Balance

The following remarks were delivered to the Middle and Upper School Community during Opening Convocation:

I remember this memory quite vividly. I was about 14 years old and brought a bowl of soup to my grandmother. I walked slowly, intent on not spilling any of the soup, trying not to blink as I focused on the liquid in the bowl moving back and forth and coming close to the edge. 

Just after I placed the bowl down gingerly on the table, my Uncle Bruce said to me, “hey Joshua. Here’s something I learned as a waiter. The trick is to not look at the bowl or cup, and just pick your head up and focus on where you are going.” I wasn’t completely sold, but I trusted my uncle, so I gave it a try with the next bowl and fighting the urge to look down, I walked more normally across the room without spilling any of the soup in a third of the time of my last trip. 

My uncle would explain to me later that when you are so focused on not spilling, you have a tendency to overcompensate and all that work you are doing to try and not spill, ends up making it more likely for you to make a mess on the floor. 

As a teenager and for a long time after, I saw this as helpful advice to not spill liquid while carrying it in a bowl or mug. As a matter of fact, I still try to employ this tactic to this day. In thinking back recently, I began to view this not only as advice for carrying soup or coffee, but as a metaphor for balance in our lives. 

How do we respond to the challenges that we face? How are we impacted by the moments we encounter? What changes do we make in response to these challenges or our goals?  

Many people tend to have an all-in attitude. Do you know an adult who wants to get into shape or lose some weight and start a strict workout routine or diet, only to have it stop a few weeks or months later? Have you ever canceled plans with a friend or a family member to get some last-minute studying in for a test you are worried about? Avoided taking an elective or lacked confidence in playing a sport, a subject matter, or acting on stage, because you saw yourself as not being good at it? 

When we take these paths, we don’t give ourselves the opportunity to be well-rounded, balanced people. We are focused on the immediate outcome of each step we take while carrying the soup, making it more likely to spill, versus looking towards the overall goal. When we focus on the outcome of every point lost on a test, a mistake made during a game, or a misplaced comment to a friend, we lose our balance and get disappointed in ourselves over the little mistakes, and the small spills. 

So today, for this year, I want to challenge you to think of balance in a different way. For the past two and a half years, we have been hyperfocused on everything due to the pandemic. We were forced to worry about the smallest things as simple as touching a door handle. 

Instead of thinking about every mistake, every time you may color outside of the line of a drawing, pull back and look at the incredible picture you are in the midst of creating. Do not worry about the little mistakes.  

Instead, learn from them and make the small adjustments needed to do better in the future. Do not let the fear of messing up get in the way of trying something new. Two weeks ago, Leni Hicks-Dutt and some other members of the Class of 2023 created a beautiful new mural for the school. No one will know if this is identical to the drawings made in advance or if any adjustments were made. Instead, we just get to enjoy the incredible art that has been created in our hallway. 

The same is true for you this year. Create your goals, try new things, and find ways to be well-rounded people, don’t give up on an opportunity to try something fun or new. Don’t worry if things do not go exactly to plan. Embrace failure and learn from it. At the end of the year we will hardly remember the little mistakes along the way, just the great accomplishments you achieved. So, look at the big picture, because when you pick your head up and focus on where you are going instead of every step you take along the way, you will inevitably spill less soup and be happier with the outcome. 

A New Depth to Curriculum

This fall was filled with similar moments that brought back a sense of normalcy. From fans on the soccer field to our theater filled for the US play, Trap, to classrooms set up for the style of learning we pride ourselves on, it has been a year so far that more resembles 2019 than 2020.

There have also been moments where we cannot ignore the realities of the continuing pandemic. Checking vaccine cards before performances, spectator restrictions in the gym, and not having parents inside our buildings during the school day are just some of the ways we continue to feel the restrictions of the pandemic on a regular basis.

However, new doors have opened from what we have learned since March 2020. It was April of that year that history teacher David Cutler began bringing in virtual speakers who, under normal circumstances, could not come to a Brimmer classroom. (Click here for my blog post on these incredible speakers.) We quickly saw other teachers follow suit, and our students were given the opportunity to connect with historians, artists, scientists, and policymakers.

