But We Love Taking Notes!

As a classroom teacher, I worked hard to create active learning experiences for my students. Rather than lecture on supply and demand, I ran a wheat-market simulation that brought the market price to life. Students worked together to write causal arrows connecting two points in American history. In pairs, 8th graders made pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian propaganda films to demonstrate their mastery of modern middle eastern history and media bias. Engaging, active experiences like this take a phenomenal amount of preparation and, at times, I would resort to lecture and note-taking. I distinctly remember a class of students telling me how much they loved note-taking when I preemptively apologized for what I thought would be a boring class session. They loved taking notes. But were my students learning more?

A recent research study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Louis Deslauriers et al. and summarized in the Harvard Gazette suggests that my intuition – active learning is more meaningful – was correct. Indeed, students learned more from active-learning strategies such as working in small groups to solve problems. Engaging students, circulating to guide their work, and brief discussions of common misconceptions and struggles was more effective than a lecture on the topic.

Graphic from  Harvard Gazette

Graphic from Harvard Gazette

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Interestingly, though, students believed that they learned more from lectures – “But we love taking notes!” Why? Active learning is hard and lecture is easy. “Deep learning is hard work,” says Deslauriers. “The effort involved in active learning can be misinterpreted as a sign of poor learning. On the other hand, a superstar lecturer can explain things in such a way as to make students feel like they are learning more than they actually are.” Our students mistake the easy process of listening and writing notes for better understanding. To learn most effectively, though, we must do the hard work; we must actively learn.

What does this mean for MTS? First, we are going to continue to pursue active learning for our students. This year we have our Project Based Learning Fellows, a cohort of teachers working together to implement multi-day and multi-week active learning experiences. Over the past week, I have watched 5th graders engage with factors through building shapes, writing multiplication problems, and defining words such as “product,” and arriving at their own deeper understanding of the volume calculation – all forms of active learning. The Workshop Model in Humanities is another way our students are learning actively day to day.

Second, we will talk with our students about how active learning is more effective than lecture. In the Deslauriers study, students quickly embraced active learning when they saw the evidence that this work is more effective than lecture.

Finally, we will talk with our oldest students about how they can bring the active learning strategies they learn at MTS to lecture-based classes in high school. By writing and then solving practice math problems, notes on sine and cosine can come to life. By discussing “what would Tybalt do?” a professor’s statement that he is hotheaded is given new meaning.

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Deslauriers and colleagues have reinvigorated my belief in active learning and helped me understand why my students loved the lessons I found so boring. This research confirms my belief that we need to provide active learning while also ensuring our students are ready for some of the lectures to come – they will surely enjoy those.


Savor

During college I spent my time working as a summer camp counselor at Camp Kieve. Each summer I planned and led a long wilderness canoe expedition through the North Woods of Maine. The weeks and days leading up to those trips were hectic. I had to ensure that the meals for sixteen teenage boys for eighteen days – a literal ton of food – was packed. Tents had to be seam sealed, stoves checked and refueled, repair kits made, and the canoes tied onto the trailer. I also had to watch that my campers were making it through any lingering homesickness, had packed all the right clothes, and, importantly, not snuck candy bars into their bags, luring unwanted animals into the campsite. On the day of the trip we would be dropped on the shore of a lake or river and I would go through one final checklist before the camp van departed, the last vehicle we would see for two or three weeks. And then the van would leave, we would load the boats, and head off down the river. An hour or two downstream, my brain would finally stop reviewing all of the plans and to-do lists and I would notice the beauty of the river, the quiet sounds of the canoe paddles dipping in and out of water, the humming chatter of teenage boys chatting and joking as we made our way to the first campsite. Once on the river, I could and would savor the moment.

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On our first day of school, I had a similar experience. All of the planning and meeting during the past months came to fruition as classes started. About an hour after our new families departed their orientation, I walked the halls and savored the sights and sounds of MTS. Art students worked together to write classroom norms. Science students kicked off a unit on chemical reactions with a Diet Coke explosion. Math students explained their problem solving with a “number talk.” Fifth graders discussed how they learn best and how they want to grow as learners. While we have a full, busy school year ahead of us, I let the moment sink in just as I had done a few miles into a two hundred mile canoe trip.

