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.

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.

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.

 

The Power of Disagreement Revisited

Get-Someone-to-Stop-Ignoring-You-Step-9

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.

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!

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.

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.

A Week of Civic Engagement

Over the past week I had the pleasure of working with a group of students in the Boston Winterim group for Brimmer and May. The week was built to be an exercise in Design Thinking while looking at a way to make a social impact on our community. Students want through a process of identifying an social issue to focus on for the week and eventually chose to look at environmental issues facing our local community.

With the uncertainty that a Design Thinking process can take a team, it wasn’t clear where we would end up. However in the end, it became a deep lesson in environmental issues, civics, local and state politics, and moved past the traditional lens of community service.

To learn more about the impressive week of work(that will continue outside of this week), visit the Hammond Pond Reservation and Webster Woods Improvements site that was setup to record the work.