Friday, October 19, 2012

Creating the guardians of tomorrow's world

Much has been written about middle school education. Often, this is a time in a student’s life that is filled with change and anxiety, and school administrators have begun to scrutinize these sometimes tumultuous years by thinking about creating learning opportunities outside the traditional classroom. At Summit, there is a commitment to this thinking and middle school students are reaping the rewards of a curriculum that allows students to step out into the real world and learn in a dynamic  environment not bound by walls.

Believe it or not, the idea of formal learning out of the classroom started in open air sanatoriums that sprung up in Europe in the latter part of the 19th century. During that time, fresh air and sunshine as much as medicine were used to treat tuberculosis. The idea extended to Britain during the first half of the 20th century, with the focus on improving the health of children who were seen as sickly and susceptible to TB. The schools had no walls and purposefully harsh but healthy environmental conditions. By the 1940s, there were 155 open-air schools in Britain and their goal was to improve both health and academics.

These open-air schools shared much with the philosophy of a set of schools now thriving in the U.S. known as Outward Bound Schools. Outward Bound programs are based on a development-by-challenge philosophy, put in place by the school's founder Kurt Hahn, an eccentric and innovative turn of the century educator, who believed in the need for real, hands-on, practical challenges for the development of character in adolescent boys. Hahn emphasized that Outward Bound was about training the mind through the body, and he attempted to provide youth with challenging experiences in an educational environment designed to help kids develop inner strength, character and resolve. Oxford educated, Hahn developed an educational practice focusing on active service which was later adopted by the International Baccalaureate, and it is here where his lasting contribution to primary and secondary education lies. Educational practices like this led directly to one of our mission statements: To serve as an excellent preparation for students intending to study in rigorous college-preparatory high school programs, including IB and AP.

There have been other visionaries too. Vermont native and educational pioneer John Dewey believed that learning was active and schooling unnecessarily long and restrictive. His idea was that children came to school to do things and live in a community which gave them real, guided experiences to foster their capacity to contribute to society. Dewey felt it was vitally important that education should not be the teaching of mere fact, but that the skills and knowledge which students learn be integrated fully into their lives as citizens and human beings.

I studied these two men intensely while in grad school and found a lot of merit in their ideas. I know we at Summit do too. Academics are at the core of our mission, but our mission also states we are here to “to inspire in students a lifelong love of learning, a desire for self-development, and good citizenship.” The question of inspiration is one we should really think about. What inspires our children? What inspires our teaching? By being reflective I feel, as Hahn does, that we help young people become empowered to develop their innate abilities "to be the leaders and guardians of tomorrow's world."

Sunday, September 23, 2012

It's not about the A, it's about the Adolescent

Parents, I know that we are in the middle of quarter number one, and grades are starting to become more apparent to you and your son or daughter. Though we don’t focus on the grades, we do use them with intention at Summit and they are helpful in guiding our decisions in teaching and learning. Grades provide critical feedback for both teachers and students, which not only ensure that teachers know who is learning, and who is not, but they ensure that all of us in the learning community of Summit are held to a high expectation. These high expectations, I feel, are one of the essential attributes of Summit and all great middle schools.

And though much of what we do appears to be results oriented, it is our belief that the deepest learning comes from a rich curriculum coupled with instructional practices that are aligned to external standards, but more importantly to our standards. Again, this isn’t about the grade, but about developing self-confidence, or self-efficacy, which we feel is a critical component of developing one's identity and sense of self. This is a major developmental task of the adolescent years, one that you can help your child build and nurture as a parent.

It is also important to note that high expectations with clear measurements to guide the child helps build resiliency. The research is clear: perhaps more than any other variable, low expectations on the part of school staff have been correlated with poor student academic outcomes and vice versa. Schools which vocalize high expectations for all youth, and then create the support needed to reach those expectations, have much higher rates of academic success than schools that set the bar low. This was recently echoed in the NY Times, by columnist Joe Nocera in “Reading, Math, and Grit.”  He profiles author/researcher Paul Tough’s book “How to Succeed." Tough argues that it can’t be only about math and reading, but about teaching non-cognitive skills such as “resilience, integrity, resourcefulness, professionalism and ambition." We set the bar high, but we know that students may not reach that height from time to time. When they fall, and they will, we are there to help, and parents can too.

