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
I have found myself using exclamation points recently. As a general rule, a lot of exclamation points is a bad literary choice, but I think I had a subliminal reason. I was trying to kick-start my energy, my hope.
I am an obnoxiously positive person. I pride myself on it, but the past six months have been doozies. On that, I think we can all agree.
This spring and summer, I was grateful to have time with family, books, music, and a handful of streaming video services. But, I was missing something.
“To get the full value of joy, you must have someone to divide it with.” - Mark Twain
My esteemed colleague David Griswold recently shared this quote with the faculty. It was an eye opening rediscovery for me.
I needed school up and running. I always do this time of year, but this fall especially, I needed our community back together to get the full value of my joy.
I propose that learning is another experience most fully realized with others.
We learn from and with our friends. Ideas grow from ideas and questions grow from questions. A multitude of experiences and perspectives in the room makes for fertile learning soil. Insatiable curiosity and the care to listen for understanding ensure that we continue to grow. That is nearly impossible to do if we’re alone.
This week, students came back to school, on campus and remotely, and the experience was undeniably different from any September in their, or our, memory. Face masks, air hugs, zoom buddies, and physical distancing are sub optimal. The power of real hugs and visible smiles can’t be overstated.
However, this week we returned to the adventure of learning, together, and I don’t need any exclamation points to express how important that is. The energy that, every year, vibrates through the walls and fills the air is still there. The promise of great questions and new friends is just as true at the opening of this year as ever. School is enthusiastically afoot, and we are back together, in a position to get the full value of our joy.
Familiarity breeds …
There are a great many answers to that prompt. We all have our own. Especially now, because there is a whole lot of familiarity going on this spring.
As we are forced to stay apart from friends, classmates, teachers, and teammates, many of us are spending a bunch of time up close with our families.
While we all have our moments, I suspect there have been some interesting quarantine discoveries. Amid the uncertainty and mishaps, our family’s familiarity has bred…
… A healthy appetite. There is magic in a shared meal. Dinner together has been far more regular recently. None of us have any practices, meetings, or events to go to! Having everyone at or near the table does not, in and of itself, guarantee gripping conversation, or any conversation at all, but it increases the chances!
… Music. Bandleader and trumpet wizard Wynton Marsalis wrote a children’s book called Squeak, Rumble, Whomp, Whomp, Whomp about the music he heard in the everyday sounds in and around his family’s shotgun house in New Orleans. To be fair, Marsalis grew up in the first family of jazz, so music was likely to be everywhere. We are not the Marsalises, but I would wager each of our homes has a collection of sounds that makes our own music. A constant soundtrack pervades our house. The occasional bark from our dog mixes with a Stevie Wonder record, which joins the laughter of a game of tag, which is accompanied by a zoom call from the next room, which is punctuated by blasts of a third grade recorder. It all blends to make a particular melody, unique to our address.
… Knowing looks. Our unspoken language is robust. We can announce our approval or challenge without saying a word. A glance can be a signal. An eye roll can be a full sentence. A nod can be a call to arms. There are volumes spoken through the silent looks that pass under the rhythm of our house music.
… Surprises. I read recently a recommendation that we, “ Listen as best you can for what’s different, for what surprises you. “ Even in our homes right now, with our abundant familiarity, we will find the surprises if we listen intentionally. What surprises us, especially with those we know best, unwraps new layers in our relationships.
This practice can also be the cure to the deja vu of our daily zoom calls. Listen for surprises. If you are lucky enough to work or live with children, you won’t have to wait long. The attention will be worth it. Surprises may spark conversation, new reading, or even a song.
We, as people who care about other people, ask lots of questions. Questions are how we learn. They are how we show interest. They are how we connect.
The ability to develop and deploy a great question is one of life’s truly valuable skill sets.
In thinking about learning, we ask lots of questions. What do we value? Why do we value it? How do we best measure it?
