Field Notes 3/5/18: Optimism and Pessimism from the Writing Battlefield

Language evolves, and no amount of fulminating, or imposition of rules, can stop it. But more importantly, justice demands that we make the effort to accept ‘they’, ‘themself’ or any new gender-neutral pronouns that achieve widespread use. A language that collapses male and female into ‘man’ reflects a society that strips women of their separate being. And a language that collapses the spectrum of gender identities into male and female reflects a society that refuses to acknowledge the identity and very existence of a significant segment of its population…

Once a copyeditor, always a grammar nerd, and I confess that ‘Carey makes themself coffee every morning’ makes me wince. But I’m willing to wince for as long as it takes – most likely, not very long.

Stephanie Golden. Aeon. We Need the Singular ‘They’ – and It Won’t Seem Wrong for Long.

It is possible to teach students how to write as a way to make meaning rather than fill pots. The problem is that it’s much more difficult for both student and teacher. For students, it takes a lot longer to get better at writing this way, and the path to improvement is littered with the discouraging wreckage of dysfunctional sentences and incoherent arguments. And for teachers, the difficulty of teaching the skill this way undermines their sense of professional competence. In addition, grading papers for meaning takes a lot more time and involves a lot more judgment than grading for form – which, after all, can be done by a computer…

Then again, it makes life easier for all concerned. So it’s not going away soon.

David Labaree. Aeon. The Five-Paragraph Fetish.

Field Notes 3/4/18: Where Students Do the Thinking

Much gratitude and well wishes to Tikvah and everyone from the Idea School — we need more visionaries like you!

…The rest of the day we spent at Gann Academy, which has one of the best reputations in the Jewish day school world. We understood why immediately. From the moment we entered the school building and read the quotations on the entryway wall from Proverbs, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Hannah Senesh, Bob Dylan, and Rita Levi-Montalcini (a neurobiologist and like Bob Dylan a Nobel laureate), we knew we were in a special place.

One of Gann’s most impressive features is its culture of teacher growth and professional development. Jacob Pinnolis, Gann’s director of teaching and learning and a co-author of the book “The Power of Teacher Rounds,” told us about the enormous amount of time and effort the administration and teachers put into developing themselves and creating a culture at the school where “kids do the thinking.” He told us that by the time teachers finish the school’s rigorous hiring process, they know well that they shouldn’t bother joining the Gann team if they aren’t focused on creating courses and learning units that empower students do the work.

Tikvah Wiener. The Times of Israel. Educators’ Holiday.

Field Notes 2/25/18: How to Parent an Olympic Athlete

Karen Crouse, a New York Times sports writer who has attended around ten Olympic games over the past few decades, stumbled upon a kind of parenting utopia where, in her view, parents are really getting it right. That utopia is Norwich, Vermont, a charming town with roughly 3,000 residents. It has a historic inn and spotty cell service; households’ groceries are added to a running tab that families pay off at the end of the month. But Norwich is big in other ways: The town has sent an athlete to almost every Winter Olympics over the past 30 years, and it boasts three Olympic medals.

The parents of Norwich are not setting out to develop Olympians. Their aim is to use sports as a vehicle to instill in their kids a lasting love of the outdoors and physical activity, learn life lessons, and develop lasting friendships. They recognize that in the big picture, relationships matter more than championships.

Fattal, Isabel. The Atlantic. How to Parent an Olympic Athlete.


Dedication and Risk-Taking


Dear Colleagues,

Over the course of these past two weeks, I’ve been watching a lot of adolescents in front of the cameras. Sports crews in South Korea often focus on the teenagers, not on the older Olympic athletes. News crews in Florida zoom in on the high school students, not their parents. The stories on TV have substantially been about youth.

On the face of it, events in PyeongChang and Parkland could not have been more different. In Korea, I seemed to be watching adolescents at the pinnacle of their craft, performing tasks they had been practicing thousands of times. In Florida, on the other hand, high schoolers seemed to emerge spontaneously to tell their stories of shock and pain and, through improvisation, translate that grief into action.

And yet Olympic adolescents are usually not cool and calm professionals. They take risks; they reject routines; they make decisions on the fly. Witness, for example, Nick Porteous, the 16 year-old New Zealander whose risky and unexpected half-pipe freestyle run shocked no one more than himself.


