It’s a brand new day – make it the best one yet

This post begins with a deep breath.

The world we live in seems to be in a free fall – from the flames of racial injustice to the deepening curve of a pandemic, there are so many in turmoil. People have expressed agony over the excrutiating and arduous task of navigating such difficult conversations in the midst of social distancing and mask-wearing. Most certainly, a return to “normal” does not seem very likely.

And thank goodnes, because I don’t want to go back to the way things were.

I want every voice to be heard and respected. I want every student with whom I engage to believe in herself and cheer on their classmates and teachers. I want kids to learn from inspirational and charismatic adults that I am responsible for encouraging and motivating so that they may have confidence to empower young people to speak their minds, to listen to the words of others, and to agree that different opinions matter and are vital to the development of a rich society filled with trust and empathy.

If you attempt to implement reforms but fail to engage in the culture of school, nothing will change

Seymour Sarason

That effort starts with me. Let’s start with engaging school culture. The culture in the school which I work is filled with joy and determination. When the COVID-19 quarantine occurred mid-March, we didn’t falter…we built anew. My boss, the head of school for my institution, defined our effort as building a boat while trying to sail it. While we had to leave the shore, we had a hope and a prayer that the vessel was shipshape. And we thrived – not as good as in-person learning, but most certainly in a way that was maximized by our well-developed relationships with students. The relationship is the key (which is our biggest fear of the coming school year without those great relationships developed). So we have to consider ways to build empathetic relationships, and build them quickly.

A few parents have reached out to me this summer, sharing their concerns regarding the start of school. Health and safety are paramount, but I am humbled by their desire to have in-person school to propel the positive culture of my school forward. They want confirmation that we will have that enriched environment like they depend on to help develop their own children into the best versions of themselves. I have responded with a similar template that applies to each child. I’ve posted it below:


Your concern about factors that we can and cannot control in determining an in-person return to school are completely warranted. Please know that we are doing everything we can to ensure a safe, in-person experience can happen for everyone. For your family’s safety and that of our faculty, our goal for this summer remains in the plan to have both an in-person learning plan and a remote option for learning. They need to exist simultaneously. They need to be excellent. And they need to be available on day one.

Up until this week, the plan was all but certain to be in-person from day one. Like you, I now worry that the spread of coronavirus has taken our ability to execute that plan out of our hands. We cannot supersede the restrictions of our government officials, and we will not compromise the safety of our students. I pray that people in the city consider ways to be careful and focus on the general state of health in the city. All this being said, we have not changed our planning tactics, though we will create various scenarios which adjust the delicate balance of in-person and remote class time to ensure that learning can continue to flow with gusto. From advancing our middle school scheduling to considering better assessment practices, we are going to be ready.

I am grateful for your hopes and prayers that this virus takes a turn for the better. I appreciate the sense of urgency your inquiry offers to ensure that a plan is in place for your student. I will continue to work tirelessly to achieve a plan that promotes maximum effort, enthusiasm, and opportunity for every person in (and out) of our building.

Social Media and Our Young Learners: An Article Response

The Source of Urgency

If you have not read this article from The Atlantic (September 2017 Issue), please take a moment to check it out. The article, written by Jean M. Twenge, contains incredible research and interpretation of information. The blog post you are reading now contains my own thoughts as well as the thoughts of a mentor.
I love and fully recognize the irony of reading the post that introduced me to the article while on my phone…and staying up late to respond to it on that same device. I began to share my thoughts as a comment to Will Richardson's post on the Change.School community (yes, even more irony). But as I think about the content presented in the Atlantic article and the likely response my school community, I am compelled to share my thoughts with a larger audience. I am passionate about the effects of social media on our young students for one very poignant reason: I love the kids who walk through our hallways as I do my own children. Further, I agree that they constantly battle unhappiness because of the social pressures thrown at them (and embraced by them) every day.

