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Great Idea Archive
Starting at the End
Whether your school is just beginning a character/leadership initiative or it already has a robust program with many elements, it will be beneficial to instigate an internal discussion of:
Having clarity and purpose is important to efficiently move forward with a program. Because the issues involved in having these discussions and coming to preliminary working conclusions from them are pedagogically complex, potentially divisive, and difficult to schedule, they seem too often not ever to occur, often leaving schools with loosely coordinated programmatic elements, little ability to determine if those elements are working, and little sense of what resources and staffing their program needs K-12.
What follows are questions that have helped my school, St. Mark’s School, to teach character and leadership more coherently and effectively. We began with articulating realistic but aspirational outcomes for each student and creating growth-mindset-oriented assessments.
What concepts, principles, and arguments do the students need to understand and at what levels of fluency? Though teaching conceptual understanding is a school-wide effort, our English and humanities departments, in particular, have taken on the task of assessment.
What leadership experiences and skills do the students need to have had and to have mastered? Though our faculty are all creating grade-appropriate leadership challenges for our students, and some organic internal roles on publications and student government offer sufficient leadership challenges for a small number of students, we are moving toward culminating team-oriented and team-assessed servant-leadership projects to insure that every student builds significant experiences and skills leading a team.
Developing answers to these questions—answers always subject to critique and improvement—has helped St. Mark’s determine what our ultimate goal is for each student, which has allowed us to work backwards to determine who can do what when at earlier grade levels as the students build their knowledge and skills throughout their time at school [we are using the shifts after 8th and 4th grades as particular milestones]. Starting at the end has also helped us build a much stronger, clearer case for our program and thereby achieve buy-in from faculty, students, parents, alumni, and trustees.
Dr. Martin Stegemoeller
Brachman Master Teacher Chair and Curriculum Coordinator for Character and Leadership Education
St. Mark's School of Texas, Dallas
January 10, 2017
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The Boarding School Campfire: Finding Meaningful Moments
To paraphrase one of the great voices in the world of U.S. independent schools, Dr. Chuck Garrettson, faculty sage at the Hill School (PA), some years ago offered me the poignant insight that few environments are as suitable for meaningful conversation between adolescents and adults as residential school communities. In a word, he asked me, “Where else can you sit around the campfire each night?” Though residential settings bring younger and older minds together each evening in the dorm corridors, family style meals, in particular, clearly bring this image to bear before us: the dining table is the stone circle that surrounds the pit; the food is the warm fire that provides comfort; and the adults and students that share the meal could easily substitute the quiet offer of ideas and attentiveness for the marshmallows toasting on their wooden twigs. In what ways might we nurture further engagement with community, and deeper introspection, at formal meals?
In whatever language might be appropriate for your community, it is worth honoring the many hands that have prepared the meal to be shared and, perhaps, the sacrifice made for our consumption. All those gathered for the meal can appreciate the great gift of healthy food by pausing in silence, and/or listening to a voice offer thanks.
The Menu Card
Either to report our relationship with local food producers, to provide some thoughts to promote dialogue at the meal, or to celebrate the community in some way, placing a small, conspicuous card at each table, and asking those seated at the table to share its contents, can nurture meaningful engagement with important realities or challenging situations.
A most meaningful moment each week is the school-wide singing of the Deerfield Academy opus, “Evensong,” sung at Sunday night sit-down meals, and set to the quiet accompaniment of a single pianist. Students come together, holding each other around the waist and shoulder, swaying to the quiet tune and its contemplative value. It is a powerful moment to have the voices of hundreds of students come together in harmony in the evening twilight that precedes the coming school week.
Consider your community’s social and spiritual settings and explore opportunities to stack and light logs, and to sit together in comfort. It may be that you do not need a cold night and a clear sky to take advantage of the warmth available in the campfire around which we can sit in our schools.
Dean of Spiritual and Ethical Life
Deerfield Academy, Deerfield, MA
December 12, 2016
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The Importance and Practice of Informed Civil Discourse
Students want to talk about the things that matter most. Plenty happens around the world, and in their own backyard, that students want to talk about—things they hear on the news; things they read about online; things their parents talk about at the dinner table. While students want to talk about these important and, oftentimes, charged topics, they don’t always know how to do that, and they often don’t have a place to do that. An important function of education is to help students explore and participate in the market place of ideas that a democratic society encourages, all the while learning how to respect the opinions and perspectives of others. Schools can help in three ways:
they can teach their students how to become informed
they can have students practice being civil
and they can create forums for student discourse.
