When Local Institutions Matter

As educators, do we demonstrate to our students that we value our local institutions?

The chain of house explosions and fires that rocked Lawrence, North Andover, and Andover in Massachusetts late Thursday afternoon were tragic and frightening in part because they were so abrupt, so unexpected, so random, and so devastating for those affected. That experience was immediately followed by a loss not just of natural gas but of electrical supply. As state police closed off highway access, as fire fighters from across Northern Massachusetts and New Hampshire tried to douse up to 80 burning houses and businesses, and as residents evacuated (some on foot), the scene was something out of a Hollywood disaster movie.

That was Thursday. Today, many residents are returning to their homes, and power is returning. Of course, some residents do not have houses to which to return; others are comforting the wounded as well as the family of the teenager who died from a house explosion (sheer luck kept the number of wounded and fatalities from being much higher).

There’s another kind of loss that happened in the Merrimack Valley as well – a loss of public trust. Columbia Gas did not activate their crisis rapid-response plan, assuming they had one to begin with. Governor Baker declared a state of emergency and transferred operational control to Eversource, saying that “on a number of very significant issues, we heard one thing, and then something else happened.”

When public trust is in scarce supply, it’s important to recognize how critical local institutions are, particularly in times of crisis. In Lawrence, for example, the senior center has become a focal point for donations. The library has become a communications hub for utility-related questions. St. Patrick’s and the Cor Unum Meal Center (serving free meals in a restaurant-like setting) are helping hold the community together.

As educators, do we help our students value their local institutions? Do we model that kind of connection ourselves? Do we foster interconnection and interdependence within our communities?

A Walk in the Woods

Fernald 1

NPR Reporter: “This is like a legit museum, you guys!”

Gann Student: “I know!”

Here and Now

Two years ago, on a beautiful early August day, my husband and I took a lovely walk in the woods. We came upon a neglected cemetery, with little more than a stone wall and a wooden sign to distinguish it from a field. We stopped and looked more closely. The wooden sign indicated that the “MetFern Cemetery” was where students from the Fernald School were buried, as well as the adult patients of the Met State Hospital.

Why were children buried in a forgotten corner of the woods?

Back at our house, quick research yielded some initial info – the Fernald School was a state residential institution “for the feebleminded.” The entry exam required a young child to score relatively poorly on a brief and flawed IQ test that took no account of a child’s previous education or level of literacy. The “state boys” were therefore a mix of students who were truly developmentally disabled (by 2018 standards) and those who were committed there simply by being wards of the Commonwealth. Progressive in its early decades, the Fernald School became a troubled institution by the mid-20th century — one with many stories of neglect and exploitation, such as the mistreatment of teenagers which led to the revolt chronicled in “The State Boys’ Rebellion.”  Now closed, its 186 acres of land and buildings sit abandoned — ironically, adjacent to Gann Academy. While Fernald’s entrance is 1 mile away, the property backs up almost to Gann’s fields, with only a thin layer of trees separating one school from another.

Less than two weeks after our walk, I sat down for coffee with a local historian, Alex Green, who was researching the history of Fernald . He shared with me many well-meaning but often under-resourced efforts to make visible the lives of those whom society had forgotten (“The State Boys’ Rebellion” being the one exception). It was that conversation that convinced me that a relationship between Gann Academy and the Fernald site was going to be fruitful, perhaps transformative. It was clear how meaningful it would be for Gann adolescents to research the lives of Fernald adolescents, and how powerful it would be for Gann students to help memorialize the site and suggest appropriate ways to preserve and reuse the space. It was an obvious opportunity for project-based learning (PBL). But I also felt that we had a moral obligation to tell the stories of the Fernald School. As a Jewish school with a commitment to “build a better world where human dignity will flourish,” we would be authentic to both our mission and our core values if we told these hidden narratives of liberty neglected, of dignity deferred.

