Thursday, November 10, 2016

Nora Values and the Election

My remarks to the Nora School community on the morning of November 9, 2016


The sadness that many of you feel today is, I suspect, not about tax policy, or climate change, or even immigration policy, but rather about the apparent retreat in parts of our society of respect, civility, kindness, and tolerance. Please keep in mind, however, that this represents only parts of our society, not all of it, and not even a majority. I know that I worry for those of my friends and family who don’t look like me, have my privilege, or my way of relating to the world as a middle-aged heterosexual white man with a decent health care plan. 

Whatever the next four years may bring, you have it within your power to create your own community, the community you want around you... one that is kind, civil, caring, tolerant, and just. Raise the bar on yourself, your friends, your family, and the stranger you run into on the street in order to spread ripples of kindness, civility, and justice. You may not be able to change the wider culture in a day, but you can do your part to change it over a lifetime. It’s no longer up to someone else to do this for us, we must do it ourselves. This is not a time for cynicism, it’s a time to challenge ourselves to do better.

Marcia sent me an article this morning from Ali Michael, Ph.D,  the Director of K-12 Consulting and Professional Development at the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania. I’ve paraphrased her words and ideas in part to reiterate the values that we stand for at The Nora School.

Decide that you will fight bigotry. We will not tolerate bigotry at Nora. We will stand by our Muslim families, our same-sex parent families, our gay students, our Black families, our female students, our Hispanic families, our disabled students, our immigrant families, our trans students. We'll do all we can to keep others from hurting or threatening or demeaning anyone in our community. And we have to watch ourselves, to be certain that our own words and actions don't hurt, threaten, or demean, even if inadvertently.  

Silence is dangerous, you must learn how to speak up when something is wrong. You must learn how to love one another, how to understand one another, how to solve conflicts peacefully, how to live with diverse and conflicting ideas, and work on gaining the skills to live in a world that often doesn’t know how to do this.
 

You must be responsible members of a civic society. Posting on Facebook is not enough. Learn how to engage in discussion, not for the sake of winning but for the sake of understanding and being understood. Learn how to check facts, to evaluate news sources, to question assumptions, to see your own biases, to take feedback, and to challenge one another. Learn how to disagree with love and respect. These skills will be priceless in the coming months and years as we work to build a society that protects the rights of all people.

Remember that not everyone who voted for Trump did so because they believe the bigoted things that he has said this year. Many voted for him because they feel frustrated with the economy, they feel socially left behind, and they are exercising the only power they have. We need to challenge everyone to differentiate between their fears and the bigotry created by those fears.


At Nora we want you to disagree, to argue about ideas, to challenge orthodoxy, but in order to create a more perfect union, or even a more perfect school community, we must do so with grace, caring, openness, and, yes, love.

Be the change you want to see in the world. You can not take progress for granted. Today is but a snapshot in time. Your lives are long and your power great if you choose to exercise it toward the values in which you believe.     


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A student asked this morning if there’s a meditation for a day like this, and indeed there is one that we’ve noted before, the RAIN meditation. This is a useful framework when dealing with any difficult emotion or time.

R stands for Recognize.
    Knowing that you’re distressed, recognizing how it’s affecting your body, your emotions, your energy, your mood. Feeling where those sensations are lodged, noticing how your mind has been hijacked.

A stands for Allow.
    Allowing means that you’re letting the difficult emotions sit with you, in awareness, like a stranger on a park bench. Being able to sit with the discomfort, allow it to just be, lessens it’s hold on you, as you can see it a bit more dispassionately. Wishing away the difficult emotion doesn’t deal with reality... you’re feeling the emotion. Allowing the fear, anxiety, sadness or other difficulty to just be, without pushing it away or being overtaken by it will better allow you to move forward.

I stands for Inquire.
    Why has this event had such an impact on you? What triggers did it set off? How does the event conflict with your beliefs about yourself, about the world? What are you wishing for? Can you work toward getting it? What are you running from? Can you escape?

N stands for Non-identification
    The difficult emotion is not you, not who you are. It doesn’t define you, even though it’s with you now.  Like clouds in the sky, it will eventually move on, as all thoughts do. By seeing it as the ephemeral thing that it is, you’re better able to proceed with your life.

Please note that Allowing does not denote passivity. While you must Allow the reality of a difficult situation, you can take steps toward changing it once you’ve come to terms with it and not allowed it to consume your identity.

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And finally, a reminder of the culture that your predecessors at Nora defined back in the early 1990's, perhaps more relevant today than ever:

We expect people to be open minded,
        ...friendly,
            ...sensitive to other people's feelings,
                ...honest,
                    ...non-judgmental,
                        ...respectful.           
We expect people to stand up for others.
    ...to treat others the way they want to be treated,
    ...to work to create the environment they want.
    ...to think about the consequences of what they say,
    ...to respect each person,
    ...to challenge cruelty,
    ...to help each other follow these standards,
    ...to take responsibility for themselves,
    ...to end gossip,
    ...to acknowledge other's ideas and viewpoints,
    ...to treat everyone with dignity and basic human respect,
    ...to respect and value people's differences,
    ...to listen,
    ...to admit mistakes,
    ...to participate in community life.




Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Nora School Graduation, Class of 2015

Well, here we are at that most highly anticipated moment of the graduation ceremony, the head of schools’ remarks, and I have to start by thanking you for picking reasonable colors for your caps and gowns this year.  Some years we have not been so fortunate, particularly the green and purple year!

Today marks one of the few times in your lives that everyone will get together just for you.  Birth, graduation, marriage, and death are the biggies, and you probably won’t much enjoy the last one, so you’d better enjoy this one!

It’s important for you to remember that, as exciting as this day is for you, you did not arrive here without a great deal of love and support. I would like to recognize those whose dedication to you included changing your diapers, reading you bedtime stories, and paying Nora School tuition.  Please stand and accept our congratulations as I call your name: Ina and Ron Smith, Debra Prybyla and David Blockstein, Lena and Emerson Browne, Margaret and William Cornett, Rita and Don Harris, Leif Kjoita and Lajla Jakhelln, Kathleen and Chris Mantua, Lois and Michael McCabe, Patricia Eyster and Martin McGinley, Susan Blumen and David Mosher, Francine Blume and Matt Salomon, Catherine and Alex Savich, Paula and Edward Sella, Patricia Yeghissian and Arvid Muller, and Ruth and Raymond Zanoni.

