I am often asked if Pike is a progressive or traditional school, and I have always struggled to come up with an easy answer. As part of our strategic planning process last year, our consultant, Ian Symmonds, shared a video with us that was thought-provoking. It began on what looked to be a warm, sunny day in a public space. All of a sudden, one person began dancing wildly while others looked on. After some period of time, a few others joined in and, soon after that, everyone was dancing. He said that he believed the real change agent was not that first person but, rather, the next group that considered its options before joining in. Their thoughtful response is what made others become part of the experience. This week, I was interviewing a candidate for a technology position at Pike. She was here for half a day, and I asked her one of my standard questions, “What observations do you have to make about Pike after your time here?” She said that she was very impressed with the thoughtful process we used to evaluate the possibilities of the iPad program we have adopted. She shared that in schools where she has worked before, they have hurried to be the first one to the dance and that the result was often not what anyone had hoped for. She went on to say that she appreciated the way faculty members had been consulted in the process of making the decision, all of which made her very excited to consider coming to Pike.
We are having an all-school forum in two weeks entitled, “Innovation at Pike”. We will be following up on last fall’s presentation of initiatives that we were undertaking as part of our strategic plan. I began that presentation by saying that there was more going on this year at Pike than in any year I can recall in my nineteen-year tenure. I will not catalogue all those changes here, but it did get me thinking about changes at Pike in recent memory. Here is a link to a document that will give you a taste of what has changed. I do believe that it is difficult to say we are either traditional or progressive, because we are both. Our mission statement and the attached values have remained consistent and guide much of what we do. We regularly talk about independent learners and responsible citizens, and as a result, as we plan our program, our commitment to teaching our students to know themselves as learners and helping them acquire the skills they will need to succeed has not changed. At the same time, we know that the world is changing all the time and that we need to react to those changes. Therefore, we evaluate our curriculum regularly to be sure it is up to date. We adopted the Professional Learning Community model to put less focus on what we are teaching and more emphasis on what our students are learning. We have created committees on Diversity, Technology, and Sustainability to create a roadmap for where we want to go. We benchmark ourselves against the finest elementary schools in the country to be sure we are doing all we can to serve our students.
I know that I am biased, but I believe Pike is an exceptional blend of the tried and true and the best of the new. We can be proud of all that has happened at Pike since Cynthia began with those first graders on her porch in 1926. I look forward to speaking with you about where we are headed at our forum on April 17.
by Mr. John Waters
on Thursday March 28 at 03:13PM
It is always nice to find a book that confirms some deep-seated belief one already holds. Recently, I read Dr. Michael Thompson’s Homesick and Happy: How Time Away from Parents Can Help a Child Grow, his examination of the world of the now old-school sleepover camp. As a nine-year-old in 1962, I was put on a plane by my parents in Buffalo, New York, as the first leg of a journey that ended with my spending eight weeks at Camp Winona in Bridgton, Maine, a trip I made every summer until I was thirty years old. I have always felt that, except for my family, my camp experience as a camper, counselor, and unit director is more responsible for the person I have become than any other part of my life. Dr. Thompson’s fascinating book helped me to see more clearly why that is so.
I have used this space over time to comment on the challenges of parenting today. There is more information about parenting strategies available to us today than at any point in history, and yet, speaking for myself, it is amazing how often I find myself wondering if I am doing enough or too much (the happy medium often feels elusive). Dr. Thompson writes, “Research tells us that college-educated mothers are spending much more direct face time with their children than they used to, from eleven to twenty-one hours per week, almost double the number of hours that was typical 25 years ago and parents are reading about parenting much more.” As you read that quote, what was your reaction? “Good for us,” or “those darn helicopter parents?”
The basic premise of Homesick and Happy is that much of our most important learning comes when we are away from our parents. I can still vividly remember being nine years old on a canoe trip on the Saco River, setting up a tarp over a canoe to provide shelter from the rain (but not the MOSQUITOES!) and preparing our meal, realizing I had done it all without a parent within hundreds of miles. I cannot overstate the importance of that lesson in my life. Dr. Thompson asks an interesting question of his audiences that I want you to answer. “What was the sweetest moment of your childhood?” He encourages the listener not to overthink the question and assures him or her that an answer will come to mind. He then asks people to raise their hands if their parents were present in that moment, and says that in almost all audiences, roughly 80% will say their parents were not present. An initial reaction for a parent to this percentage might be to feel discouraged or even insulted. However, he explains that often the memory has to do with feeling grown up or independent, and parents can make that possible or, conversely, can deny that experience by being omnipresent.
