Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Parenting is a Heavy Trip

I was standing outside at the West Traffic Circle with three mothers I know well while they were waiting to pick up their children. One mother, who everyone would recognize as having a balanced parenting perspective and a wholesome, engaged child, told us that her daughter admonished her the other day by saying, "Mom, you left my trumpet outside."
We all laughed, including the daughter, because it was such an absurd thing for a child to accuse a parent of — neglecting to bring in the child's possessions to protect them from the weather.
The parents discussed a useful book from 2002 that helped one of the mothers understand how to raise teenagers. The title of the book, which just about tells you all you need to know, is Mom, Get Out Of My Life. But First Can You Drive Me And Cheryl To The Mall?
We laughed again.
I remarked to these three involved, appropriate parents that I have observed in the six independent schools I have served that there is a particular challenge for parents of any stripe but especially parents of relative high income to know the line between providing for their children and conveying the inaccurate message to their children that they're entitled to riches and wealth and possessions. I've talked often about how we don't always protect our children by protecting our children.
As your child grows from the age where he does need to be protected to the age — it is different for every child and in every family — where he no longer needs to be protected, how does a parent know where that line is, what the age is, and what the the right moment is to let their child stumble, fall and learn that he can pick himself up again without any help from his parents or other adults?
As a parent now of two post-college children who are supporting themselves and of whom their mother and father are proud, I know that is not an easy parenting decision, made dozens of times every day by all of us.
This challenging question of when not to hover as parents led me to say to these three Country School mothers that I think there are two kinds of parents in this world: those who carry their children's backpacks to the car at the end of the day and those who do not.
That sounds accusatory because many of us as parents, quite rightly, help out when a child is struggling with an unwieldy science project or has a heavy gym bag and a heavy book bag. But there are other times that a parent picks up the backpack to speed things along and to make sure the child does not leave it behind on the playground or on the courtyard bench.
But what if the child did forget the backpack and had to walk all the way from his car back to the bench to get it? How many times after that would he forget it, dreading that avoidable walk back-and-forth?
Or what if she really forgot it because she was distracted by her friends and left it at school and could not do her homework at night without, like an old fashioned 10-year-old, calling one of her friends — or emailing, face-timing, etc. – to ask what the homework is and ask that friend to snap a photo of the page out of a textbook with the assignment? Would that help the student become more independent, accelerating her natural growth in independence and responsibility?
These are not easy questions and I don't mean to be flip about the fact of there being two kinds of parents, those of us who carry our children's backpacks and those of us who don't.

We tend to carry our children's backpacks home because we know they are heavy. But what if our children sensed themselves how heavy the backpacks are and spent another 90 seconds in front of their lockers at the end of the day, not chatting with their friends but thinking really hard about which books, folders and assignments they needed to take home that night — adding weight to their backpacks — and which assignments, folders and textbooks they did not need to lug home that night?
Eventually we do that as adults, right? We don't bring materials home from the office unless we have an intention to work on it. We want that same discretion and decision-making in our children and we want them to feel the weight of a book in their backpack that they don't need in their backpack, don't we?
How about this, then? There are two kinds of parents in this world: those who think about the right moment to stop carrying their children's backpack and those who are still on the threshold of growing their child toward independence.
This parenting stuff is not easy and the ambiguity of no definite right answer is fatiguing. But having your child someday fully independent makes it all worth it.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

A Salute to the Next Generation: Aristotle Mannan '03

What is a human life worth? Country ​S​chool alumnus Aristotle Mann​an '03 knows that each life is invaluable, and so he has created a way to do good while doing well. ​

Just as​ the book ​Moneyball changed baseball​,​​ professional sports,​ and many businesses b​y understanding human ​in​tuition, Ari is looking to change the medical profession and provide critical care earlier to those who need it. His weapon? Data.

Recently, Ari returned to The Country School  the first time he's been on campus since his graduation in 2003  to speak as part of the Elmore ​L​eadership ​Program. He shared stories about bosWell, the health startup he founded, and mesmerized his audience of 4th to 8th Graders. 

To watch a video of his talk, click below.

