The Power of Disagreement Revisited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Sparks to Flames of Action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building Space for Innovation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Article published in the Summer 2017 Brimmer and May Ambassador magazine

Remembering Elie Wiesel

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts on the Class of 2017

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

Senior Dinner Speech, June 1, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Open your eyes to the beauty around you,

Open your mind

To the wonders of life,

Open your heart to those

Who love you,

And

Always be true

To yourself

Commencement Concluding Remarks, June 2, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

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.

Celebrating Our Diversity

Like many, over the past forty-eight hours I have struggled over the election results. My first thoughts were how did we get here and how do I explain the results to my four and half year old? His understanding of Mr. Trump and Secretary Clinton was that Trump said mean things and did not apologize, whereas Clinton made mistakes and said she was sorry. So, as we explained who won the election he was obviously confused. In his world, we value respect and taking responsibility and not the use of “mean words”.

After trying to explain to my son the results, I left the house Wednesday morning still struggling with what to say at our Upper School Morning Meeting. How do we make sense of this to our students? While I still do not have all the answers to this question, and I’m not sure I ever will, I wanted to share the thoughts I gave to the Brimmer Upper School.

In 1796 George Washington stepped down from the Presidency marking the first peaceful transition of power to a unrelated person in Modern History. Washington easily could have stayed on for another term but understood what would be one of his final nation-building responsibilities- establishing the transition of Presidential power. This idea has been a hallmark of our democracy for the last two hundred twenty years. A peaceful transition is how other modern democracies model for their government election processes.

In four years, just about everyone in this room will have an opportunity to vote in the next Presidential election.That being said, understanding the nature of our democracy does not offer much solace for those that are in shock over the Presidential election results. Intellectually the importance of transition makes sense, but emotionally this change doesn’t, due to the nature of the campaigns. This election was filled with hate and hurtful words from conservatives and liberals. No one was immune from divisiveness engulfed us. But President-Elect Trump has come to symbolize those intense feelings and words that have many of our diverse students, faculty, and staff feeling uneasy about what this means for them. What this means for the future our country?

Now, I want to share a short personal story. This year, when I began at Brimmer, I was transitioning from a school that had little diversity. One reason I came to Brimmer was because I wanted to be in a place that was more diverse, but I wasn’t prepared for the impact that this aspect of Brimmer has had on me. At our school we celebrate our diversity and each morning I wake up inspired to come to a place that has such a rich cultural, ethnic, religious, and gender diversity. Celebrating diversity is part of what makes this school a special place.

So, when I think about the past year, I remember a lot of arguing and yelling about what people thought was most important. Whether it was Bernie, Trump, Clinton, Cruz, Rubio…the list goes on. There was a lot of talking but there was not very much listening. People were willing to shout their values at the top of their lungs, but found it difficult to open their ears to the underlying fears of each side. As a community we can respond to this election by continuing to create a powerful, thriving diverse community that is engaged in dialogue. We know that being diverse is not easy. Putting together so many different people with a wide range of values and experiences takes work. A lot of work. In many ways, it is easier not to be diverse. But easier does not mean more valuable. We don’t want to settle for easy. The desire to be diverse challenges us to think about what is necessary to live in a society that respects all voices, takes responsibility for its actions, shows kindness even in the most difficult situations, and remains honest. 

So how do we respond to the divisiveness that has come out of this election? We respond by building the community we desire for the country here at Brimmer. This is going to require us to be upstanders. We cannot allow the hate and disdain to permeate our community and build walls between us. We are going to need to stand up for those people whose voices may be silenced. We need to support each other and not create more fear. The subtleties of our words and actions can have a powerful impact on our community and we must work to be supportive. If we do this, we can begin to heal. We can be an example for how to build community, instead of creating divisions. Over the next few hours, days, weeks, and months- be there for each other. I know that this will create the light that will shine through the darkness that has come from our divided nation.

Today, I cannot think of a better way to honor the memories of our Veterans. To honor their sacrifice for protecting the United States and the world. Our veterans do not represent a single political party. Rather they come together from all different backgrounds to to preserve the freedoms we know in our country and to protect those around the world that cannot stand up for themselves. I cannot think of a better way to move forward, then as coming together as upstanders celebrating our diversity and standing up for those that need our help.