One often hears people say that we cannot give our children the freedom we had in our youth because the world is a more dangerous place. Statistics show that violent crime is actually less common today, but technology allows us to know intimate details of every one of those crimes, and that information leads to stress for us. The key is to not let that concern paralyze us and cause us to keep our children in isolation. The joy of summer camp is that children can be on their own in a safe environment to gain that sense of independence I found on the Saco River.
I know not all of us are ready to send our children off for eight weeks at the ripe old age of nine (my wife went at eight!). There is no one path to independence, but as parents, we need to look for some path for our children. I have seen Pike students miss sports practice because their parent did not pack the right gear in their bag. I think children can take on that responsibility at a fairly young age, and the good news is that if they make a mistake, the consequences are fairly minor, and they do a better job next time. It is one of the reasons we build overnight trips to Merrowvista, the AMC huts in the White Mountains, and Chewonki into our program. I want to end by thanking my parents for having the courage to put me on that plane. While the tears in my eyes during some spells of homesickness may have kept me from seeing it at the time, they had given me a gift that I continued to open for the rest of my life.
by Mr. John Waters
on Wednesday January 23 at 10:54AM
We live in a data-driven era. Technology has given us the possibility to sift through more data in five minutes than our ancestors could have considered in a lifetime. Many of those in government who are championing educational reform have turned to tests like the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) to quantify progress being made. At schools like Pike, many families become very concerned about standardized tests like the SSAT, as their children consider applying to secondary schools. So, how important are these tests, and what do they really tell us?
I admit to being a long-time skeptic of fill-in-the-bubble tests. Multiple-choice tests tend to ask for specific data and are not as effective at determining whether children understand more abstract concepts. It is difficult to write multiple-choice questions that are not overly specific or misleading. Also, by citing specific percentiles to describe a child’s performance, these tests can create the illusion of scientific precision that even the designers of the tests say is not accurate. Yet, it would be wrong to state that the tests have no validity or value. They do give us an outside standard against which to measure our students and their progress, and we do review the results of standardized tests each year to see if there are areas where our students have not performed as well as we might have predicted. While there might not be a statistically significant difference between students who are ten percentile points apart, there are certainly differences between students at opposite ends of the spectrum of students being tested.
Fairly regularly, there are articles citing how poorly American students fare in standardized testing (e.g. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-12-11/u-s-schoolchildren-lag-asian-peers-on-academic-tests.html ). Even though such studies can look like they are presenting irrefutable facts and are comparing apples to apples, there are always questions that should be asked, such as, “What type of thinking do these tests call for, and what groups of students are taking the test?” For instance, in many countries, weaker students are weeded out of the system early on, which is not the case in the US. Also, I find it interesting that Asian families are often trying to get their children into American schools despite these scores. On an exchange to China that I was part of several years ago, it was clear to me that there was a real interest by Chinese educators to learn more about how American schools fostered creativity in its students. Are standardized tests assessing a student’s ability to crunch numbers, or to use that data to come up with new hypotheses? This question is one of the reasons Pike has joined with twenty other independent elementary schools from around the country and the Educational Testing Service to design an assessment that looks at teamwork, creativity, ethics, resilience, time management, and curiosity. It has been a fascinating experience, and we are still in the design phase. Can a standardized test measure these areas? We will see.
As far as how parents of children applying to secondary schools should view standardized tests, there are no simple answers. Do the scores play a role in the admission process? Yes. Are they the determining factor? No. So, how seriously should they be taken? Should we hire a SSAT tutor? As you can see, there may be more questions than answers. You may have heard that there has been some concern from some of our peer schools on the North Shore that variations in this year’s test have resulted in lower scores than those schools would have expected from some of their students. We have talked to the Director of the SSATB, Heather Hoerle, about this year’s results, and here is part of her response:
“The 2012-13 standard test data are demonstrating the expected bell curves for each administration this year, which means our tests are doing exactly what they are designed to do – perform at the .50 level, with an average difficulty of 50%. Practical use of our test scores depends on interpretation of the data over time, and in introducing new SSAT forms this year, we have equated back to performance on prior forms.”