Nick Porteous after his run.

Conversely, high school student leaders from Parkland were well-prepared for their roles. I make this point without subscribing to false conspiracy theories about “crisis actors.” My point is that these students studied; they practiced making persuasive arguments; they learned from their teachers and from each other. As one pointed out:


Delaney Tarr, Student Activist

We are lucky enough to come from a very affluent neighborhood. We go to an amazing school that’s been giving us so many opportunities to learn about government, to learn about policy, to learn about social issues. We have so many clubs and classes dedicated to this type of thing, so we know what we’re talking about. And we’ve always been ready to speak out about it, but this has hit so close to home that we have to speak out about this, right now …

One of our members of the House of Representatives, Ted Deutch, he actually came down just weeks before [the shooting] to speak to us because we’ve been so politically involved. So many of us are in politics clubs. So many of us are in AP government.

We dedicate ourselves to this. We dedicate ourselves to learning about this. So we are in a place where we are lucky enough to know what to say, to know what to talk about, and to know what changes need to be made. And it’s sad to think about us being lucky at a time like this, but we have the ability to do something that others may not. –Delaney Tarr

Delaney Tarr ascribes a good amount of her and her peers’ preparation to the relative advantage they hold as members of an affluent community. I agree, and I would also argue that most adolescents, almost anywhere, are endowed with a distinctive combination of passion, dedication, and risk-taking. Since adolescents do not often see much tension between well-practiced behavior and risk-taking behavior, they are inherently predisposed to be great activists (and athletes, artists, etc.). We should not be surprised to see adolescents in front of the cameras; we should instead ask why we don’t see them there more often. Delaney Tarr’s point about relative advantage offers one possible explanation; another is Bill Deresiewicz’s argument about excellent sheep.

We will likely see more adolescent activists soon. There are no less than three national student actions (on school safety and gun-related violence) planned in the next two months. Over the past week I have heard from Gann students, parents, and faculty. All are wondering, in one form or another, what the Gann administration thinks about these upcoming events.

I would like to devote our next meeting to the question of how we most effectively work with our students during this time of national student-led activism. In the meantime, let me offer two principles:

  1. If students want to take action, students should lead the process. We can advise; we can suggest or offer resources; we can help them think through options. But we must give them the space in which to organize and to act. The choice-points – and the sacrifices — should be theirs to make. If we co-opt an event and make it a faculty-driven process, or a “Gann-sponsored” program, then it’s no longer student-led activism. If we make it about us, we’re failing them.
  2. At the same time, our students clearly need guidance and supervision. We cannot shirk our duty as coaches and teachers responsible for their general welfare. As adults, we have the advantage of fully developed prefrontal cortexes; we should advise our students accordingly.

Yes, it’s a balancing act, but I am confident that we can navigate this path. Now, more than ever, I feel blessed and fortunate to have the opportunity to work with all of you and most especially with all our students.

Field Notes 2/4/18: On Assessing What Matters

The outcomes we choose to measure, as well as the methods of assessment we use, signal to students, parents, and others what matters. If we claim to value critical thinking, creative problem solving, oral communication, and the ability to work effectively in groups, then we need to teach and assess those outcomes.

McTighe, Jay. Educational Leadership. Three Key Questions on Measuring Learning.

Field Notes 1/28/18: On Dignity and Mastery

It’s a gray day in New England, and winter across the northern hemisphere. Yet it’s the height of summer elsewhere, and therefore wedding season. One recent ceremony in New Zealand reminded me of Gann’s mission to build a better world where human dignity will flourish. May our students be as loving, and as generous, as those who planned this event.

What typically emerges from looking at kids, gifted and ordinary, is that, from the kids’ point of view, accomplishment, that is, the private sense of mastery, the hard thing suddenly made easy, counts for far more in their inner lives than does the achievement—the competition won, the reward secured. The mystery of mastery, felt in the child’s mind or muscles, is more compelling than the concreteness of achievement, the trophy pressed in her hands. 

Gopnik, Adam. The New Yorker. How to Raise a Prodigy.