I was pretty amazed (and disheartened) to read the following statistics the other day related to cheating and the perception of cheating among US High School students. Below are some of the highlights, or lowlights, as the case may be:
* 80% of “high-achieving” high school students admit to cheating.
* 51% of high school students did not believe cheating was wrong.
* 95% of cheating high school students said they had not been detected.
* Almost 85% of college students said cheating is necessary to get ahead.
* 75% of college students admitted cheating, and 90% of college students didn’t believe cheaters would be caught.
To be sure, we in schools often call cheating what in the real world is called collaboration, but the statistics above speak more to an attitude of acceptance related to getting ahead at the expense of others rather than partnering with others to achieve a collectively important goal. There are countless conclusions that can be drawn from these data points, ranging from blaming “kids today” for always taking the easy way out, to blaming my generation of “lawnmower parents” for abdicating our responsibilities for teaching integrity to our children in favor of fighting all their battles for them, to blaming a “Harvard-at-all-costs” education system that sets ultimate goals too high too soon for too many.
As with many tough issues at play in our world today, it’s easy to ask “why has this happened,” to lay blame, and then to walk away smugly. It’s harder to ask “how do we proceed,” to pose solutions, and to dig into reshaping a more positive future. It will come as no surprise that, on the one hand, the rise of this particular issue is certainly related to the absence in our culture of the core value of perseverance that we tout at PS—it’s easy to copy, cut and paste, plagiarize, and “borrow”; it’s much harder to conceive of one’s own ideas and then (through really hard work) flesh those ideas out into lucid and compelling arguments, solutions, or theories.
Just as importantly, though, I think this propensity to seek an “easier way,” is related to our continued dismissal of the importance of one of the most transformative (and undervalued) educational concepts around. The cheating statistics above and the concomitant scandals at more than one prestigious university speak to an educational culture that still values answers more than it values questions—really good, really provocative, really essential questions, as Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe have been defining and promoting for years.
Here are my essential questions . . . about questions: Can you “cheat” on a question that is, by definition, transferable to other topics and areas? Can you “cheat” on a question that provokes serious thinking rather than merely retrieval of content knowledge that’s readily available on Google, Wikipedia, or your friend’s iPad? Can you “cheat” on a question if you’re arguing through complex problems rather than ones that predict simple “right” or “wrong” answers?
In the end, can you really “cheat” on a question designed to promote and sustain more questions?
What a summer we’ve had! As I wrote to our parents a month ago, this really has been a “summer of scandal,” hasn’t it? In Major League Baseball, a former Most Valuable Player has been suspended for using performance enhancing drugs and then lying about it. Not to be outdone, a former college football All-American and NFL superstar has been indicted on multiple murder charges. And, finally, the leading candidate to be the next Mayor of the nation’s largest city (New York) is at the center of an investigation into inappropriate text messages. All of that in one two-month period. Wow!
As is our custom every year, we have an essential question this year that serves as our theme for our work together in the year ahead. At its heart, this year’s essential question has something to say related to all three of these incidents that I’ve just mentioned. When we ask, “Whom do I serve,” we are really asking about what we value or what we think is really important in our lives. In fact, we might even rephrase the question by asking, “What do you truly value?”
- The baseball player who is cheating himself and his teammates by using illegal drugs might answer that he values or serves fame and fortune or even “being the best” in his profession . . .
- The football player who seems to have no regard for others’ lives might answer that he values his own life and livelihood more than the lives of those around him . . .
- Finally, the politician who seems to think that he can get away with anything and not get caught in his poor behavior might say he values power and notoriety and “being in the spotlight” so much that he’s willing to do anything to stay there . . .
These are all obviously suppositions, or guesses, about the motivations of others related to whom they serve or what they value. Sometimes, suppositions can be accurate, but sometimes they can be really off track. With that in mind, I decided to reflect on my own life and my own values, with which I live and grapple every day . . .
- First, I have to admit that I really value being “DR.” Carleton. I worked really hard in school for a very long time. I studied for and completed many, many tests; did my fair share of research; and even wrote a book before I sat in front of five accomplished and intelligent college professors and answered some very tough questions. At the end of all that, I got two things that I’m extremely proud of: one was a pretty snazzy robe that I like to wear around my house and office from time to time, which tells everybody who sees it that I’m “DR.” Carleton . . . the other was a really big diploma that I have hanging in my office to commemorate my accomplishment. If you look really closely at the diploma, you’ll see something interesting related to our conversation this morning: the diploma was conferred “in the year of our Lord.” Interesting, don’t you think? Keep that phrase in mind as we move to the next item that I really value . . .
- Second, if I’m honest with myself and with others, I like having money in my pocket. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not so in love with money that I’m willing to do anything to get it, but I do like to have a little cash in my wallet so that I can do the things that I like to do. In fact, when I was nine years old and cutting my grandmother’s grass for five dollars every week, I would ask her to pay me in $1 bills so that my wallet would be so thick I could FEEL the money in it ALL THE TIME! Now, there’s a part of this money that I’d like to call your attention to as well: each bill has the words, “In God we Trust” on it. Also interesting . . . Are you starting to see a pattern?