While the overall data have been consistent, we did see individual drops for some students from their seventh grade numbers. It is important to remember that they move to a different level of the test from seventh to eighth grade. Another variable is the fact that our students are adolescents, which by definition means they are in a period of their lives when their behavior and performance can be erratic. I have been speaking with secondary school admission directors, and they have assured me that they will continue to look at all the data, rather than any one grade or test score, in an attempt to understand the whole child. I can tell you from years of experience that these admission officers are real experts at what they do and are truly looking at strengths more than deficits. Therefore, what about the questions at the start of the paragraph? The scores are a factor, not the factor. Test preparation can help ease a student’s mind and give him or her strategies, but our students have done well with and without that preparation. I advise families to talk with their very able secondary school advisors as they make that decision for their child.
Standardized testing has been with us for a very long time and will be here for years to come. It does provide some information and can raise interesting and important questions. The challenge as I see it is to not let the tests become an end in themselves, which can then distract us from our primary task of educating our children in a much broader context than any multiple choice test can ever assess.
by Mr. John Waters
on Wednesday December 12, 2012 at 02:22PM
Three years ago, a well-known school cut its professional development budget in half as they sought to deal with budget issues. On the other hand, The Pike School has always done a wonderful job over the years of investing in its faculty through professional development and has given it a prominent place in our new strategic plan. Some might ask if there is a measurable benefit for the resources invested in professional development. I want to share some thoughts I had after attending the annual Elementary School Heads Association conference this week as evidence for the value of professional development.
Most of my focus will be on the formal sessions, but I would be remiss if I did not mention the value of having time to talk informally with colleagues. The Head of School position can be a relatively solitary one in that there are often times when decisions need to be made and since all members of the community could be impacted by the decision, a head may find it hard to find someone with whom to discuss the situation. I spent quite a bit of time giving and getting advice on a range of topics from succession planning to issues of discipline to managing strategic plans. I am confident that these conversations will be helpful and the people with whom I talked will be valuable resources in the future.
The keynote presentation was given by John Hunter, a fourth grade public school teacher from Virginia. I encourage you to watch his Ted talk at http://youtu.be/0_UTgoPUTLQ. Our strategic plan talks a great deal about 21st century skills and here is an amazing example of how one teacher has empowered his students to consider real world problems and to think critically and creatively about how to solve them. I spoke to Mr. Hunter after his presentation and told him that wearing my hat as an eighth grade teacher, I found his work intimidating. He is a very modest man, but I told him that many see him as an exceptionally gifted teacher and worry that we could never be able to create something as amazing as his World Peace game. He reminded me that he has worked on this project for 34 years, that it started as a simple board game and that it is only a small part of his work (90 minutes a week for 8 weeks). He said that the larger themes of never underestimating the abilities of our students and replacing the concept of the sage on the stage (teacher as deliverer of information) with teacher as coach who challenges students to be independent learners are applicable to all of us. As I think about my own teaching and the teaching of our faculty, I believe we have been on this journey. Mr. Hunter’s presentation re-energized me to continue this work both as a teacher and as a supervisor of teachers, and I believe that direction will benefit our students.
The other major speaker was Richard Weissbourd, a child and family psychologist who is on the faculty of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and School of Education. He is the author of The Parents We Mean To Be: How Well-Intentioned AdultsUndermine Children’s Moral and Emotional Development and The Vulnerable Child: What really Hurts America’s Children and What We Can Do About it. In his research, he has spoken to many children and gained an interesting perspective. 65% of the children interviewed said they would rather be happy than good. 40% of them said that they believed their parents valued achievement more than good character. Weissbourd believes that we have promoted happiness as a primary good more than at any time in history. For most of our history, we saw suffering and taking on the problems of others as a way to be good. By trying to eliminate adversity in children’s lives, we can be denying them happiness down the road. Are we raising children who are too focused on themselves and their own needs and feelings at the exclusion of others? He believes the primary goal of parenting should not be happiness or self-esteem of our children but rather their maturity and morality. Maturity includes the ability to balance and coordinate our needs with those of others and the ability to see their perspective – Non Sibi Solum indeed!