There are many people who support the school behind the scenes, setting policies and ensuring that the Nora School will be thriving for the class of 2025 and 2035 as it is today, and has been since 1964.   Would those members of the Board of Directors here today please stand.  Beau Kaplan, Elaine Mack, Matt Harre, Andy Shoenbach, Val Wise, Judy Gelman, and Jimmy Kraft.

I’d also like to thank my colleagues on the faculty for their hard work with these young men and women over the past four years.   Norman Maynard has done a tremendous job, as always, running the school during my absences, and I would like to take this opportunity to publicly thank him.  Marcia Miller has kept the school full during her tenure at Nora, and will be running the show for a good part of the summer, for which I thank her. The rest of your teachers have worked hard to get you here today, and I’d like to recognize them:  Hedy Szanzer, Patrick Vongchan, and Nic Galloro. We’d like to recognize and congratulate Spanish teacher Ave Luke-Simpson and future music and digital art teacher Will Simpson on the birth of their daughter Ellis, and to thank Steven Watkins for coming in to sub for Ave for the last quarter of the year. I’d also like to thank Nina Hagan and Rachel Korr who came and pitched in as our enrollment grew this year, and finally a couple of folks who are moving on to new endeavors, Trey Harris and Robin Steitz.

It is a tradition at Nora to honor 5 year anniversaries of faculty, and today we thank Scott Madden and Chris Conlon who both arrived at Washington Ethical High School way back in 1995.  While bringing their unique perspectives to the classroom, Scott has coached all our sports at various times and served as athletic director, while Chris established the Nora Poetry series and has run our community service programs.  Both Scott and Chris have served as WEHS and Nora college counselors.   Today we’d like to recognize them for their 20 years of service.

Well, that’s enough self-adulation, it’s time to talk to, and about, our soon to be graduates.
You have worked hard to get here.  You are survivors.  Not only did you survive middle and high schools that were big, impersonal, and bureaucratic, you survived Nora, which is no easy task.  Not everyone can handle it, but you did.

There is often a misperception that being in a small school like Nora is easy, because the teachers know you and work with you and give you lots of chances, and all of that is true.  But equally true is that going to a small school is hard,  because the teachers know you and work with you and give you lots of chances.   There’s nowhere to hide if you haven’t done the reading, and your math homework always gets checked, and when it’s your turn to present there’s no one to hand it off to.

Your parents hear if you missed the trip to the Corcoran, and they know when you’re not doing your Pre-Calculus homework.  Robin notices when you show up late to Physics, and Patrick notices when you don’t show up to Chemistry.  It’s tough to stand up to that amount of scrutiny, but you have.

You’ve survived not only the classrooms,  but also the whitewater rafting of your sophomore year, the high ropes and goal setting of the junior retreat, and writing your own recommendations and sharing your life stories on the senior retreat.  You set up your own senior community service, late though it may have been for some of you, and you learned to balance two of the most precious gifts of adulthood: freedom and responsibility.  The freedom part is easy, every teenager gets that.  The responsibility part is a lot harder.  Not all that many adults get that, as witnessed by the various crises on Wall Street and Capitol Hill.  Learning when to have fun and when to work, when to sleep in and when to get up, finding where the boundaries are, and which ones it was safe to cross, these are things that your parents and teachers have to juggle every day.  

You managed, if imperfectly, the four lessons with which we start every school year. These same lessons will stand you in good stead as you move forward into your adult lives: Show Up On Time.  Do Your Work.  Care For Your Health.  Treat People Respectfully.  These fourteen words are perhaps the most important lesson you take from Nora, because you have to keep living them the rest of your life if you wish to be successful.

Show up on time.  Or rather, Show up.  On time.  There are two parts to this one, and you have to master both, because if you don’t, someone else will.  The world you head into is more competitive and less forgiving that the world of Nora that you’re leaving.  Professors aren’t going to give reinstatement projects so that you can earn credit in college, and your boss isn’t going to let you come in early to make up a tardy.  If you can’t show up, on time, they’ll find someone who will.
Do Your Work.  Again, the real world is a competitive place, and it’s becoming flat.  You’ll be competing with folks not only from around the block, or around the country, but around the world.  Professors and employers don’t want to hear what you’re GOING to do, they just want to see it done.  And don’t do the minimum necessary if you want to get ahead.  The world is always looking for people who do the little bit extra as opposed to those who are out the door.   Be one who does more than is asked or expected, and you’ll find yourself trusted and respected.  Yesterday I came into school to find the place transformed.  When I’d left on Friday, there were papers strewn around, the bulletin boards were empty after the Arts Festival, and all-in-all the place needed a few hours of attention.   On Monday morning the bulletin boards were decorated, the bookshelves re-arranged, and the building looked great, because Scott, who was at school administering the SAT, took it upon himself to make The Nora School look better.  He didn’t do it because he was paid to, or because he was asked to, but because he saw it needed to be done.  Do more than is expected and success will follow.

Take Care of your health.  Let me be explicit: drugs and alcohol will mess up your lives, and you’ll have even easier access to both in college than you did in high school.  No one will be looking after you any more.  If you indulge then you won’t show up on time, you won’t do your work, you won’t treat people respectfully, and you won’t graduate. Only 25% of all college freshmen in the United States graduate in four years, and drugs and alcohol are a big reason why.  Stay away from both.  

Other pieces of taking care of your health include nutritious eating, which can be a challenge if you don’t make conscious choices.  Those college buffets are the reason behind the “freshman fifteen”, which will slow down your body and muddle your mind.  Get enough sleep, which means stay away from those video games in the student union, and turn off  your computer in the dorm room. Use the health facilities, the weight room, the running track, and sign up for intramural sports.  Life is a lot more fun when you physically feel good.

