We are back at it in full swing now, with Back to School Night behind us and in the midst of Spirit Week. I have spent a lot of time visiting classes, and it is great to see what teachers are doing with their kids – encouraging them to work together, to think critically, and to problem-solve.
My speeches at both Middle School and Lower School Back to School Nights were essentially the same. Sorry to those of you who went to both, but I think the message is important enough for everyone to hear. In case you didn’t get a chance to go, I’m including the speech below. I am really looking forward to a fantastic year in which we all work to develop our students into independent, resilient, and compassionate young men and women.
I am so excited for the year ahead in the MS for a variety of reasons. First, we are building a new building on Dawson’s campus – the first time in 20 years! We’ve done extensive research on spaces in school and know that our new dining hall and learning commons will provide myriad opportunities for students and faculty to gather, connect, and learn.
Second, we have a fantastic program in place; we are in our second year of the block schedule, and teachers have found amazing ways to use this time effectively so that students come away from their classes with a deep, rich understanding of the material. We are also constantly reexamining and updating curriculum to make sure that our focus is on helping students develop the skills they will need to go out into the world and make a difference.
But what really makes Dawson’s MS special is, of course, the people: the faculty, students, and families who are all a part of the Dawson community. And every day, I am heartened by the drive of our faculty, by the enthusiasm of our families, and, most importantly, by the joy and excitement of our students.
We are, of course, here for the students, after all, and so our faculty work tirelessly to stay on top of best practices so they can meet all of our students where they are and help them reach their true potential as individuals and as members of a caring community.
To that end, we have been fortunate enough both to send our faculty off to amazing professional development opportunities and to invite distinguished educators to campus who can share their findings with us.
Denise Pope, a professor at Stanford’s graduate school of education and author of Overloaded and Underprepared was here during our opening meetings, and Julie Lythcott-Haims, a former dean at Stanford and author of the best-seller, How to Raise an Adult, will be here in October. Both women have done a tremendous amount of work looking at how to help our kids learn in authentic ways and how to foster resilience and independence in them. Pope’s focus is more on what schools can do, and Lythcott-Haims focuses more on the parenting side. Both women speak of the downside of overscheduling and overparenting our kids. Lythcott-Haims has more than a couple of amusing yet alarming stories of freshmen who arrived at Stanford – so obviously very intelligent young men and women – completely ill-prepared to handle the everyday aspects of life – sending packages, doing laundry, even finding where their first class was – she tells the story of a student who, in a panic, called her mother across the country to find out where she should go. It didn’t occur to her that there were plenty of people right there who would likely be much more useful!
When Dr. Pope worked with our faculty a couple of weeks ago, she affirmed much of what we are already doing and encouraged us to continue on our path to develop independent, resilient, and compassionate students.
She suggests that schools focus on five things, and she uses the acronym SPACE because all students need a space at their school.
The S stands for schedule and use of time. Pope advocates for a schedule that allows time for authentic learning. At Dawson, we’ve changed our schedule to include longer class periods so that students can dig deep.
P stands for project and problem-based learning. Research shows that students engage and learn significantly more when their learning focuses on interdisciplinary projects and problem-solving, rather than memorizing facts and algorithms. You’ll learn tonight about some of the amazing things teachers are doing here at Dawson.
A is for alternative and authentic assessment. If we are going to teach our kids in different ways, then we also need to assess them in different ways, providing them choice and voice in their learning. Dawson faculty have found a variety of inventive ways to assess students beyond the more traditional methods of tests and papers.
C stands for a climate of care. Probably more important than anything is creating a caring community. We do this through a focus on our core virtues, through multiple lessons and discussions around issues of ethics and character, and through making sure every student feels known.
Finally, the E in SPACE is for Education. It’s the school’s responsibility to educate students, faculty, and parents about what research shows is the best way to teach because it doesn’t always look like when we were in middle school.
So in my effort to do the E in SPACE, I stand before you. But, just like with our students, effective learning happens when we are engaged and active, not when we are passively listening. And so, I’d like to do a small activity.
For this activity, I’d like you to think back to a moment in your childhood or adolescence that you really cherish; maybe you felt particularly independent or proud of yourself that you had accomplished something. I’m going to give you a minute to think.
Now turn to someone nearby, introduce yourself, and share your story.
Okay, now, raise your hand if you were with a parent during the moment you described. (A handful of people raised their hands in the Middle School presentation. None raised their hands in the Lower School.)
The reality is, many of our formative experiences happen without our parents around, or without any adults around, and that’s how it should be. The adults in our lives helped create a foundation for us to grow. But much of our growing happened in those moments when we were on our own and had to figure things out.
So how can we parent effectively, laying that important groundwork for our kids while still giving them the space to grow? To remind us to give our kids space, I’ve created a SPACE acronym for parents that overlaps with the SPACE acronym for.
The S, like with teachers, is for schedule. Denise Pope, in her presentation for parents, had us add up the hours of all of our kids’ activities. What did many of us find? Our kids are expected to complete more than 24 hours’ worth of activities in a given day. Of course, this isn’t possible. We need to reconsider what our kids do each day and make sure they are not overscheduled.
This leads me to P. Dr. Pope talked about three important things we do need to make time for, and she called it PDF: playtime, downtime, and family time. This is unstructured time that allows our kids to unwind, to connect with friends and family, and just to be. If our kids are shuttled from activity to activity each day, they are missing out on these important aspects of childhood.
The A here stands for authentic experiences. It may seem difficult to create authentic experiences – if you’re contriving them, aren’t they inherently inauthentic? But what I mean is to help your kids find moments that mean something –where they realize they are part of something larger – whether that’s giving them chores to do so they can contribute to the household, doing community service as a family and taking the time to reflect on the experience, or simply engaging them in conversation about issues of the world.
The C stands for climate of care here, just like in the other acronym. And for parents, what this means is simple: telling and showing our kids that we love them unconditionally. That’s it. Unfortunately, we parents can sometimes be misguided about the best ways to show our love, and that leads me to the final letter, E.
The E is for empowering, not enabling, our kids. Let me give you a scenario and we’ll discuss two possible ways it could play out. Let’s say your child comes home from school and complains to you about a rough day. Maybe a classmate was unkind, or maybe the teacher gave too much homework and didn’t explain the parameters of the assignment. Whatever the problem, our immediate instinct is to get on the phone or to dash off a quick email, trying to solve the problem for our kid. This will show our kids that we love them, right?
Wrong. What we actually show our kids is that we don’t believe they can solve their own problems; that they are helpless without us, their parental saviors, swooping in to rescue them. Let’s consider another scenario. What if, when our kids come home and complain about something, we instead just listen. And we say, “Hmmmm. Hmmmmm. Hmmmm.” And once we’ve really listened, we then say, “Wow, that sounds hard. Have you thought about what you might do? How can I help?”
Let’s consider the trajectory of the kids from these two scenarios and look ahead to their first day of college. When they don’t know where their first class is, which one do you think will figure it out through finding a map or asking someone on campus, and which one will panic and call home immediately?
We need to empower our kids to try things on their own. To make mistakes and realize that they can always try again. To advocate for themselves when things are tough. When school and family partner together to do this, we can help our students develop into strong, independent adults who are ready; no, not just ready; eager, to take on the challenges of the world.