Simon Says…

Happy Listening: My Top 5 Podcasts of 2016

Happy Listening: My Top 5 Podcasts of 2016

I love to learn and to find evermore podcasts that keep me laughing, sometimes crying, sometimes scratching my head, but always learning. Happy Holidays and happy listening. I hope you enjoy some of these favorites from the past year:

Bowdoin College in Maine and Vassar College in upstate New York are roughly the same size. They compete for the same students. Both have long traditions of academic excellence. But one of those schools is trying hard to close the gap between rich and poor in American society—and paying a high price for its effort. The other is making that problem worse—and reaping rewards as a result.

NPR’s How I Built This: Airbnb’s Joe Gebbia:
A chance encounter with a stranger gave Joe Gebbia an idea to help pay his rent. That idea turned into Airbnb — a company that now has more rooms than the biggest hotel chain in the world.

Stanford Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders: Entrepreneurship Strengthens a Nation 
Retired serial entrepreneur Steve Blank, creator of the “Lean LaunchPad” methodology for startups, discusses Silicon Valley’s roots as the epicenter of electronic warfare in the mid-20th century and how the region’s innovation ecosystem formed.

Harvard Business Review IdeaCast 525: How Focusing on Content Leads the Media Astray
Bharat Anand, author of The Content Trap and professor at Harvard Business School, talks about the strategic challenges facing digital businesses, and explains how he and his colleagues wrestled with them when designing HBX, the school’s online learning platform.

WNYC/Freakonomics Radio: Ten Ideas to Make Politics Less Rotten
We Americans may love our democracy, at least in theory, but at the moment our feelings toward the federal government lie somewhere between disdain and hatred. Which electoral and political ideas should be killed off to make way for a saner system?

Bonus episode:

WNYC/Freakonomics Radio: The Longest Long Shot   
When the uncelebrated Leicester City Football Club won the English Premier League, it wasn’t just the biggest underdog story in recent history. It was a sign of changing economics — and that other impossible, wonderful events might be lurking just around the corner.

Safety First

It occurred to me this week that we as a nation are confused and unclear about the rules relating to violent speech in our society. At what point is an offhand remark or figure of speech heard as something more menacing? Could an impulsively composed social media comment be perceived as discriminatory and threatening? When might a well-intentioned joke become an ugly slur, or even hate speech?

I don’t have to think about violence much: I’m a tall man, surrounded by people who mostly look like me, in an occupation that is quite safe. However, considering the diverse circumstances of students around the world today—and the equally diverse environments in which they are learning—my experience of safety puts me in the minority. I’m increasingly thankful for this safety, as violent deeds and words seem to be ascendant these days. And the lines that should delineate them are becoming blurred with equal frequency.

This matters in several ways, some self-evident and some less so. Let’s get the obvious out of the way: being subject to verbal violence and the consequent fear for one’s safety—at home, at school, at work, or in one’s neighborhood—is uncomfortable at best and frightening at worst. And the ramifications related to learning are sizable. Simply put, it’s hard to learn anything when you fear for your very well-being. The energy required to learn is siphoned off into worry, anxiety, and apprehension. Immediate survival trumps learning new information about calculus or chemistry any day of the week.

The proposition that fearing for one’s personal safety impairs the ability to learn is weak fodder for debate. But I would add that there is an economic argument for getting clear about violent language. Our nation’s economic well-being, no less than our psychic well-being, is at stake.

In the long term, economic growth relies on increasing worker productivity. Hamper people from developing their full potential and you limit achievement. Safe boundaries are imperative if we are to realize the growth of human capital that necessarily precedes economic prosperity. If a group of educators and economists were to hammer out an estimate on that cost, I’d bet it would run to the billions of dollars each year.

Violent speech is harmful all across the entire educational and economic landscape, whether it takes place in the classroom, the playing field, the factory floor, or the office break room. Addressing it requires clear, definitive, and enforceable standards of behavior, and those of us who claim to be the leaders of others should be held accountable for defining and upholding those boundaries.