The Country School Mission Statement calls on students to "serve their communities and the larger world," while urging them to "reach their highest, not only in school, but also in life." At the same time, our Elmore Leadership Program seeks to inspire the next generation of leaders, equipping them with the necessary skills, while our STEAM Program teaches our students to look for problems in the world and, using all of the powers to be found by bringing Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math together, find a solution.

​Ari does all of those things and more through his work with bosWell. A graduate of Phillips Exeter Academy, where he was an Intel Science Talent Search semifinalist as well as a finalist in the John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage speech-writing contest, Ari went on to the University of Michigan, majoring in molecular and cellular biology. He began his professional career at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, working in cancer research.

While volunteering for a mobile health clinic in Boston, he met a homeless man named Huey and ended up embarking on an entirely different path. He realized that a lack of data was preventing Huey from receiving quality and comprehensive health care, and so he first brainstormed and then developed a solution, the digital health record platform he calls bosWell. Now being used by service organizations in various locations across the country to help coordinate care for individuals like Huey, bosWell is also providing data to help health care providers forecast needs and costs. By intervening early and being able to use the data to predict needs, the insurance agencies/hospitals who use the data not only help save lives, they drive their own costs down as well. 

After Ari's talk, students lined up to shake his hand and thank him.  

For a more in-depth account of Ari's talk, click here. For more about bosWell, click below:

We look forward to sharing more alumni stories in our forthcoming Country Connections magazine. Until then, like our students, I thank Ari for inspiring us with his work and for all he is doing to make life better for the Hueys of the world.

Ari, it was an honor to meet you and a wonderful affirmation as an educator
to hear about your work and your passion for making change.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Opposite of Spoiled: Lessons during this season of giving

All thinking parents with children of any ages may want to read a terrific book called The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money. By New York Times columnist Ron Lieber, it was a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller when it was released in 2015. Having spent time this holiday season reading it cover to cover, I can understand why. *

During the course of my decades working in schools, I've been fascinated to see how independent school parents and other parents of relative wealth teach their children to be grounded and grateful and, well, the opposite of spoiled. Many of these children grow up rarely seeing their parents scratching and clawing and eating Ramen noodles during the parents’ salad years. Instead, when children are old enough to recognize differences, they often find they have their own bedroom and bathroom, there's a two or three car garage, they go to Disney World more often than most, and they are educated in top-notch schools.

With those opportunities, how do parents make sure that their children will be as grateful and as hungry to achieve as the parents themselves were? And how do we educate our children about the need to give back and to help those who are not as fortunate? How do we teach children to make sacrificial gifts?

The Opposite of Spoiled offers a process for parents to undergo to make sure their children turn out, generally, just as described above. I was buoyed recently when, demonstrating quite the opposite of spoiled, our students at The Country School made me as proud as I ever am. The 8th Grade class, our student leaders, proposed to the rest of the Middle School that they forego the annual tradition of Secret Santa and, instead, donate the equivalent of the money to the Community Dining Room in Branford, where we have a long-time relationship preparing and serving meals to neighbors in  need.

Our students knew that, while an enjoyable activity, another gift would not mean as much to them as what they proposed doing for others. The students each brought money in and bought gift certificates for the regular guests at the Community Dining Room and, a few days before Christmas, quietly gave the gift certificates along with clothing and toys for the children. It was a demonstration of generosity, sensitivity, and empathy.

Country School families (and a special, bearded volunteer) served dinner at The Community Dining Room just before the holidays. More here.

Our 6th Graders made me proud when they read about the boy who had his arm broken on the playground at the culmination of a month-long bullying experience. Our students, feeling the boy’s pain, set out to buoy his spirits. Since this young boy is a Star Wars fan, our students made him a blanket, collected books, and created a Darth Vader secret bookshelf. They also made a Star Wars slideshow, a skit that they wrote and performed themselves, and a musical performance of the Star Wars theme song. The story of Jonathan touched our 6th Graders’ hearts, inspiring them to look beyond themselves and to prove to this young boy that he matters.

The opposite of spoiled is what we all want for our children and grandchildren. Lieber provides his readers with a basic foundation for wise budgeting: Spend, Save, Give. Spending wisely teaches children about modesty, prudence and thrift. Saving teaches them about patience and delayed gratification. And giving imparts lessons about generosity and gratitude. I recommend this book to you highly, as it puts a spin on the perennial parenting task of raising thankful, aware children by using the vehicle of currency to teach not only about money management but also how to think about others.