Treat others respectfully.  This can be a tough one, and as you head off to college it’s one you need to work on.  Those folks you don’t like or couldn’t get along with in high school will not only be in your classes, you’ll be living with them. You’ll find people in your dorm just like you, and others who are your polar opposite.  You’ll find people who are noisy, and want you to be noisy with them, and you’ll find people who are quiet, and want you to shut up.  You’ll have to get along with them all.  It may even be enough that you’ll appreciate living with your parents!

Seth Godin posits that “small is the new big,” and as graduates of one of the smallest schools in the country, you should understand that it’s a big accomplishment to graduate from a small school. It’s a small accomplishment to find a clique of people you get along with in a big school, but it’s a big accomplishment to get along, intimately, with people who sometimes annoy you and get on your nerves in a small school.

It’s a small accomplishment to hide in the back of a big classroom and avoid the teacher’s radar and do the minimum necessary to get by, but it’s a big accomplishment to push through your resistance and actually do the work, because you know that in Chris’small classroom your missing homework will be noticed.  Small is the new big.  By doing something small, like saying hello and making eye contact with the cashier at McDonald’s, you can make a big difference in their day.  We all have our daily frustrations, but by doing the small kindnesses to others we can, collectively, make a big difference in the world.  By cutting another person some slack when they’re having a bad day, you can make a big difference.

I remember earlier in the school year having a deep conversation with Nate about the meaning of life... alas, one of his favorite topics this year. As I thought about our conversation through the succeeding weeks I came up with my big four, which have guided me and with which you might consider placing your own paths in context. My big four are love, learn, serve, and savor.

Love is something we need to give as well as get, and today would be a great day to let your parents and  grandparents know how much you love them, and appreciate the sacrifices they’ve made for you out of their love. It’s said that we can never love our parents as much as they love us or we’d never move out and on with our lives, and from my perspective as both a parent and a child I completely understand that. But you’ll be amazed at how much smarter your parents get as you get older.

“Learn” is my second big one, and it’s not about school. The world is an amazing place, full of interesting people and things, and there’s so much to explore. Foster your curiosity and follow your passions, when you stop learning you’ve taken a step into an intellectual grave.

“Serve” is an idea that I hope we’ve helped inculcate during your years at Nora. Leave the world better than you found it, and try, in each interaction with others, to leave them a bit better than you found them. It’s easy to take, to BE served, but all of us in this room have already won the lottery just by virtue of where and when we were born... if the rest of the world lived like we do we’d need 5 planet Earths to support us, so pay something back in recognition of this bounty.

And finally, “Savor.” Enjoy the moments of grace in your life, such as this one, or a good meal, or a beautiful sunset. While we all have challenges in our lives, which are always on our minds, take a Dot-B from time to time to savor and recognize all that is wonderful about your life, and about this moment in time.

Zachary, I hope that you are open to savoring and enjoying the new experiences that college will offer, and not focus on the ways in which it falls short of your expectations. Continue your music writing and production, find some like-minded fellow students, as you’ve done at Nora, and open yourself to the best that college has to offer and let go of the BS that is always present in everyone’s life.

Daelyn, your smiles and good humor and cheer shined the love you have on all your classmates through the years. Whether dancing in the talent show, singing Happy Birthday in the men’s chorus, or dressing up for spirit day, you’ve always been a sweet and loving presence in the Nora community. You’ve served to brighten everyone’s day, which I’m sure will be appreciated in the years ahead.

Julia, you’ve been such a good friend to so many students at Nora, and your group will sorely miss your company. You’re one of those folks for whom we can visibly see the benefits of meditation in your increasingly calm response to life over the years. I hope that you use this practice as life’s stresses increase.

Michael, the hole in our knowledge of upcoming Apple products next year will be immense. I hope that your technology passion expands beyond what you know and are excited about into areas that you don’t know about... which is where the real excitement lies.

Acie, your curiosity about cars, motion, electricity, and engineering of all sorts will take you far. We’ve enjoyed watching your enthusiasm for concrete learning even as you’ve become quite a good student at the more theoretical aspects of school.

Andrew, you’ve been savoring the activities these past few weeks in a really sweet way, almost like you want to leave, and you’ve savored the friendship of your classmates throughout your time at Nora.  I know that your love for your family, and particularly for your brother, over these past couple of years has had a profound impact on your life, and I hope that you are both able to savor this day, and the years ahead, together.

Ara, I remember when you were first learning to play the drums with Trey, and the band had some real adventures with rhythm and tempo. Over these past few years you’ve become rock solid, not only as a musician but as a human being.

Aden, you came to Nora already a great musician, and your music is a great service to the world. And just as the world has much to teach us, some have much to teach the world. In our little corner of the world you have indeed taught us much over the past few years.

Danielle, I’m sorry. Actually, I’m not sorry, because sometimes the way we best serve others is by challenging them, and I know that in the years we’ve known you that you HAVE been challenged, and that you’ve risen to every challenge, even when it’s been frightening, and by rising to challenge you’re on this stage today ready to move on with your life. Congratulations.

Rachel, we’ve quite enjoyed your infectious enthusiasm at talent shows and poetry readings throughout the years. Your dramatic readings and thoughts have livened up these events time after time, and I hope that as you pursue higher education that you get involved in drama and writing and music, and take advantage of all the college experience has to offer a person with your energy and ambition.

Eva, your curiosity, hard work, and enthusiasm for graphic design helped turn out the best yearbook ever, and is reflected on banners and doors throughout the Nora building as well as at the Silver Spring Fire Department.  While we’ll miss your creativity, I know that Trey will really miss having such a valuable assistant next year.

Max, each year you allowed a bit more of the veneer to come off and the real Max show through. And you grew more comfortable allowing others to know that Max. You’ve been one of those students whose curiosity, which was on full display in Italy, knows no bounds. Don’t be afraid of not looking cool... the coolest people don’t really care.

DeAnna, one of our “frequent fliers,” the hallways will be a little emptier without your presence next year. One of the things you learned over the past few years is to allow yourself to be vulnerable, to be your REAL self, and to trust that good things can result.  Just remember to wander INTO classes next year.

