Good morning. This year we are talking about the importance of how we do things. How Matters.

Today, I want to focus on one particular aspect of the how. Our mission statement – the three sentences that guide our school – lists four values: kindness, integrity, respect, and self-reliance. I want to focus on that last one, self-reliance.

Self-reliance is exactly what it sounds like, relying on yourself, counting on yourself to do what needs to be done. I had a very memorable lesson in self-reliance the summer after I was in 8th grade. That summer, I went on a 14 day canoe trip through the Northwoods of Maine. For 14 days, we canoed lakes and the Allagash river and then camped on the shores at night.

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Early in the trip, we had to carry all of our supplies – our clothes, tents, food, and canoes nearly two miles from Umbazooksus Lake to Mud Pond and Chamberlain Lake. That task, called a portage, is hard regardless of the trail. The canoes we had weighed over 80 pounds and were nearly 15 feet long. That portage was particularly hard because of the word Mud in Mud Pond. We are not talking a little puddle here and there. No, this was nearly two miles of ankle to knee - even thigh - deep mud. To make matters worse, when you get the canoe up on your shoulders and start walking in the mud, mosquitos attack, and you don’t have a free hand to bat them away.

I gave the portage a try. I picked up the canoe – no small feat for me. About a half mile down the trail, soaked in sweat and the first mosquito bites starting to itch, I gave up. I dumped the canoe off my shoulders into the bushes, sat on the trail, and started to cry. A few campers passed me carrying similarly heavy loads and unable to stop and help. (Once you get going with a canoe on your shoulders, it is best to just keep going.)

I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw one of my counselors coming. Surely he would comfort me and say that I should go back and carry a lighter load. He didn’t. He too was sweating, itching, and working hard. He knew that we had ten more days of canoeing and a resupply with new food awaiting us at the other end of the trail. We had to carry the canoes across the trail. I sat there a few more minutes and cried harder. No one came to help. I realized that I had to rely on myself.

This realization, coupled with the fact that the mosquitos are worse when you are not moving, inspired me to pick the canoe back up and start walking again. It was not all sunshine and rainbows after that. It was hard. It was miserable. And I did it. I relied on myself – self-reliance.


What did self-reliance get me? In this case it got me to new, fresh food, and ten more amazing days of adventure. Self-reliance made so much more possible. When I knew I could endure and rely on myself, I was able to do so much more. So what is self-reliance? It is not so much picking up the canoe the first time. Self-reliance is picking the canoe back up when you don’t think you can carry it any more. There are no canoes to carry here at MTS, and we don’t let you on the field when it is muddy, but there are lots of ways to practice self-reliance.

This summer Rachael told me about the Fabulous Five. This is the idea that for five minutes at the start of Writer’s Workshop, you try the assignment on your own, not asking the teacher any questions. You rely on the instructions, models at the front of the room, and charts on the walls to answer those first questions. You rely on yourself.

Another place you can practice self-reliance is with assignments like math homework. When you start in on the first problem you might think, “I have no idea how to do this!” Rather than giving up and calling for help from your mom or dad – or the internet – stick with it. Look back to your notes from class. My bet is that there is a problem that looks pretty darn similar. Still stuck? Don’t drop the canoe – skip to the next problem, and try it. Maybe you will be able to solve that one. Learn to rely on yourself.

Now, I want to make one important thing clear about self-reliance. People who are self-reliant still know how to ask for help. When my counselor passed me on the trail, I didn’t ask for help, and he didn’t stop to give me help because he knew that I could do it. Deep down inside, I knew I could do it too.

A self-reliant ask for help sounds different than the “I don’t get it!” or “I can’t do it!” Instead it sounds like, “I have tried a number of things, and I am stumped. Can you help me?” or “I have tried doing it for a while and can’t figure out how to do it. Can you help me?”

In the weeks ahead, I encourage you to practice self-reliance. Pick the canoe back up. If you have given something a try and need assistance, ask for help. Just as relying on myself opened up ten more days of adventure for me, self-reliance will allow you to learn and experience so much more here at Mount Tamalpais School and in life.

Robots are Just Amazing – Why MTS is good for girls...and boys.