* Country School parents, teachers, and guests had the privilege of hearing Ron Lieber speak about The Opposite of Spoiled in February 2015, when he joined us in Elmore Library as part of our Parent and Educator Series (click here for more). Like many of us, I suspect, I have been spending some of my winter break catching up on reading, and it was wonderful to return to this book and read it through, cover to cover. Not only did it provide some terrific advice, but it also made me proud to be a part of The Country School community, where our students are committed to helping others and our adults know that learning is a lifelong pursuit. We look forward to bringing more speakers and interesting topics to audiences of all ages in 2017. Stay tuned…. For more about our Parent and Educator Series, see the link below:

The Country School Parent and Educator Series: Fostering Lifelong Learning

Ron Lieber in Elmore Library.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Turning Things That Aren't Into A Thing That Most Definitely Is

Writing a book takes hope because the author never knows whether a publisher will pick up the book and whether, even published, the book will find any readers. 

I felt less of that pressure to find strong readership because I was writing The Curious Guide To Things That Aren't largely in memory of my father and in celebration of my mother. Nevertheless, finding it published and on the shelves is an exciting experience, and also a wonderful way to relive my childhood with my parents.

My mom and dad, Jim and Mary Fixx, began the work on The Curious Guide to Things That Aren’t back in 1959 or so, when, as young Oberlin College graduates and newlyweds, they conceived of its subject. My father picked away at the writing while my mother worked on a couple of preliminary illustrations. But they had a first child, followed quickly by their second – me – and the book was set aside. It was really moved to the back shelf when my younger brother and sister, twins, entered the world. With four children under the age of five, there just wasn’t much time to sit at the drafting table and illustrate or enough peace and quiet outside of the office to write the story.

My father went on to edit magazines, including serving as managing editor of McCalls, and to write professionally, producing three books of puzzles – Games for the Super-Intelligent, More Games for the Super-Intelligent and Solve It – and then four books on exercise, including The Complete Book of Running, which spent 56 weeks in the number one spot on The New York Times bestseller list.

After putting aside Things That Aren't some time in the mid-60s, my father may have never thought again about completing it. In any case it wasn’t something he ever discussed with my siblings or me. I found the draft among his papers after he passed away in 1984, but because I was 22 at the time and had just started my first job out of college, I did not have any chance to focus on it.

It was only when our own children were grown and I had retired from Chase Collegiate School as Head and decided not to accept the offers of two two additional independent school headships to become development director at The Country School that I found myself with the time to tackle the book. Things That Aren't was written late at night, on weekends and during the early morning hours, and I enjoyed the challenging writing task immensely. At times I felt like a Swiss watch maker, as I tried to find the right word, arranging jewels in just the right way in a watch. Other times, like our students sometimes, I would feel clumsy and inept, unable to find the right words to capture my thoughts.

My wife, Liza, a bookseller, suggested the book could work well as an alphabet book. My father had written seven of the chapters already, and so seven are his and 19 of them are mine.

When the first copy of the book was printed, Liza brought it home and I sat to read it. As I encountered my father's words freshly, I stopped often and thought, “Gosh, he was a good writer."

As the book was being written, I relied on my colleagues at The Country School, where I was named Head of School in 2014. With support from teachers in Grades Kindergarten-5th, I visited classrooms and talked about the subject matter with students. Not only was I trying to find out what age level and ability seem to be the sweet spot for the book, but I needed some help understanding a child's perspective with words like breath and fog and memory and gravity. I'm indebted to those colleagues for giving me class time to work with their students.

I have a number of great memories from those months. One example is when I was asking for help with clues for the word “darkness.” One of the students suggested that darkness is what blind people see all the time. I never would have come up with that on my own.

Abby Carter, the book’s illustrator, was able to incorporate one of my mother’s sketches into her brilliant illustrations. It was a total joy to work with Abby and to see the way she was able to take and enliven the manuscript with her sketches. I am in awe of her art ability and creativity.

