Opening Eyes

This week I turn my space over to Dr. Stephanie Bramlett, St. Luke’s Director of Diversity & Student Life…

“Does my office always look like this?”

This was my first thought as I walked into my office on Monday morning. The brightly colored handouts strewn about the floor, post-it notes plastered to every surface, and hastily scribbled ideas on the dry-erase board, made it look like creative genius had exploded.  As I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes and sipped my coffee—I smiled.  It has been a busy month at St. Luke’s.

The St. Luke’s community works hard to ensure all members are able to be themselves— regardless of race, gender, financial aid status, family structure, or learning difference.  This is how we envision our school.  This busy January, it was clear our students have the courage and character to do the hard work of building an inclusive community.

A few weeks ago, the Student Diversity Leadership Council led a meeting to train faculty on how to facilitate difficult conversations.  Faculty used these skills in an upper school conversation about the “N-Word”  The objective of the conversation was not to police language or tell people what to think, but rather to open an honest dialogue about the intent and impact of language.

In the last week of January, our 9th graders participated in J-Term, a five day long project-based learning experience themed, “Our Shrinking World.”  The 9th graders’ task was to design a community service project that tackled a local manifestation of a global social injustice.  Our whole community was invited to attend an exhibition where the 9th grade project groups pitched their service idea and the whole community voted on which service project we would do.

During the exhibition of project ideas, students enthusiastically called me over to explain the social injustice they had studied and tell me about their plan for restoring justice.  The two winning projects were from the Poverty and Gender Equity groups. The Gender Equity group’s service idea was to engage the whole upper school in a conversation about gender equity.  Our children are eager to talk about social justice issues and we are committed to finding the time and space for them to have these conversations.  

Social Justice Leadership Summit 2016

Social Justice Leadership Summit 2016

On January 31st, the third annual SLS Social Justice Leadership Summit and Ally Workshop boasted a record number of participants.  Forty-four students and nine faculty facilitators gathered for a day of learning about  race, class, gender, ability, religion, and other social and core identities.  In an epic fourteen-hour day, we shared perspectives, learned from one another, and brainstormed ideas for making SLS an even more inclusive community.

Sophomore, Kate Stamoulis comments, “I had never been a part of something so meaningful, and I can definitely say that it was indeed life changing.  I feel as though I have really found a passion for social justice, and it has opened my eyes to so many things about our world.”

We are teaching students how to articulate their perspectives and how listen to someone else’s perspective.  We are asking them to become scholars of their own epistemology and to think about why they think what they think.  In conversations about our differences, we are teaching students how to find common ground and shared understandings.  

In Mark Davis’s Unafraid blog, he said “There is nothing more valuable than teaching our children to think, debate, and learn from one another.”  Seeing our students’ eagerness to dive into tough issues and make a difference in their world…put that smile on my face.

 

 

 

Unafraid

“When I hear that word it feels terrible. It’s like someone just wiped away my family’s whole history.”

Earlier this month, the Student Diversity Leadership Council (SDLC) led an unusual Upper School faculty meeting. The students asked faculty to share thoughts about use of the “N-word” in our culture and at St. Luke’s. They asked us to think about its origins and whether different people should be able to use the word.

Some parents will be stunned to hear that language is used on the Hilltop, but your children will likely confirm it happens…a lot. Daily for many Upper School kids, and at least weekly for most. They might be quick to reassure you that “it doesn’t mean the same thing as it did when you were young.” It’s used in a “friendly” way, often by students of color, but not exclusively by them. It does not carry the same awful weight it once did.

The quotation at top is from a St. Luke’s student of color. It tells a different story. This young woman feels every ugly ounce of the word.

On Thursday, the SDLC will lead the N-word conversations with Upper School students during an extended “fishbowl” Meditation period. On January 30th, students and faculty will have deep, important, sometimes difficult conversations at our 3rd annual Social Justice Leadership Summit. Previous participants have found that this experience gives them both understanding and confidence to engage in discussions of differences and injustices (real and perceived) that most of us find so scary or sensitive that we avoid having them.

These are courageous events. Not just for the students and teachers who participate, but for St. Luke’s. We don’t have to have these hard conversations. We could just outlaw the N-word and move on. Talking is awkward. It also stirs up resentment. Several parents tell me they are offended by these conversations. Their children feel guilty even though they are not racist. “Don’t we have better things to spend time on?”

My answer is: No. There is nothing more valuable than teaching our children to think, debate, and learn from one another. Racial, religious, economic and gender biases and prejudices exist. While each of us wishes that were not so, we do our children a disservice by pretending otherwise. Our intent, our mission, calls us to teach our children to tune into issues beyond their own bubbles. Connect, contemplate, discuss, disagree, debate. Respect and learn from views different from your own, even as you perhaps deepen your own convictions and try to persuade others to your point of view. If we can’t talk about challenges, we certainly can’t solve problems.