A Little Background

My school facilitates a 1:1 (iPad) school technology program, and has done so for a number of years. We were one of the first private schools in the city of Houston to adopt this pedagogical shift comprehensively beginning in 5th grade about five years ago. Our students have embraced the iPad as an essential element to support learning and teachers have learned to let go of traditional, static learning tools (like textbooks) to focus on the immeasurable volume of information via online research. We are discovering better ways to inspire learning every year; I appreciate our ability to be nimble in pedagogy and curriculum while continuing to find success in developing young minds. Just search "prepare the child for the path" and see the inspirational messaging for yourself.
Technology should never dictate the breadth or depth of the learning that goes on in the classroom; that exploration depends on the learner and those that facilitate learning (more on this idea later). But the devices in the hands of our students should serve as a means to make learning visible through demonstrative evidence of growth. Never is this device intended to be a "consumption only" tool. We want to teach students to own their learning and therefore be in control of the various tools at their disposal. But much like Anakin Skywalker falls to the dark side despite his training in and knowledge of the light side of the force, power and authority over others can be a unavoidable temptation. We cannot guide the hands of our students (nor should we). And that brings us back to Twenge's article.

Tell Me You Got the Plates on that Truck…

Allow me to begin with a clarifying statement: I agree with every piece of evidence Twenge presents. Social media has the potential to serve as the greatest threat to adolescents, more so than any other in our modern history. But in all the evidence she presents, I'm left with the pressing question: Why is this continuing to happen? Her research goes back 25 years; why have we not stepped on the brakes? It is clear that the greater we (that is, every single adult making an impact on an adolescent) never developed the skills to teach our kids how to navigate social media, and specifically through the comments of others. It seems that, according to Twenge, the "sticks and stones" adage exists with reckless abandon in social media outlets and can end with depression and (God forbid) suicide. In my own school, there are a small group of families that have serious concerns about the amount of technology to which our academic program exposes students on a daily basis. They feel that children need to learn traditional, pre-tech methods of learning. While I address this specific concern in the above paragraph, I worry that Twenge's article creates even more angst to the danger of any screen time, even the positive model we emphasize.

Does Anybody Have a Map?

The title of this section refers to a song from the Broadway show destroying the competition these days, Dear Evan Hanson. I love the music written for this show; however, the content is a bit hard to swallow. This musical describes how a teenager dealing with depression and being a social outcast considers suicide to solve his anonymity. "13 Reasons" is a made-for-Netflix production with revenge suicide as its central plot line, presented as the ultimate way to get back at all those so-called "friends" who insulted, raped, and dismissed a young girl. These high-traffic shows sensationalize one way to respond to the the very emotional roller coaster our students are experiencing. These example have a significantly louder voice than, say, mom and dad (or teacher). So my question is this: How has a young person's ability to own their online narrative been marginalized, instead deferring them to the extreme alternatives just mentioned? As Will states in a response to my comment: "This [need to educate kids on how to use devices properly] is a HUGE part of any technology roll out in schools, but one that is hardly mentioned amidst discussions around bandwidth, filtering, appropriate use, and safety." At this point in time, all I have seen is a budding awareness of the issue. Can we move beyond awareness?

Finding Center Stage

Will goes on to say: "The dissonance for us is that we [adults] have some context for "how it used to be." Kids don't. This is what life looks like now. Our job is to help them understand that people's lives aren't just the highlight reels they post online, and find a healthy balance that many of them don't even know they're missing." This gem of an observation identifies the crux: kids live in this world of full-time connectivity since the day they were born (e.g., using Instagram in a delivery room, or at least responding to a post of that kind). From the cheap seats, the simple answer is "less screen time." After all, if we prevent our kids from being exposed to social media, we solve the problem, right? The truth is, any screen time can lead to misguided decisions that haunt forever. I'll use a Brené Brown reference here: when we (or our students) are in "the arena," our devices are a permanent tool/weapon available to us, for better or for worse. Wielding such a tool with confidence requires training and MODELING. I, for one, have a long way to go in that second category. But, as the saying goes, it's never the tool that acts…action always remains in the hands of the one who wields it. Parents, teachers, and anyone a young person admires must realize how they are being observed in person (think of the parent you see at the pool who is constantly distracted by the number of "likes" on their Facebook post) and followed virtually (when you "friend" your child, or your friend's child, you are sharing everything with them that you post online).

it's never the tool that acts…action always remains in the hands of the one who wields it

Ultimately, there must be an acknowledgement by schools and parents of the way students manipulate and are manipulated by their online interactions. Only through committed partnership for rehabilitation (for lack of a better word) can we help steer this conversation back towards the infinite value of the tool rather than it being the source of "unhappiness."