So as you see your son or daughter’s grades, try to remember our intentions. As we know, it isn’t all about getting the A, it’s more about getting the adolescent.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Independence needs Interdependence

As one can imagine, I have been thinking a great deal about what it is that makes the “magic” of Summit happen. One parent recently referred to it as “the special sauce.”  Well as I thought about this it dawned on me – part of what makes our community so vibrant and exciting is our independence. However, that independence actually depends on many things. The creation of Summit depended on a few bold parents standing up for what they saw was best for their children.  If you take this dependence a step further, you might see even more reliance on others. Summit itself depends on parents to choose us as their school. Parents depend on us to teach and nurture your children. Kids depend on teachers to do their job. Teachers depend on kids to listen, to engage, and to learn. Therefore, when I reflect a bit more, it sounds more like interdependence is the real key to Summit’s success.

A school based on interdependence can be just as good in every sense as one based on an individual model. Take a look in the classrooms after school. Check out the library over the course of the day. The teachers are there, guiding, listening, helping, and teaching. Parents communicate weekly with me, volunteer at school events and on our committees, and continue to trust us with their sons and daughters. Students are active learners in our labs and class debates, they help us figure out if it is an A or B Day, and let us know when they are upset or having problems with their classmates.  We should recognize this as interdependence – not independence - for interdependence is how our school works best. It is a value statement we make at Summit whether we know if or not, and it keeps us present, where learning and growing takes place, moment to moment, every class, each day.

After many years of being in middle schools, I’m convinced that the quality of relationships is what it is all about.  Relationships must have interdependence. Kids who feel that they are known and understood, are simply better learners. Teachers who feel that their individual strengths and needs are honored do a better job. Parents who feel that their opinions are carefully considered and are heard are more satisfied and supportive. I love sorting through all of these human complexities. Perhaps this is why I, and many of you, love being in schools that value relationships as much as they value academics.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Back to school means back to...homework. Gulp.

Unlike some schools, we are already a few weeks into the school year, and what does that mean? Kids have had tests and projects and plenty of homework.

Homework is often discussed, seldom celebrated, emotional, visceral, and now, studied and quantified by experts around the globe. Cognitive scientists, professors in schools of education, economists and world thought leaders have complied a mountain of data on what homework does to a young person emotionally and physically, what type of homework is of value, and whether or not there is any correlation with academic achievement.

I thought I would share one perspective from author/educator Rick Wormeli, who has a great deal of experience in this area. In the video clip, Rick discussed his take on how much homework should count:

There is no shortage of opinions on the issue, and I will do my best to share with you some important studies and viewpoints, including my own. As always, let me know what you think.


Friday, August 17, 2012

First day of school assembly: something new

Thought I would share here a really successful assembly idea I tried yesterday to kick off the school year. No long speech about rules, no talking at kids telling them what to do and when to do it, no monotony, canned program, or trite rituals. I wanted to start fresh, start new, use a medium they would understand, and show the students I understand their world and value what they think.

So I used a short video to help spark a conversation about what it means to dream and what it takes to reach those dreams. Here is the clip:

It's called "TC Bank Dream Rangers," and it is from Taiwan. The clip has resonated with millions around the world for many different reasons - it's inspiring, beautiful, funny, foreign, curious, unusual, yet common to us all. I particularly liked the fact that characters were old - we are so used to seeing the young and the beautiful in the media. I asked the kids to look for themes and ways to relate the ad's message to their lives as they watched, and they came up with some great comments which they shared at the assembly. I sent the clip home to parents too, and got some wonderful feedback.



Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Could this be a reason why we need algebra?

I have had some great conversations about algebra and math since my last post. Interestingly, I also came across a rebuttal to the Times piece on my Twitter feed on why we should teach algebra. Here is the link:

As always, I love to read your comments.


Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Is math the root cause of so many kids dropping out?

NYT: Is Algebra Necessary?

