The Increasing Relevance of Great Schools in a Technology-Driven World

St. George’s Independent School Head Chaplain, Jessica Abell, recently asked two questions during a homily at the Germantown campus: “How many of you have Alexa at home? And, what do you ask her? The first question elicited a multitude of raised hands, and the second question included answers such as: “I ask her the answer to math problems.” “I ask her how to spell things.” “I ask her to tell me funny jokes/to read me stories/to teach me dinosaur facts.” How interesting. One student said Alexa can also order things…Yikes!

In my experience as a student, I didn’t have Alexa to provide such information. I remember arguing with a classmate early in middle school about who had more major championships to his name, Rod Laver or Ken Rosewall. We could not resolve such a dispute quickly.  We needed a library or an authority on the topic, perhaps our tennis coach. As a result, we just argued in such situations, at times seemingly endlessly. It was not unheard of for similar disagreements to end at last with grass stains and bruises. Today’s students get to move quickly past finding out the right answer to questions far harder than the Laver or Rosewall question and toward more important challenges. How is what I know important? What else do we need to know? Where is the most reliable source of information that might help us? What do we now do as a result of what we now know? How do we communicate what we have learned?The brand of middle school disagreements I participated in are virtually extinct today.  Of course, the quick accessibility of facts is not a news bulletin in 2018, but understanding its impact, its challenges and opportunities, occupies those of us working with students. As educators, we might feel tempted to feel a bit obsolete in a world where asking a question often takes longer than it takes to provide the answer. However, the teachers at St. George’s, teachers willing to take advantage of what we know about how kids learn best, have never been more necessary for young people, for we are moving into a time when the primacy of content delivery is waning, and the role of teaching skills, such as collaboration and synthesizing disparate pieces of data are ascending. It is not good enough to know something (though students must also know things); they must know what to do with what they know, how to make meaning from it, and how to work with others to create shared understanding and purpose. They also have to learn how to disagree, how to compromise, and how to stand their ground. And increasingly, we must help student become accomplished at discriminating what is true in a bottomless sea of falsehoods. Against a backdrop of national debates that are too often devoid of quality thinking or requisite facts, the work of our school is taking on a greater importance. I am reminded daily at St. George’s that the best learning experiences happen when our students are connected to each other through the work of a great teacher. In such an atmosphere, students have the appropriate space to work together, to disagree and to agree, and to find common ground.

Indeed, becoming educated is not a solitary act, and it does not have just one beneficiary. The education our students work toward at our school is a gift to them individually, yes, but it is also a gift to the families they will be a part of, the professions they will occupy, and the communities within which they will live and serve. Choosing St. George’s and partnering positively with the school to educate these remarkable kids has a ripple effect that will undoubtedly last a life-time. In short, as parents our choice of and partnership with the school is among the greatest individual gifts we can give our children, and it is far, far more as well—such an education has the power not only to transform the trajectory of the lives of our individual children, but also the power to transform the neighborhoods, cities, and nation they will inhabit.At St. George’s we are busy providing experiences that go far beyond simply content. Whether our kids are making soap and lip balm through the second-grade bee project or they are testing water in our Collierville wetlands with University of Memphis researchers, our students are allowed to go deeper into learning than memorizing facts and content. As advanced as the technology Alexa and Siri represents is, it is equally as limited. Students need a great school like ours to make learning experiences more engaging and more collaborative, thus allowing us to prepare them to thrive in the lives they will lead.

Snow Day (!) and an MLK Talk that didn’t happen

The author with Mic on a Memphis-style snow day

After being lobbied by everyone–including my daughter who was superstitiously flushing ice cubes down the toilet (apparently taking this action ensures a snow day), I made the decision to close school for a snow day today just before 5:00 a.m. this morning. It was not a hard call—ice was building up and more icy, snowy weather was on the way. Right now in fact, I am looking out the window at hard snow blowing quickly by. Such decisions are not easy—every school head seems to have stories about such a decision going wrong. When bad winter weather comes calling, a snow day can be an easy win though—everyone, most everyone, loves a snow day.

