Taking the Lead on Mindfulness

Just over a year ago, I wrote this blog post about the benefits of mindfulness.  I was fairly new to meditation and yoga but increasingly excited about the possibilities—for myself and St. Luke’s.

Since then, I’ve continued to practice and study data around mindfulness. Even more compelling than the science, however, are the people I’ve encountered. Once tapped into mindfulness, a network of kindred spirits began to appear—each with a tale of improved focus, presence and capabilities.

One such spirit, Erika Long,  is St. Luke’s parent. Erika and Will Heins—both former Wall Street warriors—along with Michelle and Nick Seaver (featured in the aforementioned blog ) could not find a secular meditation group locally, so they created one. In May of 2014, New Canaan’s Community Mindfulness Project (CMP) launched.

Just three years later CMP is thriving. Over 6,000 people have attended sessions (including me). This make it happen spirit inspired me to take the lead and create a    St. Luke’s mindfulness event. Thanks to my incredible team, the CMP and The Spence School, The Mindfulness in Education Conference will come to life on June 10, 2017.

In an unbelievable stroke of good fortune, Susan Bauer-Wu, President of the Mind & Life Institute will be our keynote speaker. There will be something valuable for anyone interested in how mindfulness prepares the mind for learning.

All parents and faculty of Fairfield and Westchester independent schools are welcome to attend. I cannot wait and hope you will join us.

P.S. Recommended reading: One Second Ahead, The Mindful Leader, Real Happiness

St. Luke’s is a private, secular (non-religious) independent school in New Canaan, CT serving grades 5-12. 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.  Come visit us!

Scholars Symposium 2017

“If Blues Band is the day in the fall when I feel most happy and proud of our community, the Scholars Symposium is that day in the spring for me. I realize what good hands our futures are in when I hear these incredible students sharing their knowledge, ideas, and passion with such remarkable poise and conviction.”

                                                                              -Liz Perry, Head of Upper School

Liz took the words right out of my mouth. Blues Band and Scholars Symposium bookend the school year spectacularly. And I know why: both events leave you in a bit of awe.  You know you’ve witnessed something truly exceptional.

St. Luke’s Scholars 2017

An exceptional education that inspires a deep love of learning, a strong moral compass, the commitment to serve, and the confidence to lead.

St. Luke’s Scholars are the School’s mission come to life. Listen as a teenager educates the room about Infectious Disease in West Africa, or Genetic Luminescence, or Damnatio memoriae in the Roman Empire…it’s the epitome of deep learning.

These students become experts and that’s learning that lasts. When you develop a topic, execute a research plan, put forth a thesis, draft an extensive research paper and present your findings in public—I can promise you, it’s something you will remember forever.

Last year, my daughter Sarabeth worked on her Global Scholars project. She studied healthcare and nursing in India. I saw firsthand how a student moves from passionate but fairly superficial understanding of a topic to deep understanding. For Sarabeth, progress came through research, questioning, writing, rewriting and translating her findings into something meaningful for an audience. P.S. She’s studying to be a nurse.

In a few weeks, videos of the Scholars presentations will go online. I’ll share and urge you to watch a few. I bet you’ll find yourself thinking “This is exceptional.”

 

St. Luke’s is a private, secular (non-religious) independent school in New Canaan, CT serving grades 5-12. 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.  Come visit us!

SJLS: Curious Leaders

“Curiosity is, in great and generous minds, the first passion and the last.”

Samuel Johnson

 

We are all born curious. And if lucky…our curiosity grows.

Tapping our students’ innate desire to know more about each other and the world around us—that is the inspiration behind the Social Justice Leadership Summit (SJLS).

I attended the SJLS in 2014 and wrote: “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.” Nearly three years later, the SJLS continues to thrive. There were 35 students and faculty the year I attended. This year (January 28, 2017), there were sixty.

Dr. Stephanie Bramlett, Director of Inclusive Excellence & Leadership, describes the SJLS to students this way: “SJLS is a one day leadership retreat where you will explore your own personal identities, learn about perspectives different from your own, and most importantly seek commonalities with classmates. With all the divisions in our world right now, we should all be working a little harder to find commonalities.”

