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!

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.  

 

 

Teachable Moment: Civil Discourse

Every four years the St. Luke’s History Department organizes and oversees a mock Presidential election at school, with advisories dividing up into states to “replicate” the Electoral College.  Last week’s mock election showed that we had many students and faculty supporting each candidate, with roughly one third voting for President-elect Trump and roughly two thirds voting for Secretary Clinton.  Our outcome mirrored Connecticut’s but not the national results, and we saw democracy in action.

It won’t surprise anyone to learn that emotions were high on all sides going into this election, and we have seen that continue in the days since November 8th.  Not surprisingly, the divisions we see in our country at large also play themselves out here at school.  In a few instances, this has led to behaviors not in keeping with our core values, school culture or Honor Code.  Knowing this, and wanting to remind everyone of our expectations, I made the following points at this week’s Upper and Middle School town meetings:

-At St. Luke’s we value respectful discourse and encourage discussion of different viewpoints.

-Among other things, respectful discourse means not making your disagreements personal.  For example, it’s not in keeping with our values to call someone an idiot, or to suggest that they are a bad person, or a racist because you disagree with their point of view.  We expect that no one will engage in behavior or use language intended to intimidate or humiliate anyone.

-If you’re struggling with how to manage a difficult or emotional conversation, seek out a faculty member or an advisor for advice.

-Our culture of kindness doesn’t mean you can’t disagree or strongly argue your point. In fact, debate – respectful debate – is the essence of a healthy democracy, and a core element of what it means to participate as a citizen of a democracy. Whichever candidate you supported, and whatever policies you agree or disagree with, now and in the future, I hope every one of you will not shy away from understanding the issues, debating them with others, and working hard to make our democracy strong and healthy.

What I didn’t say, but perhaps should have, is that everyone has a right to feel how they feel.  If you feel excited and optimistic because your candidate won, that’s understandable and OK.  If, on the other hand, you feel sad and fearful, that’s also understandable and OK.

Since November 8th we have seen a spike in overt harassment of minorities in schools, including schoolyard bullying, taunts, and even the Royal Oak middle school students seen chanting “Build the wall” on a video that went viral.  It’s not a partisan act to condemn these things and to assure those people in our community who fear what could happen to them or their loved ones that we will keep them safe here at school. This is how a school community acts with integrity and stays true to its fundamental values.

And so we will encourage—no, insist on—civil discourse at St. Luke’s.  While we have no wish to monitor every interaction among students, when we learn of students not respecting each other we address it and will continue to do so.  As the St. Luke’s Honor Code reminds us:

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.

Read Look for the Beacons for more about honor at St. Luke’s.

 

True Patriots

To criticize one’s country is to do it a service and pay it a compliment. Criticism, in short, is more than a right; it is an act of patriotism—a higher form of patriotism, I believe, than the familiar rituals and national adulation.  

—Senator J. W. Fulbright

 

When Senator J. W. Fulbright told a roomful of students at Johns Hopkins how important it is to question and criticize your country, he was describing what it means to be a citizen. For him that meant criticizing McCarthyism and the Vietnam War during his 30-year career in the US Senate. To him, patriotism was about far more than singing a song or pledging allegiance. It was about standing up for what you believe.

It may seem strange that loyalty and disagreement go hand in hand, but consider this: a real friend tells the truth; learning means asking questions; and honest discourse, the kind that brings about change, begins from a place of respect. Finding that place is tough, and it requires a great deal of practice.

At St. Luke’s we practice finding that place. We practice empathy, and we practice finding our voice. We learn to have difficult conversations and  remain respectful of diverse opinions. Our confidence to lead grows from this practice.

During the course of this Presidential election, a great deal of the discourse has been uncivil, and it’s hard to imagine how Senator Fulbright would have reacted. Appalled at the current culture of personal attack? Or approving of the dissent so essential to democracy? Both, I suspect.

When we head to bed on November 8th, a significant number of Americans will not be happy. Regardless of outcome, true patriots will stand by their country, ready to criticize and improve it and defend every citizen’s right to an opinion and a voice.

On November 11th, St. Luke’s honors the very men and women who defend our rights and secure our freedom. Our annual Veterans Day celebration takes place during Grandparents Day so that we may salute those who served across generations. We’ll sing the National Anthem, learn about the origins of this special day, and remember the courage that defines our nation.

Veterans & Grandparents Day Assembly 2015

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.

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.

Time Well Spent

Here we go. Tomorrow we head out for winter break. Some will travel, some will staycation. I hope all of us will relax.

The arrival of 2016 marks a new year of life. As we sip our champagne or sparkling cider, we’ll reflect: Where has the time gone? Are we spending our precious hours wisely?

I began reflecting early (actually, I’m not sure I can stop reflecting), and was rewarded by research affirming St. Luke’s investment in Diversity and exploration of Mindfulness.

Diversity Makes You Brighter reinforces St. Luke’s commitment to a genuinely inclusive, respectful, school environment for all. No easy task, but worth every awkward, messy, moment and difficult conversation. Worth the frustrations and pain that are part and parcel of this work.  As the professors who authored the piece observe:

Diversity improves the way people think. By disrupting conformity, racial and ethnic diversity prompts people to scrutinize facts, think more deeply and develop their own opinions. Our findings show that such diversity actually benefits everyone, minorities and majority alike…Ethnic diversity is like fresh air: It benefits everybody who experiences it.

On the Mindful front, the Harvard Business Review has me eager to ramp up St. Luke’s early work in this area. How Meditation Benefits CEOs features executives who meditate to hone leadership skills. The author references expanding research suggesting “meditation sharpens skills like attention, memory, and emotional intelligence.”

Mindfulness can literally change your brain, cites a multitude of studies indicating  meditators “demonstrate superior performance on tests of self-regulation, resisting distractions and making correct answers more often than non-meditators.” They also learn from past experience which improves decision-making. The authors continue:

These findings are just the beginning of the story. Neuroscientists have also shown that practicing mindfulness affects brain areas related to perception, body awareness, pain tolerance, emotion regulation, introspection, complex thinking, and sense of self. While more research is needed to document these changes over time and to understand underlying mechanisms, the converging evidence is compelling.

Are we spending our precious hours wisely? Yes, I say gratefully, we are.

Happy Holidays St. Luke’s.

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.

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

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?

 

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.

sjls2015groupphoto_w

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