“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!

Habits of Mind to Last a Lifetime

Happy last day of school! It is hard to feel the same level of celebration that we usually do this time of year with all we have experienced these last months and the heartache in our country these past two weeks, and yet it is important to mark this time for our students. Not only have they grown and learned, they have shown tremendous resilience and flexibility in navigating these last few months. I am so proud of them. Continue reading

Honor the Memory

In a typical year, our entire campus would have gathered today to pay tribute to our country and our fallen soldiers in honor of Memorial Day. We would have sung patriotic songs (and our school song, Fortune Favors the Bold) and stood together in solemn tribute while simultaneously marking the beginning of the end of the school year. It is one of the annual occasions most anticipated by many. Since we cannot be together, please take a moment to observe the raising of our flag as Band Teacher Andy Tyson plays “Taps” – a typical component of our Memorial Day assembly – to honor those who have served our country and salute those who continue to do so.

These traditions and rhythms, so familiar for so many years, are obviously different this year. Nevertheless, the importance of remembering, of slowing down to reflect, and of observing Memorial Day for its original purpose remains. And, for many years to come, Memorial Day will also take on an additional meaning and import within the NCCS community. One year ago today, a parent in our community, Jennifer Dulos, went missing.
Continue reading

Flexibility in Planning

Thank you to the more than 150 of you who joined our Community Conversation on Tuesday. I spoke in general terms about distance learning and both the intellectual framework with which we devised our program and the shifts we are making in response to the inputs we have evaluated, including the feedback surveys we sent in April. I also spoke about our approach to returning to campus and how we are similarly devising a set of plans that will be flexible enough to adapt to whatever parameters exist three months from now.  Continue reading

Adapting Together

Happy May Day to you all. It hardly feels like May, and I suppose that is emblematic of all that we are experiencing these days. As we complete our fifth week of distance learning, just as I wrote last week, the early days of adrenaline have worn off, and the realities of the situation settle in.

There is no doubt: this is hard. I know that so many of us feel a great sense of loss – loss of social connection, loss of the daily rhythms with which we are so familiar, and loss of the events and celebrations that are part of spring in school. I know that our students feel the loss of the spontaneous moments of play and connection at recess, in the halls, and at lunch in addition to the connections with their friends. I wish I could tell you when we will be able to experience those again, but I cannot. As I shared in my community letter today, we are planning for myriad scenarios so that we will be able to return to campus when it is deemed safe.  Continue reading

The Value of Feedback

In last week’s parent survey, which received nearly 250 responses in the four days in which it was open, 70% of you rated your satisfaction of the school’s approach to the current circumstances as an 8, 9 or 10. Your comments about the aspects of distance learning that resonate with you are valuable and affirming. Even more, your suggestions about ways we can further improve our approach are helpful and constructive. We know that this is not perfect and cannot be, and we will continue to iterate on it.  We intentionally sent the survey, after three weeks of distance learning, to come at a time when everyone had experienced enough distance learning to be in a rhythm and with ample time for continued evolution. As you know, we designed the program to start slowly and ramp up, and the survey helps us assess how the first stages of that ramping have been impacting our students.  Continue reading

Achieving Balance

Screen Shot 2020-04-17 at 12.19.48 PMBalance. It seems such an elusive concept right now, as we all juggle home, jobs, children and an inordinate number of Zoom calls. The boundaries that we have all established between home and work, family time and activities, socializing and staying in have largely if not completely disappeared. It can be almost laughable to think of achieving balance as we typically think of it right now. Yet, finding control and comfort in this current reality is so important for each of us and for our children, and that is why “balance” will be our theme for week #4 of distance learning next week.  Continue reading