I encourage families to look for and savor these first moments of the school year. Whether it is the quiet just after students have left home or the soft turning of pages as a student does homework, notice the sounds – or absence of sound – that mark the start of the school year. You, our parent community, have done so much to get your child to this moment – backpacks packed, uniforms ordered, words of encouragement given – and thus deserve to savor this moment in time.

Thank you for sending your children to Mount Tamalpais School. Seeing and hearing them in the classroom fill my days with joy– something that I continue to enjoy all year long. Thank you.


A Community That Cares

ANDREW’S REMARKS TO STUDENTS FROM THE FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL ASSEMBLY

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Now that we have welcomed our new students and our new professional community members, I want to share a few highlights of my summer. 

The first came just days into the summer break at a first grade birthday party. The first grade class joined together at a bowling alley to celebrate three June birthdays, and I was there with my son, a first grader. About thirty minutes into the party, I noticed that one of our eighth graders had joined the party. Could an eighth grade party be overlapping with this first grade party? No, this young woman was there because she had befriended one of the birthday girls on their bus ride to and from San Francisco. Seeing this phenomenal act of caring and the huge smile on the first grader’s face was a great way to start the summer.

Throughout June and July, I watched almost every one of the U.S. Women’s National Team victories in route to their fourth World Cup title. At home, we debated our favorite players – mine is Rose Lavelle – and marvelled at the intensity of the final three rounds of competition. I was most moved, though, a few weeks after their championship when I read Megan Rapinoe’s speech during the victory parade. Rapinoe, the winner of best player and greatest goal scorer of the tournament, said, “This is my charge to everyone: We have to be better, we have to love more and hate less. Listen more and talk less. It is our responsibility to make this world a better place.” Rapinoe cares about having a more just and better world. She used her outstanding victory and performance to speak for justice. I loved that moment.

The third highlight I want to share happened at the San Francisco Food Bank. Inspired by volunteer trips I had taken with MTS families last year, my family returned to the food bank in July. That day we gathered with 36 other people who care about hunger in the Bay Area. That morning we created an assembly line to package boxes of food for families in need. While each person on that line had a different life story, we all shared a desire to make a difference. We cared.

I selected these three moments from my summer because they share one thing in common. Caring. This year at MTS, we will be focused on being an even more caring community. Our theme is “MTS: A Community that Cares.” 

I think it is important to highlight the three elements of caring that will be our priorities this year:

When we care we…

  • Treat people well day to day with empathy – feeling how they feel – and compassion – working to help in any way.

  • Work for equity and justice – a school, a community, and a world without equity and justice is not good, and we seek a common good.

  • Do what is right – even when at times doing so comes at a cost to us.

The eighth grader who made a guest appearance at the first grade birthday party treats people well day to day with empathy and compassion.

Megan Rapinoe uses her fame to work for equity and justice. 

The volunteers at the food bank do what is right, even when it comes at a personal cost.

As you finish your first day of the 2019-20 school year, I encourage you to think about how you can be even more caring. The opportunities abound. You, and I, simply need to seize them. We can all care more.

I am filled with enthusiasm and joy for the year ahead. Together we will all learn, we will all care, and this school – as well as the world – will be a better place.

Thank you and welcome!


Summer Inspiration

Summer plays a critical role in my work as an educator and school leader. I count on the nine weeks when faculty and students are away for summer to find new sources of inspiration. Inspiration is derived from the latin meaning “to breathe in.” Like a swimmer who has gone a lap without breathing, educators need a new breath of fresh air before turning the kick-flip into the next school year. Many summers I find inspiration in books and this summer is no exception with Mira Jacob’s Good Talk and Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give adding new depth to my understanding of the diverse experiences of individuals in this country. My greatest inspiration, though, has been seen on the television with the US Women's National Soccer Team winning the World Cup.