The SJLS is also a catalyst for student leadership, as Dr. Bramlett points out: “Two years ago students put together ideas that inspired the launch of my new American Cultural History class. Last year, students saw a need for more diversity programs in Middle School and this year, those same students will run a Middle School workshop called Ally Afternoon. Another idea that students made a reality is “Dive-Ins” where students host conversations and welcome diverse perspectives. They don’t just talk. They take action.”

I’m particularly enthusiastic about the Dive-Ins because they foster civil discourse—an essential leadership skill.  Topics have included Colin Kaepernick’s controversial protest of the national anthem and a Dive In about students’ hopes and fears around the new president. More than 50 students have dived in to tough, important conversations.

My hope is to have a student or two share reflections from this weekend’s summit. The positive anticipation leading up to this weekend was palpable. According to Dr. Bramlett, senior Matthew Lindsay best captured the pre-summit excitement: “It’s going to be lit!”

I’m pretty sure that’s good 🙂

St. Luke’s is a private independent school in New Canaan, CT serving grades 5-12. 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.  Come visit!

Trying…Losing…Winning

Walking onto the Hilltop for the first time in 2017, I thought: I am excited to come to work. I feel as excited as I did in 2002, my first year at St. Luke’s. Back then, I was driven by goals and possibilities. Today, I am still fueled by results—a thriving community, exceptional teachers, a campus that just keeps getting better, and students who astound me.  

Just before break, Student Council President Porter Bowman ‘17 delivered a Meditation. In it he shares defining moments from the year, including his recent appearance on Jeopardy Teen Tournament.

As everyone who watched Porter’s Jeopardy appearance knows…he lost. But that’s not how Porter sees it.  As he told classmates, this went through his mind after betting and losing it all during Final Jeopardy:

I stood there realizing my dream was ending…Deflated but not defeated in that moment I wanted to shake the hands of the explorers, pioneers, scientists, politicians, leaders and authors whose individual life’s work had helped propel me to that Jeopardy stage. I look back on the years of classes and teachers and memorable moments that fill nearly every nook and cranny of my brain, including my heart and my soul…I didn’t need a win to validate my passion.”

Porter is an authentic leader. He’s genuine, unafraid to be real and vulnerable. He turned what could have been a negative experience into an asset that deepened his love of learning. Then, he had the courage to shine the spotlight on his loss and say but look what I gained. With humor and grace, Porter demonstrated that “taking risks” and “learning from failure” are not lame platitudes but a powerful strategy for growth.

At the State of the School, we talked about having a mission vs. living a mission. As Porter describes his deep love of learning, strong moral compass, and commitment to serve (the confidence to lead is self evident), it’s clear our mission is living, breathing, and playing Jeopardy.

 

 

The Confidence to Lead

A group of ten year olds earnestly discusses whose life they will affect—the young woman in Indonesia whose village needs water filters, or the young man in Jordan trying to pay his school fees?

 The Fifth Grade Kiva Club is making a difference in the lives of people all over the world. Their teacher (Ty Wieland) provides structure and students take the lead—presenting work to peers, driving support and selecting fund beneficiaries. So far, the Kiva Club (including advisories and families) has loaned $6,400 to more than 120 people working to better their lives .

Take a look at the video below, created by our students (with a bit of help from Ty and Academic Technologist, Eli Fendelman). I watched it and marvelled at the elements of our mission on display—an exceptional education that inspires a deep love of learning, a strong moral compass, the commitment to serve and the confidence to lead.

I am grateful to these compassionate, young leaders who are living our mission. They inspire their peers, teachers and, most of all, their  Head of School.  

 

 

State of the School 2016

“I’d been told that the State of the School evening was not to be missed. That’s certainly an understatement. My wife Meghan and I walked out of the building and we both were virtually speechless. Truly, I’m at a loss for words to express what a fantastic, inspirational evening it was. Best I can do is, simply, wow! I’m sure there are more eloquent ways to say it, but that one unsophisticated word seems to say it all.

—St. Luke’s Parent, Christopher Rosow

Many years ago, someone asked me: “What’s the goal of the State of the School?” I answered: “To make sure every parent feels informed and leaves thinking—I’m so happy we chose St. Luke’s.”