Nick, over and over during the past couple of weeks we’ve heard about how you’re the kindest student at Nora. In your own quiet way you’ve been an integral part of the community... really demonstrating what leadership is all about by serving others, in the classroom and on the playing fields. I hope that you’ll participate in sports at some level in college, and that if your Orioles manage to beat my Red Sox for the American League pennant that they go on to win the World Series.

 Torgeir, you’ve shown us that still waters run deep indeed. Your world travels taking on the chess world have been largely out of our sight, but your modesty and confidence have not. I’m pleased to note that you provided me with the high point of my chess career, for the one move when I put you in check before you mercilessly crushed me two moves later.  I don’t imagine it was the high point of your career.

Each of you has, in your own way, shown courage in passing through our halls. School has not always been easy for you.  Despite this you persevered, and we are proud of you. Now that you have finished high school, the world is open to you, and the world is a fascinating place indeed.

When this school was founded 51 years ago, you could not have attended school together in many parts of this country.  A woman’s place was in the home.   What was good for GM was good for America.  From a space telescope that can see back to the beginning of time to our first black president here on earth, the world is unfolding in ways beyond my generation’s dreams.  What will the next 51 years hold for your generation?  How will you help to shape it?

So, our newest alumni, remember to love, to learn, to serve, and to savor. The world is a wonderful place, and there is so much to love, so much explore, so much need, and so much delight . Whether you’re doing fashion design or song design, renovating houses or renovating economic policy, art or comedy, foreign or domestic, modern video or ancient wisdom, the world if full of amazing things to explore and fascinating people to meet. You are among them.  Read, take action, stay curious, and take every opportunity to take a small action to make the world a better place, because small is the new big.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Backup Friday

Today we're beginning a new tradition at Nora... Backup Friday. As we find our lives tied ever more closely to technology, and with myriad ways to work, basic tech hygiene is more critical than ever. In addition to anti-virus, anti-spyware, and other anti-malware protections, it's important to have copies of our critical work stored in more than one place.  At Nora, students' architecture, photography, video, and digital design work is stored on the local hard drives in our computer lab, and should be backed up on Fridays to a NAS drive (Network Attached Storage), which is then backed up by the teacher to a protected NAS space.   We encourage students to also back up their work onto personal flash drives or into cloud storage such as Dropbox or Google Drive each Friday so that they have their own copies of work in the event their personal computer crashes. Horror stories abound... hard drive crashes, file corruption, viruses, drops, spills, all can ruin a week's or a year's worth of work. A photographer I follow recently wrote about losing 12 terabytes of photographs (takeaway: print your photos).  Note to parents: this isn't just for students. Have you backed up your work and other critical files recently? I use Backblaze.com for automatic backing up of my drives and removable storage for about $50/year for unlimited space with very little performance hit.  I also use MajorGeeks.com to find free anti-malware tools for kids (and teachers) who haven't installed updated protection. Given how much of our work is no longer tangible, keeping it safe, organized, and backed up is more important than ever, if no less boring a task!
Eight Terabytes of NAS takes up little space and can save the day!

Friday, October 03, 2014

Top Ten Reasons Having a Teacher is Better Than Taking a Class Online

Full disclosure, I’m a bit of a nerd! (Well, maybe more than a bit.) I love learning new things, I enjoy putzing around on computers, I like getting stuck and I like solving problems. And online learning is great... convenient, relatively cheap, and available on almost any topic. Whether YouTube, Lynda, Kelby, EdX, Coursera, Udemy, a MOOC, or another source, there’s a great deal of information in cyberspace to which we now have access. I’ve taken my share of online courses, even finished a few, and I’ve posted online lessons for my students, but as both a student and a teacher (of adolescents and adults) I’ve found that there are some real limitations.  Here, then, are my top ten reasons that being in a classroom with a live teacher beats online learning:

10.       You have an obligation to show up
It’s easy to put off the next lesson in an online class... “I’ll get to it when my life is a bit less busy” we tell ourselves. But does that day, or evening, ever come? In a classroom we have to be there, on time, and attentive, to learn what it is we hope to learn. Showering, getting dressed, driving to class, all gives us “skin in the game” when it comes to learning. For those few among us who don’t procrastinate this may not be an issue, but for most of us having that “appointment with learning” enforces the external discipline that most of us need.


9.         You have colleagues from whom you can learn.
Having a community of colleagues with whom you can share ideas, projects, frustrations, and successes helps cross-pollinate our own learning. Often the student in the seat next to us knows something about the topic at hand that extends or enriches what the teacher is presenting. A good teacher will take that idea, question, or thought and run with it, making the learning that occurs deeper and richer.

8.         You have colleagues with whom you can become friends.
That same classroom community from whom we learn can become our network, our acquaintances, and often our friends. Having those connections is enormously important in the professional world, where the person you know is often the person asked to do the job. Having connections that extend beyond the classroom is one of the true joys of education.

7.         You can have your questions answered. Immediately.
The questions my students ask require me to revise my syllabus on a daily basis to cross off the tangents we have gone off on and rearrange the order of learning. Having a question answered or a problem solved when it arises is something that no online course can offer. Even with forums and message boards one usually has to wait some period of time for a response. With a teacher in the same room you can get immediate help and guidance.

6.         You can fail and still be encouraged.
Failure is the most important lesson... learning what doesn’t work involves having a greater understanding of what does work. There’s a tendency to give up when a task seems too difficult, and without a guide by the side (rather than a sage on the stage) we can too easily go back to email or Facebook or something else that’s a lot easier. A good teacher will encourage, ask questions, and steer the task into more fruitful avenues.

5.         There’s someone who knows what motivates you.
A good teacher won’t let you slide, or just go through the motions, in completing projects, writing papers, or any other aspect of doing your best possible work. They know your interests and passions, and can structure assignments accordingly. Online you’re on your own, or with 10,000 other students, and no one is really paying that much attention. Do it, don’t do it, it’s all the same to the computer. Just so long as your credit card clears.

4.         You have an obligation to produce.
In a class you owe it to yourself, your classmates, and your teacher to produce interesting work. Online... not so much.

3.         You find your areas of ignorance.
We know what we do know, we know some of what we don’t know and want to learn, but what about the things that we don’t know that we don’t know? You may want to learn something specific that you don’t know about, but what about the things you haven’t considered? In a classroom you’ll find all sorts of things from your fellow students as well as the teacher that you’d never have otherwise considered.

