The Power of Disagreement Revisited

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Recently, many people have created preset rules for social gatherings in order to try and minimize conflict–with the number one rule being “No talking about politics.” Family members and friends dance around the major issues facing our communities and try to focus conversation on topics that will not create conflict.  

“Wow, Uncle Al, this apple pie is delicious! What type of apples did you use? Did you make the crust from scratch?”

“Mom, you really outdid yourself with this chicken soup. It tastes like you added something different…really? I never would have guessed you used the pearled onions”

“How was your trip to Charleston? Did you have nice weather? I cannot believe the weather we had here while you were away.”

While these niceties show gratitude and are polite, they are not exactly “soup questions.”

Last year I wrote a blog post, The Power of Disagreement, and I could not help but reflect on these ideas over the past few weeks, especially after reading a pair of articles in the NY Times, The Dying Art of Disagreement and How to Find Common GroundWhy do we need to avoid conversations where we may disagree? What does it mean to live in a free society that is absent of debate?

The concept of debate goes back to Ancient Greece, the first democratic society. The Greeks believed that engaging in conversations over controversial topics is what pushed society forward and led to a greater understanding of the world. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle — these philosophers’ debates became some of our great literary works. 

Fast forward to the founding of the United States of America. The Founding Fathers did not agree on how to shape the country and build a government. As a matter of fact, they got it wrong the first time around. Without the ability to come together, argue their ideas, and find compromise it is unlikely that the American experiment would have been as successful. We got a glimpse of this in 1861 when our country broke out in Civil War. 

So why are we talking about pie and weather instead of the great problems of our time? At Brimmer, we do not want our students shying away from the hard conversations. In history class, students are asked to take positions, research the opposition’s side, and develop meticulously crafted arguments that often leads to disagreement. Eleventh and twelfth grade English classes use the Harkness Method to create student lead class discussions where they argue for and against each other’s points of view. Science students discuss the validity of data and its meaning.

Our students are the future leaders of their communities and our country and they are learning the skills necessary to disagree. It has become far too common on college campuses for students to boo or walk out on speakers they disagree with. We do not want our students to tune out those with different ideas. Instead, we want them to use the skills they learn in class so they can enter into productive debate — actively listening to the people around them, striving to understand another person’s ideas, and being able to speak passionately and respectfully when they find themselves in disagreement. If they can resist the temptation to talk about pie, then our future will be brighter.

From Sparks to Flames of Action

At graduation this past June, I ended my remarks to the Class of 2017 by quoting Golda Meir. She said, “Make the most of yourself by fanning the tiny, inner sparks of possibility into flames of achievement.” These words are a perfect bridge from last year’s theme of Building the Future to this year’s theme: Inspiring Thinkers and Doers. What are those inner sparks of possibility? How do they become flames of achievement? 

To help us understand, I want to share two stories with you today: 

A number of years ago, I had an advisee named Wyatt who was also in my Chemistry class. As his advisor, I had known that Wyatt suffered from debilitating migraines—the kind of migraines that can make it difficult for you to get out of bed. At the end of the semester, as part of his final project, Wyatt chose to research the brain chemistry of migraines, why they occur, and how they are treated. Over the course of a couple of months, Wyatt learned from texts and journals, met with his doctor, and spoke with other people that suffered migraines. He finished his Chemistry project and turned it in at the end of the year. For many students that would mark the end; not for Wyatt. The next fall, Wyatt returned and petitioned to do an independent study. He wanted to learn how to create apps in iOS in order to put what he had learned into use. He went on to learn how to code for iOS and created an app to help people track the potential triggers of their migraines. Wyatt released the app just a few years ago. His doctor now regularly recommends patients to use it, and he has already made a difference for people suffering from migraines. 

The second story is about two students that helped raise the consciousness of the Brimmer community just a couple of years ago. While the story does not begin then, it was spurred forward when Alexis Ifill, Class of 2017, and Katheryn Maynard, Class of 2018, went to the National Association of Independent School’s People of Color Conference. At the PoCC they listened, shared, and learned with other high school students from around the country. They listened to the struggles and successes around diversity at other schools and shared the work that has been done at Brimmer. What they learned and brought back has had a profound impact on our School and will help shape the experiences of everyone in this room and future students.  

