Simon Says…

Contempt Fasting

Contempt Fasting

The more I think about what’s wrong with our current political moment, the more I believe that we are awash in contempt. It saturates our news media and our civc discourse, to the point where otherwise reasonable individuals are willing to embrace absurd concepts and ideologies if doing so will irritate those with opposing opinions. In fact, people actually seem hungry for it. After all, contempt has an addictive appeal, a sort of junk food of emotions that delivers an easy, quick jolt of endorphins but ultimately leaves you undernourished, unsatisfied, and looking for more. The more one indulges the addiction the more likely one is to transfer that contempt from the idea that incited it to the person expressing it, eventually questioning their right to hold it and, in extreme cases, their basic humanity. In that way, contempt hardens into hatred.

There are many ways in which contempt is bad for us and our relationships. As an educator and the leader of a school that aims to graduate students who are empathetic and compassionate, I see contempt as especially damaging in an educational setting because “empathy and contempt are polar opposites.” A natural skepticism is part of a healthy learning process, but not when we permit its expression as cynicism or derision.

In addition to damaging our school environments, contempt is harming the fabric of our democracy. I use the word “fabric” deliberately because a fabric’s durability comes from the collective strength of its individual threads. Contempt isolates people, breeding apathy and disengagement, two qualities we also don’t need more of.

So, in this month of giving thanks, I’m contempt fasting. My goal is to listen for utterances of contempt from others, and scan my own thoughts and actions for the same. I’m hoping that, as the weeks roll by, I’ll experience an outcome similar to the one I had when I deliberately and gradually reduced my sugar intake each day. The less I consumed, the less I wanted to consume. I believe contempt fasting will create more connection, a stronger sense of team and purpose, a sense that positivity is what makes us stronger, and that we’re all humans worthy of respect just by virtue of being fellow members of our species.

I want to inspire others to consider contempt fasting. Our schools certainly depend on that and our democracy probably does, too.

Simon Says… is a regular blog by Simon Holzapfel, Head of School at Darrow. Learn more about active curriculum and project-based learning at

Read Simon Holzapfel’s bio.

Place Your Bets

I’m reading more lately about the increasing challenges, even struggles, young people are encountering in making successful transitions to the working world after high school and college. Often the trouble can be traced to a lack of preparation in “soft” skills like nonlinear problem-solving, adaptability to rapid change, and the ability to collaborate and communicate effectively.

For parents who are now making decisions about the schools their children will attend, those educational choices are not unlike placing bets on their children’s future. Smart bettors employ careful deliberation of the many factors that can tilt the odds in their favor.

Consideration 1: Without a doubt, independent schools offer students the best chance of beating those odds and preparing to become not only lifelong learners, but also capable and effective problem-solvers and leaders. Unfortunately many of these schools have done a poor job of countering the public’s misperception that an independent school education is financially out of reach. It isn’t. Like Darrow, many of these schools make it their mission to serve a socioeconomically diverse student body, including people from all backgrounds. Our success stories are filled with testimonials from accomplished alumni who say they never could have imagined attending an independent school.

Consideration 2: This is not to imply that other educational options—such as charter, magnet and public schools—are not valid choices. I attended public schools through 12th grade and was served well enough, despite a learning difference that went undiagnosed until college. The fact that some people will have alternatives that others do not shouldn’t preclude a careful examination of some essential questions:

  • Do we want our children’s post-educational success to be rooted in the memorization and regurgitation of facts presented in a rigid framework?
  • Do we want to bet on education that models working and thinking alone most of the time?
  • Do we want to prize obedience, reticence, and self-consciousness as important behaviors in achieving goals?

My wife and I make sacrifices each year so that we can place a different bet. We bet on interactivity, creativity, and real-world connection as the force multipliers of education. We bet against the AP culture because we don’t see any workplace set up like an AP class. At Darrow, we bet on inspiration, engagement, problem-solving, self-motivation, and agency.

These are smart bets with highly favorable odds.

Seeing Red

I was halfway through college when I was diagnosed with a condition known at the time as auditory dyslexia. Believed to be caused by an impairment in the neural processing of auditory information, it is characterized by difficulty processing the basic sounds of language, letters, and groups of letters, resulting in slow and labored reading. It was my Spanish professor who suggested I get tested after she noticed an odd disconnect between my level of effort and my achievement. Luckily, the Mayo Clinic was nearby and my family income qualified me for free educational testing, which I undertook gladly, driven as I am by a curiosity to understand performance.

I was surprised when the results came back, having never imagined that I had any learning differences. But the surprise faded quickly and was replaced by a wave of relief, a phenomenon that educational psychologists called demystification, which occurs when a person’s unique neurology is made plain to them and then suddenly their education experiences make a lot more sense. I now understood why learning languages, math included, had been such a chore for me. I understood why I read slowly. I also hypothesized about the blessing it offered me, imagining that, somehow, the dyslexia was also responsible for outstanding scores in reading comprehension and writing that placed me at the graduate school level, though I had no evidence to support that notion.