As we enter the season of thankfulness and giving, consider a gift to your fellow people: stand up for nonviolent speech and give the gift of less fear. Also, give the gift of courage to others who are in fear.

Be an ally.

3 Things All High School Students Should Know (and why)

We often hear about how swiftly evolving technology is transforming the acquisition of knowledge in our schools. However, though the modes of acquiring information may change rapidly, the essential knowledge that high school students should possess is fairly timeless.

  1. How to communicate. Beyond simply parroting a rehearsed message, students must consider their audience’s needs as well as their own intentions for what to communicate, and then figure out the best channel for that communication. Technology quickly alters those channels, so schools need to keep a vigilant eye on what’s new, and adopt and adapt in proportion to the needs of their students. Project-based learning requires more intensive and more intricate levels of communication among students than traditional modes of learning, making it one of the best ways to help students sharpen their communication skills.
  2. How to form research questions. With information scarcity no longer an obstacle for most U.S. students, all learners must know how to direct their curiosity into actionable questions. Research protocols like The Big Six and others give clear and repeatable structure to inquiry, allowing students to make question design and formation a habit rather than a whole new endeavor each time their curiosity bubbles up.
  3. How to ask for help. Too many adults assume that students’ digital nativeness equates to expertise with all technology, and too many students are led to believe the same. I don’t meet many teens who can harness the power of spreadsheets, however. Adults need to ensure that schools are places where asking for help is encouraged, instead of being an impediment to covering the next content chunk. Students need to consider that adults actually do know things of value to them. Adults facilitate that attitude by listening well to them and helping each student understand that their independence springs from adults who help them build that capability by stepping over one stumbling block at a time.
Please comment and share your experiences with these and other essential learning skills.

On Turning 50

My most recent post… was the 50th since I began Simon Says… in 2013. It was also one of the most well-read posts, and seemed to strike a chord for many readers.

I thought I would celebrate this milestone by pausing to gather reader feedback. Please take a minute to answer a brief survey and share what you’ve liked abut the blog, what you want to read more of, and any other comments you might have.It has been a joy for me to build this blog over the years since becoming Head of School. I love getting people involved and want to connect everyone to Darrow and to the world of education. Your feedback is crucial to that effort.

Take the survey

Best wishes,




Is This Blog Post a Microaggression?

Recently, a close friend who is a college professor told me about a study group she was in with some of her colleagues. The group was interested in learning about the Millennial generation, and one of the sub-topics was microaggressions.

My friend was generally familiar with the term, but not aware its genesis and fine points. Thinking it a valid question to pose to a group of fellow academics, she asked, “Does anyone know the academic definition of microaggression?” The response surprised her. Several of the professors became rigid and agitated. One suggested, by inference, that asking the definition of the word was itself a microaggression. My friend was floored, both embarrassed and also shocked that among some of her colleagues the question made her seem socially insensitive, or something worse.

Now, this friend is a feminist, someone who doesn’t doubt the existence of microaggressions, and who believes that it is the job of each member of a particular demographic group to educate themselves—as well as others who share it—about that privilege. I would say the same of myself. And yet, this event suggests some paradoxical questions: If members of a privileged group have a duty to educate themselves about their privilege (and I believe they do), how can they do so without necessarily invoking it?  How can it be that our educational environment today is such that one cannot, in the spirit of genuine inquiry, admit a gap in one’s knowledge or ask for help in developing one’s own understanding without putting oneself at risk?

These are sensitive questions to ask, and as the leader of a heterogeneous educational community of people who live, work, study, and play together, it is literally my job to help figure out and address an answer. I need to make the space that we share one in which a truly diverse community can learn about microaggressions and ask questions of them safely. Smaller, tight-knit communities should be able to do this more easily than larger, more anonymous ones, and I’m glad for being a part of the former. I’ve got a few ideas on the subject; foremost among them, I believe that people need to start by giving, instead of withdrawing, the benefit of the doubt, and assume good intent on the part of the inquirer. The complex world we are making each day demands that we find ways to hold open, genuine conversations in which both parties recognize the intentions and limitations of the other.