While students might want to talk about what matters most, they often have little or no information about the issues. Here are some things schools can do to teach students to become informed.
Share resources with students where they can find accurate and balanced information.
Help students evaluate the places they get information currently, especially online resources and social media.
Utilize on-campus student groups that know how to do research to provide models for what it looks like to be informed about an issue: the debate team, the mock trial team, the newspaper staff or broadcasting club.
Unfortunately, the media offers many examples of incivility and few examples of politeness and tact when it comes to people talking about what matters most. Here are some ways schools can help students practice civility.
Teach students the rules of engagement (that they don’t see on tv): critique ideas, not people; listen and take turns talking; if someone is getting their feelings hurt, back down.
Help students connect with each other, not just their ideas, by addressing each other and using their proper name, not a pronoun.
Encourage students to think of the “other” by creating experiences for them to take on the voice of people from different backgrounds and who have had different experiences than their own.
Have a word or phrase that students can use to let others know if they have crossed the line, such as “red light” or “flag on the play.”
Students don’t get many opportunities to practice discourse about charged topics. If we want students to be good at it, then schools need to create forums for students to do it. Here are some examples.
Have students engage in debate-style activities in a variety of classes on a variety of volatile topics, where both sides are presented equally.
Employ small student groups, such as advisories, to debrief current heated local and world events.
Have moderated “town hall meetings” where students can come to discuss a specific topic or a hot button event.
Academic Dean & Dean of Faculty
Marist School, Atlanta, GA
October 4, 2016
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Kids and Politics
The US political campaign weighs heavily on many minds, including school administrators wondering if, or how, to address the headlines. Thoughtful engagement is a necessity for independent schools. We are able to provide guidance to students and even parents during a confusing and sometimes frightening time. This is not to say a school should promote a particular candidate. Rather, this political season is an ideal opportunity for schools and parents to help children better understand and clarify their values. Instead of seeing the current campaign as a problem, it can be seen as full of timely “teachable moments” to clarify and possibly more deeply embrace shared values at school, and to offer parents tools for the home.
The following tips are offered by the authors cited below:
Encourage children to talk. A survey by the Southern Poverty Law Center shows that some students are quite disturbed by the current political discourse. Conversation is important for all ages, including very young children. We may think of only upper school children as listening to political discourse but, as with many hard topics, young children have big ears. We are often surprised by what Pre-K children know and how they misinterpret complex arguments. Ask them what they know about the candidates and ask them to explain to you what they are hearing and how they feel about it. For older children, asking questions about campaigns might be a way to start a rich values conversation with a typically quiet teenager.
Teach how to disagree. Faculty should have clarity about how to have a conversation on this topic for the various ages. Be sure everyone knows: a) the school does not endorse any candidate, b) all students should feel safe in saying what they are thinking, c) students should listen well enough to repeat what others have said, d) school values can be held-up as a guide for political judgments.
Define values. Children of all ages should have a good understanding of what the values in “our home or school” are. Core belief that “this” must always be upheld is best achieved after offering examples of how people are positively or negatively impacted by values, or the lack of a good value system. Don’t assume children of any age understand the lessons of history that show the fruits of a political system lacking respect for human dignity, honesty or civility.
Do something. It is good modeling for complicated conversations like this to not simply be theoretical. Children cannot vote, but parents can take them to a political rally, or place a political sign in their front yard. Schools can hold an in-school election or participate in Scholastic's nationwide, online student voting.
Submitted by Bob Mattingly, CSEE
August 23, 2016
Patterson, Te-Erika, “Do Children Just Take their Parents Political Beliefs? It is Not that Simple.” The Atlantic, May 1, 2014.
Briscoe, Allison, “How to Talk to Your Kids about Donald Trump,” Greater Good Center Berkley, April 13, 2016.
"Talking Politics: What to Say to Your Kids." Kids Health. Kidshealth.org. Web. 22 Aug. 2016.
Southern Poverty Law Center, “The Trump Effect: The Impact of the Presidential Campaign on our Nations Schools," April 13, 2016.