A Brimmer education has never been one that is contained by the walls of the classrooms, and the incorporation of Zoom allowed us to create unique learning opportunities during one of the most challenging times of our lives. Our teachers found that they could provide new depth to their curriculum by opening up the classrooms virtually to outside guests, and it has continued to this day. To give you a sampling of this work, here are examples from just the last few weeks:

Sasaki architecture and design firm came to Brimmer to run a workshop with the Architecture class to create vision boards using architectural photographs of campus along with a collage giving students more insight into architectural brainstorming practices.

Professor Jaime Hart, Associate Professor in Department of Environmental Health, Chan School of Public Health, spoke to students in the Geographical Information Science course on issues of environmental justice and public health and the ways she uses geographic data to assess the distribution of air pollution.

Janice Corkin ‘66 visited our Sculpture class on campus to share the clay figure technique she used to create the bronze figures dotting Brimmer’s campus.

Brian Forist, Professor, Indiana University, and Liora Silks, Newton Energy Coach, spoke to the Environment Club on separate occasions on the subjects of the relationship between parks and mental health and the positive effects of renewable energy in Newton.

In Current Events, Morgan Hook, a Managing Director in the Albany office of SKD Knickerbocker, spoke with students about his experience in public relations in politics and the ways that news we see and read is generated. Marshall Hook, Assignment Editor at Channel 7 News Boston, talked about the decisions that go into daily local news broadcasts. In this case, the speakers provided opposing views giving students an opportunity to consider different viewpoints and develop their own ideas.

Eliza Butler, Mental Health and Mindfulness Coach, taught 9th grade students the foundations of stress management and self-awareness in 9th Grade Wellness.

The Global Studies Program welcomed Jessica Chicco, Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, to speak to diploma candidates about her work in supporting immigrants and refugees and her career path as an immigration lawyer working in non-profits.

NYPD Detective Rose Muckenthaler spoke with students in Criminal Law about her work supporting victims and investigating human trafficking over her twenty-year career, including the work as part of the team that arrested Jeffrey Epstein. Criminal Law also learned from Assistant District Attorney Graham van Epps about his work as a prosecutor in Massachusetts and the Bronx.

The past two years have provided a lifetime’s worth of challenges for our School. Yet from the tremendous loss and ongoing struggles, there are ways that we have adapted to provide more light and deeper connections. Our teachers and students are doing incredible work, and I cannot wait to see what they accomplish during the second half of the year.

In the Classroom: Lessons in Biology

With the return to more normalcy, it has also given me a chance to sit in on lessons more regularly. Watching our talented educators engage with students and observing students learning is always a delight.Part of my professional practice has been to document the great teaching and learning that occurs in our classrooms. Recently during one of my walk throughs of classes, I found myself in a 9th grade Biology class. When I entered the room, I immediately saw groups of 3 or 4 students staring at cards on their table discussing what was printed on the cards and moving them around. 

Curious about what they were looking at, I stepped into the room to get a closer look. Spread out on the tables in front of each group was a series of cards that had information about various animals, creatures, and plants. The cards were organized differently on each table and when you turned them over, the backside was filled with information. Students were talking about the role each element played in the ecosystem. 

It was clear that students were activating critical thinking skills as they sorted the information. And then, Ms. Stublarec introduced a new element that would turn the activity into one that engaged students in higher order thinking skills. Students also had “disaster” cards and at this point in the class they had to consider how different types of natural and human-made disasters would impact what they had just been discussing. How would forest fires change the balance of nature? What would it mean if war laid waste to the land and top predators were killed in the process? And how might this impact the balance of the food chain? 

In this lesson students were learning about the complexities and interconnectedness of ecological relationships. The activity that was set up by our Biology teachers, Zoë Stublarec and Jared Smith, allowed students to explore the fragile relationships that exist in our nature world and allow them to build their understanding by discussing these scenarios. In that moment our students were not just teenagers sitting in a classroom, learning biological concepts, instead they were bioecologists studying how nature adapts to change and developing predictive models that could be used to help preserve resources in the future. And in doing so, this powerful lesson not only helped students understand these concepts and develop scientific skills, it helped model what a career in the field may look like.