When I receive a note like the one above, I think mission accomplished. This year, the St. Luke’s mission was front and center as Board Chair Bob Wyckoff and I—along with several guest speakers—presented Living the Mission. It was the first State of the School to feature student speakers and as you might ascertain from Christopher’s comment, they were a big hit.

My thanks to these poised, articulate students, to the Jazz Band and their leader, Bob Leinbach, who sent us into the night still buzzing from their electric performance, and to Co-Chairs Barb Clayton and Michelle Diliberto whose parent team once again executed a truly exceptional dinner celebration.

If you missed it…

SOS blog-Sam INSPIRICA

Click to view slides and photos from the State of the School 2016.

When Possibilities Bloom

I know what Emily Dickinson meant when she wrote her poem entitled “I dwell in Possibility.”

I am right there with her: every morning when I arrive on the Hilltop and see the faces of teachers and students with dreams and plans; every evening when I leave and hear the echo of things tried and goals met.

I feel it at the start of the year when the sense of possibility is everywhere, and I feel it even more now, as I see those possibilities turn into accomplishments.

Upper School Academic Awards

Upper School Academic Awards

When we recognize the academic, leadership and character accomplishments in our Upper School Awards Assembly and Middle School Day of Celebration, we dwell in possibility and inspire others to work hard and value the St. Luke’s culture of excellence, good character, and kindness.

When we practice good sportsmanship, not only do we dwell in possibility, but also we triumph on the courts and on the fields as our teams become champions in varsity Softball, Golf, Girls Tennis, Girls Soccer and Boys and Girls Basketball.

When we focus on communication and language, we dwell in possibility and celebrate stunning performances in our World Language Department—where our French students took 1st place at the Olympics for World Languages and attained national recognition for their excellent performances on the 2016 National Spanish Examination, National French Contest and National Latin Exam.

At the beginning of the year, those who saw potential in debate and in the Social Justice Leadership Summit transformed that belief into big wins for the debating teams and the largest Summit ever.

Finding da Vinci Challenge

Finding da Vinci Challenge

When our students identified themselves as potential problem solvers, Middle Schoolers rose to the Finding da Vinci challenge, and 9th graders workshopped action plans for issues as big as poverty and gender identity—then acted on those plans for the culmination of J-Term.

The possibility of practice blossomed into virtuoso performances in this week’s musical concerts and two recent plays: This is a Test and Avenue Q. Earlier this month, eight St. Luke’s students were invited to the selective Connecticut Music Educators Association All State Choirs.  Just days ago, St. Luke’s theatre students received 18 Halo Award nominations—Connecticut’s high school equivalent of the Tony Awards.

18 Students in Connecticut Art Education Association Youth Art Celebration

18 Students in Connecticut Art Education Association Youth Art Celebration

Emily Dickinson wrote poetry all her life, but it was not until after her death that 40 volumes—1800 poems—were discovered, rocketing her into the pantheon of American poets. She described “the possible” as a “slow fuse lit by the imagination.”

On June 3rd, when we gather for Commencement—the ultimate St Luke’s celebration of what’s possible for each and every one of us—we will feel that glow.

 

St. Luke’s Success

Many very different people make up the St. Luke’s community. Yet, without exception, we share a common goal: we want our children to be successful now and in the future.

I think a lot about success. I’m fascinated by how hard it is to define. Its meaning changes—like a chameleon—with every use.  For some it brings to mind wealth or fame. For others, it might include a strong family life or contentment.

At St. Luke’s, we measure our success by our mission—instilling a deep love of learning, a strong moral compass, the commitment to serve, and the confidence to lead. That, to borrow from Head of Upper School Liz Perry, is what gets us up in the morning.

St. Luke’s interpretation of success defines us. It keeps our ladder leaning up against the right wall. Learning, stretching, becoming compassionate, confident, intellectually and emotionally well-rounded people. Those words have the ring of St. Luke’s success.

One does not have to look far for examples..

Such as twenty senior scholars sharing a year’s worth of hard-earned knowledge during the Scholars Symposium. Students boldly took on topics such as: The Role of the Internet in a Free and Closed Society, The International Oil Conflict, The Effectiveness of Commerce-Based Philanthropy in Combating Global Poverty and Setting the Stage for Augustus, Rome’s First Emperor.