Of course, it was easy for me to have coffee with someone and envision educational, civic, and moral engagement. It was another to invite my school to pursue this resource-intensive work. I did not know how students and faculty would respond to the idea of a project such as this one.

I need not have been concerned. Gann students and faculty immediately understood both the moral urgency and the possibilities. U.S. History teachers rewrote their curricula, on the spot. We brought Alex on board, first on a volunteer basis and then as a part-time teacher and PBL resource.  Students developed a test website with a virtual map of the Fernald campus. A senior conducted research on the MetFern Cemetery, designed an online presence to tell its story, lobbied the Commonwealth to rehabilitate it, and created an online donation portal. That was year one.

This past year, two classes of history students learned and taught a history of Americans with disabilities. They analyzed historical artifacts; they researched background and context. They examined the narrative of American history through the lens of those whom mainstream society labeled “disabled” in different eras. With the support of a grant from the Ruderman Foundation, and in interdisciplinary partnership with students in a graphic design class at Gann, they mounted an exhibit to demonstrate what a national museum for the history of people with disabilities might look like.

Yes. that’s right: a national museum, the first of its kind, to be sited at Fernald, around the corner from our school. It had long been a dream of Waltham City Councilman George Darcy and many other devoted citizens and advocates, although not the vision of every politician in the city. Now, Gann students were prototyping what might be possible.

On June 7, 2018, the opening night of the exhibit, politicians, activists, and advocates mingled while students led tours and ran Q&A panels. Waltham Mayor McCarthy stepped to the podium and, in a dramatic gesture, pledged her support for the creation of a national museum at the Fernald site.

The exhibit, “A Disability History of the United States: Division, Unity, Hardship, and Progress”, has now attracted national attention:

I am so incredibly grateful to the students, faculty, and staff of Gann Academy, who infused the entire enterprise with such an outstanding ethic of excellence. My school accomplished more than I could possibly have imagined in two years’ time. There is so more to be done, but we are believers and we have the confidence to aim higher and achieve even more. More stories must be told. More advocacy must happen. The museum must be built.

For now I’ll simply end by saying: two years ago, my husband and I had a lovely walk in the woods.


Digging into Implicit Bias

Dear Colleagues,

The field of social psychology is a fascinating one. Many thoughtful psychological studies over the past few decades have demonstrated how easily our thoughts and actions can defy our own self-conception as neutral, rational, bias-free individuals. Researchers have discovered these “mind-tricks” through innovative psychological experiments in human behavior.

In my view, these studies are exciting (rather than intimidating) in part because they offer not simply challenges but solutions, both meta-cognitive and strategic, to overcome what researchers have long termed “implicit bias.” There are all sorts of benefits that accrue from exploration of this topic; as professionals, we can relate much more thoughtfully to current and prospective students, colleagues, and parents, not to mention other constituencies within our larger community. It’s no surprise to me that an increasing number of organizations, including K-12 schools and colleges, explore implicit bias as a key component of professional development.

We at Gann are in a particularly advantageous position to explore implicit bias. Not only does work on implicit bias strengthen our initiatives in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; it also comports very well with our character study groups. Soul-traits such as humility and compassion prepare us emotionally and psychologically for growth in our relationships with others. The daily practice of a soul-trait gives us a useful model for how routinely to incorporate these anti-bias tools into our professional work.

For these reasons, I invite all returning Gann professionals to read an introductory book on the topic: Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People. I think that everyone will find the book an enjoyable summer read. At our August in-service, we will spend some time discussing the book’s themes and arguments, and then pivot into a deeper dive during the 2018-2019 academic year.


Field Notes

Phillips and Henderson, who previously taught in high schools, have been blown away by their pupils’ rave reviews. Students, without any solicitation, have been emailing them to praise the videos for their clarity and encouragement. “In our combined 25 years of experience,” Phillips says, “we never got responses like that.”

Daisy Yuhas. WQED/Mindshift (via Hechinger Report). How Giving Students Feedback Through Video Instead of Text Can Foster Better Understanding.