The Atlantic published a thought-provoking piece highlighting what happens when students are unwilling—or unable—to engage in civil debate about matters close to the heart:

…I see some of these well-intentioned young people undermining the First Amendment; spitting on people with whom they disagree; using stigma and “call out” culture rather than persuasion against non-bigoted speech; physically intimidating members of the press; bullying students who disagree with them; shredding newspapers because they disagree with an article; and calling for dissent to be punished. They don’t understand why this is both counterproductive and wrongheaded.

We want more for our students. They will draw upon the courage of their convictions. They will embrace civil debate and tough conversations as a privilege and an obligation. They will be served well by their St. Luke’s experiences and the fact that we don’t shy away from uncomfortable topics.

They will be unafraid to go forth and make a difference in the world.

P.S. If you’ve not yet done so, please watch Jim Foley’s brilliant Meditation on hip hop and the power of language.  Jim educates, entertains, and ultimately persuades listeners that the history behind words matters.

More Masterful Meditations

St. Luke’s Mission: An exceptional education that inspires a deep love of learning, a strong moral compass, the commitment to serve, and the confidence to lead.

Last post featured Jim Foley’s Meditation. I said it was one of the best I’d ever heard. Doug Lyons, the Executive Director of CAIS, watched it and left a comment on this blog:

You “took my breath away” Jim. Important message – powerfully, artistically delivered. So proud to have you in the CT CAIS family. 

Love to you and the St. Luke’s community.

Shortly after reading Doug’s comment, I listened to Frank Henson deliver an outstanding Meditation. In fourteen minutes, his story (and magnificent story telling) brings the meaning of a strong moral compass to life.

On a similar, mission-focused note, Liz Perry masterfully turns up love of learning and turns down the pressure on her Upper School listeners. She tells of a morning, many years ago, when she did the unthinkable and overslept for an important test—shattering her grade and her self-image. Told with humor, the message of self-love and acceptance is invaluable.

My deepest gratitude to these exceptional educators. Give a listen; these are wonderful lessons for students of any age.

 

 

  

Jim Foley: Music & Meaning

Jim Foley recently delivered one of best Meditations I’ve ever heard at St. Luke’s. For those not familiar, Meditations are an Upper School tradition wherein a student or faculty member shares a personal reflection—anything meaningful—with the community. Last week, Jim shared his love of hip hop music and masterfully wove in lessons about anger, oppression, expression, and the mind-blowing power of words and imagery.

Jim’s presentation expands our lenses. He asks us to think about the messages we put out there. He tells us there is no place in this world for certain words that “belong buried at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.” While listening, I could not help but think about recent headlines re: Yale University and University of Missouri. So much pain—how much could be avoided if we learned, early on, to be respectful of one another?

Please enjoy this lesson from one of St. Luke’s exceptional educators: Meditation by Jim Foley, Assistant Head of School for Leadership & Innovation.

Joy Is Contagious

 

Every once in awhile, one crosses paths with a stranger and something almost magical happens. A deep human connection occurs. The encounter changes you. It leaves an impression on your heart.

Last night, our 7th grade class touched the life of a total stranger. That woman was moved to reach out to St. Luke’s via our Facebook page—and in doing so, changed us. My heart is full from her message…

joyiscontagious

We found Ms. Slavin’s words so inspiring that we had to find out more about her. It turns out she is a paralympian and a truly remarkable person. Read more about our new friend (and hero) Chris Slavin.

Colleges Are Not Fads

Sonia Bell, Director of College Counseling

Sonia Bell

 

Throughout the year, Sonia Bell writes letters to the new senior class. As Director of College Counseling, she shares bits of wisdom and her highly grounded view of college admissions. Sonia graciously allowed me to share a recent letter to the Class of 2016 (don’t miss the signature…classic Ms. Bell).

Dear St. Luke’s Class of 2016, 
 

I still remember those countless mid-mornings in elementary school when I found myself staring at my lunch tray, which was three quarters filled with food. I was still hungry and wanted so badly to finish the moist and succulent chicken fried steak (remember, this was Decatur, Georgia, where chicken fried steak was a dinnertime staple) but the kids at my table just kept talking about how nasty the cafeteria food was. They would laugh and say that not even prisoners would eat that food. I wanted to say, “maybe prisoners wouldn’t eat this food but I would and in fact, I am going to eat this food” but I was too afraid that I would be made fun of so I left that partially eaten food on the tray and spent the next several days imagining the taste of that strangely breaded food product that I left behind.

I am not in elementary school any more but I feel that same secret anguish when students see a college and they talk about how horrible that college is and how they would never go there and they go on and on and on picking on every little thing they saw that they did not like. In the back of my mind, I am thinking quite the opposite. I saw that school and I loved that school. I even bought a t-shirt that wasn’t on sale at the bookstore and tweeted how much I loved the place so the entire world (or at least those who follow me on Twitter) would know. And I can only imagine how another student, for whom that school is a top choice, must feel hearing a classmate trash the school he or she would be honored to attend. It doesn’t feel any better to hear a student say that College X is her “back up school that she will attend only if she can’t get in anywhere else” while another student would do the happy dance if she could be admitted to College X.

