An increasingly sedentary lifestyle among our youngsters coupled with diets rife with foods high in sugar, high in fat, and low in nutritional value are conspiring to produce a generation that is overweight and overwrought.
Over the past thirty years, statistics show that childhood obesity rates in America have tripled, and today nearly twenty percent of children in America are overweight or obese. At the same time, we are seeing a growing number of our children internalizing these and other struggles resulting in increased rates of depression and childhood anxiety.
How Did We Get Here? I read the following interesting set of observations from the website http://www.letsmove.gov:
- Thirty years ago, most people led lives that kept them at a healthy weight. Kids walked to and from school every day . . . and played for hours after school before dinner. Meals were home-cooked with reasonable portion sizes, and there was always a vegetable on the plate. Eating fast food was rare and snacking between meals was an occasional treat.
- Today, children experience a very different lifestyle. Walks to and from school have been replaced by car and bus rides. Afternoons are now spent with TV, video games, and the Internet. Parents are busier than ever, and families eat fewer home-cooked meals. Snacking between meals is now commonplace.
- Portion sizes have also exploded- they are now two to five times bigger than they were in years past. Beverage portions have grown as well- in the mid-1970s, the average sugar-sweetened beverage was 13.6 ounces compared to today when children think nothing of drinking 20 ounces of sugar-sweetened beverages at a time.
- In total, we are now eating 31 percent more calories than we were forty years ago–including 56 percent more fats and oils and 14 percent more sugars and sweeteners. The average American now eats fifteen more pounds of sugar a year than in 1970.
Those of us in independent schools especially need to address these problems so that this generation of children doesn’t fall into the health traps of chronic depression or obesity-related health problems like heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, and asthma.
Here at PS throughout each week and increasingly across the curriculum, the PE faculty and staff offer a wealth of opportunities to our students for learning about their lifelong health and wellness in an effort to counteract these cultural shifts.
Our evolving curriculum focuses on teaching our students to become responsible, healthy, and self-confident young people. The Health and Wellness Program addresses all dimensions of health, emphasizing on the importance of balance and individuality.
If we truly pride ourselves on a mission focused on “ . . . supporting and educating each child,” we must teach our students about health and wellness, reinforcing these values as critical for good living.
I encourage families to come to our first Annual Registration and Wellness Fair on May 15, which should be another great event supporting Wellness at PS.
Just this past Friday, I was privileged to speak to the local chapter of Church Women United as they celebrated their annual scholarship program. As is becoming my custom when I speak in these settings, I found several opportunities to extol the virtues of our school, our students, our teachers, and our mission.
At this particular meeting, I shared about our incredible advantage of being situated at what I like to call “the most exciting intersection for education in the nation’s third largest city.” I then looked at my audience and asked this question: "If there weren’t anything here at the corner of Main and Bissonnet . . . no Church, no buildings, nothing, wouldn’t you build a school here? Across the street from a world-class museum complex . . . next door to a nationally recognized art school . . . a light rail ride from one of the world’s finest medical centers . . . wouldn’t you build a school right here?"
The answer, of course, is that you certainly would build a school here, and thank goodness we did 24 years ago! While we are celebrating this location, though, I’m not always sure that we are telling folks how we are capitalizing on the partnerships in our neighborhood, especially in light of the charge in our recent Strategic Thinking that makes this one of our key institutional priorities.
Many of you are familiar with our EC and LS students walking across to the MFAH for storytime hours or for class field trips to enhance a particular lesson or unit of study. With this blog entry, I want to feature a new aspect of our growing partnership with the Museum of Fine Arts.
Based on our reputation in the community related to arts education, supported by our recent emphasis on strategic partnerships in the neighborhood, and bolstered by our intrepid and innovative spirit around the infusion of 21st Century skills into our curriculum, the MFAH reached out to us to partner with them in a new initiative. Our middle school teachers and students are now working alongside the MFAH to help them develop a curriculum that will use art to develop the habits of mind necessary for more integrated and connected learning.
Examples of these habits of mind include: overcoming fear of failure; taking creative and intellectual risks; being adaptive, flexible, and comfortable with ambiguity; analyzing relationships; and taking time to reflect.
The MFAH's new initiative with us is just one example of how our presence at this intersection of our neighbhorhood can be instrumental not just for ourselves but for our neighbors as well! We will keep you posted on this and many other developments with our partners in the coming months.
