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.