I don’t understand why some people talk about colleges like they talk about music, fashion, television shows or other representations of popular culture. I would be the first to admit that I don’t like techno music, clothing that is way too tight or reality tv. But colleges are academic institutions and they should not be treated as though they are fads that come and go. They are places that give first generation students opportunities that might not be afforded to them otherwise. They are places where discoveries are made that could save lives. They are places where students are challenged to see the world around them in a different way.

So the next time students look at a college and say to themselves, “who would ever want to go here,” I want them to rephrase the question to “I wonder what kinds of students are interested in this school.” I applaud genuine curiosity. I have little tolerance for behavior that degrades the choices and desires of others, even if it is unintentional. So celebrate the college choices of your classmates but more importantly, think about how your comments are going to make others feel.

Sincerely,

Ms. Bell
First Generation College Student
Happy and Quite Fortunate Graduate of Spelman College
US News Ranked #72
Forbes Ranked #273

Honor & Apologies

One of my Head of School privileges is addressing the entire student body during Opening Assembly. St. Luke’s Honor Code is always a focal point and this year I shared pointers for an often overlooked form of honor: the apology.

Below are my notes and a video of the address. Your thoughts are always much appreciated.

 



Opening Assembly Address 2015

Each year, at this assembly, I talk with you about the St. Luke’s Honor Code. We need to do this at the beginning of the school year, when we’re thinking about how we want to conduct ourselves for the next 9 months. As we look forward to the school year, let’s remember that our school’s motto – “Enter to Learn, Go Forth to Serve” – makes both learning AND caring for others our highest priorities. We see world around us filled with people at war, with prominent people cheating or breaking the law for personal gain, with angry politicians yelling at each other, and with millions of people insulting and mistreating each other on social media as standards of civility continue to decline. As we watch all of this, let’s remember that here at St. Luke’s we can take care of each other – every day. Let’s remember that at St. Luke’s our efforts to become our best selves bring us closer together, and the Honor Code asks us to be honest, respectful, kind and responsible. Let’s remember that, here on the Hilltop, we have a special obligation to think about others and to act in ways that make our own community – and the world – better.

Many years ago, St. Luke’s students created the Honor Code, so it comes from within us. Next week, each of you will review and sign it in your advisory. Read it and talk about it before you sign. Understand it. Because all of us need to live it. It says:

As members of the St. Luke’s community, we will maintain and encourage integrity at all times. We will be honest in what we say and write, and we will show respect for ourselves, each other, and all property. We will treat everyone with kindness, and we will accept responsibility for our actions.

 

Honesty. Respect. Kindness & Responsibility.

 

We demonstrate good character – and we uphold those four pillars of the St. Luke’s Honor Code – not simply by avoiding dishonorable actions such as lying, cheating and stealing. As important as not doing those things is to good character, we complete our character by what we DO – telling the truth, respecting each other, being kind, and taking responsibility for our actions.

For example, how do you take responsibility for your actions? (Certainly not the way Kanye West did it last week at the VMAs….) Telling the truth is part of it, but usually not enough to regain the trust of others.

I’m guessing all of you have heard the legend of the young George Washington, our first President, and the cherry tree. (In the actual book that promoted the legend, George Washington’s father said “George…, do you know who killed that beautiful little cherry tree yonder in the garden?…Looking at his father with the sweet face of youth brightened with the inexpressible charm of all-conquering truth, he bravely cried out, “I can’t tell a lie, Pa; you know I can’t tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet.”

I remember learning that story growing up, and never knowing if George actually felt remorse for his misdeed. Sure, he told the truth. But was he truly sorry? And did he offer to make amends for chopping down that beautiful little cherry tree? Not anywhere that I’ve seen.

Since it’s actually a legend, I looked around for other versions of it.* Maybe the cherry tree story actually went something like this:

“George, did you chop down that beautiful little cherry tree?”

“No, Dad.”

“I think you are lying.”

“No, no, no! I swear I did NOT chop down the cherry tree.”

“Son, (your brother) saw you out here with your axe. Your punishment will be much worse for you if you lie. Now, tell me the truth!”

“Dad, I answered your question truthfully. Still, I must take complete responsibility for all my actions. While my answer was legally accurate, I did not volunteer information. Indeed, Dad, I did cause the cherry tree to be lying on the ground. To do this was wrong. It constituted a critical lapse in judgment and a personal failure on my part for which I am solely and completely responsible. I know my answer to you gave a false impression. I misled you, my own father. I deeply regret that. I can only tell you I was motivated by many factors.

“ What I did, Dad, was use a saw to cause the cherry tree to fall. Only after the tree was already down did I go get my axe to chop off individual branches. So, I chopped off branches, but sawed down the tree. Look at the saw cut on the stump and the axe cuts on the branches. Therefore, legally, I told the truth. I ask you to turn away from the spectacle of this fallen tree and to return our attention to a solid family relationship. After all, who’s going to remember a cherry tree as a symbol of my character and ability to lead?”