- Lastly, I really do value this school . . . part of this feeling is certainly because it is my job to value it (I am the Headmaster, after all), but part of this value resides in the fact that I spend a great deal of time thinking about this place and trying to figure out ways to make it even better than it is right now. So, it’s safe to say that I value it for a variety of reasons—some of which are probably good, but some are probably a little worrisome . . . consider that I have ten Polo shirts and at least as many t-shirts with the PS logo, and you sort of get the picture. With that “value” in mind, consider our School’s motto as a last point of reference for my talk this morning: “As Children of God at Presbyterian School, we respect ourselves, each other, and the environment.”
Every day we are given choices among competing values, and we are asked which of them truly define our lives—which of them will indicate whom or what we serve. So, when I look back over three things that I really value, if I’m being careful I might notice that God is in the background of each of them, which is unfortunate, because if I’m looking more carefully, I should notice that He is actually at the foundation of each and every one of them.
- The time I spent working on and earning my education is governed by a calendar that has at its foundation an acknowledgement of God so significant that it appears on my diploma . . .
- The currency that we exchange in this country, which has become the most valuable currency in the world, has a phrase on each and every piece that places trust and respect in that same God . . .
- The School at whose opening we find ourselves today calls not only on this same Lord each and every day but also welcomes His church into partnership with families as we seek to support and educate each and every one of you.
Whom do you serve? What do you value? Is God in the background of these answers, or is He at the foundation?
Consider Psalm 100 as you think about the answers to these questions from your own lives:
Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth.
Serve the Lord with gladness;
Come before Him with joyful singing.
Know that the Lord Himself is God;
It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves;
We are His people and the sheep of His pasture.
Enter His gates with thanksgiving
And His courts with praise.
Give thanks to Him, bless His name.
For the Lord is good;
His loving kindness is everlasting
And His faithfulness to all generations.
Thank you all for coming this morning; it is my pleasure to announce the official opening of the 2013-14 school year. May God richly bless us as we do His work together . . .
On the heels of reading and Tweeting out this excellent treatment of 21st Century Learning in elementary schools, I thought it would be beneficial to share in this space Presbyterian School's own vision/rationale for the exciting and progressive approach to learning that we continue to offer our students. (The text that follows is a portion of the Looking Ahead piece that I shared with our school community at the end of last month.)
Teaching and Learning in the 21st Century
We continue to be serious about providing the most compelling education available for our students at all grade levels in both timeless and progressive ways. Our guiding essential question in this effort continues to be: What skills/competencies/programs/tools will benefit and challenge our students as they prepare for this dynamic time? We will examine our curriculum and expand those elements that are child-centered and that will facilitate the critical and creative thinking skills that this exciting era demands. In all three divisions of the School, this examination will promote the essential elements that have long been at the heart of our program: reading with fluency, writing with exactness, and calculating with care.
To be sure, over the course of the last four years our examination of the School’s program and of the best tools available for our students and teachers has led us to provide access to more individual technology, particularly iPads, for a variety of learning settings and outcomes. In the next few paragraphs, I want to lay out our general philosophy regarding the use of these tools in the current educational milieu as well offer a glimpse into our vision for the future.
Question: How does the School’s vision for technology integration promote our mission, philosophy, and reputation? Our Christian identity and supporting Core Values remain the same foundation that we have had in place since the founding of the School. The inclusion of these new and powerful tools in the educational experience of our students is simply about improving the learning opportunities for each and every one of them. Some may feel that technology and a Christian mission are mutually exclusive; we don’t. We are just providing our students with state-of-the-art resources to augment their learning. It really is that simple. At the same time, I might also add that as an academic institution with a Christian mission, we see this decision as deeply rooted in our identity as a forward-thinking, progressive school that values creativity over inculcation, collaboration over isolation, and problem-solving over memorization . . . among other core values. We also have as one of our founding educational objectives this compelling statement: “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.” Offering our students, particularly our Middle School students, the responsibility and opportunity of managing their own learning along with their tools for that learning furthers this objective very nicely.
Question: Why the iPad? We feel that the iPad has numerous characteristics that make it the best choice for our school at this particular time. Consider these few reasons: (1) We have three years of experience using it successfully at a variety of grade levels, (2) Our teachers have all had iPads for a year and have been afforded opportunities throughout that year to explore its effectiveness in their own educational settings, (3) The iPad can go a full school day without recharging, and (4) There are literally hundreds of thousands of Apps designed specifically for the iPad, which give our teachers and students an abundance of tools at their disposal for broad and deep teaching and learning. Our ultimate goal for technology tools at PS, particularly in the Middle School, is what is known in the educational world as “BYoT” (Bring Your own Technology). This term describes an environment in which every student would bring his or her own device, which could be an iPad, MacBook, Windows laptop, Android tablet, or whatever (within limits). In fact, the Katy Independent School District has been operating this very type of program for its 3rd-12th graders for four years. Despite the long-standing presence and success of these programs and others, we are simply not ready to take that step at Presbyterian School for the 2013-2014 school year.
