Cultivating 5th Grade Designers

Each school year, educators working in schools across the country gravitate towards some of the same shared ideas that are touted to transform teaching and learning in the classroom. Several years ago, the burgeoning Maker movement made such promises, and you’d be hard pressed to find a set of slides at most educational conferences these days that forgets to make at least a passing reference to Stanford University professor of psychology and author of Mindset Carol Dweck’s research on growth mindsets.

Here at The Willows, we strive to keep up with the current trends everyone is talking about, while still staying grounded in the values and traditions that have guided us for the last two decades. The last two years or so, one of the current educational memes that we’ve tried in earnest to incorporate is design thinking (see previous posts here and here for more information).

However, true to our constructivist and progressive traditions here, we are not just talking or teaching about design thinking – we are actually designing, and, hopefully, cultivating young designers in the process.

Let’s take a look at some of what our fifth grade students have been up to lately as an example. In Maker classes, I began a design and robotics unit back in March with an initial study of a particular design problem nested within our own community – well, to be more specific, a few blocks away from our campus proper.

Here are two photos (annotated by a fifth grader) and a video of a stoplight near our school that myself and many other community members approach each day on our way to The Willows. For first time users approaching this intersection, it is entirely unclear how traffic is supposed to proceed – there are no yellow or green lights (only constant flashing reds), and “Right Turn Only” signs are regularly ignored by drivers who weave their way around the concrete median in the middle of the intersection. As I told the kids, I am consistently baffled that there are not more collisions here!

designthinking annotated process copyTo approach this intersection as a design problem, I gave my students an annotated version of Stanford’s dschool’s design thinking diagram and asked them to consider several questions for each step in the process, including:

  • How do you think the drivers approaching this intersection feel?
  • How do users of this intersection decide when it is safe to proceed?
  • If you were to redesign this intersection how would you want users to feel?
  • What specific changes to the design of the intersection do you recommend?

In order to answer these questions, we not only watched videos but also took a short field trip to the actual intersection to accumulate some real time observational data. I encouraged each group of students in their observing to really try to put themselves in the shoes of the people who used this intersection – to empathize and understand the decisions of the drivers and how the unsafe conditions at the intersection impacted these decisions. Unsurprisingly, many fifth graders enjoyed seeing people disobeying the traffic signs and going around the median (though I discouraged them from chastising the drivers while we sat there at the intersection!)

Once we had collected data about the intersection and came up with some possible solutions, it was time for us to move on to the next step in the design process – to begin working on designing prototypes of a new intersection. Currently, we are in the middle of this process; first, we have had to take a few weeks to learn how to program LEGO EV3 Mindstorm robotic vehicles to be our “cars” in the new traffic systems.

Look for a new post on our progress as well as some other design work 5th grade has been engaged with very soon!

 

Regulating Strategies to Deal with Test Anxiety

Last week we welcomed Marc Brackett, Director, and Robin Stern, Associate Director, of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence back to The Willows. In their talk to parents and the larger community, they reminded us of research findings that show children in schools today experience higher levels of anxiety than their parents. While there are myriad potential causes for this anxiety, one cause that is especially present this time of year is standardized testing taking place in schools. bubble-test

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, children suffering from anxiety related to taking standardized tests typically present three main categories of symptoms:

  • Physical symptoms, often resembling those related to a panic attack, including headaches, nausea, diarrhea, excessive sweating, shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, and light-headedness
  • Emotional symptoms, including feelings of anger, frustration, fear, helplessness, and disappointment
  • Behavioral/cognitive symptoms, including difficulty concentrating, thinking negatively and comparing yourself unfavorably to others

At The Willows, challenges like these make us feel more grateful than ever for our burgeoning partnership with Yale and the RULER program for emotional intelligence that we are implementing in our community. In order to address these concerns straight on, specifically with our youngest test takers in third through fifth grades, the members of our Willows RULER team recently met with our Upper Elementary teachers.