2.         You can discover possibilities.
Your classmates and teachers will open your eyes and mind to ideas that you may have never considered, leading you into new directions and unanticipated insights.

1.         You can be inspired.
The work of your teacher and classmates can help you to raise your game to new heights and to create better work than you ever thought possible.

Listening to a piece of music on your iPod is not the same as listening to that piece of music in a concert hall. Viewing art alone online is not the same as engaging with the work in the company of others. Emoticons are not facial expressions and CAPS aren’t vehemence.  No one can touch you or shake your hand or pat you on the back online. You don’t hear other’s laughter, joy, or frustrations. You can’t see the twinkle in their eyes or hear the enthusiasm in their voices.

Online instruction is like an encyclopedia, it’s there to give you information, and it sometimes does that very well. It will increase the breadth of your knowledge.

A good class, on the other hand, is like art - you have to engage with it, bring something of yourself to it, and what it means to you will change over time and vary from person to person. It will increase the breadth, and the depth, of your knowledge, leave you a  bit wiser, and foster within you a richer human being.


Friday, June 20, 2014

Congratulations Class of 2014!

Welcome to the 50th Commencement exercises of the Nora School, formerly Washington Ethical High School, Washington Ethical Society School, and the Eberhard School. Contrary to popular belief, I did not speak at the first commencement in 1964, as I was only in 2nd grade. But turning 50, or as I like to call it, approaching middle age, is a real milestone, particularly for a small scrappy school like Nora.

Graduates, like The Nora School you have reached a milestone. Like the Nora School, your journey here has included a few near death experiences. Like the Nora School, you’re in great shape to face the future with optimism and with the necessary skills and tools.  Like the Nora School, you can look back with the pride of accomplishment and forward with the excitement of what is to come. And like the Nora School, you need to keep exploring and learning and challenging yourself so that life remains an exhilarating  journey.

Today marks one of the few times in your lives that everyone will get together just for you.  Birth, graduation, marriage, death are the biggies, and you probably won’t be there to enjoy the last one, so you’d better enjoy this!

You are here because of the work of many people, most notably your parents and teachers.  The members of our Board of Directors support and guide the school behind the scenes, giving generously of their time, treasure, and talent. I would like to recognize them now.

And finally, you need to thank your parents, as they have supported you far longer than we have, and, despite what they’re hoping, will continue to do so.  I would like to recognize those whose dedication to you included changing your diapers, reading your bedtime stories, and paying your Nora School tuition.

Soon to be alumni, I am hopeful that you will take away from today, your last day at Nora, the same precepts I discussed with you on your first day at Nora.  It may seem long ago, but on your first day, and on each first day thereafter, you went around to get lockers, photo ID’s, and to write down your goals.  You also spent time with me discussing the school rules, which can be boiled down to four simple sentences that will stand you in good stead throughout your lives.

Show up on time.  Do your work.  Take care of your health. Treat others with respect.

Look back on your time at Nora and honestly assess to what extent I was telling you the truth.

Did you show up on time?  Did that make your life easier or harder?  What are the consequences in the next part of your life for showing up late? What does it say about being a person worthy of trust?

I can tell you that there are tremendous benefits to showing up on time, being a person of your word, having others see you as reliable.  The Noble Truth of Buddhism is echoed in the first sentence of Scott Peck’s The Road Less Travelled:  “Life is Difficult.”  I don’t think you’ll find many people here today who would disagree with that statement, but I’d like to follow it up with a question, “Now What?”  OK, life is difficult, now what?  You still need to show up. If you have to show up, you’d might as well show up on time.  It makes life slightly less difficult.

Do your work.  Same questions.  How was life when you did your work?  How was your life affected when you didn’t take care of business?  What happens in the world when you drop the ball?  What happens when you follow through?  And what kind of work will you do?  As you do whatever work is before you as you go through your life, whether schoolwork or office work or mechanical work or the work of raising a family, is the work, and are you, making the world a better place?

What are you consciously doing to ease someone else’s burden?  Might I suggest that next week you cook dinner for your family,  or perhaps do the laundry? Making the world a better place can happen in small as well as large ways. In fact, if everyone were to work on the small ways our world would be a much better place.

Take care of your health.  Stay sober, because it’s hard to have any lasting success if your brain is messed up. Exercise and eat healthy food, because you’ll feel better, have more energy, and be a happier person. Monster Energy drinks, ho-hos, and giant Slurpees as an occasional treat are one thing, as part of your daily diet they’re not so great. Take care of your health.

Treat others with respect.  Yes, I know it’s the Golden Rule, but there’s a reason it’s called Golden.  Treating others with respect doesn’t only mean your friends, or people you get along with, it also means those who rub you the wrong way and get on your nerves.  This doesn’t change outside Nora, there will always be people you find annoying. One of them might be your roommate next year!  This is where your room for growth lies. Paula Weymiller says that the person who annoys you the most is like a little angel sitting on your shoulder, telling you to grow up, and that you have the most to learn from that little angel and that annoying person.  In the words of Plato, “be kind, for everyone is fighting a hard battle.” Treat everyone with respect.

I think you’re ready to move on.

Our goal has been to help you to pursue possibilities. The broad liberal arts education that you received at Nora has opened doors to a variety of possibilities, but note that the harder you worked the more possibilities you had. Now it’s up to you to find those passions worthy of your pursuit. Here is where the fun, and the fear, come in.  You don’t have to know your passion right now, most of you will change careers at least once before you’re my age. But right now you’ll get to study and work at things that are interesting to you, and that’s the fun part of moving past high school.

But try to take courses and have experiences outside your areas of interest as you pursue your further education, as you never know what new endeavor might spark a new passion. Be open to serendipity, when a door opens, go through it and see what happens. Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t Know,” and remember that “smart people ask for help.”  You’re smart, ask!

Thomas, behind that peaceful, non-violent facade lurks a peaceful, non-violent man with a quick with and keen insights. When you were in class I would often hear Robin’s laughs all the way from my office.

