Thoughts on the Class of 2017

I had the opportunity to speak to our 12th grade students and families the night before Commencement and then to give concluding remarks at the Commencement ceremony. Here are my remarks about Brimmer and May’s incredible graduate, the Class of 2017.

Senior Dinner Speech, June 1, 2017

I can still vividly remember the first night of US Camp with this group of 12th graders.large_news1111410_1042653 There we were sitting in a circle in the rec hall at Camp Wingate-Kirkland. My hope that evening was to just listen to them talk about themselves, their grade, and what made Brimmer unique. About ten minutes into that conversation- two incredible things happened. First, I realized that we should have recorded the entire conversation because the statements the students gave about what makes the school unique could have been used in Brimmer marketing materials for the next decade! Second, I knew from the way they described the school and each other that I would not regret coming to Brimmer.

Over the past few weeks, as I continued to reflect back on this class I kept thinking back to a theory one of my college professors, Presidential and American Historian Robert Dallek, shared with me. I would just ask you bear with me for a few moments as I dig into the idea a bit.

As many know in the early 20th century the United States was thought of as a melting pot. A place where people could come and cultures would mix. The concept being that everyone would influence each other and form a new norm for society. The problem with the model was that it was only a homogenous view of the world and didn’t celebrate or even recognize our diverse backgrounds. It assumed we all had to be the same. So, historians and sociologists began referring to America as a Salad Bowl instead. Showing that we each have our own cultures and identities, we are mixed together without losing who we are. Together as a whole we are greater. Dallek, my professor, predicted that sometime in the future the model would shift to a fruit salad. And I think that this perfectly describes our incredible class of graduates. Each of our students has their own distinct identities, personalities, and stories. They each bring their own unique flavor to our school. But over time, as they continue to work together, learn from each other, and challenge each other, some of their flavors start to get absorbed by other classmates. The cantaloupe begins to have some hints of honeydew and strawberry, the pineapple keeps some of its tartness, but also absorbs the sweetness of the watermelon, and even the grapes that seem impenetrable are coated with the ideas and experiences that help to shape what they have become in the fruit salad.

These 29 students are all incredible individuals with bright futures ahead of them, but they also have each shared a piece of themselves with every other member of the class and the school. They have enriched all of our lives by adding their unique flavor to each of us. And for that we will always be grateful.

I want to end with a short poem from Maya Angelou that seems fitting for this class and for them to keep in mind as they start the next phase of their journey:

Open your eyes to the beauty around you,

Open your mind

To the wonders of life,

Open your heart to those

Who love you,

And

Always be true

To yourself

Commencement Concluding Remarks, June 2, 2017

I present to you the Brimmer and May Class of 2017.

As we come to the conclusion of Commencement, I wanted to take one last moment to address the Class of 2017. During Convocation at the beginning of the year I shared with you the following:

“Our world needs young leaders who are actively working to make a difference. So, do not just sit back and be consumers of information. Be creators. Be active participants in the world and strive to make a difference- no matter how big or small. Some days you will take a risk and you will fail miserably. Other days those risks will pay-off. But in the moments of attempting something new and stretching yourself, you will be setting yourself up for future success”

Everything that we have heard today and all that you each have done over the past 2, 4, or 14 years at Brimmer and May is evidence that your futures are bright. 29 individuals with their own stories, passions, and strengths. Each one of them has grown from the risks they have taken at Brimmer and they each have helped shape our community. The Class of 2017 have individually and collectively pushed us to think differently about music, art, science, race, identity, and so much more. They are a group of people that simply do not accept the status quo and I want to thank you for imprint you have left on our school.

As I conclude, I want to leave you with one final thought. Golda Meir said: “Make the most of yourself by fanning the tiny, inner sparks of possibility into flames of achievement.” May your sparks of possibility never be extinguished so that one day we may see the billowing smoke from all that you achieved. Congratulations!

 

Vignettes on Resilience

Back in the fall, I wrote about Teaching Resilience and the importance of developing specific skills and mindsets to aid in the development of building resilience in students. As the end of the year approaches, I thought I would highlight a few examples of our students rising above the challenges they faced in each scenario.