There are so many things wrong with that answer. We can avoid taking responsibility for our actions by using slippery language, or legal logic, or a lack of genuine regret – in other words, telling the truth but not expressing the actual truth and remorse the situation calls for.

In fact, since our lapses in behavior and judgment tend to either hurt others or call our character into question (or both), a good apology might be the best way to take responsibility in those situations.

But, all too often, rather than a genuine apology, we make a “non-apology apology.” Some people, especially politicians throughout my lifetime, employ the passive voice. Rather than saying “I made a mistake, it’s my fault I’m so very sorry, how can I make amends?” they say something along the lines of “Mistakes were made,” which is a way of acknowledging an error while not taking any personal responsibility for it. In American History class you might learn about President Nixon’s famous use of this passive voice device when he non-apologized for his role in the Watergate scandal. But Presidents Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush also did it. With examples such as these from our highest leaders, it’s no wonder so many of us use the passive voice. Rather than use the active voice, as our English teachers urge, we use what language hawk William Safire called the “passive-evasive.”

Other people qualify their apology by using the simple two-letter word “if.” For example, “I’m so sorry if what I said offended you.” That’s very different from saying, “I’m so sorry that I said something offensive,” or “I’m so sorry that I made that hurtful comment, and it’s a cousin of the similar statement, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” Using “if,” or saying I’m sorry you feel that way, suggests that maybe you didn’t actually say something offensive or hurtful, and that the recipient of your comment is actually acting overly sensitive about the words you uttered.

A good apology helps us to own our words and actions. It makes an important statement about our character and starts the process of regaining the trust of others. It allows others to forgive us. In short, it preserves our relationships. There might even be times in your life – there certainly have been in mine – when you think someone has overreacted to something you said, and yet you decide to apologize. Not with a non-apology apology, which someone will see through right away, but with genuine remorse, because you value a relationship more than your need to be right. That’s super-hard. I’m constantly trying to improve in that area…J

So what makes a good apology? In addition to being genuinely felt and carefully avoiding passive or qualifying language that avoids personal responsibility, it seems to me that a good apology has three parts:

SLIDE:

3 parts of a good apology

  1. I’m sorry
  2. It’s my fault
  3. What can I do to make it better?

The first two should be obvious, and I’ve talked about how most people obscure the first two through passive-evasive or qualifying language. But almost everyone forgets Part 3, which might be the most important part. Having done wrong, what can I do to show that I understand and will atone for it?

We typically think of atone as meaning to make up for a wrong. While that’s right, in a basic sense, the original meaning of atone comes from Middle English, where it meant to become united, or reconciled.” When I learned that, it deepened my understanding of taking responsibility as the act of reconciling with the person – or persons – whom I had either let down or hurt or offended by my actions.

After saying “I’m sorry I said a hurtful thing,” or “I’m sorry I copied that paper,” if you add “and while I know it might not be possible, I want to do everything in my power to make things better between us” – if you do that, you will have begun the process of reconciliation, of repairing a broken relationship. That is the most human of actions. That doesn’t mean you can avoid the consequences of your actions, as you might serve a suspension or detention, or get a zero on the paper, or find that certain doors become harder to open. But you will discover a couple of very important things. First, that people are looking for these behaviors because they want to forgive you and preserve their relationship with you. And second, that you, the person who will walk through all the doors of your future, have gained self-respect, confidence, and the character to handle even tougher challenges and temptations.

*Several website contain variations of the “modern day” George Washington and the Cherry Tree story. I used this site’s version—though I customized it a bit for my audience.

 

 

Diversity: Messy, Imperfect, Essential

“The problems we face in the world are very complicated. Any one of us can get stuck. If we’re in an organization where everyone thinks in the same way, everyone will get stuck in the same place.”

Scott Page, a professor of complex systems, political science and economics at the University of Michigan, in an interview with the New York Times, illuminates why our diversity initiatives at St. Luke’s are so critical.

Diversity is not a matter of opinion, or a political posture. It is deep within the DNA of our school and central to our mission. As we wrap up this year’s theme of Building an Inclusive Community, it’s important to note that our work in this area is certainly not done. Unless our world changes drastically, we will never be finished teaching and learning about diversity.

Our focus on diversity and inclusion (the atmosphere that makes diversity possible) is not a sign that St. Luke’s has a “problem.” It does not mean that our families are racist. Quite the contrary, the fact that we spend valuable time focused on developing our students’ compassion, respect and appreciation for all is a sign of a healthy community—one that understands the deep benefits of its diversity work.

Does this work sometimes feel uncomfortable? Boring? Annoying? Accusatory? It may. These are things we need to talk about. With each other. With people outside the community.

Because diversity not only makes us better people—it also makes us smarter and more successful.

Data supports the cognitive benefits of diversity: Research done with college freshmen and high school seniors examined how students’ experience with diversity in college improves their critical thinking.