Question: What is the curriculum plan for the iPad? To say that we have a separate and distinct “curriculum plan” simply for the iPad would afford it more importance in the educational setting than it deserves. Do we have a plan for integrating these tools into the curriculum in meaningful ways? Absolutely! Have we been working on this plan for the last three years? You bet! Do we expect that our middle school students will spend every waking moment using these tools? Not a chance! Presbyterian School has become an acknowledged leader in the area of using technology to support curriculum rather than merely using technology as an end unto itself. As a result of our efforts in this particular area, we have hosted teachers and administrators from several area schools including St. John’s, St. Mark’s, AOS, and the Post Oak School as well as recently being invited to present our strategies at the TCEA iPad Academy, attended by educators from across the county. Much like our approaches in the past with integrating desktops, graphing calculators, laptops, SmartBoards, or other relatively sophisticated tools designed to be used by teachers and students, iPads will support both traditional and more progressive classroom activities. Students will use them for gathering information, practicing skills, and demonstrating mastery of concepts through creation and production. They will also use them to open new dimensions of teaching and learning. One (of many) examples that I might offer comes from the world of science. We find with the iPad that students’ lab reports can now include video of the actual experiment, recorded documentation of the collaborative discussion between lab partners, data tables, graphs, and conclusions in either written or spoken form. Reference materials can also be linked to the lab report to enhance understanding. Using this example, I might suggest similar means of integration in English, History, Spanish, and Math along with the countless Apps teachers are using or exploring now to facilitate this learning. Finally, we have not looked for “an established curriculum” for the iPad. Rather, we are focusing on how the challenging curriculum we already have in place can be enhanced through the use of this device. In addition to the numerous Apps teachers have at their disposal for deepening the curricular experience of students, plans for next year include having an English reference manual and novels on middle school student iPads as well as continuing the use of Algebra and History iPad textbooks by 8th graders. Teachers are also reviewing the use of iPad organizational tools, such as planners, calendars, and binders. More than anything else, students will use basic iPad tools in creative ways as they investigate, identify and solve problems, and demonstrate learning.
Question: Will teachers be trained on how to use the iPad? In August 2012, we gave each teacher an iPad for his/her personal and professional use. We put these devices into the hands of our instructional leaders for a full year before embarking upon our middle school 1:1 iPad initiative next year so that teachers would be comfortable with and conversant in their use. In addition, since August, we have offered weekly training sessions for faculty called “Tech Tuesdays” as a means of responding to their needs for integrating these tools into their teaching repertories. Teachers have been asking us to consider accelerating our adoption of the iPad initiatives we have had in PK, K, 4th, and 8th grades, so our efforts next year are in response to these requests.
Question: This move to 1:1 in the Middle School seems sudden. Why the rush? I might suggest that our rollout of iPads and, more generally, a 1:1 program within the School, has been far from sudden. Three years ago, we began iPad stations in both of our PK classrooms. Two years ago, we began 1:1 iPads with the 8th grade and extended our iPad stations into Kindergarten. This year we began 1:1 iPads with the 4th grade, added iPad and laptop carts throughout Lower and Middle Schools, and continued our 1:1 program in 8th grade for a second year. Our experience with and careful evaluation of these three years at these very different grade levels has told us that “closing the gap” between the remaining grades by providing 1:1 access to devices is best done in a single year. If you’re interested, you might compare our deliberate, thoughtful, three-year approach to that of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s proposal to “buy tablets, install wireless networks, and provide teacher training at 47 schools” for its 600,000 students in one year.
Question: Why not provide similar, school-issued devices as a way of providing control, consistency, and uniformity for all students? As noted above, we see “BYoT” as the ultimate destination of our technology program, as do many other schools and school systems throughout the country. Since students are certainly not uniform or homogenous in the ways they learn, this “Bring Your Own” environment allows them to use a device that fits their family situation and learning style. Schools like ours will help them become proficient with those devices to learn, create, and share their knowledge. When we ultimately reach this destination, we anticipate a future in which our classrooms are filled with many different types of devices. ”BYOiPad” is our necessary “first step” into this future. (As a caveat, any school will tell you that when a device with wireless capabilities leaves the school building—whether it is issued by the School or not—the School surrenders control over content, homogeneity, consistency, and uniformity to the student, family, and network(s) in whose care it is being taken.)
Question: What are the School’s plans for on-campus network controls and mobile device management? For the last four years, we have provided for multiple, separate networks for different functions. From every network, access to the Internet on campus will only be allowed through our content filter. While our filter, like every other filter, cannot keep 100 percent of objectionable material away from a determined student, it does provide a very effective screen. At the same time, we do plan to use mobile device management on all devices to provide access to secure networks and to propagate appropriate settings to all devices.