The other area he addressed he called achievement stress. He described a father and son playing catch where the father praised every good throw and catch and said nice try on the misses. That constant assessment meant his son learned that every action is assessed which can cause stress. He cited statistics to show that children in communities like Pike suffer from elevated depression and anxiety, and he believes that much of that comes from this achievement stress. My wife and I spent our walk to school discussing the question “Is a B an acceptable grade?” We all want our children to do as well as possible, but what message are we sending by making every assessment a high stakes event? We do see more children suffering from school anxiety than was once the case. Could it be they need a break from feeling every action will be evaluated and need to be improved? Finally, he asked us to consider the true motivation behind our parental desires to help our children excel. Is it for their well-being or our own desire to be proud of our children? These are hard and even painful questions, and they have no simple answers. We cannot simply stand back and ignore our responsibilities as parents and yet neither should we create a climate that results in children who are emotionally unhealthy.
So, why professional development? To give educators the time to reflect on large and important topics in a way that may not be possible amidst the normal day that is full of planning and executing lessons, assessing the results of those lessons, planning with colleagues, meeting with parents, covering duties like recess and study hall and more. I should be reflecting on the issues mentioned above and considering how as a teacher and a Head of School to be more effective in my work.
by Mr. John Waters
on Tuesday November 27, 2012 at 11:05AM
Keep track of the responses you get from the next ten adults you meet when you ask them how they are. My experience tells me that well more than half will lead off with how busy, tired or stressed they are feeling. Even people returning from amazing vacations will start by talking about how worried they are about all they have to do as a result of being on vacation. It seems as if that we need to be sure we are at least as stressed as our peers to be sure we have something in common. I have heard of colleges that are hiring rescue dogs to come to the library to help ease the stress of students as they prepare for exams by petting the cute animals. Do we live in a more stressful age and should we spend more time finding ways to eliminate stress?
In his book, Brain Rules, John Medina cites the work of Jeansok Kim and David Diamond to define stress. They say stress must result in a physiological response that can be measured by an outsider, must be perceived as something to be avoided (vacation?), and the person involved must not feel in control of the stressor. Medina goes on to describe how stress has changed over the centuries for mankind. In the early years, man's stressors were related to survival and were more immediate. Just avoiding becoming the prey of other animals, finding enough food and water, and staying warm were of primary concern. Medina says, "Consequently, our stress responses were shaped to solve problems that lasted not for years but for seconds. They were primarily designed to get our muscles moving as quickly as possible, usually out of harm's way". In our society, most of these more basic needs have been met. Therefore, how well suited are we to dealing with the more long term stresses of modern day life?
Spending time trying to find ways to eliminate stress from our lives and the lives of our children is not time well spent in my opinion, as we cannot foresee many events and trends that may result in more stress in our future. Rather, we would be well served to better understand the causes of true stress and find better ways to deal with it. Medina cites the work of scientist Bruce McEwen who believes that "...stress, left alone, is neither harmful nor toxic. Whether stress becomes damaging is the result of a complex interaction between the outside world and our psychological capacity to manage the stress". I believe we can help our children deal with stress more effectively. We can teach them be able to differentiate between real stressors and mere discomfort. Recently, the Secondary School Admission Test Board surveyed secondary school students about the college admission process. One of them was quoted as saying, "The application process was sheer torture. It's one of the hardest things I've ever had to do in my life". While there is no denying the process can create anxiety, I would argue that if this event is almost too much to bear, that child has a great deal in his/her life for which to be grateful. We should remind them of their many blessings. Also, we can remind them that often they hold the key to easing a stressful situation by keeping things in perspective. Fortunately, we do not often have to face the life and death stressors that early man did. Finally, we can set a good example by reminding ourselves of these lessons. Recently, during a visit to the dentist, the assistant asked me how I was doing. I had just enjoyed an hour of hockey with some Pike students and Hall of Famer Ray Borque of the Boston Bruins that had been a delight. My answer to her was "Fantastic". She was visibly taken aback, probably expecting the more typical harried response I described at the start of this entry. Perhaps if more of us took that tack, we could help each other and our children have a more positive experience.
by Mr. John Waters
on Tuesday November 27, 2012 at 08:35AM
Approximately ten years ago, we changed the Pike mission statement, “The Pike School seeks to develop in its students a life-long love of learning, respect for others, the joy of physical activity and a creative spirit” by replacing the “in its students” with “within its community." The reason for that change was that we believed all members of our community were working on those traits. Two recent events highlighted that commitment.