Due to two to three teachers in a classroom, Willows teachers are able to meet regularly during the school day at our monthly Learning Lunches, where DK-8 faculty are invited to meet, watch, and discuss a video on a topic relevant to our professional practice and break bread together (often with colleagues who teach in separate buildings and rarely see each other.)

For this particular lunch, rather than watch a video and then discuss potential applications for our different classroom settings, we began with an open forum led by RULER team trainer and 5th grade teacher Alex Wolfe, who asked everyone to begin by sharing strategies they’ve used over the years to mitigate student test anxiety.

All teachers emphasized the need to impart to students specific and concrete strategies to use when anxiety begins to rear its ugly head during testing, such as:

  • Don’t spend too long on one question
  • Skip certain questions and come back to them at the end
  • For questions that require written responses, don’t leave them blank (even if you have no idea how to respond – anything written can be scored!)
  • Use positive self-talk and mindful breathing

(See below for links to more specific strategies and tips)

self talk

Certain teachers also shared related posters they already have on display in their classroom for their students. Alex shared that one particular piece of advice she tells children is that these kinds of tests are designed so that some questions are hard and some are easy, so if you don’t answer one correctly it’s ok, because usually no one answers all the questions correctly.

self talk 2Particular attention was given throughout the discussion on how best to help our 3rd graders, who are facing the standardized testing experience for the first time. Many teachers acknowledged the need to strike a fine balance when talking to these students about testing; it’s our job to simultaneously convey that on one hand they need to take the test seriously but also try to regulate their stress as well.

Christina Kim, our Director of Student Life and leader of the school’s RULER team, shared that it’s important for children to recognize that standardized tests can be thought of as a different genre that we all need to be able to comprehend. Like other texts, it has certain structures and conventions that are predictable, and just like we would with any project or assignment, we all simply must try to do our best.

Christina also shared some related posters photographed on our recent school visit to High Tech High. I felt that all teachers present left our lunch meeting empowered to help students navigate the wide range of emotions that arise during test taking.

growth mindset poster

For more information on test taking anxiety please visit:

https://childmind.org/article/tips-for-beating-test-anxiety/

https://www.iecaonline.com/PDF/IECA_Library_Test-Anxiety.pdf

Telling Learning Stories Through Documentation

Documentation is an act of communication; it makes public a conversation about what we value. 

                                    -Harvard Project Zero, http://www.pz.harvard.edu

At certain times of the school year, things can feel so busy it’s tough to take a moment and catch your breath. This is of course as true at The Willows as anywhere else, especially given the number of diverse projects and endeavors always underway. A challenge busy individuals have within any organization is to make time to stop and understand the processes going on around them. A further step, beyond pausing to take stock, involves articulating what you have accomplished to others.

Last week, I was part of a group of Willows teachers and administrators that went to visit the High Tech High network of charter schools in San Diego. During the last school year, our community watched the film Most Likely to Succeed, which featured one of their high schools prominently to illustrate the power of project-based approaches on learning and curriculum building.

IMG_4616High Tech High is well known for impressive and high-quality project artifacts visible throughout their halls, and there were plenty of examples that wowed us as we toured each school. However, what caught my eye most of all was not the amazing creations on display– it was the documentation accompanying each project that helped explain the process behind the project.

Besides simply articulating details about process, the very best pieces of documentation help tell relevant learning stories about curricular projects. They might walk an audience through the steps of the process, highlight epiphanies or failures that led to necessary revisions, or unpack the knowledge that was developed by participants. Ultimately, the idea is to make the thinking and learning involved in the project visible to all in an intentional manner.

A long tradition of researchers and educators from Harvard’s Project Zero – who’ve published seminal works like Making Thinking Visible and Visible Learners – and the vast network of schools associated with the Reggio Emilia experience have long advanced the power of documentation as a tool for improving teaching and learning. According to these proponents, powerful pieces of documentation do more than just capture what happened. Instead, the intent is ultimately to push learning forward, and, as the quote above states, to make “public a conversation about what we value.”