The Stories We Tell

Dear Colleagues,

It’s been a powerful stretch of storytelling. In the past three weeks, we remembered the Holocaust through the stories of survivors. Via “Natural Shocks” we heard the story of a woman threatened by physical violence. We listened as students shared their celebratory and challenging experiences with Jewish identity and practice.

I am proud of storytelling at Gann. We have a modality that we celebrate for what it offers both speakers and listeners. Through stories we share, in a truly captivating way, the diverse experiences of those about whom we care deeply.



Our expanding curriculum and our experiential learning initiatives offer the opportunity to hear from so many, on and off campus, in the United States and abroad. When we encounter their narratives, we understand their complexity. When we listen carefully, we recognize emotional threads. We begin to map the world through their eyes, we develop empathy, and we begin to think creatively about how to improve our community and the wider world around us.

I am now thinking about all the opportunities for storytelling that we might afford our students in the next academic year. What might we prioritize? What should we highlight?

Field Notes

Something has gone wrong with the flow of information. It’s not just that different people are drawing subtly different conclusions from the same evidence. It seems like different intellectual communities no longer share basic foundational beliefs. Maybe nobody cares about the truth anymore, as some have started to worry. Maybe political allegiance has replaced basic reasoning skills. Maybe we’ve all become trapped in echo chambers of our own making – wrapping ourselves in an intellectually impenetrable layer of likeminded friends and web pages and social media feeds.

But there are two very different phenomena at play here, each of which subvert the flow of information in very distinct ways. Let’s call them echo chambers and epistemic bubbles. Both are social structures that systematically exclude sources of information. Both exaggerate their members’ confidence in their beliefs. But they work in entirely different ways, and they require very different modes of intervention. An epistemic bubble is when you don’t hear people from the other side. An echo chamber is what happens when you don’t trust people from the other side.

C Thi Nguyen. Aeon. Escape the Echo Chamber.


In July 2017, the Pew Research Center released the results of a national poll: A majority (58 percent) of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents believed that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country, up 13 percentage points from the previous year. The Pew survey is not the only recent sign of growing public distrust of higher education: This year’s percentage increase in state support for higher education is the lowest in five years; tenure is being attacked and in some cases eliminated; and we hear frequent expressions of doubt about a college degree’s “return on investment.”

Various explanations have been offered for this devaluation. In the early 1990s, state institutions began raising their tuition, and tuition rates at most colleges rose disproportionately to growth in middle-class incomes. The economic downturn of 2008 accelerated the disparity between family income and college tuition and fees, while simultaneously weakening the link between college degrees and high-paying jobs. Anti-intellectualism, always quietly present in the American zeitgeist, became noisier; suddenly, studying the humanities was “useless,” and religious beliefs became an accepted counterweight to critical thought. Wariness of “cognitive elites” paralleled a growing suspicion of immigrants; both seemed to be taking jobs away from working-class white men, who resented the loss of income, as well as their loss of status as the backbone of the American economy.

But there’s another reason for public distrust of higher education that few are talking about: the increased presence of women. Now that women enroll, succeed, and in many cases, surpass men in attaining college degrees, the value of those degrees is diminishing.

Nancy Niemi. Chronicle of Higher Education. Why Does the Public Distrust Higher Ed? Too Many Women.

Housing Inequality, continued

Dear Colleagues,

Briefly — given what I wrote in January on the PBL opportunity on housing in the Greater Boston area, I think it’s appropriate to share a recent article as a follow-up. In his piece “Is Housing Inequality the Main Driver of Economic Inequality?”, Richard Florida points to recent research by Matthew Rognlie that demonstrates how the housing crisis in cities like Boston is having far-reaching impact on American society (perhaps substantial political impact as well).

