Head of School Blog
Our faculty and staff gathered on Friday afternoon to talk about Inauguration Day 2017. I did my best to prompt the conversation with questions such as the following: how did it go? how were they feeling? in what ways had the children been wanting to talk about the Inauguration? The premise of this conversation was clear -- i.e., that neither the workplace nor the classroom are appropriate venues to discuss politics as such, but rather to acknowledge that the norms of American political life are being challenged and subject to dramatic reconsideration. We wondered together what the Best Possible Inauguration Day experience might have looked like for the children and shared examples and perspectives from across the grades. As elementary educators we recognized that we were facing an age-old dilemma with a 21st century twist: was it our job merely to initiate civics lessons into the curriculum or perhaps more intentionally to confront the awkward, if not contentious, aspects of a modern democracy? I’m not sure whether or not we can claim credit for the Best Possible Inauguration Day experience, but I was proud of the way in which our teachers engaged so respectfully with each other and responded so thoughtfully to this emerging challenge.
I studied John Dewey in considerable depth in graduate school and have never been able to let go of a particular sentence he wrote in "Democracy and Education." Despite the fact that this book was published in 1916, I find the sentence to be completely relevant to today's challenges:
In education meet the three most powerful motives of human activity: the intellectual, the intrapersonal, and the social.
I have long since committed this sentence to memory, and I suspect that it has guided my work continually for the past 35 years. To me, this is another important window into the pathway toward best possible selfhood. Absent a commitment to promote human knowledge through imagination and curiosity, to embrace human connection through empathy and understanding, and to increase human happiness through equity and the common good, it is hard to imagine becoming our best possible selves. The joy--and perhaps the burden--of teaching in an elementary school is that all three of these potential pathways are unmistakably real and simultaneously interconnected. It is a privilege to help children to develop in all three of these important dimensions.
For many years I've been interested in the relationship between knowledge, understanding, and empathy. Both in this blog and elsewhere I've tried to highlight the importance of caring about things as opposed to merely knowing something. Accordingly, as I've started to focus on the connection between striving for excellence and being our best possible selves, I realize that the standard of care metaphor is more helpful than the attainment of knowledge metaphor. Of course educators and parents are mutually interested in a school experience that leads to the attainment of knowledge, and there are many valid measures by which such results can be evaluated. However, the highest test of an educational experience points more toward personal excellence than toward the isolated accumulation of knowledge. It is precisely for this reason that I embrace the standard of care metaphor. If we want our students to care equally about personal conduct and academic achievement, naturally we want their teachers to care equally about the quality of curriculum and the quality of personal connection. To me, this is a tentative probe into the idea of best possible teaching and learning. The greatest challenge for educators is to exercise the highest standard of care in everything we do: conversation, communication, collaboration, and critical thinking.
By any measure, the children of The Chestnut Hill School are quite remarkable young people. Inquisitive, enthusiastic, perceptive, and affable, they represent the best of our educational ideals and inspire us to provide the best possible programs and services. As individuals our students are self-motivated, self-aware, and eager to take advantage of a challenging and dynamic curriculum; as classmates and friends they are supportive of each other’s accomplishments, mindful of the ways in which their collective diversity is a great strength, and proud to think of themselves as members of a vibrant and inclusive community.
Let’s imagine for a moment that this preview is both a description of real students and a prescription for how these students can become their best possible selves. Indeed, this dual perspective lies at the heart of our job as educators and parents. On the one hand, we need to believe that formal schooling can bring about meaningful and concrete outcomes that would otherwise not be possible: literacy, numeracy, informed creativity, civic awareness, social and cultural competence, etc. On the other hand, we need also to believe that the children with whom we work are already capable of great outcomes.
Every skilled teacher faces this duality on a daily basis. If we didn’t believe unconditionally in the natural goodness of our students, we wouldn’t believe in their ability to reach for high standards of performance. However, it we didn’t believe that we could make a difference in our teaching, then we wouldn’t work so hard to create connections with them and to coordinate so fully with our teaching colleagues. There is little doubt that the education of a child is an enormously complex undertaking, and in our ongoing efforts to help young people to become their best possible selves we must have a keen understanding of biology, psychology, social science, cognitive theory, and pedagogy.
I am humbled in the realization that great teachers are knowledgeable about these each of these important aspects of human development. To care about a child’s growth is not only to be invested in his or her total experience, but also to understand the myriad ways in which the various elements of curriculum are all interconnected. More difficult math problems result neither in stronger mathematicians nor in more successful people. Conflict-resolution skills are important but do not in themselves help children to form secure notions of identity. And as much as homework can be a positive extension of learning, it is clear that self-initiated play is sometimes an equally powerful catalyst for growth.
I use these examples merely to highlight some specific measures by which we might agree that Chestnut Hill School students are indeed remarkable: math achievement, secure identify-formation, and self-initiated play. As our teachers and families work together toward the goal of encouraging best possible young people selves, I am heartened by the evidence of such success.
I've been lucky to see several inspiring films recently, most notably Arrival, a beautiful film combining elements of poetry, linguistics, free will, and science fiction. Mistakenly believing that the film was based on a book of a similar title, I purchased a copy of Shaun Tan's The Arrival and gave myself some time over the weekend to read it carefully. Indeed, I prepared myself for the fact that a graphic novel that had taken four years to research might require more concentration than a regular book with words. Although I greatly enjoyed this experience, it turned out that I was wrong about the connection between "Arrival" and "The Arrival" and that the film was based instead on a short story entitled Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang. What a lucky mistake. Both texts provide insight/illumination on the relationship between going somewhere and being from somewhere. Whether in fiction or in the classroom of life, for me these are elements fundamental to the possibility of being our best selves.
Our school generally holds assemblies each Friday morning, often showcasing the work of a particular grade and sometimes highlighting the work of an outside artist or performer. With the whole school sitting together in a common assembly space -- students and teachers, it is quite an integral component of school life.
Organized and hosted by our Equity and Social Justice Team, this week's assembly was designed to showcase student voices across the grades. While the youngest students displayed posters illustrating affinities, family members, and important feelings, the older students introduced poetry and visual art as means by which to express themselves even more fully. Thanks, first, to collaboration by homeroom teachers and specialists alike -- art, Spanish, woodworking, music, technology, and library, this event was truly an example of our students at their best possible selves. Thanks, also, to visionary curriculum design, the students took full advantage of this opportunity and taught each other a great deal about human universals: not just about what is important on the outside, but also about what is important on the inside. Thanks, finally, to our strong tradition of public speaking, the children certainly held teachers and each other spellbound for the duration of the program.
This morning's Boston Globe features two pieces on will and willpower. The lead article on the front page features the challenge for a family and their doctor in facing a seemingly unsolvable cancer diagnosis. This story is presented in serial fashion, this week's installment serving merely as the first of five chapters (written and audio). The idea here, familiar to each of us, I imagine, is that there is something inside us -- we choose to call it "will" -- that sometimes refuses to give up or to accept outcomes that we deem not to be acceptable. No doubt this is a viable strategy for becoming better versions of ourselves: not giving up, believing strongly in better outcomes, trusting scientifically that research and collaboration can lead to unanticipated solutions. Another interesting piece appears in the Sunday Magazine, affirming the importance of willpower but suggesting that it alone may not be enough. "We need, Adler says, to realize we're not just a character in our life stories, we're also the narrator," writes Janelle Nanos, staff writer for the Globe. Together these two pieces make for some fascinating Sunday morning contemplation about the relationship between using our willpower and being our best selves. Happy reading!
Professor Howard Gardner of the Harvard Graduate School of Education has been an iconic force in educational theory for many decades. Indeed, his publications on topics such as Multiple Intelligences, Frames of Mind, and Good Work have influenced the thinking of most educators currently in the field. I have read Professor Gardner's book entitled "Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed" and have been aware of his sincere interest in ethical issues. Indeed, with the "Good Project" at Harvard focused on finding the intersection between excellence and ethics, what better place to begin a conversation about best possible selves. This morning I came across a surprisingly unusual post-election blog post from Professor Gardner and commend it to your attention.
I did not consciously realize how much I admired NPR's Gwen Ifill until today when commentary about her life began to stream so forcefully across our media. Moreover, based on the fact that I saw in her such an elegant combination of physical vitality and intellectual courage, I had no idea that her health was failing. Intelligent, humane, eloquent, discerning, fair-minded, patient, humble, inquisitive, and seemingly indefatigable: these are the qualities that I and so many of us identified in her. When I think of a life well lived -- a best possible life, so to speak -- it is hard to imagine coming much closer to the mark than this. I'm honored to add my voice to the many hundreds of others in fond tribute to a remarkable journalist and iconic symbol of the power of a free press.
As schoolchildren in northeastern Massachusetts wake up this morning to the unexpected news of last night's election results, one imagines that they will be curious and potentially confused. They know that people in an open society are supposed to disagree about important things (indeed, this is one of our highest ideals), but it must be confusing to them when adults are quite so disagreeable with each other. Despite the unpleasantness of this election season, there is nonetheless a shared understanding that a deeply divided electorate must become better at disagreement. Elementary school teachers work on this with their students all the time, and perhaps in their wisdom there is opportunity for a teachable national moment. We want to empower our students with conviction and self-belief, but never in this process do we wish to diminish the legitimacy of others' ideas and feelings. Looking ahead, I do believe (as Mandela suggests) that education can create a pathway both for personal and for national reconciliation. My strongest hope is that all adults -- teachers, parents, elected officials, and others -- will strive at all times to role-model their best possible moral and spiritual qualities.