It is interesting to me that one of the most prevalent topics being discussed by many in the world of education today is the issue of failure and the need to make it more appealing both to students and to parents. I suppose this strikes me as interesting, if not a little ironic, because we in Independent Schools have spent the better part of the last thirty years convincing folks that we are more than a little like Lake Woebegone, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are . . . above average.” In fact, this tendency to overestimate our capabilities has become known as "The Lake Woebegone Effect."
Unfortunately, Independent Schools are more than a little complicit in creating this effect when, on the one hand, we tout things like elite college placement and high standardized test scores—neither of which leaves any room for error, much less failure. At the same time, we promise a “holistic” approach to education in which there is “no child left behind.” I worry as an Independent School Head that this attempt to be all things to all people ends up making us look at best naïve and at worst duplicitous. How can we advertise the benefits of failure while at the same time promoting some of the most success-driven aspects of the 21st Century’s educational marketplace?
Insert into this personal (and professional) conundrum an interesting article I read last week in the New York Times entitled, “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?” After reading this piece and discussing it with friends and colleagues, I’ve come to the conclusion that my generation of parents doesn’t really know what to think about this “new” topic of failure-as-educator. We grew up in an era where straight “A’s” were worth striving for and weren’t attainable by everyone; however, it is our same generation that has ushered in the concept of “grade inflation,” lifting an “F” to a “C” and making the “A” commonplace. We remember trying out for athletic teams and artistic roles, waiting anxiously to see if our names would avoid the “cut list,” but we are raising our children in arenas and auditoriums where we have eliminated cut lists, and where everyone gets a part and everyone gets to play.
We don’t know what to think of failure because we’ve helped eradicate it from the landscape in which we now live—that’s what Lake Woe-Be-GONE means, right? Whether this has happened as a reaction to some generational trauma or whether it is the natural evolution of a more enlightened species is a question for anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists. For me as an educator and a parent, I just want to know how to help create the best possible learning atmosphere among the students in our school and the children in my house.
At the conclusion of the Times article is this bit of rational insight into why we may have spent the last thirty years sheltering our children and ourselves from failure. I will quote it at length because I think it speaks directly to what’s at the heart of our mission here at PS and what should be at the heart of any good school’s mission—whether Independent or not:
“This [protection from failure] is a problem, of course, for all parents, not just affluent ones. It is a central paradox of contemporary parenting, in fact: we have an acute, almost biological impulse to provide for our children, to give them everything they want and need, to protect them from dangers and discomforts both large and small. And yet we all know — on some level, at least — that what kids need more than anything is a little hardship: some challenge, some deprivation that they can overcome, even if just to prove to themselves that they can. As a parent, you struggle with these thorny questions every day, and if you make the right call even half the time, you’re lucky. But it’s one thing to acknowledge this dilemma in the privacy of your own home; it’s quite another to have it addressed in public, at a school where you send your kids at great expense.”
We talk a great deal about our mission here, which has at its heart a critical partnership between the Family and the School. I think that this partnership works best when, first and foremost, we both can agree that facilitating our children’s struggles with whatever the “hardship” may be (e.g., low grades, hurt feelings, or athletic disappointment) is far preferable to keeping them from that hardship altogether. Secondly, we must also agree to communicate our expectations for making these experiences about personal growth for everyone involved. We find ourselves at cross-purposes when we either disagree about the inevitability of these challenges or we fail to communicate our expectations about how best to confront them.
One of the most difficult roles any Head of School confronts, I am learning, is that of “Parenting Expert.” Rest assured, this is not a role to which I aspire, nor is it one I feel particularly qualified to assume. Parenting is the most difficult job we will ever do, and let’s be honest, I am in the thick of my own “hardships” and “challenges” as the father of a seven-year-old girl and a three-year-old boy.
However, as a parent in our School (who happens also to be the Headmaster), I can tell you this: I see the real-life manifestations of this honest partnership at work each and every day.
- I see it when a team of teachers stops by to strategize about a student whose nascent intelligence is being inhibited by social and emotional skills that are lagging. Instead of ignoring or giving into this challenging child’s failings, these teachers are brainstorming ways with his parents to help his peer interactions catch up with his paper interactions.
- I see it when a child who struggles deeply with transitions receives, unsolicited at the end of the school year, a booklet outlining the in’s and out’s of her next grade level . . . from a teacher in that grade level who doesn’t even know the child yet. The booklet turns out to be an even better resource for the child’s parents over the course of the next school year.