While the Snow Day (!) decision was not difficult, it meant I would not to be able to give a talk I had been planning for some time to mark Martin Luther King Day (given that we have a day of service on Monday, my talk was set for today). St. George’s Independent School draws from around fifty zip codes, and we have students of a wide array of economic, geographic, and racial backgrounds. I believe the Martin Luther King holiday is not only a remarkably important date on our national calendar, it is a particularly important one for our school. Given the fractious socio-political environment in which we find ourselves nationally, this date has even greater significance. That said, it is not easy to stand in front of a large and very diverse group of thoughtful and inquisitive young people and speak any message of meaning in the face of an environment where our national dialogue has devolved into profanity and name calling, ad hominem attacks and school yard posturing. Have no doubt—our kids are paying attention.

Have no doubt—our kids are paying attention.

They hear us yelling back in anger at the television news; they notice us feeling more and more powerless against the rip tide of national bi-furcation.

So today I was going to speak about Zacchaeus, a Jericho tax-collector Jesus calls toward a different life path and James Brown, who after initially doubting Martin Luther King’s non-violent approach became a man who helped calm the water in Boston in the aftermath of King’s assassination. I had the music all queued up (I have linked the songs I was going to play as kids entered and departed below—it was going to be loud and awesome!).

I will admit, however, that I was reconsidering the content of my talk based on current news, which I am certain have disquieted many in our school community. As a result, I started to think about revising my plan. Not to recognize and name the real issues of cultural division in our nation fails our kids. The problem: I don’t know how to do it well.

With that in mind I scanned what I had written for bits and pieces that might be particularly relevant. Here is what I found (please forgive the lack of cohesiveness):

  • We have just finished a year where so much news was stuffed into every day that it seemed to be more of a decade than a year. If you say you kept up, you are either superhuman, dangerously sleep-deprived, or a liar. No one could read enough, watch enough, reflect and analyze enough to make sense of it all.
  • We tend to look at current events and our current specific moment in history as if we invented complexity, that everyone that lived before us lived in simpler times. I do not believe this is true—I believe it is convenient. It is a convenient way to find comfort in imagining the past—almost any part of it—was somehow better, easier, simpler.
  • While we can’t avoid crucibles in history, we can determine who we as individuals will be as we traverse them.
  • James Brown and Simon Peter and Ross Peters and each of you are deeply flawed, at least somewhat broken, and yet we can each make decisions to try to make the world a better place, to try to help a broken world heal.

I am ambivalent about missing my opportunity to speak today. Obviously, there will be other chances, other moments to have the microphone when the weather is not likely to intervene; however, I hate to miss any opportunity to call our students to hold themselves to a higher mark than is represented in blockbuster stories and screaming headlines ticking across the bottom of our television screens.

“I hate to miss any opportunity to call our students to hold themselves to a higher mark than is represented in blockbuster stories and screaming headlines ticking across the bottom of our television screens. “

Perhaps the best answer to my quandary about what to say to our students is best handled through action, not words. On Monday, our students and families will have a number of opportunities to participate in community service. Maybe it is time to stop simply reflecting on and analyzing what ails us and get to work. For now check out the Godfather of Soul, James Brown:

One Body, Many Parts: An Opening Convocation Reflection

[I gave the following homily at the Opening Convocation of St. George’s Independent School on its Collierville Campus two days after the violent and tragic white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.]

Good morning!

Good first morning of the 2017-2018 school year. A particular welcome to our sixth graders just joining us for the first time on this campus, as well as to the remarkable and impressive Class of 2018.

Hear the last part of today’s scripture from Romans again: “For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.”

These lines got me thinking about our differences and our interconnectedness. It also made me think about our individual bodies and how when one part is not working well, all the other parts are affected. This played out in my life when I faced significant hearing loss.

For the first time in 2002 in my left ear and later in 2015 in my right, I had a condition called Otoschlerosis. When one has Otoschlerosis, the stapes bone—a tiny bone—the smallest in the human body—stops vibrating. That means that there is nothing to communicate sound vibrations to the ear drum. As a result, over the course of about six months, I went deaf in the affected ear. Hearing aids reduced the problem to an extent; however, hearing aids seemed to eliminate a lot of sounds and voices in order to allow me to hear the voices closest to me. In order to do what they do, they simplify the world of sound.

During these two periods of hearing loss, it was stunningly disconcerting to find myself in a world that felt constricted, too small, oversimplified. I was missing so much. I felt out of balance, and in fact, I would lose my balance sometimes.

