What do trees have to do with well-being? (Trees Part Two)

We have a standing item on our Leadership Team agenda on risk, so we can try to stay on top of incidents and whether or not we need to update our policies or practices.  We often come back to what we consider one of our biggest risks, and that is the mental health and well-being of all of our students.  Lakefield College School is a community of 382 teenagers, and the world is an increasingly complex and scary place for teens.

  • In a wall street journal article, The American Association of Pediatrics warns that too much social-media use can lead teenagers to depression and anxiety. Girls today collect “likes” instead of making friends. They can be devastated by a cruel text or a tepid reaction to a selfie. Long before they hold hands with a date, they are exposed to online pornography and misogynistic messages. Modern girls are never truly alone and never truly with others. In a 2018 national health survey, girls reported the highest levels of loneliness on record.
  • The author of The Coddling of the American Mind writes about a mental health crisis. Kids born after 1995 have really high rates of anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide.  Suicide rates in the US have gone up 25% for boys and 70% for girls.

Schools – as well as universities and colleges – are all working hard to support student mental health and well-being.  We are all updating our health care systems (The Well@LCS), adding programs (We are excited by our positive education and well-being program called Thrive), encouraging student-led clubs (Jack.org) and recognizing special days (Bell Let’s Talk Day).

But I have been thinking about this in a new way thanks in part to a presentation I heard at the CAIS Heads and Chairs Conference.  Michael Unger challenged us to create opportunities for teenagers to take responsibility for others in more meaningful ways, to become more intentional about cultivating empathy and strengthening connection.

And this takes us back to our trees…

In my research,  I’ve become fascinated by roots.

A few facts:

  • It is a myth that roots run deep. The most common depth of roots is only about two to two and a half meters.
  • Roots are typically – and surprisingly – shallow and wide-spreading, extending radially in any direction.
  • While genetic characteristics of a tree play some part in a rooting pattern, soil conditions are of overriding importance.

I don’t know about you but as a former English teacher, I cannot help but draw comparisons to our students.  The lives of teens in terms of meaningful connections are shallow, perhaps even more so today with social media.

But I believe we can also be inspired by roots as we think about how to support students in navigating this complex world.

In The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben shares ground-breaking new discoveries about the interconnectedness of trees.  He writes that – Much like human families, trees live together in a community, communicate with each other, and support each other, sharing nutrients with those who are sick or growing or struggling and creating an ecosystem that mitigates the impact of extremes of heat and cold, for the whole group. As a result of such interactions, trees in a family or community are protected and can live to be very old. Wohlleben cites evidence of a 400 year-old beech tree that was actually being kept alive by neighboring beech trees. In contrast, solitary trees have a tough time of it and in most cases die much earlier than those in a group.  He believes that where once we saw trees as isolated individuals, we now perceive a wood as a place of multiple and sophisticated interrelationships, many of them operating deep beneath the earth.

This inspires me to think about additional strategies for addressing today’s mental health crisis.  How can we help teens to form more meaningful relationships?  How can we help them understand the need to authentically give to others and form community?  Can we be so bold as to wonder if less focus on self will help to strengthen self?

I am inspired by our campus – the Grove – not only as a community of trees, but as this incredibly alive underground root system, one of intertwined stories, lives, experiences and communities, and one that teaches that in order to help yourself, you need to connect with and help others.

May our trees remind us to get to know others, to connect with them meaningfully.

May our trees remind us that we are part of a community, and we have a responsibility to care for others.


Focus on Trees – Part One

My metaphor for this year is trees.

I talked about trees in my opening chapel talk with both staff and our graduates, and my plan is to share some of my thinking here in this blog as well.

Why trees?  I am in awe by the beauty of trees, the resilience of trees, and the way they are used to inspire creativity.  In and of themselves, trees are beautiful, and we are fortunate to have a campus full of them!  When I ask people who are new to the Grove about their first impressions of our school, most people say something related to the beauty of our campus, and trees in particular.

Our school, where we study – and for about 300 of us, where we live – is somewhere that is beautiful.  This campus is a gift!  No matter the season, no matter if we stare from our windows or take a walk or ski in the woods, we are lucky to have a campus with varying types and ages of gorgeous trees.