I found this to be a very interesting read. For the past two days, I have come back to the author's thesis, thought about how we design schools in the 21st Century, and wondered why we keep doing what we do in schools today. Well worth a look.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Busy Trap

While laying in bed, slow to rise on this sunny morning, I saw this post on my phone's Twitter Feed, courtesy of @ElemSchHeads. And I was thrilled:

As I have been winding down my days in CNY, life has turned upside down for me. Moving, especially in a dual career household with little kids, has a way of making your intestines lurch and your frontal cortex miss it's mark. There is WAY too much going on these days. Yet, I have taken ever opportunity to drop what I need to do in order to have a coffee with a faculty member, take my 6 year-old to the playground, or head out on a bike ride with a friend or two or three - with no regrets what so ever. In fact, I have been fully aware that is is the right thing to do, right now, right here. The author of this opinion piece feels the same way. But are people like us really iconoclasts in today's "I'm so busy" culture? And what is this culture doing to our kids?

Monday, July 2, 2012


Change is uncomfortable. But for those who strive to grow, change is inevitable. This week, I leave for Colorado to lead Summit Middle School in Boulder. I happened upon this quote recently and it resonated with me, not only as a father and as an individual, but also as a teacher and mentor:

“20 years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the one’s you did. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” - Mark Twain

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Commitment to Community: Today's 8th and 3rd Grade Garden Project

We take community and collaboration seriously, and it turns out the Community Garden MPH put in this year, and managed by science teacher Pam Stewart, is really taking off this spring. I stumbled upon her 8's working with the 3's this morning - digging, planting, and exploring what it means to create something sustainable and worthwhile for the entire school. Gardens aren't just for looks - they help build critical skills within our capable young people. This morning was so organic (no pun intended), I just had to share.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Green Lakes Stewardship Day. A photo collection.

I wanted to thank all the students and faculty who made it to Green Lakes State Park for a gorgeous day on Friday. By all accounts it was a very successful day out. From mulching to painting to the aquatic study, the kids had a wonderful time and the parks people/ESF students did a great job capturing their attention and creating what I think was the best program to date. Without a doubt the person who deserves the most credit is SUNY ESF student Sarah Hofer who organized the entire program this year. Take a look at what she organized for the kids to do.


Thursday, March 29, 2012

Who wants their child to be healthy, safe, and engaged?

Last night I was reading from Schools: A Journal for Inquiry into the Subjective Experience of School Life, looking to probe a bit into the idea of teaching to the whole child. Lately, more and more schools say they teach to the whole child, or claim their approach is different than other schools because of their focus on the child.  With the term whole child being thrown around so much of late, especially in the middle years, I began to think - what does it really mean?

According to ACSD, here are the basic attributes of what it means to be focused on the whole child:

- Each student enters school healthy and learns about and practices a healthy lifestyle.
- Each student learns in an environment that is physically and emotionally safe for students and adults.
- Each student is actively engaged in learning and is connected to the school and broader community.
- Each student has access to personalized learning and is supported by qualified, caring adults.
- Each student is challenged academically and prepared for success in college or further study and for employment and participation in a global environment.

That sounds about right, but don’t most schools approach education this way? What school is actively saying they don’t challenge kids academically or that they don’t promote a healthy lifestyle?

I came across an article in Schools that mentions Alfie Kohn’s view. Kohn – who is never short on opinions in print, or in person – made an interesting point about the whole child approach, and how it often devolves as the student grows older. He also feels that if schools are to focus on the whole child, then they need to provide a safe place for growth and change. This can’t happen when bureaucratic control takes precedent – around school tools like schedules and policy. Kohn asked the question, “does the schedule rule learning or does learning rule the school?”

I think there are many examples in American education today, where teaching is about the system, not the student. Not just in public schools, where scores are shared in the media and politicians fire shots at faculty on a weekly basis, but in schools of choice too. Many parents in our schools look to us to provide preparation – they choose us as a select school so we can prepare their kids for a select university. We can measure that, can’t we? Heads can talk about the numbers of kids they place into Ivy’s and parents can see the numbers too. Done. That quest for quantifiables is genuine in the competitive world of modern day schooling. So the measurements better be visible, viable, and valiant.