Courage: (noun) mental or moral strength to venture, persevere and withstand danger, fear or difficulty.
Today, the blog features the next one of our core values: courage. As a way of beginning, I’ll share this video clip from one of my favorite movies, The Wizard of Oz.
If the Cowardly Lion from this classic movie doesn’t speak to each of us about this elusive element of character, I don’t know who can. For those of us who respond better to the written word, here’s a transcript of what he says in the clip:
Courage. What makes a King out of a slave? Courage. What makes the flag on the mast to wave? Courage. What makes the elephant charge his tusk in the misty mist or the dusky dusk? What makes the muskrat guard his musk? Courage. What makes the Sphinx the 7th Wonder? Courage. What makes the dawn come up like THUNDER?! Courage. What makes the Hottentot so hot? What puts the "ape" in ape-ricot? What do they got that I ain't got? Courage.
To be sure, we have elevated courage to be something akin to what our friend the Lion speaks about . . . it’s something mammoth, something huge, something almost unattainable. Courage, we seem to believe, is reserved for those among us who are super-human. Being courageous is for “big” people in even “bigger” situations. Lesser lions need not apply.
Maybe not. If the video clip above and the text from the Lion’s speech show and articulate one version of courage, then this famous quote from Mark Twain offers a very different perspective: “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.” As much as I like my friend the Cowardly Lion (and as much as I identify with him!), I think I like Twain’s definition better.
If courage is really about resisting fear, then as a Kindergartener I can demonstrate that value every day when I’m trying to learn to read; as a fifth grader I can show it when I walk down the middle school hallway among bigger and more experienced kids; and as an eighth grader I can embody it during this season of high school admissions.
If courage is really about mastery of fear, then I can show it on the playground when someone is being unkind to me or one of my friends; I can show it as a member of the 8th grade musical when I’m asked to sing a solo on stage for the first time in my life; and I can surely show it as a member of an Odyssey of the Mind team when I’m given a problem to solve that I’ve never seen before.
When our faculty team brought back the core values this summer with courage among them, I was really excited because at its heart this core value is the best combination of Confidence in every Child (our institutional theme), developmentally appropriate risk taking (one of our founding objectives), and critical and creative thinking skills (our emerging focus in the classroom).
Maybe those are the differences between a cowardly lion and a courageous Panther . . .
(Note: What follows is a letter I sent out to our school community on Sunday, December 16, 2012, in response to the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut. Folks have asked that I put this in the blog, which I am humbled to do here.)
Perseverance: (noun) Steady persistence in a course of action, especially in spite of difficulties, obstacles, or discouragement.
It seems more than a little ironic to me that a school such as ours, located where we are, and attracting the clientele that we do would adopt perseverance as one of our core values. Rooted in the very things—adversity, difficulty, obstacles, and discouragement—that we seem desperate to protect this generation of children from, perseverance still stands the test of time, it would appear. Parents and teachers alike would tell you with great passion that it is a fundamental and foundational skill and that it is sorely lacking among our children.
If we’re honest, though, wouldn’t we say it’s pretty sorely lacking among ourselves as well?
October and November tend to be prime months for my own professional development, and early in October I attended the annual Elementary School Heads’ Association (ESHA) conference in Massachusetts. ESHA is an organization I have come to value because it focuses its programming squarely on issues related to students in schools like PS that end in the 8th grade. At this year’s meeting, we heard from Harvard psychologist Dr. Richard Weissbourd, who challenged us with his argument that our generation of parents is, to use his word, “imperiling” our children’s moral development. How, you might ask? According to Weissbourd (and others), our generation’s intense focus on our children’s happiness coupled with our desire to be “close” to them is at the expense of nurturing their morality in similarly sustained and intentional ways.
It seems that incessant praise for personal achievement in an effort to produce happiness in our children has supplanted the cultivation of work ethic, tenacity, and (yes) perseverance that may have helped characterize past generations. (See this clip from a recent movie for a painfully accurate—and hilarious—portrait of where we find ourselves today . . . how many similar “walls” are we building for our own children?)
As we contemplate our children’s moral development and the role that values like perseverance may play in it, we also need to look at the development of children’s brains under the influence of hard work, struggle, and even failure. Another meeting that I typically attend in the fall is the Learning and the Brain Conference co-sponsored by Harvard and MIT, which tends to coincide with the weekend before Thanksgiving.
In light of the focus on perseverance, it seemed fortuitous that one of this year’s keynote speakers was Dr. Daniel Ansari of the University of Western Ontario’s Human Psychology Department. In his talk on “The Numerate Brain,” Dr. Ansari spent a good deal of time discussing what he called “The Brain on Errors.” Among several physiological observations Dr. Ansari mentioned, these were the ones that stuck with me the most: (1) Errors are important for learning; (2) There is an observable phenomenon called “post-error slowing” that occurs in the brain when this learning is actually taking place; (3) Errors result in “adaptive responses” inside the brain, which are important for learning—but only if the brain is allowed to attend to the error; and most interestingly (4) The brain “really cares about errors,” which it finds “functionally important.”
