Honoring Two Career Educators

At NCCS, teaching is much more than a vocation; it is a passion and, for some, a life’s work. 

This summer, we will be celebrating two such educators: Tom Giggi and Raphe Elkind will be retiring at the end of this school year. Each of these incredible educators’ names are synonymous with excellence. The mark they have left upon the institution is indelible. They are true legends. We thank and honor them for their nearly 70 years of combined impact on NCCS and its students.

A third such legend, Fraser Randolph, is stepping out of his 6th grade classroom next year but we are delighted that he will remain part of our faculty in a part-time capacity.

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Daryl Davis Challenges Us To Make Change

Two weeks ago, in the wake of the riot at the U.S. Capitol, I concluded my message by saying, “together we can change the world and, as yesterday makes clear, we must.” This week, our entire community heard from someone who is doing just that, and who gave us and our students a roadmap for how to do so ourselves.  

Daryl Davis, an activist and author who wrote the book Klan-destine Relationships: A Black Man’s Odyssey in the Ku Klux Klan, spoke to an adult audience comprised of faculty, staff, parents, and broader community members on Tuesday and a student audience of 6th-9th graders Thursday. Mr. Davis has traveled the world first as a musician regularly accompanying Chuck Berry, among others, on piano; and later in his civil justice work. He has spent years traveling the United States engaging leaders of the Ku Klux Klan in dialogue about race. He built close and lasting relationships with these individuals to the point where one invited him to take a leading role at his wedding. He showed some of the robes and hoods and other artifacts that former KKK members have given him as part of their renouncing of the KKK.  It is remarkable that he was able to “put his emotions behind him,” as he says, in order to bridge what would seem an expanse too far for any two people to cross. But he has been able to do it time and time again.

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Taking the First Step

This morning I attended the first event of our newly created Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Parent Task Force, a virtual conversation about “beginning the journey” of an individual quest to deepen our understanding and practices of diversity, equity and inclusion. I was really impressed by the vulnerability, self-reflection and authenticity of each person who spoke candidly among a group of more than 30 fellow parents, many of whom they likely did not know. It was personal and powerful and inspiring. This group of parents created a safe space for one another to share openly without criticism. It is exactly what we aim to do for our students each day. We want our students to feel comfortable admitting when they do not yet know something rather than to feel shame. Learning often begins with vulnerability.

The members of the Task Force collectively participated in the 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge and during this conversation, they shared some of the lessons that they had learned, or ideas that had been reignited for them through this challenge. The premise is that for 21 days, you commit to take a small step each day, which could include reading articles, watching videos or taking an action. For example, one parent spoke about the impact this 7-minute video entitled “A Poem for My White Friends: I Didn’t Tell You” had on her.

It may feel that reading and watching, even talking and reflecting is not enough. I understand that feeling and I, too, sometimes feel impatient for change, but as several people said this morning: Conversation is an action. Reflection and sharing within our community does strengthen us. 

Wherever you are on your own personal journey, I encourage you to keep moving forward. When it comes to building our own experience and knowledge around diversity, equity and inclusion, it will always be a continuum. We will never be “done.” It is only by first admitting that we do not have all the answers that we can begin to seek them. This is what we want to model for our children. And the more we educate ourselves, the more we can offer them.  If you would like to be involved or share your own learning, please reach out to Director of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Kojo Clarke or any member of the Task Force.

Gathering Together

In this year of myriad changes and challenges, something I know many of us miss most is our community gatherings. In November our students and faculty come together to honor veterans on Veterans Day and express gratitude at Thanksgiving. While we are not able to celebrate and honor as we typically have, we nonetheless have dedicated time as a community to recognize these holidays and to work together.

On Wednesday, Veterans Day, students learned in classrooms about the history and purpose of this national holiday by watching videos and engaging in class conversations. Afterwards, Lower and Middle School students wrote letters to veterans which we will deliver in the near future, and Upper School students expressed gratitude to two members of our faculty who are Marine veterans. 

In my own sixth grade math class, we spoke about Armistice Day and the birth of Veterans Day and did some light math (just under 60% of the total number of the American armed forces served overseas in World War I) related to our conversation. I was impressed by the deep reservoir of knowledge about this history our students hold. 

