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.
I think it’s safe to say that most Americans see education as an investment in the future. Although it has been argued that public education has not always delivered results commensurate with spending, particularly in relation to other countries, reducing that investment without targeting overall systemic improvements seems like a short-term gain for a long-term loss.
Economists tell us that productivity growth over time is what helps people rise from poverty, and is also what creates general economic health within a country. Regardless of one’s political affiliation, the education plan released by the current administration doesn’t appear to be a strong investment in our future.
This is not to say the whole plan is bad. Simplifying the student loan repayment system, for example, seems logical and overdue. That the plan also wants to cut public service loan forgiveness will certainly reduce incentives for public-minded people to serve in that sector, and I’m not sure what good is served by that choice.
I’ll be interested to see what Congress does with the proposal.
The plan’s impact on independent schools seems unclear. It’s possible that with further erosion of public education, more people will stretch to make an independent education work financially. The “private school choice program” in the Trump plan has yet to provide details sufficient to predict its impact.
What is certain is that the qualities and strengths of independent schools will only become more important over the years. Truly student-centered teaching, real problem solving, and opportunities to expand creativity across multiple dimensions of one’s education are what many independent schools do best, and more and more of us are striving to make it affordable.
Darrow’s last four faculty meetings of the school year are focused on those students who have been nominated by their teachers for academic and leadership awards. The award criteria are shared in advance and teachers are encouraged to nominate students who they believe are most deserving. At the meetings, they are invited to speak in support of their nominees.
Each year, this springtime process leaves me feeling energized and amazed. My amazement comes from hearing dozens of anecdotes about students who are so much more in possession of their voices and bodies as athletes, scholars, and leaders than I ever was in high school; but overshadowing that amazement is realizing how far they have come in just a few short years.
This year’s crop of nominees included a number of students who, when they first arrived at Darrow, did not remotely seem like the people they would become:
- the intellectually gifted but deeply self-conscious student who found her voice and confidence on the stage and in the classroom;
- the reticent freshman who could barely make eye contact in her first weeks on the Mountainside, yet became an admired core leader, team captain, and familiar community presence;
- the student with a significant learning difference who, by force of will, set the standard at the top of her class (and is known to never grub a grade);
- the resentful boy who seemed lost in his first days and now models tolerance, openness, and a sense of self that shines through in every conversation.
Serving a school that truly transforms lives so deeply and consistently is, of course, thrilling [and frequently exhausting]. As the school year rolls on, it sometimes becomes easy to take those transformations for granted as they are happening. Then, as the lilacs and tulips are blossoming and we start thinking about Commencement, this gratifying tradition comes along.
There is a sense of joy in watching a specific combination of ingredients—academic challenge, genuine caring, leadership opportunities, and a healthy community culture—coalesce to build confident, engaged, young adults, no matter the challenges or odds they faced when they enrolled. Get the right adults, the right pedagogy, and the right culture and you take students beyond what they or their parents had imagined possible.
Schools are increasingly pursuing a wider range of learning goals for their students, which is a good thing (mostly). They are trying to bring more so-called “21st-century skills” into their curriculum, at a time when those skills are increasingly valued and rare in the world.
However, hours dedicated to learning 21st-century skills create a time crunch unless less one of two things happen: less time is spent somewhere else in the school’s schedule, or the traditional content delivery has 21st-century skills so seamlessly built into it that it doesn’t diminish the rate of knowledge acquisition of the traditional content. The latter option amounts to wishful thinking, for the most part, because it’s hard to focus on two cognitive operations or tasks at once. The dream of essentially doubling the value of instructional time (sidestepping the time tradeoff of traditional content and 21st-century skills) will go unrealized most of the time.
Schools will have to do what all of us have do with our limited time resource: make a deliberate, strategic, and hard choice about what will most influence future success. We need to look at our mission and our values and the promises we make to stakeholders. We need to allocate time bravely, putting it where it will have the most impact down the road. That’s going to be hard, especially for schools who have traditionally used “academic rigor” as the core of their value proposition.
If you know of a school that is navigating the content conundrum well, please let me know so I can learn from them.
(Head of School Simon Holzapfel is currently on a three-week tour of Asia and has invited Darrow teacher and mentor Michael Glovsky to be the guest blogger for Simon Says…)
by Michael Glovsky
Now in my fifth year at Darrow, I am a dedicated member of the Academic Mentorship Program. Mentorship is an often misunderstood area of our academic program; some people think it’s just for help on homework, others think it’s only helpful for those struggling academically. But when mentoring is done well, it is so much more.
Inspired by poet Taylor Mali’s well known work, “What Teachers Make”, I’d love to take a moment to channel my inner Mali and describe for you just what mentors are capable of making.
What do mentors make?
Mentors make a connection. You meet a student in their first session. Maybe you’ve worked with them somewhere before, maybe you haven’t. Either way, you now have an opportunity to develop a close, long-lasting relationship. It is slow at first; maybe they aren’t very talkative. Maybe they think they have “nothing to work on.” But very, very gradually you start to chip away. In microscopic, barely-registering moments, you gain their trust. It starts with a single math problem, or a homework plan, or how you both love Led Zeppelin. (C’mon, who doesn’t?) After that, they are slightly less opposed to reviewing their upcoming homework assignments with you. Perhaps they even allow you to look through the feedback they received on a recent paper, and together you plan how they will redraft.
Mentors make a safe space. You now have a good relationship with this student. They come to you even when they aren’t scheduled. They bring problems to you, seek your advice. So now what can you make? An impact.
Mentors make an impact:
- We make topics understandable.
- We make feedback clearer.
- We make daunting, nebulous assignments feel doable.
- We make kids who worry they can’t do anything, feel they can do everything.
So what do mentors really make? We make a difference.
I devoted the first half of this week to joining a team of nine other New York independent school teachers and administrators doing the best sort of professional development I know—an accreditation at New York City’s Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School (LREI), a pre-K through 12 Progressive school. We arrived Sunday afternoon and spent all our waking hours sitting in classes and talking to students, parents, staff, faculty, administrators, and trustees in order to see if the school’s self-study matched what we were observing. (Darrow went through a similar process in 2014, receiving its reaccreditation from the New York State Association of Independent Schools.)
I drew strength from spending hours in deep observation and conversation at a school that lives its mission to the fullest, from seeing how much Progressive education creates wonder and curiosity in students, and from meeting teachers who are as alive with possibility and energy as their pupils. Independent schools that commit to this sort of self-examination and peer scrutiny deserve recognition and support for competing against a free option, and for literally being worth it to families of every socioeconomic class, all of whom have to sacrifice something to be there.
I write this as someone who attended a great public elementary school and a survived a huge public high school without any lasting trauma. There is something different going on here than I experienced. That something is a truly human-centered design for learning, one that puts students at the center of the experience.