My favorite moment in our new Lower School video is when MTS sixth grader, Catalina, says, “Robots are just amazing.” Her eyes, her smile, her subsequent elaboration showcase her authenticy. There is nothing scripted about Catalina’s love of all things science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Catalina is not alone in her love of STEM. Numerous other girls and boys at MTS could speak with the same authentic enthusiasm about robotics, programming, engineering, and math.


I often attribute this passion for STEM and other subjects to our departmentalized program. Even in  the youngest grades we have “math people” teaching math and scientists teaching science. Each teacher’s enthusiasm for their discipline is palpable and contagious. Departmentalization also allows our students to move from class to class on a regular basis, improving their cognition.

A recent academic paper, however, suggests that Catalina’s zest for STEM might also be a byproduct of our departmentalized program. In the article “Female teachers’ math anxiety affects girls’ math achievement” researchers at the University of Chicago showed a connection between “math anxious” female teachers and underperformance by their female students. Female teachers who don’t view themselves as “good at math” or avoid math – math anxious – negatively impact their female students. To make matters worse “elementary education majors are largely female and have the highest levels of math anxiety of any college major.”


Happily, there is no math anxiety among the STEM teachers here at MTS. With our departmentalized program, we have educators who love math and love teaching math. Our STEM department includes three fantastic female role models - Anastassia, Suzanne, and Trisha - leading STEM in grades K-6 with Jennifer, Kevin, Dave, and DJ building math competency and enthusiasm across the grades. As a result, girls – and boys – thrive in the STEM disciplines at Mount Tamalpais School. What does thriving look like? Here is one of our alums after her freshman year of high school.

How Matters – Students Welcome 2018-2019

The last time we were all gathered here it was graduation, and we were saying goodbye. Today, we are here to say welcome to the new members of our community. Let’s start with our youngest new students – welcome to our kindergarteners, the MTS Class of 2027. We also have a number of new students in grades 1-8. If you are new, please give a brief wave, and then we will all clap to welcome you. Finally, we also have new adult members of the MTS community. Anastassia Redeva, Lower School STEM and 1st grade homeroom. Lilianna Parker, music teacher and 5th grade homeroom. Liz Hayman: School Counselor.

I had a lot of fun this summer. As I looked through my summer photos I picked out a few that I want to share with you.

 Camping at Steep Ravine.

Over Father’s Day, my friend, Will, and I took our children camping at the Steep Ravine Cabins.
What I remember most about the experience was how we cooked 'smores over an open fire. How we explored the beach at low tide and added to a great driftwood fort. And how Will and I had a phenomenal grilled steak dinner overlooking the ocean once the kids were asleep.

I also did quite a bit of mountain biking. Here I am dropping off a wild ramp up in Whistler on a trail called “A River Runs Through It.” And here I am riding the Flume Trail above Lake Tahoe.

What I remember most about those two rides is how great they were. I remember how I rode up to the ramp on A River Runs Through It, backed down, tried again and finally had the courage to ride it.

I remember how I rode the Flume Trail with my friend Rob. Rob had been my camper at summer camp when he was 8 and I was 18. I remember how fun it was to ride with him, 20 years later, two friends. I also remember how Rob and I had so much fun that we turned around and rode the trail two more times that day, doing more than 25 miles of riding.

 Your Simon Says Champion

Here I am in Colorado having just been crowned the winner of the dude-ranch-wide "Simon Says" championship. What I loved about this was not so much the win and the resulting fuzzy dice that I was given to hang from my rear view mirror, but rather how I won. From ages 8-22 I spent my summers at a camp in Maine, and we played a lot of Simon Says. My Simon Says championship brought back memories of camp and has already become a bit of a family legend as the person I beat in the finals was... my mother!



While this is one of the prettiest photos of my summer, it is not really the dive that I enjoyed. What I enjoyed most was how I made the photo. This summer, we traveled with a blow-up stand up paddleboard. On our hikes, I would carry this 30 pound boat and paddle up to some gorgeous lake. Once there, I would blow it up, and we would paddle around this lake.

At this particular lake I spotted a log just barely sticking up above the surface. To get these diving photos we would paddle out, leave one person on the log, paddle away, and then take the photo.