Carmen, you’ve had to balance more than most in terms of family and school, getting here on time, managing the sports teams, and taking care of your academics. You’ve been a great friend to many of your classmates and an all around nice presence in our community.
                               
Fiona, remember the rules in the book I lent you and stand up for what you need.  You’re a champ on and off the playing fields, and I expect that you’re going to have a great and interesting life in Ghana, Florida, and beyond.

Ronnice, as Norman said, you’ve always been cool enough to be everyone's friend. A quiet but forceful presence in our classes. I hope that you continue to get stronger and healthier as the next few years go by.

Maddie, I’m glad you decided to come to classes at Nora rather than head down to OccupyDC every day. And you’re the first person to actually pull off the tie-dye business for graduation... congratulations!

Adam, the life of the party at every prom for the last four years, you really came into your own with Trey and the band.  It’s been a wild ride at times, but you’ve made it, and now on to new and bigger adventures at Hood.

Tristan, you’ve been one of the all-time stars at Nora, both on the athletic fields and in the classrooms. Philosopher, artist, sportsman, you’ve been a Renaissance man, and we’re pleased to have had you with us for four years.

Thomas, we look forward to the 2016 Olympics as we follow your running career. You’ve been a good friend and a good source of advice to many students over your four years,  just remember my advice that there’s an appropriate time and place for everything. Life, even in the athletic dorms, will be much more pleasant if you remember that.

Sarah, the world needs more people like you, willing to serve others and take on adventures around the world. You’re journeys in Israel over the past two years have brought you an incredible level of maturity and insight, and we wish you safe travels as you return to further your education.

David, behind the bluster there's a wonderful, compassionate heart, and you’ve gained a great deal of self-awareness during the past two years. Remember that it’s not enough to know yourself well, you must take action on that knowledge for it to be worth anything. When you get to Vermont try to expand your horizons and get involved in lots of activities outside your dorm room, I think you’ll enjoy it! Class of 2014, you have worked hard to get here.  You are survivors.  Not only did you survive middle and high schools that were big, impersonal, and bureaucratic, you survived Nora, which is no easy task.  Not everyone can handle it, but you did.

Seth Godin posits that “small is the new big,” and as graduates of one of the smallest schools in the country, you should understand that it’s a big accomplishment to graduate from a small school. It’s a small accomplishment to find a clique of people you get along with in a big school, but it’s a big accomplishment to get along, intimately, with everyone, even with people who annoy you and get on your nerves in a small school.

There is often a misperception that being in a small school like Nora is easy, because the teachers know you and work with you and give you lots of chances, and all of that is true.  But equally true is that going to a small school is hard,  because the teachers know you and work with you and give you lots of chances.   There’s nowhere to hide if you haven’t done the reading, and your math homework always gets checked, and when it’s your turn to present there’s no one to hand it off to.

It’s a small accomplishment to hide in the back of a big classroom and avoid the teacher’s radar and do the minimum necessary to get by, but it’s a big accomplishment to push through your resistance and actually do the work, because you know that in Ave’s Spanish class your missing homework will be noticed.

Your parents hear if you skipped the trip to the Smithsonian, and they know when you’re not turning in drafts of your papers.  Robin notices when you show up late to Physics, and Patrick notices when you didn’t do your Chemistry lab. It’s tough to stand up to that amount of scrutiny, but you have.

You’ve survived not only the classrooms,  but also the whitewater rafting of your sophomore year, the high ropes and goal setting of the junior retreat, and writing your own recommendations and sharing your life stories on the senior retreat.

You set up your own senior community service, late though it may have been for some of you, and you presented your best academic work to the faculty in your Senior Portfolio presentations. You learned to balance two of the most precious gifts of adulthood: freedom and responsibility.

The freedom part is easy, every teenager gets that.  The responsibility part is a lot harder.  Not all that many adults get that, as witnessed by the various crises on Wall Street and on Capitol Hill.  Learning when to have fun and when to work, when to sleep in and when to get up, finding where the boundaries are, and which ones it was safe to cross, these are things that your parents and teachers have to juggle every day.  

You managed, if imperfectly, those four lessons with which we start every school year, it’s almost time to master new lessons, one’s that you’ll create yourselves.

A few days ago we lost a giant of American literature, Maya Angelou. As the retrospectives flowed, one of her quotes stood out to me particularly, because it reflects that to which we aspire at Nora. She said "If you are always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be."

This resonated deeply with me, because I know that as teenagers we all  desperately want to “fit in” and not stand out,  to be “normal” and cool, because that’s the message our culture is constantly sending.

But “normal” is boring, and “amazing” isn’t. One of the things that’s kept me at Nora for so many years is that you and your fellow students learn to become a lot more comfortable in your own skins, to be who you are rather than what the culture, or other kids, tell you that you should be. My colleagues on the faculty and Board are authentic human beings, not afraid to say “I don’t know” or “I need help.” And they’re anything but normal and boring, they’re amazing, just like you!  Becoming authentic, and being comfortable with that, can be the work of a lifetime for some, and you’ve got a head start on that. This is perhaps more important than all the Calculus and Art History and Academic Writing that you’ve learned over the past four years, because with that self-confidence you can tackle all the rest. You are amazing, and I hope you leave with some confidence in that. Here are a few more pieces of advice

Continue to learn and grow. The world is an amazing place, so get out and explore it. If you have a chance to travel, take it. Growth doesn’t just happen, you have to be intentional about it.

Be self-aware, because you must first know yourself in order to grow yourself. I hope that our mindfulness practice this year will help in that regard. Along those lines, take time to reflect. Think about where you’ve been and where you’re headed, allow the growth you’ve experienced over these past years to catch up with you.

Be disciplined... motivation will get you started, in college and in life, but discipline is what will keep you growing.

Seek out positive people, because growth thrives with like-minded folks. It’s easy to be cynical and toss of put-downs, but those are the people likely to hold you back and ultimately their company will wear pretty thin.

Stretch yourself, go beyond your comfort zone. You’ll have lots of chances to do that in the next few years, take them. Leave college with no regrets for what you didn’t do.

Find good mentors. You’ve had them here, you’ll need them in life.