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The diversity of the USWNT stands out. It is true that the team is diverse on many of the standard vectors of diversity. As Megan Rapinoe recently said, “We got pink hair and purple hair. We got tattoos and dreadlocks. We got white girls and black girls and everything in between. We got straight girls and gay girls.” Along with this diversity, what excited me most on the pitch, was the diversity of playing styles. There was Rapinoe over and over going up the left side and offering an outstanding cross to the center. Dunn and Sauerbrunn game after game played shut-down defense with little fanfare. Morgan who scored and scored with much fanfare. Naeher whose steely nerves in goal and outstanding penalty kick save against England were essential to the teams’ success. And, my favorite, Lavelle who seemed to turn on a dime, have a different level of speed than any defender and improvised with the ball in a way that excited and made me whoop out loud. Each player brought something different to the pitch, and yet they played as a unified team. Diverse and cohesive. That inspires me.

The twenty three women of the Women’s National Team also inspire me in how they act as role models. The soccer talent displayed during each game has brought many – my children included – back on the soccer pitch with new excitement to try a Rapinoe cross or Tobin Heath nutmeg. These women also showed us that you can be serious and successful while having fun and being goofy. We followed the team on Instagram and loved seeing their dance circles, silly celebrations, and funny antics mixed in with images of their world-championship winning shots and headers. Yes, the team is undoubtedly role models for girls, giving richer meaning to “Play like a girl.” They have also been great role models of my two boys who did not miss a single game. Huck and Harrison remarked at their skill, their intensity, their fun, and their success. Gender was not a factor – these women just rocked it and we could all appreciate that.

Finally, the gold medal winning team inspired me in how they played for more than just the game and the win. The team used their success as a platform for a number of issues including equal pay for women; the USWNT players made about one fourth of what a US men’s player would have made for a World Cup win. Rapinoe and others, though, went even further to use their platform to speak to larger social issues. At the celebratory parade in New York City, Rapinoe told the crowd, “This is my charge to everyone: We have to be better, we have to love more and hate less. Listen more and talk less. It is our responsibility to make this world a better place.” These words and this team have inspired me to focus on larger causes in the midst of the daily rhythm of the 2019-20 school year. The lessons taught, the papers graded, and the projects completed are part of a larger whole. As educators we are dedicated to shaping minds that create change and that inspires me.

Yes, the summer is far from over, and I am already into my next book as I continue to breathe in fresh air to recharge for the school year ahead. I doubt, though, that any of the pages I read will inspire the way the US Women’s National Soccer team has. They won the World Cup, and they fired me up!

Three Books that Spark Joy – Andrew's 2019 Graduation Remarks

Few books have had such a visible impact on my life as Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

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While my parents, the ones who so generously paid for 13 years of independent school and four years of Stanford University, might have hoped for a more erudite title, it is this small book from a diminutive Japanese home organizer that has had an oversized impact on my home, office, and life.

Kondo teaches her disciples – yes, I am a Kondo disciple – to only keep objects that “spark joy.” Following her instructions, I started with my clothes and eventually made it all the way to my books. Just like in the popular Netflix show, I held each item and only kept those that brought joy.

As you can imagine, my collection of books is now significantly smaller. And that is why I only have about 40 books on the shelves in my office here at Mount Tam. Today, graduates, I want to tell you about three of them. I will admit that I had five in my first draft, but I edited in hopes that you might actually listen to all that I am about to say.

You ready? Okay.

So, before you get your diploma, I offer you three lessons for high school and beyond from three books that spark joy.

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Brain Rules brings together science and education. John Medina, the author, is a developmental molecular biologist and is fascinated in how the brain works and how we can best use this amazing organ. While he offers twelve “rules” about how best to use our brain, I will focus on two for your high school career.

First, exercise. The science is clear: exercise improves our thinking. As Medina write, “All of the evidence points in one direction: physical activity is cognitive candy.” Moving is candy for the brain. Sprout ball? Candy. Knock out? Candy. You might not believe it, but even the mile run? Candy.

While some of you will play sports in high school, others, I know, are looking forward to spending more time on the stage, in the studio, or in the lab. Regardless of what you do, keep moving, keep exercising.

Second: sleep. While you are done learning at Mount Tamalpais School, you are not done learning. Next up you have four years of high school ahead. After that I hope you have a lifetime of learning. And to learn, you need to sleep. While scientists don’t know exactly why, it is clear that as Medina writes, “When you look at all the data combined, a consistency emerges: Sleep is rather intimately involved in learning.”

