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.

Updated reflections on The 9/11 Seawall and the The Empathetic Community

(The World Trade Towers and the QEII Photo:Neal Boenzi/The New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/09/08/us/sept-11-reckoning/towers.html#1
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[As we head toward the fifteenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, I am reposting (with some revisions) something I wrote several years ago that still reflects my thinking about the primacy of creating and sustaining a community that prioritizes empathy. Since posting this in January of 2012, I have seen many examples of people on a kind of figurative seawall facing challenges that threaten to become overwhelming. Additionally, I recognize that we have all stood on our own seawall at various points in our lives. When we are in immediate and pressing danger like those in need of rescue on 9/11, it is human nature to raise our hands and voices for help. It is more difficult to raise our hands when the challenges we face are less visible.  Living within an empathetic community makes it more possible for those who suffer in silence to gain the strength to raise their hands for help, and an empathetic community rises to the occasion when called. Beneath my reflection on the video entitled “Boatlift” are comments I made to an assembly on September 11, 2011 at The Westminster Schools on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.]

“Boatlift”, the story of the boatlift from the lower end of Manhattan on 9/11 is compelling viewing for many reasons. I found it especially fascinating because I had no prior knowledge of the fact that there was a significant boat evacuation on that day, and I certainly did not know it was the largest such evacuation in history. Even more significantly, however, I was drawn to the heroic actions of the people who moved so quickly to help others while placing their own safety in  jeopardy. Please watch it:

At about the 4:18 mark in the video, I was struck by the statement of  Kirk Slater: “It’s just human nature…you see people on the seawall in Manhattan begging you to pick them up, you have to pick them up.” I found myself thinking that while we are not running from collapsing buildings and faced with the potential prospect of having to jump into the water to avoid the smoke and dust of the Twin Towers, we have all spent some time on our own figurative seawalls (though our seawalls probably don’t lend themselves to dramatic soundtracks, and Tom Hanks is not likely to accept the job of narrating the documentary). On 9/11 the clarity of calling and purpose was clear to the men and women who stepped up to help the people stranded at the furthest edge of Lower Manhattan. It is far more difficult to assess and react to the seawalls upon which other members of our community may find themselves.  The routines of our lives allow us to forget others at times. We can find ourselves living as if the other people are merely actors in our play.

Successful communities discover ways to fend off this kind of empathy forgetfulness. Such communities create and maintain high expectations for our awareness of and respect for others. These places bring to day to day life many of the same skills that were manifest in the actions of every person who reached out helping hands on 9/11.

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September 11: I Could Not Stop Watching Because I Could Not Begin To Understand (A Reflection on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks):  

On September 11, 2001, I was teaching at a boarding school in the mountains of Western North Carolina, and I remember that I had a distinct sense that the events of that day would be etched in the memory of each of my AP Literature students for the rest of their lives. I wanted, more than any other moment in my career, to be a good teacher that day.
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During my classes while we listened to the fast moving news on a sorry old portable radio, we wrote and talked about what was most important to us, and we struggled to reconcile the startlingly beautiful and verdant view out of my fourth floor classroom windows with the reality of events in New York, in Pennsylvania, and in Washington DC.  In the days to come I watched the footage of the planes disappearing into the World Trade Center over and over and over again.  I could not stop watching because I could not begin to understand.
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Just days earlier in August of 2001, the nation had been focused on a debate about the relative merits of stem-cell research.  It was an intense debate—the president, the Congress and the news media had the topic running on the high rotation of the 24-hour news cycle and the high octane of charged rhetoric.  Many pundits were positing that this debate would in the end define the legacy and the relative success of George W. Bush’s Presidency.  The events of September 11, 2001 suddenly made the Stem Cell Debate seem like ancient history and the effort to define a president’s legacy seem trite.
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Nearly 3,000 Americans lost their lives that day—ordinary citizens, firefighters, police, and rescue workers. Those who died were on airplanes, in the World Trade Center, or in the Pentagon, and in a couple of hours the lives of their families and this nation were forever changed.  Since that day close to six thousand U. S. Service men and women have been killed in the conflicts that have grown out from the 9 11 attacks, and many times that number have returned home as casualties.
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So today, in anticipation of this sad anniversary, we honor the memory of the victims of that attack, and we honor those that serve the public good and put their lives in harm’s way in response to those in need.  We also honor all the members of the armed services and their families for the unfathomable commitment they have made to our country since that horrible day in 2001.  We cannot understand the extremes of such commitment and should not pretend to unless we have made it ourselves; instead we should simply say thank you and do all we can to support them, while recognizing that the price for preserving our nation rests unequally on the shoulders of our citizens.