Expressing Individuality

Last week at The Opinicon, I did one of my favourite things: I spent time watching little children.  (I hope that doesn’t sound too creepy!). As I sat enjoying coffee, I spotted three children, probably around the age of six, heading towards the park.  It was one of those boiling hot July mornings, and two of the kids wore little tank tops, the kind with the spaghetti straps, and shorts. But one wore a long-sleeve – full length – jacket that was yellow, with a couple of red stripes, and when she turned around I saw that the back had big letters: “CHIEF.”  I love that kids express themselves so openly and confidently, knowing what they want and going for it.  Why let a heat wave get in the way of being chief?

The second scene was at the pool.  There was a boy – younger this time, maybe three years old? – who jumped into his parents’ outstretched arms. I watched as he scrambled to get the water out of his eyes and recover a bit, and then he shouted a word familiar to every parent:  “Again”.  I stopped counting the number of times this exact activity occurred.  Every parent has been in this situation – over and over.  I remember the enthusiasm of Jacob and Kathleen in these moments in the pool or in the park or wherever, and I remember struggling to just go with the moment.

Now there was a time when I thought I would be a junior school teacher – I would spend my days laughing and being inspired by their passion and creativity.  That quickly passed.  The requirements of the job – like managing the energy and personalities of 25+ children in one room – made me realize that I was more suited to teaching teenagers.

But the individuality and passion of both children got me thinking – when those kids grow up to be teenagers, they will not express their feelings so openly.  If they have been lucky enough to even discover their passion, they will more likely choose to try to fit in.  It is just that stage of life.  So there’s the fun part of my job.  How do the best high schools create opportunities for teens to be fire chiefs and shout “again”?  Three strategies come to mind.

People:  Teens need inspirational adults – those who pursue their own interests while also proactively engaging them to figure out who they are and what motivates them.  Teens don’t miss a beat; they listen and watch adults carefully, and they sniff out authenticity.  Teens are most drawn to adults who know and can be themselves. The best schools understand this intuitively and invest in attracting, developing and retaining a variety of inspirational adults.

Place:  Teenagers, especially, will take time to explore and connect with their environment.  They might not express this until much later in life, but place matters.  So the best schools invest in inspirational classrooms and spaces, both indoors and out.   Having spent a year at Lakefield, I now understand the expression that the classroom is the third teacher.  We see the benefits of being outdoors every day, and we know that teens thrive when their environment calls them to explore.

Programs:  Teens need choice.  Lots of choice.  They need to pick courses and clubs and activities that they want to try, and if they don’t want to try, they need policies that require them to get involved.  At Lakefield, as in all great schools, students are required to participate in arts and athletics, and they must engage in something every day after classes. We also encourage students to compete and push their limits.

When I recently saw a photo of one of our students winning the Dalglish Art Award, I was reminded that teens can find a way – when people, place and programs align – to express their passions and enthusiasms.  Teens may not express themselves as easily or as frequently as children, but we need to work hard to support them.

And when they do, we should all pay attention.

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That’s so Lakefield

One day this week, as I watched Garret Hart empty maple tree buckets in the rain, I thought – that’s so Lakefield.  And immediately a bunch of other images came to mind:

  • I walked past Ondaatje House one night and saw Jenn Browne working with a student on a university admissions essay. Why was that “so Lakefield”?  It was after 9:00pm and there was a teacher in a common room working with a student.  No big deal. That’s just what happens around here 24/7.
  • It was 9:25pm one night last month, and I was waiting for the Grove house girls to come over for cookies. I went to reception thinking they might come through the school; then I stood in my front hallway, thinking they would come to my front door, and wondering if anyone would show up.  And that’s when I heard a bunch of giggling girls coming through my house. They let themselves in my backdoor.  Of course they did.
  • In the middle of our Dance Showcase, a ring came down and one of our girls performed Cirque du Soleil style maneuvers as part of the dance. I had no idea our students were so talented, but when I mentioned this to an alum, he said, “That’s so Lakefield” (I’m not even kidding).
  • I walked in to Bruce McMahon’s class and they were studying da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man (based on the concept of ideal human proportions). He suggested his students should measure him.
  • As I sat in chapel, listening to a chapel talk and facing the student body, I noticed a number of teary eyes, and felt my own eyes welling up. Only the alumni will really understand this one, but tears in chapel is so Lakefield.
  • I walked down the path of our Northcotte Campus to join everyone at our Winter Carnival. Around the corner comes a team of horses pulling a sleigh full of students.  We hire eight teams of horses for this event, and one of our student clubs restores antique sleighs. Now THAT is so Lakefield.
  • In a meeting one day, I looked out on our field, and was surprised to see a whole class out snow-shoeing. No one else thought this was unusual.  As I am learning, this is so Lakefield.

So as I look out my window and see that the ice on the lake has partially melted, and I think about our students coming back for our final term, I wonder how many more “so Lakefield” moments there will be.  I keep hearing that spring is the best time of year around here, and I for one, cannot wait to get started.

 

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Making time for “the moments”

Last Sunday, I woke up to a note from a student I taught at Lower Canada College 15 years ago.  And it made me wonder – what makes a student wake up and write to an old teacher?  What are the moments that stand out, years later?