Finding ourselves today in a spot where teaching and learning looks very different than it did the first week of March, we are asking ourselves those questions regularly.
In unpredictable times we are called to our core, the stuff that defines us, and we are challenged to use that core in new and, perhaps, surprising ways.
In teaching and learning, parenting and growing up, relationships are that core. Relationships grow from conversations. In school, those conversations are at the core of assessment and feedback, and we are having them in new and surprising ways.
Surveys, small groups, debates, songs, kahoots, shared docs, and exit tickets all play a part in our new school conversations.
They are all a way we ask, and try to figure out, How are you doing?
It is more important than ever, in school and out, that we give the time and attention to listening for an answer.
It’s also more important than ever that we ask that question throughout our connections with other people - as often, and in as many different ways as we can.
David Brooks wrote recently that now is the time we need to “practice aggressive friendship with each other . “ To reach out and connect with those people in your life who need a lift.
Where are those people for each of us? Are they within arm’s reach or a zoom call away?
In any case, now is a great time to build a habit of checking in on the people you care about, asking questions, and giving time and attention to their response. It will feel good, and it will help others in ways you would not imagine.
Neil Degrasse Tyson, the scientific director at the American Museum of Natural History and a dizzying expert on astrophysics, was once asked, by a six-year-old, about the meaning of life. His response resonated with me--the meaning of life is to learn something new every day, and to have fun doing it.
I have always felt that, as a teacher, I had a leg up in this endeavor. Teachers learn every day, whether they want to or not. Spending time with students presents a curriculum that is dynamic and engaging, confounding, and inspiring. Every day. And it is really fun.
While teachers may have had an advantage, in the not so distant past, just moving about our normal lives, we all had ample opportunity to pursue Tyson’s meaning of life.
However, in case you’ve missed it… Normal has left the building.
We are all facing daily uncertainty and bewilderment, and we have no idea when it will slow down.
Channeling my inner Neil Degrasse Tyson… How lucky are we!?
In our “ new normal” we are all in a distinctly advantaged position to learn something new every day, and to have fun doing it.
If you are an adult in view of children, virtually or actually, let them see your bewilderment, laugh with you at your blunders, and rejoice at the well earned epiphanies of new knowledge. We are learning dramatically all the time these days, and it should be a little fun.
If you are a student in view of adults, virtually or actually… Ditto. Adults need learning role models, and you all are the best!
Find the fun in figuring things out. Unearth the joy in trial and error. Embrace the excitement of discovering a new interest.
Learn with impunity, and let the people around you see you doing it!
A friend ( Jackie) got me thinking.
I have always spent my days neck deep in relationships. It is my work. It is my calling. I love it.
Listening, collaborating, cajoling, laughing, crying, counseling, questioning, and learning.
My days are regularly full, and always unpredictable. I have always needed a release. A way to give my soul some predictability, on my terms.
The Serenity Prayer is a prayer written by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971). It is commonly quoted as: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.
I find inspiration and challenge in the Serenity Prayer. I try to work toward it, but I am rarely successful.
I realized long ago that I didn’t stand a chance to find the serenity, the wisdom, and the courage unless I gave myself some time.
For much of my life, daily physical exercise, often running, was my chance to take control for a bit. I can still close my eyes and feel my favorite runs, the ground under my feet, the smell of the trees, my breathing, a sunrise over campus. I miss it.
My 40s have been influenced by a daily battle with ALS. There have been many adjustments and frustrations, but one of the most difficult is the loss of my ability to lace up my sneakers and go for a run.
I needed a new release. A new avenue toward serenity, courage, and wisdom.
I love writing. I love words and turns of phrase. I believe what we say, and how we say it, matters. I don’t often really know how I think about something until I write about it.
I don’t know whether I am more serene, wise, or courageous after I write, but I know I need it like I needed my morning run. Writing is my daily exercise. It makes me happy, clears the noise, and gives me focus.
It makes me a better me.
What makes you a better you?
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?
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.