Making Failure a Priority

This image appeared on my LinkedIn feed yesterday, sparking thoughts and reflection about why the middle school years are so crucial. Tweenagers, children between the ages of 10 and 15, go through a roller coaster of changes. They discover independence and passion for new ideas and interests, particularly during the school day. As they discover opportunities to make decisions sans parent influence, tweenagers find their path more open and free as their capabilities have increased. However, this freedom comes with risk attached. In discovering passions, the inevitability of failure surfaces. For students at my school, a fear of failure predicates all decisions. Quite often, they test the waters only to back off after a mistake or an undesirable result develops. As you can see from the examples below, it’s that “comfort zone” of effort that we need to expunge.

“My parents will kill me if I don’t make an A.”
Students love the easy ‘A.’ The gratification of seeing a good grade on a test or report card starts early and carries forward throughout our adult life. But anyone can take the easy road to make the grade; the more memorable academic work arrives when taking the road less traveled. However, students are hesitant to take risks on a project or paper because the uncharted path, though more interesting and dynamic, may not provide an easy avenue to earning high marks. Pursuing a unique and creative path takes effort and iteration which means patience in academic effort. Teachers are welcoming of this path; looking at a new topic or seeing a student take a new angle with a project is energizing to a classroom. We as educators need to remain vocal in our support of these trailblazers so that they can see the value of the road less traveled.

“We lost the game. We suck.”
When it comes to sports, middle school students are diving into a whole new world. No matter the game, the average tweenager is only developing the concept of being a “cog in the wheel.” After so many years of being in the spotlight, especially in today’s ribbon-happy athletic environment, being a piece to the puzzle versus the solution is humbling at best. Some young athletes reach puberty early, giving them the physical edge; this only adds to the disillusion of the rest of the pack as they watch their classmate get the glory.

Second, so many times in my coaching career I have heard the opinion of “we suck” based on the fact that the team lost the game yesterday. It’s hard for a young person to see the baby steps of progress that it takes to become a strong, successful team. As I speak to students after a game, the response to “how did the game go?” is always black and white. Win or loss. So my second question is always, “How did YOU do?” The response to this question is interesting – after debriefing personal performance, students are very quick to celebrate the success of a teammate. Perhaps the question triggers that “cog and wheel” perspective in the tweenage brain. But coaches and parents alike can help a student overcome that all-or-nothing response by asking about the space between.

Power in Failing
As I return to the image that sparked this post, let’s look at the key pieces to the acronym shown in the picture:

F.A.I.L.

  • F: First – In order to fail, you have to try (and try again). Ramana Maharshi, sage thinker who devoted his life to exploring self-inquiry, is quoted saying, “No one succeeds without effort…Those who succeed owe their success to perseverance.” We must teach young people to take that first leap of faith, and to be comfortable with the outcome, whatever it may be.
  • A: Attempt – These days a young person believes that attempt = successful completion. I host an after school club every other week when students come to play chess and other types of board games. I find it interesting that, even in a gaming situation, students won’t make the attempt against an opponent they know is good (or better than they are) at a game. For instance, Alex is a chess master, and students are afraid to play him. With this decision, there isn’t a way to improve. We must educate tweenagers to re-engineer their understanding of an attempt to one of trial and error.
  • L: Learning – Skill development is the very essence of forming the teenage mind. To me, the definition of learning finds its foundation in skill development. To put it another way, failure is a part of developing skills. Finding out what doesn’t work provides a wealth of understanding for a young person. Failure is a life experience that helps, not only in the current effort, but in all those efforts to come.

Take a moment to reflect on how you teach failure in your classroom. It may be the most important lesson you can provide a young person.