Help others realize their potential.  For 30 years of our 50 year history our school lived in the basement of the Washington Ethical Society, who’s motto is “By bringing out the best in others we bring out the best in ourselves.” Reflect on that, and be mindful of helping others on their journeys.

So I say good-bye, my friends, hopefully only until our next reunion. You’ve learned a lot at Nora, take take lessons and keep on learning and growing.

Congratulations.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Why we meditate at Nora

Several students have come to me to ask why we’re spending time each week in mindfulness meditation during morning announcements and going through the .b mindfulness program. Their concern was a helpful prompt to more fully think through and articulate why I think this is an important program and a valuable use of time, and I’d like to share those thoughts here.

Learning to practice mindfulness will not train you for a specific job, but neither does a lot of what we do in school. While not everyone who studies Algebra will become a mathematician or engineer, and not everyone who studies biology and chemistry will become a nurse or doctor, it’s important that you have a broad base of knowledge about the world in which you live. Your own mind is a big part of that world, and in fact constructs reality from the information it receives from the world. Having some insight into how your mind works, how it affects your body and your emotions, learning to be aware of that effect in times of stress, and having some tools to manage that stress is eminently practical on whatever path life takes you.

Meditating in a group setting is an important exercise in creating community. While you may not choose to meditate, I ask that you not be looking at or making faces toward other people, as that is disrespectful of their space. You can focus your mind on other things: conjugating verbs, remembering last night’s readings, solving the quadratic formula, but you owe it to your friends and other members of your community to offer others the opportunity to practice without distraction. Being part of a community means sometimes taking the lead, sometimes following, and always being respectful. While I hope that you will practice meditation beyond the little bit we do in school, and increasingly be mindful in all your actions, at the very least by the end of this course you will be aware of this tool and hopefully return to it when you need it.

While the .b classes take some time away from class, you’ll only miss one or two classes this quarter. We also miss class time for snow days, community service, assemblies, and field trips. We can make up snow days if this is a real concern, and we can look at whether or not we should be doing a host of activities that are “non-academic” rather than purely academic. Would we really prefer practice SATs on Wednesday afternoons instead of assemblies? Or regular academic classes? Or a study hall? Should we drop Intersession, which is non-academic? There are lots of things that take class time away, but we don’t make these choices lightly.

We choose these “non-academic” activities because we believe that education is about more than just taking tests and learning math. In fact, if getting a job is your only definition of what your education is about, you’re pretty much finished. You’re capable right now of  pushing the “hamburger” button at McDonald’s, but do you really feel that your education is complete? Teachers are available at lunch and after school to give you any help you need. There is no lack of opportunity to succeed academically at Nora, but education and life is about more than just reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic.

We want you to leave Nora with the intellectual bandwith to be able to think critically, to evaluate the thinking of others, to work creatively, to be able to synthesize the creativity of others, and to have the capacity to connect and grow your thoughts with those of others.

Beyond Algebra and US History, education is about fostering curiosity and taking on challenges... hopefully not just while you’re a teenager but for the rest of your life. If you’re lucky your education never concludes, because the world is far too interesting a place to reach a dead end. The thing is, you never really know what you’ll be curious about until you’ve tried it, even if just a bit. If we hadn’t built a darkroom in this school I might never have gotten interested in photography. In any learning community, everyone will be struck by different things that spark curiosity. For some it will be English literature, others science, perhaps learning to play soccer, or even meditation. We want to challenge you, and we want you to be unafraid to challenge yourself. You may have arrived at Nora loving to read but scared of math, but allowing Hedy to challenge you makes you a more fully human being. You may not be able to draw a straight line, but working with Nic you’re able to express some ideas artistically.

We want you to have a life of the mind, which includes having a healthy body to support that mind, to have fun to stimulate your mind, and to have the ability to be thoughtful about your mind, the last of which is the point of mindfulness.

Far too many people engage life in a mindless way... I do not want you to be among them. Living on autopilot is no way to engage the world. Being aware and appreciative of the gifts you possess in the present moment, being able to regulate your emotional life, managing healthy relationships with others, and with yourself, are pretty important goals that overlay everything else you do in life. Whether you’re ready now or need more time, I want you to have this tool at your disposal for whenever life requires more of you than you think you’re capable.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Thanks for the memories!

Thanks to Mara for 14 great years as Assistant Head of The Nora School, 23 years as a fantastic teacher and mentor at WEHS and Nora, and 25 years of friendship going all the way back to Bishop McNamara High School. Good luck in your new role as Head of School at Friends Meeting School!

video

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Intersession version 1.0

Wow! Our first Intersession, the period between Winter Break and the beginning of the second semester, went off without a hitch thanks to fine planning and hard work by our magnificent staff.
Torgeir cuts lumber for a picnic table.
The idea arose last spring as we did our annual planning to see if students would do better academically by having first semester exams prior to the Winter Break.
Michael and Marcellus work on choking rescue skills.
This would align us with what colleges do, useful for us as a college preparatory school, but would shorten one marking period while extending another. The solution (for at least the extending problem) came from Norman Maynard and Thornton Friends School, which had run Intersessions for a number of years.
Chandler painting with oils.
After months of planning we ran five intensive classes: Basic Construction, First Aid and CPR, Chinese Brush Painting and Oil Painting, Music Production, and Classroom DC. Students used power tools to build picnic tables and bookcases, became certified in CPR and first aid, produced several songs and dozens of painting, and traveled around DC for two weeks.
Zachary and Daelyn discuss the music project.
Our post-Intersession survey was unanimous to keep exams before break and continue Intersession, with perhaps a few tweaks. If you have a chance please stop by to have lunch at one of our picnic tables or play ping-pong on another.
Lunch and Ping-Pong at the newly constructed tables.
Nick and Collin talk about ClassroomDC

Monday, December 30, 2013

New Year's Resolutions

Well, it's clear that the Blogspot auto-upload didn't work, but here's a belated video for those who might need some motivation to improve their health. 

Friday, December 06, 2013

Nelson Mandela

"Holding a grudge is like swallowing poison and waiting for the other person to die."  -Buddhist teaching.

