Monday, June 30, 2008

Words Work - Part 2

Continued from previous post.

Throughout the week, mornings were spent cleaning two of the chapter’s common storage areas that became ravaged by constant tool exchanging, innumerable small quantities of nails, screws, caulk and fixtures, and insufficient time. My imagination could clearly see tired volunteers dropping their tools on a late Sunday evening knowing what lay ahead in their own life—Monday morning. After a half-hour lunch of sandwiches and a minute to relish the sweat, aches and soreness, we drove to our work site which was the newest home. With its family already moved in, our job was to erect a chain-link fence and put the finishing touches on the shed in the backyard. Children scurrying around the yard, a dog sniffing our presence and conversing with other volunteer workers provided a perfect backdrop, and we both came to embrace the minister’s words in his sermon one year ago.

In the midst of my fence assembly, Carl, the oldest son of the home owner, asked if he could help. Using a post-hole digger, he and I completed our job in half the time. The concept of “sweat equity” is integral to the Habitat philosophy, part of the no interest mortgage that each owner contracts with the organization, and payable prior to moving into the house. It is truly amazing how volunteers and owners build these houses from beginning to end. The time, talent, commitment and coordination are astounding.

The best part of each day was finishing around four o’clock, driving to our B&B, showering, and walking to a nearby recommended restaurant. After dinner we found ourselves reading as long as we could stay awake and looking forward to tomorrow morning’s sumptuous, homemade breakfast.

It was all pretty simple, without demands or criticism, and, to a large extent, self-serving. In another world, living and working away from home gave us the opportunity to escape the complicated, everyday responsibilities that accompany headmastering and teaching. When the minister emphasized the rewards of giving, I suspect that his words and our summer work have provided memories that will last forever.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Words Work - Part 1

This article first appeared in The Heads' Letter in October 2000. I hope it provides food for thought as the summer begins.

I guess it all began when my wife and I exited a summer Sunday church service a year ago, and simultaneously responded in conversation to the minister’s words. Talking about the virtues of lending a hand to those less fortunate by providing service was his message, and the experience he and his wife shared in a week-long work project was how he demonstrated his belief. You know how ideas and good intentions come and go; his words did not leave us, instead they persisted to inspire us.

Work a week during the summer? That’s when we cherish our time together doing what we want to do, recuperating from our work and profession. People would be suspicious if we admitted that we squandered a vacation week laboring. Nevertheless, throughout the fall and into the holiday season the summer sermon stayed. After choosing Habitat for Humanity and investigating using the internet, we made contact with a chapter in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. “You want to spend a week with us in August?” was the initial response of the volunteer coordinator, in spite of the fact that he was pleased and excited about the prospect of having two workers at his disposal for one week with no strings attached. Frequent flier miles, a rented car, a local bed and breakfast and minimal living accommodations made it all very affordable.

Central Illinois is very flat and from 12,000 feet above, the checkered carpet of corn and soybean is arranged in perfect one-mile squares. The University of Illinois looms like an oasis in a desert and is responsible for the twin city’s airport. Retrieving a duffel bag packed with work clothes and a book bag stuffed with our summer reading, we marveled at the difference between our layover airport, O’Hare, and the simplicity of our destination airport, Willard.

Before having dinner with our Habitat coordinator, who was an employee of the university, we walked across the street from our B&B to marvel at the size and beauty of the university. How can one school educate over 32,000 students—the population of a good-sized town in Connecticut? After dinner we toured the area looking at many of the 19 beautiful homes this Habitat erected during its 10 year existence; and before turning in for the night, we went to his car where he gave us his tool box, camera and cell phone—all necessary to complete our assigned tasks. Talk about trust!      To be continued . . .

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Byte or Bite?

I remember how excited I was when, in 1986, I bought the school's first hard drive. At 25 megabytes big, it eliminated having to use those cumbersome 3.5 megabyte "floppies" to store computer information. At the time I felt decadent thinking, "We'll never run out of storage. Who will ever need 25 megabytes of storage?" Huh! Slowly but surely, megabytes were overwritten by gigabytes and now we are hearing terrabyte more frequently.

Only bytes away, a front page article in the Sunday NYTimes "Charging by the Byte to Curb Internet Traffic" will most assuredly speed up the desire to gather information faster. Broadband carriers are angling to charge Internet users for the amount of gigabytes used on the WWW. I predict that Time Warner, Comcast, etc. will get away with it for a while but will soon have to give into the merchants, vendors, and consumers who will insist that electronic commerce and information must be free.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Tutoring Phenomenon & More

Probably one of the best editions of Independent School magazine, the most recent summer issue covers the enigmatic, problematic issue of tutoring in our schools. Wendy Mogel's (The Blessing of a Skinned Knee) opening article, "Kicking the Tutoring Habit" is excellent.