Abby and I were classmates and friends in college at Wesleyan University. About three years ago, after I began working at The Country School, we met for lunch, and I proposed we collaborate on this book. Maybe a week later, I asked her how it was going. The whimsy and whim you see in her illustrations came out in the way she responded to that question. She essentially said that she was all excited when we talked over lunch, but when she sat down at her table to begin to draw, she realized that she was being asked to sketch, literally, things that aren't. “How do you capture air, breath, shadows, an echo, fog, and gravity in an illustration?” she asked. Of course, the book is about puzzles and riddles and the talented Abby solved that puzzle 26 times brilliantly.

My father was always fascinated by puzzles and games. He worked closely with his beloved Mensa organization, trading puzzles and brainteasers with other high intelligence people from around the world. He would enjoy the exchanges even more today, with the ease of the Internet and quick response.

My father's puzzles and games overlapped with his love of running and exercise. Studies have proven that brain activity and creativity are enhanced by physical activity and the release of dopamine and chemicals. I remember runs with my father, from when I was six years old through to 22 years old, during which he would try out the latest puzzle or word game with me. “OK, John,” my father might ask, 12 miles into a 15 mile run, "You are given three objects – a paperclip, an anvil, and 12 feet of rope. What can you do that is useful with those three objects?”

Anyway, that sort of imagination game from my father was similar to the genesis of this book: "OK, John. Your mother and I are leaving you two illustrations and seven short chapters. See how you might be able to make use of them."

If you enjoy deductive reasoning and brainteasers, welcome to The Curious Guide to Things That Aren’t.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

If only they lived near The Country School…

'Let My Kids Be Kids': After Slight, Mom Pens Permanent Tree Climbing Permission Slip

Here at The Country School, many of us have been captured by this heartfelt plea from a mother whose children were prevented from climbing a tree on their school campus. As a school that commits substantial time each day for outside play – before school, during recesses, after lunch, during outdoor PE class, and after school – The Country School applauds this mother’s perspective.

It’s almost impossible to set foot on The Country School campus without hearing joyful noise emanating from some outdoor space. Maybe it’s a group of 5th Graders, inspired by their study of ancient Egypt, gleefully recreating a muddy Aswan dam by a stream in the woods. Or perhaps it’s a collection of students from multiple grades collaborating on one of the structures that surround the perimeter of campus. Or maybe it’s just a good, old-fashioned game of kickball.   

Each day, as I watch our 3 and 4 year olds at pick-up time – and even their younger siblings! – climb up on the rocks by the front entrance and jump off them, I have remarked how trusting and happily "old-fashioned" our Country School parents are. Of course, we don't protect our children by protecting our children. We protect our children by allowing them to take appropriate risks, occasionally scrape their knees or foreheads, and learn how to jump or land differently.

Can a student fall out of a tree and break an arm or a leg? Certainly. Some of the adults reading this blog will have done exactly that. But do you fall out of a tree twice? Probably not.

I revel in the fact that our students get to absorb the outdoor atmosphere regardless of the weather. They sled on our hills and build snow forts (and even snow pyramids – thank you, 5th Graders) in the winter. They happily traverse campus between classes, even when it’s raining. They run cross country soaking wet and cold and they play soccer in the mud – the more mud, the better. After we introduced our new Gaga Pit this winter, they even created something they call gaga knuckles – a condition that arises from smacking the ground too hard when playing Israeli hand-ball in our beloved Gaga Pit. It’s a badge of honor.

A Country School mother remarked the other day that her son came home with two Band-Aids on his legs and she never asked him what happened and it never occurred to him to tell her. Reflecting on it, she told me she figured he must have been having a good day to have put his body in some sort of minor danger. I like that comment.

Not every family at The Country School is raising "free range children" but our families do embrace the ethos – which has been alive since 1955 when our school was founded – that at The Country School students are going to be outside. They will be hiking outside, camping outside, canoeing on rivers, building rafts on lakes, and then – just before graduation – they will spend eight days in the mountains, deserts, and canyons of Utah. They will get hot, cold, wet, dirty, and tired, and they will enjoy better childhoods and live fuller lives because of it.

I wish this Pennsylvania mother lived closer to our campus. I know the perfect the school for her children.

More Outdoor Fun at The Country School

This afternoon.