Two weeks ago, our Lower School Learning Specialist, Trish Faro, gave a presentation to the Lower School faculty entitled “ELL Learners: Language Difference or Language Disorder?” She began by citing some interesting statistics: according to the 2010 U.S. Census, during the first decade of this century, the Hispanic population increased by 43% and the Asian population also grew by 43%, while the non-Hispanic white population grew by 5.7%. Another fascinating fact was that 30% of the children in our Lower School today speak and/or hear another language at home. Those languages include Greek, Hindi, Tamil, Chinese, Spanish, Haitian Creole, German, Korean, Kikulu, Telugu, Gujarati, Japanese, and Polish--quite a remarkable list. The point of the presentation was that as educators we need to be aware of this changing landscape and work to understand what these developments mean for our teaching. I will not try to give a thorough summary of Trish’s presentation, but she raised many fascinating questions and started a dialogue about where we might go from here. She cited research to show that we must be thoughtful about what and how we teach these children, for if we are not, it can have a negative impact on their fluency in both languages. As a result of the presentation, the faculty are keen to better understand this issue. Trish did suggest a few next steps, such as: • Becoming better able to assess whether a child’s delay in language is due to an ELL issue or a true language disorder • Formulating strategies to use in the classroom to increase an ELL child’s knowledge and confidence in English • Accumulating websites to develop English vocabulary and enhance the child’s native language • Setting up a lending library for children’s use in the Lower School with books written in other languages We plan to have Trish present her findings to the Middle and Upper School faculties to help them be better aware of these important ideas. As a school, we want to be sure we understand the unique needs of each child so we can best meet his or her needs.
Another example of adult life-long learning was the half day of training the Administrative Team received from Christine Savini of Diversity Directions about effective hiring practices. I have often said that no part of my job is more important than hiring, for if we have success in that area, almost every other area of the school will thrive. One theme that has emerged from our Strategic Planning process is that a primary strength of Pike is the quality of our faculty. We need to maintain that quality while striving to have a teaching force that better matches the diversity found in our student body. While we can be proud of the results of our hiring in the past, it became clear fairly early in our training that we would benefit from a more formal process that would be put in writing. Also, we discussed creating a broader list of places to post openings in order to attract a more diverse pool of candidates. Another idea was to have us keep better records of each search, so that we can examine trends over time and learn from previous searches. We then went through a case study Christine created for an article she wrote for the 2010 issue of Independent School, the official magazine of the National Association of Independent Schools. The article was titled “Bias Among the Well-Intentioned: How It Can Affect the Hiring Process,” and it looked at a situation based on reality that has happened in many schools. It was a reminder that even those who are very committed to diversity may have blind spots as the result of life’s experiences of which they are. It can often play out as being more “comfortable” with some candidates than others for reasons that are hard to define. The case study also highlighted the importance of moving fast enough so as not to lose good candidates but also to not rush into a decision that might lead to regrets later. As we are doing more hiring than usual this year at Pike, the timing of the workshop could not have been better. I believe our decisions this year will be positively influenced by this work.
I feel most fortunate to work in a school and a profession that is devoted to life-long learning, for that dedication allows us to strive to always improve upon the work we are doing today, and I believe our children benefit from our commitment.
by Mr. John Waters
on Tuesday November 27, 2012 at 08:35AM
As I write this, I am at the National Association of Independent School's annual conference in Seattle. Every year, I wrestle with whether or not to leave Pike to come to conferences like this. I worry about untaught classes, email piling up, meetings that need to be rescheduled and more, and yet, here I am. WHY? Our mission statement says, "The Pike School seeks to develop within its community a life-long love of learning..." because we think teachers and parents need to continue to learn, particularly as we live in a world that changes faster than ever before. This conference has helped me think about many important topics.
We began the day by hearing from Bill Gates who spoke of the impact he sees technology having on education. In a letter, he wrote, "Innovation is the means and equity is its end goal." I love his commitment to use technology and his own passion and resources to make the world a better place for all people. It was inspirational to hear him talk about the primary importance of education in building a better world. He attended Lakeside School, an independent school in Seattle, and told us that since he never graduated from Harvard, Lakeside is the only time he graduated from a school. He credited his teachers with allowing him to follow his passions which did not happen in college and challenged us to be wise enough to know when to push our students and when to allow them to follow their own path. He was asked what skills he believes our students today need. He said that they will need to be able to use the latest technologies to wade through torrents of data to find what is truly relevant. Also, he said we need to help them be life-long learners as they have access to limitless possibilities to become more informed from searching for a quick fact to taking a six hour online course to master some new skill. He reassured many in attendance that person to person contact is often the best method to connect, but the tools we have today do allow us to build connections that were once impossible. Finally, he encouraged us to find ways to let teachers have the time to do more collaboration and research to build ever stronger programs for children.