The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2014 study shows that students who are enrolled at campuses with stronger acceptance of diversity tend to realize greater benefits from interacting with other races and ethnicities. Among these benefits are diversity-related skills, such as “ability to see the world from someone else’s perspective or openness to having their own views challenged.”

The business world has also embraced diversity and its direct ties to corporate success. From a recent Forbes article: “The business case for diversity has never been more front and center than it is now…and why not? Basic economic theory suggests that consumers will correct for a company’s lack of diversity by simply not spending money there—making slow-to-change organizations extinct.” The writer goes on to point out: “Perhaps most exciting, top workplaces are approaching diversity problems with a more forthright, open tone. A long recognized best place to work, PricewaterhouseCoopers’ diversity division is led by Maria Castañón Moats who proclaims on their company webpage, ‘At PwC, we believe in confronting the hard realities—and then doing something about it.’ Then there’s a Clorox corporate blog post which aptly rationalizes, ‘…If you cannot answer the diversity question clearly and favorably when it is asked in the recruiting process, young people are going to choose to work elsewhere.’  These examples represent a more resolute stance compared to the old days of corporations simply valuing difference or promoting a tolerant environment.

Research fully supports the need for diversity and inclusion, but the research doesn’t say that it is easy. Diversity work is bumpy, uncomfortable, messy and imperfect. But we have to talk about it—honest conversations help us move forward.

These are times that, more than ever, we need to remember our school’s mission to increase our students’ knowledge, compassion and ability to thrive in the world.

How could we be St. Luke’s without a passion for and dedication to diversity?

 

Let’s Get This Right: Raising Healthy Children

Last week I referred to an excellent piece by NAIS President John Chubb entitled Thinking About Emotion.  I hope you read it, because it describes in a most thoughtful way a central challenge facing schools, parents, and everyone who cares about young people: the alarming rates of anxiety and depression among our children.

Last year, the World Health Organization released a report calling depression the number one cause of illness and disability in teenagers and pre-teens worldwide.  In 2010, Psychology Today reported that five to eight times as many high school and college students exhibit symptoms of “major depression and/or an anxiety disorder” than teenagers of fifty years ago.

In the face of such alarming trends, it should give us pause to hear Mr. Chubb say “We know far more about how to teach reading and mathematics than how to promote emotional growth and happiness.”  While this statement rings true, I hope neither educators nor parents will relent in seeking better outcomes for our children.  After all, what good are great academic and college placement resumes if we produce young people with neither the non-IQ skills that correlate with professional success nor the emotional well being to lead healthy, productive lives?

Recently, a high school student in Palo Alto, California wrote this powerful essay for her local newspaper.  In it, she describes the destructive impact of constant high expectations and the achievement culture reinforced by school and parents.  Honesty compels us to admit that we live in a similar environment here in Fairfield County.  But even if we didn’t, we should take seriously the likelihood that our children experience the same pressures and the same emotional risks as middle and high school students across America.

And don’t we—parents, schools—know a few things about how to promote emotional growth and happiness?  I think we know a lot, but we find it difficult to do what we know breeds healthy, happy kids. We fear that doing those things will lower their test scores, enable others to garner the limited places in highly selective colleges, and weaken our competitive advantage.  But getting this right could mean the difference between raising healthier generations or worsening the rates of adolescent depression and anxiety.  In the end, will we re-prioritize?  Will we implement new practices that support children’s wellbeing?  Or will we rely on conventional practices, unreasonable achievement expectations, success measured by test scores and college admissions, and other approaches that seem to do children so much emotional harm?

We don’t need to drive kids crazy to educate them. Given freedom and opportunity, without coercion, young people educate themselves. They do so joyfully, and in the process they develop intrinsic values, personal self-control, and emotional wellbeing.”  

This excerpt from Psychology Today points to something our faculty has observed (and been thrilled by): Give students more control over learning and they are more motivated. They find work that they influence more rewarding, valuable, and enjoyable. We’ve seen this for years in our Scholars and Independent Study programs. We’ve seen it in many individual teacher’s classrooms (think of Nancy Sarno’s art classes where students are pushed to explore and trust their instincts).  But recently, we’ve had opportunities to see it on a larger scale. And we like what we see.

This year’s J-Term offers a powerful example. The entire ninth-grade participated and as one student said: “J-Term is really your journey, and you choose what you’re going to get out of it.” What teachers got out of it was deep satisfaction as young students embraced responsibility for meaningful learning. These children were ready to collaborate and plan. Ready to research and interview and reflect. Ready to knock our collective socks off at the final symposium.

designLab Director Michael Mitchell has a name for the joy and investment found in self-directed work: Hard Fun.* He sees it in his engineering courses where students learn through a “mastery” approach—moving forward at their own pace as they master concepts. He sees it in St. Luke’s various maker activities, and school-wide, optional experiences such as our Hackathon, and Rube Goldberg events—where students work tirelessly, not for a grade, but for pure pleasure.

