This is the season of gift-giving

When our children were in kindergarten and grade one, they were standing at the bus stop and my husband, Kevin, overheard this conversation:

Jacob – The kids at school are saying that Santa is not real.

Kathleen – What?

Jacob – The kids at school are saying that Santa is not real. It’s our parents.

Kathleen – Jacob, do you really think our parents fly all over the world on a sleigh, giving gifts to other kids?

And that was the end of it.  He was convinced, and we were humbled.  Our children just could not imagine that their parents could be that generous at gift-giving.

Since I have arrived, four months ago, I have seen that gift-giving happens at Lakefield College School.

For example, this week, we heard our first chapel talk.  There are two gifts embedded in this tradition. The first is that teenagers stand in front of 350+ people and express gratitude for their friends and family. I asked Niko to share his speech with me, as I am pretty sentimental about firsts, and he will forever be my first chapel speech as Head of School.  With his permission, I want to share a couple of sections of his chapel talk.

Niko said this:

Nanna, there is not one negative bone in your body; you are the most optimistic, happy, and joyful person in the world. I aspire to have those same characteristics, which at the moment I do not.

The second gift within our traditional chapel speeches is that students give advice to their peers.  Niko said this:

I’ve experienced more in my time here at Lakefield than in my entire life. Lakefield is what you make it to be, and that’s what makes it so special. Basketball has been a huge part my journey at Lakefield. Times when I’m stressed and I have a lot of work or when I just don’t feel like me, I’ll just go and shoot hoops and that will make me feel better or distract me from whatever is bothering me.  For the people that haven’t found that something, this is the perfect place to find it. Lakefield gives each of us an opportunity to find that thing.  We have the facilities, the community, and the resources to find that something that helps you. That is what makes Lakefield so special.

There is a real gift in every single chapel speech when teens express this kind of passion – and vulnerability! – in front of hundreds of others teens.  I can assure you – it is very powerful to sit in chapel in those moments, as our students listen.

There is also the gift of sharing talents.  Our Grove Society Christmas Gathering is a perfect example of how our community develops passions – we get to enjoy our orchestra, choirs, creative writing, and additional expressions of passions like global initiatives and environmental stewardship. We have had an incredible fall with our Remembrance Day ceremony and our Damn Yankees musical, which are two of the best performances in the country.  There is talent at Lakefield College School – and it is reciprocal. Our faculty teach our students to bring out the best in themselves; and I hear our faculty talk about how much they learn from our students.  Gift-giving is a gift that gives twice, and there is a lot of generosity in our community.

We are also blessed to be part of a broader community. Lakefield is not just a school with teachers, staff and students. The power of this place is that parents and alumni are also actively involved. When I look around at the decorations right now in chapel, and I can see the care that went in to every decision – the maple syrup, the skis, the snow shoes, and the terrapin (I am waiting for the honey bee to arrive).  We are fortunate to have a community that shares the responsibility of caring for and celebrating our students.

Finally, I want to leave you with a thought about the real power of gift-giving.

I believe that our staff are exceptional.  They work hard and long hours.  They are passionate about their subject and the art of teaching and learning. But there is something more. I felt it as a parent, when my children were here, particularly when they went through some tough times and their teachers, Heads of House and frankly all of the adults that surrounded them, supported them.

Nelson Mandela once said – It never hurts to see the good in someone. They often act the better because of it.

I believe our staff and teachers see the best in our students and go above and beyond to support them to be the best people they can be.

Now that I have lived here for four months, I have to say that I now better understand the expression that Lakefield College is a feeling. Some have called it Grovey and I think that is a perfect word because no one knows what it means. But there is a feeling here that is created because of the relationships between students and between students and staff. I also cannot define that feeling, but whatever it is, it is the gift of this school and being part of this community. And I am grateful to be a small part of it.

So in this season of gift-giving, may you give the gift of sharing your gratitude for others – and expressing it!

May you give the gift of sharing your talents.

May you give the incredible gift of listening to one another.

And, throughout this entire holiday season and beyond, may you give the gift of seeing the best in others.

Are conference passé?

I am at NAIS in Philadelphia and I got a text from a family friend in Halifax. My daughter wrote this to her:  If you have an idea of what I should be when I grow up then text me back because I need something by tomorrow.

When I spoke with my daughter, she was in tears. I tried to calm her with the classic – you are 11 years old and have a long time to figure this out.  She cried: But I need it for homework today!  So I told her what I did in school – just say you want to be a lawyer.  And that is exactly what she did.

But the point is that when she needed help – and fast! – she texted.  This reflex reminded me of my son before Christmas. He reminded me of his research process to find a new video game.  He texted me:  Well I made a post on Facebook that said “Which games should I get for my Xbox?” Then I took the top 5 and did internet research on them and narrowed it down to the ones that I liked best.

When kids grow up with immediate access to information and people through social media, what is the role of schools?  Sometimes I get worked up thinking about blended learning and how best to incorporate technology into learning in the classroom.  But the fact is, kids are growing up with hand-held devices and can use them with or without schools.

