Visionaries on the Hilltop

Some of the most forward-thinking minds in the fields of technology, finance, education, and politics have or will soon be on the Hilltop—visiting, inspiring debates and sharing theories that resonate across campus.

David Pakman addresses St. Luke's Board

David Pakman addresses St. Luke’s Board

Internet entrepreneur and venture capitalist David Pakman, a St. Luke’s parent and Board member, spoke to trustees about “Technology, the Future, and Us.” David, a partner at Venrock, specializes in researching and predicting the future. We sat riveted as he covered everything from driverless cars (much sooner than you think) to artificial intelligence. The big take-away: St. Luke’s investment in STEM curriculum is well placed as professionals of the future—regardless of chosen fields—need a firm grasp on how their digital world works.

David arranged for John Katzman to share his insights into the future of education with our board. John,  a well-known educationalist, is currently CEO of The Noodle Companies. He also founded and served as the CEO of The Princeton Review, the SAT prep company, and created 2U, an educational technology company. John shared provocative ideas about the future of independent schools and their need for increased technological sophistication.

Our faculty and Board had a private screening of the Sundance Film selection Most Likely To Succeed and a discussion with the education consultant for the film Stephanie Rogen, a leadership expert and St. Luke’s Board member.


Gareth Fancher, Liz Perry, Julie Lythcott-Haims and Mark Davis

Gareth Fancher, Liz Perry, Julie Lythcott Haims and Mark Davis

Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of the best-selling book How to Raise an Adult , spoke last week to faculty, students and parents. Her core message, which clearly resonated with all audiences: “We have to deliberately put opportunities for independence in our kids way.”

St. Luke’s parent Aris Kekedjian, GE Head of M&A/Business Development, spearheaded the sale of roughly $200 billion of GE Capital assets in a whirlwind 18-month period that helped strategically position GE as a more nimble industrial company.  In this year’s first Lunch and Lead sponsored by the Center For Leadership, Mr. Kekedjian delivered a tour de force of leadership lessons gleaned from his personal and business experiences to thirty-five students and several faculty members.

On September 27, the day after the first Presidential debate, Ari Fleischer, St. Luke’s parent and former White House press secretary, will speak to grades 8-12 about the election. In addition to sharing his thoughts on the campaigns and the issues at stake, Mr. Fleischer will respond to questions from our students.  Yes, you can bet I plan to be a fly on that wall.

Wow. These thinkers bring to the Hilltop much more than just their expertise. They bring their ideas. And they bring their questions.

How can schools stay relevant and sustainable in the crush of new information and network technology? How do we encourage a love of learning, not merely a quest for achievement? How do we provide an exceptional education—one that lights up each student’s curiosity and leadership qualities—while thriving in the competitive world of standardized tests and college admissions? How do we, as a country in 2016, elect our next President, and how do we talk with students about the controversial nature of this year’s campaign? (See my “Hamilton” Meditation for more on those last questions).

It’s electrifying, a bit daunting, and the perfect challenge for a community full of people who love to learn. What an exciting time and how fortunate that St. Luke’s has visionaries from whom we can learn.


Balancing Act: Tech Benefits & Boundaries


It’s my pleasure to feature a post by Matt Bavone who wears two hats at St. Luke’s: Upper School Classics teacher and Academic Technologist. Matt shares much-needed guidance for those trying to remove the phone surgically attached to their teen (spouse? self?).

One of the most common observations we hear from parents is that their children seem overly attached to—even obsessed with—their phones. In December, the Hilltop unplugged for the day and we all experienced life without our mobile devices, including cell phones. This was a big adjustment for the adults in the building, too, as we are also accustomed to being connected. But being “unplugged” is not a realistic solution on most days. So how can we—the adults—restore balance as we care for and raise Generation Z? We know parents are looking for good ideas.

This recent article by Janell Burley Hofmann underscores the need to responsibly introduce teens and tweens to technology. Hofmann pioneered the Slow Tech Parenting Movement, and she has created a sample contract for giving her 13 year old son his first iPhone. Her overarching message is that with great power comes great responsibility—and there is no greater power than having all of the world’s information outlets at your fingertips.

We cannot hope to shelter our young ones from technology, it is all around us. We are steeped in it daily, whether we think about it or not. Yet it is this thoughtfulness, this deliberate use of technology that is most important to pass down and teach. We parents and teachers—Millennials, Gen Xers, and Baby Boomers—are tasked with being role models for its appropriate use. We will falter at times, give in to habit or distraction, but so will our young wards. The most important thing that we can do is to keep an open and honest conversation going and Hofmann’s article contains excellent talking points to that end. And though the task may at times seem daunting, as she puts it: “we are in this together.”