As part of my research on trees, I studied our Lakefield history. Our big trees have been around for a century or more. They have provided shade, beauty, warmth and seeds for a new generation of trees. Many of them have a special background:

  • The young oak tree across from Moodie House was named in memory of Tim Dunn. The Dunn’s are related to the Moodies (as in the original settler Susannah Moodie) and they provided the funding to build Moodie House and fix it after the fire.  The Dunn’s are one of only a few four-generational families to have attended Lakefield College School.
  • There is a dedicated tree across from Rashleigh in honour of Ken Sunderland who retired about 5 years ago.
  • And then there are the three larger planted trees in the Grove tree circle and all are special.
  • The west one was planted to begin reforestation of the Grove in 1992, after the library building was completed.
  • The east one is named after Paige Wadsworth, and the inscription reads: It is a privilege to serve.
  • The south one is named for Beef Carr-Harris, a former chair of the board, and that inscription reads: Beef loved the school as he loved life.

Given the age of our trees and all that they have seen and heard, I think of our trees as keepers of our culture.  I’ve been told that when alumni come back and drive onto the campus and see the trees, this feeling wells up inside that they can’t describe.  But it’s home.  We know that there is something about this place that we cannot quite describe… something that is special, magical.

What I hope for all of us – staff and students – is that when we look at our trees, that we pause and try to hold on to that good feeling that comes from time in nature.  Sometimes when life gets messy – and it gets messy in high school – we need to take a moment to remember this goodness… to proactively seek it out.

May our trees remind us to do that, this year, and always.


Have you ever put a tooth in the microwave?

I believe in asking good questions. It is one of the mantras of our family; it was what drove the CAIS accreditation process; it is what I am thinking about today as I attend the EMA Heads Institute; and one of my summer projects is always to think about – and maybe even answer! – a few questions.  Sometimes, figuring out the questions is more important than figuring out the answers.

Here are my summer questions:

What to read?  I am lugging a hard-cover Harvard University Press book around called In Search of Deeper Learning.  With our new strategic plan’s direction of Authentic Learning, I want to understand: how can we ensure LCS is an inspirational learning community that includes mastery, identity and creativity?  Our Leadership Team is also reading Collins’ new book, Turning the Flywheel, and our summer project is to think about our unique flywheel. (Just so you don’t think I am completely work-obsessed, for fun, I grabbed a Louise Penny book).

How can we be even better?  Our school is thriving on several fronts and has achieved two significant firsts:  we were full as of May 1st with great students and we received our largest ever single donation.  This is simultaneously amazing and terrifying and raises more questions:  Why have we experienced some success? What if we can’t continue this trend? And what’s next?  I ask the same questions of myself.  I spend time writing out my key moments of the year – both highs and lows, for the school and for myself – and then I see what happens.  I return to the list over the two months and find this exercise valuable.

How can I think about revenue and our unique value proposition?  At the EMA Heads Institute, we began with some big trends about demographics and the economy.  When leaders who have worked with independent schools for decades say they are worried about the industry, I also worry about sustainability.  I always loved Chris Bart’s explanation of strategy – that there are three things and three things only that you need to think about strategy, and then he only has two:  revenue and unique value.  So how do we sharpen our unique value proposition saw? How do we generate more revenue and what are the creative ways to reinvest in our school?

As for the question posed in the title of this blog, it is not one of my summer questions. Kathleen is working at a camp and never fails to come home with funny stories.  As a family, we always laugh at good kid questions, and this, so far, is my favourite.  But it does remind me of the need to listen to student questions and pose questions back to them.   And then listen.  So here is my final question:

How can we prioritize student voice in our programs?  The pressures on teenagers are growing and we need to learn all we can to support, challenge and inspire them.  (As a Leadership Team, we listened to this podcast about adolescents and well-being: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/when-good-intentions-go-bad/id990149481?i=1000443425082.)  What I really love to do is meet with students and listen to their ideas.  I ask them how can we improve our school and learning. Next year, with our new vision statement, I will also ask how they will make the world a better place.

For now, however, as I head into my holidays, I might also spend some time thinking about what happens if you put a tooth in the microwave…


The Secret to Healthier Teens

I worry about teenagers, their stress, and their mental health.  When I shared my concern at one of the House meetings in my living room, a student said, “You should be worried about that.”  That made me worry more.  Later that evening, we talked about the need to understand the difference between when to seek professional help, when to challenge others, and when to offer loving support.  I believe we need to have these kinds of candid conversations with teens, and often.  As Head of a boarding school, I’m grateful that I have time to sit with students and talk about important issues.  But this is not the secret to healthier teens I reference in my title.

I’m currently reading Under Pressure, by Lisa Damour, who is a psychologist and bestselling author.  Her focus is on what she calls an alarming increase of stress and anxiety – in fact she calls it an epidemic.  Mental health problems are also on the rise, but she is focused more on teens feeling nervous, worried, and fearful.  She offers a lot of important advice, including that stress is necessary, it can be good for us, and learning to deal with it is part of healthy development. We work on all of this at Lakefield, especially with some notable programs, including Thrive, Leadership Character Values, and our Speakers Series.  This week alone, we welcomed a special guest to our Earth Day Intercession Program, Dave Mochel, who inspired us with his focus on good life practices.