When you think about Winterim, it is not generally a time you would imagine moments of great resilience. Generally, the trips are filled with fun, educational programming. However, due to snow, many of the return trips were impacted, and flights had to be rebooked. For the Cuba group, many found themselves stuck in a country that does not accept American money or credit cards, for an extra three days, waiting for their new flights. Students on the trip had limited communication with family members and in many ways felt cut off from their regular lives. As a School, we put as many things in place as we could so the students would have a positive extended stay, but there was still the feeling of being trapped in a foreign country. This could have been a moment of despair for many students. Instead, they found ways to balance their frustration with what was happening to them with the opportunity to spend more time as a group and in Cuba.

A second recent vignette displaying the resilience of our students was with the recent student directed production of The Last Five Years. Our students were solely responsible for all aspects of the show, which is difficult to manage without any major issues. This group showed tremendous grit when one of the lead actors faced a difficult decision to step down from the show for medical reasons. This student did not just step down from her role, but instead took on a mentorship role for the new actor to start rehearsing, just two weeks before the show. For a show that is based on two main characters, it would have been easy to cancel the show, but the entire cast and crew came together to ensure that the musical would still run. The way that each student reached out, put in extra time, and did not give up, displayed all the best that our students have to offer the Brimmer community and world.

The final example I want to highlight was how our Varsity Boys’ Lacrosse team overcame great adversity. After coming off a difficult season last year, the Lacrosse team had high hopes for the 2017 season. With a new coach in place, the program looked like it would be heading in the right direction. Unfortunately, the coach missed a few practices early in the season due to a medical issue and then a significant work conflict forced him to suddenly resign his position. For a group of players that ranged from first timers to college playing hopefuls, they very easily could have given up on the season. Instead, the group came together to face the challenges as a team. In the first week after the coach’s resignation, the team had multiple coaches and faced a lot of uncertainty. And then something great happened– instead of using their adversity as a scapegoat they used it as motivation. Under their new coach, the team began playing competitively against the top teams in the league. Finally, during the last week of the season, the team was able to beat Boston Trinity Academy, a top 2 team in their league, and beat Gann in overtime after just minutes before giving up the game-tying goal. We have seen professional athletes give up in less stressful situations, and the Lacrosse team deserves immense credit for the resilience they showed this season.

All three of these cases represent nearly half of our student body, which allows me to confidently say that we are doing the work necessary as a community to help students face the challenges they face and overcome them.

There’s a Reason for Those Citations!

Last weekend, I came across an article in the Boston Globe that called out to me as an educator: “BC cries foul after footage is used in video by Paul Ryan.” I could not help but start thinking about academic integrity, the work we need to do as educators, and the real world ramifications of claiming another person’s work as your own.

The article explains, in a nutshell, that Paul Ryan (and his staff) used video footage that did not belong to them. They took footage from a Boston College video production and used it without being granted permission. Why is this a big deal? Well, the Paul Ryan video likely violated copyright laws or another law that governs intellectual property. In addition, it is likely that highly accomplished and smart people will lose their job over this mistake.

The people working on Paul Ryan’s team are likely people that were very successful in their studies and worked very hard to earn a position with the Speaker of the House. So, how do we help our students avoid making a similar mistake?

For the most part, students are not making a malicious decision to take another person’s work and portray it as their own. Of course, there are times when a student is feeling the stress of a deadline or mounting work and may make a poor decision, but often students are unaware of their mistakes. This may come from choosing a source that should not be trusted, copying an image from the Internet, or relying too heavily on a google search. While access to information through Internet searches has countless benefits, it has also led to many complications and misunderstandings when it comes to intellectual property and plagiarism.

This is why we believe it is critical to teach students about curating sources, understanding how to tell what images or videos can be used, and how to go about gaining permission to use that media. Understanding “the why” behind properly giving credit to the authors of original ideas is a critical part of this learning and is supported by our Core Values of Respect and Responsibility. Our teachers and librarians play a crucial role in this process. Academic integrity is not about catching students, but is about informing them on best practices. As more and more content becomes accessible, this work becomes increasingly critical. We want to ensure that our students are informed and responsible curators of information so that they are not put in a position in college or the workforce like Paul Ryan and his staff.

Here are some helpful resources on Creative Commons, Copyright, and Fair Use from Brimmer’s Director of Middle and Upper School Library.