—Matt Bavone

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.

Why Unplug?

It’s my pleasure to feature Academic Technology Director Grant Russell as my guest blogger…

Why are we unplugging on Friday, December 12?

I posed this question to several faculty members. Others offered their opinion without prompting. Here is a sampling of responses.

For more face time with students. To practice talking in person. To have time to reflect. To raise awareness about our technology use. To realize those moments when we reach for our devices and what that means. To challenge our students differently. To train intentional and academic use of technology. To refocus our attention on what this device is and does for us. To remember that technology is important at school.

This multitude of reasons speaks volumes of our faculty’s ability to think deeply about the pedagogical approach we are taking with the integration of technology into academics.

Despite the benefits that technology affords, we often focus on our perceived overdependence on it, the anxiety to be constantly connected, and other negative effects that it has on us. Email is a terrible monster. The Huffington Post sucks too much of my time. Snapchat, Instagram, and Yik Yak are overwhelming. I haven’t checked my text messages in 5 minutes – I just know that someone texted me! We tend to focus on technology’s intrusive elements and take for granted the wonder of these devices that enable us to know more, to do more, and to be more.

Yes, I am optimistic about the screen in front of me. No, I am not unaware of the challenges it presents to me. Part of me knowing more is knowing when to step away and look at and interact with the world around me. This is a skill that I practice. It is a skill that we all should practice. It is a skill that we are practicing when we unplug on Friday, December 12.

I would argue that mostly everyone knows that being intentional about technology use requires practice and reflection, and that perhaps the best way to use technology is in moderation. The difficult part is actually motivating ourselves to practice being intentional, to reflect, and to use technology in moderation. And so we can think of Friday, December
12, as a gentle catalyst for motivation.

I would also argue that being mindful of our interactions with our mobile devices is now an important aspect of education. Having open, honest, and sustained dialogue with students now about technological balance, fears, hopes, benefits, and challenges will be highly valuable once they leave for college and confront the next wave of technology without our guidance.

But let’s remember. Wonderful things can happen in the absence of mobile devices. Wonderful things can happen with mobile devices. Our challenge is to create a balance and to revel in the fact that we can have the best of both worlds and mitigate the perceived challenges that technology presents.

This is why we are unplugging on Friday, December 12.

State of the School 2013

Four hundred and ten St. Luke’s parents, faculty and staff gathered on the Hilltop for the 12th annual State of the School (highest attendance in the past seven years!).  Every year, I think: This just can’t be as good as it was last year. And every year, I’m happily proven wrong. The warmth of the evening, the easy camaraderie, and the caring – about our school and one another – all add up to a deeply satisfying evening.

Presenting Guy Bailey the Distinguished Faculty Award

Presenting Guy Bailey the Distinguished Faculty Award

I began the presentations portion of the night with two honors that left me struggling to get through my words. First, I thanked former Board Chair Christine Seaver for her legacy and leadership. She received a standing ovation which she says she will never forget. Next, I presented the Distinguished Faculty Award to Assistant Head of School for Teaching and Learning, Guy Bailey.  Along with the joy of this honor came the bittersweet news that Guy will retire at the end of this school year. As I told the audience, “That will be our school’s great loss, of course, but it will also make our profession poorer.”

In his first year as Board Chair, Bob Wyckoff embraced our State of the School theme of “possibilities.” He expertly guided us through exciting developments, including a 3D animation of the new Science Wing. Bob also gave a concise overview of St. Luke’s financial sustainability and wrapped up with a stirring video clip from St. Luke’s 2013 Graduation Ceremony.  It features English teacher and SLS alum Frank Henson as the Parent Speaker (his son Eliot was graduating). Frank’s address is, in Bob’s words: “Incredibly inspirational and a wonderful example of the magic that can be created for students by a great teacher speaking to hard work, service and the love of our St. Luke’s Community.”


“If we teach today as we taught yesterday, we rob our children of tomorrow.”

                                                                                                   – John Dewey, 1915

I used this statement from John Dewey to kick off my presentation. It captures the timeless need to evolve for our children. I spoke to the call for deeper learning experiences students will remember and apply throughout life. I shared many examples of wonderful SLS teachers creating learning that lasts on the Hilltop.

I also highlighted the extensive research of the St. Luke’s Learning & Technology Task Force and the four recommended areas of focus that emerged from their work:

1) Digital Citizenship: Our children were born digital natives but they must be taught to be safe, responsible digital citizens.  We are working to expand and deepen the digital citizenship curriculum in both the Middle School and the Upper School.