Ryan was part of a student trip to China that Kevin and I lead one March break, and we got to know his group of friends really well.  You tend to bond when you experience places like the Great Wall and the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor (home of the terracotta warriors).  But he didn’t write about our trip.  Ryan was a very good student, and I taught his brother and got to know his parents as well.  But he didn’t write about anything that ever happened during a class.  The truth is, if you had asked me years ago, to identify the student who would write to me out of the blue 15 years later, I am not sure that Ryan would have topped the list.

So why did a former student wake up in February and write to an old teacher?  With his permission, I share it here:

Hi Mrs Kee,

I was thinking about our long-term character flaws you asked us to work on.

Pete was compassion, Dave was chill, I was leadership and Joe was step up. I wonder how we all did on our various projects. I asked Dave and he said he is not much more chill. I think Joe has certainly stepped up as he is going to medical school which is quite a challenge. Not sure about Pete’s compassion (although he did send me a very nice note when he skipped my wedding).

With regards to my trait of leadership, I would have been even more specific and said that I needed to work on assertiveness (an element of leadership).  Sometimes I have the tendency to be too passive instead of grabbing the bull by the horns. I probably have improved since grade 11 though.

Hope you are doing well at the new school. Patti MacDonald sent me your new email address.

If you still want, I can try to organize a reunion (I can take the “lead” on that).

Best,

Ryan

He is writing about a conversation that we had had, along with his group of friends.  It was actually a moment I also remember well, as does Kevin, which is remarkable given all of the students in both of our lives over the years.  This is a conversation that happened for two reasons – we knew each other well and we had opportunity to talk about something meaningful.  Time is key here.

I’m reading the new book by the Heath brothers, The Power of Moments, and they ask a question that I find compelling – what if a teacher could design a lesson that students would remember twenty years later?

Ryan’s letter is a good example of the power of moments.  I’m not sure, however, that moments are easily created.  I would not want curriculums all over the world to include a “life conversation”, thinking you can create a meaningful connection as if there was some kind of superficial magical formula.   The Heath brothers are talking about Disney; I am talking about having the kind of talks you can only have with people who know each other, over time.

For teenagers, what they want – and need! – are adults who get to know them and take the time to challenge their thinking.  In the case of my conversation with Ryan, it was authentic – and clearly turned out to be memorable – because you had people spending time together and actually speaking to one another about real issues that mattered.

We are all busy.  Most of us feel that we are too busy.  But this email is a powerful reminder that we need to slow down, put our phones away, and spend time connecting with each other.  And then for the moments to really be memorable?  We need to connect again and again, so when the chance to have a life conversation happens, we won’t even know it is a life conversation, because it is just what we do.

Thank you, Ryan, for this reminder.

The Secret Sauce of Great Schools

As we think about our new strategic plan here at Lakefield College School, we are engaging in professional development that is focused on our future.  All of us – staff and faculty – will aim to get off campus for one day to consider three questions:

  • What are the skills that students will need in the future?
  • How is the world changing?
  • How might LCS need to change?

We are in search of innovative practices; we will travel in teams that are cross-divisional; and our mandate is to talk about the future of our school.  Other than that, we are free to go wherever!  More on this another time.

Meanwhile, we are also doing additional reading, and I am interested in the following at the moment:

  • New research from the Sutton Trust, a British foundation focused on social mobility, finds that 88% of young people, 94% of employers, and 97% of teachers say life skills, such as confidence and motivation to tackle problems, interpersonal skills and resilience, are as or more important than academic qualifications. New research is finally supporting what educators have long known to be true: Students need more than just academics to succeed.
  • The Gen Z Effect: The Six Forces Shaping the Future of Business:  Donna Orem from NAIS wrote an article about this book, and my favourite point is this:  due primarily to advances in technology and a near equivalent number of people in all age bands, age will no longer be a major shaper of attitudes and behaviors. Rather, people will be defined by their connections in communities.
  • Lifelong Kindergarten: To thrive in today’s fast-changing world, people of all ages must learn to think and act creatively —and the best way to do that is by focusing more on imagining, creating, playing, sharing, and reflecting, just as children do in traditional kindergartens.
  • Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast: Strategy must ask the questions: who do we want to be? What are we great at? What will we be uniquely advantaged at doing?

But here’s the thing that I really want to think about:

When I was first appointed to be Head of School and Foundation, I got a letter in the mail from Mr Kim Krenz, a former Head of Science at Lakefield College School.  He was a good writer, and it was kind of him to write, plus I was intrigued that he was writing from a nursing home, so I wrote him back.  Since August, we have been exchanging letters regularly about teaching and Lakefield and life. I should add that he is 97 years old, and his nurse, Melissa Zubrickas, is a Lakefield grad.

They visited me recently, and I was quite moved by their passion for this school. Later that day, Melissa emailed me:  “I am 27 and Kim is 97, a 70 year difference; so it is quite amazing how LCS brings people together.”

No kidding it is amazing!

So while I want us to visit innovative places and read the latest research on the future of education, I hope that we take the time to think about what really matters.  To me, what has to be our focus – no matter what! – is people.  There is an abundance of theory on what is best for students and schools and what needs to change, but the secret sauce of great schools will always come down to connecting great staff and great students.

Here’s to my 97 year old pen pal who reminded me of the power of connections.

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