I must warn you, though, that other things are going to compete for your sleep over the next four years even more than the current desire to Facetime your friends. Your sports games or play practices will run later. You will have more homework. You will want to spend time with friends. Your phones will light up with notifications. With all of these forces you might be tempted to sleep less. Even just thirty less minutes of sleep a night lowers your attention, your math skills, your memory and your mood. As you head off to high school, please sleep.

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David Allen’s Getting Things Done is a book and, like Kondo’s Tidying Up, also a way of life. For over 300 pages Allen lays out a system for keeping track of one’s work and personal life. He introduces all sorts of to-do lists, including a “someday maybe list.” I have used Getting Thing Done and a few other systems gleaned from blog posts to have a pretty darn effective and efficient way to keep track of all that I have to do. I share it with you, not because I want you to adopt Allen’s system or my own system, but because I want you to have YOUR system.

At MTS you have learned to keep an assignment notebook. You have learned to write a research paper with hundreds of three by five notecards. Those non recess-club regulars have also learned how to get all of your books and homework to and from school in a reliable way. You have developed a system. Just because you are leaving this school, don’t leave behind your systems. As old school as it may seem, consider using an assignment notebook or getting out some flash cards when that first research paper is assigned.

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The final lesson I want to offer you comes from Flow, the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Csikszentmihalyi is a professor who set out to understand something rather basic, happiness. He writes, “What I discovered was that happiness is not something that happens. It is not the result of good fortune and random chance. It is not something that money can buy or power command. It does not depend on outside events, but rather, on how we interpret them.”

Interestingly, happiness is also not what you are planning doing tomorrow – just chilling out. Csikszentmihalyi writes, “Contrary to what we usually believe… the best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times.”

So happiness doesn’t just happen, you can’t buy it or command it. And happiness is not just relaxing. Then what does lead to happiness?

After a lifetime of research Csikszentmihalyi found that “The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limit in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

Have you spaced out? Now is time to come back. Listen up. I am going to say it one more time.

“The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limit in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

When I think about the most fulfilling times of my life, this rings true. The long wilderness trips that I have led – remember that story about carrying the canoe in the mud? – stretched me to my limits and felt worthwhile. The hundred and ten page essay I wrote about Buddhism and education at the end of my college career was a mental stretch, difficult and, again worth while.

Over the past three years I have stretched myself in my work as Head of School at Mount Tamalpais School facing a number of wide-ranging challenges. When I look on this stage, Class of 2019, and out at the years of students to come, I know that that work I do each day is worthwhile.

Many of you have told me that the Yosemite trip was the highlight of your MTS career. Why? My guess is that it is because you were stretched both physically and mentally to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. You found flow, Csikszentmihalyi’s happiness.

As you head off to high school, look for challenge. Look to stretch yourself, mentally and physically. Though the easy way might seem more “fun,” it will not lead to happiness.

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. Exercise and sleep

  2. Have systems for staying organized

  3. Challenge yourself. Happiness, flow, is found in the face of meaningful challenges.

These three lessons from these three books have sparked joy in my life and, I hope, they do the same for you.

Families of the Class of 2019, before I award the diplomas I want to congratulate and thank all of you. You all have signed these students up for countless teams and undoubtedly told them to go to bed, you helped them stay organized, getting them to and from school and, in Mount Tamalpais School, given them a meaningful challenge. Class of 2019, please join me in thanking and celebrating your families.

And now it is your turn, graduates. Class of 2019, you are ready for what life and school will bring you next.

Go forth to learn more and then come back to tell us what sparks joy in high school, college, and beyond. Remember, you will always be welcome at Mount Tamalpais School.

Thank you and congratulations.

Summer, Showers, And Meditation

I was first introduced to mindfulness meditation when I spent the fall semester of my junior year of college living in a Buddhist monastery in Bodhgaya, India. Several months of early morning and late afternoon meditation led to a strong feeling of equanimity. At various times in my post-college life, I returned to meditation in search of mental calmness and composure. Oddly, I was most successful when my older son was quite young as he was asleep – and stayed asleep – when I got up for early morning “sits.”