While feeling inspired after leaving High Tech High, our visit also caused me to reflect on similar work with documentation that we’ve undertaken at The Willows. Some form of documentation regularly accompanies all of the artwork that hangs in our halls and classrooms, and we have worked this year to make some of these displays more interactive by adding QR codes for visitors to access additional relevant (and often process-oriented) content. Additionally, knowing that a great picture often tells its own story, we have provided several professional development sessions for teachers this school year on photography techniques and how to incorporate high-quality photographs into their documentation.

What’s next for The Willows and documentation? Knowing that teachers are always juggling many different priorities, we are currently exploring how we might better utilize different templates for easy input of content and photos (see this recent example from 3rd grade). tipi documentation-page-001Also, we have recently begun engaging fourth through eighth grade students in this process in Maker and Science classes, having them document their progress on projects by creating websites and digital portfolios using Google Sites. The more we can engage the whole community in the process of communicating the learning that is taking place, the better!

 

 

 

Raising Resilient Children

What is the mind? What can we do to help kids develop a resilient mindset when facing life’s challenges?

These perplexing and provocative questions were just two of many raised and discussed at the most recent event in our annual Ideas@TheWillows speaker series, led by acclaimed UCLA professor and Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute Dan Siegel.

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One of the things that I truly value about working at The Willows is our community’s willingness to engage in a thoughtful exchange of ideas with extraordinary people like Dr. Siegel. I first became aware of his work in my early years of fatherhood, when my wife and I read his book The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind. Later, I became aware of his efforts to introduce mindfulness into schools through his Mindsight Institute’s MindUp curriculum that we’ve used parts of with middle school students at our school.

In his wide-ranging and lively talk, Dr. Siegel shared findings from research about resiliency, which he linked generally to the concept of integration in brain research. Adults and children who are adept at integrating the various systems of the brain in a harmonious manner are better suited to facing life’s challenges without becoming overwhelmed or disconnected. To illustrate this at one point in his talk, Siegel asked for volunteers – specifically, people who sing in choirs (including our Director of Library Services Cathy Leverkus) – to come on to the stage with him. He gave his singers various directions to demonstrate the results of an integrated brain (harmony, where different singers worked together towards a common goal) versus a non-integrated brain (chaos, where different singers covered their ears and only sang their own song). E_17_Speaker_Dan_Siegel040

Besides sharing essential brain research for everyone to ponder, Siegel also underscored several helpful takeaways specifically for parents in attendance. According to Siegel, the most powerful finding from parenting research that many are not aware of is the need for parents to make sense of their own lives first – in his words, “It doesn’t matter what happened to you, it’s how you make sense of it.” If we neglect to engage in this process of looking inward and examining our lives, we run the risk of sending mixed messages to our children as we direct them to make good choices in their lives.

Additionally, he mentioned several times the importance of parental presence. I have found myself repeating one line from his talk several times on this subject:

The more present you are, the more you are willing to learn about who your children are versus who you want them to be.

In Siegel’s view, modern parents’ preoccupation with a future destination for their children often leads them to send messages that provoke shame, which he defined as the opposite of resilience, as well as encouraging children to compete with each other instead of “competing with the world’s problems.”

Afterwards, I debriefed with my colleague Andrea, who is part of a team of teachers at The Willows working to implement and strengthen our school’s RULER emotional intelligence program from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. One connection she made between his message and our school’s work with mindfulness and emotional intelligence was Siegel’s emphasis on the need to look inward, to be aware of this inner world that we all need to connect to in order to recognize and regulate the energy associated with our emotions. Clearly, this message applies for adults and students alike in our community.

One final note: Siegel did give an answer to our initial question above – “What is the mind?” – which I have to share (I would recommend reading one of his many books on the subjects of mind for a detailed explanation:)

The mind is the embodied and relational self-organizing process that regulates informational flow between ourselves and others and the planet.

