At the Intersection of Empathy and Ethical Thinking

I love going to the movies, and when a friend asked if I wanted to see Mission: Impossible, I could not resist the offer. So, there I was sitting in the movie theater enjoying some popcorn and ready to escape to the fictional world, when right at the start of the movie, within the first five minutes, Tom Cruise’s character, Ethan Hunt, was faced with a critical decision. Should he protect the plutonium that could be used by the bad guys to create a nuclear weapon or save his teammate and close friend? Here right in front of me, Ethan Hunt was at the intersection of empathy and ethical thinking, living out our theme for the year. And I was left wondering, how does one make this type of decision?

As you heard from Mrs. Guild and Mr. R-V, at the heart of empathy is being an authentic listener and working to understand and share the feelings of others. Ethan Hunt knew what his friend was feeling and wanted to help him, even if his friend was telling him not to worry and to save the world.

At that moment Ethan Hunt had to make a choice–to save his friend or to save the world? What is the correct decision? Now, I do not want to share a spoiler, but I know we cannot all be super spies and manage to both make the empathetic choice, while also saving the world from disaster. However, I have seen plenty of evidence of your classmates being engaged at the intersection of empathy and ethical thinking.

Last year the Middle School and Upper Schools came together to fundraise for hurricane relief. With three devastating hurricanes, Harvey, Irma, and Maria having ravaged Houston, St. Thomas, Puerto Rico, and other Caribbean Islands, a group wanted to help as many people as possible. However, they were faced with a decision on how to best direct the resources. Was there a right way? Is there always a right decision?

The second example from 2017-2018 was the emergence of a new community service effort–the Prison Book Program. In this program, students volunteered on weekends to send books to incarcerated people. Again, at the crossroad of empathy and ethics. Should someone in prison receive our help?

In both cases, students found ways to connect with the people impacted and made informed decisions. Whether it was finding an organization to distribute the funds efficiently or learning that by sending books to people in prison and supporting their development, it helps reduce the likelihood of them returning to prison, students used the research and critical thinking skills they learn in class to collect the necessary information to make an empathetic, ethical decision.

So, this year when you continue to volunteer at organizations such as Greater Boston Food Bank, Community Servings, Wingate Senior Center, the Charles River Clean-up, or by identifying organizations on your own, you are attempting to feel and understand what another person is going through and choosing to find a way to help those people.

This intersection of empathy and ethical thinking does not just live in the realm of social justice. It lives in our classes and hallways as well. As Mr. R-V just said, this is the purpose of the humanities is to challenge our understanding of the world through a different medium, to feel the story of another human, and to engage intellectually about the decisions confronted in the text. When you combine empathy and ethics, you get real life. Every day, you face these moments–a friend upset about something that was said about them, looking at the ethics of gene manipulation in science, or learning about another culture through our global programs.

But, I also want to challenge you today, as we start a new year. How can we as individuals and as a community do better? How can we understand what a classmate or colleague is going through and how can we better help them? Can we lead with kindness? Can we work towards having more in-person interactions and fewer online, where words can be misinterpreted and are often hurtful? The world around us is modeling something different, but let’s be better. Let’s be a model for empathy and kindness.

As anthropologist Jane Goodall said, “Young people, when informed and empowered, when they realize that what they do truly makes a difference, can indeed change the world.” “You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world [and people] around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” What do you want your story to be this year? You do not need to be a super spy named Ethan Hunt. Let your story be one where you choose your path, listen and feel for those around you, and make choices that will better our community and thus our world.

1st Day of School

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1st Day of School 2016-2017

I have to admit, after nearly two decades in education I still get filled with all the same emotions that I did my first year in teaching. The weekend before the first day is always filled with excitement and a little nervousness and anxiety about the unknown. It has a lot of similarities to the buzz around Fenway Park on Opening Day. People gleefully walking around, filled with hopeful anticipation, while also holding onto the emotions that are stirred by the uncertainty.

The first day of school can feel very different for students and teachers. For students, it is about shifting gears. Most have summers filled with movement and activity. Even for those that had summer jobs or internships, it feels different coming back to their full-time job as students. In addition there are the questions that fill each student’s head. Will this class be a lot of work? Will the teacher understand how I learn? Will I make new friends?

