a little something extra
Andrew W. Niblock
Director of Schoolwide Initiatives
The Greenwich Country Day School
Director of Schoolwide Initiatives
The Greenwich Country Day School
In late August 2005, normal life in the city of New Orleans, and in the school where I was teaching fifth grade, came to an abrupt halt. Hurricane Katrina forced evacuation, resulting in remote learning and work if you were lucky, and a fight for survival if you were among the thousands who weren’t.
It became common in the days following the tragedy to question whether the city would, or should, come back.
Those who doubted the city’s resilience and renewal didn’t know many New Orleanians.
Soul is waterproof.
This was, and is, the statement on the front of my favorite t-shirt. It summed up the dogged hope and belief that fueled the rebuilding. The city has soul, and no storm could wash that away.
It is also how I know our Country Day community will come out on the other side of this.
Our school has soul.
Our soul is made up of the stuff that weathers the storm. We are a place where character, kindness, curiosity, and joy fuel a desire to chew on problems and the resilience to chew as long as it takes.
We are fortunate to have resources and access that allow for learning to continue despite our distance, but the magic is the people, the relationships, and the culture that binds us.
The strength of our connections is more important now than ever. The time given throughout the year to knowing each other well allows the virtual connections we make today to be powerful. We have learned the twists and turns of the people around us, through discussion, play, good questions, and some sweat. We will find a way to keep them strong.
It will be different. It may be different for a long time. But, it will be ok. Some of it may be great. Some not so much. But, it will be ok.
We have soul.
February is here. Most New Year’s resolutions are long gone, and those that are still kicking may be on the way out. A precious few will see the light of spring.
Resolutions aside, it can be tricky to muster the energy for anything when it’s dark by four.
What makes the difference between what gets done and what gets lost? The answer lies in motivation.
Motivation is essential. It is what urges us over, under, around, and through life’s adventures.
Author Dan Pink wrote a book about it called Drive, which is worth reading. In it, he exposes the serious limitations of traditional, carrot and stick motivation, and he sings the praises of intrinsic motivation.
Intrinsic motivation is an inner drive, and Pink argues this is what gets us to the mountaintop. Intrinsic motivation is the brass ring, and it is fueled by passion, purpose, curiosity, and belief. Building the stuff of intrinsic motivation is what life, and particularly school, is about.
Ironically, one of the ways we cultivate our inner drive is from the outside. We use the people around us - our teams.
These teams often fall into two camps - tough love and enthusiastic support.
Which do we need?
Last year, Drew Brees, an undersized and often underestimated NFL quarterback, broke the record for career passing yards. In an interview following the game he was asked what fueled his success. Brees gave a refreshing response.
“I have so many people who believe in me. I want to prove them right. “
It would have been so easy, cliche even, for Brees to call out his naysayers. Instead, he thanked his enthusiastic supporters, his gospel choir. ( I read an article recently that introduced the concept of the gospel choir as the epitome of enthusiastic support - I grabbed it.)
When that enthusiastic support comes honestly and regularly from people you value and trust, it is particularly powerful. At Country Day, our students have a gospel choir of peers and teachers who believe in each other and earnestly work for the success of those around them. This mentality is very TIGER PRIDE, and it works. It cultivates valued relationships well beyond Upper School commencement.
The late educational leader Rita Pierson said that every child needs a champion. To take her message further—everyone needs a champion, regardless of age. We all need someone who believes in us—our worth, our ability to grow.
Who is your gospel choir, the champions in your life that provide you with enthusiastic support? Who are those people for your children?
Who do you champion?
Having a full-throated gospel choir is probably not enough.
Professor and author Adam Grant espouses the benefits of a cultivated challenge network. A challenge network is a group of people you respect whom you ask to shoot holes in your work—your ‘tough love’ team. They are the editors who trim eight paragraphs to five. They are the devil’s advocates who ask the question that exposes the fault in the perfect plan. They help us keep our eyes on improvement.
Your children have challenge networks. They include teachers, coaches, siblings, and you. They also include peers and the world of popular culture.
Constructive feedback can be hard to chew coming from the best of sources. As adults, we filter the feedback, we curate our challenge network. As parents and teachers we have an obligation to help the young people in our care see the value of a feedback filter, and to help them be intentional in its development. At GCDS we are intentional about not only providing frequent informed feedback, but building the confidence and core knowledge in our students that allows them to craft their filters.
Who is in your challenge network? Who is the challenge network for your children?
In both cases, what voices are too loud? What voices are missing?
Knowing how you are most powerfully, effectively, and honestly motivated by those around you is a worthy aim. We should pay attention to our motivators, and we should help the children in our care do the same. It can determine what gets done and what gets lost.