So the answer to how to change is sometimes not to change.  There will always be a real need for face-to-face time together. I would argue that schools need to get better at teaching values of how to get along and how to be kind to each other. (Today we call them 21st century learning skills but many are just good old fashioned values.)

I feel the same way about conferences. I can – and do! – learn from listservs and webinars and internet research.  But I value more the opportunity to join my NAIS colleagues here in Philadelphia.  Since CAIS is part of the International Commission on Accreditation and the Independent School Association Network, I spend a full week engaged in listening and talking with colleagues from all over the world.  This is an international network of smart people who share my passion for accreditation, advocacy, professional development and research.  As CAIS is the only organization in Canada to focus on this combination of programs, this network is critical.  (I am joined by my friend Jan at CIS Ontario too!)

Sometimes I joke that I learn more from the hallway conversations, but it was pretty amazing yesterday to hear Jim Collins and Bob Evans.  And last night at Canada Night, people wanted to talk about them and Daniel Goleman and the other sessions they attended (including one on marriage and Headship by Sue Groesbeck and Hal Hannaford and their spouses!)

tweeted all about it, but I bet you would agree, that the real value is being here to hear and debate the ideas in person.

The Parenting Shift

At 6:00 am on Monday, I put my son Jacob on the bus with his grade seven class to St Donat. He was incredibly excited to ski (especially since there was no snow this holiday) and share a room with four boys and no adult, and to eat his Bulk Barn snacks on the bus – and these priorities are probably not in the right order. This trip was a huge deal.

My daughter was equally thrilled and she would do a little dance in the days before he left as she planned her life as an only child. (This included a dinner at a restaurant of her choice last night).

I admit that I was also excited. Jacob got an Xbox for Christmas, and Call of Duty has been pounding through our house ever since. The thought of four days without wet towels on the floor, sibling squabbles, and leftovers that we could actually count on eating the next day for dinner was appealing.

So as I stood with the other parents in the dark, waving to the bus – the kids didn’t even glance our way – I was surprised at my feelings. I thought I was going to celebrate the quiet and feel happy that he was going on a fun trip. Instead, I had a pang of this: I’m going to miss my baby boy, and I’m not ready to let him go.

So I have been focusing this week on making a shift: I need to celebrate all that he will become from experiences away from home. This is not about me (Did I just admit that??)

Last month, the Boston Globe ran a great article called Welcome to the Age of Over-parenting that explores the need for today’s parents to let their kids have more freedom and take more risks. I learned in that article that Michael Thomson is writing a book entitled Homesick and Happy: How Children Change and Grow When They Are Away From Their Parents. He is conducting a survey on his website about parents who have let their kids go to camp or abroad. He wants to remind parents that children grow and change when they are away from home. His research naturally made me think about our Collaborative Boarding Project, and I submitted a question to Michael to see if he might expand his research to explore the benefits of boarding school.

But for now, back to Jacob who is on the bus home as I write this blog. Before leaving, he told me that they were warned that if they misbehaved on the trip, they would be sent home early in a limo. I told him that if he was put in that limo, he should figure out a new address because he wasn’t coming home. I think he knew I was joking.

I just got a call from a happy and tired boy. And I’m thankful to report, he’s on the bus.

Holiday time

My favourite holiday tradition happens a few days before Christmas. My Dad was the oldest of nine kids, so I grew up with lots of aunts and cousins, and every year for as long as I can remember, we do a “Cousins Cookie Bake.” The only word to describe it is ‘chaos.’   We don’t use any of those wimpy box sets from the grocery story – we bake gingerbread cookies from scratch – and we don’t limit the kids to regular-looking gingerbread men – we let them pile up the candies and icing just the way they like them. (None of the adults familiar with this process will eat them anyway, so why not?)

Every year there seems to be excitement around the youngest child to arrive in the cutest of Christmas outfits. Ours is a family that loves kids so we end up fighting for who gets to hold the youngest, and we may even put a time limit on each other. And every year, one of the little ones will slip away, when no one is paying attention, and find a nice quiet spot, to munch on a fist-full of raw cookie dough or candies. It happens every year….

My other favorite part of the holidays is the time I get to read. Does anyone have time to read during the year anymore? I don’t mean read a few pages before the book falls on your face in bed, I mean hours of uninterrupted reading. Now that’s a vacation.

So as we rush through these last few days of school and then squeeze in extra errands before collapsing into bed at night, all while trying to keep a sense of humour, I hope we think of what’s to come. For the holiday season will surely provide us with the gift of time. Time to think of others and time to do whatever makes us happy. Time to live in the present, and time to let kids be kids.

All the best to you as you go off into your holidays.

P.S. I polled a few CAIS Heads in preparation for my holiday reading. Happy to share their advice with you:

Hugh Burke, Meadowridge School, BC: I am reading a bunch of stuff. Have you read The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr? I ordered one copy for each of my Board. I think it is very balanced and sound thinking regarding the nature, direction, scope and effect of digital media, with implications regarding neuroplasticity and the capabilities of children…  Oh, and have you read It’s a book!…. Great new kids book that adults love.