I didn’t much care at the time, nor since, because I understood that the dyslexia was hard-wired into my nervous system. I was less concerned about cause and effect, and more preoccupied with learning how to make adjustments. Just knowing that there was a reason for my subjective experience as a learner was all I needed. I didn’t pursue any of the accommodations the testing suggested because I didn’t feel like I needed to. I continued as a history major because it stoked my enthusiasm, the massive reading load be damned.

Jump forward 25 years. When I learned that October is Dyslexia Awareness Month, and that one can show support for the event by wearing red, I was thrilled. I hopped online to buy a red tie when I found none in my quiver of neckwear. For the rest of this month, I’ll be sporting red proudly to acknowledge the struggles and victories we dyslexics have experienced, both those who are aware of their diagnosis and, just as importantly, the undiagnosed.

I am particularly proud of Darrow School’s history of helping dyslexic students achieve genuine and hard-earned success, as they realize the sense of accomplishment that comes from celebrating their wins. One of those students came to the Mountainside in the late 1940s, having been expelled from another boarding school for failing most of his exams. Although dyslexia wasn’t well understood in those days, the student found here a place that accepted his learning difficulties and discovered a way to help him overcome them. Charles “Pete” Conrad, Class of 1949, graduated from Darrow, went on to study aeronautical engineering at Princeton, became a U.S. Navy fighter pilot, and was the third man to walk on the moon as part of NASA’s Apollo 12 mission.

I’d love to hear the stories of those close to you who have learning differences to hear how they embraces theirs. Please leave a comment below or email me at

How to Embrace the Messy Middle

Q: When is a classroom project not a real project?
A: When the teacher disallows the existence of a “messy middle” in the course of a project.

Q: What is the messy middle?
A: The messy middle is the time in the project when you are truly stumped, when students hit a wall of uncertainty about how to proceed. It my not last long, perhaps just a few minutes. Or, it could potentially eat up large amounts of time that should be used to move the project forward.

Q: How much time should the messy middle take up?
A: If the messy middle is too long and big, most of us will be tempted to just throw up our hands and walk away. The teacher’s job is to manage the messy middle and intervene before students surrender.

Q: How can teachers actively manage the messy middle?
A: By telling students to expect it and to label it as an encouraging sign that the learning they are doing is truly authentic. Teachers need to anticipate the messy middle and have a sense of each student’s tolerance for it, allowing it to be larger for some students than others.

Q: What is a project without a messy middle?
A: A project without a messy middle leaves little room for discovery. Like life itself, authentic project-based learning can’t be 100% pre-scripted. The unexpected should always be expected because, as we all do, students will face uncertainties, surprises, and shifts in everything they do. This might take the form of a small part on a prototype that simply won’t work or a major paradigm shift in a foundational concept that drastically alters assumptions. Plans fluctuate. Malfunctions occur. Strategies fail. Events unfold. Adapting to unanticipated change requires practice, and there is no better way to practice that than in the smaller, bite-sized pieces that come from real project-based learning.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

Much of what I learned about teaching came from my father. In 2014, he was recognized by the Vermont Council on the Humanities as Teacher of the Year in the Humanities. More than a generation of students passed through his classroom, and many were deeply inspired and transformed by their time with him. He was one of those teachers who communicated deep caring and high standards simultaneously.

Sometimes those messages were paired with an inside joke, sometimes they were delivered at a moment in which a kind word was all that was needed to keep a student carrying on with a tough task. Among those who were fortunate enough to spend time with him were the daughters of Paul LeBlanc, who was then President of Marlboro College, and who has profoundly transformed Southern New Hampshire University over the past 15 years.

Knowing Paul’s reputation for effective change-making and visionary leadership, I visited him at his office in Manchester last week. What I saw was breathtaking: deeply purpose-designed spaces and technology that enables human interaction and speaks to young people on their own terms. The trip was transformative for me, echoing what I imagine Paul’s daughters experienced in my dad’s classroom. I walked away seeing a different landscape, a better future.

There is something to be said for paying it forward. I suppose our future depends on it. I certainly look forward to providing those opportunities for the students I work with each day, and I’m grateful for the giants who have made time for me over the years.

A Compass to Point the Way

Each new school year arrives like welcome waves of energy, potential, and promise: new students, new staff, new program, and new community chemistry. That wave of transformation brings with it new problems to be solved. Orienting ourselves to all that newness can be overwhelming sometimes, but the effort to adapt is what allows educators to turn promise into something tangible and valuable.