- I see it when fourth and fifth grade teachers, learning specialists from the AEC, and school administrators meet over the course of three days to discuss the personalities, learning styles, family dynamics, and challenges of each child rising into the first grade of our Middle School.
- I see it when our 8th grade teachers deftly, carefully, and lovingly navigate the inevitable disappointments our students (and their parents) receive during the high school admission process.
I see all of these (and countless other examples), certainly, through the proud eyes of the Head of this remarkable school. However, I also see all of these through the searching eyes of a parent in need of a partner to help me in the daunting task of raising my own children. As that parent I can’t imagine better partners to help me with this difficult job than the caring faculty and staff of this good place who genuinely want to work with me to help my own little ones grow into the people God wants them to be.
Now, that sounds like a Lake Woebegone I can buy into; in fact, it sounds more like Lake Woe-be-Overcome . . . “where all the teachers are honest, all the parents are trusting, and there’s confidence in every child.”
What a fantastic week this has been at Presbyterian School! We had an incredibly spirited and student-led Pep Rally on Wednesday afternoon celebrating all of our fall sports and athletes. We had equally spirited competitions in all of these sports during the week, culminating in our Volleyball teams’ domination of St. Francis in 6th, 7th, and 8th grades on Wednesday and Thursday, an equally thrilling throttling of AOS by our Football team on Thursday night, and our Cross Country team's strong showing in the John Cooper Invitational on Saturday.
However, the highlight of my week was easily an even more spirited activity that revolved around bridges . . . that’s right, bridges.
As I wrote in my Looking Ahead piece at the end of last year, our fifth grade program in 2011-12 is a little bit different. We have hired an all-new team of talented and experienced folks who will only teach fifth grade—no more “cross-over” teachers and no more sharing of teachers with other grade levels. We moved all fifth grade classes except science to the far north end of the middle school hallway so that our newest middle school students would be able to make the transition to that division surrounded by familiar faces and shepherded by their teachers in close proximity.
Then, we built bridges.
Fifth graders began this year with the task of designing, constructing, and completing a group project focused on building a fully functional bridge out of matchsticks and glue. At the beginning of the unit, each fifth grader completed an interest inventory for placement in one of the following jobs: architect, project manager, accountant, and transportation chief. Once placed in these jobs, the students received their group (or, “company”) assignments and were given $1.5 million as their initial budgets.
Then, the fun really began. During their math and science classes, students worked in these groups as they engaged abstract topics related to stress and the law of gravity as well as the relative strength of different geometric shapes. All the work was hands-on, and most of the learning was inquiry-based. At the same time in their Social Studies classes, students were reading about the history of bridges—researching famous examples, finding photos, and sharing information with each other. In English classes, the project managers were writing in company journals; back in math classes, the accountants kept ledgers and balance sheets while also writing checks and completing purchase orders. Students implemented technology to create company signs with Microsoft Publisher using logos and mottos they had come up with while also consulting two interactive websites to research and describe stress on different geometric shapes.
Students also had to deal with real-life hazards. Fines were given by inspectors for messy job sites, accounting audits were ordered if balance sheets were out of whack, and engineering fees were assessed if companies needed help with their design/construction. Finally, unexpected wildfires caused the price of lumber to increase without any notice. In fact, one company actually experienced bankruptcy; however, I am pleased to report that they recycled their materials and worked their way back to solvency. Only in America!
Then, our fifth graders came together to watch their bridges get tested and to see which ones would hold up, and which ones would not. This event—part demolition derby, part pep rally—is what I got to see first hand on Thursday morning . . . and the energy and enthusiasm in the room was unlike anything I’ve seen for an academic project since I’ve been the Headmaster here. In a word, it was EXCITING!
Sure, the “curriculum connection” with this activity was to introduce our students to concepts like accounting, scarcity, supply and demand, trade, resources, and opportunity costs. We wouldn’t be doing our job on the school end if I didn’t tell you that. However, far more important than these ideas, our students—who are crossing their own metaphorical bridges into the middle school—were challenged to work with others to accomplish a common goal . . . to foster a sense of camaraderie that will last throughout their time in middle school . . . to see each other in different ways while also challenging each other to be their very best. As we said at the beginning of last year, these students were ultimately challenged to build bridges rather than fences, to invite others in rather than keeping them out . . . and they did just that—and did it very well. I wish you all could have been there to see it.
