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.

1st Day of School

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1st Day of School 2016-2017

I have to admit, after nearly two decades in education I still get filled with all the same emotions that I did my first year in teaching. The weekend before the first day is always filled with excitement and a little nervousness and anxiety about the unknown. It has a lot of similarities to the buzz around Fenway Park on Opening Day. People gleefully walking around, filled with hopeful anticipation, while also holding onto the emotions that are stirred by the uncertainty.

The first day of school can feel very different for students and teachers. For students, it is about shifting gears. Most have summers filled with movement and activity. Even for those that had summer jobs or internships, it feels different coming back to their full-time job as students. In addition there are the questions that fill each student’s head. Will this class be a lot of work? Will the teacher understand how I learn? Will I make new friends?

For teachers, they are feeling many of same emotions. Teachers are also feeling excitement for the learning that lays ahead, but nerves about the unknown class dynamics that may exist. Teachers may be wondering if their updated lesson plans will be effective. Will their students be motivated learners? Will they connect with their students?

While there is no “right” way to start the school year, over the past ten years I have chosen not to use my first class to go over the syllabus. While it is meaningful to set the expectations and establish norms for the classroom, I wanted to use the initial time together to lower first day anxieties and start building relationships. As a science teacher this usually involved a mysterious demonstration that would create a “wow” moment, but then would challenge students to figure out how the chemical reaction worked.

Getting to Know YouHowever, the most important activity I ask my students to do is the first homework assignment where students fill out a sheet sharing personal information. It includes highlights of their summer, an accomplishment they are proud of from the year before, something they think I should know about them, and a goal they have for themselves.

Regardless of what happens during the first class, that time is an opportunity to start the process of relationship building. As much as our classrooms are places of learning, they are built upon a relational foundation. In Whistling Vivaldi, by Claude Steele, and Unselfie, by Michele Borba, the authors independently share that when a student feels that a teacher cares about them, the student does significantly better in the class. While one activity will not be enough for the entire year, it is a good start.

Whether you are about to have your first class this week or are in the first weeks of your school year, work to authentically connect with your students. The impact of relationship building can have huge positive impacts. Here are just a few easy ways to get going:

1) Learn your students’ names: Whether you use seating charts, look at pictures, or just memorize them, take the time to learn the names of your students, what they preferred to be called, and how to properly pronounce their name. There is nothing that makes a person feel seen more than knowing their name.

2) Show interest in their lives outside of classroom content: By asking students about what they do outside of school is a great way to connect. Did they improve their time in yesterday’s Cross Country meet? What part did they get in the school play? What song or piece are they working on in band or choir?

3) Ask student’s to share information about themselves: Learning about a child’s goals for the year, a challenge they overcame, or something they are proud of helps you connect with the student. Just this week my son’s 1st grade teacher sent home a two page Getting to Know You sheet to fill out. My family was so touched that the teacher was taking the time to read over all the answers and wanted to gather this type of information about our child.

What are some of the techniques you use to connect with students at the start of the year and start the process of building a yearlong, and often longer, relationship?

Flames of Achievement

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At Opening Convocation  in September, I shared a quote from Golda Meir. She said, “Make the most of yourself by fanning the tiny, inner sparks of possibility into flames of achievement.” As we near the end of the school year, it seemed apropos to look back at some recent observations that show the depth of achievement our students have made this year. One such example of students transforming the sparks of possibility into flames of achievement comes from the success of our spring sports teams.

All of our teams should be proud of their seasons, including the Varsity Baseball team, which won the League Championship, but I want to highlight the Girls’ Varsity Tennis and Girls’ Varsity Lacrosse teams. Both of these teams have generally flown under the radar during the spring, but this year, they made Brimmer history by each winning their team’s first league championship. Two teams that came into the year with modest definitions of success, both saw those sparks catch fire.

In the classroom, it seems like it was not that long ago that the Class of 2018 was starting Upper School. Over the past few weeks, teachers and administrators have been busy listening and watching our twelfth grade students present their culminating humanities project. Each student dived deep into the works of an author and produced a scholarly paper and presentation on their research. The students wowed their teachers with their interpretations of the text and the personal connections they made to their work.

