Stop Before Siri: Making Room for Wonder

My cousin’s wife is funny. She is so funny that she writes for Jimmy Kimmel and the New Yorker and has nearly 200,000 followers on Twitter. It turns out that her cousin’s nine year old daughter, Alice, is also funny. As Bess tweeted, “Alice has been quietly and masterfully slaying the @NewYorker’s caption contest, and it’s pure delight.” Alice’s captions for New Yorker cartoons are, indeed, brilliant and have been well received with over 115,000 likes on Twitter as well as some local and national news mentions. I encourage you to stop reading and take a look. While Alice is undoubtedly good, I also want to applaud Alice’s parents. What a fun way to inspire creativity.

You don’t have to be a New Yorker subscriber to bring a little more wonder to the dining room table. For those less into comedy, the New York Times has a weekly “What’s Going On in This Picture” blog post, which encourages students to hypothesize and discuss a Times photo stripped of its caption. Both exercises encourage us to notice, to wonder, and to be creative.  Both also provide some sort of closure with an “answer” in the form of a winning caption in the New Yorker and the true caption revealed later in the week on the Times website.

My boys have discovered that Siri has a lot of answers. When we don’t know the answer – how many miles is it to Mimi and Pops in Florida? – they encourage me to ask Siri. A former colleague of mine, ironically the technology director, told me that they had a family rule to guess three times before using Siri. Having so much information at our fingertips – or our voice tips? – makes it harder to wonder.  

Why wonder if you can just know? With wonder we practice observing, drawing inferences, and estimating. We wonder because we will not always know the answer. There are, we have to remind ourselves and our children, questions that Siri can’t answer. These are the questions of their future. These are the fun questions. The more we wonder, the better we will be at solving the questions that Siri can’t.

While the New Yorker is not for me – can anyone keep up with that weekly pace of things you want to and should read? – I am going to try to bring more wonder to our home. I am excited to stop before asking Siri and make a little more room for wonder.  

Update: Yes, you don’t have to be a subscriber to try the New Yorker caption contest.


No A in Risk

I did my first trimester of college too well. Having taken a gap year to hike, ski, and bike around the world, I started college with a thirst for all things academics. This drive, coupled with courses that played to my strengths, led to a straight A report card. That winter break, I was proud of the accomplishment, and my parents gave me a kind pat on the back – nothing over the top. A’s felt good.

When I returned to campus in January, I experienced the subtle downside to A’s. Reviewing the course catalog for second trimester, I found myself drawn to more courses that required strong reading and writing skills, my strengths. I was intrigued by computer science and some of the mechanical engineering courses my roommates were taking. I had no experience with these subjects, though, and I was naturally nervous. My previous success only added to my concern – could I “keep up the 4.0 with a computer science course?” I chose Zen Buddhism instead of CS. With another schedule of largely humanities courses, I saw the same end of term results. With each successful marking period my success and self-imposed pressure – I don’t recall my parents ever asking about my grades – made me more and more risk averse. 

I don’t regret the courses that I took. That Zen Buddhism course freshman year led me to eventually study and live in a Buddhist monastery in India, a memorable experience. The courses for my religious study major allowed me to spend quite a bit of time hiking, climbing, and skiing the Sierras, a passion that I share with my wife, Robin, and hope to pass on to my boys. And I have no doubt that my transcript helped me get into graduate school and end up here at MTS today.

I do wonder, though, what might have been if I had gotten a B that first trimester. Might I have been a bit more risk tolerant and taken that computer science or mechanical engineering course? Even if the courses had not spoken to me the way Zen Buddhism did, might I be a broader and better human being if I had enrolled?

With report cards coming home soon and conferences to follow, I share my own college experience not as a public five-paragraph-long humblebrag, but rather as a reminder of the benefits of grades other than A's. I love the maxim “we are all works-in-progress.” It is my hope that your child’s report card – even those filled with A's – and the conversations that follow in conferences and at home – leave room for and focus on progress. Yes, reviewing vocabulary will help the Spanish grade progress, but taking risks and trying something new will allow your child to progress as a human.