This past year I have returned to mindfulness with varying degrees of success – measured both in time spent and resulting equanimity. My recent hurdle is a kindergarten son who wants to join in meditation. Cute? Yes. Good for him? Yes – I have been using the Headspace app, and they have children-specific meditations. Good for my practice and equanimity? Not so much. A month or so ago, I tried to reclaim some meditation time for myself in one of the few places Harrison will leave me alone – the shower – as he hates to get wet. Early on, I thought I had found the perfect solution. I felt that time in the shower was underutilized and now even those few minutes had a purpose.

With time, though, I realized that my mindful moments – I could imagine the meditation teacher saying “notice the smell of the shampoo” – came at a cost. The shower was my down time. It was, indeed, underutilized mental time. I came to learn that there was a benefit, though, to that down time. Whether the shower relaxes or distracts, that mental downtime – particularly in the shower – is when some of the most creative thinking happens. When I replaced spacing out with mindfulness, I felt I was missing out on something important. Indeed, I was too focused to have the aha moments that inspire my work. Meditation in the shower? Out.

As we head into summer in the weeks ahead, I think it is important that we all think about utilization and creativity. When I look at my largely empty calendar in late June, July, and early August, I quickly make a long list of projects, ways to better utilize the summer. I have to remind myself, though, that downtime can be its most effective when it is truly downtime. For that reason, I will take some time away from school and the computer on which I write this. Robin and I are also trying to strike the right balance for our boys as well. We do have a number of “camp” weeks to save them and us from going bonkers – we do love structure. We also have a few weeks to explore and spend time as a family in a far less structured way – we are preserving some “time in the shower.”

If family, work, or life in general is going to prevent you from stepping away this summer, I suggest a regular dose of showers. Don’t plan to think about anything. Don’t have high hopes. Just take a shower and see what great thinking happens.

- ANDREW DAVIS


What Does Respect Mean?

ANDREW’S REMARKS AT THE ALL-SCHOOL ASSEMBLY ON MARCH 6

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I have so enjoyed the opportunity to have our full school community gathered together once a month this year. I will admit, though, that since my most recent talk on kindness I have been a little nervous about this assembly.

We state four values in our mission statement – self-reliance, integrity, kindness, and respect. In thinking about those first three, I quickly saw a way to bring that value to life in a brief talk for all of you. For self-reliance, I spoke about carrying a canoe through the mud and mosquitoes of Maine. For integrity, I taught you the silly expression, “Never wear dirty underwear.” And, most recently, I spoke of “Dude. Be Kind” to explain that being cool and being kind are one and the same. Respect, though, has felt a lot tougher because it is a word that is said a lot and, I think, not thought about enough. That is why I chose to speak about it last – I have procrastinated. So what do I think about respect?

When looking for understanding and inspiration, I often turn to etymology, understanding where a word comes from. Respect, as to pieces to it: “re” means “back” or “to” and “spect” means “look.” To respect then is to look back. This makes sense to me because when I earn respect, I feel like I can look other people in the eye, and they will look back at me, and we will both feel good. When I earn respect, I can look myself in the mirror – a different kind of looking back – and feel good about myself and how I have acted. To respect is also to look to. Again, this helps me better understand how to earn respect. If I am acting in a way that others look to than I am earning respect.  To earn respect, I have to be someone who others emulate.

The nice thing about saving respect for last is that it brings our other three values together. If I act with integrity, kindness, and self-reliance, I will feel good as others look back to me. I will be acting as a role-model for others to emulate. Through integrity, kindness, and self-reliance, I earn respect.

As we move forward with our day and with the last months of our school year, I encourage you to think about looking back and looking to, to think about respect. If we all live the four values in our mission, we will all earn and show respect, and the Mount Tamalpais School community will be even stronger and happier than it already is.

Thank you for giving me the respect of your quiet attention. I hope I continue to earn it each and every day. Have a great Wednesday!

A brief video excerpt from the talk.

Dude. Be Kind.

ANDREW’S REMARKS TO STUDENTS FROM THIS WEEK’S ALL-SCHOOL ASSEMBLY

*****
Good morning, and Happy New Year, Mount Tamalpais School. This morning I want to return to the values listed in our Mission Statement.