This is a real issue if you are a teacher. It is an even bigger issue if you are a teacher teaching to the whole child. They know there is more to teaching than reading rates, test scores, and college outcomes. Great teachers know that young people need to think both critically and creatively, now, more than ever. Students need to know how to evaluate huge amounts of information in order to work with a diversity of people to solve complex problems, locally and globally. These are the facts our children face. Therefore, common sense validates that teaching to the whole child is a right approach. The big question that remains is whether schools, faced with very real economic, political and social pressures, will be able to have the guts to stand by their faculty when they know what works.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Cities: a solution for our planet and our students

I was reading some blog posts from a few educators I follow on Twitter this evening. They had attended the Independent Schools Association of the Southwest Biannual Conference in Houston, Texas and were reporting back on a few of the keynote speakers, one of which was Pat Bassett, President of NAIS. Much of his talk focused on the need for more intentional instruction by educators on the well known 21st Century C’s: character, creativity and cooperation. Pat also focused on a lesser know C that I found more intriguing. Let me tell you why.

Basset mentioned a need to focus on cosmopolitanism. What he is referring to is bringing children into a world that is smaller due to our interconnectedness. Cosmopolitan reminds me of another C word: city. I have always felt schools should be preparing students to live in cities. Why? Because many if not most of the great universities and colleges are in cities, and so are the great industries and talent centers, from tech to finance, law to government. Perhaps most importantly, more and more research is showing if we are going to survive as a planet, prevent sprawl,and conserve resources, one solution is to embrace global urbanization.

I dug a little deeper into this idea and found a great piece on Huffington Post by Katherine Krauss, a senior at Greenhills School - an independent school in Ann Arbor, Mich. She penned a compelling argument that global migration toward cities means good things for the environment. She pointed out, “less people sprawled out in suburbs means less burning of fossil fuels from personal cars and more land given back to the natural ecosystems of the region.” She didn’t stop there. Krauss took it a step further and stated “cities are the centers of idea exchange. Because the world's nations are so highly interconnected in today's society, collaboration is becoming more and more critical to the maintaining of a global order and peace; and because the world has never seen anything like this level of interconnectedness before, it is critical that experts gather to exchange ideas about how to best advance in their field.”

Katherine is right. Cities have always been at the center of thinking and creativity. They have been focal points of commerce and trade, artistry and social movements, and because cities often have strong economies, they attract millions looking for work or intellectual inspiration.

So why is this important? Because most students graduating in this era, will be living and working in a city. They will need to understand how to live, thrive and give back in an urban environment in the evolving 21st century. And the city very well may be in another country. The city could be New York, Denver, or San Francisco. Maybe Lima, San Paulo or Buenos Aires. Could be Singapore, Hong Kong or Chengdu. Possibly even Lagos, Dakar or Narobi. How exciting is that?

Very exciting, because cities are exciting. They are full of hope, can-do-attitudes and people who are looking to make things happen. Who hasn’t been excited by a visit to NYC? Is there a more exciting place in the world? As someone who lived in New York, San Francisco and Prague too, I experienced this fist hand. The move back to urban living might be the solution for so many of the global ills we face today and if our students study hard and have a little luck, they too will find themselves in a city, living, connecting and thriving well into the 21st Century.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Tired? Want better grades? Try exercise

It’s the first day back from Winter Break and I am dragging. Late nights and late morning are part of the regular diet of relaxation in my house over the holidays, but there is a bigger reason why at 2:15 today I drank cup of coffee #3: lack of physical activity. Without it, I am simply not myself.

I wasn't the only one in need of get up and go. Due to the weather turning bitterly cold, the MS was unable to get outside today, and like many 6th graders, I don’t take the absence of recess lightly. And it isn’t all about fun. More and more research shows movement matters not just to a student’s physical and emotional well-being, but to their academic health too. Just today I read an article in Education Week citing new evidence linking physical activity and academic success. In a nut shell, the study found “a significant relationship between physical activity and academic performance.” Why? Increased blood and oxygen flow to the brain boosts production of norepinephrine and endorphins which help improve mood. Even more interesting was the finding that exercise, specifically in school sports, “increased growth factors that help create new nerve cells and support synaptic plasticity.” That plasticity is no small thing. Just like your biceps and hamstrings, keeping your brain fit and flexible opens the way for improved learning and performance.

What’s exciting about this finding? Schools will now be able to think intentionally about PE and recess periods to tailor their programs to benefit each student's body – and mind.