As the next election cycle begins to intensify and while reflecting on the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. today, I was thinking about the way in which we engage in dialogue in areas of potential disagreement. It has been a shift away from the discourse about ideas to the volleying of tweets intended to criticize without the openness for dialogue.
I could not help recently thinking about the opportunity I had to meet Cory Booker just over eleven years ago when he was the Mayor of Newark. His commitment to improving the city took him off the path of “traditional” democratic ideas when he looked to improve the education of young people through Charter Schools. This work led Booker to an invitation to be the keynote speaker at a gala for a Boston area conservative think tank. Would this happen in today’s political climate- Booker, who was a registered Democrat, of one major city speaking to a room filled with Republicans from another major city? It is certainly hard to imagine today.
I, also a registered Democrat, was invited to attend the event last minute and was told that I should not miss the opportunity to hear Cory Booker speak. So, I found myself standing in the ballroom getting a chance to speak to Booker briefly. During his speech, I sat in awe of his presence and his skilled way of conveying his message of hope and his vision for the future. It was November, 2009 and a ballroom packed with some of the most conservative thinkers in Massachusetts were celebrating the vision of a Democrat. That night stands as a reminder to me of all that we can do when we enter into debate with the openness to be convinced and not to simply try to be heard.
In 1962, at Cornell College, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr shared, “I am convinced that men hate each other because they fear each other. They fear each other because they don’t know each other, and they don’t know each other because they don’t communicate with each other, and they don’t communicate with each other because they are separated from each other.”1
Dr. King’s words at Cornell College could not ring more true today. They are a message from the past that we need to embrace at schools and in our lives. Schools provide the possibility for young people to talk to each other, exchange ideas, and learn to embrace all their differences. These pedagogies exist in schools and allow us to guide students. Discussions about texts in English classes, debates in history, group discussions of data in science, and being globally focused as a school all can help answer the call of Dr. King.
Yet, we need more than just schools at the moment. Over the last few years, we have separated ourselves as a society based on our ideas. While social media platforms have connected us in unfathomable ways, their algorithms have also filled our feeds with homogenous ideas. This is compounding the separation and leading to the fear of the other that Dr. King referenced at Cornell. In Dr. Helen Riess’ book, The Empathy Effect, she shares that humans are drawn to those that are similar. Cognitive Science tells us that it requires effort to invite new people into your personal circle, because you have to look for similarities that may not be immediately obvious. Riess writes that humans make a decision about another person in a matter of moments based on the first impressions- how some looks, how they sound, and their interests. The connection can shift over time but requires people to continuously learn more about a person through shared experiences and deeper conversations.
We need more shared experiences. Moving forward, we need to be willing to listen to other people and engage in real dialogues that are meant to build relations and move us forward. We need to get better about being comfortable in uncomfortable situations. We need to once again be willing to invite Cory Booker to speak to a room full of conservatives, as well as Governor Charlie Baker to a room of liberals. Dr. King’s message was clear, separateness leads to fear and the only way to combat fear is by engaging with each other instead of tuning each other out.
It is common knowledge that music is a form of communication and can elicit different feelings and emotions based on the rhythms and notes played. As I stepped into our Upper School Ensemble class, I was thrilled to observe a lesson that encouraged students to broaden their understanding of student voice through the lens of music as they honed their improvisation skills.
I would venture to say that, before this class, most of the students in our Ensemble saw improv sets as an opportunity to highlight their own skills. However, their teacher explained the significance of improv in a more profound way. He told students to think about the notes that they string together as a speech or part of a dialogue with the audience. He encouraged students to start softer to draw the listener in and then to grow the sound to add emphasis; to use different rhythms to add cadence to the conversation and accentuate moments; and to provide space for members of the band to add notes which represents moments of affirmation in a conversation such as “I understand,” “Oh, I see,” and “Tell me more.”
Improv sets represent so much more than a moment to shine. Instead, they become a way to add personal voice and touch to a known piece of music and to elicit emotions from the audience. The lesson showed students yet another way that they can add their own voice to the community. Some students may not be able to stand in front of a room of people and deliver a speech, but when given a trumpet or keyboard, they are able to provide originality and deepen connections through music. There is a reason why you see people in jazz clubs nodding their heads and engaging with musicians as if in conversation, and I am glad that our students are getting an opportunity to explore dialogue through music at Brimmer. I am looking forward to the upcoming concerts, and I am eager to engage in a different type of dialogue with our Upper School Ensemble.
When we kicked off the school year with the theme Responsible Leadership and Student Voice, our Brimmer faculty immediately thought of how our students could bring it to life. We quickly saw a direct connection to outward-facing leadership opportunities such as club leaders, Student Senate, sports team captains, and many other programs. We began discussing what student voice would look like in classrooms and hallways. Opening Convocation speeches referenced the myriad ways that the theme exists in classes and the importance of voice in creating a classroom ecosystem. How students use their voice is a critical part of the Brimmer learning experience, and our faculty dove deeply into this theme to ensure that it stayed at the forefront of our conversations this fall. (To read more about how Brimmer faculty put student voice at the center of education, read Kenley Smith’s article, “A Community of Practice,” in the latest issue of Brimmer Magazine.)
In addition, Student Senate President Stephen Moreno Jimenez delivered a speech at the start of the year challenging students to think about their individual actions in the community and how they could use their voices to model positive leadership qualities in everyday activities, such as reaching out to a friend that may look down, inviting someone to sit with you at lunch, and standing up for a person that may feel voiceless. It has been an inspiring fall and it is clear that our students have been motivated and moved by the theme.
As with any focused work, the hope is that it will continue to evolve over time, and that the community will continue to work to deepen their conversations, allowing for new pathways and connections to emerge. At this point in the year, we have come to truly embrace the idea that the concept of student voice extends far past the literal interpretation of physical speech. We know that people lead through their actions, such as when an older student on a sports team or in the cast of a play models this behavior by consistently working hard to improve and maintaining a positive attitude.
We also see people use their voices through the choices they make as consumers, and our students are wrestling with the concept of how they should use this power. Perhaps it is the decision not to listen to music by a certain artist due to how they treat women or children, or maybe it is the choice to buy clothing from a company that has a social mission that resonates with them. More and more we are seeing people of all ages consider the source of their goods before purchasing, regardless of their political affiliation.
We can also see this play out in career planning. The article “Students raise ethical concerns about Harvey Mudd career fair” from The Student Life, an online newspaper for the Claremont Colleges, highlights how job-seeking students are looking deeply into the mission and practices of companies before they apply to jobs. Young people are making life-altering decisions based on their values and a desire to align themselves with organizations and companies that they will feel good about working for.
Whether it is through clubs, group work in class, little moments in the hallways, or the choices students make in their everyday lives, it is clear that being aware of one’s voice and understanding how to use it is a critical part of developing as a young person in today’s world. I am looking forward to seeing how our students continue to engage in our theme throughout the year and how they will leverage their voices to be ethical changemakers.
Each Wednesday morning, Brimmer’s Upper School comes together for a brief community gathering to start the day. During these meetings, after announcements have been made, for the past few years I have taken a few moments to talk with students and ask them to reflect on a topic. This year, as I prepared for the first Upper School gathering, I noticed it fell on September 11. While this year does not mark a major anniversary of the event, it was an important milestone to be aware of as high school educators.
Like most people who lived through September 11, 2001, I can still recall where I was when I heard about the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. I still have a vivid memory of sitting in large room with other students–huddled around a TV, watching the news coverage as the second plane made impact with the North Tower and the buildings collapsed.
In the first few years following 9/11, the power of the day was felt by everyone. Teachers and students were aware of what had happened, how the world was changing, and felt profoundly connected to the loss that came from that day. At the same time, I remember talking with colleagues about how this day would look in the future.
Would it become a national holiday?
Will people still feel deeply connected to the loss?
As time passes, will 9/11 become a day that loses its meaning for many people?
As I prepared to honor 9/11 in 2019, I realized only some of our students in the Class of 2020 were born before 9/11/2001. Others were born after that day, meaning that this is the last year that most high schools will have a class of students born before this tragedy reshaped our world. Even our eldest students do not have memories of the events or their aftermath. This feels significant.
Time is constantly moving forward, and it is easy to get lost in each day. However, we mark time by the pausing to honor moments and events that are meaningful and impactful. Eighteen years after 9/11, it is necessary to pause and mark the moment. It is important to honor the people who went to work or boarded a plane that morning and never returned home; to remember the first responders who rushed into the Twin Towers and never emerged; to empathize with those who are still suffering physical and emotional trauma from the losses of the day; to celebrate the way Americans came together; and to recognize the rise of Islamophobia that came as a result of this terrorist attack and the tragedies that has caused for many people.
Time will continue to move forward; however we can continue to draw meaning and power from 9/11. While our students are removed from that day and were likely born into a post-9/11 world, it is important that we continue to honor the lives lost by guiding our students to lead in a way that brings people together for the common good.
At the beginning of each school year, we welcome students and introduce the School’s theme. Below are remarks delivered on the 2019-2020 theme “Student Voice and Responsible Leadership”. They can also be seen on The Gator, Brimmer’s online newspaper at the 32:45 minute mark.
One of the few regrets I have from college is not taking a class with Elie Wiesel. Many of you have read his book Night. The Nobel Peace Prize winner was a renowned Holocaust survivor, writer, philosopher, and transformational teacher at Boston University where I went school.
To get into Wiesel’s class you had to apply through his secretary and make a strong argument as to why you should be considered for the course. I never spoke up to make my case. I did not have enough confidence in myself and I certainly did not understand the rare opportunity I was giving up. Instead I settled for hearing Elie Wiesel speak a number of times during large and small lectures thinking it was enough. But it wasn’t. Missing out on the opportunity to learn with Professor Wiesel’s is one of my biggest regrets.
So, when I learned of a book written by one of his former students and teaching assistants, I could not wait to read it. The book [Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom by Ariel Burger] transported me into the classroom I never had a chance to enter. I was so struck by the words Wiesel shared about teaching and the way they resonated with this year’s theme.
The book’s author shared that Elie Wiesel would begin each semester by telling his students with the deepest authenticity, “As much as you will learn from me, I will learn from you”(Burger, 2018). He continued to explain that Wiesel believed that students, like you, should be contributors and not passive recipients of information. That, together, teachers and students form a living ecosystem.
At Brimmer, your voices are important and help create our ecosystem. Whether it is the oceans or our school, we know that every ecosystem needs balance. In class we need you to participate to your fullest, bringing your understanding and experiences to discussions. In the hallways, you have the ability to create the community we strive to be through the ways you interact and hold each other accountable.
How do we learn from each other and attain what Wiesel strived for in his classes? To do it, we must bring people together with different perspectives and listen as we disagree. danah boyd, author and researcher, shares that as much as Social Media brings people together, it also creates segregated online micro-communities. We become closed off to the ideas of those who we disagree with, because we tend to follow people who have similar values and ideas as our own, thus shutting us off to alternative view points(Jenkins, Ito, and boyd, 2015). Both danah boyd and Elie Wiesel understood the dangers of only hearing one perspective.
What I learned from Elie Wiesel is that developing your voice is just as important as learning to use your voice to make a positive change on your community and the world. There are so many places that you hone your leadership skills at Brimmer- through sports, in Student Senate, in Clubs, and through performance groups. We talk about the skills you learn through these programs often, but right now, I want to focus on the little moments that go unnoticed. It is in these moments that Wiesel believes you have the most potential to build community. Being a leader does not require a title like captain or president. We are too often focused on the big and flashy moments that come from leadership. However, every day, each of you has the opportunity to lead this community through your choices. What does responsible leadership look like to me?
It’s when you see another person looking down, and check in with them to see how they are feeling;
it’s when you invite someone who is sitting by themselves at break or lunch to eat with you;
it’s choosing to clean up a mess you did not make;
it’s being willing to call out a friend when they are not speaking kindly about another person.
Elie Wiesel understood that he was given an incredible opportunity to use his voice and experiences to guide the moral leadership of many world leaders. He also believed that our collective success in responding to world changing events is measured by the small moments and encounters we have as humans. He believed that if we can act with greater sensitivity to others, if we act with courage and choose humanity over inhumanity, we can have a larger effect on trajectory of history. (Burger, 2018)
My hope for you this year is that you will carry out the legacy of Elie Wiesel and continue to develop the power of your voice and learn to use it to be a positive force in our community and world. Whether it is through official positions of leadership or small, meaningful acts, you have the ability shape our community and world.
Burger, A. (2018). Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Jenkins, H., Ito, M., and boyd, d. (2015). Participatory Culture in a Networked Era. New York, NY: Polity.