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.

Deepening Student Engagement: A Parents Association Presentation

Presenting "Deepening Student Engagement on April 5, 2016
Presenting “Deepening Student Engagement on April 5, 2016”

“It [Engagement] is a vital skill/habit for young people in the life they will lead once their diploma has been framed and put in a place on honor on the wall.”

This morning I presented a talk entitled “Deepening Student Engagement” to our Parents Association Spring Breakfast in the parish hall of the Germantown Campus of St. George’s Independent School. The central content of the talk would not be a surprise to recent readers of the blog as student engagement has centered my writing for a couple of months.

As I reflect on the talk–it seemed to go well–I find that I am reminded of my appreciation for positive parent partnership in the life of the school. I believe that together we can help young people stay focused on the life they are living NOW–I wrote something relevant to this topic in November 2015 in a post entitled, “Deep, Thoughtful, Engaged Lives NOW for our Students”

I worry about the extent to which we ask kids to be focused on a life they do not have yet—where are they going to go to college? Where are they going to work? When we do this too much we risk stealing a little bit of their youth from them, we interfere with their learning and growth, and we reduce the extent to which they can be engaged in the life they have right now. In other words we risk limiting their sense of agency–their belief that they have some control over their lives and involvements.

A young person’s ability to engage learning and contributing in both the school and the community is a skill that parents and educators can help him or her develop by way of creating dynamic learning communities and compelling opportunities for involvement. We can look at engagement in this sense as a good habit developed by way of practice. It is a vital skill/habit for young people in the life they will lead once their diploma has been framed and put in a place on honor on the wall.

Toward the end of the school day yesterday, I happened upon the last few minutes of the St. George’s Chorus practicing a beautiful and demanding piece of music–a complex arrangement of a spiritual. When they saw me hovering outside the door listening, they invited me in and sang it for me from the beginning. THEY WERE REALLY, REALLY GOOD. They were also joyous, powerful, and singing in that amazing space where each played a part in making something greater than the sum of its parts. Through the lens of the performing arts, it was a perfect way to see what deep engagement can create. I love these moments whether they occur in a music class or during a robotics design challenge or when two first graders lose all sense of time every time they get access to a shoebox full of legos. It is when school is at its best..and I want more of it.

The following link will take you to the Power Point slides from my presentation yesterday:  April 5 Parents Association Presentation

Additionally, I plan to post relevant relevant links to articles in the comments section to this entry. Feel free to add your own through the same means.

Prioritizing Student Engagement in the Liminal Space

Every Junior made a square for the Class of 2017 quilt
A details from the Class of 2017 Quilt…every junior made a square

In a blog entry several years ago I wrote this about rites of passage:

I have always been fascinated with rites of passage as they make ritual from the incomprehensible space between one stage of life and the next.  Rites of passage represent moments where we are between and therefore we are nowhere—not where we were and not quite where we will be. In response to such moments, we create ceremonies, we say a prayer or two, we have parties, and perhaps we wear silly hats.  We used to give each other watches.

Last week I spoke for a few minutes to our current juniors, the St. George’s Independent School class of 2017, about the school year to come–a year in which they will be counted on as leaders while simultaneously bracing themselves for the following year when virtually every routine, every group that has been familiar will be replaced by routines and groups they cannot yet see or fathom. They are entering a liminal space where all messages can seem conflicting–all is possibility but everything is out of their hands; it is the “time of their lives” but also the most difficult moment many of them have faced.

I spoke to our juniors at the end of their class trip to Victory Ranch. Over the course of a couple of days, they had not only connected over various group physical challenges, but they had also worked together to imagine a better school and finally suggest some changes to their Head of School–hence my cue to speak.

Since my last blog post, “Student Engagement: It Has To Come First”, I have been thinking about the components of student engagement, and while reflecting on my time with the juniors, I realize that my initial list was incomplete.

Here is the list from the last blog entry, somewhat abbreviated, from my original post:

  • engagement begins with teachers building trusting relationships with students.
  • students will not be engaged in the intended learning if the teacher is not.
  • deep engagement is not comfortable.
  • engagement is a gateway to vital components such as collaboration and critical thinking.
  • without engagement, academic experiences are only that–academic.

What I neglected to emphasize was the importance of listening to students to create engagement. This strikes me as particularly true when they are in these moments between. The moment between I am referring to might be something as large as graduation from high school, but it could also be any moment between when a student first hears a concept in class and when he or she grasps it and makes meaning from it. On different scales each example represents a liminal moment for students. In education we have emphasized the importance of students listening to teachers, but we have often missed a key correlation between teachers listening to students and the students’ engagement in and ownership of their learning. Additionally, we have often minimized the correlation between students listening to other students in creating a culture of engagement in our classrooms. As teachers we can get so caught up in what we need to say that we miss opportunities to hear our students and create ample moments for them to hear each other and collaborate.

The time the Class of ’17 spent on their class retreat provided a rich chance for students to work with, to hear, to make plans with, and to challenge each other. In turn, they challenged all the teachers who joined them…and they challenged me. I believe they will be better prepared for their senior year and our school will be stronger as a result. Most relevant here, however, there was no hiding their engagement, sustained, deep, and loud, in the work they shared together.