When we started the year, I talked with you all about self-reliance. I told you the story of my experience on the Mud Pond Portage in Maine. In the woods of Maine, I learned to rely on myself. In doing so, I opened up another ten days of adventure. When we are able to rely on ourselves, so much more is available to us in the world.

Later in the fall, I shared the funny expression, “Never wear dirty underwear” to explain the meaning of integrity. Integrity, another value listed in our mission statement, is doing the right thing, even when no one else is looking.

Just last week, as we were returning home from Tahoe, my wife and I both chuckled when we saw a bumper sticker. It read: “Dude. Be Kind.” As we drove on in the rain, I thought quite a bit about those three words. Why did I like it so much?

The first reason is that it is a great example of something that you will learn about in middle school English – 6th, 7th, and 8th graders, pay attention now – called juxtaposition. Juxtaposition is when you put two words, phrases, or sentences together that seem to be in contrast. “Dude” represents being cool. Every time I say it, I want to tip my head back a bit and elongate the “u” sound. Duuuude. “Be kind” represents just that – kindness and goodness. It seems quite different than the cool factor of “dude.”

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As I continued along Highway 80, though, I began to see the wisdom of that bumper sticker. In putting “dude” and “be kind” together, the phrase teaches us an important lesson. The sooner you learn this lesson, the better. “Dude. Be Kind.” tells us that it is cool to be kind; while they seem to be in contrast, they are actually quite related. The sooner you can learn that being cool is being kind, the better off you are. 8th graders, you only have six more months to learn this important lesson. Kindergarteners, if you truly get – and don’t forget – “Dude. Be Kind.” you will have a wonderful nine years here at Mount Tamalpais School.

One of the wonderful things about being at a school is that we have two starts to the year. Our school year kicked off at the end of August. And now, in January, we start 2019. It is my hope that in 2019, we can all live these three simple words, Dude. Be Kind. If we do that, 2019 will be the best year ever at Mount Tamalpais School.

As you head back to your homerooms and first period, I leave you one last time with the wisdom of Highway 80, “Dude. Be Kind.” Thank you.


Five Favorite Moments

I have long been a believer in the power of gratitude. Unfortunately, though, my tendency to fall asleep within minutes of walking into my bedroom has foiled all of my attempts at keeping a gratitude journal. I recently read about this one time end-of-year gratitude reflection and immediately wanted to try it. 

The idea is to reflect on five favorite moments in the past year. While I plan on doing this for my personal life once winter break starts in a few days, I figured I would try it first with five moments from my year of work at MTS. Before the list, though, a note on the process. This was a hard task! There are so many moments and people who have made 2018 a fabulous year at Mount Tamalpais School. It was quite hard winnow it down to five. 

Alas, here are five of my favorite moments from 2018 at Mount Tamalpais School.

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1. Community Day. One day last spring, the 1st graders opened “stores” in their homeroom as part of their social studies curriculum. I loved buying homemade items from students and still have a “Be Kind!” button purchased that day on my desk. This moment also stands out as it was a new project for first grade during a year in which the first grade teachers – and all of their colleagues – were already doing so much new curriculum. The moment reminds me of how all of our teachers work so hard to push our program forward.

2. Hiking The Island. I was able to do quite a bit of hiking with MTS students in 2018. Dave Baker and I walked with a group of 8th graders from MTS to Muir Beach, and I hiked at least a mile with all three of this fall’s Yosemite groups. Amidst this stiff competition – I love to hike – was the walk I took up to the top of Angel Island with a handful of middle schoolers on our annual trip to Angel Island. The hike, and the discussion of do-it-yourself YouTubers, reminded me of my days as a summer camp counselor, when I first realized my love for working with children.

3. Back to School. As many of you know, this is my first year as both Head of School and parent – with Harrison in kindergarten. With that transition has come a number of wonderful moments. I will not describe Harrison “learning” to Hula Hoop from Marcia, but instead share the incredible feeling of pride I experienced when Robin and I walked home from Curriculum Night. Robin, a discerning, career-long early elementary teacher, told me how thrilled she was with every aspect of the MTS program we had seen that night. While I had always been confident in what we offer, it was so gratifying to have that feeling validated. We both could not be happier to have our son at MTS.