Yes, the dive was fun. Making the photo was even more fun.


The last fun thing I did, just this past Saturday, was build a teeter-totter for our bikes. Here is my wife, Robin, riding it. Teetering and tottering on a bike is fun.

Again, though, what I enjoyed most and will remember the most is how we made it. Over breakfast I sketched the teeter-totter and made a materials list. Huck and Harrison (my two children) and I then headed to the Stafford Lake Bike Park to inspect their teeter-totter. We then spent a good hour in Home Depot selecting all of the materials, new drill bits, and a new saw. We then worked from lunch until dinner building the teeter-totter.

Far more than teetering and tottering, I loved measuring each piece with Huck and Harrison and having them hold pieces in place as I screwed them down. It was the process of making the teeter totter that was most exciting. I loved how we made it, more than what we made.

How matters.

Throughout the year this year, we will return to this phase and talk about process, about how. In particular, we are going to look at four words, four values in our mission statement and think about how we can live those values.

  1. Kindness. How can we show kindness? Last year we aimed to “Build with Kindness." We will continue to do this again focusing on HOW we show kindness.
  2. Integrity. How do we act with integrity? How do we do the right thing? How do we do the right thing when no one is looking?
  3. Respect. How do we show respect? How do we earn respect?

  4. Self-Reliance. How can we learn to draw upon our own strengths and talents when facing a challenge? How can we look to others to support us most effectively?

The how is interesting. The how is where learning happens. The how is where friendships are made. How matters.

Now if the first day of school is feeling a little overwhelming, if thinking about big words like integrity and self-reliance is a bit daunting, I have one more message for you. Don’t worry about a thing.

You know, there is a song with these words. I think it goes something like this.

Cousins & MTS

In my “Summer Reading for Parents” blog post last spring, I was looking forward to some time to read on family vacations while my nephews and nieces, cousins to my sons Harrison and Huck, spent time together. The cousins – all seven of them – came through for me. They gave me far more than free time for reading. (Okay, I will admit I largely used the time for mountain biking.) The older cousins reminded me of one of Mount Tamalpais School’s greatest strengths – the relationships between younger and older students.


Huck, at three and a half years old, hiked nearly six miles across wildflower covered ridges and snowfields because he was holding his cousin Orion’s hand. Harrison, water-cautious, sat on a tree-stump in the middle of a lake because his cousin Isa had just done it and was encouraging him. Both boys smiled broadly for a family portrait because Alistair, Loewy, and Clara were doing funny dances behind the photographer. All the cousins encouraged our boys to try new things while also comforting them when they were nervous or had a skinned knee.

I see the same thing happen at Mount Tamalpais School on a regular basis. Throughout the year last year, an 8th grader walked a Kindergarten student to his classroom each morning. During the middle school service learning presentations last spring, I saw the “Wow, that is so cool!” look from a number of younger students as they learned where and how our middle school students served the greater community. Our older students are also quick to soothe the tears of a younger student who, like Huck on many a hike, scraped a knee while playing. Vacation is better with older cousins just as school is better with older students.


At two points this summer our boys were able to be the older ones. In Chicago, they “taught” our friends’ two-year-old daughter Cora how to play baseball and made their one-year-old son Milo laugh. In Seattle, they were eager to help Levin, nearly one, learn to walk. In both cities we saw our boys rise to the occasion. They demonstrated a higher level of responsibility and care than we had ever seen before and were kinder to each other as well. Both boys loved this new “big” role and now regularly ask about all three younger friends.


This too happens at MTS. During the interview process for this job, I was struck by the youth and kindness of the oldest MTS students. Every week since then, I have seen countless examples of how our oldest students rise to the responsibility of leadership. Yes, this happens in the formal “buddy bear” events. More regularly, though, this happens on the playground, in the halls, and after school. And, like with my boys, the older MTS students are kinder and more responsible both with the younger students and with each other, because of these close connections.