On the hill in February (this is a teacher).

A special reading nook (this photo is an old favorite, but it's pretty timeless, since structures like this are erected on campus year after year).

Read the complete blog, "Let My Kids Be Kids"

For additional reading on the subject, check out the following articles and interviews:

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Fine Art of Persuasion (Or Please, Sir...)

When our son was young and wanted a toy or possession, he would march up and ask for it. A couple of years later, there was a time when he would clean his room voluntarily or take out the garbage or snuggle my wife, Liza, or me and then, an hour later, ask us for money for a toy or other possession.

I remember being struck by the growth in postponing gratification that must have taken. And then, as he got more sophisticated, he would do tasks voluntarily and then come up with a four-point argument why he should be given this or that toy or possession.

I was reminded of that natural evolution when I was invited to our 3rd Grade classroom here at The Country School and was presented with an array of letters from 3rd Grade students. Here are some lines from those letters:

Dear Mr. Fixx – We want a swimming pool at school!

Dear Mr. Fixx – I think we should have an ice cream bar at school.

Dear Mr. Fixx – We would like a pet day.

Dear Mr. Fixx – We want flag football teams at school!

What was happening is that 3rd Grade teacher Alyson Hill was teaching her children how to write persuasive letters. The enterprising student who was asking for an ice cream bar, for example, buttressed his argument with 11 points, among them:

Firstly, it gets hotter in the school year.… Third, it would refresh everyone. … Fifth, people like ice cream. Sixth, it could be free for students to eat weekly. Seventh, it would not be tons of sugar because it would be one scoop. Eighth, it would go well with the pool. Ninth, Owen’s aunt is a nurse and she says that if you do what you like to do, you work hard. … 11th, it is tasty.

The argument in favor of a pet day was this: 

Our pets miss us during the day. Second, it would be really cool to see other students’ pets. Third, the pets may want to see each other. So please give us a pet day, Mr. Fixx.

The request for a swimming pool at The Country School was crafted this way:

First, on Mondays or after spring break, we will be even more excited to come back to school. Second, we can learn how to swim at school. Third, in science we could learn how to take care of pool water in different environments. … Fifth, on field day we can swim the pool if we get hot. Sixth, last but not least, we want one and the whole 3rd Grade does and maybe the whole school. Thank you for reading this letter.

And here was the argument in favor of a football team:

Kids like sports and they want more recess and gym. Also, it would give kids fun exercise and they wouldn't get hurt. So please can we get a flag football team at school?

While I don't know that I can immediately promise a swimming pool or a permanent ice cream bar, I do think a pet day and occasional flag football game are entirely possible. What I'm more impressed with, however, is the discipline it takes for students to think of what they want to achieve and then to craft persuasive arguments in favor of their goal. I applaud Miss Hill – as I do all of our strong teachers all of the time – for taking the time to reinforce such an important skill.

As an English teacher and as an educator, I worry that the focus on the ephemeral and the youth culture of texting and slang is eroding the syntactical and written conventions that create precise, clear communication. I lv u is not the same as writing, I love you. One makes your heart beat faster and one, if you are of a certain age, makes you fear the full decline of western civilization.

I am proud that at The Country School, accurate spoken and written communication are valued and required. The families who trust their children's education to us expect precise discourse and celebrate “the King’s English” as much as the educators do on campus. Furthermore, the private and public secondary schools to which our students enroll demand exactly what we are teaching our young people, which is to speak and write clearly, accurately, and precisely.

Not every young person can persuade the school administration to create a swimming pool or a pet day or an ice cream bar or a flag football team. And you certainly are not going to be able to if you cannot create a good, authentic, logical argument in favor of it.

Miss Hill will be to blame, not incidentally, as her students become ever more persuasive in lobbying their parents for a higher allowance or specific toy or possession. When they approach their parents with a 10-point argument in favor of staying up later or getting a dog, The Country School will be totally to blame. I am proud of that.

Oh, and for the record, there is some precedent for Pet Day at The Country School...

Monday, May 2, 2016

Positive Language

In a recent blog, I wrote about the power of words and a growth mindset to encourage appropriate behavior and inspire students to rise to academic, artistic, and athletic challenges. In the days and weeks following the publication of that blog, we have all been astounded by the confusing oral and written emanations from political arenas across the country. Many of the words we have heard have been hateful and inflammatory, and while I find that offensive as an adult, I find it even more troubling as an educator.

Our young people must be baffled. After all, at The Country School, we talk about our three major school rules: Be kind to others. Respect everyone's right to learn. Take responsibility for yourself and your school.

A graphic of The Country School Core Values hangs on a wall in the Farmhouse.

The language we have heard, from both the left and the right, is often in direct contradiction to those rules, and some of the loudest voices belong to people we might one day call President. The way this use of language contradicts our school rules is troubling, but so is what could be an even more chilling ultimate effect. Why, after listening to that Beltway cacophony, would any young person be attracted to serving their country as a politician?

The debasing of the political process through language of turmoil and fear is beneath any office and any candidate. The distortion of language confuses the issues and distracts from a healthy debate about policy and possibilities, and just as the use of this language can be troubling for parents, so it can be troubling for teachers.

Archimedes, the Greek mathematician, scientist, and innovator for whom our Country School mascot is named, reportedly wrote, “Give me but one firm spot on which to stand, and I will move the earth.” I believe the precise and proper use of words is that fulcrum point with which we will collectively move the earth. Accurate syntax, and thoughtful language that is, if not kind, at least respectful, can lead to a calmer political process. On Opening Hill Road, it can help set clear goals and messages for our students.

When we are precise with language and when we are honest about our talents and our areas of potential growth, we can –– as humans –– establish long-term ambitions and then identify the steps it will take to achieve those goals.

We all know that just as liars can figure, so figures can lie. What we are perhaps less aware of is that words, even apparently well-behaved words that give every appearance of telling the truth, can lie, too. I'm not really worried about the occasional misuse of words and phrases. Politicians saying, for example, “At this point in time,” when they mean “now.” Practically everyone these days saying, “Hopefully,” when they mean, “I hope.” People beginning their sentences with, “So,” when that is a clumsy “Umm” opening. Those are mainly harmless mistakes.

What I'm writing about here is using words in one way but slyly pretending they're acting in a quite different way –– words in sheep's clothing. When we describe someone as famous –– forgetting that if she really is, then it's unnecessary to say so, and if she really isn't, then it's false to say so –– we do the same thing. Our words and reality are at war, or at least not on speaking terms. When we say that something is “tremendously small,” we are losing the logic of our language. We might as well be speaking Swahili to each other. To the extent that we let our language go untended, allowing it to become as unruly as a weed-choked garden, we let our minds become weed-choked, too.

A shampoo is said to be “earth born” but what on earth, except perhaps meteorites, isn't? And “organic” and “natural” are used in so many different ways that we end up knowing less about the products than more. Such words act as if they are conveying truth. They are doing nothing of the sort. They are conveying pure confusion. And when we are working with young people, who already abbreviate their thoughts in text messaging and emoticons, it is more essential than ever that words are used in full sentences to convey truth and reality.

And, of course, we need to be careful about language that is hateful or hurtful or unnecessarily provocative. When politicians and parents and teachers teach students to use words honestly and truly, like carpenters using their tools properly, we can lead, inspire, and be a beacon of truth about what we as human beings are and what our world is. We may not clear up a whole lot of the world’s confusion, but at least we won't be adding to it either.

There are always temptations to let words take a day or two off, become ill-mannered and go slumming with bad company. Instead, we need to ask our students to elevate their language. Likewise, we need to model syntactical precision for them as well as the proper use of positive language. We need to keep a close eye on our words. We need to discipline our words. We need to crack them on the knuckles when they misbehave. If we do, in the end, our words will do a lot for us, as well as for the world’s balance of sense and sanity. 

The good news is that the view is not all bleak out there, at least not on Opening Hill Road. Recently, during our first-ever TEDx conference at The Country School, we had some remarkable examples of language being used beautifully –– and for good. We will have much more to show when the official videos are ready, but for now, here's a snippet from a collaborative TEDx talk given by the youngest speakers at the conference –– 4th Grade poets:

And here, too, is some photographic evidence of language being used for good on our campus.

Sharing rules to live by.