Next Friday, Nov. 20, we will gather (virtually) for an all-school Thanksgiving Assembly, just as we typically do in person. There, students and adults will be able to share gratitude with one another, and classes will share some of what they have been studying. 

Holding this time for our community and for hearing and seeing one another, even if through Zoom, is critical for developing a shared sense of purpose and values. Even though we cannot be together in person and actually make real eye contact with one another, we can still share space and hold time. Those notions are critical components of community. Throughout all of this, we will continue to make as much lemonade as possible out of the lemons of our current world.

Specialization in Youth Sports is Short-Sighted

Many of you may have seen the article: “The Mad, Mad World of Niche Sports Among Ivy League–Obsessed Parents” that was published last weekend in The Atlantic. Not the most flattering title, and one that hits close to home as it specifically focuses on the youth sports scene in Fairfield County. 

As an educator – and as a collegiate All-American and lifelong athlete for whom sports has been an integral and critical part of my life – I have been long bothered by the trend of specialization in youth athletics, fueled in part by parental anxiety, belief in the debatable 10,000 hours maxim, and the economic interests of coaches. As I have referenced in my remarks at the last two Annual Meetings (2019, 2020), so much of this thinking is short-sighted and detrimental to student growth despite existing under the guise of long-term goals. 

As the article details, there are several worrying aspects of hyper-specialization from the perspective of long-term wellness and achievement for our children. Burnout, an inability to cope with adversity, lifelong injuries, a lack of individual initiative and presence, and a sense of entitlement all surfaced in the article. None of those benefit children in the long-term, athletically or otherwise.

At NCCS, we strive to do better. Our sports program is based on participation where everyone plays and has access to excellent coaching. It allows students to choose multiple sports throughout three seasons each year and focuses on the educational benefits of athletics: sportsmanship and fundamentals, game strategies and practice habits, leadership and teamwork, all more important than win-loss records. Even though we have our share of winning records and undefeated seasons, at the ages we educate, we choose to focus on the most important components of strong athletics education. 

All of that said, I recognize that there is ample environmental pressure pushing specialization within the merry-go-round of individual coaching, elite team membership, exciting potential for the future, and keeping up with the Joneses. It is difficult to know exactly what to believe or how to proceed. I have some suggestions: 

Let the child take the lead. 

In order to achieve at the highest level, one needs to love the sport so deeply that one almost eats and breathes it. That only comes from within. Listen to your child and follow their lead in terms of how much to dedicate to any one activity. 

Related: Since children are often people-pleasers, especially seeking their parents’ approval, it may be hard to differentiate between the child’s true interest and what they say. So, “listen” to your child in other ways. Take note of how they spend their free time. Do they pick up that tennis racquet or kick that soccer ball? Watch what they do with their friends when they are together. Over time, interests emerge naturally. Allow those to direct your decision making.

Allow them time to settle in – but encourage them to finish what they start.

When children are young, following their lead may mean flitting from one sport to the next. Be okay with stopping one and starting another, but make sure to do that in between seasons and not in the middle. We want our children to understand the importance of completing their commitments and sticking with something even if they do not like it or they are not immediately good at it. 

Play multiple sports.

There are so many complementary skills – psychological for sure, but physical as well – in different sports that experience in one impacts another. Learning to shift your weight on a golf swing helps you kick a soccer ball harder and more accurately; cutting off a shooting angle in lacrosse will help you learn to play better zone defense in basketball. Playing multiple sports also reduces the likelihood of chronic injuries since different sports use various muscles in different ways.

Free, creative time with the sport pays dividends.

Overcoaching can sometimes stifle creativity and can impact enjoyment. Provide space for children to “just play” the sport, both individually and collectively. A pickup game can be the best way to try a new move and prepares the athlete for the unpredictability of game situations.

There is time: the later bloomer often makes the biggest impact.

There is ample fear that those who have more experience will be better and have more opportunity. That is true at the younger ages, but the student who loves the sport enough to dedicate themselves to it and can apply the strategies and skills of one to another has the highest ceiling. One of the most impactful quotes from the article comes from the men’s lacrosse coach at the University of Virginia regarding room for growth. 

