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

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“[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.]

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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”]

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.