While many schools try to foster such a rich level of community interconnection, I have yet to see any do it as well as MTS. I believe this is due to three things. First, we are a small school. We share one recess period, can easily hold all-school assemblies, and are able to truly know everyone in the community. Second, we are a departmentalized school. This allows our teachers to know and meaningfully interact with students over multiple years. It also means that all of our students are regularly moving around campus, seeing each other. Finally, we are a flat school. Yes, physical geography matters. It is being on one level, coupled with our departmentalized program, that allows for the organic connection between young and old to happen. Whatever the cause, the end result – motivated and eager younger students with kind, responsible mentors – is an unreplicable hallmark of MTS.

As summer comes to a close my boys and I regularly look back through our vacation photos. We are reminded of how great our cousins are. I am reminded of how special MTS is. I am also reminded to schedule another vacation with cousins ASAP!


Commencement Address to the Graduates

Excerpt from Andrew Davis's Commencement Address to our Eighth Grade Graduates:

Welcome to the Commencement Ceremony for the Mount Tamalpais School Class of 2018. My name is Andrew Davis and as Head of School, I am honored to welcome you to campus to speak about and to our distinguished graduating class.

Last week I struggled to find inspiration for this speech. A year ago I was able to pull off the “Rob, you were so funny last year, now I don’t have to be funny” intro followed by some good old – yes, the language is dead – references to Latin. That was not going to work this year as I realized I should not remind you all how good Rob was two years ago, and you can only take so many speeches grounded in etymology.

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I was at a loss until you all, Class of 2018, started wearing your high school sweatshirts. Seeing the names of the thirteen high schools that the twenty seven of you will attend next year reminded me of my own high school days. I quickly became lost in my family’s photo archive remembering my four years at Middlesex School, a boarding school in Concord, Massachusetts.

I also found this photo of me at my own 8th grade graduation. That is Freddie the Disco Frog – don’t you wish you made a Freddie in Evy and Tyler’s class? – and this is the very same tie, 26 years later.

I discovered that I too wore my soon to be alma mater’s clothing as an 8th grader.

Here I am at summer camp, a newly minted middle school graduate wearing my high school’s t-shirt. Yes, fanny packs were in with suburban mothers back then and yes, I am sure there is a good story about how that t-shirt got ripped. I just don’t remember it.

Scrolling through our family photos I found a few images that are meant to do more than make you chuckle at me. In three photos I found lessons that I learned in high school and hope you can take with you as you head off to your next school.

Kindergarten to seventh graders, these lessons apply just as much to your life, no tuning out!

After two seasons of playing “thirds soccer,” believe it or not there is a team below Junior Varsity, I started to run cross country.

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Our team did the usual track workouts and long runs. We also ran sprints on – no, up – Annursnac Hill Road. My lungs would burn on the way up, and I often questioned the sanity of being on the team on the way down.

The hard work paid off. While this would be a good graduation speech lesson, that is not my point. There is more to the story.

During the league finals I was in contention to win the Junior Varsity Finals. The race was run at Groton School and the first mile was down a hill, and the second mile was flat along a river. At that point in the race I was in third place. The third mile was back up the hill to the finish line.

From my training I had learned to see the hill, an enemy to many runners, as my ally.

I knew I could work with the hill to catch the two runners in front of me. I charged forward, passed those two, and won that race.

Graduates, I encourage you to turn your enemies into your allies. Whether academic, athletic, or artistic, don’t avoid the things that are the hardest. Lean into them. Do the work that allows you to shift your perspective and see an opportunity where others see a threat.

The summer after my Junior year of high school I was too old to return to my summer camp as a camper, and not old enough to be a counselor. Having raced small sailboats and taught sailing to elementary school students, I spent part of June and early July learning how to sail big boats. I spent a week taking a Royal Yachting Association Coastal Skipper Course in southern England.

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Life lessons from that? First, be humble when sharing a forty foot sailboat with a bunch of British adults, and you are a teenager, and it is the 4th of July.

Second life lesson – how to anchor a boat.

You might think that you drop an anchor over the edge and the weight of it keeps you in the same place. That is what I thought. I was wrong. Instead, the weight of the anchor simply brings it to the sea floor. Then, you the skipper of the boat, have to drag the anchor until it catches. As a 17 year old dressed in yellow overalls, I had to drop the anchor and power towards one shore of the harbor. When it did not catch, I had to pull up the anchor and try another part of the harbor. After a few attempts it would inevitably catch.