2) Online Learning: St. Luke’s is piloting a variety of online and blended classes that offer students more freedom to learn when and where they want, to move at their own pace, and to interact with teachers and students across the world.  With five online and blended offerings, St. Luke’s has invested prudently in this exciting realm.  As we learn from our collective experiences, we’ll improve and grow the opportunities for our students.

3) The Design Lab concept, currently in development, will expand St. Luke’s engineering courses, increase access to the FabLab and all of its amazing equipment, and create resources and curriculum to fuel design thinking among students and faculty.  Much more to come on this initiative as it comes to life.

 4) Mobile Technology: Last year, we launched a one-to-one iPad program in the eighth grade. This year, we expanded that program into ninth grade.  We did this to give continuity to our 9th graders, to allow us to build on the previous year’s experience, to increase facility with laptops combined with iPads, and to learn from mistakes – in short, to apply our credo of continuous improvement.

St. Luke’s will continue to develop our mobile technology program in the belief that an increasingly digital world asks students to become fluent users of technology.  They need us to guide them to become skillful and ethical users of the best tools, to prepare them for their lifelong education and careers.

I had the pleasure of wrapping up with a video, created by our Marketing & Communications Department, highlighting the world of possibilities at St. Luke’s – through the eyes of several SLS teachers and wise beyond their years students.

By next week, I’ll post a video of the State of the School presentations. For now, I hope this synopsis provides a sense of key elements.  I want to thank a community that transforms every gathering into a family reunion. The Above & Beyond award goes to the amazing group of parents, led by State of the School co-chairs Jane Ahrens and Cindy Holland, that transformed our lovely Dining Commons into an upscale banquet hall. We could not do this every year without a passionate, talented team of individuals. To everyone involved – thank you for proving me wrong yet again.

The End of Universities…Or Not

On the heels of last week’s OESIS post, below are two recent articles with different, thought-provoking perspectives:

The End of the University As We Know It  predicts the ”financial collapse of numerous private colleges and universities.”  Author Nathan Harden asserts that when the college bubble bursts, “it will end a system of higher education that, for all of its history, has been steeped in a culture of exclusivity. Then we’ll see the birth of something entirely new as we accept one central and unavoidable fact: The college classroom is about to go virtual…The push and pull of academic exchange will take place mainly in interactive online spaces, occupied by a new generation of tablet-toting, hyper-connected youth who already spend much of their lives online. Universities will extend their reach to students around the world, unbounded by geography or even by time zones. All of this will be on offer, too, at a fraction of the cost of a traditional college education…How do I know this is true? Because recent history shows us that the internet is a great destroyer of any traditional business that relies on the sale of information.”   (The bold is my addition. That last sentence needs to be fully digested).

Damon Linker, author of There Is No Education Bubble, takes a more moderate stance:
“After so much tumult, it’s only natural that pundits and prognosticators would attempt to look for the next bubble and predict when it’s likely to pop. That has led some to conclude that a combination of skyrocketing tuition and technology-driven innovations will soon lead to the collapse of the American university…It’s a gripping story. But it’s almost certainly wrong…If the point of attending a university were simply to acquire knowledge — and if we assumed, on the basis of the most minimal evidence, that virtual learning works just as well as classroom learning — then the answer to that question would be obvious. The trouble is that the value of a college education — the thing that leads the earnings of college graduates to remain quite high relative to those lacking a college degree — derives at least as much from the credential conferred upon graduation as it does from what students learn along the way.”

I strongly recommend reading both articles in full. These represent the core of the strategic debate about how to best prepare students for the future – a debate we must engage in here on the Hilltop.  A college counseling friend used to talk about how elite colleges “manufactured scarcity” (e.g. created excessive demand for their limited slots) in the 1980s and 1990s.  Now, it seems, online learning will mean colleges will have to “manufacture access” in order to survive, to say nothing of thrive.  They will compete to enroll more students rather than merely building applicant pools many times larger than their static enrollment.

Whether Harden or Linker is correct, it’s a fascinating debate.  Schools such as St. Luke’s will need to bet on one or the other, because we are preparing our students and families to enter the brave new world.