Last week, Darrow’s faculty spent two days working with educational innovator Garrett Mason of Leadership + Design learning how to use a valuable form of compass, the Innovators’ Compass. The tool is simple and easy to use. The insights it yields are sometimes complex, sometimes simple, and always useful. As a way to stay oriented and work with others to keep the organization oriented, it’s hard to beat.

If you are feeling overwhelmed by waves of change and seeking a way to find direction and balance, give it a try. And to all the school folks out there, happy new year!

Riding Without a Chain


A few years ago, I watched this thrilling and inspiring video of Aaron Gwin winning a World Cup downhill mountain bike race without a chain. He won because he was able to conserve momentum and speed, braking just enough to stay upright.

Although this is not a strategy to pursue deliberately in competition, I’ve started something similar when I ride my bike on local trails and I like what that practice is doing for me off the bike.

Organizations fight hard to create and maintain momentum, just like on the trail. With the constraint of having gravity as your only source of propulsion on the bike, you think more about where you really have to slow down and where it’s simply more comfortable. You think more carefully about risk. You have to be a bit bolder, too. Those same attributes are useful in leadership.

When you don’t have the equivalent of pedaling to move your organization forward, you look for ways to reduce friction and turbulence in the team. You look for “free speed” by shouting out good behavior and strong performance. Friction within the organization feels more costly, too, and so the impulse to call out bad behavior is also strengthened, which is a good thing.

Obviously it would be unwise to push this analogy too far. Get a corner wrong on the trail and you step off your bike, no big deal. It’s usually a low-cost mistake. Mistakes in an organization can be more expensive, and faster.

In the end, this illustrates something designers have long known: that introducing constraints can support what’s best in a school or any organization that is trying to do good in the world with more boldness, vision, and impact.

From PBL to the Ivy League

As I enjoy some vacation time away from the Mountainside, I wanted to share this inspiring story about one how one student’s experience with a project-based learning curriculum in a small-school setting prepared her superbly for the competitive academics of an Ivy League college.

Darrow provides a similar type of hands-on, interdisciplinary, design-focused education in an engaged community of creative thinkers and global citizens. You can read more about Darrow’s active curriculum on our website. Be sure to watch the video, too!

I invite your comments and questions, and encourage you to share stories like these with anyone interested in discovering more about active learning. I hope you enjoy the rest of your summer and are as eager as I am to begin the new school year.

Overcoming the Threat

“Where would I find enough leather
to cover the entire surface of the earth?
But with leather soles beneath my feet,
it’s as if the whole world has been covered.”

― Śāntideva

This Buddhist saying crosses my mind often as I think about the things that need fixing in the world and how that might actually be done. One of those things that needs fixing is stereotype threat.

It is a real thing.

Stereotype threat is a phenomenon in which performance in academic contexts can be harmed by the awareness that one is being prejudged by racial or gender stereotypes. For example, in research, women who were asked to note their gender prior to taking a standardized math test scored significantly lower in comparison to their male counterparts and to women taking the same test who were not asked to indicate their gender.

Stereotype threat is wide and deep and could be experienced by the majority of humanity, but it is not necessarily inevitable or immutable. Of course, the best world is one in which stereotype threat doesn’t exist but we don’t live there (yet) and probably won’t in my lifetime. I try to blunt its effects as I work with a wide range of people in my community. And yet it remains.

So what’s to be done?

Carol Dweck offers the “growth mindset” as a readily available antidote to stereotype threat. The growth mindset is an intervention that is free and durable. If people can see intellectual capabilities as mutable and improvable, that is their best available inoculation against stereotype threat. Other researchers question the validity of teaching that intelligence is malleable and workable.

Although stereotypes will always be with us, the most important step we can take now is to ensure that learning takes place in a zone that is as judgment-free, equitable, and unbiased as possible.

Additional reading:

Poke Your Cocoon

I’ve been reading a great deal lately about the unhealthy ingredients in our media diets. Customized and personalized algorithms have made it far too easy for us to select only the news and information that supports our preconceived beliefs and opinions. Few would limit themselves to just one source of nutrition, but when it comes to media we frequently do just that; restricting ourselves to a steady stream of homogenous content that reinforces (and re-reinforces) itself to the point where we eventually become wrapped in a media cocoon, a safe and comfortable echo chamber that is impervious to the marketplace of diverse ideas upon which democracy depends.

So, if you think the above might apply to you, what should you do? Here’s something I did that took three minutes and makes me happier every day. I signed up for a single morning email from both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Each day I get two divergent perspectives from journalists whose credentials and objectivity I trust; journalists and editors who, like all of us, have personal beliefs and opinions but also have a longstanding commitment to facts and truth.

In that way I poke my cocoon each day. It’s easy. Is it revolutionizing my world? No. Is it something that keeps me thinking more broadly each day? Absolutely. And that is the most important first step for all of us who care about the future of rational discourse.

I hope you will join me in poking that cocoon.