Certainly “hard fun” is not the single antidote to student angst and depression. But ideas for educating without driving kids crazy certainly merit our attention.

As always, it takes a village to care for our children. I welcome your thoughts on this important topic. Please share your views using the comment button (just click on the speech bubble icon just right of the headline) or send me an email: davism@stlukesct.org

*From Seymour Papert’s Hard Fun

UPDATE This very relevant piece just in from the NYTimes: When the culture expects “uber-excellence,” kids suffer, and even die: “Push, Don’t Crush, the Students”

Thinking About Emotion

People with purpose, autonomy, relatedness, and competence live happier lives, both immediately and deeply. Success is not a matter exclusively of the heart or the mind, of thought or emotion. It is both. Which makes it hard. Which explains why self-esteem or engagement or grit, or other undeniable virtues, never amount to much in and of themselves.”     – John Chubb

The above is from NAIS President John Chubb’s current blog Thinking About Emotion. I have the privilege of serving with John on the NAIS Board of Trustees. His focus on the subject of student mental health and well-being is well placed and his observations—spot on. I encourage you to read his post and welcome your thoughts.

 

SJLS: A Student Perspective

My thanks to Colette Juran ’17 who answered our call for a student perspective on the Social Justice Leadership Summit. Well done Colette…

On April 16th 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was incarcerated in Birmingham, Alabama, confined by law enforcement for protesting peacefully. From that very jail cell, Dr. King wrote a monumental letter discussing the urgent state of racial injustice that engulfed Alabama’s largest city. Within this letter exists a quote that skillfully distills any social justice movement into a single sentence, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” 52 years later at the St. Luke’s Social Justice Leadership Summit (SJLS), I, Colette Juran, received that very quote on a small, pink slip of paper. Although initially I did not fully appreciate it, as the day unfolded the quote’s truth became apparent to me. Fact of the matter is, although some people like to believe humanity has progressed past it, inequality is still prevalent in our society today and it will likely be that way for a very long time.  This inequality, however, should not be viewed as a daunting certainty of life, but a challenge for humanity to consider the balance of privilege in society and collectively better itself. From that day, I learned that it doesn’t matter whether a person who has privilege wants to participate in social justice movements, what really matters is what one does with that privilege, as current events have warned sometimes apathy can have terrible consequences. Upon understanding this challenge, my experience at SJLS inspired me to impact the world around me more than I could have ever hoped.

As it was my second year attending the Social Justice Leadership Summit, I had some insight into how the day was going to develop. I didn’t know exactly what events would occur or what topics we would discuss, but it was evident that everyone was undoubtedly going to face a healthy measure of discomfort. The idea of being entirely honest about one’s life, opinions, and experiences may seem immensely terrifying, but it was entirely necessary. Differences can never be changed if they are not acknowledged and progress can never be achieved if everyone refuses to make the first move. As Dr. King teaches us, this uncertainty and slight awkwardness is immeasurably better than ignorance and inaction.

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Colette (far left bottom) with fellow SJLS attendees.

 

These principles greatly influenced the activities that we were involved with, such as a debate on everyday scenarios of discrimination and the construction of a paper chains corresponding to our own individual privileges. Originally, those activities seemed quite intimidating to me as they involve on a lot of ideas that I don’t typically think about in my day-to-day life. For example, one of the questions for the paper chain activity required us to add a link to our chains if our race or ethnicity was positively depicted in the media. As a white female, my race’s portrayal in the media was never something I’ve had to think about as the majority of shows on television feature a primarily white cast. This may seem like a trivial concern, but our discussion later on showed for a young person of color being exposed to role models in the media, that aren’t just a caricature of racial stereotypes, is a vital role in development. Additionally, a large part of SJLS was thinking about our own impact on the community in which we live, learn, and grow. Therefore, a long period of time in the afternoon was dedicated to devising plans to progress the St. Luke’s Community. Ideas from a middle school buddy program to a social justice leadership day were organized; however, the bulk of the efforts were focused around modifying school curriculum to be more inclusive. In the upcoming months, interested attendees of SJLS will meet with department heads and administration across the school to achieve that very purpose.

Beyond completing various social justice oriented activities and creating several actions plans to educate the St. Luke’s community, SJLS provided me with a real example of the people affected by various adversities: my peers.  At around nine o’ clock on Saturday night, some of the most emotional and impactful moments I’ve witnessed in my six years as a St. Luke’s student occurred at the closing event, the social justice sharing session. This event was an opportunity for people to share material relating to social justice through any method or media. Some presented poetry, videos, or music, but for most this was an occasion to speak directly about the hardships and morals provided by their own lives, with of course much crying. As each person talked, they unmasked a part of themselves that is usually concealed such as mental illness or sexuality with the utmost honesty. I cannot share the nature of what was spoken about, as they were all extremely personal, but I can conclude that I am proud of everyone that even did so much as to flash the ASL hand symbol for “I love you” to reassure someone during a difficult moment.