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Lisa Rosenstein, Head of School, Dr. Dan Siegel, and Christina Kim, Director of Student Life

Intersession: The Power of Choice

Facing the waning weeks of winter and the promise of spring’s impending arrival, it’s that time of year at The Willows where we reflect on what we’ve accomplished so far this school year and look ahead to what still lies ahead. Around this same time, the school participates in the annual tradition of Intersession, when normal school routines and schedules are suspended for one week for specialized projects and classes for DK-8 students.

A year ago, I wrote a post about the success of Intersession coming down to two main elements: time and engagement. The power of both was still evident during this year’s Intersession, as I roamed the halls seeing students deeply immersed for hours in creating a wide variety of things: Escape Rooms, lamps, instructional videos, ramps and pathways for marble runs, and much more.

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Reflecting further on this year’s Intersession, I think one element that also contributed greatly to the success of this year’s projects was choice.

We always gave students a fair amount of choice regarding which Intersession class they wanted to participate in, but this year was unique. We worked especially hard to make sure every student had his or her first choice out of the many offerings that were made available.

Hot off the heels of November’s election, DK-8 students were given “ballots” detailing the class offerings; in grades 3-5, we even held a “primary” to narrow down an initial list of more than ten class options. Unsurprisingly, kids clamored their teachers for information shortly afterwards – “Did I get my first choice?” they asked, not knowing that we had planned for that all along!

Choice matters 

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Why was it important for us to ensure first choice? According to research, providing choice to students is strongly correlated with motivation. Certain school environments motivate students by rewards or punishments with teacher-centered activities predominating. Intersession at The Willows doesn’t remove the guidance of the teacher but encourages students to take more ownership over their learning in a setting where time is truly given for deep learning and engagement.

Choice inspires motivation, and choice pervades the interdisciplinary learning environment that we strive to create each year at Intersession. In one popular class this year, middle school students designed original lamps, utilizing skills and resources from our STEAM2 disciplines (science, technology, art, engineering, and math and maker) and design thinking. Students were challenged to make choices about artistic and operational design features for their lamps, and to consider the impact of their choices on the needs of the potential, ideal users of their lamp. The finished products displayed for parents a week later at our Family Education Night celebrating the work of Intersession, highlighted the powerful returns we reap from providing rich, choice-driven learning environments for students.

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Further reading

A colleague of mine recently recommended a book on this topic, Choice Time: How to Deepen Inquiry Through Inquiry and Play by Renee Dinnerstein. My copy is on order, and though its focus appears to be on DK-2 classrooms, I am excited to build on the successes of Intersession, and to seek out applications for choice to enliven all classrooms.

 

 

 

 

How do we respond?

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

-Victor Frankel

Walking through our halls Wednesday morning after Tuesday’s election, discussions about the election results could be overheard everywhere. Most children sought out friends with which to share their collective surprise over the news; others parroted remarks they may have heard on TV or from various adults. Some others said nothing.

I can only speak for myself, but watching the results the night before I couldn’t help but wonder: what do I say to the kids tomorrow? Regardless of one’s own personal political persuasion, the nature of this campaign and its surprising end made for an election night like no other. Contemplating spending Wednesday with young children eager to discuss this at school, I asked myself: how do we respond?

Waking up Wednesday, I thought of Victor Frankel’s famous quote (above). One of our most challenging jobs as educators is to live in the space between stimulus and response, to appropriately model for our students the importance of taking the time to pause and be thoughtful before we react to the words and actions around us. Imagining my conversation with a student about the election, I resolved to offer more questions than answers, especially open-ended ones like “How are you feeling?” or “What’s making you anxious?” so that students feel they have a safe space to process their emotions or concerns.

Shortly after arriving at school, I saw an email in my inbox from Lisa, our Head of School, stating that we would be meeting as a faculty after school to discuss our school-wide response to the election.