Simply put, if we spend most of our time protecting our children from errors, from obstacles, from disappointments, and from hardship, we run the risk of stunting or, at the very least, hindering both their moral and brain development. There are several more studies that suggest these strong correlations between perseverance and achievement — not just very temporal academic success but improved quality of life beyond school. In other words, we just don’t have a choice about actively and intentionally cultivating the value of perseverance in our children . . . together.
With this in mind, here are some ideas from education blogger Kevin D. Washburn that we are mulling and hope will serve as models for our students as they grapple with perseverance. Perhaps there are some suggestions for parents here as well:
- Find more and more opportunities to make stories about struggle and eventual success the focus of class discussions. At the end of a science lab I led in 8th grade the other day, I shared this blog post about Abraham Lincoln; then the students and I talked about the similarities of Lincoln’s struggles and the work of scientists (and adolescents!).
- Direct students’ attention to the compelling connections between effort and results. I’ve talked and written a good bit about Carol Dweck’s well-documented research on Growth Mindsets. In this research Dweck found that teachers whose comments emphasized “effort-result relationships” (in other words, praising students for hard work rather than intelligence) saw their students learn up to 50% more than students of teachers who did not. How might we emulate this same approach in our parenting?
- Separate the strategy from the self. More and more research is telling us that our classrooms and our family rooms need to be places that welcome failure as learning's front door. We will succeed or fail at this depending on how we respond to the inevitable errors our children make. Shallow admonitions like, “Try harder” or “Put your thinking cap on,” need to shift to responses that will really re-focus students’ effort like this one from Dr. Robert Brooks, author of Raising Resilient Children, on my short list of excellent resources for today’s parents: “Your strategy doesn’t seem to be working. Let’s figure out why and how we can change it.”
I am generally not given to visions or conversations with God. To be sure, I offer my own prayers pretty regularly, but I usually see the responses to these prayers in the interactions I have with my fellow men and women rather than in a burning bush or a vast sea that parts in front of me. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t feel the least bit slighted by this reality; I look forward to my time with God and appreciate the responses no matter how small or subtle they may be.
However, this general pattern was altered about two months ago when, in the middle of the night after a two-day leadership retreat, I awoke with the following verses from Scripture flashing clearly in my mind: Matthew 4: 4-10. Now, I don’t know how you might react to a sudden vision from above, but I did what I thought was pretty natural . . . I tried to ignore it. That’s right, I rolled back over in my bed and tried to go back to sleep. But, you know the Lord does work in mysterious way, and in this instance the mystery was that I couldn’t really close my eyes, and I certainly couldn’t doze off.
So, I decided to get out my iPad—where I have a great Bible App, and I looked up Matthew 4:4-10, and here’s what it had to say (I will actually start with verse one so we have the whole story):
Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted[a] by the devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’[b]”5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6 “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: “‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’[c]” 7 Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’[d]” 8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9 “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me. 10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’[e]”
Wow, I thought to myself . . . Jesus being tempted in the desert. That’s pretty heavy. Naturally, I began to wonder what desert I was in that the Lord was warning me about and, of course, what the temptations in that desert were that I needed to resist. Needless to say, I couldn’t come up with any of this on my own, so I started to talk to people who might be able to help me out.
One of the first people I talked to was a good friend and pastor, who seemed pretty amazed by my story but was even more amazed to be able to walk over to his bookshelf, locate a very thin volume, and give it to me with this piece of advice: “Don’t try to avoid this anymore. Read this book, and let’s talk again.” The book is called In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership and takes as its text . . . are you ready for this . . . Matthew 4:4-10. Pretty amazing, I know.
As I read this book just a few weeks ago, it certainly made me think about my own role as a leader in this School, but it also made me think of other leaders I’ve met along the way in my life, particularly the veterans we honor today. Consider the three temptations laid out in the Scripture that the book identifies as the very same temptations that leaders today must face and then think about how veterans past and present likely respond to them.
Temptation One: BE RELEVANT . . . “Turn these stones to bread.”
As leaders, we all want to believe that we really mean something important to the world around us; that’s what “relevance” is. Well, Jesus responds to this temptation by saying to the devil that man doesn’t live on bread alone. In other words, Jesus risks irrelevance—in this case, hunger or even death—instead of taking the devil up on his offer. There are veterans among us who have responded to this temptation in the same way . . . the very idea of risking ones life for others is at the heart of the veteran’s commitment and is at the core of this temptation. If one is willing to risk his or her life for others, that person is willing to risk being irrelevant.
Temptation Two: BE SPECTACULAR . . . “Throw yourself down.”
