions, and I would have found any of them fertile ground. But “crucible” both struck me as most interesting and received two votes…so “School as a Crucible” it is.
                Before I launch into this, I need to make a disclaimer. As this is a “meditation,” I’m really figuring this out as I write after having done just a bit of poking around the Internet and thinking. It isn’t thoroughly edited and polished. Apologies for that!

School as a Crucible
School as a crucible: a sturdy container in which the contents are challenged, altered, and fused to create beauty, strength, and resilience. (Kara Name’s comment on the post posing the challenge)
The crucible has always been a melting pot for valuable materials, the origin of new alloys, materials of innovation. How should the post-industrial Crucible melt and blend ideas? (from the website of Crucible: Research in Interdisciplinary Design)

Kara’s quotation defines a crucible. While the basic purpose of a crucible has remained the same, they actually have a rich history. The first ones date from the sixth/fifth millennium in Eastern Europe and Iran. You can follow their development in terms of composition and specific purpose through the Iron Age and Roman Era and Medieval Period right into current days. (If you’re really interested, click here.) Of course, the advances have appeared more rapidly as science and technologies have improved. In a way, the history of the crucible could become metaphorical for the history of modern human development in some ways. Certainly you could draw enough lines to branch into multiple areas.
So here I will draw my first one to school—the really big one. How we educate our children—the whole system of education—really follows this same pattern. Particularly now, science and technology have started having an enormous impact on the possibilities within education. We know more and more about the human brain, which promotes a new form of cognitive science far removed from simple behaviorism and rote learning. Technology has shifted humans from pure consumers of information to creators and collaborators, and great schools are preparing them for that role. In less grandiose terms, think about the time-honored research paper. The process and preparation of the final product will never again rely on index cards. We may even have to scrap using the word paper. Research project, perhaps? Why not a multimedia presentation on…?
But that doesn’t really capture school as a crucible. Consider it context, and it becomes relevant.
 Just as the basic purpose of a crucible has not changed, the basic purposes of education have not really changed even if curricula, settings, approaches, et cetera have. A crucible takes materials and breaks them down. They are then often recombined to form something new and better. Education is not just about giving students knowledge and equipping them with skills. Often it involves breaking down their assumptions and misunderstandings; then the effective teacher helps a student reconstruct the new points into greater understanding. That’s the Socratic method in a nutshell.
                The process, of course, involves both science and art. There are objectives and measurements and certain set processes. Formulae must be followed along the path to higher levels, i.e. drill your math facts so you can do algebra without having to think about basic computation. That’s all scientific to a degree. The art comes in when the teacher heats the crucible. Keep the flame too low and the right challenge isn’t there. Overheat things and the stress impedes the desired learning.  One has to add just the right elements to the mix. That becomes more like my grandmother making chicken soup than any recipe.
Interestingly, I see some of the other ways in which the word crucible has been used fitting in with the metaphor. Crucible: Research in Interdisciplinary Design ( the Cambridge, England-based group cited in the second quotation at the start) focuses on interdisciplinary education. This approach breaks down the traditional academic disciplines in the hopes of forging new understandings. We hope that students do this, but I suspect it occurs mainly when we rearrange programs for this express purpose. Crucible is the name of software used for the peer review of computer code. This approach harnesses the power of collaboration, a method that draws on each person’s respective strengths and allows him or her to learn through the process. Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible as a commentary on McCarthyism, but one could also see it as a story of adolescent rebellion against adult repression.
Finally, the crucible is the last stage of recruit training for the U.S. Marines—when a Marine has to draw on all the knowledge and skills gained during boot camp. Some of you may recall this commercial for the Marines that highlights a glimmering sword being forged.

In the really big picture, that best captures school as a crucible. Early on, a student enters the crucible. For the next number of years, myriad experiences are added to the combustion. When all the factors combine correctly, the student emerges not as something new, but as an improved version of him- or herself.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Taming My Lizard Brain: An Unforeseen Lesson from Blogging

                Renowned business writer and marketing expert Seth Godin frequently writes about the “need to ship.” To oversimplify, per Godin you can have all the great ideas you want; but unless you ship, they don’t really matter. In other words, you have to deliver the product. Literal in certain areas, the idea of shipping becomes a metaphor for just about any endeavor. When people don’t ship, says Godin, it’s frequently because their “lizard brain” takes over. This is the brain stem, the reptillian base of our brains, and we react in the simplest possible fashion and allow the fear to take over. If we could, we’d drop our tails and flee.
                Writing this blog, I feel real pressure to ship at least once per week. As someone pointed out to me, “You create a monster; then you have to feed it.” At first this was easy: I was new to my school, wanted people to learn about me and my ideas, had plenty to say. It was purely rational, grounded in my cerebral cortex. Now, shipping has become harder. I find myself asking questions that, while logical, still drip with juices of the lizard brain. What am I going to say this week? Haven’t I already written about that? Is this worth posting on? What are people thinking about my posts? Have I gone too far in some of my points and overly offended someone? Would anyone notice if I didn’t post for a while? If I stopped posting at all? Why isn’t my mind working the way I want it to? When did I forget how to write? How in the world does Godin manage to post every single day, and it’s almost always great?
                Suddenly I think about students, and the dominant emotion turns to empathy. We demand that they ship, on time and at a high rate of production. Some of the work is fairly mechanical, and students can simply churn out the product. But the really important higher-level stuff such as creation, analysis, synthesis? We bring kids along so that they can do that sort of work, and they often do it surprisingly well for their respective ages. At any level such work takes time and space for reflection, yet we keep kids hopping. I have to wonder how this affects deep, long-term learning.
Consider the demands of a school day for a developing child. (I’ve shadowed kids in various grades for a day, and it’s exhausting.) Now imagine that you have to go home and have products ready for the next day.  Meanwhile, the frontal lobes of the cerebral cortex don’t fully mature until the late teens and early twenties. All told, it’s rather amazing how well kids can keep the lizard brain at bay.
Another blog post seems a bit less daunting.