Other articles include sustainability and greening our schools; an interview with Good to Great author Jim Collins; "Telling Tough Truths" insights into middle school bullying; summer homework; and a review of Dr. Howard Gardner's new book, Five Minds for the Future.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Book Group Experiment

This summer our faculty and staff will be reading about diversity in our school and community. Instead of the ususal one-book-fits-all approach, a reading list was compiled and faculty and staff could choose from among 12 books. Here are the titles the eight groups will be reading:
1. White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son by Tim Wise
2. Invisible Privilege: A Memoir About Race, Class and Gender by Paula Rothenberg
3. Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights by Kenji Yoshino
4. Privilege, Power and Difference by Allan Johnson
5. A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America by Ronald Takaki
6. Educating Citizens in a Multicultural Society, 2nd Edition by James A. Banks
7. Teaching and Learning in a Diverse World, Third Edition by Patricia G. Ramsey
8. Widening the Circle: Including Children with Disabilities in Preschool Programs by Samuel L. Odom (editor)

Email groups have been set up with group leaders coordinating summer discussions among the members of each group.  At our opening fall faculty and staff meeting, groups will share their impressions of the books read.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Essential Conversation – Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot

If you have not read a book by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, you must make it a part of your summer reading. She is a wonderful storyteller. Particularly in The Essential Conversation, her sensitivity and balanced view of the parent-teacher relationship are exquisite. Here are two excerpts that speak to this:

• “As one teacher observes, ‘During the conference, the parents are experiencing themselves as adults, but they are also reliving the time when they were in school as children. There are two channels working, past and present . . . and the generational reverberations are powerful.’ Parents bring these autobiographical scripts into the sessions, often making it hard for them to untangle the converging life stories and focus on their child’s experience in school.”

• “How the lines get drawn is related not only to parents’ and teachers’ temperaments and perspectives and to school policies and practices. It is also defined by the age and developmental stage of the child. In general, parents of young children are more engaged in their schooling and have more frequent and intense contact with teachers than the families of older students.”

Here is a video where Dr. Howard Gardner introduces Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, talking about The Essential Conversation. The video is an hour and 20 minutes long, so you may want to see just a beginning portion of the video.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Unlikely Friends 2

Far away from Owen and Mzee's warm, tropical home are two unlikely wilderness animals who meet and play as friends and not battle as predator and prey. Icy Churchill, Manitoba is the chilly setting. I think you will be impressed by this two minute video, "Animals at Play," by "play" expert Stuart Brown.

Learn more about Dr. Brown, The National Institute for Play, and research related to human play.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Unlikely Friends 1

“Our most important friends are sometimes those we least expected.” A quote from a beautiful children’s book, Owen & Mzee, is the essence of the enchanting story of a stranded hippo and a 130-year old Aldabra tortoise in Mombasa, Kenya on the eastern coast of Africa. This is a child-parent, read-together book. . . and be sure to read the book before visiting these excellent websites (picture album and about book, NPR interview, and YouTube video).

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Is Good Best? – Part 2

Continued from previous post

Among heads of school gathered to discuss schools and their moral responsibility, I listened to a teacher and minister of Phillips Academy talk about “good” being a part of the founding documents of his school; the words are clear about where good is in relation to knowledge “Good without knowledge is weak and feeble, knowledge without good is dangerous.”

Not that wealth is an indicator of success, but the book, The Millionaire Mind by Dr. Thomas J. Stanley, looked at 733 self-reported millionaires. As part of his study, the author tabulated a survey that looked at 30 Success Factors and the results showed “being honest with all people” as being ranked #1, “being well disciplined” was #2, and “works harder than most people” was ranked #5. At the other end of the order “attending a top-rated college” was #23, and the last, “graduating near the top of one’s class” was ranked #30.

Ultimately, for parents and teachers, my hope is that we do, in fact, find and embrace that area somewhere between “success” and “happy” in the process of raising and educating our children in our complex world.

In the article “On Happiness and High Achievement,” Dr. Michael Thompson, noted author and independent school speaker, talks with passion and love about his two children, their learning disabilities, and what he and his wife hope for in their children’s lives; his words also strike a good balance between happiness and high achievement.

Finally, let me offer up my own sons and what my wife and I want for them in their own lives. I believe that “good” accurately describes our desire. Trying to define what “good” for them is can be difficult. For our children, maybe good is somewhere between “success” and “happy.” Qualitatively, the terms are different and yet they are not mutually exclusive. Ask yourself, “Is “good” acceptable to you for your children?”

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Is Good Best? – Part 1

This article first appeared in Independent School magazine, Fall 2003

Just what do we mean today when we say, “That’s a good kid” or “She is such a good girl”? To begin a frame of reference for myself, I asked a number of parents and educators that question, and there was a common thread in their descriptions. Not surprising to me, no one referred to academic achievement, and nearly everyone included the words “hard working.” I was intrigued and heartened by the fact that a majority of the respondents used words and phrases like “willing to help,” “obedient,” “kind,” “sensitive to the needs of others,” and “trustworthy” to describe a good child. Does academic achievement have any place in the description of a good child?

At a recent NAIS workshop that I attended, President Pat Bassett talked about good children. He concluded his talk by citing a study conducted by Dr. Anthony Campolo, noted speaker and educator. As part of the study a survey of Japanese parents was conducted in which they were asked, “In one word, describe what you want most for your children.” The answer given most often was “success.” Parents in the U.S. were also polled and asked the same question; the majority of Americans said “happy.” As I sat listening to Bassett speak, I was comfortable with what he was saying, but then he went on to ask “Would it be reasonable for that one word to be ‘good’?” It turns out kids who are morally good turn out in disproportionate numbers to be both happy and successful. This data is also supported by Douglas Heath’s works, Schools of Hope and Lives of Hope. That is when I sat up and began to ponder, could that be acceptable to either the Japanese or American cultures today?

Garrison Keillor in his popular radio show “Prairie Home Companion” closes his weekly Lake Woebegone diary with “. . . where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” If his thoughts on America have any validity, his tongue-in-cheek insinuation that every parent believes his/her child is above average might speak to how today’s society is supposed to view its children. There is a constant tension we face in the care of today’s child — the tension between success and happy. I would commend to you Blessings of a Skinned Knee by Wendy Mogel; in her book, she addresses this tension, parents, stress, and raising good children. I believe that she hits the mark in trying to help us find a proper balance. (To be continued in the next post)