In the Classroom: Exploring Voice Through Music

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.

Leveraging Design Thinking in Schools

If you step into my office, you will see pads of sticky notes sitting on different surfaces and easel pad paper filled with used stickies. I was not always sticky note obsessed. The truth is that I resisted using them for a long time. So what happened? I was introduced to Design Thinking (or Human Centered Design). I became hooked on the way in which the process, when done right, took an empathetic lens to design and focused on developing solutions from a broad user base. Most fascinating is the way in which it identified unique solutions that generally were not easily predictable.

During the process, the team of “designers” collect information from users and learn about their experience. They work to understand how the purpose is interacting with the people that are using it. It is easy to extrapolate how it can be used in areas of STEAM, particularly arts and engineering. It pulls from those processes. While it originated out of IDEO’s product design work, it was adapted over the past two decades to improve patient care systems in hospitals, improve a person’s experience while waiting in line, and enhance social entrepreneurship. The implementation of design thinking has grown exponentially as Stanford’s d.school has made the work more mainstream.

The question remained for me, how can design thinking be leveraged to improve programs and decision making in schools? When I watched David Kelley’s 60 Minutes special, it became clear to me. The process places the human at the center, which is ultimately the goal of education organizations.

Here are the basic principles:

  1. Empathize: During this initial phase the team is design-thinking-2collecting information from various
    groups and individuals that may interact with issue. The goal is to connect with the people that may be impacted and understand the issues from their perspective.
  2. Define: In this second part of the process the team works to define a problem statement that sums up what they learned during the empathy phase. This may shift over time as ideas are created and tested, and more information is collected.
  3. Ideate: Similar to brainstorming, the goal is to develop as many ideas as possible without limit. The end result should be lots of ideas that can be grouped and refined.
  4. Prototyping: The goal at this point is to quickly develop one of the ideas in more detail- create a model, sketch out how it will work, put together something that can be tested as a rough outline.
  5. Test: When you get to the “test” phase you are not done. You are looking to collect information and learn about your prototype. How can it be improved? Do you need to incorporate other ideas? Do you need to start over with the new information you collected.

The power of the process is how it can be utilized in school decision making. It provides the context and process to involve the important stakeholders in the school, helps to bring out new ideas, and creates a culture of innovation. However the process itself does not work unless the right team is assembled. It is critical to include a cross-section of the community- this must happen to get the most out of the ideate phase.

In the end the process is key. Many organizations have a difficult time balancing when to make a decision versus when to continue with the process. The human centered design process is most helpful in finding the right balance. The process allows schools to take a thoughtful approach to decision making and program development, while also working towards a final solution. The process has a way of identifying the underlying issues that are at play and developing a solution- keeping schools out of the extremes of rushing to a decision or getting stuck in process or unpacking.

 

21st Century Yellow Journalism

How do you get the majority of your news information? Do you pick up a newspaper in the morning, scanning the articles and titles? Do you spend time throughout the day visiting traditional print media outlets that post their articles digitally? Or do you depend on news aggregators and social media to get the majority of your information about the latest happenings in the world?

The headlines over the past few weeks have been filled with concerns about “fake news”.yellow-journalism-spanish-war The sensationalized headlines with disinformation have spread quickly across social media platforms reinforcing concerns people may already have about a specific issue. Some people have called on companies, such as Facebook, to fact-check stories being posted, some have blamed media outlets for normalizing some types of sensationalism, and others have called on readers to be more discerning when they read articles. Fake news and sensationalism isn’t a new problem. Personally, I remember learning about Yellow Journalism during my 8th grade history class with Mr. Zabinski.