Give yourself a break.

You are not going to get every decision right as a parent. It is ok. The stakes may feel high when you listen to other parents and to some coaches, but they are not. You can always make a different decision the next time – to cut back on one team or to add in another training session. Like squeezing too hard on a handful of Play-Doh, the more pressure you put on yourself to be perfect, the less actually remains in your hands.

Math as Mental Weight Lifting

As a math teacher, one of the most common questions I receive from my students (particularly about algebra) is “When are we ever going to use this?” I usually respond by citing a few examples of direct application to a wide swath of careers, but quickly pivot to saying: “Even if you do not use this exact concept, you will commonly use the habits and skills you gain from learning this concept.”

I go back to something I first read a decade or so ago, written by an algebra teacher named Dean Sherman who refers to math as “mental weight lifting.” As he says, people lift weights not to prepare in case a barbell suddenly flies out of the sky towards them, but for the benefits that weightlifting provides to other parts of life – better health, stronger muscles or success in some sports, perhaps. 

At its core, the same is true of math. Learning math improves logical thinking, the ability to see patterns, connecting the symbolic to the graphical, the ability to seek and synthesise data, etc. So many of these skills are ones that can be applied to a wide range of activities, both personal and professional, throughout one’s life. 

Last week at our Annual Meeting, I spoke about our new mission and core values and about our strategic plan. Intellectual development – focused on independent thinking, synthesis of information, creativity, innovation and problem solving – is a critical skill for the future. In our dynamic world, it can be applied to every area, whether nascent or established.

While learning to factor a trinomial is an important skill in the progression of math learning, it is really the underlying intellectual understandings – pattern recognition, etc. – that represent the central purpose of the lesson. This is true of areas of study in every subject. So, if your children ever ask the purpose of a concept in any subject, give them this answer. They might not like getting a complex answer to a simple question, but it will demonstrate the deeper meaning behind their work, one that will ultimately be to their long term benefit.

“The Social Dilemma”

Recently, I watched The Social Dilemma, a “docudrama” that dives into the connection between human psychology, behavioral economics, big data, and emotional wellbeing as it relates to social media companies and how they interact with their users. It is a fascinating and scary watch, and I highly recommend viewing it. 

Through interviewing many former social media executives, several of whom are involved with an organization called the Center for Humane Technology, the film’s overarching thesis revolves around the dynamic that the more accurately social media companies are able to predict the actions of their users, the more they are able to maximize advertising revenue. These incentives around monetization result in several negative outcomes. While I have lots of thoughts on the piece, I have found myself thinking most about how we can educate our children to best safely and healthily navigate and combat the most worrying parts of this while also accessing the best aspects of social media. 

I am particularly concerned for our Middle and Upper school students. Early adolescents are highly impressionable, and their brain development is such that their decision making is often spontaneous and emotionally driven. This is natural. As they start to move out of childhood and form their own identity and codify their own beliefs, they commonly try out various appearances, ways of speaking, and interests. While it is an important and healthy part of growing up and becoming independent, it also has its downsides. Relatedly, one of the reasons I am passionate about the value of prek-9 school is that our 12-, 13-, and 14-year-olds are able to act their age. Were we to have high schoolers as well, too many of our students would try to act 17 since the 17-year-olds are around, and that gives too much opportunity for bad choices during those impressionable years. As it relates to social media and the themes in The Social Dilemma, these ages are also when children often first get phones. The combination of a new device in their hands, an impressionable age, and companies who are incentivized to take advantage of that for their own gain is very dangerous, and that concern is one that I have kept at the top of my mind since viewing the movie. 

While we are all susceptible to the dopamine rush that a ping from our phone brings, that is especially true of our young people. So, how do we as a school develop the wherewithal in our students to navigate this in a healthy manner? I do not think there is one answer, but emphasizing several themes throughout their childhood will help. A focus on critical and independent thinking helps children assess the validity of information and learn to make up their own minds. Social emotional learning helps students become more self aware and build self esteem. The more they know who they are and what they like, the more confident they will be. Intellectual stimulation and engaged learning, which stems from an inquiry-based approach that stimulates curiosity helps children develop a wide range of interests. While none of these fully combat the dynamic explained in the movie, they do lay the groundwork for informed and healthy decisions. 