Those of a certain age (i.e., Nora parents and teachers, not students) are fortunate to have lived in a time when one of the seemingly intractable scourges of humanity was overcome through moral authority. Most of us were born after Gandhi’s death, and were too young to be cognizant of the work of Dr. King, but as adults we were privileged to witness through the life of Nelson Mandela how a great moral force could overcome the most vicious hatred and racism. While there are a great many military and political heroes in human history, there have been very few moral heroes who receive that same level of acknowledgment. Certainly Mandela was not alone: Steven Biko, Desmond Tutu, Walter Sisulu, and thousands of lesser known activists stood, and suffered for that stand, against apartheid. What made Mandela stand apart, however, was not imprisonment for his beliefs in a multi-racial South Africa, but the forgiveness of his oppressors upon his release. His refusal while imprisoned to make his own life easier while others still suffered is likewise impressive, but the enormity of spirit it took to forgive those who stole the prime years of his adult life is truly astonishing.  Another sad fact stands out to me: Mandela was imprisoned at about the same age as Dr. King was killed. We can only wonder how much better America might be had Dr. King enjoyed the fullness of years that Nelson Mandela lived.

In our own small corners of the world we can, and should, try as much as possible to emulate that spirit of forgiveness against those who transgress us, as swallowing the poison of vengeance hurts us far more than those who have hurt us.

One of my great heroes has died, and I’m surprised at how much my own world feels a emptier with his passing. I can only hope that in the next 50 years another moral exemplar is noted by the world, so that my students, children, and the world have an aspirational moral figure to whom they can look for inspiration.

"Here lies a man who did his duty to the world." -Nelson Mandela on how he'd like to be remembered.

Would that we all have such an epitaph.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Monday Morning Meditation Musings

Well, it's not quite Monday morning, but I don't think I can really stay up another twenty minutes! It's late Sunday night and I'm halfway through a four-day training with 50 teachers from all over the US and the world (Austria, New Zealand, Mexico). Quite inspiring work on teaching Mindfulness in schools, amazing the amount of interest and research on this. I'm pretty excited to bring this curriculum back to Nora, though it will take a bit of tweaking to translate from the UK to the USA. Here's a TED talk by Richard Burnett, one of the creators of the .b (stop, breathe) curriculum.


Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Mindfulness at Nora

This year we've begun an new initiative to help our students deal with stress, anxiety, and social and academic pressures through mindfulness meditation. We began last fall with a visit from Dr. William Stixrud who spoke at a school assembly about the benefits of meditation, particularly for students with ADHD and other learning challenges. Shortly thereafter we began a pre-school meditation session available to all students and teachers.  Attendance was spotty, since the time before school begins is prime-time for socializing, so this year we've been taking time out of morning announcements on Mondays and Fridays for  all-school mindfulness meditation. Our goal is to help students (and teachers) become more aware of what they are experiencing in any given moment, whether frustration, joy, anger, or boredom, and step back to take a 20,000 foot view of the experience. As Victor Frankl put it in Man's Search for Meaning, between stimulus and response there is a space, and in that space lies our freedom. By enlarging the space between stimulus and response, we aim to enlarge our freedom to choose. Many of us, even well past adolescence, too often react on autopilot to everyday aggravations... rude drivers, supermarket lines, our kid's messy rooms. Teens are no different, if anything they are on an even tighter hair trigger of reaction. Our culture certainly reinforces this "quickness response" (count the number of seconds any single shot lasts on your favorite television show), and the expansion of multi-tasking only makes things worse.  Spending time in silent meditation, concentrating on the breath while being aware of the present moment without thought or judgement, has been an amazing adventure for me over the past year. I've not only noted an increased patience and less anxiety within myself, but I'm now seeing students giving themselves a time-out to practice their breathing when they are feeling stress.

You can see the presentation I used at the beginning of the school year here, which includes links to the scientific literature supporting mindfulness as a cognitive tool.  (Yes, I'm afraid I'm responsible for the drawings.) As we continue through the year I hope that having this tool available at any time will prove invaluable to all members of the Nora community. If you'd like to join us in mindfulness meditation we meet daily between 8:00 and 8:30am, and on Mondays and Fridays during morning announcements at 10:15am.

Monday, September 09, 2013

Monday Musings, The Common Core

I came across a fascinating and provocative set of responses to the Common Core Standards that are now replacing state standards in many (most?) state public education systems.  While replacing one set of measurable standards with another may make testing easier, and facilitate mobility between public school districts, one professor rightly points out that by embracing any set of standards we are by definition not asking more pertinent and important questions. Here's a sample from Dr. Daniel Coupland of Hillsdale College: “Yes, man is made for work, but he’s also made for so much more… Education should be about the highest things. We should study these things of the stars, plant cells, Mozart’s Requiem… not simply because they’ll get us into the right college or into the right line of work. Rather, we should study these noble things because they can tell us who we are, why we’re here… If education has become –as Common Core openly declares– preparation for work in a global economy, then this situation is far worse than Common Core critics ever anticipated. And the concerns about cost, and quality, and yes, even the constitutionality of Common Core, pale in comparison to the concerns for the hearts, minds, and souls of American children.” You can read the article here. What do you think the purpose of education ought to be?

Monday, September 02, 2013

Monday Musings, An Early Labor Day

We sent our students and teachers out for an early day of labor last Friday, giving them a common experience with which to begin the year. While the annual Billy Goat Trail hike is a breeze for some (not including this "approaching middle-age" correspondent), for most it's a real challenge. Up and down the rocks, often using hands as well as feet to hoist ourselves up the cliffs, many of us woke up Saturday morning feeling a bit stiff and sore.

Nonetheless it's a great way to start the year, with everyone getting a good workout whether they took the trail or the towpath, or a combination of both. When we return to school in the morning almost everyone will have had the experience of a challenging walk on a beautiful day where they had the chance to talk with new and old friends alike.

Finding the right level of challenge is, always, the challenge for us as classroom teachers as well as for us as human beings. Trying to tackle an activity that is just a bit beyond our current capability is how we grow not only intellectually, but in confidence and courage. The Billy Goat Trail has been a wonderful challenge for Nora students going back many years, a bit of Montana ten miles from downtown DC, and will hopefully provide a good start toward tackling the challenges of the school year ahead.