In an era where information is so easily attained and shared, we have known for a number of years how critical it is to develop digitally literate students. As a core 21st Century Skill, digital literacy refers to a range of skills such as:

  • the ability to utilize technology as a tool to research, organize, evaluate and communicate information
  • the ability to use use digital technologies, communication tools, navigating social networks
  • manage, integrate, evaluate and create information to successfully function in the world
  • understand one’s place ethically in the chain of shared information

Regardless of how you collect your information, the ability to evaluate and analyze information is a critical part of media literacy. We need to resist the temptation to share, like, favorite, or love articles based on their headline- something that I am guilty of doing from time to time. We also need to properly evaluate an article, taking the time to decode facts that may seem to good to be true.

How do we do this? What do students need to do? Here are a few ways…

Be Critical: Regardless of the source do not assume that all information presented is unbiased or factual. If there is a statement or fact that does not make sense, investigate. If an article is use broad statements and isn’t supplying quotes, sources, or data, then dig deeper.

Be a Fact-Checker: Cross check a story against other sources. Look up the original source that is being referenced.

Know Your Sources: Develop a list of sources you trust- media outlets, specific people, websites

Be Responsible: Understand that once you share something electronically it can never be permanently deleted. Think about who may be reading the information. Consider whether you are supporting the spread of rumors or fake news.

We are all responsible for the information we share, no matter the medium. Our students cannot depend on Facebook or other people to filter stories for them. Instead they, we, need to continue to develop the key skills needed to navigate our world.

Teaching Resilience

Resiliency: Capable of withstanding shock without permanent deformation or rupture; tending to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change –Merriam-Webster Dictionary

In recent years resiliency and grit have become buzzwords in education. There has been a growing sense that character building is a critical part of education and supports screen-shot-2016-11-01-at-11-01-48-pmclassroom learning. The University of Chicago has positioned themselves as a leader in research for Resiliency, Grit Education. They have found that the most effective methods are those that are focused on the skill development coupled with supporting a growth mindset. As educators, it is critical for us to develop the tool box for students, because we know those tools lead to improved academic performance. (To learn more about the noncognitive factors involved click here for the paper published by the University of Chicago.)

So, how does one teach the general ability of being able to recover from misfortune or change? As educators, we often are focused on a student’s ability to recover from a poor grade, but does this truly represent resiliency? There certainly is an aspect of resiliency in these moments, but how reasonable are our expectations for how a person responds to major disappointment.

When incorporating ways to develop student grit and resiliency, their ability to overcome disappointment or change, teachers look at the lower stakes moments that occur in classes. Some of these questions to consider are:

  • Do you celebrate failure in the class and encourage risk-taking: How do you respond when a student gives an incorrect answer or an interpretation that is off-base. These are small moments to encourage students to take risks
  • In what form is feedback delivered to students: Is feedback auxiliary to the class or is it a core component. How do you hold students responsible for using the feedback and promote growth in their work? How does constructive criticism flow in the class- teacher to student? student to student? student to teacher?
  • Do you model resiliency in class? How do you respond to adversity in the class? If a part of the lesson is not flowing as anticipated do you show frustration? If some piece of technology is failing, what is your response? Are you as aware of your body language as you are of the words you choose?
  • What is the role of revisions? Can students rewrite essays and papers? Do students receive an opportunity to run an experiment another time?  Can you promote opportunities to renew or revise that will help develop these habits of mind.
  • Are you explicitly developing the skill? Are you looking at teaching and assessing resilience in a traditional manner or are you considering this to be a skill that needs to be practiced honed?

Our students are growing up in a society where information is available at their finger tips in unprecedented ways. Considering how often an adult may get annoyed if the internet is running slow or if there is a bad cell phone reception, think about the kids that are growing up in this type of fast-paced era. It is our responsibility, more so than ever, to help provide the scaffolding for students to develop the ability to overcome adversity and be flexible when they face change. The research shows that this is a duel approach and the development of a growth mindset is critical to this work.

If you are interested in learning more about how children develop resiliency, I invite you to read the article How Kids Really Succeed from The Atlantic, a comprehensive look at the development of resiliency in children from infancy to teenage years .

In what areas of school do you think resiliency plays out most often?