So, I took my own advice from the blog yesterday and contacted one of the "i can" teachers from my own life to let her know that I think of her every year at this time because she was (and continues to be) instrumental in my life as a teacher and a leader. Aside from planting seeds of confidence and hard work in me at a relatively young age, this teacher also tended to me when I was least willing to accept her kind but forceful admonitions and examples. When our time together was nearing its end, and our relationship concluding (or, so I thought), this teacher gave me a book of poems . . . one of which I have read at the beginning of every school year and now, as a Headmaster, I share it with the faculty as we begin the important work we do with children and parents. This poem captures with care and wisdom the charge that teachers accept every year . . . and in every century, especially the 21st:
To a Young Mariner, by Martin Prouty
I cannot set your sail, my child,
For every wind that blows.
Or hold your rudder fast and firm
Through every tide that flows.
I cannot guide your ship to port
Or fend the tempest’s shock;
I cannot quell the rising wave
Or save you from the rock.
But I can teach your hand to keep
The canvas taut and true,
And how to hold the tiller firm
That it may steer you through.
And I can teach your steadfast heart
And train your eager eye
To master your own ship and find
The stars to steer her by.
At our full faculty meeting this afternoon, we showed the following TED talk from Kiran Sethi, the founder of the Riverside School in Ahmedabad, India. Sethi has launched an initiative to make Indian cities (and cities around the world) more child-friendly. She uses the metaphor of contagion to urge us all to "infect" the world as "i can" people.
After watching the video, we talked about what it means for us as educators to be "i can" people in a world that consistently and deliberately tells us and our students, "You Can't . . ." We connected these ideas to our charge this year to be Success Evangelists rather than Problem Archaeologists and then considered all of this in the context of Seth Godin's book Linchpin, in which Godin describes what I believe are "i can" people in the following ways:
- They . . . invent, lead, connect others, and make things happen.
- They . . . figure out what to do when there's no rule book.
- They . . . delight and challenge.
- They . . . love their work and the people with whom they do that work
The best teachers in our lives are "i can" people; they are Evangelists of Success--particularly with their students; and they are the Linchpins of our lives. Maybe you can think of a couple of these "Linchpins" from your own life? I'll bet they'd like to hear from you . . .
A colleague of mine--one whom I really admire for constantly looking at how and why she teaches--sent me this from Seth Godin's blog:
Perhaps we could endeavor to teach our future the following:
- How to focus intently on a problem until it's solved.
- The benefit of postponing short-term satisfaction in exchange for long-term success.
- How to read critically.
- The power of being able to lead groups of peers without receiving clear delegated authority.
- An understanding of the extraordinary power of the scientific method, in just about any situation or endeavor.
- How to persuasively present ideas in multiple forms, especially in writing and before a group.
- Project management. Self-management and the management of ideas, projects and people.
- Personal finance. Understanding the truth about money and debt and leverage.
- An insatiable desire (and the ability) to learn more. Forever.
- Most of all, the self-reliance that comes from understanding that relentless hard work can be applied to solve problems worth solving.
For us here at PS, I would only add this critical, final bullet point:
- A confident sense of belief and spirtual identity that serve as the foundation upon which all the other bullet points above are built.
If we are able to accomplish all these goals during our students' relatively brief time with us, wouldn't we be sending them out into the world uniquely prepared to lead and make a difference?
Last Sunday, April 10, we welcomed to campus an Accreditation Committee from the Independent Schools Association of the Southwest (ISAS). As members of ISAS, we submit every ten years to having such a committee composed of administrators, faculty, and staff from peer schools around the region on campus to scrutinize our programs, to measure the connection of those programs to our mission, and then to articulate commendations and recommendations to assist us in our continuing efforts to improve. The ISAS accreditation process has been recognized by the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) for its thoroughness and its completeness. Achieving accreditation in ISAS is no small feat, and receiving their commendation should be a rallying point for any school community.
In preparation for this team’s visit, we entered into a critical and comprehensive self-study over the course of the last year and a half. This effort of institutional introspection involved the broadest possible cross-section of the School's constituencies, including faculty, students, trustees, administrators, parents, and alumni. Such a complete process afforded us the opportunity to arrive at a clearer understanding of our strengths while at the same time challenging us to acknowledge the opportunities for growth on our near horizon. With this sort of far-reaching exercise in our rear-view mirror, we were eager to welcome this team of colleagues and just as excited to receive their feedback about our school.