The world wants its leaders to be handsome, beautiful, eloquent, photogenic, funny, capable, intelligent, caring, sensitive, and tough ALL THE TIME. In a word, we expect our leaders to be SPECTACULAR. I read an article from a presidential historian the other day that said some of our greatest presidents—like Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln—wouldn’t even be nominated for office today because they either weren’t good public speakers, they weren’t very good looking, or they weren’t all that sociable. In other words, they weren’t spectacular all the time. At the heart of this temptation is the need to be “individually heroic”—to do it all ourselves so that we can get all the glory and all the credit. Jesus responds to this temptation by saying, “Don’t put the Lord your God to the test,” which means, I think, that we should spend more time relying on God and on others rather than on relying on ourselves as we test Him. Think of the veteran again who is quick to point out his or her reliance on “the Corps” or “the Country” or “the Code” instead of merely on him or herself.
Temptation Three: BE POWERFUL . . . “All this can be yours.”
To be sure, this is the temptation that resonates the most with us, isn’t it? We see leaders as powerful, and some folks even want to become leaders so that they can soak up that power and revel in its apparent privileges. Why wouldn’t a leader be or want to be powerful? We say very often here that leadership is about ACTION and not POSITION. My sense is that when leaders become more interested in their position, they are becoming more interested in power. They fall into the trap of thinking that “it’s all about them” rather than about the people they have been called to lead. In short, they fall into the trap of worshiping themselves and their positions rather than worshiping God THROUGH their positions. Notice Jesus responds to this temptation by saying, “Worship the Lord your God and serve Him only.” The best leaders are those who want to take action to solve problems or right wrongs. They don’t really care if they’re the lowliest Private or the loftiest General; they see a need and they answer the call. My sense is that there are many veterans among us who have done just this.
So, today we recognize those singular leaders who have stepped out of their comfort zones to resist the temptations to be relevant, spectacular, or powerful in favor of being honorable servant leaders who hear the small and quiet voice of God challenging them to listen with empathy, intelligence, and awareness; to conceptualize solutions with foresight, understanding, and persuasion; and to build communities by growing others with humility.
As strange as this may sound, education can be a pretty lonely, even isolated, profession. Despite the fact that teachers are surrounded by their students from 8:00-3:00 each day, their interactions with adults, particularly colleagues, can be perfunctory at best. Hurriedly passing in the hallway between classes hardly offers time for professional collaboration that educators who are charged with shaping the leaders of tomorrow truly deserve.
While we are preparing our students to live in the dynamic, shrinking world, we need to model for them how disciplines interconnect and how to communicate effectively with those whose focus is different from their own. We need to model collaboration and communication for our students so that they will feel comfortable doing the same thing.
What if there were a way to provide productive collaboration to busy teachers that produced the sort of innovation and excitement that characterizes great teaching? What if the ever-growing landscape of social media could serve as the arena in which educators could find transformative collaboration?
At PS, social media allows this collaboration. As we actively watch others implement new ideas, we are just as actively shaping our own as well. Far from isolated and lonely, don’t you think?
Our social media outlets (primarily Facebook, Twitter, Faculty blogs, and Pinterest) are fast becoming the places where we share ideas. For example, Academic Dean, Janet Fox, has taken to Twitter almost daily to tweet about free and interesting apps for our students' (or parents') iPad use. EC/LS Head, Christy Heno, tweets links to articles with helpful tips such as How to Help Your Child Build Fine Motor Skills. Go to our Pinterest pages to find a recommended book to read, interactive websites for students, or even recommendations on what to do in Houston with your kids. We're also using social media to broadcast (as loudly as possible!) all of our current and former students' achievements.
Without a doubt, these are all avenues by which we as educators can connect with one another, but they are also the vehicles by which we are increasingly communicating with parents and other constituencies as well. In the “incredibly shrinking world,” we need to find the most authentic and efficient ways to give and get information—not only professionally but personally as well.
It is with this additional connection to pertinent information in mind that I am pleased to announce that our newest tool for efficient communication with parents is available! Our Presbyterian School iPhone and iPad app is now available for download in the App Store.
Many of our School’s parents attended a talk I gave this week featuring this presentation. At the heart of my remarks was the compelling story of how, over the course of the last three years, we have arrived at six “core values” that we will begin to use with our students and with our community over the course of this year. More than the beginnings of a “character education” program, these core values really do, in my mind at least, articulate who we are and how we seek to “influence” the culture in which our children are growing up.
That culture, or climate as the presentation calls it, proves to be a tough nut to crack these days. We (and our children) live in what author Kevin Ford has called the “Experience Economy,” where the same cup of coffee our grandparents bought for three cents is now five dollars and three cents and where “build to suit” has supplanted “built to last.” Ford suggests that this culture challenges us to pay top dollar for an “experience” the more thrilling, daring, provocative, or entertaining it might be. Hence the rise of info-tainment, religio-tainment, and (yes) edu-tainment.