During our discussion, we heard from various teachers about their experiences throughout the day, many of them similar to my own. We all agreed on the need to acknowledge feelings, encourage conversation, and allow for differing points of view. Lisa reminded us that the RULER emotional intelligence tools we’ve been implementing in classrooms over the last year and a half are truly powerful for times like these. (Read a short message on the election from Yale’s Emotional Intelligence team here)

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Different grade levels shared specific moments and activities from the day. During their morning meeting, first graders plotted themselves on the classroom mood meter; one student acknowledged the news of the election had left him feeling “uncomfortable,” after plotting his mood somewhere between blue and red.

One third grade teacher felt that the activities surrounding a mock election held at school had really helped her students learn to be respectful of others’ choices and to deal with feelings surrounding winning and losing an election. In the middle school, certain math classes had studied polling surrounding the various California ballot propositions, and their discussion Wednesday morning covered not only the predicted versus actual outcomes, but also about the vital need to cultivate a mathematically-informed electorate in our country.

Although it is unclear what the next four years will bring, it is certain that plenty of emotions and other stimuli in need of our collective responses await. Of the many things I saw on social media Wednesday, one short passage shared with the staff by third grade teacher Stephanie Wald helps show a path to the growth and freedom Victor Frankel spoke about:

Let’s start small. Let’s start by looking each other in the eye. By smiling to a stranger. By picking up a piece of trash. By being helpful in your community and commit to listening to each other. Let’s start with more mindfulness, more self-care, more reading and writing. Let’s take it day by day. We have a lot of work to do, but today let’s be really kind to each other. Let’s be honest, generous, and forgiving and connect through our hearts rather than through our minds. Let’s start small, and with love. Let’s start now.

Some helpful links for parents and educators:
http://betsybrownbraun.com/2016/11/09/talking-to-your-kids-about-the-election/
http://www.tolerance.org/blog/day-after
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/what-should-we-tell-the-children_us_5822aa90e4b0334571e0a30b

 

 

The Power of Trust

I was listening recently to a podcast from Tara Brach, a psychologist and meditation teacher, and she began by revisiting a famous quote from Albert Einstein:

 I think the most important question facing humanity is, ‘Is the universe a friendly place?’ This is the first and most basic question all people must answer for themselves.

If we consider the universe to be unfriendly, he posits, we will direct all of our effort and scientific resources towards building defense systems to protect us from all that seeks to harm us. Perhaps we consider the universe to be neutral, devoid of purpose or meaning, neither friendly nor unfriendly – hence Einstein’s well-known description of a randomized cosmic order (“God playing dice with the universe”).

However, if we decide that the universe is inherently friendly – that is, if we trust that there is some underlying order and goodness to the systems around us, then we may actually feel empowered to try to understand our universe. Power and safety is a result of our efforts not to protect ourselves by building up walls but instead to trust and connect with others, working to understand the world around us.

These ideas reminded me of a recent TED talk led by Marc Slors entitled “Cultivating Trust,” which our faculty watched as part of our Learning Lunch series held each month at The Willows.

Slors acknowledges that while trust involves making ourselves vulnerable to others and all kinds of potential disappointments and calamities, it is also a vital component of successful human communities. In any workplace, people need to be able to trust others in order to focus their cognitive abilities on the work they are responsible for – as a teacher, I trust that our facilities manager keeps our campus safe so that I can devote my time to understanding how best to help students learn. Slors argues that trusting gives us the freedom to be present with the work at hand, as opposed to worrying about all that could possibly go wrong throughout our day.