An OESIS of Learning

Update 2/11: Comment from SLS IT Director, Elizabeth Preston

I could not agree more w/Mark’s original post below.  Online Learning has been a focus of research, investigation, and experimentation at St. Luke’ s School for a couple years. There are clear ties between online learning and St. Luke’s mission. In order to address  goals such as fostering lifelong learning, social responsibility, global connections, and a rewarding college experience – it’s clear we have to provide our students with online experiences. The OESIS conference brought together independent schools from across the country. We were able to hear about various programs in all stages of development. This helped me envision possibilities for St. Luke’s. It looks like an East Coast OESIS gathering is planned for the fall.  I will be there!

Original Post from Mark Davis 2/4:

If I had doubt (I didn’t) about the massive significance of online learning, it would have been erased at OESIS 2013 (pronounced: oasis). This inaugural Online Education Symposium for Independent Schools, held last week in Marina del Rey, California, attracted 117 Independent Schools from 29 states and sold out every available ticket. Joining me were Science Chair Michael Mitchell, Librarian Elizabeth Nelson, Director of IT Elizabeth Preston, Upper School Academic Technology Coordinator Lee Bruner, and Trustee Tracy Duncan.  Michael and Tracy serve as co-chairs of the School’s Learning and Technology Task Force.

Billed as “an unprecedented opportunity to engage in a dialogue of critical importance to independent schools,” OESIS explored the vast potential of online and blended learning as well as the financial, cultural, structural, and pedagogical challenges.

Over forty people spoke but my favorite was keynote speaker Michael Horn, co-author of Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.  Horn emphasized that effective disruption will not attack the current education system but “go around and underneath” to create a more “modular, customizable” system. Online learning, said Horn, represents high potential for leaving behind “monolithic, batch-mode” thinking and creating new, more customizable ways to learn.

For me, OESIS affirmed St. Luke’s decision to enter the online and blended learning arena and our determination to grow this crucial area. Best of all, our emphasis on a blended approach underscores the vital role of teachers while deepening and strengthening students’ learning and their relationships with their teachers. Exposing students to this form of learning has become (note: has, not will become) an essential step toward preparation for college and beyond. I look forward to bringing you news about St. Luke’s evolving online and blended learning philosophy, and will continue to share relevant articles such as those below:

New York Times: Universities Offer Free Online Classes

Yale: Faculty Embraces Expanded Online Plan

New York Times: MOOCs

Deeper Learning

Recently I tweeted Lydia Dobyns’s candid blog post entitled “A ’21st Century’ Education Is SO Last Century.”  Like a breath of fresh air, she challenges the educational community to look to companies like Google and Apple for inspiration and direction to engage and enrich today’s students.

The first step? Leave behind the outdated classroom of lectures and rote memorization, empty tests and arbitrary catch phrases. The second? Adapt to the 24/7 connected world we live in today. The third? Embrace Deeper Learning.


“Ultimately, it is about delivering core education in today’s world by today’s standards of success. We graduate too many students ill-prepared for college or career. Just changing from textbooks to laptops won’t change that success rate.”

According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, deeper learning prepares students to

  •         know and master core academic content
  •         think critically and solve complex problems
  •         work collaboratively
  •         communicate effectively
  •         be self-directed and able to incorporate feedback.

Deeper learning is a philosophy good teachers have embraced for centuries. Technology just gives us more chances than ever before to stretch further, aim higher, and dive deeper.

It’s an exciting time to be an educator.

Cloud Power at SLS

Welcome back St. Luke’s families. I hope the school break was rejuvenating. Elisabeth and I enjoyed a tranquil week on a white beach, and as much as we love home, were not in a hurry to return. To my delight, one of the first communications I opened back on the Hilltop was an email from SLS parent Bob Lord. Bob shared an article about his son Drew’s (’14) experiences with “cloud technologies” at SLS (see A Real Cloud Power User below).
Bob also praised Lee Bruner (US Technology Coordinator and Spanish Teacher) for his “great use/integration of the iPad, Twitter and Evernote” in his Spanish class. A high compliment from any parent but all the more rewarding coming from a “rock star” of the digital world (I’m quoting one of my team members). Bob is the Global CEO for Razorfish, one of the largest interactive marketing and technology companies in the world. He has been extremely generous with his time and expertise, recently participating in an SLS technology “think tank.”
 My thanks go out the Lord family for placing this wonderful spotlight on SLS, and to Lee and the many other SLS teachers who create exceptional learning experiences that serve our students now and into the future. Take it away Drew…
A Real Cloud Power User
A paperless classroom can turn a student into a cloud computing power user, tweeting his homework, taking tests on an iPad, and replacing old-school spiral notebooks with apps. Drew Lord, a sophomore at St. Luke’s School in New Canaan, CT, is glad his teachers are using cloud technology effectively.