We have to influence this climate, I believe, because along with the “tasks” we assign our children, these are the two most significant “variables” that influence learning. Cognitive psychologists and brain researchers alike cite these two forces—tasks and climate—as the essential variables that will predict most significantly whether our children will advance through their formative years with any “formation” at all. These same scientists tell us that the tasks we assign our kids have to have clarity, relevance, and the opportunity for success while, at the same time, the climates in which we assign them have to be comfortable, accepting, and safe. Schools tend to be pretty good with tasks—they are, after all, part of the expectation we all have of what will happen as a result of the school day. Tasks to elicit and reinforce learned content and skills are dutifully mastered under the watchful eyes of teachers during the school day, and then our sons and daughters are sent home with additional tasks to accomplish just as dutifully after the school day is over. While we are always evolving in our thinking about the nature, frequency, or importance of these tasks, I think we can all agree that they are necessary and that our children need to take them seriously.
A similar level of agreement is not always possible when it comes to climate, which is why establishing norms like mission statements and core values are so important for institutions like ours.
At the heart of the climate that we are trying to build and reinforce here at PS are what I am going to call our three core beliefs and our six core values. First the beliefs. We proudly tout our mission and say with equal pride that it is “countercultural” in the best sense of that word. “Family, School, and Church United in the Education and Support of Each Child” has been essential to the ethos of this School since it was founded and will continue to describe what we do every day far into the future. It runs counter to a world climate in which the three institutions it mentions—the Family, the School, and the Church—have regularly and tragically failed to support or educate children for a very long time. At the heart of this mission is the core belief of trust—that is, there is an implicit trust that exists in the bond that unites us, and there is an explicit trust that exists in the aspiration that we can work together for the sake and advancement of our children. We believe in a climate and a culture rooted in trust.
Evidence of our second core belief comes from one of the ten objectives of the School written, like the mission statement, at our founding: “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.” Risk is at the heart of education. If we are willing to let our children (and ourselves) stretch and push then, along the way, we will come to appreciate that, by accepting the challenges of going too far—to paraphrase T.S. Eliot—we discover how very far we can go. We believe in a climate and a culture that embraces and encourages taking developmentally appropriate risks.
Finally, our third core belief is more a philosophy than a value: earnestly striving for our personal best each and every time we encounter a task or a challenge or a struggle will produce more lasting results than trying to be the “best of the best” every time out. We believe that this commitment to “be our best” is supported by our theme line of Confidence in every Child and is exemplified poignantly in the philosophy statement on the home page of our Athletics website: “Our singular focus in athletics reflects the same growth mindset that we espouse in our classrooms and is elicited by these two simple questions: (1) Did I give my absolute best for my team today? (2) Am I getting better every time I lace up my shoes, my cleats, or my spikes? As a Panther, maximum effort and constant improvement make winning and losing irrelevant.” We believe in a climate and a culture that promotes each child’s personal best.
These core beliefs promote a school climate that we hope is preparing the child for the path rather than preparing the path for the child. “Helicopter” parents have given way to “lawnmower” parents in a culture that seeks to prevent hardship, adversity, or even mild discomfort from cluttering the paths our children tread toward adulthood. To be sure, the motivation behind preparing the path for the child is the sincere desire on the parts of my generation of parents to provide better lives for our children than the ones we had. However, if we are honest with ourselves—and I include myself in the “lawnmower” cult—by eliminating from our children’s lives any chance for failure, we simultaneously eliminate the chance to learn, grow, or assert the all-important autonomy we hope they achieve prior to having children of their own. By fostering a climate that is rooted in trust, that embraces risk, and that seeks personal best, we believe the partnership we have with parents will prepare their children very well for the many paths they will encounter in their lives.
As we have become more adept at understanding and articulating these fundamental beliefs, our institutional core values have presented themselves very naturally. At our concluding full faculty meeting last year, we presented our teachers with an enlarged version of our window logo and a list of sixteen values accompanied by passages from Scripture. With these in hand and separated in diverse groups, faculty were asked to complete a simple task: fill the panes of the window with those words and Scriptures representing what they felt were the core values of the School. The only caveat at the beginning of the exercise was that the half-circle pane at the base and center of the window needed to house the central core value of the institution. What resulted was, very simply, the most productive and engaging faculty meeting I’ve been a part of during my career in education. Faculty and staff alike took the task of identifying our climate very seriously and, at the end of two hours, asked very sincerely to have more time to create something excellent and authentic.
We identified a group of folks who would work over the summer, and after meeting several times here is what they developed:
It’s not surprising that respect forms the “core” of our window. The motto of the School (“As children of God at Presbyterian School, we respect ourselves, each other, and the environment.”) is focused on respect, while at the same time the climate our children are coming of age in lacks this fundamental attribute more and more each day. “Yes, sir” and “Yes, ma’am” have been replaced by “Uh-huh” and “Yeah” in classrooms, on athletic fields, and at homes throughout our community representing a very small metaphor of the slippery slope that we in education are loath to slide down.