From this point of view, trusting is ultimately an act of empowerment. Consider various relationships that exist within our school community. Parents trust teachers and the leadership at the school to provide the right conditions for learning to take place. They trust that we will teach the whole child, that teachers will strive to see their child and hear their interests and needs. They trust that they have a partner with open lines of communication. Though they make themselves vulnerable by sharing their children with us each day, by putting trust in us we are able to build stronger partnerships that support students; we feel empowered to join forces together.orig_photo391775_3846309

Also, teachers at the Willows trust their students. In my maker class, I trust that (under my supervision) students will capably utilize a wide variety of tools that could prove harmful if used carelessly – hot glue guns, hand saws, soldering irons, even the internet! Teachers at our school trust that students are competent and capable of taking on problems put before them, or, even better, problems that they come up with on their own. Willows students are not passive learners waiting to be spoon-fed information but in fact feel empowered to construct meaning and think deeply alongside teachers who are guiding the way.

One message we also try to consistently deliver from Developmental Kindergarten to eighth grade is that students need to trust themselves. Children need to feel confident to take risks and potentially make mistakes in order to develop into the kinds of learners described above. Trust in oneself surely instills power, in school and beyond.

Designing with Empathy

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I teach in a makerspace each day. Design thinking and the steps of the design process are interwoven into so much of what takes place within my maker classes. During each hour-long class, students learn by engaging in work similar to real-world designers: facing challenges, coming up with creative solutions, and tinkering and experimenting their way towards a finished product.

In this space, I see myself as a coach or a guide, providing assistance, resources, and encouragement throughout the design process. When inevitable frustrations occur, I try to be present and listen to the needs of my students so I can provide a useful perspective to enable them to persist with the problem they’re trying to solve.

Do I see myself as someone who’s teaching children to develop their emotional intelligence? I have to admit that in the past I have not, or at least not in the same way as I see my colleagues, who are directly teaching tools for developing emotional intelligence in the classroom. However, recent events at The Willows have caused me to contemplate the connections between design thinking and the work we’re doing with emotional intelligence within our community.

As we begin our second year of work with Yale’s RULER program, I am reminded that the “R” and “U” in the RULER acronym stands for “recognizing” and “understanding.” Taking a second look at the design thinking process outlined by Stanford’s d.School, the first step, “Empathy” matches perfectly with these ideas.

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dschool.stanford.edu

When designers are beginning a project, it is important that they ask questions like:

  • Who am I designing for?
  • What are their motivations?
  • What needs am I seeking to meet?

Stepping into the shoes of whom you are designing for and understanding the world from their perspective is crucial to the design process. Similarly, successfully navigating our interactions with the members of our community also requires recognizing and understanding the feelings of others. There is a spirit of inquiry and openness that is essential to both, and empathy is a key component to developing collaborative skills across the curriculum.

I give full credit to Christina Kim, our Director of Student Life, for helping me fully connect these ideas together. She was part of a group of Willows teachers and administrators that visited the d.School last spring while in the Bay Area for the NAIS (National Association of Independent Schools) conference, who came back inspired to redesign a space in our Middle School based on what they had observed on their trip.

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Shortly after their return, I found myself in a meeting that exemplified for me this intersection of design thinking and empathy. Lisa Rosenstein, our Head of School, brought together an eclectic group of 8th graders, Middle School teachers, administrators, and specialists in IT, ed tech and maker to engage in a dialogue about how to best transform one Middle School classroom into what has now become our designLab.

In a sense, all those assembled were being asked to empathize with the future users of the space – incoming 6th, 7th and 8th grade students (as well as their teachers). I was most impressed in this dialogue by the 8th graders; even with only weeks to go before graduation, they were full of constructive suggestions and comfortable sharing ideas at a large table full of adults. I saw a group of students reflecting on their experiences and imagining how the space could best serve the Middle School after they leave, and I also saw the kind of collaborative effort between different members of our community that makes me inspired to work at The Willows.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s next?

This time of the school year, parents and educators alike have their eye on the calendar, counting down the last days of school. For teachers, a much-needed break awaits, and school days are often consumed with wrapping up end-of-year projects, preparing final grades and/or narrative reports, and packing things away for next school year. During this busy time, it’s tempting to feel a sense of finality, as if the work of the school year is all but done.

However, this time of year I find myself thinking of one of my all time favorite phrases:

                    What’s next?

The genius of this phrase is its utility across a variety of disciplines, with children and adults alike. As a teacher, I annoy kids daily when they come up to me with something they think is finished and I prompt them with “What’s next?” They might be showing me a piece of writing, an animation programmed in Scratch or a maker project constructed out of cardboard and foam, but my intention for using this particular prompt is identical for each.

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Ideally, “What’s next?” prompts learners to take ownership over the project at hand, and to adopt the mindset that most projects are, in fact, works-in-progress, always able to be revised, extended, and improved. Echoing the best ideas from the design thinking movement, this mindset embraces the idea that projects can always be taken to another iteration. Additional layers of complexity and sophistication can be introduced, and some documentation of the creative process can be cultivated in anticipation of sharing the project with a wider audience. Even during these waning weeks of the school year, we are compelled to ask our students, “What’s next?” even only to hope that they at some point begin to ask this question themselves.

Of course, “What’s next?” is also a useful prompt for teachers and school administrators at this time of year. Reflecting on the ups and downs of the year behind us, what was learned that should be applied to the next year ahead? What points of interest and excitement must be capitalized upon and carried forward? What projects or endeavors almost worked in the way we intended, and with a bit more fine-tuning could really have the impact we desire?

Asking “What’s next?” is, however, not enough. What actually lies next after that depends on the willingness of all parties to put in the work needed to grow and improve based on the conversations that spring forth.

What’s next for you?

 

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March Madness: Non-NCAA edition

It’s fitting that we have noted New York Times bestselling columnist author Frank Bruni coming to speak to our school community this week about his latest book, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be. While many associate the term “March Madness” with the upcoming NCAA college basketball tournament, anyone who works in education knows that a different kind of madness grips parents around this same time of year: admissions madness.pbcover-whereyougo

Acceptance letters go out to new students at The Willows this week, and anxious parents nationwide await word from both K-12 independent schools and universities as well, crossing fingers in anticipation not just for acceptance at a school but also for the implied promise for the future this acceptance carries with it.

In his book, Bruni tries to reassure anxious parents that life will carry on even if one’s first choice is not realized. He quotes Anthony Carnevale, Georgetown’s Director of Center on Education and the Workforce:

Life is something that happens slowly, and whether or not they go to their first choice isn’t that important…It’s not the difference between Yale and jail. It’s the difference between Yale and the University of Wisconsin or some other school where they can get an excellent education.

While I hope this anxiety does not consume our middle school students and parents at The Willows applying out for secondary school, the reality for some is that not getting one’s first choice – or worse yet, not getting your second or third choice either – can be panic-inducing. Bruni also reminds us that this anxiety isn’t just for parents of children over the age of 10, recounting familiar stories of status-obsessed New Yorkers clamoring to get into the perfect preschool, heartbroken when their child does not “perform” adequately during his or her school visit.

Unknown unknowns

What all of this boils down to for me is, whether we are talking about admission into the best preschool, lower school, secondary school or university, the focus is squarely on the future, and the implied promise that accompanies acceptance to a school.

But the future is ultimately unknown, and a parent’s list of unknown unknowns (to paraphrase former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s famous line) is endless: what kind of people will our children grow up to be? Will they have steady, secure employment (or a job at all)? All parents want the best for their children, and in the face of a scary, uncertain future modern parents especially seem compelled to obsess over what they can do today to make tomorrow (i.e. 8-12 years later) easier for their sons and daughters.

Bruni’s book is meant to remind us that parents have always had to wrestle with worrying over their children’s future. Throughout, he writes compassionately about the plight of children and parents swept up in all of this madness. I’d really like to believe that his message will help assuage the anxiety of the professional class and its progeny. However, no one can deny the power of an elite degree, and competition still drives so much of our society. Bruni’s argument is well researched and articulated clearly – will it be heard by those who need to hear it most?