But my secret is a bit different than Dave’s. I was reminded of it two weeks ago at an alumni dinner in Toronto.  At the end of our program, we did something new: we sang our school hymn, Jerusalem.  Adam Bishop took the mic and got us started, but then something happened that gave me that feeling in my bones that the world is a good place. Without accompaniment, everyone stood and sang.

We sing a lot at Lakefield.  Our students shone in the musical Mamma Mia! this year (and there was ABBA everywhere).  Plus we have Lorelea and the Rock Choir, and when we have camp fires, we sing Sweet Caroline, and I bet the ‘bum bum bum’ can be heard for miles around.

Lakefield’s chapel remains the soul of our school, where we gather four times a week, honour all religions, carry on our timeless traditions and start as a community, and sing.  At our Opening Grade 12 chapel in September, students sang, Land of Hope and Glory.  When they started to sing, I thought this is nice…But then they sang louder, and by the final verse and chorus, they just belted it out. We sing contemporary tunes like Country Road and Home, and we sing old traditional ones, like I Feel the Winds of God and Jerusalem.  Because I stand at the front facing the school, I can see that not everyone necessarily sings every song, but the fact is this – everyone gets to feel the joy of hundreds of voices joining together in song.  Last week, I watched as the grade 12s in the front rows linked arms and swayed as they sang.

I realize that it may be trite to offer singing as a solution to a serious teen epidemic.  My point is not that singing alone is the answer, but that teens need more opportunity for joy, and more focus on what is good.  I’m convinced that if more adults spent more time singing with teenagers, the world would have healthier teens.

p.s. Here is a bit of research on the multiple benefits of singing:

·      Singing strengthens the immune system according to research conducted at the University of Frankfurt.

·      Singing helps with sleep according to a health article in Daily Mail Online.

·      Singing is a natural anti-depressant and can release endorphins, the feel-good brain chemical that makes you feel uplifted and happy.

·      Singing lowers stress levels and boosts your immune system

·      Singing improves mental alertness and fosters clear thinking through correct breathing.


Above is a shot right before one of our famous campfires with Sweet Caroline

Should schools ban cell-phones?

Lately, I just cannot escape this topic. 

In my evening snacks with Houses, students pile into my living room to talk about what is working, what could be improved, and just life in general.  Inevitably, conversation turns to our overly strict cell-phone and wifi policies, and we have a great debate about whose decision it is to control technology.

This year, I am spending a great deal of time meeting with parents, past-parents and alumni, and I’ve had over 25 small group meetings in six countries.  In most conversations, we also end up discussing teens and technology use.  The consensus with adults is easy. They like that we do not allow phones in the dining hall or chapel. They like hearing that many teachers do not allow them in class. They like that we take phones away from grades nine and ten students overnight. They like that we shut off the wifi at night.  They like that we had a speaker in to teach students to be responsible digital citizens (Check out Chris Vollum’s message).  And most of all, they like that we still emphasize relationships; we have always been a community that engages deeply with each other and spends a lot of time outside.

Our teachers also talk about the benefits of less technology at school, and our reasons are sound:  social media has been associated with depression, anxiety, and the fear of missing out; there’s always a concern about cyberbullying and sexting; and we worry about the limited information that teens are exposed to online when we know they need to be challenged by diverse opinions.  Last year, many of us read Jean Twenge’s book called iGen.  She calls children born between 1995 and 2012 the iGen, as they are the first to enter adolescence with smartphones in their hands.  Her research is somewhat alarming:  teens spend about nine hours each day using screens; the average teenagers processes 3,700 texts per month.  Twenge reports that by their own admissions, teens are addicted to their phones.

Now before we adults get too judgmental, a 2016 Common Sense Media Study found that adults spend as much time – or more – with screens as their kids do.

Recently, on Family Day weekend, we made the long trek to Baie-St-Paul so Kevin and the kids could ski at Le Massif.  We like to listen to a podcast called Making Sense by Sam Harris, and the episode we chose was Douglas Rushkoff, who explored the state of the digital economy.

So should schools do more to control technology use?

I tend to favour the belief that we should manage not avoid technology.  I also believe that increasingly, one of our most important jobs is to cultivate our own healthy digital habits and model good use.  (My own kids would say that I have a lot to learn!)

What I know for sure is that we must continue to talk – with teens especially! – about technology use and how to spend our time and how to portray our lives online.