Whether it leads to Buddhist monasteries or mastery of Python programming, progress is a personal priority and one that we highly value at MTS.

- Andrew Davis

How Would Jesus Drive?

What do the Pope and Mount Tamalpais School have in common? While this sounds like the set up to a good joke, I was thrilled to read both Pope Francis and MTS are focused on the same thing – building with kindness.  

In his New Year’s eve homily, Pope Francis spoke about the power that each of us has to shape society through each of our individual, small actions. Using driving as his example, the Pope praised people “who move in traffic with good sense and prudence.” He called such people, “artisans of the common good.” David Brooks, reflecting on the Pope’s words writes, “Once people understand what is normal around here, more people tend to drive that way, too, and you get this amplified, snowball effect. Kindness breeds kindness. Aggression breeds aggression.”  

I love the phrase “kindness breeds kindness.” Our community mantra this year, “Build with Kindness” is grounded in the same thought that kindness yields kindness which in turn builds community. While the Pope’s words and Brooks’s article will hopefully speak to our students – I just sent it to our faculty to possibly share in morning meeting or advisory – it offers each of us a wonderful opportunity to build with kindness ourselves and to discuss kindness with our children.  

Most of us spend a fair amount of time behind the wheel. Each time we hit the road we have the opportunity to drive as the Pope instructs: “with good sense and prudence.” Doing so – driving with kindness – will inspire others to do the same. Even more importantly it will teach our children that we are sensical and prudent. Given that our children pay far more attention to how we drive than we care to admit – yes, my son, Harrison, has called me out a few times – and that cars are a great place for a family discussion, consider sharing the Pope’s advice on driving and its connection to MTS.

Whether in the classroom, at recess, or as students pass in the hall, I regularly see our students and teachers being kind. We are developing “artisans of the common good” and love working in partnership with you, our families, in this most important work. David Brooks ended his piece on the Pope’s advice with the words “I’m going to try to remember one lesson when I hit the road: Though I may be surrounded by idiots, I’m potentially an artisan for the common good.” As I head off to recess duty, I am going to try to remember that I am surrounded by children, the artisans of our good future.  

And, if the discussion about driving and kindness doesn't take hold, your family can always try to come up with a good punch line to the joke, “What do the Pope and MTS have in common?”

- Andrew Davis




Connected, But Not Too Connected

An unsuspecting 8th grader arrived in my office a few minutes early for his high school counseling conference just as I finished reading the recent New York Times article “Why Your Grumpy Teenager Doesn’t Want to Talk to You.” I tested the four points of Damour’s hypothesis with this young man, and he agreed. While his response was rather brief – a typical 8th grade boy “yeah” – his eyes said, “Yeah!  You nailed it.” This article, and his response, confirms what I said in my recent “That Sounds Hard: A Middle School Survival Guide for Parents” talk. A major challenge for parents of middle school students is to stay connected without being too connected.

During early adolescence, in the quest for autonomy and self-definition, children give their parents the Heisman. Implicit in their behavior and, at times, explicit in their words, is the statement, “I can do it.”  Middle schoolers (and yes, it continues in the early years of high school) need to prove to themselves that they are capable of managing the world without you. As we know, though, they are not entirely ready. It is for this reason that we have to stay connected. Here are tips for staying connected:

  • Be observant without spying or prying. Observant says “I am watching you do it.” Spying and prying says, “I don’t think you can do it, so I am going to look into it on my own.”
  • Feign indifference. A colleague of mine talks about the “Flat Oh.” When your child tells you something, respond with an interested, but not over interested – hence flat– “Oh.”  Follow that up with silence. This suggests that I am interested, but assume you have this under control. Your tween or teen might very well fill the empty silence with their own thoughts on the topic.