I Wish I Could Go Back to High School!

“I wish I had these classes in high school” is not an uncommon phrase to hear parents say after they have a chance to look through the Brimmer Curriculum Guide. The amountwow of coursework choice that Brimmer offers students far surpasses that of similar sized schools and is on par with schools that are four to five times bigger than Brimmer.

However, it is not just parents and students that are taking note of the incredible opportunities at Brimmer. Schools in New England are paying attention as well. Over the course of the school year, Brimmer has hosted professional development visits for multiple schools. School leaders feel it is important to visit our school because they see our focus on student choice and that we allow students to pursue their passions. They also see that our curriculum is focused on engaging students in real world studies and finding authentic ways to connect them globally. 

As a school that is committed to reflection and growth, we are constantly looking at our program and looking for ways to deepen the student experience. Over the past few years, we have seen the creation of Problem Solving Through Design, a course that merges art, technology, engineering, and entrepreneurship; Criminal Law; Women’s Studies; and International Relations. As we continue to look forward, we are excited about some of the new class opportunities for students next year. In the 2017-2018 Curriculum Guide, you will find new classes such as Latin American History, a new look for our Architecture and CAD classes, App Design, and Tech Shop–which will utilize our new space.

These new additions to our Upper School program, and our willingness to grow, are why we have become a resource for many schools as they look to improve their own programs. 

What classes are you most excited for?

The Power of Disagreement

Last Tuesday, I had the opportunity to attend an event where Governor Charlie Baker was speaking. It was a fantastic event, and it is always such a pleasure to hear the Governor speak about the state of the Commonwealth and our society. During the discussion, I could not help but be encouraged by a story he shared from his childhood that has shaped his view on debate, disagreement, and decision-making.

Governor Baker shared that his mother was a registered Democrat, and his father was a registered Republican. In his house, while growing up, his parents often engaged in conversations and disagreements on a number of issues. As he reflected on growing up in a household that embraced debate, I want to share two important ideas that resonated with me and are relevant for our students.

First, Governor Baker talked about the idea of surrounding oneself with the best minds regardless of their party affiliation and encouraging debate. He empathized the difference between intellectual disagreement and malicious disagreement. It was a critical distinction. The purpose of debate is not to tear another person down, but to deepen one’s own understanding, as well as the other person’s.

The point he shared was about how his parents and family friends were able to enter into strong arguments over politics, but it never impacted their relationships. By not entering a discussion with malicious intent, they knew that the arguments was about ideas.

Governor Baker’s words ring true if we are to live up to our mission of “develop[ing] life long learners who are informed, engaged, and ethical citizens and leaders in our diverse world.” We must continue our work with students so that they can engage in authentic discussions about what they are learning, the issues in our own community, and current events.

In recent conversations with ninth grade students, it was clear that they want to be a part of intellectual debate. They want to engage in conversations about our world and to dive deeper into the issues. They also shared that they believed the Brimmer community was one that was welcoming of all diversity–race, ethnicity, religious, identity, and intellectual.

We need to continue to teach students to engage in these discussions in order to learn and not to create conflict. In this way, like Governor Baker’s parents and family friends, respectful debate can lead to stronger personal relationships and deeper understanding, instead of creating wedges between people.

A Week of Civic Engagement

Over the past week I had the pleasure of working with a group of students in the Boston Winterim group for Brimmer and May. The week was built to be an exercise in Design Thinking while looking at a way to make a social impact on our community. Students want through a process of identifying an social issue to focus on for the week and eventually chose to look at environmental issues facing our local community.

With the uncertainty that a Design Thinking process can take a team, it wasn’t clear where we would end up. However in the end, it became a deep lesson in environmental issues, civics, local and state politics, and moved past the traditional lens of community service.

To learn more about the impressive week of work(that will continue outside of this week), visit the Hammond Pond Reservation and Webster Woods Improvements site that was setup to record the work.