The sad fact of life is that in the modern era very few people stop and take time to consider the lives of others. Most people are too consumed in their own issues to realize that the people they pass in the hallways are not just extras in their biopic, but they have lives as full as their own. Although it is impossible to remember every passing face, it is not only possible, but also imperative to recognize that we all experience life differently, with different stories, different thoughts, and different opportunities. These differences, however, should not segregate us, as only bigotry and hate can motive that, but should be honestly spoken about, as that is the first step to making social change. These life philosophies of speaking openly from the heart, considering the experiences of others, and actively working towards a better future for humanity, should not be reserved to one summit. Ideally, they should be applied to the St. Luke’s community as a whole, because if I’ve learned anything from SJLS it is that life is infinitely better when it is not attempted alone and in the dark.

Above & Beyond in Action

Preserve and Innovate. Shame on us if we choose one over the other. We have a dual need. So we hold preservation and innovation in our two hands. In one hand we hold what is essential, proven, and timeless about school—that “personal element” we all value so highly. And in the other, a culture of collaboration and innovation that enables us to be a school of the future, and in fact remain a school in the future.

This opening from my State of the School presentation comes back to me often. And with it, questions.  Are we continuously examining our structure, our teaching methods, and our assumptions? Are we asking ourselves, is this the best way to teach today?

Three January initiatives fill me with gratitude for the extraordinary faculty who enable me to answer those questions with an emphatic yes.

 

The first January, or J-Term, just came to a close for our ninth grade.  J-Term began, as Liz Perry outlined in our On the Horizon video, as a question: How would we teach if we didn’t have the traditional confines of set class periods, separate subjects and tests? In response, a talented group of teachers came together and launched an eight-day, immersive learning adventure. Students worked in teams on an array of human rights issues (homelessness, illiteracy, clean water, women’s rights—to name a few). They employed design-thinking, learned how to create a plan of action, interviewed experts and conducted extensive research on and off campus.  

As important as the knowledge gained, new levels of freedom and responsibility drove deeper understanding, self-directed teamwork, and commitment to action. In Liz Perry’s words, “We wanted to stretch their comfort zones…Discomfort is growth.” Read more about J-Term.

 

Screen Shot 2015-02-09 at 11.19.34 AMSt. Luke’s first Hackathon also took place in January. Center for Leadership Director Jim Foley and Upper School Science Chair Michael Mitchell were the mad scientists behind this creativity-packed weekend. Jim’s blog, including a video from our Marketing & Communications team, captures the Hackathon magic better than I ever could. Suffice it to say, young minds expanded and a new SLS tradition was hacked.

 

Dr. Stephanie Bramlett, Director of Diversity and Upper School Student Life, and Grant Russell, Director of Academic Technology, launched St. Luke’s second annual Social Justice Leadership Summit. As I said last year, this summit creates a lifetime experience. This year’s attendance doubled and nearly all of last year’s attendees returned. The word is out: St. Luke’s Social Justice Leadership Summit is not to be missed. Read more about the SJLS.

If I can persuade an attendee or two to share their personal thoughts, I will feature their voices right here next week.

My deep gratitude to the Above & Beyond teachers who put heart and soul into creating exceptional experiences for our students.

Building & Breathing

“I can’t breathe.”

I cannot get Eric Garner’s dying words out of my head. As everyone knows, those three words have become a symbol of the struggle to make sense of Mr. Garner’s death.  In the aftermath of his death, “I can’t breathe” also became a rallying cry for those who wanted to express the feelings of black people who, perceiving an unjust policing and legal system in America, felt (and feel) stifled and fearful for their lives.  “I can’t breathe” also means “I feel trapped, isolated, unable to do anything positive about my second-class position in America.”

I have also heard people use “I can’t breathe” in a mocking fashion, to discredit the belief that Eric Garner was a victim of police brutality.  In this version, people say, sarcastically, “If he could say those words, then obviously he could breathe.”  In that view, the police not only needed to use deadly force to subdue Mr. Garner and protect themselves, but sympathy for Garner comes from a place of reverse discrimination and political correctness.  Even if intended as a joke, such a statement feels callous at best, and makes it even harder for people with differing perspectives to talk it over in an atmosphere of mutual trust and safety.

Starting with the first word (“Building”) of our school year theme, we have acknowledged that we have important work to do, together.  Building an inclusive community requires creating building blocks, the foundation for having difficult but trusting conversations.  Sometimes that means finding areas of widely shared agreement, such as the fact that, though tragic, Mr. Garner’s death should not lead to anger at ALL police officers. No story has only one side. Acknowledging that can enable people to express more emotional perspectives such as fear, anger, and confusion.

On our hilltop, during the three weeks between Thanksgiving and the December break, I watched and listened as St. Luke’s students, faculty and parents tried to express their opinions and feelings about race and the best ways for St. Luke’s to build an inclusive school community.  This was entirely appropriate, as we have named “Building an Inclusive Community” as our school-year theme and those three weeks saw the national reactions to grand jury decisions in Ferguson and Staten Island as well as the horrific shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland.