4. Lunchtime Conversation. When I can, I like to eat with teachers gathered in the third grade homeroom. Earlier this fall, I joined the faculty mid-lunch and sat down with my salad. As I tuned into the conversation, I heard the lower school humanities teachers talking Readers and Writers Workshop. One teacher asked for older students to “partner read” with their younger students. Others talked about “trading units” to better align with the social studies curriculum. Organic conversation about curriculum over lunch – few things could make me more proud!

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5. Let Me Help You Fling That Ball. We have had a lot of STEM in 2018. With the new 5th and 6th grade STEM course, Try It Truck last winter, and K-4 Engineering at school this year, there have been plenty of wonderful STEM moments. The STEM moment that stands out for me occurred during our STEM Fest. I walked by the 5th grade homeroom and saw our older students sitting on the floor helping a score of younger students use the robots to fling ping-pong balls at a hoop. More impressive than the robots – they were quite accurate – was the warm, caring way our middle school students looked after our younger visitors to campus. Over 150 families came to campus that day and experienced our wonderful middle school students mentoring and teaching STEM skills.

If you have a quiet thirty minutes in the weeks ahead, I encourage you to try the Five Favorite Moments exercise. It was both fun and fulfilling to flip through the MTS photo archive as well as my calendar, reliving these moments of the year.


- ANDREW DAVIS


The Value of the Last 20%

Generations of Mount Tamalpais School students and parents cite the Winter Play as one of the most formative MTS experiences. Reflecting on the production, our alums and alum parents connect the Winter Play and the performing arts department to the poise and confidence of the MTS graduate. While acting, singing, and dancing undoubtedly inspires greater confidence, this hallmark performance – and others at MTS – also teaches the value of the last twenty percent.

The 80-20 rule – the Pareto Principle in economics – posits that the first 80% of a project takes 20% of the effort. Moving from 80% (a low B-) to 100% in turn takes 80% of the effort. In the Winter Play, 4th and 5th grade students learn to move from 80% to 100%. Through time spent honing the performance, our students learn the hard work it takes to move something from good to great to outstanding.

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It is relatively easy – though don’t ask me to do it – to get the right kids on the stage with the right scripts in their hands. That is the first 20%. It gets harder, though, when each student has to be in the right place and the words have to be memorized. Even harder is to have those students in the right place, staying in character, and not blocking site lines, and for those memorized words to be delivered with the right emphasis towards the audience. Even harder? Enunciate the words of each song so the people in the back row can clearly understand. And it gets even harder: add microphones that need to be changed between roles, props that have to be in the right place to make that comic moment comic, and dance moves that have to be done in synch. All of this is the last 20%, and it takes 80% of the time.

The newly discovered thespians of the class undoubtedly love this process of honing to excellence. For others, moving from good to outstanding, is challenging. Those dance moves elicit a “two left feet” response. The lines just never come out at the right time. The costume is uncomfortable. Challenging can be frustrating as we have to try that scene again. Challenging can be boring as we wait for our turn to be on stage. Ultimately, though, challenging is rewarding.

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Though the actors watching the show unfold on a screen backstage never “see” the final product, they are keenly aware of their success. When they have the right microphone, step into the right spot on the stage, deliver the right words with clear enunciation and follow that up with well-choreographed dance moves, our young actors beam with pride. The source of that pride is the hard work, the 80%, that they put in to make each moment on the stage outstanding.  While taught on stage in 4th and 5th grades, the lesson is enduring – an excellent social studies research paper or science fair project requires doing that last 80%.

The MTS graduate is known for confidence and poise. They are also known for having a good work ethic. Both of these characteristics are products of the Winter Play. I look forward to watching another cohort of students learn these lessons and show us their excellence – their last 20% – next week in Annie. I hope you will join me there.


Self-Reliance

ANDREW’S REMARKS TO STUDENTS FROM TODAY’S ALL-SCHOOL ASSEMBLY

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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!


 

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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.
 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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. https://contest.newyorker.com/

-ANDREW DAVIS

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