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.

The Adult’s Challenge after the Tragedy in Orlando

From CNN.COM June 6, 2016
From CNN.COM June 6, 2016

Last November I wrote a piece the morning after the Paris terrorist attack. (I have copied it below). Much of what I wrote seems sadly relevant to the Orlando attack at the Pulse Night Club where there were forty-nine victim mortalities and even more injuries, many critical. This latest attack is just that…the latest attack.  Even though it has its own very specific context—in Orlando, at a Gay Nightclub, a single attacker—it seems to be not only identified by its specific details and scale, but by the fact that it is the most recent. There is a growing resignation and accompanying corrosive angst that the next incident of mass murder is inevitable and not that far in the future. That combination—resignation and angst—does not serve us well. It diminishes us. As parents and as adults in the lives of young people we should rise to the challenge of being the thoughtful people our children most need us to be in this moment of disquieting uncertainty at home and abroad. As our nation and the world seems to be pulling at its seams, we need to pull young people to us and into conversation.

My work is as an educator, specifically a school head, and my worry today regards the anxiety we pass to our children even without an awareness that we are doing so. Rather than having conversation with young people about what has occurred in Orlando or in Charleston or in Paris or San Bernardino, we too often move on without the reflection such moments should prompt.

“I wonder if this makes us vulnerable to a sort of national depression, borne from under-sharing what we should share, ironically in a time when oversharing the mundane and unnecessarily intimate is increasingly normative.”

Generally, there are two mistakes that families are likely to make with children when something as truly terrible as the Pulse Nightclub attack occurs. First, the news media shares such graphic imagery that we pull our children out of the way of it and thus do nothing to share with them at all. Each time we do this, the weight of our perceived loss of control over national and world events gets a bit heavier and consequently, the young among us carry an increasing share of the weight as well. Second, and perhaps even worse, we give our children too much access to graphic media, and we do not create avenues for them to process what they see and hear.  Either mistake we are likely to make–providing too little or too much access to media regarding such tragedy– leads to the same problem, that is, without discussion, there is nothing to break the tension created by what has happened. I wonder if this makes us vulnerable to a sort of national depression, borne from under-sharing what we should share, ironically in a time when oversharing the mundane and unnecessarily intimate is increasingly normative. We fail to talk about what is important, and talk incessantly about the things that are not.

For those who may be looking for additional resources for parents and/or teachers, please check out the following:

FROM my November 14, 2015 Post “Parenting in the Wake of the Paris Terrorist Attacks”As our thoughts have been drawn today to France and to Paris in the wake of the tragedy of the terrorist attacks yesterday, I feel a bit ill-equipped as a parent. My daughter is in sixth grade–old enough to have some understanding of the scope of the event, of the larger global context, and of the anxiety such attacks produce in the free world.

However, the graphic nature of the news reports makes me uncomfortable allowing her to watch much on TV or on through her iPhone or computer. In the advent of HD, and of uncut, live-feeds, I worry about both parenting that would allow us to let her see too much AND that would push us to let her see too little.

My instinct is to make sure that:

  • we reassure children that that they are safe.
  • what we watch and read, we watch and read together.
  • we limit exposure to media, particularly repetition of dramatic and graphic video.
  • we discuss what we watch and read without the TV or device running concurrently all the time.
  • we do things together away from media that represent a maintaining of our routines and connectedness to each other. This afternoon, we are going hiking.
  • we don’t oversimplify, minimize, or exaggerate the situation for her.
  • when we don’t know an answer to a question from our child, we don’t pretend we do. Instead we seek an answer together.

Some questions I have:

  • where can parents find appropriate resources to support our kids in moments where global uncertainty is in ascendency?
  • what signs of anxiety should we be aware of in our children in such moments?
  • where are the media sources that, while maintaining the highest standards of journalism, produce content consistently appropriate for younger audiences?

In the end, it is our loving connection to our children that provides them comfort. They need to voice their questions, worries, and opinions in a safe environment.

[I wrote about the 2005 terrorist attacks in London in a post entitled, 21 July 2005: Cambridge, King’s Cross, The British Library, Tavistock Square, The British Museum, and the Long Cab Ride“]

A Senior Prefect’s Helpful Insight

Screen Shot 2016-04-20 at 11.09.26 AM

“[At St. George’s] I HAVE learned not WHAT to think but HOW to think, and not just HOW to think but HOW to think WITH OTHER PEOPLE.”