Kathy Nikidis, ECS, Quebec: Just read Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Friere – old but interesting (and sometimes painful) – otherwise pleasure reading – just working on Imperfect Endings by Zoe Fitzgerald Carter….so beautiful….

Jim Power, UCC, Ontario: I’m slowly making my way through Courage: The Backbone of Leadership by Gus Lee.

Ted Spear, Island Pacific, BC: I’m reading Thomas Oppenheimer ~ The Flickering Mind. Against whole bookshelves of clarion calls to the digital age, this is a somewhat dated, but still thoughtful, series of cautionary tales regarding the use of technology in schools.  Something for all of us to keep in mind as we hop on the bandwagon.

David Thompson, Montcrest, Ontario : I am currently working my way through two books Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv and The Third Teacher that was written as a collaborative exercise by a few architects.

P.P.S. If you have a book to recommend, please comment.

Tis the Season

Four years ago, when my kids were still in public school, I sat in the audience watching their school Christmas show and shed a little tear. The little ones sang some songs and I think they even danced – there is nothing I love more than to watch children belting out their favorite tunes. (One of the absolute perks of my job is that I get to watch this so often in chapel and assemblies across this country…there is nothing but joy when children sing.)   And while they sing, the proud parents try to hold still so they can capture that twinkle in their eye on video. I love watching them too – especially if the kid has found the eyes of his or her parents and is singing only for them and then gives a little wave to top it all off.   At Christmas, for me, the only thing better is when the entire audience joins in the fun and sings a good round of We Wish You a Merry Christmas, or my elementary school favorite, Feliz Navidad. I’m a real sucker for that holiday experience.

But four years ago, I didn’t leave with that warm family feeling. Instead, I watched a performance where the senior students had rewritten the lyrics and sang the Twelve Days of Christmas with each day involving a popular toy or game. I know that kids find this funny, but I was disappointed that these students were allowed to focus on material stuff. To make things worse, they had not been prepared and even they weren’t smiling. Now I know that my holiday show expectations are probably higher than most, but I couldn’t help but wonder: where was the joy of the holiday season?

Last night I saw Stuart McLean’s Christmas Concert, and it captured everything you could hope for – funny and thought-provoking stories as well as fun and beautiful music – and, yes, there were cute kids on stage and the entire Hamilton Place audience sang a couple of Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir songs (my favorite holiday show in Montreal… if you could get tickets….)

So as everyone is busy preparing for their holiday shows, I love thinking about this opportunity to do what our CAIS schools do best. We engage all kids. We challenge them to be kind and generous. We celebrate what is good. We include grandparents, so we bring together three generations.

We prepare our students so we excel at performance – we play music, we put on plays, and we sing – and I know our CAIS schools, so when I say we sing, you know we sing our hearts out.  We strive to help our kids combine preparation with passion.  That’s why our holiday shows hit that sweet spot, warm our hearts, and create memories for a lifetime.

After the magic

Two years ago, in mid December, my husband overheard this conversation while waiting at the bus stop with our kids:

Jacob (9 years old):  You know what the kids in my class have been saying?

Kathleen (7 years old): What?

Jacob:  Santa’s not real.  It’s our Mom and Dad.

Kathleen:  Jacob.  Do you really think our Mom and Dad fly all over  the world, sliding up and down chimneys, delivering presents, in one night? I don’t think so.

Now Kathleen says everything with a certain feistiness, and as usual, she convinced her brother that she was right.

This story really struck me; Kathleen had this incredible way of sizing up her parents in that statement – we must be too busy, too cheap and too selfish to make such a trip around the world for the sake of other children.

Last spring, before Easter, Kathleen was in the back seat of our car when she told me that she lost a tooth.  I said that she’d have to stick it under her pillow at night.  There was a long silence before she quietly said:  “I lost it yesterday, actually, and put it under my pillow last night.  I know the tooth fairy is you and Dad”. Yikes.  How did this one get so clever?  I always think my job as a parent is to ask questions and listen.  She worked through her thoughts and finally concluded, “And I’m guessing the Easter Bunny is the same.” That night, I asked her about Santa. “If I don’t believe in a magical tooth fairy or bunny, do you think I believe a man in a red suit flies around the world?”  Her attitude was back.

So with Christmas only a few days away, and with Kathleen’s new knowledge about Santa, there is no magic in our house.  But I have been struck by what has emerged instead.  Last weekend, Kathleen woke up and told us that she was going to make cookies all by herself and give them to our neighbours.  She worked all morning, then put four cookies (only four each!) on a paper plate and wrapped them in saran.  You have no idea how much I wanted to add additional cookies or chocolates or decorations to those plates… but I resisted, and off she went to deliver her gifts.

When I asked Jacob what he was most looking forward to, he said he “couldn’t wait” to see Kathleen unwrap her gift.

It seems that without Santa, the kids are just as excited.  I almost prefer them knowing that Kevin and I chose their special gifts.  Is it selfish of me to not want to give credit to a man in a red suit? Am I hopeful that our daughter will think differently about her parents this year? I think it is more a desire for me to share with them the real joy of generosity.

May your holidays be filled with special memories, and may you enjoy being generous with those you love.