Such as Middle School students working in mixed-grade teams to design an interactive sculpture for our science wing. Our designLab launched the Finding da Vinci challenge during a Middle School assembly. Students were confident, curious and creative. They collaborated, built prototypes on the fly and “pitched” ideas. They embraced the process of trial and error, and felt the triumph of figuring it out.

On the Hilltop, we see success in glorious art on our walls, professional performances on our stages, and the sportsmanship that defines our playing fields. We see it in a young writer reading a personal story, beautifully crafted and expressed. And we see it at the COLT Poetry Contest—the Connecticut  Super Bowl of language competitions—where St. Luke’s students took first place in five categories.

Even more indelibly, we see St. Luke’s success in the reflections of a 9th grade girl who learns something about herself, the world and her capacity to make a difference:

I have just left the two hour J-Term showcase, and I have a feeling of accomplishment that I have rarely had throughout my life. I have always thought that the feeling of getting a challenging test back with the big red A on the front was one of the best feelings you could have at a school. However, right now, I realize that I was wrong. After the J-Term showcase, I feel that I have professionally pitched an organized idea that does true good for the world…Doing a week of hard core research on this topic has truly opened my eyes to the world around me. Before this week, I considered poverty to be an issue that was more prevalent in other states or countries. However, this week I learned that poverty is a much more local issue than I thought. This topic is so sad to think about, and I really learned a lot about myself this week. I think I realized that I should be less ignorant toward the issue of poverty and try to do more to help.

What does success mean to you? I’d like to know. Share your thoughts using the comment feature on this page—or write to me directly at davism@stlukesct.org.

 

                            

No Unicorns

Mindfulness is not going to solve your problems. It’s not going to render your life a nonstop parade of unicorns and rainbows. Nonetheless, this is a superpower.

– News Anchor Dan Harris,  Why Mindfulness is a Superpower

I love this statement from Dan Harris. It pokes fun at the “feel good” aspects of mindfulness without diminishing its tremendous potential. The superpower Harris refers to is focus. Mindfulness helps quiet and calm the mind. Sounds simple, but consider the firehose of distractions at work, school and home. Learning to focus, despite the cacophony, is an invaluable skill.

“Meditation—more than anything in my life—was the biggest ingredient of whatever success I’ve had.”  

– Bridgewater Associates Founder, Ray Dalio

I began practicing yoga and meditation about fourteen months ago. I’d read a lot about CEOs—such as former St. Luke’s parent Ray Dalio—who employ meditation to manage stress and improve performance. Dalio was interviewed at Georgetown University’s meditation center and explained that meditation “opens my mind and relaxes me…it gives me an ability to look at things without the emotional hijacking, without the ego, in a way that gives me a certain clarity.”

Like Dalio, Nick and Michelle Seaver had life-altering meditation experiences. You can learn more about their journey in How Meditation Changes a Go-Go-Go Couple and Nick’s TEDx video The Gift of Silence. Nick will co-host the March 5, Fathers & Friends Breakfast with me. Our topic: How Mindfulness Makes You A Better Parent, Partner & Leader will touch on our personal experiences and the growing body of research behind the mindfulness movement.  Register for Fathers & Friends

At St. Luke’s, we’re exploring ways to bring mindfulness into our school day. With benefits that include lower anxiety, greater resilience, and increased focus, incorporating mindfulness seems like a no brainer (pun intended).

I’ll leave you with links to some worthwhile articles. Please share your reactions, ideas, and experiences. Use the comments feature on this page—or send me an email.

 

New York Times: The Hidden Price of Mindfulness

The Atlantic: How Mindfulness Could Help Teachers & Students

CNN: Calming the Teenage Mind in the Classroom

NYT: How Meditation Changes the Brain & Body

TedX: Neuroscientist Sara Lazar on Meditation & Brain Growth

Mindful: How the Brain Changes When You Meditate

Harvard Business Review: Mindfulness Can Literally Change Your Brain

Forbes: Why the World’s Best Leaders Want to Meditate on It

Harvard Business Review: Why Google-Target- And General Mills Are Investing in Mindfulness

Harvard Business Review: How Meditation Benefits CEOs

Bloomberg: To Make a Killing on Wall Street Start Meditating

Mindful: Free Mindfulness Apps

 

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.

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”

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.