To ensure our safety at night – we were all going to sleep with this anchor holding us in place – we would drop a second anchor off the stern – what sailors call the back of the boat. With this second anchor in place we were safe and ready for the night.

With this information you are now ready for high school! Every freshman needs to know how to write a paper, solve a linear equation, and anchor a boat. Check!

Okay, the literal anchoring of the boat is not the point of this story. Instead it is a metaphor. When you arrive at high school you will invariably drop anchor with a group of friends, an extracurricular interest, or a sports team.

While that first anchor may catch, it probably won’t. Don’t give up hope and abandon the harbor, thinking about transferring to another school. Instead pull up the anchor, head to another part of the harbor, and try again. You are heading off to high school with a great anchor.  It will, undoubtedly, catch after a few attempts.

And, just as we did in England, drop a second and even a third anchor – explore other interests. The winds and tides of life shift – Lauren would want you to recognize that this is now an extended metaphor – and it is always better to have more points of contact and connection.

My teenage rebellion was to take Latin rather than French in middle school and high school– my mom was a French teacher, my father fluent in the language, and my sister soon to be a French major in college.

The culmination of that wild rebellion was the two years that I took advanced placement. At the end of each of these years Mrs. Banay, my teacher, hosted a celebratory Bacchanal at her home.

My story is less about this event than about four Latin words. While I promised no etymology, I couldn’t resist the pull of Latin.

The first three words are “Fit Via Vi” from book 2 of Virgil’s Aeneid, the text that we translated my senior year of high school. Fit Via Vi means “A Way was made with Strength.” I carved these words onto my senior plaque – all seniors must carve a wooden plaque that hangs on the walls of school.

Looking back I realize that this quote was not about the power of muscle – as you can imagine from my stature and size 36R suit jacket, I have made very little way with strength.

Aeneas, Virigil’s main character, is impressive not for what he did, but for HOW he did it. That is what I want to communicate to all of you – graduates, third graders, kindergarteners – How matters.

Yes, the end product – a great essay, a beautiful work of art, or a win for your team, is important.

Far more interesting, though, is the process – How did you support your thesis in that essay? How did you choose those contrasting colors in that piece of art? How did you muster the energy to come from behind to win?

How matters.

Fit Via Vi teaches us how matters, but that is only three latin words and I promised you four.

The fourth is decorum, and it relates to the importance of how.

Decorum most often means with good manners and courtesy. I hope that in your time at MTS you have learned that if you do something with good manners and courtesy, you are far more successful.

I overhear many of your interactions in the front office. I notice the moments when you all say thank you to Kelly when she gives you a cough drop or hands you the lunch that your kind parent brought to you. I notice when you greet a visitor to the school with a handshake and and kind welcome. Your future teachers and employers will notice the same thing. Decorum goes a long way.

Decorum, and its latin root – I am sneaking some etymology in after all – is about more, though. Decorum comes from decor which means beauty and elegance. Think of the expression “It is a thing of beauty.” Seeing an artist create a scene with depth and detail is a thing of beauty.

Listening to a singer belt out a powerful balad is a thing of beauty. Steph Curry’s three pointers are a thing of beauty. It is not the piece of art, the song, or the three points on the scoreboard that we remember. It is the how, the decorum, the beauty.

Fit Via Vi and Decorum – How matters, and strive for beauty.

As you set forth from MTS – and for the rest of the students here, when you return next fall – I encourage you to remember the following.

  1. Work hard to make challenge an ally rather than an enemy.

  2. Drop anchor again and again, until you are secure.

  3. How matters.

Families of the Class of 2018, before I award the diplomas I want to congratulate and thank all of you. You have leaned into the challenge of raising children, especially challenging in the early teen years. You have allowed your child to drop anchor at Mount Tamalpais School, a beautiful harbor. And, most importantly, you parented with decorum. Class of 2018, please join me in thanking and celebrating your families.

And now it is your turn, graduates. Class of 2018, you are ready for what life and school will bring you next. Go forth to learn more and then come back to tell us stories of challenges conquered, anchors dropped, and things of beauty. You will always be welcome in the safe harbor that is Mount Tamalpais School.

Thank you and congratulations.


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!