Lessons from Penn State

Early this month, 18 fraternity brothers were charged in the death of a young man. He died during a drunken “pledge night.” From every angle, this story is pure heartbreak. For the senseless loss of a life just beginning. For his devastated family. For the 18 “brothers” who did not set out to cause harm—but whose actions and inactions will forever haunt them.

In the wake of this sadly familiar tale, I received the email below. It was written by St. Luke’s alumnus Drew Lord ‘14 to the Interfraternity Council (IFC) at Cornell. In addition to serving as president of the IFC, Drew is president of Cornell’s Cayuga Watchers group which aims “to become an established national model for combating high-risk drinking.”  USA Today wrote about Drew and the group in 2016.

As our class of 2017 prepares to leave the Hilltop and make their way in the world, I’m eager to share Drew’s wise words. I am deeply grateful for his leadership. He is living every element of the St. Luke’s mission and has indeed gone forth to serve:


From: IFC President <president@cornellifc.org>

Subject: Lessons from Penn State

Date: May 7, 2017 at 3:30:37 PM EDT

To: IFCALL-L@list.cornell.edu

Hi everyone,

At this point, I’m sure you have all heard the news of the horrifying death of Timothy Piazza, a member of Beta Theta Pi at Penn State, who died after falling down the stairs at his chapter house following a fraternity “initiation ritual.” While the details of this incident are beyond disturbing, they are important for us to reflect upon.

First, we must all recognize that under no circumstance is it acceptable for any of us — or for our peers — to reach a dangerous point of intoxication. Indeed, it seems like there might have been forced drinking involved in Piazza’s situation. It goes without saying that forcing anyone to drink copious amounts of alcohol is unacceptable. However, in more general terms not related to Piazza’s situation, be safe with your alcohol consumption — pace your drinks, do not drink with the goal of blacking out, and be aware of your limits. It’s also important for us to realize that we all have a place when it comes to mitigating the harms of high-risk drinking. Sometimes your brothers, or your peers, need an active bystander to help keep them in check. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being that person.

Second, and most important, if someone is to ever be in a situation like Piazza’s — call for help. Many times we hear our friends advocate for letting a drunk or injured person “sleep it off.” This is problematic — oftentimes, we don’t know whether the BAC of this person has reached its peak and is declining, or if it has rather not yet peaked and still rising in their sleep. Keep in mind Cornell and New York State’s Good Samaritan Protocol, and remember that immediately taking action to do the right thing will always have a favorable outcome for all parties involved.

Third, do not — in any capacity — try to “cover up” any type of incident. The results of the grand jury investigation demonstrate the consequences of acting in the way of the brothers at Beta Theta Pi the night of Piazza’s death. Following a review of GroupMe messages, texts and surveillance video from the night of his death, the fraternity and its brothers faced over a total of 850 charges. Eight of the brothers were charged for involuntary manslaughter, aggravated assault, reckless endangerment and hazing. Four brothers were charged for reckless endangerment and hazing. Six were charged for evidence tampering, while the chapter itself is facing charges including involuntary manslaughter and hazing. In a situation like this, there is no other option than to seek help from a medical professional as early as possible.

Cornell is not immune to the harms of high-risk drinking or hazing. The situation at Penn State serves as a somber — but incredibly important — reminder of the incident that occurred at Cornell’s SAE chapter in February 2011. Ever since, we have taken great strides to make our fraternity community more safe, responsible, and aware. With a few high-risk days coming up, let’s hold the lessons we’ve learned close.

Please let me know if you have any questions or concerns. Thanks for reading through, and I hope you have an awesome week.


Drew Lord
President, Interfraternity Council
Cornell University


Drew Lord @ Cornell

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!


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.



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

Safe Teens & Sane Parents

Elizabeth Driscoll Jorgensen knows a lot about teenagers. She’s a nationally recognized expert in substance abuse counseling, with an excellent track record of engaging resistant teens and motivating them to change. She’s also hilarious.