After the conference, they wanted to share what they learned with the Brimmer community. They were eventually invited to present at a Board of Trustees meeting. Their message was that, at Brimmer, we are grateful to have such a diverse and accepting community. AND, at Brimmer, we should be proud of the work that has been done to raise awareness of issues of equality and inclusion. Katheryn then explained, however, we cannot just give ourselves a pat on the back and be content with where we stand and the success we achieved. Being a diverse community is hard work and you cannot rest on your laurels. You need to continue to think about what our community is capable of accomplishing and then work towards those new goals. Seeing the need, theyall gender focused improving in areas of gender and identity. The message from Katheryn and Alexis left a lasting impact on the School leadership and has helped lead to an updated dress code that strives to be inclusive and does not talk about bodies as a distraction, the removal of gender specific pronouns in the Student/Family Handbook, the formation of affinity groups for our students of color, and the reassignment of single-use bathrooms in the school as all-gender restrooms. 

What does being a Thinker and Doer mean to you? Perhaps it is building something new to help people. Maybe it is creating a new club for the school or designing a way to help limit food waste. It could be organizing a fundraiser for victims of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Or it might be simply performing a small act of kindness or finding a way to make the experiences of your classmates more positive. No matter what the idea is, or how big or small it may be, we are all capable of being thinkers and doers.  

Each one of you has the potential to transform the sparks of your ideas into actions; Actions that will lead to the flames of achievement that emanate from our community this year. 

Hurricane Harvey and Lessons from Katrina

In February of 2006 I boarded a plane, unsure of what I was getting myself into, and headed down south six months after Hurricane Katrina. That ten day trip with a group of other young professionals led to five more years of week-long visits and an additional five years of organizing volunteer trips for other student groups. I can still recall the images, faces, and the stories I heard during my trip to Mississippi and New Orleans.

As I hear the stories of the people impacted by Hurricane Harvey, see the eerily similar images, and listen to updates of friends that live in the path of Harvey’s destruction I cannot help but think about the lessons I learned from those trips about volunteerism, our capacity to help those in need, and hallowing stories that were shared by people that were waiting on roof tops, took refuge in the Super Dome, and had evacuated to another area.

Lesson 1: Don’t make assumptions about how best to help

During my first trip I had the great opportunity to travel with a highly committed group that wanted to make a positive impact. During this trip we would split our time between two locations. We began our rebuilding effort by helping the small town put a tin roof Katrina Relief-Mississippi 2over the top of a building that was their community center. The building housed all their after school programs, church dinners, and was a safe place for kids to play. So what happened?

As we learned more about the town members of the group started developing new ideas on how to help the town and the children that would use the center. These were truly great ideas. While the solutions were fantastic, they created new problems. The energy of some members of the group moved towards these new projects. This meant there were less people working on installing the new roof. In addition members of the town did not feel comfortable saying no to the volunteers because they were being gracious hosts and were so grateful for all the help. The last concern was that many of the ideas required a lot of supplies that the town would not be able to afford long term.

On our last night we worked late into the night and we were able to finish the main building’s roof, but never were able to start the second building. What I learned and tryKatrina Relief-Mississippi 1 to pass down to my students is this: Remember that you are just passing through the lives of residents. Stick with what they believe is needed to help them move forward. Even if the task seems crazy or counter productive, you do it. Why? Because at the end of your week, you are going home to your house and you want to be sure that you have helped the resident take a few steps closer to returning to their home.

Lesson 2: Listen to what the experts say is needed

In many ways lesson two builds on the first lesson. People’s needs are different and organizations help in a variety of ways. Yes, many families may need school supplies, but immediately after the water recedes school supplies are not what they need most. Organizations mostly need money in order to buy supplies to gut houses, perform mold remediation, and purchase construction materials. If you find yourself heading down to volunteer, you can also bring Home Depot or Lowes gift cards. If you happen to be a skilled tradesman, electrician or plumber, consider donating your time, as these can be very expensive parts of a rebuild. Just remember- they know better than you when it comes to what is most helpful.

Find an organization that you trust and look for what they are requesting. Personally, I am drawn to the St Bernard Project. They have created a system that utilizes volunteers, leverages the AmeriCorps to help, and have a proven system of rebuilding neighborhoods.