For teachers, they are feeling many of same emotions. Teachers are also feeling excitement for the learning that lays ahead, but nerves about the unknown class dynamics that may exist. Teachers may be wondering if their updated lesson plans will be effective. Will their students be motivated learners? Will they connect with their students?

While there is no “right” way to start the school year, over the past ten years I have chosen not to use my first class to go over the syllabus. While it is meaningful to set the expectations and establish norms for the classroom, I wanted to use the initial time together to lower first day anxieties and start building relationships. As a science teacher this usually involved a mysterious demonstration that would create a “wow” moment, but then would challenge students to figure out how the chemical reaction worked.

Getting to Know YouHowever, the most important activity I ask my students to do is the first homework assignment where students fill out a sheet sharing personal information. It includes highlights of their summer, an accomplishment they are proud of from the year before, something they think I should know about them, and a goal they have for themselves.

Regardless of what happens during the first class, that time is an opportunity to start the process of relationship building. As much as our classrooms are places of learning, they are built upon a relational foundation. In Whistling Vivaldi, by Claude Steele, and Unselfie, by Michele Borba, the authors independently share that when a student feels that a teacher cares about them, the student does significantly better in the class. While one activity will not be enough for the entire year, it is a good start.

Whether you are about to have your first class this week or are in the first weeks of your school year, work to authentically connect with your students. The impact of relationship building can have huge positive impacts. Here are just a few easy ways to get going:

1) Learn your students’ names: Whether you use seating charts, look at pictures, or just memorize them, take the time to learn the names of your students, what they preferred to be called, and how to properly pronounce their name. There is nothing that makes a person feel seen more than knowing their name.

2) Show interest in their lives outside of classroom content: By asking students about what they do outside of school is a great way to connect. Did they improve their time in yesterday’s Cross Country meet? What part did they get in the school play? What song or piece are they working on in band or choir?

3) Ask student’s to share information about themselves: Learning about a child’s goals for the year, a challenge they overcame, or something they are proud of helps you connect with the student. Just this week my son’s 1st grade teacher sent home a two page Getting to Know You sheet to fill out. My family was so touched that the teacher was taking the time to read over all the answers and wanted to gather this type of information about our child.

What are some of the techniques you use to connect with students at the start of the year and start the process of building a yearlong, and often longer, relationship?

Thoughts on the Class of 2018

During the Brimmer and May Commencement we work to honor the accomplishments of the graduating class. During the primary graduation speech, we read vignettes about each graduate highlighting their time at Brimmer and May. To view the full graduation or watch the vignettes, you can click here for a replay of the Commencement Ceremony. The individual stories start at the 23:00 minute mark.

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, May 31, 2018

Thank you to all the students and families for joining us this evening to celebrate the Class of 2018.

I want to share a story I heard earlier this year. In 1989 Hurricane Hugo came through the Caribbean and left a path of destruction. It made landfall in Charleston, South

Class of 2018

Photo Credit: David M. Barron, Oxygen Group Photography

Carolina and at the time, it was the most devastating hurricane on record. After the Hurricane had moved on there was a reporter along the shoreline looking at a row of houses. Among the destruction only one house remained standing. The reporter found the owner of the house that survived and ask the woman, “why did your 150 year old house survive while the other houses were washed away by the sea?”

The woman answered, “When they built my house first they laid the big field stones, then they added smaller rocks, sand, and dirt. Then they repeated this layer after layer after layer until they were done.” The reporter said “I see, I see, but how did your house survive?

The woman repeated, “First they put down the large field stones, then smaller rocks, then they filled in with sand and dirt. Layer after layer until the foundation was complete.” Again the reporter said, “Yes, yes, I understand, but WHY is your house still standing. All the other houses were washed away.”

The woman repeated again, “It is because of the foundation. They put down layer after layer until they had built a strong foundation.” Again the reporter said “I get it, they put down all the rocks to make the foundation, but you have not told me why your house is the only one still standing?”

The woman finally just responded, “It must have been an act of G-d” and she walked away.

As individuals and a group you have each helped to strengthen our School’s foundation. You brought your unique talents and views to Brimmer. This school is built upon the foundation of all those that come through and each of you has helped to put down a new layer, fill in the gaps, and strengthened the foundation. You have engaged in profound discussions in class, raised awareness of important issues, brought joy to audiences through performances, raised championship banners in the gym, and brought a new level of creativity to the school. Your class has left a strong base for those that follow you.

At the same time each of you have been building your own personal foundations. Layer by layer, grade by grade, each year, strengthening the base that you will build upon in the years to come. The field stones of knowledge, rocks of extracurricular activities, and the sands of experience.

As you move on from Brimmer, remember your foundation. You will experience all the highs and successes of life, but will also be faced with the storms that life often brings. The house that you begin building in the coming year and will continuously work on during your life, will sit upon your Brimmer experiences and can bring you stability throughout your life.

And to help you with the small fixes that may come up, I hope that the toolkits you’ll find in your bags will remind you of your Brimmer foundation and help you make any adjustments along the way.

It has been a true pleasure getting to know each of you over the past two years. And I cannot wait to hear about all your successes in the years to come. Congratulations.

Commencement Concluding Remarks, June 1, 2018

I present to you the Brimmer and May Class of 2018!

As we near the end of Commencement, I wanted to take one last moment to address this year’s graduates.

In front of us you sit. 37 unique individuals with your own talents, ideas, and futures. We just heard of your stories, your passions, and your strengths. How you have left an indelible mark on the school, one which the classes that come after you will build upon as they work towards their future. Today we focused on all the success that you had individually and the great things you accomplished as a grade. However, for every success there were failures, skinned knees, stumbles, disagreements, and mistakes. Self doubt has most definitely crept in at times.

Maya Angelou in an interview once said “We may encounter defeats, but we must not be defeated. It may even be necessary to encounter the defeat, so that we can know who we are. So that we can see, oh, that happened, and I rose. I did get knocked down flat in front of the whole world, and I rose. I didn’t run away – I rose right where I’d been knocked down.”

As you, the Class of 2018, move forward in life, you will be faced with great successes but also more defeats than you will be able to count. Each day we are faced with choices. Not every decision you make will work out. Let your defeats, your failures, be opportunities to grow and learn. Let those be the moments where you rise back up and allow them to be defined as moments of growth instead of failure.

Along the way, do not forget your Brimmer foundation. Hold tight to the lessons you learned here and use them to guide you through all the failures. As Abby Wombach recently said at the 2018 Barnard Commencement: Failure is fuel and fuel is power. I say, may your failures fuel you in the path ahead and lead to all the successes you each deserve.

Congratulations to each of you and to your families.

Flames of Achievement

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At Opening Convocation  in September, I shared a quote from Golda Meir. She said, “Make the most of yourself by fanning the tiny, inner sparks of possibility into flames of achievement.” As we near the end of the school year, it seemed apropos to look back at some recent observations that show the depth of achievement our students have made this year. One such example of students transforming the sparks of possibility into flames of achievement comes from the success of our spring sports teams.

All of our teams should be proud of their seasons, including the Varsity Baseball team, which won the League Championship, but I want to highlight the Girls’ Varsity Tennis and Girls’ Varsity Lacrosse teams. Both of these teams have generally flown under the radar during the spring, but this year, they made Brimmer history by each winning their team’s first league championship. Two teams that came into the year with modest definitions of success, both saw those sparks catch fire.

In the classroom, it seems like it was not that long ago that the Class of 2018 was starting Upper School. Over the past few weeks, teachers and administrators have been busy listening and watching our twelfth grade students present their culminating humanities project. Each student dived deep into the works of an author and produced a scholarly paper and presentation on their research. The students wowed their teachers with their interpretations of the text and the personal connections they made to their work.

A final example comes from the tremendous creativity that filled our School this week at the All-School Arts Celebration. I often find myself, and others, pausing in front of displays in awe of the way students have transformed their medium to create such wonderful artwork.

The list of personal and grade level achievements goes on and on. The students should be proud of their accomplishments this year! Billows of smoke have filled our hallways, from the sparks of possibility that have turned into their flames of achievement. Congratulations to everyone!

Gratitude

With apologies to my parents, I shared a story from my childhood during Upper School Morning Meeting while wearing my vintage Boston Celtics jacket. Ever since I can remember, I have loved the Boston Celtics. The images of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish running out of the tunnel onto the court and the sound bites of Johnny Most are etched in my memory.

As a child, I had talked to my parents about how much I wanted a Celtics jacket. I desperately wanted one of those hooded Starter jackets that everyone, at least it felt that way, was wearing. So when I opened up my birthday present that year and saw a satin green Celtics jacket instead of that hooded Starter, my heart was deflated. Of course, I feigned appreciation, wore it around the house, but remembered feeling embarrassed to wear it. It lived in my closet for a long time, until my parents were moving out of my childhood house. When I opened the closet and found the jacket, I immediately felt embarrassed about my lack of gratitude.

There, right in front of me, was the most incredible Celtics jacket one could own. This vintage jacket represented the 1980s Celtics and the magic, no pun intended, that Bird brought to the parquet. It was reminiscent of the fans cheering on the team with Red Auerbach sitting in the stands with a smile. I was filled with the disappointment of not recognizing at the time the incredible gift I had been given by my parents and that this gem had been buried in a closet for the better part of two decades.

Appreciation and gratitude are not always as straightforward as we think. Often, we are distracted by the moment and do not fully understand the meaning of our interactions. We get wrapped up in our hustle and bustle of our daily lives and take for granted that which has been right in front of us. While keeping in mind how hard it can be to be authentically gracious, it is important to think about ways to express appreciation to family and friends. We should take a moment to pause and express gratitude and appreciation for those around us.

As our 12th grade begins to close out their academic careers at Brimmer, I want to take a moment to share an appreciation. Each member of the Class of 2018 has uniquely made an indelible mark on our School. Whether they have been at the School for two years or thirteen years, they have contributed in ways that have defined us and moved us forward, each person leaving their prints on our School. Leading class discussions, mentoring other students, giving tours to prospective students, volunteering for countless hours in their free time, performing on stage, competing on our sports teams, and being a representative of School are just a few of the ways they have led our community.

Thank you.

We appreciate all that they have given to the School. We will miss them, and we wish them all the best as they begin their next journey.

I hope that the path they forge challenges them to grow, while also achieving all the success they each deserve.

 

Getting One Percent Better

tom v time

Like most of New England, I have been mesmerized by Tom Brady’s ongoing DocuSeries Tom vs. Time. At first I was intrigued to see the inner workings of the person who has been at the center of one of the most successful runs in sports, but as I watched I began reflecting on the ideas that were shared during the videos.

As I watched the second episode, I was struck by a comment made by Tom Brady’s quarterback coach Tom House. During the video, House refers to the preparation and work Brady does and his focus on improving in even the smallest areas. He says, in reference to Brady working to make a small adjustment to his throw, “You realize this is like nothing[the adjustment], but it’s big to him. Tom and some of these other elite quarterbacks, they don’t come to get five percent better. They come to get one percent better.”

Working to get one percent better struck me and has been on my mind since I watched the video. As fans, we see the results of a daily work regiment that is based on a growth mindset. Yes, the ultimate goal for someone like Tom Brady is winning the Super Bowl, however that’s not an actionable goal. Instead, the focus is on the small thing you can do each day to improve. Whether it’s throwing more touchdown passes, organizing your work more effectively, being a more active participant in class, or writing a stronger paper, you need to find ways to make small improvements. Students need to focus on getting better by one percent each day.

For students this means working to help them break down their big goals into smaller attainable goals or action steps. Brimmer teachers have shifted to writing their goals as questions, so that we can focus on the answers, or the actions, to get us to the goals. One goal I set this year was “How can we further improve the transition from middle school to high school for our ninth grade students?” Some of the action items were– survey ninth and tenth grade teachers to develop a list of key student skills; develop a ninth grade team approach for teachers; and improve the experience of eighth grade families and students at Curriculum Night. Truthfully, most of these action items had their own set of action items to create the one percent improvements needed to reach the goal.