Immediately below are the general Commendations of the School by the Visiting Committee, in their own words. These represent the most general and overarching impressions the School has made on the Visiting Committee members. In looking over ours, I am struck by the fact that after only three days on our campus, this group of educators captured very succinctly and authentically the sorts of values and attitudes that I believe set us apart in Houston—characteristics like the visionary ideas surrounding the purchase and development of the OEC; the strategic and responsible leadership of our Board; the passion, energy, and joy of our teachers; the safe, nurturing, and risk-encouraging environment of our classrooms; and the enthusiasm, poise, and confidence of our students.
I encourage you to read these commendations with pride, as they comment directly on the work that our students and our teachers are doing every day.
1. The Outdoor Education Center is a stunning addition to the School, one that offers space for athletic endeavors, environmental studies, community outreach, and countless other uses. The Visiting Committee commends Presbyterian School for accomplishing the vision and encourages continuing creativity in working toward maximum utilization.
2. The Visiting Committee commends the leadership of the School. The Board of Trustees conscientiously pursues its appropriate role of strategic thinking and fiduciary responsibility. School leadership has initiated a culture of looking to the future through focus on essential questions surrounding teaching and learning in the twenty-first century.
3. The Visiting Committee found teachers who are passionate about teaching. The rapport between the faculty and students is exceptional. The Presbyterian School community is enlivened by the energy, collegiality, and joy of the faculty.
4. One of the founding objectives of Presbyterian School is “to help children develop a positive sense of self-confidence, self-worth, and security so that they will be able to stand up for what they believe and take risks throughout their lives.” The Visiting Committee found at the School an atmosphere of calm, a day that proceeds at the right pace, and a nurturing environment that encourages students to participate, to engage, and to take learning risks. The School community obviously seeks to live this founding objective.
5. Students love their school and feel they belong, yet they welcome students who join their community in higher grades. They are respectful of their teachers and of each other. The Visiting Committee greatly enjoyed interaction with students of all ages who are self-confident, enthusiastic about positive change, poised, engaging, and articulate.
Next are the general recommendations that the Visiting Committee has made, also in their own words. Again, these are more global in nature, but in order to remain in good standing with ISAS, we must respond to these as the focal point of our Interim Reports to ISAS over our next ten-year Accreditation Cycle. Again, I was pleased with these recommendations for much the same reason that I was with the commendations because, as you will see below, each is either already receiving attention by way of our Strategic Thinking or by way of targeted initiatives underway at the School.
1. Given the growth and prominence of Presbyterian School in the Houston independent school community, the School would benefit from additional signage that would distinguish its identity and provide additional advancement opportunities along with visibility for future families considering a school and church community. (Tied to Big Idea One: Mission and Identity in the Strategic Thinking)
2. The Board of Trustees may want to consider a more aggressive endowment goal that would support the continued growth in expenses of the School’s programs/operations by providing additional revenue to offset larger than desired tuition increases. (Tied to Big Idea Five: Financial Sustainability, Capital Giving Action Step in the Strategic Thinking)
3. The Visiting Committee observed the need for greater collaboration and communication within and across divisions. Initiatives which could lead to achievement of these goals would be: a requirement that teachers in a division stay until a uniform time, revision of the schedule with the need for teambuilding in mind, cross-curricular projects, and a department structure which would provide leadership in all subject areas, consistency of discipline-wide meetings and cross-division discussion and coordination. The Visiting Committee noted “lots of good dots but the need for more lines connecting those dots.” (Initiatives under way . . . Monday meetings, Summer Faculty Dinners, Plan Of Study Vertical Teams)
4. While the Church and the School are diligent in their efforts to provide security for the campus, it is recommended that additional focus be given to the needs of the School given the location of the campus and potential easy access both into and out of the facilities. (Tied to Big Idea One: Mission and Identity, Partnership with FPC Action Step in the Strategic Thinking)
5. While commending the School’s initiative toward teaching and learning for the twenty-first century and the commitment to providing technology hardware and software resources, the Visiting Committee recommends a shared vision for technology coordinated by a specialist who could promote the use of instructional technology through professional development proposals, technology resource research, consistent and judicious technology investment across the grades, and assurance of technical support throughout the school day. (Connected directly to the Learning Commons initiative described here; scroll beneath this post)
At the conclusion of this singularly important process in the life of our School, I will say as our Headmaster that I have never been prouder. A talented and accomplished team of our peers has come to our campus and used words like stunning, prominent, strategic, and nurturing to describe our School; words like passionate, exceptional, energetic, and joyful to describe our teachers; and words like self-confident, engaging, poised, and articulate to describe our students. What an exciting time to be at Presbyterian School with affirmation such as this!
Choose groups to clone to: