It being Thanksgiving week, I thought it might be appropriate to share “from the archives” these remarks I made at a middle school graduation in 2005.  Happy Thanksgiving.

Graduation Dinner Address, 2005

Tonight I wanted to speak for a few minutes about privilege and anxiety.  I was struck this spring upon recognizing that the two books in my reading experience that best capture the sights and sounds, the environment—the culture—the world of excellent independent schools and universities—that both books contain in their title the same word:  Privilege.

The first, Art Powell’s 1996 academic analysis of the great value independent schools have offered their students for a very long time, is entitled Lessons from Privilege: The American Prep School Tradition.   The second, brand new this spring and leading me to this epiphany, is a young man’s memoir of his undergraduate education: its title is Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class.

These books portray the culture of schools where teachers are passionate about ideas and intensely committed to their students, where students love learning and are restlessly striving to advance in the American meritocracy.  There is competition and there is community; these schools are places of self examination, critical thinking, independent minds, ambitious yearnings, and amazing growth.

It is striking that that both books contain the word Privilege in their titles— and probably not a coincidence.  It is truly indeed a great privilege to attend such schools, and I think our graduates tonight realize it.

It has been a privilege for them to enjoy classrooms of so few students.  It is a privilege to investigate Washington D.C. with the powerfully sharp-minded Mr. Prestianni, or to hike the volcanoes of Hawaii ’s Kona with the adventurous Mr. LaBonte and Madame Amy, or to learn Algebra from the incomparable mathophile Mrs. Ellis, or to be sensitively counseled from the compassionate Ms. LaDuc, or be coached in basketball by “T”.  Some of them even had the privilege to learn to research their family heritage from Mrs. Schofield.

And it is a privilege indeed for these graduates to have had the support of families who have provided them such an education.

Privilege is complicated—having had such opportunities forces us to wonder and to worry whether we deserve what we have and others don’t, and whether we will achieve all for which we are being prepared.  To be human is to be anxious, and ironically, sometimes the more privileged we are, and the more opportunities we have, the more we worry about what is to come.

Last fall, a British philosopher wrote a book called Status Anxiety:

Every adult life could be said to be defined by two great love stories. The first – the story of our quest for romantic love – is well known and well-charted.

The second – the story of our quest for love from the world – is a more secret and shameful tale. And yet this second love story is no less intense than the first.’  (more…)

2011-12 School Year opening assembly:

Good morning, and welcome to School year 2011-12, St. Gregory’s 32nd year!  It is great to see you all here, and may I say, you look terrific today– such great looking style– and I want to especially welcome our new students, including those from China,  Germany, and Alaska.   They came all this way to come to St. Gregory.   OUr student body is again over 300 students, and it feels great to have you all here.

Screening the following clip:

I loved this film, particularly its treatment of the students working together to create their film.   I realize that for me this movie, Super 8, had particular resonance, as it was about a group of 13 year olds in 1979, and I myself was 13 in 1979.

Super 8 the movie has great lessons and inspiration for us as learners, and I want to share with you my Super 8 takeaways, or Super 8 inspirations for a great school year of learning and growth:

  1. These students identified and followed their passion.  The main character did not want to go away to sports camp for the summer: his passion then was film and he pursued it vigorously!
  2. They used the best available contemporary technology to create and communicate.  They regularly went down to the camera store to see what was new, and they wanted to be informed and to use the best contemporary tools to accomplish their mission. (more…)

It is my great pleasure to share this piece from Fred Roberts, St. Gregory’s long-time Dean of Students.   St. Gregory has a lovely, longstanding tradition of Senior Dinner, an event for faculty members and graduating seniors two nights prior to graduation, and at which a veteran faculty member delivers his or her own “last lecture,” something it has been designated since even long before the legendary Randy Pausch “last lecture.”

I was deeply impressed with this piece, which argues for the importance of self-understanding via struggle, and includes, if you read on, wonderfully engrossing anecdotes about genuine struggles.

The take away quote:

This is about meeting the expectations of the person that matters most, your expectations. It’s about living a fulfilling life, and where does the fire live?

It comes from your struggle.  This is an individual exploration into one’s rock bottom core and finding out what is there.  It is about peeling away the layers of protection, lifting each one to see what is below.  In doing so the lessons are self taught, the experiences profound, and you discover an inner strength that is your core; your ‘it’.  First, however, you must find your struggle.

Finding your struggle.