  • Understand before you judge. Rather than deciding that Snap Streaks are ridiculous, understand who your daughter keeps this digital tag alive with and why. Rather than writing off video games, ask your son what makes him good at a particular game. Your interest and understanding will help them open up...eventually.

  • Be present. I know this is going to be toughest for me when my boys hit their teen years. It is not my work schedule that I fear will keep me from being present, it is my bed time.  As body clocks naturally shift later and later, you are more likely to get some tidbits of information if you are awake later and later. While your child may not share the latest in their life when they pass you in the living room, they are far more likely to do so if they don’t have to go into your bedroom and wake you up.

While it is important to be connected, the reason “Why Your Grumpy Teenager Doesn’t Want to Talk to You” is they fear you will be too connected. As a parent, I appreciate the natural inclination to do anything to help our child when they are sad or hurt. We want to fix it. The middle schooler wants to fix it herself – remember, I can do it. To help remain not too connected consider the following:

  • Say “That sounds hard.” That is it. Say those three words and then wait. As soon as we say more than that, we move into solutions and we implicitly question the developing autonomy.

  • WAIT. Wendy Mogul, an expert on all things tween and teen, reminds parents to ask themselves “Why Am I Talking – WAIT?” If you find yourself doing the talking, your child will not solve the issue and you are more likely to get the, “Ugh, you just don’t get it!”

  • Zoom out. Middle school students look through the world through a zoom lens. They only see a small fraction of the situation. It is important for us, the adults, to zoom out and see the larger picture. With a good night’s sleep or a few months of maturation, your child will also see the bigger picture.

Damour echoes this advice in compelling terms at the end of her article. “There’s more value in providing tender, generic support than we might imagine. It is difficult for teenagers to maintain perspective all the time. The speed of adolescent development sometimes makes teenagers lose their emotional footing and worry that they will never feel right again. We send our teenagers a powerful, reassuring message when we accept and are not alarmed by their inscrutable unease: I can bear your distress, and you can, too.”

Right now my two year old's 7:30 pm bedtime is our battle. I will soon long for days of such simple parenting challenges!

-Andrew Davis

Find Out Your Why

At 11:15 this morning I climbed into an Uber headed to a lunch meeting with other Heads of School and immediately pulled out my phone. I checked work email (even though I had just left my desk and email), checked Instagram, checked personal email and realized I was starting to get carsick. With the phone back in my pocket and eyes fixed on the horizon, I was aware of the five or six times that I went to pull my phone out on the short drive to Marin Primary and Middle School. One time I even took out my phone, unlocked it, and swiped over to the email app before I remembered that I was trying not to check my phone because it would make me sick.

As an adult with a fully developed prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain in charge of attention, I struggle with effective self-regulation when it comes to my phone and my email. In her recent Bringing it Home parent education talk, Ana Homayoun spoke to the challenges that our students – with their far less developed brains – face as they are constantly pulled online by social media and messaging.  

One of the strategies that Homayoun uses to help students develop stronger self-regulation is to “Figure out your why.” In her book, Social Media Wellness, she writes “I always encourage students to step back and figure out their ‘why’ when it comes to social media use… Is it for fun, to make friends, or to feel a sense of belonging? Are they going online out of boredom, anxiety, fear, or a need for a break from real life?” Homayoun suggests using the app Moment to track cell phone use for a week and then to discuss why a student picked up his or her phone each time. She suggests that “simply encouraging tweens and teens to ask themselves ‘why’ every time they pull out their phone helps them become more intentional and conscious of their behavior.” In her own practice Homayoun “regularly see[s] how increased awareness, combined with relevant data, can encourage behavioral change.”

If you are like me, it is not just our students who need to be more mindful of our reliance on our phones. Perhaps the most effective way to implement Homayoun’s advice would be to do such a why-analysis yourself first or, better yet, with your tween or teen. Owning that you have room to grow and modeling that digital growth will make your child much more likely to engage.