Last week, Jorgensen gave a talk at St. Luke’s for parents of teens, aptly entitled Delay Your Gray. She admitted that, while parenting a teenager isn’t always pretty, it helps to keep in mind that you’re the grownup. According to Jorgensen, children need two things in order to be happy and healthy: to know they are loved for who they are and that there are limits to their behavior.

Children need and want time with their parents, but Jorgensen—who frequently polls teens —tells us that in high-achieving families, teens often feel that this time turns into a to-do list of academics and athletics. With so little “quality time” together, it’s no fun to be the party pooper. But the reality is that love and limits go hand in hand, especially when it comes to substance abuse. She asked us to face facts:

  • Connecticut has a 20% higher binge drinking rate than the national average.
  • Affluence is a risk factor for drug and alcohol use.
  • It’s “cool” to smoke and even deal weed—the stigma is gone. 
  • Median age for first-time pot use is 12.9.
  • The plastic adolescent brain is permanently changed by cannabis.
  • The later the “first use” of alcohol and marijuana, the less impact on the cognitive functioning of the adult brain, and the lower the chance a person will experience substance abuse in adulthood.
Liz Jorgensen at St. Luke's

Liz Jorgensen at St. Luke’s

According to Jorgensen, teens’ brains are wired for learning through new experiences, and not for understanding consequences. They aren’t always aware of the dangers of riding in a car with a friend who is drunk or high. To them, smoking pot for the first time or swallowing a pill is all about now.

As parents, we always have to think about consequences and impact. And we have to do that while our teens’ emotions are running just about as hot as they ever will.

Jorgensen reminds us it is possible. Teens should test their wings but need to be aware of the no fly zone. This means being the one who says yes maybe you can go to a friend’s house, as long as I meet the friend, and I know that his or her parents will be there. It means being the one who agrees to rescue that child any time of day or night as long as they promise to call. It means saying all this calmly, even if your teen throws a tantrum.

Jorgensen likes to wear a badge that identifies her as the “world’s meanest parent.” She wears it proudly, and often passes out extra badges to the parents she counsels. I applaud her refusal to go along with the “we all partied at their age” justification. She pushes back hard on that thinking and warns that lack of limitations often leads to substance abuse and other coping issues. She sees it firsthand every day.

Among Jorgensen’s many quotable lines was my favorite: “Being fired by an emerging adult child is a sign of success as parents.” May we all get fired one day.

Below are the slides from Jorgensen’s presentation, including much of the data. My personal thanks to our Parents’ Association for bringing Liz Jorgensen and her invaluable parenting wisdom to the Hilltop.

Just hit pause to spend time on a slide.


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.



A Life-Saving Night


Before you leave for vacation, or settle in for stay-cation, please mark your calendars for March 31: The Power of Prevention: Success Stories and Strategies for Healthy Teen Years. The event is hosted by the RAM Council, an organization built around New Canaan students who lead substance-free lives.

I’ll be speaking on a diverse panel (see flyer below). We’ll each address substance abuse through a different lens.  I will share my story of watching a loved one struggle through addiction and recovery. Several other panelists have personal stories to share as well.

RAM Council president, Joyce Sixsmith, said the goal is to make the threat and pain of addiction real:  “…if we recounted stories that brought to life how heroin has affected families it could make a difference.”

You can read more about RAM and Power of Prevention in this New Canaanite article.

There are no reservations or tickets required.  I hope to see many of you there—with teens in tow.  See the flyer below for more information.

P.S. If anyone doubts the need for this talk…see links below:

Heroin Has Killed Six Young People from New Canaan – New Canaanite

Heroin Use Becoming An Epidemic in Fairfield Community – Norwalk Daily Voice

Heroin Killing Connecticut Residents at an Alarming Rate – New Canaan Patch

Pair Arrested for Heroin Possession in New Canaan – Eyewitness News

New Canaan Police Have New Tool for Fighting Heroin Overdoses – New Canaan News

Heroin Epidemic Increasingly Seeps into Public View – New York Times


Screen Shot 2016-03-10 at 8.50.53 PM


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.




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.




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:


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.



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.