Next, I heard Soraya Darabi, another independent school graduate, who began her career as a manager of digital partnerships at The New York Times and now leads a mobile application called Foodspotting and reports on online communities for ABC News. She described her life path as a digital native and how her experience could inform our work in schools. She said schools should engage with social media to stay relevant, foster a culture of innovation and participation, increase the internal digital literacy of school communities, and to create positive brand awareness. She was asked about the tension in schools between our desire to have our children read and write in depth and the shortening attention spans of children who have grown up in a Twitter world of 140 characters or less. She did not have time to answer that question, but I do believe we need to think more about that issue. She apologized for making us sit through a 45 minute presentation after saying the best practice model we should follow are the popular TedTalks which are limited to 3 to 13 minutes. Should schools change to adapt to this trend or should we be counter-cultural and help our students be able to read a longer piece or write a paper that would not fit onto Twitter? Food for thought.
The final speaker of the day was Dr. John Medina, member of the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine and author of Brain Rules. He began by acknowledging that much of the press around the new understanding of the way the brain works is hogwash and he went on to say, " I am skeptical that neuroscience has much to say to teachers, because we do not really know that much about how the brain works in a way that lets us pick up a glass of water." He said his talk would be about two of his rules, one having to do with exploration and the other about the impact of stress on the brain. Dr. Medina proved that humans are natural explorers, displaying at infancy an ability to acquire information through a series of corrected ideas by telling us that studies have shown that a 42 MINUTE old infant will mimic a parent who sticks his/her tongue out at a child. This natural tendency reminded me of a visit of the editor of Scientific American to my school more than 20 years ago. He chided our science teachers for taking natural explorers and draining them of their curiosity by having them do lots of memorizing of ideas like Moh's scale of hardness. It reminded me also of Bill Gates saying this morning that sometimes we as teachers need to get out of the way to let children be their naturally curious selves. The second part of his talk showed us how stress can cause literal brain damage by explaining the chemical processes involved. He cited research that shows that one of the greatest predictors of academic success is emotional stability at home. Introducing a new baby into the home can lessen the emotional stability of that home. He believes that by giving parents counseling before the birth of the baby, one can increase the emotional stability of the home which can in turn have a positive impact on the child's developing nervous system. Even more food for thought.
I am fortunate to have the opportunity to be able to hear such interesting and thought provoking speakers and look forward to talking about what this information could mean for our community as we strive to serve our children and families as well as possible.
by Mr. John Waters
on Tuesday November 27, 2012 at 08:35AM
Our Parent Association will be showing a film called “Race to Nowhere” on Tuesday, May 22nd to members of the Pike community and the larger public. It has become quite a popular documentary that has been shown to parent groups all over the country. You can learn about the film and the many initiatives connected to it by going to www.racetonowhere.com. From having read reviews of the film, I knew that the main idea was that we are raising a generation of children who are stressed out to the point of depression and even suicide. As you know from our effort to have our community read Wendy Mogel’s The Blessings of a B-, we are concerned that our students are growing up in a much different climate than some of us might remember where there are more expectations and commitments and less time for children to explore on their own and find ways to entertain themselves. Therefore, I was surprised at my reactions to “Race to Nowhere.”
The movie relies on testimonials and case studies from many students and parents to tell its story. Many of the students (who seem to be mostly of high school age) describe a relentless onslaught of hours upon hours of homework, athletic and artistic commitments, and adults who do not seem to understand the toll of these expectations. A particularly poignant moment is the commentary of a mother whose daughter committed suicide despite having seemed to be successful and well adjusted. It is a haunting section of the film and raises the level of parental anxiety we all have for the well-being of our children. Are we expecting too much or not enough? Are we being too strict or too lenient? Are we giving them the appropriate amount of autonomy or are we failing to meet our parental responsibilities? The director of the film makes a strong case for giving children more time to create, daydream, play, and spend time with friends by ratcheting back our expectations. If they are given less homework, have fewer tests and instead have more ongoing assessments and belong to fewer teams, clubs or groups, then they will enjoy school more which could lend itself to more effective long-term learning. What do you think?