I was teaching fifth grade in New Orleans when the first Harry Potter book was published.
There was a seismic shift in my classroom. Each child passing through the door had a book in hand, and they were stealing every free moment to read.
I wasn’t there when Johannes Guttenberg introduced movable type in the 15th century, but in the late 1990s I got a sense as to the transformative impact of a revolutionary event on the reading world.
As a teacher, and a reader, it was a unique and wonderful time. I owe JK Rowling a hug. Teaching is so much fun in a room full of readers.
Every November the whole of our Old Church Road campus reminds me of the spirit of that classroom. Reading is ubiquitous, the literary fervor stoked by the annual traditions of the Book Fair and Bookapalooza.
The Book Fair is a festival to the printed page. Readers of all ages sprint in with wide eyes and wander through a rainbow of options. A wish list is piled high as recommendations, flashy covers, and favorite authors pique the interest, and visitors often depart pleasantly distracted, nose buried deep in a new adventure.
Bookapalooza is as good as it sounds. For the week of Thanksgiving, homework in the middle school takes a break, and students and teachers have the time to read a book of their choice. For at least a week, the banter in the halls is as likely to be about plot twists as it is to be about Netflix watchlists.
The enthusiasm lasts well into December, as books from both events are passed among friends with spirited recommendations, and the debates over unsolved mysteries carry on.
I have enthusiastically spent much of my life reading. It is how I learn about things—familiar things, dangerous things, mysterious things, fantastic things, historical things, smelly things, explosive things. Reading is my chance to try ideas on, to open my mind, and to gain understanding.
I don’t read quickly, and I never have, but that is ok. I have always essentially read twice, once for the content and once for the poetry, turns of phrase, and fascinating words. I am looking for nuggets I can borrow. My reading is fuel for my writing.
GCDS Middle School English teacher Lauren Rosenberg curated a document for our eighth graders based on an essay by Mike Bunn entitled, How to Read Like a Writer. With it, every year about this time, our English department delivers what may seem like a counterintuitive message to busy students.
Take time to appreciate and examine the author’s choices. Ask yourself questions about the language and the evidence. Find a few things that might work for you in your writing.
As we approach the Thanksgiving holiday, this might be advice worth following for all of us.
Find a good book and a comfortable spot.
Better yet, share the experience.
Read the same book as your child and talk about your questions.
Ask your child about the characters they love… About the characters they despise.
Laugh out loud.
Cry a little.
Make your reading conspicuous… It might be contagious.
And, when in doubt, keep this quote from Maurice Sendak in mind,
“When you not only hear a treasured story, but are also pressed against the most important person in the world, a connection is made that cannot be severed.”
Netflix has a documentary series, 7 Days Out, which, as its name suggests, chronicles the seven days leading up to a major event. Episodes have included a restaurant reopening, a NASA mission, and the Westminster Dog Show.
Some of it is riveting, edge of your seat stuff. Some of it is painful for me to watch.
For every one of the last 21 years, the seven days before school begins have been like an episode of this series for me - exciting, stressful, funny, occasionally painful, and, usually, with a happy ending.
This year was more so.
We are at the beginning of our next chapter as a school. We have many new faces, a new campus, and three new grade levels. The excitement has never been more palpable. The stakes have never been higher.
So much new is exhilarating, but it also can be a little scary.
Here’s why I am enthusiastic and optimistic as we begin this school year.
It’s not just about the hard work and connection of the seven days leading up to September 4. Though that was camera worthy.
Netflix would’ve loved footage of that week here. Characters everywhere. Hilarity and pearls of wisdom around each corner. A race against a looming deadline. Interior design and inspirational speeches. It was a fittingly dramatic buildup to our new year.
My enthusiasm and optimism for the year ahead is about the wonder and excellence of our last 93 years as a school.
Understanding deeply the art and science of educating young children and adolescents has allowed Greenwich Country Day School to cultivate learners who are curious, confident, and skilled. They love learning. They are kind friends. They are thoughtful leaders.
With the addition of our Upper School, GCDS is offering our students a challenge to more fully discover and develop what is finest in themselves. We will see and hear them tell their story.
The adults walking this path with our students are exceptional at every division. They are learners, coaches, directors, cajolers, artists, scientists, magicians, storytellers, caring guides, and curious listeners. Often they are all of these things, all day long. They know education is a messy endeavor, and everyone should go home dirty if they are doing it right. It is exhausting and exhilarating work, and it is the very best way to spend a day.
You will not find a teacher at our school who would rather be doing something else.
There is no such thing as a bad question.
That may be true, but some questions are better than others.
Some questions are profound in their simplicity. Others are thoroughly and thoughtfully layered with meaning, eliciting a diversity of response. There are others still that are so insightful, they just make you smile.
Most questions don’t fall into these three categories. Insatiable curiosity and a time crunch generally lead to questions, and answers for that matter, flowing forth half baked. As with any form of communication, almost any question could be improved with a little extra thought and editing.
In our current, rapid fire, age of communication, we are missing opportunities. We are missing our opportunities to ask better questions.
Magnificent questions yield magnificent answers… And more questions!
Classroom environments on our campus are question incubators. Teachers design spaces and conversations with the purpose of discovering the best questions. Just as the editing process works to create a constantly evolving piece of writing, our teachers craft their lessons for constant question evolution.
It is worth taking the time to mold better questions, but, how do we do so without stifling spontaneity?
The word Mu has a few meanings in the Zen Buddhist tradition, but I recently heard it used in a way that serves our particular purpose.
Mu… Un-ask the question. It could be better.
In this context, mu is a request for reflection and revision, toward a better question. It is an invitation to dig a little deeper or open a new door.
And, it’s a fun word, to say and to hear.
Who wouldn’t be curious to learn more when their next throwaway question was met with, “mu.”
Try again. Take your time. Is there a better question to be asked?
Mardi Gras season wrapped up last Tuesday in New Orleans.
If you haven’t been, forget what you’ve heard. If you have been, forget what you saw.
In my decade living in New Orleans, I crafted my own definition, and it’s the one we are going to use, for now.
Mardi Gras is… wonder filled, musical, spirited, deeply imperfect, tasty, family focused, filled with - and haunted by - tradition, robust, exhausting, colorful, and exuberant. It’s complicated.
I hope all of us have a Mardi Gras somewhere, something that stirs up a dizzying set of adjectives - a reminder of the merit of mystery.
Mardi Gras was, and is, my reminder to look beyond the surface - because that’s where the questions are asked, and the music is played, and the laughter is most infectious. It is where the story is told.
Teachers are forever in search of the devices we might impart to our students that will help them look past the first layer. There are handy research checklists around every classroom corner. However, nothing teaches the virtue of digging more compellingly than a real life realization that things have greater gusto, weight, and joy, below the surface.
Sometimes what we discover below the surface is unexpected. We need to help our children, and ourselves, to meet these moments with curiosity. In order to do this, we should cultivate our intellectual humility. Intellectual humility is the ability to keep an open, curious mind. It doesn’t require an opinionless existence, rather an opportunistic one. Dr. Angela Duckworth and her team at her Character Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania have done considerable recent work on the power and necessity of intellectual humility. Duckworth and her team argue that if you go into every interaction with intellectual humility, you enter every conversation ready to learn.
I question my own opinions, positions, and viewpoints because they could be wrong.
This is one of the statements Duckworth recommends we revisit from time to time to check our own intellectual humility. It’s not always easy.
Unexpected, complicated moments should not be taken at face value, or lightly. Over the next two weeks join your children in a search for the occasional Mardi Gras, and meet it with humility and curiosity, wherever and whatever it might be.
You have done this exercise before.
Think of a powerful learning experience. What were the ingredients that made it so?
Now think about the people who were with you in the moment.
Friends – teammates – a worthy sparring partner?
Many of us are fortunate enough to remember a respected guide in those moments, someone we cared about and who cared about us.
This is not coincidence, according to decades of research, a recent editorial by David Brooks, and a report released last week by the National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development appropriately entitled, From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope. The gist of the work? The traits needed to succeed in a changing, unpredictable, and challenging world – e.g., resilience, curiosity, global awareness – are best cultivated in an environment that puts strong relationships, character, and community at its core.
Challenge and rigor do not disappear in such a space. On the contrary, an environment with a focus on social emotional learning knows that rigorous academics create both stressors and growth. It builds the ability in its students to make the most of every challenge, to relish each opportunity to stretch and learn.
An example: Building fluency in a new language is exceptionally difficult. If a learner hasn’t developed the grit to push through the frustrations or cultivated a relationship with their teachers that allows her to ask honest questions, it’s just about impossible.
Those traits don’t happen by accident.
Brooks asks a question at the close of his piece: “When you start thinking this way it opens up the wide possibilities for change. How would you design a school if you wanted to put relationship quality at the core?”
I have been fortunate to spend 20 years at schools dedicated to that very question. It is our life's work, and never more so than as we look toward the future at Greenwich Country Day.
It is a tradition we will carry forward as we design a nursery through 12th grade experience. One that does not ignore the impact of emotion and character in learning, but holds them at the core of a school dedicated to cultivating graduates who will change the world.
“In dreams begin responsibilities,” wrote William Butler Yeats. All of us dream of creating environments where the minds and spirits of children can thrive. Now it is our responsibility to make it happen. That is the high calling of education and the urgent task of our time. - A Nation at Hope
David Byrne was frustrated.
The artist, author, and front man for the Talking Heads couldn’t find any good news. He was aware of the hardships of the world, but he also knew through life experience that life wasn’t all bad.
He just couldn’t find any evidence in the news of that fact.
He decided to take matters into his own hands, and in January 2018 started up a website, Reasons to be Cheerful. He began collecting and posting news items that reminded him, "Hey, there's actually some positive stuff going on!"
Whether we like Byrne’s politics, or his music, the project is intriguing. It begs the question, what are our reasons to be cheerful?
There are many.
This time of year we seem to hop from event to event, more so than usual, and I would argue there is a reason to be cheerful in every moment spent in an auditorium seat, at a table with family, or in the car on the way.
Byrne’s challenge is easy when you are near a child in December.
However, I recommend we not be satisfied with the low hanging fruit. Make hunting for reasons to be cheerful, everywhere, a quest over the next few weeks.
Look in all the usual, and unusual, spots.
You’ll be surprised where, and how often, cheerful items turn up.
Byrne has not gone wanting in his quest for evidence of “ positive stuff.”
We won’t either.
I’ve taken to writing more notes. Notes give me the chance to choose my words intentionally to add the nuance I have lost in my voice over the past few years.
In writing I can use word choice, or punctuation, or sentence structure to build a rhythm and emphasis.
I can also insert more poetry
rather than spoken,
get away with it.
Notes are, in general, a worthwhile and enjoyable activity.
As Thanksgiving approaches, notes of thanks and gratitude do and should take center stage. Study after study touts the benefits of gratitude for well-being. A genuine thank you note is good for your health, and polite. Silly not to do it, and silly not to encourage our children to build the habit of doing so as well.
My favorite genre of note, however, is the “noticing” note. I recently heard an interview with James Doty, a neurosurgeon who talked about the real connections between the head and the heart. He talked about the necessity and benefit of being present and aware, and noticing, for those connections. It actually reduces inflammation in the brain. Who knew?
Acts of kindness, sportsmanship, grit, or grace often don’t get headlines, but they are a terrific reason to keep my phone in my pocket and my eyes open. When I share that noticing, that gratitude, with others in the form of a note, I am celebrating the choices that make our community shine.
There is something wonderful about catching a small moment and recognizing it.
Sometimes sharing that you noticed is the best way to say thank you.
Thanksgiving is days away, and I am thankful because of the things I notice on our campus, every day.
I notice a prekindergarten bearhug after the weekend.
I notice an eighth grade science teacher working and laughing with a student before school.
I notice that Mr Columbo’s smile at the front door makes my son smile too.
I notice that our students are our best ambassadors for visitors, big and small - holding doors, making space, and sharing stories .
I notice the quick high five between siblings in the Dining Hall.
I notice thank yous at the end of class.
I notice skipping across the field on the way to sports. (You can’t be upset when skipping. Try me on this! )
I notice tired, happy faces putting the day to bed.
I am thankful for the opportunity to notice and appreciate.
I heard an interview with Yo Yo Ma during which he was asked about his outward demeanor when performing. He is one of the great musicians of our time, of no doubt a very serious cellist, yet on stage he is joyful.
He was asked, Why?
“It’s a choice ... I choose joy.”
I choose joy.
Is it that simple?
The story we tell is more than the words we use or the notes we play. How we say them or play them makes an impact.
When we choose with another in mind, to comfort, or counsel, or inspire, we are exercising our empathy. When Yo Yo Ma chooses to show his audience just how much fun he is having, he is doing so because he wants his music to be about more than the notes. He wants them to share his joy.
It doesn’t need to be a packed concert hall. It can be an family dinner or a shared walk. Making a conversation about more than the words is something we do all the time.
How often are we intentional and thoughtful about it?
How often do we choose joy?
Our children do it all the time. Maybe irrepressible giggles aren’t lousy table manners. Maybe they’re an invitation. We just need to be aware enough to follow.
Our children are predisposed to discover and choose joy. They are loaded with curiosity and hopefulness, two traits that are essential for those tasks, and, according to a joint study from Harvard and Duke, are protective against hypertension, diabetes, and upper respiratory infection.
Next time you hear singing in the next room, investigate, and, if they’ll let you, join in.
It’s good for your health.
Lagniappe is New Orleanian for a little something extra. On this blog my goal is to share something that has caught my eye or gotten me thinking. Something extra…I truly enjoy writing it, and I appreciate the time spent to read it.