While I have not yet used Moment as recommended in Homayoun’s book, I have taken new steps to be more present and less phone-distracted. As often as I can remember, my phone lives in my desk drawer and is regularly stored in a cabinet at home. Am I a digital saint? Not even close. I am trying, though, to model good behaviors for my boys who will not get phones for a good, long while...I hope!

-Andrew Davis

Three Wrongs That Are Now Right

When Robin and I got married, my parents told me about two sentences central to their long-loved marriage. “You were right. I was wrong.” They instructed me to say these two sentences any time Robin and I had a disagreement and she was right. I have said those two sentences quite a few times.

I was recently reflecting on a few things that I, and many others, have gotten wrong about education. Luckily, though, we have learned and are better educators and a better school for our learning.

1. Sit Still!

I remember saying these words to my first students when I was teaching grammar at the Town School for boys. I used to think that you can’t wiggle and learn. It was true for me – I am definitely not wiggling as I write this – and therefore I assumed it was true for all students. I was wrong. For many students they must wiggle to learn. Movement allows many students to focus. It is for this reason that we are providing new seating alternatives in our classrooms here at MTS. Thanks to a generous family foundation grant more and more of our students will have the opportunity to sit – or stand – in new ways further increasing their learning.  

You can wiggle and learn.

2. Using Your Fingers is NOT Doing Math

As a young math student I learned that using your fingers was “cheating.” I can actually picture myself keeping my fingers hidden well below the table as I took a quick count on the 9 times table. 9's without the fingers was hard. Well, I was wrong. Joe Boaler, a Stanford professor summarize the research saying: “Stopping students from using their fingers when they count could, according to the new brain research, be akin to halting their mathematical development. Fingers are probably one of our most useful visual aids, and the finger area of our brain is used well into adulthood.” (This article by Boaler includes activities you can do at home to supplement math-strengthening finger-brain development).  

Having just learned this myself, I was thrilled to walk into a first grade math class and see Jen and Kevin modeling "counting on" using their fingers.  

Our Brains Think about Math Visually

3.  Look Me in the Eyes

“Look me in the eyes and tell me what you were thinking.” I have said this – or some close variant – on a number of occasions as I have worked with children through discipline situations.  A wonderful National Association of Independent Schools conference speaker – who despite my best Googling, I can’t name – helped me see that I was approaching the student in the wrong way.  Using video footage of childhood friends, the presenter proved that girls are likely to make eye contact when talking about sensitive or difficult matters. Boys, on the other hand, will sit side by side looking straight ahead, only glancing over at their friend occasionally, as if to confirm that the listener is still there. Brain scan research further showed that eye contact is more likely to shut a boy up, rather than encourage him to share.  If we want a boy to talk we should say, “Don’t look me in the eyes!”

This made so much sense to me. The most candid conversations I had with my parents were driving in the car. With the road flying by a sixty miles an hour, the driver was not going to look me in the eyes. That gave me permission to do the same. Now, both looking ahead, I was far more likely to talk. Knowing this, I was far more likely to either take a boy for a walk around campus when he had made a big mistake or pull up on the same side of the table, looking the same direction, if we were in an office.  

In all three of these cases, we can all say, “The researchers were right.  I was wrong.”  And, because we do that, our students are better served as they wiggle, use their fingers for math, and not look me in the eyes.

-Andrew Davis

The Power of Yet

I love to drop in on classes for five to fifteen minutes. Most often I leave having learned something about how a student learns or the way a teacher teaches. Occasionally, however, I learn something that makes me have the cliche, “Aha!” moment. That just happened. After leaving the fifth grade humanities class, I immediately sent the two teachers a thank you and sat down to write this.

As I walked in the room the students were watching a video of a dog trying, unsuccessfully, to carry a large stick across a narrow bridge. Cute, without a doubt. The students described what they saw as the dog persisted and, eventually, figured out how to carry the stick at an angle. Aileen and Ally then connected this video clip to the word “yet.” The dog did not give up thinking, “I can’t do it” – if dogs think such things.  Instead the adorable brown lab thought, “I can’t do it yet” and kept trying, eventually succeeding.