Lesson 3: The recovery effort will continue long after it fades from our mind

As Americans we are first rate at responding to emergencies and major tragedies. People show up to help and offer financial assistance. Social media has taken a role by organize fundraisers through their platforms. However in a few weeks most people will move on. How did I end up organizing trips to New Orleans for a decade? Because not every person has been able to come home yet and neighborhoods are still recovering. The type of destruction we saw with Katrina and now with Harvey is not the type of damage that can be fixed easily. It can require rebuilding the infrastructure of neighborhoods, like the municipal water and sewage lines, it requires families to have the money needed to rebuild, and so many more details. We are twelve years post Katrina and there is still a lot of work to do. Many other major natural disasters and national tragedies have occurred that deserve our attention, but we also need to remember that just because we moved on does not mean those impacted have also moved on. If you are interested in continuing to help Harvey victims don’t forget to check in six months, a year, and even a few years from now.

Lesson 4: Urban, suburban, and rural communities all get impacted by the hurricane

Often times the big cities get most of the imagery displayed because they have a higher population density. Don’t forget that all the neighboring towns and counties that were in Hurricane Harvey’s path have tremendous amounts of damage as well. In many cases in rural areas, the hurricane can actually lead to tornado development as well.

 Lesson 5: Get your community involved

When a community commits to helping solve a problem they can do incredible things. This is why many communities still send a group to New Orleans annually or raise funds to help the victims of tsunamis. Imagine the impact a community can have over a few years!

At Brimmer our faculty and staff will be collaborating with students to come up with a response for our community. I am proud to be a part of a community that saw a problem and immediately began organizing themselves to help those in need. Be sure to pay attention to details that come out about our effort support those in need due to Hurricane Harvey’s destruction.

Building Space for Innovation

In 2011 President Barak Obama issued a challenge to the nation in his State of the Union Address to train and hire one hundred thousand new Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) teachers. Over the next five years President Obama continued to usher in this generation’s Sputnik Challenge. During this time there was a message that continued to develop about the needs of the nation’s workforce and the need for studentsSTEAM LAB to adapt to the demands of our modern society. Over this time the rate of change has increased exponentially forcing institutions and companies to reevaluate the skills employees need for their institutions to be successful.

Over the past few years I have had the opportunity to visit non-profits, small businesses, and Fortune 500 companies. These visits allowed me to discuss with them what they are looking for when hiring interns and employees, as well as how they are redesigning their spaces to meet the needs of collaboration and work flow. Each conversation affirmed that today’s students need to be strong problem solvers, collaborators, critical thinkers, and adaptable. In addition our spaces need to be flexible, as well as promote collaboration and the exchange of ideas.

As an educational institution Brimmer and May was identified by the National Association of Independent Schools for its progressive thinking and its leadership in developing skills that are necessary to prepare students for a 21st Century workforce. While we have been successful in creating programs in our current space to prepare students for what lies ahead, our Chase Addition is a critical next step for the school to continue developing students that are prepared for our rapidly changing world.

The new space will enable Brimmer to be an incubator of innovation and social entrepreneurship. No longer will space be an obstacle for student success. Equipped with a 3D printer, laser cutter, vinyl cutter, CNC mill, and other fabrication tools, Brimmer’s creators, innovators, developers, and makers will have the space to develop and build their ideas. It will enable classes such as Problem Solving Through Design, STEAM Lab, and Media Production to work at a more sophisticated level and for the creation of new classes such as 8th Grade Innovation Hour and the Upper School elective TechShop. However this space is not just for physical creations and developing technical skills.

Instead it is about providing more opportunities for students to further develop the essential skills identified by employers. In addition, the continued incorporation of Design Thinking into our Lower, Middle, and Upper School curriculum plays a key role. We have learned from design firms like IDEO that this way of thinking is not solely about building products. This was evident during the Boston Winterim program this past March.

Students used the design thinking process to engage in social innovation. During the weeks leading up to, week of, and weeks after Winterim students worked to make an impact on the Newton Community. They identified an issue in nearby Hammond Pond Reservation and Webster Woods and prototyped different solutions. During this process they communicated with the City of Newton, local representatives, State Legislature Representatives, and State Senators. Their work even was presented to a design firm that was retained by the Commonwealth to address issues with this area.