Today we are doing more with less, going higher with out jumping harder, moving faster with less effort, and finding more success with just enough preparation.  We are told our financial problems are the fault of others, and with a toll free phone call you can be debt free, make thousands from the comfort of your own home, and take a vacation at the end of the week. It is now easier to upgrade, supersize, maximize, multi task, leverage, and over achieve than ever before.  We are fulfilled, our map is before us, and all we have to do is get on board. All of us in this room, as Mr. Creeden often said, won the genetic lottery.  We are in the top 5% of humankind in terms of wealth, health, security, and potential. (more…)

Good afternoon Graduates, Students, Trustees, Parents, and Friends: welcome.We are very happy you are all here to share in this celebration of the accomplishments and unique qualities of the 35 fine members of our graduating class of 2011.Let me begin by quoting one of our graduates sitting in front of me today, from a KGUN Channel 9 interview last September at the Tucson Ethnic Extravaganza
we are here to advocate for all students being able to learn about an ethnicity and its history: this is about a privilege that I enjoy at my school, St. Gregory,  and which I feel every student should share: the freedom of knowledge.
For this purpose and ideal, Aubri Romero and Jacob Valdez, advised by Dr. Berry,  took the initiative to make a difference for our community by organizing a community-wide rally downtown. They had to overcome significant challenges,  but they persevered and did it the way they believed they could make the most difference, and it was a great success.What is especially meaningful to me about this particular action is what they were fighting for:  better education for all.   They sought to empower fellow students, and to improve our society, by influencing what and how their fellow students learn.They know that Education empowers; learning matters.Yes, this always been true, but it has never been more true. (more…)

[ Remarks delivered Wednesday, January 12, 2011, after a moment of silence)

On Saturday, our hometown Tucson was struck hard by an individual acting without conscience, without reason, and possibly without sanity.   This terrible strike hit us at our community’s most sensitive place: not only did it harm and kill many fine, fine people, it hit us in the heart of our body politic.

Since the ancient Athenians conceived of and built the polis, a democratic state composed of citizens governing themselves in the open air by way of free and spirited discourse and debate, this idea of the body politic has been our civilization’s ideal, our shining city on a hill.

Saturday morning, in front of a Tucson Safeway at which many of us shop regularly, an elected official and her staff came to talk in the open air with Tucson citizens, acting out our nation’s and our civilization’s ideals.   In a scene that ancient Athenians would have immediately recognized, a diverse set of Tucsonans came together to discuss their views, argue their opinions, and express their hopes for our nation– in other words, to talk politics.  Senior citizens came to discuss their social security, a federal judge to discuss the future of the judiciary in Arizona, and a young child who had recently been elected to her student council to meet her role model, preparing herself to join the body politic as an adult.

When this terrible attack came, it came at a moment when they were, all of them, together, acting out our nation’s highest political ideals: to discuss and debate ideas about our society respectfully—and this is why the strike, was so especially devastating even also to those of us who were not immediately present and did not necessarily know anyone hurt.

This was not only a group of people attacked– and let’s be clear, it was a very fine group of people attacked, truly wonderful people– it was also our ideal of the polis, the acting out and practice of true democracy—politicians, judges, and citizens, adults and children, gathered together in a public square, in an event called Congress on Your Corner– which was attacked.

Because of that, I think that we all have, as citizens and as people concerned and committed to that ideal, a special responsibility to respond with a renewed commitment to live and fulfill that ideal. (more…)

Remarks to students, 12.8.10, revised and expanded.

Exams are next week: how many of you are looking forward to taking exams?   I hope the answer is many of you, because I believe that when a well-prepared mind engages with a well designed test, fireworks can happen inside our minds.   I had many experiences of feeling more intellectually stimulated, engaged, creative and innovative, when taking a well-designed exam than during almost any other time.    My mind leapt to new insights and perceptions, made more connections and inferences, and discovered and constructed original solutions or approaches to vexing problems.   I love taking exams.

But you do need to be well prepared to be successful.    Some suggestions for you to be better prepared.

1.  When you study, don’t just read: write!   Too often we think we are studying when we let our eyes drift over the words in our notes, our textbooks, and our study guides.   That isn’t enough; we must write to remember and develop better understanding.    My freshman year of college I struggled with my midterms, and was quite disappointed with the results.   Come finals, I chose to do something I had never done before: I simply rewrote, word for word, every note I had taken during lecture– and when I went to take my exams I was flabbergasted with how much more I recalled and how much more confident and authoritative I was addressing the questions.    Recopy notes, or write about your notes and texts:  what are the most interesting, more original, most surprising, most confusing, most important, most controversial ideas or informational nuggets in the texts you are studying?  Write these out, and you will be better prepared.

2. Study in groups. When this works well, it is awesome; when it doesn’t work well, it can be a disaster.   The opportunity is great, but effective execution is essential.    When you do it well, the result will be better understanding and retention of key factual content and key interpretations , better anticipation of what will be on the test, and far more breadth of wisdom in how to answer those questions.

Here is my suggested strategy: (more…)

Welcome, everyone, to Fall Family Gathering Day; we are very thankful you are here.

Gratitude is among the cardinal virtues in all the ancient wisdom texts, including the Hebrew Scriptures, the New Testament, and the Koran.    The Roman philosopher Seneca explained “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.”

More modern philosophers agree: Dietrich Bonhoffer wrote that In ordinary life, we hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than we give, and that it is only with gratitude that our life become rich.”

Psychologist Robert Emmons, in his book Thanks,  a book for which I am very grateful and from which my talk today is very much borrowed, writes that “I am not neutral about gratitude; I believe it to the best approach to life; Gratitude elevates, it energizes, it inspires, and it transforms.”

Emmons is one among many scientists who are joining the religious thinkers and the philosophers in declaring the importance of gratitude.

First, of course, we need to understand better what we mean by gratitude; gratitude is not simply saying thank you (though that isn’t a bad start).   Emmons explains that gratitude can be best understood in two stages, and that both stages are active work.

First, gratitude is acknowledgement of goodness in one’s life: we “affirm that all things taken together, life is good and has elements that make it worth living.”

Second, is the recognition that “the source of this goodness lie at least partially outside the self; it is a recognition and a humility that we could not be who we are or where we are in life without the contribution of others.”

This second statement is especially meaningful today, for this audience, welcoming grandparents and other family members and friends to our school: you are most certainly some of the most important people in our students’ lives, without whom they could not be where they are today. (more…)

Remarks to the Student Body.

Leadership has always been one of the core purposes of a St. Gregory education.

Your teachers have always believed that they are supporting you in developing the confidence, the thinking skills, the organization, the principles, and the character necessary that you as students can become leaders, today and tomorrow: here while you are still students and out in the larger world after you graduate.

Now I know that some of you embrace this, and want to pursue leadership.   You see yourselves as being leaders in the ways we most easily imagine: the Boss of a company, the Coach of a sports team, a General in the Army, the Pilot of a plane.  [Softly] I always wanted to Captain Kirk as a kid.

But some of you don’t envision such a future—you imagine yourself as a veterinarian, perhaps, or community service worker, or a parent, or a nurse, or  a scientist—and I fear that you think that maybe when we talk about leadership, you think we are talking only about someone else, not about you.

But I want to argue otherwise.  I think that we can and should interpret leadership very broadly and I think there are aspects of leadership which all of you can and should develop. (more…)

Remarks to the student body this morning.

I used to work with a teacher, a history teacher, who was a great teacher, popular, smart, funny.  But one thing always bothered me: it seemed that any time I walked past his classroom’s open door, I would hear him answering a question with the words, “well, actually.”   Actually, he would say, what students had read in a textbook was wrong; actually that historian we were studying was mistaken; actually what happened in this historical event was actually different from what is commonly believed.

I have to tell you, this bothered me.   I don’t think the word “actually” has an appropriate place in the language of teaching and learning.

Our world isn’t composed of truths and falsehoods, or certainties that can be claimed by the use of the word actually.   I realize that I am speaking more about Social Studies, History, and English than I am about Math and Sciences—and there are things that we can be certain about, I know—but I think that in every area.  there are many things about which we can never use the word “actually.”

One of my all time favorite Supreme Court Justices (you do all have your own list of favorite Supreme Court Justices, right?)  is Justice David Souter, who retired in 2009.   In June he gave a speech at Harvard in which he argued against the use or concept of “actually” in judicial interpretation.  Some think that the Supreme Court’s job is to decide what the Constitution “actually” says, or “actually” mean.   (more…)

My opening remarks to the St. Gregory student body, the morning of the first day of school.

Welcome to 2010-11!

A popular saying urges us to remember that there are only two things we really need to flourish in life: roots and wings.

I like the saying;   it provides a lovely metaphor simplifying the many strands of what what flourishing requires into two simple metaphors:   Roots and wings, a sense of connectedness to our community,and a sense of freedom and empowerment to go out confidently into the world and accomplish our goals.