I have been meeting with my advisees to discuss their upcoming student-led teacher/family conferences. I met with four of the seven of them yesterday, and two more today. My first meeting was with our Head Prefect Sope Adeleye who was telling me about her recent college visit to Harvard. She has a tough choice to make in the next couple of weeks, and while not yet resolved, I was witnessing her thinking about what she wants out of her college experience gelling. While she was talking about her different college visits, she pointed out that her understanding of the value of her experience at St. George’s Independent School in Memphis, TN was coming into focus. I asked what that meant, and she said: “[At St. George’s] I HAVE learned not WHAT to think but HOW to think, and not just HOW to think but HOW to think WITH OTHER PEOPLE.” The first part of the quotation was not original to her (she heard it from a “new friend she met during her visit”), but the last part–“[I have learned] not just how to think but how to think with others–was all hers.

It was a great way to start the day. In direct and clear language, Sope expressed my hope for great learning at our school. There is always a bit of tension between the reality of the school and its ideal vision for what it should be. This is a constructive tension, and its existence defines how a school challenges itself to get better at its work for the students who populate it. Sope’s statement is a poignant reminder that remarkable and rare things are going on in this school right now, every day. As we move forward to live toward the vision of St. George’s, it is vital to preserve the value already here. This is a core tenet of what I call “Progress Culture”. I believe it is true that students who become awake to the power of their education learn “how to think with other people.”

To impact positively the issues that define Memphis, our country, our world, leaders will have know “how to think with each other.” There is no other option that can possibly work. All of us regardless of political, economic, or religious affiliation, can cite far too many examples of leaders failing to think with each other. The generation of leaders graduating from high school late this Spring and those that will follow them in the years to come will need to have this skill at the ready. It is our ongoing work to make sure St. George’s students will.

Like so many of her classmates, Sope wants to change the world for the better. Some of them like Sope will tell you so. After you meet this crowd, you’ll have little doubt that in ways large and small, they’ll do it.

[I have written extensively about the idea of Progress Culture. You can find links to all of that writing HERE.]

Screen Shot 2016-04-20 at 11.28.44 AM

To Students: Teach Me What I Need to Know

With the Prefects last August
With the Prefects last August

As we begin the inevitable sprint toward graduation and the end of my first school year at St. George’s Independent School in Memphis, TN, I realize how much I have learned since last July when I officially began my work as Head of School. More relevant, however, I realize how much more I have to learn, and I recognize the key source of that learning will be our students.

They have already taught me a great deal about..

  • what they value most about our school.
  • the importance of warm greetings and handshakes in the morning at carpool or on the way into Chapel.
  • how a small group of leaders can create powerful school spirit.
  • how different their lives are from my own life at the same age, as well as how some things about being young never change.
  • resilience in the face of remarkable obstacles. [While there are many examples I might mention here, I wrote about a particularly poignant example in  a post entitled, “Adam and Louie Showing Us the Way”, in which I shared a Chapel Talk Adam Cruthirds ’16 delivered to our Collierville Campus students in the Fall.]
  • the sacrifice dedicated young people are willing to make for an outstanding educational opportunity.

Our prefects, who are my advisees, have played a particularly important role in helping me get my feet on the ground. They are by nature a generative group who are forever thinking of new ideas for the school, ways to get better, more connected, more fully aligned with the unique vision of our school. In fact, On Friday two of them came up to me during lunch to let me know a couple of ideas they had about how we can improve our chapel services. They are not the only sources of good insight though.

In a three campus school that draws from well-over fifty zip codes and from a wide economic, racial, and religious spectrum, no single set of seven voices can come close to capturing a complete perspective on the school or the students who populate it. I was in a conversation a week ago last Friday with a student in which he detailed for me his experience in a way that will inform my way of understanding how the school looks and feels to someone with a unique vantage point. Similarly I have had a couple of conversations over lunch with the first cohort of students who began their St. George’s careers in Pre-K on our Memphis Campus and now are just over a month away from graduating from High School. What struck me first is how close they are to each other and how kind they were to me. What strikes me now is just how insightful they are, and how uniquely strong they have become through the experience they have had. They have a tremendous amount to teach me and to share with those coming behind them.

So…with all this fresh in my mind, I see that creating opportunities to hear from students is vital in order for me to learn what I need to know. They have important stories. They have so much to teach me about their lives.

[I also wrote about the centrality of listening to students in a blog entry entitled: “Prioritizing Student Engagement in the Liminal Space”]