It is projects like the Boston Winterim program and classes which balance skill development with content mastery that will ensure that Brimmer students develop the essential skills needed to be successful in the stage of life and to be the architects of our future.

Article published in the Summer 2017 Brimmer and May Ambassador magazine

Remembering Elie Wiesel

Recently, I have been reflecting on some of my encounters with Elie Wiesel. Though none of them were personal, they still left a lasting impact. It is hard to imagine that it has been a year since his passing last July. Over the past week, I could not help but think about his work and his commitment to speaking up for the voiceless- how he made it his mission to fight for equality.

As an undergraduate student at Boston University I was able to attend lectures given by Elie Wiesel. Each year Wiesel would offer a 3 part lecture and then would host a more private meeting. I had the opportunity to attend the private meetings all four years at Boston University. At the time I knew it was important to listen to his words and hear his perspective on the world, but the full depth of their meaning was not evident to my 18 year old self.

I remember rushing from the lecture to the more intimate setting to get a good seat before it filled up. The room would be abuzz with people discussing what they heard during the lecture and the question they hoped to ask him. During these meetings many people came angry over how different people in the world were mistreated. They were confused that he did not display bitterness or share their visible outrage. Instead, Wiesel would humbly respond to the questions with answers that were deeply layered. He challenged students to stand up for what they believed in and to not let any injustice go unchecked. He reminded us that we could not settle for simply feeling frustrated, but needed to allow those feelings to drive us to action, to stand up for those in need. This sentiment comes from one of Wiesel’s most well-known quotes from his 1986 Nobel Lecture, “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” 

There is something coincidental about the anniversary of Wiesel’s death falling two days before United States’ Independence Day, a day that symbolizes the result of protest and a country built on the precept of protecting the right to assemble peacefully (Bill of Rights, Amendment 1). What can we learn from Wiesel? How would Wiesel react to the divisiveness we have seen growing in our country over the past year? My guess is that he would urge us all to stand up for the voiceless and to embrace those that need help. Lastly, he would remind us to never forget. To never forget what happens when we stop seeing the humanity in each other. To never forget the Jews that were killed in the Holocaust. To never forget the genocides that occurred in Bosnia, Rwanda, Sudan, Armenia, and in every other country where these atrocities took place. While Elie Wiesel is no longer here to act as a conscience for the world, he has left us a legacy. He taught us how to use our own voices to stand up for those that have been silenced.

How do we approach this work as a school? How do help make sure our students stand up for the voiceless? It means building on our relationship with Facing History and Ourselves, continuing to empower students to speak out when they see inequality and supporting them to work towards solutions, and ensuring that we do not take our community and values for granted. And remember Wiesel’s words “The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference.” 

Thoughts on the Class of 2017

I had the opportunity to speak to our 12th grade students and families the night before Commencement and then to give concluding remarks at the Commencement ceremony. Here are my remarks about Brimmer and May’s incredible graduate, the Class of 2017.

Senior Dinner Speech, June 1, 2017

I can still vividly remember the first night of US Camp with this group of 12th graders.large_news1111410_1042653 There we were sitting in a circle in the rec hall at Camp Wingate-Kirkland. My hope that evening was to just listen to them talk about themselves, their grade, and what made Brimmer unique. About ten minutes into that conversation- two incredible things happened. First, I realized that we should have recorded the entire conversation because the statements the students gave about what makes the school unique could have been used in Brimmer marketing materials for the next decade! Second, I knew from the way they described the school and each other that I would not regret coming to Brimmer.

Over the past few weeks, as I continued to reflect back on this class I kept thinking back to a theory one of my college professors, Presidential and American Historian Robert Dallek, shared with me. I would just ask you bear with me for a few moments as I dig into the idea a bit.