On the parent side, it is more tangible. Hold off buying a phone for as long as you can. Keep them out of bedrooms and exclusively to common areas in the home, especially at nighttime. Turn off notifications. Get parental controls to know what apps your child wants to download. Children under 13 are not allowed to have social media accounts for good reason. I advise waiting even longer, until 16. I recognize that our children may not like all (or any) of those guidelines, and certainly you may hear how “everyone has that”, but that is natural for them to complain and feel the pain of perceived loss of social interaction. Their “fear of missing out” is expected and natural. Nevertheless, we are the adults and the parents, and sometimes we need to make decisions that are unpopular but in their best interest. Waiting a little longer and setting strong and reasonable parameters will better allow our children to access the wonderful and transformative parts of technology healthily.

Designing for Flexibility

This week, along with several of my colleagues here, I participated in a workshop called “Program Design Express.” Run by Director of Studies Reshan Richards, it was modeled after the more extensive workshops more than 70 of our teaching faculty attended this past summer as we prepared for this school year. 

In this week, we experienced the entire arc of planning that helped our faculty prepare flexibly for all the possibilities this year presents: complete in-person learning, complete distance learning, or some students distance learning while others in-person learning. In order to walk through the details of that planning, I will use a fair amount of educational jargon. That edu-speak will hopefully provide some insight into the depth and flow of the planning as well as to the intentionality we bring to each aspect of our curricula.

The planning begins at the end, with articulating the learning objectives of each unit. From there, we focus on how we assess student progress towards those objectives. Once those foundational aspects are in place, we can focus on pacing and then instructional design: how we present information, what activities students undertake, and how exactly we build towards the ultimate learning objectives.  

If, at this point, you are thinking that this does not sound particularly specific to times of COVID and distance learning, you are right. This is simply foundational instructional planning practice. The application of this practice to various circumstances varies based on whether we are in person, remote or a combination of the two. Nevertheless, by focusing on sound design initially, we ensure that the application of that design is consistent, predictable and, ultimately, most effective for our students no matter the circumstance. 

The final steps of the design process include focusing on curricular content and how it is shared followed by communication and thought to how we articulare information that is time-sensitive, timely and timeless. These six steps, learning objectives —> assessment —-> pacing —–> instructional design —–> curricular content —–> communication articulate the arc from end point to starting point and from macro to micro.

Throughout this week, as the other participants and I dove into and discussed scholarly articles and resources and looked at our colleagues’ summer design work in action, I became even more confident that we are ready and prepared to ensure student learning and engagement stay high no matter the circumstance. If you are interested in learning more about this design process, please contact Director of Studies Reshan Richards at rrichards@countryschool.net.

First Days of School

There is nothing like the first day of school. The energy of newness, the face-lighting-up-in-joy of reconnection, and the “nervouscited” feeling of anticipation all combine to make the first day of school unique. All of that has been accentuated this year. 

I have long thought that celebrating the second day of school would be beneficial in keeping the first-day energy level high. Well, this year we have fallen into just that. By virtue of our schedule this week, we have essentially had four straight “first” days, and the energy level has accordingly remained high.

Our students and teachers are getting to know one another and forming the relationships that are essential to optimizing growth for the year, no matter what the future brings. I have felt that myself even more keenly this year, as I have stepped back into the classroom for the first time at NCCS. I am teaching a section of 6th grade math, and a highlight of this week for me was being with my 15 students Wednesday morning and watching them grapple with and ultimately complete our opening problem (the “four fours” problem, in which one uses any operation and the number four exactly four times to result in all the numbers between 1 and 20 – e.g., (4+4)/(4+4)=1). In that class, just as in classrooms throughout campus, our students stretched their brains, formed new relationships, and became reacquainted with the rhythms of school just as they would do on any first day of school. 

There are and will be many challenges ahead, and we need to remain vigilant together in keeping one another healthy and safe. But for this weekend, I am hoping that we can all bask in the knowledge that the unique energy and spirit of the first day of school shined through all the changes and new protocols, just as we hoped it would. 

I look forward to seeing everyone here Tuesday for what will be the fifth first day of school!