A final example comes from the tremendous creativity that filled our School this week at the All-School Arts Celebration. I often find myself, and others, pausing in front of displays in awe of the way students have transformed their medium to create such wonderful artwork.

The list of personal and grade level achievements goes on and on. The students should be proud of their accomplishments this year! Billows of smoke have filled our hallways, from the sparks of possibility that have turned into their flames of achievement. Congratulations to everyone!

Getting One Percent Better

tom v time

Like most of New England, I have been mesmerized by Tom Brady’s ongoing DocuSeries Tom vs. Time. At first I was intrigued to see the inner workings of the person who has been at the center of one of the most successful runs in sports, but as I watched I began reflecting on the ideas that were shared during the videos.

As I watched the second episode, I was struck by a comment made by Tom Brady’s quarterback coach Tom House. During the video, House refers to the preparation and work Brady does and his focus on improving in even the smallest areas. He says, in reference to Brady working to make a small adjustment to his throw, “You realize this is like nothing[the adjustment], but it’s big to him. Tom and some of these other elite quarterbacks, they don’t come to get five percent better. They come to get one percent better.”

Working to get one percent better struck me and has been on my mind since I watched the video. As fans, we see the results of a daily work regiment that is based on a growth mindset. Yes, the ultimate goal for someone like Tom Brady is winning the Super Bowl, however that’s not an actionable goal. Instead, the focus is on the small thing you can do each day to improve. Whether it’s throwing more touchdown passes, organizing your work more effectively, being a more active participant in class, or writing a stronger paper, you need to find ways to make small improvements. Students need to focus on getting better by one percent each day.

For students this means working to help them break down their big goals into smaller attainable goals or action steps. Brimmer teachers have shifted to writing their goals as questions, so that we can focus on the answers, or the actions, to get us to the goals. One goal I set this year was “How can we further improve the transition from middle school to high school for our ninth grade students?” Some of the action items were– survey ninth and tenth grade teachers to develop a list of key student skills; develop a ninth grade team approach for teachers; and improve the experience of eighth grade families and students at Curriculum Night. Truthfully, most of these action items had their own set of action items to create the one percent improvements needed to reach the goal.

While we do not want to lose track of where we are trying to go, we need to focus students on the small steps they can take to improve. The only way any of us can get better is to continuously improve. And, I do not know about you, but feeling like I only need to be one percent better each day feels much less overwhelming. Imagine the confidence we build in students when we empower them to improve incrementally instead of needing to make instantaneous leaps. We cannot expect them to turn a B- into an A or write a stronger paper without helping them define the one percent improvements. Every journey starts with a single step. I believe this is what Carol Dweck is trying to communicate with her growth mindset work, and the documented practice habits of Tom Brady may just be in one of her next books.

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?

First Day of School

The first day of school always brings a lot of excitement and nerves. First days bring with them hope and possibility and opportunity to start anew. Whether it is the first day of Kindergarten, Middle School, or your senior year, you are faced with new experiences and opportunities to grow. Of course all that change and unknown also can bring about feelings of anxiousness.

During our Faculty Opening Meetings we had the opportunity to learn from Lynn Lyons,fullsizerender LICSW, an expert in Anxiety and Worry. During her presentation she spoke about how we often feed “worry” instead of acknowledging “worry” for what it is- a state of mind. She spoke in depth on how to avoid the worry trap by focusing on the process instead of feeding the worry with content. Lyons said “Don’t ask the person afraid to ride a bike, ‘what’s the worst thing that will happen.’ Instead, normalize the experience and move into action. Use phrases such as:

  • I don’t like it, but I can handle it
  • This is what I’m experiencing
  • I’m willing to feel uncomfortable

Every person has nerves about the start of a new school year in different ways. It may be the anxiousness of starting a new school or having moved to a new town, the desire to get a lead role in the school play, or the pressures of what comes after high school. However, if we frame these nerves as opportunities, we can enjoy the excitement of a new year.