As many know in the early 20th century the United States was thought of as a melting pot. A place where people could come and cultures would mix. The concept being that everyone would influence each other and form a new norm for society. The problem with the model was that it was only a homogenous view of the world and didn’t celebrate or even recognize our diverse backgrounds. It assumed we all had to be the same. So, historians and sociologists began referring to America as a Salad Bowl instead. Showing that we each have our own cultures and identities, we are mixed together without losing who we are. Together as a whole we are greater. Dallek, my professor, predicted that sometime in the future the model would shift to a fruit salad. And I think that this perfectly describes our incredible class of graduates. Each of our students has their own distinct identities, personalities, and stories. They each bring their own unique flavor to our school. But over time, as they continue to work together, learn from each other, and challenge each other, some of their flavors start to get absorbed by other classmates. The cantaloupe begins to have some hints of honeydew and strawberry, the pineapple keeps some of its tartness, but also absorbs the sweetness of the watermelon, and even the grapes that seem impenetrable are coated with the ideas and experiences that help to shape what they have become in the fruit salad.

These 29 students are all incredible individuals with bright futures ahead of them, but they also have each shared a piece of themselves with every other member of the class and the school. They have enriched all of our lives by adding their unique flavor to each of us. And for that we will always be grateful.

I want to end with a short poem from Maya Angelou that seems fitting for this class and for them to keep in mind as they start the next phase of their journey:

Open your eyes to the beauty around you,

Open your mind

To the wonders of life,

Open your heart to those

Who love you,

And

Always be true

To yourself

Commencement Concluding Remarks, June 2, 2017

I present to you the Brimmer and May Class of 2017.

As we come to the conclusion of Commencement, I wanted to take one last moment to address the Class of 2017. During Convocation at the beginning of the year I shared with you the following:

“Our world needs young leaders who are actively working to make a difference. So, do not just sit back and be consumers of information. Be creators. Be active participants in the world and strive to make a difference- no matter how big or small. Some days you will take a risk and you will fail miserably. Other days those risks will pay-off. But in the moments of attempting something new and stretching yourself, you will be setting yourself up for future success”

Everything that we have heard today and all that you each have done over the past 2, 4, or 14 years at Brimmer and May is evidence that your futures are bright. 29 individuals with their own stories, passions, and strengths. Each one of them has grown from the risks they have taken at Brimmer and they each have helped shape our community. The Class of 2017 have individually and collectively pushed us to think differently about music, art, science, race, identity, and so much more. They are a group of people that simply do not accept the status quo and I want to thank you for imprint you have left on our school.

As I conclude, I want to leave you with one final thought. Golda Meir said: “Make the most of yourself by fanning the tiny, inner sparks of possibility into flames of achievement.” May your sparks of possibility never be extinguished so that one day we may see the billowing smoke from all that you achieved. Congratulations!

 

Vignettes on Resilience

Back in the fall, I wrote about Teaching Resilience and the importance of developing specific skills and mindsets to aid in the development of building resilience in students. As the end of the year approaches, I thought I would highlight a few examples of our students rising above the challenges they faced in each scenario.

When you think about Winterim, it is not generally a time you would imagine moments of great resilience. Generally, the trips are filled with fun, educational programming. However, due to snow, many of the return trips were impacted, and flights had to be rebooked. For the Cuba group, many found themselves stuck in a country that does not accept American money or credit cards, for an extra three days, waiting for their new flights. Students on the trip had limited communication with family members and in many ways felt cut off from their regular lives. As a School, we put as many things in place as we could so the students would have a positive extended stay, but there was still the feeling of being trapped in a foreign country. This could have been a moment of despair for many students. Instead, they found ways to balance their frustration with what was happening to them with the opportunity to spend more time as a group and in Cuba.

A second recent vignette displaying the resilience of our students was with the recent student directed production of The Last Five Years. Our students were solely responsible for all aspects of the show, which is difficult to manage without any major issues. This group showed tremendous grit when one of the lead actors faced a difficult decision to step down from the show for medical reasons. This student did not just step down from her role, but instead took on a mentorship role for the new actor to start rehearsing, just two weeks before the show. For a show that is based on two main characters, it would have been easy to cancel the show, but the entire cast and crew came together to ensure that the musical would still run. The way that each student reached out, put in extra time, and did not give up, displayed all the best that our students have to offer the Brimmer community and world.