The condition left me discouraged and exhausted because I knew what better hearing sounded like. I remembered what it was like to hear clearly and make meaning from the many voices around me. I knew I was missing what I considered to be a necessary variety of voices that surrounded me.

Fortunately, there is a surgery that largely solves the problem called a stapedectomy. It is an amazing surgery in which the stapes bone is removed and replaced with an artificial stapes bone made of platinum and Teflon. Today my hearing is close to normal. Going to our scripture today, I have never been more aware of the value and interrelatedness of all of our different body parts and systems than when the bandages were unwrapped a couple of weeks after surgery and immediately I could hear again. I felt whole again.

I was so overwhelmed with the amount of sound I could now hear after these bandages were removed that I had to sit down for a while before driving. The world had opened back up, and I was overwhelmed and elated for an hour or so, a dangerously distracted man. For the first time in many months, I could hear people speaking around the corner, and I could understand people without having to look at them while they spoke.

The sort of deafness I experienced is not the only kind of deafness. Deafness can also affect a group of people who cease to hear voices not their own.

Here is my worry: in our country and in the world there is a risk of becoming deaf to each other because we forget the importance of hearing different voices. Rather than losing our hearing to a medical condition, we could simply forget to use our ears. St. George’s stands against that kind of deafness. Our school is intentionally a place that challenges us, at times uncomfortably, not to be deaf. It challenges us to hear the voices around us. It challenges us to work with others, to benefit from and share with others.


Our school is intentionally a place that challenges us, at times uncomfortably, not to be deaf. It challenges us to hear the voices around us. It challenges us to work with others, to benefit from and share with others.


Over the weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, evidence of deafness to those of different backgrounds revealed itself in the hateful, bigoted statements voiced by white supremacists, and their actions led to dreadful acts of violence.

Following this violence at the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., the Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith, dean of Washington National Cathedral, issued a statement that said in part:

“Violence and extremism in the guise of racial identity or racial pride are as sinful and twisted as violence and extremism committed in the name of God. The tragic events in Charlottesville today, and the hatred that fueled them, grieve the heart of God. All of us need to repent of the racism that still flourishes in our nation.

Together, we join with all people of conscience and goodwill to pray, in the words of our Prayer Book, that God would “take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth.”

Reverend Hollerith continues, “We will pray for the victims of this tragedy; for God to soften the hearts of those blinded by racial hatred; and for all Americans to find the courage and strength to do the hard work of repairing the racial divisions among us.”

The work of our school, and any great school, is to create an environment where we do hear each other, care about each other, and recognize our shared humanity. This effort has never been more important. There is so much wonderful work and fun and shared purpose ahead for us this year at St. George’s—it is in our hands to make something valuable out of this school year, but I want to challenge each of us to fend off the deafness wrought by arrogance and narrow-mindedness. I want you to listen to the experiences of those different than yours, listen to those who go to different houses of worship than you do, listen to those that come from a different zip code than you come, listen to those who look different than you look. Becoming educated involves learning more about others and challenging our assumptions. To do this, we have to listen carefully.

In the school year to come, let’s remember the gift we have been given that allows us to come together in this school, and help us to hear and learn from the remarkable variety of voices around us. I am excited about the year to come at St. George’s—I can’t wait to get it all started.

Thank you.

Some pictures from the first day of school at St. George’s…

 

 

All Little Children, Love One Another: An Easter Chapel Reflection

[I spoke yesterday at the Easter Service for the sixth through twelfth grades at St. George’s Independent School. As students walked in, we projected a scroll of pictures from an event Tuesday where a number of our students and faculty joined with CityCurrent and Samaritan’s Feet to provide new shoes for children in need in Memphis. It was a remarkable event held at the St. George’s Bunkhouse that included foot washing. Such an event happening during Holy Week is particularly poignant given its parallel to the story of Christ washing his disciples’ feet and then announcing his commandment  “to love one another.” I have included today’s scripture from John below, and my talk follow it.] 

John 13: 12-17 and 31-35 After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord–and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Good afternoon!

Besides being a central reading of the Easter Season, today’s scripture is particularly relevant to a number of our students who spent Tuesday of this week at the St. George’s Bunkhouse. In case you are unaware of the work of the St. George’s Institute of Citizenship, City Current, and Samaritan’s Feet, I wanted you to see this:

[At this point I showed a highlight video of the event featured on the CityCurrent Webpage.]