I know there is more to do and I ask your help in that effort. Please send me suggestions and share your comments, either in the space below or with me personally at

Addendum: As I researched this term, which I assumed was relatively new since it has emerged into mainstream discourse in the past five to 10 years, I found (and here am knowingly and publicly outing myself as less than fully informed) that the term is about as old as I am, a product of the early 1970s. This is one of several things I have learned today.

Dick Nunley: Loving Tough Guy

There are some teachers who are beloved for being fun, some for being funny, and others for just being tough. As I have heard from the former students of Dick Nunley, he falls squarely in that last camp. According to the guys (recall that Darrow was a boys school in the 1960s), “He made you grow up very quickly.” “He instilled a work ethic, he made you work, and work, and work. No soft As or even soft Bs came from Mr. Nunley. He did not seem to be motivated by his students liking him, but rather by upholding the standards of his discipline.” For that solid core he is remembered, and above all respected.

Several alumni—including lawyers, businessmen, and bankers—credit him with playing an instrumental role in their career development and successes. Many also say he had a strong sense of humor and cared for them. He was generous with his time, spending it as each individual required to help them improve their writing, just not in a warm and fuzzy way.

This sort of teaching is increasingly rare in a world where teachers are taught to project relentless hyper-positivity to their students in virtually all situations, an approach that strikes me as a disservice in some cases. Positivity is important, but so is the truth. Mr. Nunley would never lie to a young man by telling him he could do something he couldn’t, or by inflating his sense of accomplishment just for its own sake. For that, he served as a model of balanced appraisal, because in the end not everyone earns the proverbial gold star.

Darrow was fortunate to have had such an extraordinary educator, who served as a teacher from 1957 to 1970 and as a trustee from 1993 to 2003, retiring from that position just a few years before I arrived on the Mountainside. I wish I’d had the chance to meet Mr. Nunley. If I had, I would have saluted his direct, forthright technique and thanked him for keeping his standards high in the service of true education.

Note: A memorial celebration of Dick Nunley’s life will be held at the Tannery on Saturday, July 30, at 2:00 p.m. If you would like to attend, please RSVP online at or contact Diana at

Getting Things Done, One-to-One

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Head of School Simon Holzapfel and Class of 2016 Student Body President Ross Matican.

School leaders are always looking for ways to use their time more effectively, to actually get done the things that matter most. One way in which I accomplished that in the recently concluded school year was through weekly one-to-one meetings with Darrow’s Student Body President Ross Matican ’16. Having that regular check-in allowed me to do several things that would have been much harder otherwise.

The first tangible accomplishment was launching a new and much sought-after student snack bar, in a way that was truly student-led and organized. Another benefit came following a student protest in April. Being able to meet with Ross allowed me to directly influence how the event was processed, resulting in a new dress code proposal, as well as several other ideas for the coming year. Without a well established and open line of communication, I would have been operating in the dark, and would have had a much harder time responding constructively to the issues our students raised. Finally, as a teacher, the meetings allowed me to directly mentor a young leader in how to use his time effectively to create change.

In reflecting on the experience, I asked Ross how he felt about his meeting time with me during his term. Here’s what he said: “Through our weekly meetings, I learned first-hand that change is a truly collaborative effort. I also realized that there is no better way to become a leader than to be mentored by a leader.”

What Ross helped me learn this year is that the value of that interaction can be just as great as any of the others I have each week. Thanks for that, Ross. And to Zion ’17, who will be next year’s Student Body President, I look forward to keeping the momentum going with you. School leadership needs to be as comprehensive and inclusive as possible. That won’t happen unless students are part of the equation.