“Yet,” we learned (I was absolutely now a student), is the suffix of a growth mindset.  Someone with a growth mindset believes that intelligence is not a fixed trait and that effort can make someone smarter.  While the fixed mindset says, “I can’t do it,”  the growth mindset says, “I can’t do it, yet.” Our fifth grade humanities students went on to talk about how they can improve in humanities through effort, the fundamental tenet of the growth mindset.

The real gem of the class, though, was the insight shared by one of the students.  When asked what the person filming the dog was doing, one student said, “She is teaching the dog.”  Indeed, had that person put down the camera and carried the stick across the bridge, the dog would not have learned.  The dog might have forever thought, “I can’t do it.”  Instead, camera in hand, that person allowed the dog to learn, to realize the power of yet.

While I have read Carol Dweck’s Mindset and even taught her Brainology curriculum (Dweck is the originator of the growth mindset), I learned two new things about the growth mindset in just five minutes of 5th grade humanities:

  1. Simply adding the word “yet” can help shift us from fixed mindset to growth mindset.

  2. It is the job of a teacher to teach the growth mindset and, more importantly, allow a student the time to realize her or his own “yet.”

That was a good five minutes of class!

Two Truths About Children

“Mimi has a lot of rules.”  Harrison (just five years old) offered this gem about my mother – Mimi to him – from the back seat of the car as we headed off to an ocean-side playground when visiting my parents in Maine.  Before Robin or I could jump in to say, “We have noticed that too!” he followed up with, “I really like it and think we could have some more rules at our house.  Can we decide on some new rules?”  Robin and I smiled.

Harrison was reminding us that children love structure. Clear expectations and guidelines give children of all ages the comfort they need to relax and be their best.  While pre-K students will just come out and say it, even our eighth graders last year admitted to me that they love our uniform, one form of MTS structure, as much as they love to complain about it.  Responsive Classroom, the social emotional learning program that will focus on community and the internal lives of students in our lower school classrooms, is one particularly good way for us as a school to build and clarify structure.  At this summer’s Responsive Classroom training (thank you to all our Fund-A-Need donors!) all of our homeroom teachers received a copy of The First Six Weeks of School, a book that I know well from Robin’s own teaching practice.  This book teaches us that if we invest in teaching our students the structures and processes to be an effective, healthy learning community, we will get far more done than if we do not explicitly teach these skills.  Front-loading structure and skills for success ensures much richer learning in the long term.

The second truth that Harrison hit upon from the back seat was that we all like to be involved in making the rules that we have to follow.  As we drove to and from that playground, and for several more car rides, we discussed which of Mimi’s rules would make sense for our life in Mill Valley.  For instance, the boys decided that we should always wash our hands when we return home from being outside.  Amazingly enough, weeks later and back in our routine, many of these rules remain in effect without Robin and me needing to reinforce them.  We will be including our students in making agreements at school as well.  Our social vision – At MTS we endeavor to build with kindness – was developed with input from the student council.  Furthermore, in both Responsive Classroom and Developmental Designs, our homeroom and advisory curricula, have a student-based rule and norm-setting component.

This past week I read the New York Times article “6 Things Parents Should Know About Sending Kids Back to School” and was pleased to see that “Reassess Family Roles” was one of the six great tips shared.  What works at school, can work at home.  In the waning days of summer we have the opportunity to talk about what worked and didn’t work this past year and to create structures with input from our children.  For a lower school student this could mean agreeing on a bedtime or limits for Minecraft.  And for the middle schooler, summer is a particularly effective time to make plans about technology use as social media is a bit like the stock market, open in summer, but far less active and volatile.  With newly agreed upon rules and roles in focus for the first six weeks of school, we can better our chances for a well-functioning, happy household and school year.

Now I have to head home, wash my hands, and get ready for some more fun.  It is still summer after all!