And at the end of each conversation?  Clarify that rule-making on technology use is an adult decision.



Three Hopes for 2019

When I reflect on our first term at the Grove, three specific moments come to mind:

In the fall, one of our grade ten students wanted to express her gratitude for our food.  To be honest, her original motivation was not gratitude but frustration:  she was bothered that so many students complained about food.  She wrote to friends and asked them to share photos of their meals.  She then put together a presentation to remind our community that we are fortunate to have such diverse, healthy, and tasty meals prepared for us. This led her to an idea – she invited our food service team to chapel and thanked them on behalf of our community.

And then the moment happened.  Our students jumped to their feet for a standing ovation for our dining and cleaning staff.

The second moment actually happened numerous times in one week. This fall, our production of Mamma Mia! was beyond amazing.  Our little theatre was bursting with energy and everyone jumped to their feet for a standing ovation at the end of each show.  What I loved most is that people stayed on their feet, singing and dancing during the last couple of numbers.

The third moment – another standing ovation – was a complete surprise.  Our Christmas chapel happens in the evening after students enjoy a formal meal in the dining hall.  At the beginning, I noticed that students seemed restless, and, I was a bit nervous about their ability to behave appropriately for the duration of the service.  Turns out – they were more than respectful.  When Adam Bishop, a member of our Foundation team and a former Head Boy, walked to the front to sing “O Holy Night” accompanied by our pianist, there was a lot of energy in chapel.  I know that Adam is a talented singer, and yet I felt nervous for him – no matter your talent, it takes courage to perform solo in front of hundreds of students.  But he began, and we were enraptured.  At the end, there was a pause.  I sometimes wonder about the appropriateness of clapping during a chapel service, and it was as if the entire chapel was pondering the exact same question.  And just as quickly, the question was answered.  The entire chapel sprang to their feet clapping.  The final song that night – Joy to the World – was the most enthusiastic singing I’ve heard in chapel since my arrival.

Now here’s the thing about standing ovations:  They are spontaneous. They only happen in groups.  They are full of joy.

That combination, to me, is “So Lakefield…”

I hope your year includes moments of spontaneity, community and joy.  I hope you might be able to return for a visit this year, perhaps to experience our theatre, chapel or another event.  And I sincerely hope you’re really lucky, and you get to be part of the transformative experience of a standing ovation at the Grove.

Happy new year!


Highlights from 2018 at Lakefield College School






More than kindness

You have to search for it among a plethora of negative news, but kindness has also made the news recently.  The Washington Post included an article about the ripple effect of kindness – How a kindness contagion improves lives, especially now – and Harvard Business Review’s article presented the economic benefits of kindness (Making Kindness a Core Tenet of your Company).  I actually addressed our students on this topic, but I noted that kindness isn’t always enough.

Below you will find excerpts of my Chapel Talk to students last week:

First, let me take this time to remind you that we take our values very seriously.  I have posted them here [Our values were displayed on the screens] as I have done in the past, as a reminder of what we have all agreed to live by.  We spend less time talking about rules around here, but we talk a lot about values.  I know you explore these through LCV (Leadership, Character, Values), Thrive, House meetings, advisor groups, and classes, especially our new Harkness-style classes where you get to practice communicating different views, disagreeing respectfully and listening deeply.  Most important, I love that we come together four times per week in our chapel, where we all come together as a community to celebrate, sing, sometimes to mourn, and always to reflect.  This is the soul of our school.

We strive for a culture of kindness here, and our culture is something we value enormously.  Now culture is generally understood to mean how we do things around here, and we have a long history of a strong culture of goodness.  I hear our alumni talk about this passionately, and I hope that one day, I will get to have dinner with you, when you are adults and living somewhere new and working somewhere meaningful, when we meet with your friends and classmates.  Inevitably, our conversation will turn to our unique culture.

But this morning is about more than kindness and culture; I want us to think about standing up and doing what you know is right…what is good… And, sometimes, that takes courage.

So much of what we stand for at LCS is about figuring out who you are and what you believe and then having the courage to stand up for that.

My expectation for you – for all students here – is kindness and courage.

In order to live by our values, it is not enough to talk about them; we must take action.  What does that look like?  For starters, as I’ve said many times: we ask good questions, try our best, be kind.

It also means we own our behavior.  We actively seek solutions to our disagreements.  We build positive and nurturing relationships.  We work to build trust, and rebuild trust when it has been broken.  We forgive.

Please be kind and care for one another, and may you always have the courage to pause and reflect on your values before you act, and may you always have to courage to speak out and act to be a force for good in our community.