I kept asking myself:  What is the proper role of a school—St. Luke’s specifically—in responding to such historic, painful events?

I watched and listened to students and adults who felt scared, isolated and diminished by what had occurred.  I witnessed others who felt galvanized to action, or at least to frank and deep conversations.  I saw others, black and white, who preferred not to enter the conversation.  Their fears included feeling even more exposed as an outsider in a majority culture, or being accused of either racism or political correctness.  I myself felt many of these very fears, and was not-so-subtly accused of some of these tendencies.  If that made me feel a little gun-shy about entering the conversation, I can only imagine how others felt.

What, indeed, should St. Luke’s do to explore, understand and express what it means to have an inclusive community?  How can we create respectful and safe space for students, for faculty, and for parents to listen to and learn from each other on this urgent, thorny topic?  How can we honor people whose ideas differ from our own?  And, most important, how can we make everyone feel they are full members of the St. Luke’s community?

One answer to these tough questions is to speak up, or Speak Out, as several brave students did during an Upper School gathering just before break and then again at today’s Meditation (see video below). Another is to invite inspiring and unifying speakers like Wes Moore onto our campus and into our hearts. And then there is St. Luke’s Social Justice Leadership Summit. I can’t say enough about this event led by Director of Diversity Dr. Stephanie Bramlett and Director of Academic Technology Grant Russell. I’ll quote myself from last year’s post about this summit: I did not know what to expect when I signed on to attend the summit, or even when I walked in.  But I walked away with something special – in my head and in my heart.  I saw adults and adolescents engaged in ways moving and profound, creating a memory both beautiful and uplifting.  In more than thirty years as an educator, I have never participated in an event that built as much trust, or inspired as much faith and hope as the SJLS.

While I lay claim to few definitive answers, one thing I know for sure:  talking, compassion and respect are the building blocks for our inclusive community. When we nurture these skills and values in our children, we honor our mission of lifelong learning and social responsibility.

As we head into this Martin Luther King holiday weekend, I leave you with these words from Dr. King:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

Recommended Reading: St. Luke’s Sports Information Specialist, Zach Peace, wrote a thoughtful piece about sports and MLK: St. Luke’s Sports Zone

Peace On Earth

Last night I came across this “Remembering Sandy Hook Victims” article. I admit, it’s a struggle to focus on the faces of the children. I don’t want to feel that mix of anguish and sorrow moving through my gut again. The re-realization that this actually happened.

I look at their toothless smiles. I read the stories about what they loved (horses, dancing, arm-wrestling, dolls). I read again about the teachers and administrators who leapt in front of bullets. I can’t change what happened, but I can remember them.

Recently a video of Samaria Rice appeared in my email. She describes the night her 12-year old son, Tamir, was shot dead. Though the circumstances are completely different from Sandy Hook, I feel the same obligation to bear witness. This should not have happened. I need to hear and feel this woman’s grief and anger. I need to remember, in the words of Dr. King, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.  We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Peace on earth. Sometimes it feels like a wish we bring out during the holidays—like ornaments soon wrapped up and stuck back on the closet shelf. How do we change that? How do we make kindness, respect, and justice for all a tangible, reachable goal?

In a few weeks, our ninth grade will begin St. Luke’s first January Term (J-Term). This will be an eight-day cycle when regular classes will suspend and students will study one domestic or world problem, collaborate on solutions, and present their findings and ideas at a symposium. While still in eighth grade, students were asked what topic they’d most like to explore. Their collective answer: human rights. Students at this age are ripe for asking big questions—Why is there unfairness in the world? What can I do about it? We want to fan that flame and show our young people that they can use their hearts and minds to change the world.

Later in January, St. Luke’s will hold our second annual Social Justice Summit. Student and faculty participants will engage in activities and examine case studies that deepen our awareness, strengthen our capacity and commitment to oppose injustice, and foster trusting relationships across the perceived barriers of race, ethnicity, religion, identity, gender, age and power. When we intentionally strengthen our students’ (and our own) capacity and commitment to oppose injustice, we demonstrate a St. Luke’s tenet—developing good people is as important as developing great scholars.

Lyndon B. Johnson said, “Peace is a journey of a thousand miles and it must be taken one step at a time.”  St. Luke’s does not have all the answers, and we’ll certainly uncover areas of disagreement and misunderstanding even as we seek to understand each other better. But I know we’re walking the right path. Our Center for Leadership encourages students to find your voice and make a difference. Imagine the difference every community could make by teaching children to respect all people— not because it’s good manners or politically correct—but because it will bring peace on earth.

 

My Meditation: Baseball, Injustice, Hope & Honor

This morning, I delivered St. Luke’s first Meditation of the year. It was part explanation, part expectation, part confession, and hopefully, part inspiration. I hope you will take a moment to listen, if you are so inclined. I did my best to connect the dots between our summer read, our inclusion work, the Honor Code and the world at large. Whew.