Exploration

Exploration is in our nature. We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still. We have lingered long enough on the shores of the cosmic ocean. We are ready at last to set sail for the stars.
— Carl Sagan, Cosmos
Since the beginning of time, humans have been explorers, seeking out new experiences through travel. From the hunters and gatherers that migrated across continents to Magellan circumnavigating the world to NASA’s New Horizons satellite reaching the edges of our galaxy, we learn through exploration and new experiences. At Brimmer, we develop explorers in a multitude of ways including our biennial program, Winterim. Next week, Upper School students will be spreading out across the globe, spanning nearly eleven thousand miles.
Today, more easily than at any other time in history, we can connect to people globally, learn about the history of every aspect of humankind, and experience different cultures. Access to information has allowed people to virtually travel to and explore new places. While reading, listening, and watching videos about different cultures can allow someone to deepen their global connection, it is not a replacement for physically visiting those nations, cities, or towns. It is impossible to get a true sense of the grandeur of the Giza Pyramids or to truly appreciate the awesomeness of the Parthenon without standing at those sites. One cannot fully understand the choices and values of a community without being there in person and talking directly with its residents.
I can still recall admiring with students the detail of the beautifully carved two thousand year old Roman statues and being in awe of the deep love of city and culture that drove New Orleans residents to rebuild even with future uncertainty. The power of our Winterim programs are the transformational moments that will lead students and faculty to a new understanding of people, places, and culture. It is an opportunity to learn what cannot be found in books or online. Many of these moments will be captured by pictures or videos, but it will be the ones that are etched in students’ memories that will never leave them. What will our students bring back with them when they return? I don’t know, but I’m excited to see and hear about their experiences.

 

To all our students no matter where they are going: Safe travels. Viaje seguro. Kār deinthāng thī̀ plxdp̣hạy. Bon voyage. Anzen’na tabi. Turas math dhuibh.

Leveraging Design Thinking in Schools

If you step into my office, you will see pads of sticky notes sitting on different surfaces and easel pad paper filled with used stickies. I was not always sticky note obsessed. The truth is that I resisted using them for a long time. So what happened? I was introduced to Design Thinking (or Human Centered Design). I became hooked on the way in which the process, when done right, took an empathetic lens to design and focused on developing solutions from a broad user base. Most fascinating is the way in which it identified unique solutions that generally were not easily predictable.

During the process, the team of “designers” collect information from users and learn about their experience. They work to understand how the purpose is interacting with the people that are using it. It is easy to extrapolate how it can be used in areas of STEAM, particularly arts and engineering. It pulls from those processes. While it originated out of IDEO’s product design work, it was adapted over the past two decades to improve patient care systems in hospitals, improve a person’s experience while waiting in line, and enhance social entrepreneurship. The implementation of design thinking has grown exponentially as Stanford’s d.school has made the work more mainstream.

The question remained for me, how can design thinking be leveraged to improve programs and decision making in schools? When I watched David Kelley’s 60 Minutes special, it became clear to me. The process places the human at the center, which is ultimately the goal of education organizations.

Here are the basic principles:

  1. Empathize: During this initial phase the team is design-thinking-2collecting information from various
    groups and individuals that may interact with issue. The goal is to connect with the people that may be impacted and understand the issues from their perspective.
  2. Define: In this second part of the process the team works to define a problem statement that sums up what they learned during the empathy phase. This may shift over time as ideas are created and tested, and more information is collected.
  3. Ideate: Similar to brainstorming, the goal is to develop as many ideas as possible without limit. The end result should be lots of ideas that can be grouped and refined.
  4. Prototyping: The goal at this point is to quickly develop one of the ideas in more detail- create a model, sketch out how it will work, put together something that can be tested as a rough outline.
  5. Test: When you get to the “test” phase you are not done. You are looking to collect information and learn about your prototype. How can it be improved? Do you need to incorporate other ideas? Do you need to start over with the new information you collected.

The power of the process is how it can be utilized in school decision making. It provides the context and process to involve the important stakeholders in the school, helps to bring out new ideas, and creates a culture of innovation. However the process itself does not work unless the right team is assembled. It is critical to include a cross-section of the community- this must happen to get the most out of the ideate phase.

In the end the process is key. Many organizations have a difficult time balancing when to make a decision versus when to continue with the process. The human centered design process is most helpful in finding the right balance. The process allows schools to take a thoughtful approach to decision making and program development, while also working towards a final solution. The process has a way of identifying the underlying issues that are at play and developing a solution- keeping schools out of the extremes of rushing to a decision or getting stuck in process or unpacking.