Over the course of this year and into the future, we will work with more intent and purpose to focus our culture and our children’s interaction with it on this central tenet of respect. At the same time, we will use the other five values to support and extend our respect-based climate. Teachers and advisers have all received windows to hang in their classrooms. They are using the months of August and September to define respect with their students and to incorporate the words by pointing out respectful behavior. During the rest of this year, at each monthly faculty meeting, we will introduce the next core value from the window. Together as a faculty and staff, we will define these values and brainstorm activities around them. We feel that the collective creativity will result in the best ideas for implementation. We appreciate your partnership and welcome your feedback.
Every year we have an essential question that serves as a theme for the work we do together all year long. This year’s question has a difficult word in it: influence. It’s a pretty difficult word for the adults in our midst, so I can only imagine how tough it must be for our Kindergarteners and First Graders as well. It seems like a good idea to try to get a better understanding of this word influence and, at the same time, challenge ourselves to see its importance in our lives.
Let’s start with some definitions. Of course, a good place to start with definitions is the dictionary, so here’s what good old Mr. Webster has to say about our tough word: Influence (noun) . . . the capacity or power of persons or things to be a compelling force on the actions, behavior, and opinions of others.
We begin with an understanding that our influence is a powerful force not only in our lives, but in the lives of those around us. What if I told you that this force can take on two unexpectedly simple forms—forms that each and every one of us can exert each and every day here at Presbyterian School and in the larger world? From the youngest and smallest Kindergartener to the biggest and tallest eighth grader; from the first-year teacher to the veteran teacher; yes, even from the parent to the grandparent . . . all of us can be an influence through our willingness to listen as well as our desire to work hard.
First, let’s talk about listening . . .
Matthew 4:18-22 . . . Influence through Listening to God and Others: As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. "Come, follow me," Jesus said, "and I will send you out to fish for people." At once they left their nets and followed him. Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him. (Matthew 4:18-22 NIV)
My grandmother used to tell me there was a reason God gave us two ears and one mouth . . . we’re supposed to listen at least twice as much as we talk. Now, you talk to anybody who knows me, and they’ll tell you that this task is a challenge for me. I love to talk and do it all the time—even in my sleep, according to my wife. What would have happened, though, if the Disciples had been yakking away in their boats so loudly that they didn’t hear Christ’s quiet plea for them to join Him in His mission to “fish for people,” or, for our purposes, influence the world?
I think what’s really behind Christ’s question to these men to drop their nets and follow him is an invitation to influence more than just the fish in the sea . . . to become a part of the powerful force that He was about to unleash upon an unexpecting world . . . a powerful force, an influence that is still at work in that world today, more than 2000 years after he lived.
What’s the lesson? Well, all the Disciples had to do to become a part of this influence was to listen. How are we doing with this task today? Are you like me and having a tough time quieting yourselves so that the little whispers of your friends, your parents, your teachers, or even God can come through to have a powerful and forceful influence in your lives? Influence by and through listening . . .
Next, let’s talk about hard work.
Newton's Cradle . . . Influence through Hard Work
You may not realize it, but there’s a LOT of hard work going on in the five little balls in these illustrations and this description. If you keep reading the link, you'll find out more than you ever wanted to know about the contraption called "Newton’s Cradle," but in the interest of your time, here is a shorter summary from that link about the science—the physics—behind what it’s doing:
Newton's cradle, named after Sir Isaac Newton, is a device that demonstrates conservation of momentum and energy via a series of swinging spheres. When one ball on the end is lifted and released, the resulting force travels through the line and pushes the last ball upward, as it acquires most of the velocity, momentum, and energy from the first ball. The impact produces a shock wave that propagates through the intermediate balls. Intrigue is provided by starting more than one ball in motion.
Aside from being pretty amazing to watch, what’s going on in the Cradle is really important for our conversation about influence. You see, that little ball on the end has power and force, and it is influencing the ball on the very far end as it bumps into the ball next to it. In fact, the ball on the very end is getting ALL the power and force of the first ball . . . it has to . . . it’s a scientific law, as far as I (an old English teacher) can understand it. Pretty cool, huh? Now get this . . . if I were to take two balls and lift and release them, two balls on the opposite end would be influenced to move as well. Mind-boggling, I know . . .
What’s the lesson? We ought to be working just as hard as these little balls to transfer all our power and force into those around us. Notice that this power and force can be exerted individually or in pairs and groups. (Remember, it’s a scientific law.) Too often, though, the influence we are transferring isn’t positive or uplifting or, frankly, good . . . is it?
Here’s our challenge: What could happen if we worked really hard this year to transfer the best power and force that’s in us to act as an equally powerful and forceful influence on others? According to SCIENCE, this influence will produce a shock wave in the people around us and it will produce intrigue (in other words, people will want to know more about it) if you can get more folks involved . . . influence through hard work.
As it turns out, this year’s essential question and the challenge it implies is actually deceptively simple: find ways to influence others by listening and by working hard. I will be interested to see how all of us answer this question . . . and meet this challenge this year.
Choose groups to clone to: