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.

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.

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.” 

There’s a Reason for Those Citations!

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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.

The Power of Disagreement

Last Tuesday, I had the opportunity to attend an event where Governor Charlie Baker was speaking. It was a fantastic event, and it is always such a pleasure to hear the Governor speak about the state of the Commonwealth and our society. During the discussion, I could not help but be encouraged by a story he shared from his childhood that has shaped his view on debate, disagreement, and decision-making.

Governor Baker shared that his mother was a registered Democrat, and his father was a registered Republican. In his house, while growing up, his parents often engaged in conversations and disagreements on a number of issues. As he reflected on growing up in a household that embraced debate, I want to share two important ideas that resonated with me and are relevant for our students.

First, Governor Baker talked about the idea of surrounding oneself with the best minds regardless of their party affiliation and encouraging debate. He empathized the difference between intellectual disagreement and malicious disagreement. It was a critical distinction. The purpose of debate is not to tear another person down, but to deepen one’s own understanding, as well as the other person’s.

The point he shared was about how his parents and family friends were able to enter into strong arguments over politics, but it never impacted their relationships. By not entering a discussion with malicious intent, they knew that the arguments was about ideas.

Governor Baker’s words ring true if we are to live up to our mission of “develop[ing] life long learners who are informed, engaged, and ethical citizens and leaders in our diverse world.” We must continue our work with students so that they can engage in authentic discussions about what they are learning, the issues in our own community, and current events.

In recent conversations with ninth grade students, it was clear that they want to be a part of intellectual debate. They want to engage in conversations about our world and to dive deeper into the issues. They also shared that they believed the Brimmer community was one that was welcoming of all diversity–race, ethnicity, religious, identity, and intellectual.

We need to continue to teach students to engage in these discussions in order to learn and not to create conflict. In this way, like Governor Baker’s parents and family friends, respectful debate can lead to stronger personal relationships and deeper understanding, instead of creating wedges between people.

Exploration

Exploration is in our nature. We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still. We have lingered long enough on the shores of the cosmic ocean. We are ready at last to set sail for the stars.
— Carl Sagan, Cosmos
Since the beginning of time, humans have been explorers, seeking out new experiences through travel. From the hunters and gatherers that migrated across continents to Magellan circumnavigating the world to NASA’s New Horizons satellite reaching the edges of our galaxy, we learn through exploration and new experiences. At Brimmer, we develop explorers in a multitude of ways including our biennial program, Winterim. Next week, Upper School students will be spreading out across the globe, spanning nearly eleven thousand miles.
Today, more easily than at any other time in history, we can connect to people globally, learn about the history of every aspect of humankind, and experience different cultures. Access to information has allowed people to virtually travel to and explore new places. While reading, listening, and watching videos about different cultures can allow someone to deepen their global connection, it is not a replacement for physically visiting those nations, cities, or towns. It is impossible to get a true sense of the grandeur of the Giza Pyramids or to truly appreciate the awesomeness of the Parthenon without standing at those sites. One cannot fully understand the choices and values of a community without being there in person and talking directly with its residents.
I can still recall admiring with students the detail of the beautifully carved two thousand year old Roman statues and being in awe of the deep love of city and culture that drove New Orleans residents to rebuild even with future uncertainty. The power of our Winterim programs are the transformational moments that will lead students and faculty to a new understanding of people, places, and culture. It is an opportunity to learn what cannot be found in books or online. Many of these moments will be captured by pictures or videos, but it will be the ones that are etched in students’ memories that will never leave them. What will our students bring back with them when they return? I don’t know, but I’m excited to see and hear about their experiences.

 

To all our students no matter where they are going: Safe travels. Viaje seguro. Kār deinthāng thī̀ plxdp̣hạy. Bon voyage. Anzen’na tabi. Turas math dhuibh.

The Architects of Our Future

Opening Convocation Speech, September 2016. 

Good Morning! The theme, Build the Future, is more than just a theme to be talked about in formal conversations or by the adults in the school, it is a way for us to shape our thinking and learning. As students you do not need to wait to be the builders and designers of our future world, when you leave this morning’s convocation you have the opportunity to take an active role in the process.

16 years ago today, I was a brand new teacher sitting with a far more experienced one brainstorming an experiment to run on the first day of class. Mrs. Pordes, who was also the Associate Head of School, asked me one simple question: “What do you think we should do.”

Still lacking confidence and not wanting to make a mistake or sound foolish, I replied how most people trying to avoid failure would: “They are all good options, which experiment do you think we should do?”

That answer did not go over very well with Mrs. Pordes. She slowly raised her head up and looked me directly in the eyes. I had the overwhelming feeling that a student would have if they had just been sent to her office and dreading the fact that she was going to call their parents. The longer I sat there not answering her question, the more my nerves grew. The silence was probably only a few seconds, but it felt like 20 minutes. Finally she broke the silence and said to me, “I already know what I think; I asked to hear your thoughts.”

She continued with a piece of advice that I have kept with me throughout my professional career: “To be successful you need to go out on a limb and share your ideas. You can’t always take a backseat. Sometimes you will have better ideas than others times, but you need to put yourself out there and take some risks.”

Every day at Brimmer you will experience thousands of moments. Most will pass by without being noticed, but on occasion, you will be struck by a particular interaction, observation, or action that will have a profound impact on the way you see yourself and how you choose to pursue your life. For me, the moment happened in my meeting with Mrs. Pordes. Instead of being content with not being wrong and being afraid of failure, I chose to immerse myself in my career, taking risks and not fearing missteps.

It would be easy to only focus on the successes in your life, but successes are not the only instances that have a deep impact on you. Often failures are what you remember and carry with you. How you view failure is crucial- does it define your limits? Or does failure serve as place from which to grow.

The most successful leaders choose the latter. They understand that failures are moments to learn from, to grow from, and envision a new future. Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Oprah, Walt Disney, Indira Ghandi, the list goes on. These are all people who define their success through their failure. They believe that failure is not something to fear, but to embrace as an opportunity to grow.

Stephen Covey, the best-selling author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, said that leadership is a choice, not a position. It is an action. So this year, I am challenging you.

Our world needs young leaders who are actively working to make a difference. So, don’t 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. And, if you do this, you will be the architects of a future you built.

Brimmer Sports Banquet

Good Evening,

Thank you for braving the elements today to come out and celebrate all of our varsity athletes tonight. As a 3 season athlete and coach for 10 years, I know first hand about the positive impacts of athletics- I also am used to playing or standing out in the rain on nights like tonight and I definitely appreciate being inside and not on the sideline.

So, why do we do it? Why do we ask all our students to participate? We know about the multitude of benefits of sport. As you know our coaches are not just helping the student-athletes become better technical soccer players or runners. They are teaching about the benefits of physical fitness and nutrition. They are helping students develop leadership skills and collaboration skills. Our teams develop into families that look out for each other, help motivate each other, and support each other. And our student athletes learn about adversity and how to overcome failure or challenge- whether it is pushing through on a run when they are unsure about how much they have left in their tank or scoring a goal at the end of a match even though doubt may have crept in about their unlikely chances.

It has been well researched in the business world that the values and skills developed in athletics are parallel to those needed to be successful in the workplace. According to a Cornell research study, they found that many employers will ask about participation in sports as a way to better assess a candidates qualities.

Why do businesses look for athletes? Well, in a 2013 article in Forbes called Why You Should Fill Your Company With Athletes they explain:

  1. They have the drive to practice a task rigorously, relentlessly, and even in the midst of failure until they succeed.
  2. Athletes achieve their goals.
  3. Athletes develop new skills.
  4. Athletes are exceptional entrepreneurs
  5. Athletes strive for balance in every aspect of their lives AND
  6. Athletes work well with partners and in teams.

At Brimmer we are proud of the work we do in athletics. I am excited to be here this evening to celebrate the incredible seasons of our 3 varsity teams, though we aren’t done yet- We still have two games tomorrow. Tonight we are celebrating their success as teams, including two league championships and three invitations to participate at the NEPSAC level AND equally if not more importantly, the individual growth that each student-athlete made over the course of the fall season. It should be a great night!

Go Gators!