While we do not want to lose track of where we are trying to go, we need to focus students on the small steps they can take to improve. The only way any of us can get better is to continuously improve. And, I do not know about you, but feeling like I only need to be one percent better each day feels much less overwhelming. Imagine the confidence we build in students when we empower them to improve incrementally instead of needing to make instantaneous leaps. We cannot expect them to turn a B- into an A or write a stronger paper without helping them define the one percent improvements. Every journey starts with a single step. I believe this is what Carol Dweck is trying to communicate with her growth mindset work, and the documented practice habits of Tom Brady may just be in one of her next books.

MLK Resources

This past Friday during dinner we asked our Kindergartner the same question we do every night, “What is something you learned today at school?” Usually he hems and haws on the question, but he quickly told us that he learned about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and Rosa Parks. We did not hesitate and told him we would love to hear what he learned about them.

Our son then took the next ten minutes to tell us the stories he learned about King and Parks, sharing stories about their childhood, what inspired them, what they did, and how they wanted everyone to be treated equal. I have to admit, we were proud parents. The conversation then shifted to why. He wanted to know why people would not treat everyone nicely or why some people are not treated the same as others. Our five year old was clearly upset by some of the ideas.

We left our dinner feeling inspired that our child had the opportunity to learn about King and Parks, bus boycotts, and Freedom Riders and the importance of the their stories.

In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr Day, I wanted to share a few resources that may be helpful for children of different ages:

Grades PK-5

I am Martin Luther King, Jr by Brad Meltzer

I am Rosa Parks by Brad Meltzer

Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr by Doreen Rappaport

Grades 6-8

Through My Eyes by Ruby Bridges

Generation Fix: Young Ideas for a Better World by Elizabeth Rusch

We are Immigrants: Voices of The Immigrant Experience by Thomas Hoobler

Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom: My Story of the 1965 Selma Voting Rights March by Elspeth Leacock

Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

Grades 9-12

Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr by Coretta Scott King

Dear Martin by Nic Stone

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez

Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice by Raymond Arsenault

 

 

 

Morning Meeting Reflection on NYC Attack

The following thoughts were shared with Upper School students on 11/1/17.

Yesterday afternoon, while our school was ending the academic day and students were transitioning to sports, play rehearsal, and after-school activities, people’s lives were upended in New York City when a man drove a pick-up truck down a bike lane in Lower Manhattan, killing eight people and physically injuring at least twelve others—forever changing the lives of the victims, their family and friends, those that witnessed the attack, and causing those who have faced trauma to revisit their past experiences.

We have seen these types of tragedies in London, Paris, and throughout the world, but seeing it in New York feels closer to home. Many of us have strong connections to N.Y.C. through families, visits, and alumni who have moved there. Our empathy is even stronger having experienced the Boston Marathon bombing not too long ago.

Each of you are going to have your own personal feelings, responses, and emotions around these events. I want to share a few thoughts with you and ask you to think about them.

First, it is important during the times after terrorist attacks, while facts are still being collected, that we not jump to conclusions. As Ms. Christian shared, we should not make assumptions about the suspect or all people that look like the suspect. It is important to remember that when people choose to perform acts of terror, they are making individual choices and are not representative of all the people with similar identities.

The other idea I want to leave you with is how you respond to these seemingly random acts of violence. A natural response would be avoidance—taking extra precautions to stay away from “high risk” areas. By doing this, you will feel like you are helping yourself remain safe.

At the same time, though, it can feel counter-intuitive and is difficult to carry on with your normal day while keeping the events in mind. In many ways, continuing with your day can be a way to fight against acts of terror. By choosing to still visit N.Y.C. you are not allowing fear to rule your life. This does not mean you should not be cautious. Instead, it symbolizes something stronger and defeats the ideals of a terrorist. We still run the Boston Marathon each year for these reasons, and the N.Y.C. Marathon will still be run three days from today, for these reasons.

As we move into our moment of silence, I ask that you think about those that have been impacted by yesterday’s attack in New York City, the terrorist attacks that we may not hear about as easily, and all those that have been victims of terror.

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.