I’d love to have everyone, students and faculty alike who played any role in this remarkable event to stand and be recognized.

In reflecting on today’s scripture, I am reminded that there is so much that is difficult and challenging in the Bible. In the Old Testament, academically referred to as the Hebrew Bible, we navigate ancient stories that leave us searching to draw consistent conclusions about meaning. In the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament, we have examples placed before us that confound us, that raise a bar high enough regarding who we should be that we struggle to imagine clearing it. The Bible is not an easy read.

The complexity of it is particularly poignant in the season of Easter when we face the defining narrative of the Christian faith, the culmination of a story set in motion thirty-three years earlier in a manger in Bethlehem.

Interestingly, we know the end of Jesus’s story even before the story of his birth begins, and in the Christian calendar we reenact the entire story annually. Christ’s nativity and his death on the cross were thirty-three years apart in history, but for us just over three months separate them. In December he is an infant, in April he hangs painfully on the cross on Golgotha. It happens fast and presents us with a kind of spiritual whiplash. We focus on the ending in Jerusalem when the beginning is still relatively fresh in our memory. So, as we reprise, as we retell, the familiar story, we seek clarity, meaning, and solace. What we find, however, is often ripe with complexity, elusive in meaning, and full of discomfort. For me this discomfort boils down to this: as we come to understand and accept Christ’s divinity, we have to face our own human weakness. As we face the truth of his life and death, we have to confront our failings. Such an experience is hard, but it is essential. You can’t go around it, above or below it—you have to go through it. Not easy. The good news is this: you don’t have to go through it on your own.

Many of you will remember that Jesus’s disciples often refer to him as teacher. Fortunately, Jesus is a hall of fame teacher. The best teachers are able not only to set a bar for us higher than we can imagine reaching, but they can provide us with the tools to clear it. Just yesterday I watched the First-Grade Animal Play—how many of you remember being in the first-grade Animal Play? In addition to lots of family members of first graders, the audience included the kindergartners. To them, the first graders probably seemed impossibly knowledgeable. Some of the kindergartners were likely in awe of the first graders who each had their lines memorized and spoke clearly and confidently.

One year from now those same kindergartners will be in the same play and will be as beautifully prepared as this year’s group. What makes the difference? Teachers. Teachers who point the way forward step by step. For our first-graders they learned the songs a bit at a time from Ms. Colgate, and even as they were performing she was still there facing them, mouthing the words. Additionally, they worked with their classroom teachers learning their lines until they arrived yesterday ready to go, ready to teach their audience what they had learned.

We are each like first graders at the feet of a great teacher. I am and you are. No matter your own specific faith background or where you are eon your own spiritual path, I believe we are all seeing a great teacher in action in the scripture today. Think about what he does:

  • First, he demonstrates the action he wishes for his students to take. By washing the disciples’ feet, he illustrates a lesson about taking care of others…all others. He lives out a challenge to the hierarchical structure of society where only those lower would wash the feet of those higher.
  • He names the learning he wants them to take away—he doesn’t hide it when he explicitly says, “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” No mystery there.
  • He reiterates his call to action when he says: For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” He makes it clear that he is demanding that each of the disciples emulate him.

Perhaps the fact that he calls the disciples, each of them fully grown men, “little children” inspired my reference to first graders because it seems important that Jesus is highlighting that we are children of God in need of a teacher. And Jesus isn’t done with his lesson yet, because like the rarest of teachers having brought his students through one challenging lesson, he points to the next and greater lesson and demand. Hear it again: “Little children, I am with you only a little longer. I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Here he takes it up another notch and adds the commandment of the new covenant, which is for us to love one another as Christ loved. In the final act of this teacher he prepares his students for life after him when he says, “Little children, I am with you only a little longer.” He is teaching right up to the moment he must let go, and he is leaving them with his greatest gift—the gift and the teaching of the Easter Season. That gift delivered long ago continues to be delivered today as if brand new—just take a look at what happened at the Bunkhouse on Tuesday. On that day and in that place, many of our students rose to the essential lesson Jesus left us—to love one another.

Amen.

Because it was raining for the SGIS/CityCurrent/Samaritan’s Feet event, they had to figure out an alternative activity so our students created a questionnaire that asked the children about basic needs, such as food, clothing, school supplies. Purely out of their initiative, they did a needs assessment survey with the hope that it will drive further programming.