Curious and Kind

“Ask Good Questions. Try Your Best. Be Kind.” It’s a phrase I truly believe in.  In fact, when my two children were younger, we used to repeat this phrase so often that it became a bit of a family mantra.  Now at Lakefield, I use these three points frequently with our community. After all, don’t we all want our kids to grow up to be curious and kind people?

As I monitor the updates on the coronavirus outbreak, sometimes multiple times per day, I think about how we should handle this situation as a community.  First, our priority is to maintain the safety of our students.  Last week in chapel, I reminded students of the need for good health, common sense:  wash your hands, sneeze into your sleeve, and go to the Health and Wellbeing Centre (The Well)  if you have a fever or any concerns.  We are surveying our students about their travels and we have implemented a screening tool.  For any family that may be concerned about the upcoming holidays, we have a plan for students who cannot travel home because of the virus.  I also reminded students that they are here to learn, so they need to pay attention to what is happening in the world, but they also need to focus here, on their studies.  My hope is that they enter each and every class with the attitude that today they will try their best.

In chapel this week, we reviewed again all that we are doing to ensure the safety of our community.  We also had a moment of silence, for those who are suffering and for those who have passed away.

I wanted to write this blog to highlight the third part of the phrase – be kind – and I would like the support of our entire community.  In a school like ours—a small village, really, with 380 students, 155 staff, and roughly 360 living on campus fulltime (including staff and family members, plus pets!)—it’s important that we have the courage to ask good questions about this case and the media coverage.  Health officials repeatedly confirm that the risk to the public remains low in Canada.

But what I hope – and expect – is that we are kind to each other, particularly to those who are worried for friends and family.  Our students represent many parts of Canada and 45 countries around the world, which means our school is rich with opportunities to learn from each other, share experiences and debate different perspectives. Living and learning in such a diverse community reminds us all that there are multiple viewpoints for every issue and helps us to practice empathy.  Empathy is a powerful tool for our students to understand, relate, and connect with other people. It’s crucial for collaboration and true learning and leads to compassion and kindness.

It encourages me to hear our students supporting each other. Especially now, when so many parts of the world are experiencing devasting natural disasters, political and civil unrest and most recently the coronavirus. I was moved by the words of one of our students who said:

“One of the biggest mistakes we make is assuming that other people think the way we think. We need to think about each other and how everything affects everyone in some way.  Harper Lee once said, ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from their point of view,’ this is especially true at this school where many of us are away from our parents and far from home. It is extremely difficult to not be able to be there and support our loved ones in a time of need.”

The words of this young woman give me confidence in knowing that our students are supported and encouraged by their teachers, coaches, Heads of House and, most important, each other to use their skills of empathy to ask good questions, be kind and compassionate.  We are committed to this ideal.

Only together can we create a caring community.

The Education Reform Most Needed for the New Decade

Kevin and I are beginning a new era of holidaying without our kids.  After a few amazing days together in New York City, both kids flew home to Ottawa for New Year’s Eve.  We hoped they would ring in the new year with us by joining us at the Cathedral of St John the Divine for the New Year’s Eve Concert for Peace, just like we had done in the past.  To put it mildly, they had zero interest. As they were leaving for the airport, their last words were not “Happy new year”; they were this: “Have fun at church tonight”.

And it was their loss.  We loved joining thousands of people (including Tony Goldwyn!), enjoying outstanding music, in the world’s largest cathedral. (As is always my interest, it is also home to the largest rose window in the US and fifth largest in the world, made out of 10,000 pieces of stained glass). In addition to the Cathedral Choir and Orchestra, performers included Paul Winter, Jason Robert Brown, and Judy Collins; I could have listened to any of them for the entire program.  The evening was narrated by Harry Smith, who read the Prayer of St Francis (one of my all-time favourites), and the choir performed a beautiful version of Oseh Shalom, a song for peace by Nurit Hirsh, in honour of the recent anti-Semitic attacks.  The concert ended as it has in the past – everyone lights candles and Jamet Pittman leads the group in singing This little light of mine.  I include a photo below so you can try to imagine how that would feel.  The whole evening was moving, and I wished my kids were there.

This night got me thinking – how can more people experience this kind of deeply moving music and the powerful energy that only comes from a large group gathering?  And of course, as Head of a high school, I always think about how teens in particular can have this kind of profound experience?

When I read about education trends and calls for improvements to our school systems, the focus is often on one of three areas:  Emerging technology (Artificial Intelligence, Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, gamification); Personalized or do-it-yourself (DIY) learning, which also requires technology; and skills, competencies, and attributes required to address the environmental, economic and social challenges of the world  (Wellness, positive psychology and strength-based learning would fall in this category).  To be clear, I believe in all of this and work hard to ensure my school is preparing students for the future.  I also believe that educators are passionate consumers of research on best practice and all schools strive to do their best for students.  But my night at the cathedral makes me wonder if something is missing, and that something is connection.

I believe that students need experiences when they feel the beauty of the arts, when they are confronted by challenges, including how to strive for a more peaceful world, and when they feel joy from being part of a gathering of like-minded people.  None of this requires technology and all of it requires community.  These kinds of experiences are not easy to organize nor are they inherently appealing to students (just ask my 18 and 20 year-old children).  But here’s the thing – we need to force it.  Today’s teens spend more time alone than past generations, and even when they are with others, they tend to be on their screens.

So my hope for 2020 is this:  that educators will get the best training in how to have courageous conversations so they connect on topics that matter; and that today’s school leaders will figure out how to gather their communities and provide opportunities to challenge and inspire, engage in the arts, and create moments of humour and joy.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

 

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