I have come to believe that when looking for a solution, the best place to start is often somewhere in the middle. Are there children who are drowning in a sea of expectations and at real risk? Certainly. Their stories are the most powerful and the ones that stick in our minds. However, my experience tells me that those stories are often very complicated and can represent the exception rather than the rule. We rarely find one plan that serves the needs of all children. I fear as a society that we have come to define stress as a negative in all circumstances. The reality is that stress is an important part of life as is learning to cope with it. Too often as a parent and teacher, I have let the tears of a student or child of my own spur me to action to make things better. I am certain there were more than a few occasions where those children would have been better served by letting them learn that they were capable of finding a solution to the stressful situation they were facing.
This film has done the public a big service by continuing the centuries-old dialogue about how to best raise our young people. I believe that some of them do need relief from the stresses in their lives while others could use more challenges than they currently face. The ability to make those decisions effectively is a big part of the reason I have always been an advocate of independent school education. By combining committed and talented teachers with relatively small classes and advisor/anchor groups with caring and supportive parents, we have the wonderful opportunity to view each child as an individual and tailor their program accordingly.
by Mr. John Waters
on Tuesday November 27, 2012 at 08:34AM
Recently, someone forwarded me an interesting article about an NPR interview of Paul Tough, the author of a new book entitled: How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character. (http://www.npr.org/2012/09/04/160258240/children-succeed-with-character-not-test-scores). Mr. Tough is the author of Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America, which was published in 2008. He is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine, where he has written extensively about education, child development, and poverty. His journalism has also appeared in the New Yorker and GQ and on the public-radio program “This American Life.”
In the New York Time Book Review, Annie Murphy Paul praises Tough's book. "Most Americans subscribe to what Tough calls the "cognitive hypothesis" - that success is driven primarily by the kind of intelligence that's measured by I.Q. tests- brainy skills like recognizing letters and words, detecting patterns and performing calculations. Tough believes in the "character hypothesis" - that success depends more on noncognitive skills like persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit, and self-confidence." Because we agree with Mr. Tough, we continue to work with other leading independent schools and the Educational Testing Service to develop an assessment instrument for those noncognitive skills. So, how can we help develop those skills?
Mr. Tough says that when children are very young, we need to give them all the love we can. There is no such thing as too much support or nurturing in the early years. Mr. Tough writes of his three-year-old son and says he knows there is a time coming when he, as a parent, will need to step back. "But now I really find myself wrestling with this question of how to make this transition into standing back more, and giving him more challenge and letting him fall down — sometimes quite literally — and skin his knee and not pick him up and let him pick himself up." As parents, we know that he is right and that we will need to step back. Then, why is it so easy for many of us to become the "snowplow parents" I have written about before, who feel the need to clear our children’s paths of the stress and pain that we know can be found on that road?
In the interview, Mr. Tough does not go into the specifics of how one moves from nurturing a child to helping that child become independent. It is not as simple as being there for them all the time, until a certain age, and then simply stepping away to let them become independent. My experience tells me that even with my adult children (ages 22, 26, and 28), there will still be times when I may need to be there for them in challenging situations. In fact, I assume my 82 year old father feels the same way about my brother, sister and me. How can we distinguish between the times when we are fulfilling our parental responsibilities and the times when we are enabling our children rather than letting them forge their own destinies? I do think our unconditional love for our children and the challenging times in which we live often make us mistake the latter for the former. I would suggest that if we are on the fence about whether or not to step in, we should err on the side of letting our children try their wings. Also, I believe the concept I was once taught of survivable falls comes into play here. I would not let my child play next to an open third floor window for obvious reasons, but I might let him/her climb a tree to a certain height, even though some risk could be involved. We live in an era where we are bombarded with news of every possible situation going wrong. My concern is that if we make all of our parental decisions based on worst possible outcomes, our children's lives will be diminished and made less meaningful.
I know how difficult these decisions can be, and they can feel even scarier and more momentous as our children get older and the stakes increase. Yet, if we have empowered them to take responsibility for their own journeys and taught them the value of persistence and hard work, we have given them the steering wheel of their own life, and I believe their chances for success and happiness are even greater than if we always have our hands on the wheel.
by Mr. John Waters
on Tuesday November 27, 2012 at 08:33AM