I worry about false dichotomies—I resist people trying to trap me into making choices I don’t want to have to make.    There is a book I love that calls upon parents and schools to ensure children and students spend more time in nature and argues that kids are so much healthier when they spend more time outside and in direct contact with the earth, the sky, the water.   Get dirty and be happier and healthier. It surprises some people when I say I love and endorse this notion, because sometimes they think I only want kids to spend more time on computers.   I don’t.  I do think computers are great for learning and growing,  but I also believe fervently that it is so important for us all, kids and adults, to spend more time outside.

We must resist the narrowing effects of Either/Or Thinking, and embrace the Both/And.

And so it is with Wings AND Roots.  I think people sometimes think that because I want to see more computers in learning, they are believing I want less face to face time, less interaction among peers and between students and teachers.  But I want both, and I don’t want to be cornered into a false dichotomy.

Fittingly, and charmingly, Wings and Roots correspond precisely to the two big changes we are making this year, laptops and advisory—because we all need stronger wings and deeper roots. (more…)

Good morning 8th grade students and families

Just this past Saturday, our 12th grade seniors graduated, and at their request, as they threw their caps in the air the stereo broadcast, quite loudly, the song Don’t’ Stop Believing.   (not, though, the Journey original, but rather the cover version performed by the cast of Glee).

Sentimental that song is, but I have a different request to make of you: Don’t Stop Asking Why?!

An interesting and important book was published last year by Andrea Batista Schlesinger, a woman still in her twenties, entitled The Death of Why?: The Decline of Questioning and the Future of Democracy.     Parents, you might appreciate its dedication: For my parents, who have suffered the most from my love of questions.

In the book, she argues that “questions have always been power.”   We know that throughout the history of free societies, questioning has been both essential and provocative: Socrates is famous for saying that a life without questions is not worth living, and he is also famous for being put to death for his relentless and pestering inquiry.

Yet, our schools, Schlesinger says, and she is NOT speaking of St. Gregory, “send the message to children that the answer is all that counts.” (more…)

Good Evening.

We are graced tonight by the presence of many educational leaders; it is an honor to welcome them.

Among them are

  • our speaker, former University of Arizona President Dr. John Schaefer;
  • former St. Gregory Head of School Bill Creeden;
  • both the former and current Heads of Green Fields Country Day School, Rick Belding and Matt Teller;
  • our own Board of Trustees, and our fine faculty;
  • and perhaps most importantly, a founder of three schools in three states, including St. Gregory, Mrs. Bazy Tankersely.

Leadership, like everything else, is fast changing in the 21st century.   The military is overhauling its philosophy and practice of leadership, as I have heard this year from my new Tucson friends who are Air Force officers; it realizes we must place a higher priority on flexibility, initiative, creativity than ever before, and that command has become more about influencing than directing others.

Author Dan Pink published this year Drive, a book demanding the complete reinvention of management; he calls upon us to place autonomy, mastery, and purpose at the paramount goals of each and every work-place and institution.

Similarly, in his recent book Tribes, the brilliant Seth Godin explains that

The power of this new era is simple: if you want to, or need to, or mus,  lead then you can.  Every leader I have met shares one thing and one thing only: the decision to lead.

The secret of leadership is simple: Do what you believe in.  Paint a picture of the future.  Go there.  People will follow.”

These developments in leadership have been anticipated for many years by educational leaders:  the best schools and universities have always been places where principals, headmasters, and presidents have chosen to lead in ways that honor and celebrate the individuality of their followers.

School leaders know our role is

  • to unleash, not constrain,  by respecting the value and significance of autonomy; (more…)

We are here today to pay tribute to Mrs. Cheryl Pickerell, upon her retirement after twenty years as a St. Gregory teacher.

She is a lover of wisdom, a lover of beauty, a lover of learning, but more than all that, she is a teacher whose students feel every day the quality of affection she has for each one of them as individuals.

Mrs. Pickerell and I share in common several inspirations to our work as educators, and I thought it’d be fun to imagine what they’d say if they were to see her teach in her St. Gregory classroom.

The Courage to Teach is a book which challenges us to teach from the deepest wellsprings of our inner selves, and if its author Parker Palmer were to visit us here and observe Mrs. Pickerell teach, I know he would say that her “authority as a teacher is the result of her students perceiving her as the author of her own words, her own actions, her own lives, rather than someone playing a scripted role at great remove from her heart.”   (more…)