Since we live in the Boston area, we have known and perhaps become somewhat inured to this crisis. And yet, as I pointed out a couple of months ago, there are many creative strategies that researchers, policy-makers, and advocates have proposed to ameliorate it. Both the complexity of the problem, and the myriad trajectories toward possible improvement, speak to urban housing not only as an outstanding PBL opportunity, but as an important way in which our students can explore questions of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

“A Lighthouse Reflective and Protective”

Dear Colleagues,

Over break, I visited family in Denver, and the local newspaper caught my attention. The Post, under hedge fund ownership, has suffered round after round of layoffs. The Pulitzer Prize–winning enterprise is now a shell of its former self. The paper, in an act of desperation and open rebellion, attacked its owners in its lead editorial without the owner’s prior knowledge. The Post demanded that its owners sell the paper to those who will continue to support decent journalism. You can read more about the situation here.

The news industry is suffering a “gale of creative destruction,” to quote Joseph Schumpeter. I hope that the Post survives; I also know that several new and valuable sources of information are emerging. Some traditional outlets are reinventing themselves; others are entirely new, often non-profit, and discovering how to thrive in an uncertain marketplace.

Will journalism, as a profession, survive? We have reason to wonder who will continue to uphold its five ethical principles:

  1. Truth and Accuracy
  2. Independence
  3. Fairness and Impartiality
  4. Humanity
  5. Accountability

I fear that without professional standards and principles, the public will not recover its trust in journalism. Confidence has diminished for good reason. Today we live with anonymous lead editorials and with nearly 200 local news anchors reading an identical script of corporate provenance, not to mention all the misrepresented material that floats through social media.

Here at Gann, we have been exploring frames of information literacy that are relevant to this crisis of public trust, including “Authority is Constructed and Contextual” and “Information Creation as a Process.” We have been identifying useful sub-skills through these frames, and we have been developing questions that we might raise with our students to help them understand, value, and critique the nature of authority and the act of putting together an “information product.”

How do we engage students in information literacy when sometimes we ourselves do not know who or what created the material we consume? There are no easy answers, but perhaps our best strategy is the promotion of ethical practices among students as content creators themselves. I hope that they will own and exercise their unique voices, and that they will practice civil debate with each other. From that foundation, they may be more inspired to uphold and defend quality content and authorship of all sorts — even if those voices are distant from their own experiences, stances, and beliefs.

How else should we support the skills and habits of mind that our students will need to withstand the gale of creative destruction and regenerate a vibrant and (yes) cacophonous public square?

Field Notes

Mary Murphy, an associate psychology professor and mindset researcher at Indiana University, was not involved with the article but agreed with its findings, noting that students of all ages can lose trust in adults who praise them for effort without specifying what was “effective” about their effort. Murphy suggested educators can give adolescents a better foundation for a growth mindset by, among other things:

  • Providing opportunities for students to reflect on their own learning. For example, instead of using assessments primarily for the teacher, let students assess themselves regularly and report back on how they have developed.
  • HIghlight mistakes in the everyday practice of learning. “Tell students, ‘I don’t want to know what you found easy, I want to know what you got wrong because that’s where the learning will be,'” Murphy said in an email. “This naturally gets students to think about how much they are learning and developing, and will get them to think about what other strategies they could try.”
  • Use group work where peers discuss what they each struggled with and explore individual strengths of different students.

Sarah Sparks. Education Week. For Teenagers, Praising ‘Effort’ May Not Promote a Growth Mindset.

…Unlike so many other education books written 15 years ago, “An Ethic of Excellence” feels more relevant today than ever before. At a time when modern education is considering whether and how to embrace new forms of transcripts, new approaches to school architecture and schedules, new ways to integrate technology, and new place-based experiences for students, Berger’s book cuts through the noise of innovation and insists that the singular representation of a school’s purpose is — and should be — the work its students produce. Any institutional effort that doesn’t enable students to produce interesting, authentic, rigorous work is effort wasted.

Eric Hudson. Global Online Academy. It’s Time for Educators to Revisit “An Ethic of Excellence.” Here’s Why.