The final example I want to highlight was how our Varsity Boys’ Lacrosse team overcame great adversity. After coming off a difficult season last year, the Lacrosse team had high hopes for the 2017 season. With a new coach in place, the program looked like it would be heading in the right direction. Unfortunately, the coach missed a few practices early in the season due to a medical issue and then a significant work conflict forced him to suddenly resign his position. For a group of players that ranged from first timers to college playing hopefuls, they very easily could have given up on the season. Instead, the group came together to face the challenges as a team. In the first week after the coach’s resignation, the team had multiple coaches and faced a lot of uncertainty. And then something great happened– instead of using their adversity as a scapegoat they used it as motivation. Under their new coach, the team began playing competitively against the top teams in the league. Finally, during the last week of the season, the team was able to beat Boston Trinity Academy, a top 2 team in their league, and beat Gann in overtime after just minutes before giving up the game-tying goal. We have seen professional athletes give up in less stressful situations, and the Lacrosse team deserves immense credit for the resilience they showed this season.

All three of these cases represent nearly half of our student body, which allows me to confidently say that we are doing the work necessary as a community to help students face the challenges they face and overcome them.

There’s a Reason for Those Citations!

http://ideas.ted.com/the-big-mistake-we-all-make-about-ideas/

Image from http://ideas.ted.com/the-big-mistake-we-all-make-about-ideas/

Last weekend, I came across an article in the Boston Globe that called out to me as an educator: “BC cries foul after footage is used in video by Paul Ryan.” I could not help but start thinking about academic integrity, the work we need to do as educators, and the real world ramifications of claiming another person’s work as your own.

The article explains, in a nutshell, that Paul Ryan (and his staff) used video footage that did not belong to them. They took footage from a Boston College video production and used it without being granted permission. Why is this a big deal? Well, the Paul Ryan video likely violated copyright laws or another law that governs intellectual property. In addition, it is likely that highly accomplished and smart people will lose their job over this mistake.

The people working on Paul Ryan’s team are likely people that were very successful in their studies and worked very hard to earn a position with the Speaker of the House. So, how do we help our students avoid making a similar mistake?

For the most part, students are not making a malicious decision to take another person’s work and portray it as their own. Of course, there are times when a student is feeling the stress of a deadline or mounting work and may make a poor decision, but often students are unaware of their mistakes. This may come from choosing a source that should not be trusted, copying an image from the Internet, or relying too heavily on a google search. While access to information through Internet searches has countless benefits, it has also led to many complications and misunderstandings when it comes to intellectual property and plagiarism.

This is why we believe it is critical to teach students about curating sources, understanding how to tell what images or videos can be used, and how to go about gaining permission to use that media. Understanding “the why” behind properly giving credit to the authors of original ideas is a critical part of this learning and is supported by our Core Values of Respect and Responsibility. Our teachers and librarians play a crucial role in this process. Academic integrity is not about catching students, but is about informing them on best practices. As more and more content becomes accessible, this work becomes increasingly critical. We want to ensure that our students are informed and responsible curators of information so that they are not put in a position in college or the workforce like Paul Ryan and his staff.

Here are some helpful resources on Creative Commons, Copyright, and Fair Use from Brimmer’s Director of Middle and Upper School Library.

I Wish I Could Go Back to High School!

“I wish I had these classes in high school” is not an uncommon phrase to hear parents say after they have a chance to look through the Brimmer Curriculum Guide. The amountwow of coursework choice that Brimmer offers students far surpasses that of similar sized schools and is on par with schools that are four to five times bigger than Brimmer.

However, it is not just parents and students that are taking note of the incredible opportunities at Brimmer. Schools in New England are paying attention as well. Over the course of the school year, Brimmer has hosted professional development visits for multiple schools. School leaders feel it is important to visit our school because they see our focus on student choice and that we allow students to pursue their passions. They also see that our curriculum is focused on engaging students in real world studies and finding authentic ways to connect them globally. 

As a school that is committed to reflection and growth, we are constantly looking at our program and looking for ways to deepen the student experience. Over the past few years, we have seen the creation of Problem Solving Through Design, a course that merges art, technology, engineering, and entrepreneurship; Criminal Law; Women’s Studies; and International Relations. As we continue to look forward, we are excited about some of the new class opportunities for students next year. In the 2017-2018 Curriculum Guide, you will find new classes such as Latin American History, a new look for our Architecture and CAD classes, App Design, and Tech Shop–which will utilize our new space.

These new additions to our Upper School program, and our willingness to grow, are why we have become a resource for many schools as they look to improve their own programs. 

What classes are you most excited for?