Civil Religion?

Naturalization CeremonyLast week, for the fifth straight year, we hosted a naturalization ceremony at All Saints’ Episcopal Day School, welcoming 30 new US citizens representing 28 different countries of origin.  My heart is still filled with joy because of that experience, which I believe epitomized the best of our human- and American- values.  That, in turn, put me in the mind of the term civil religion, first coined by the French philosopher Rousseau.  I became familiar with the more recent use of that language studying at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley in the 1970s at a time when sociologist Robert Bellah of the University of California had developed a compelling theory of civil religion’s role in American society.  His thesis was that there is a unifying non-denominational set of core values that epitomize the essence of the American character.  (He further asserted that every society has its own brand of civil religion).  Bellah also cautioned against the tendency of some to equate this notion of civil religion too closely with a specific explicit religious tradition.

I have reflected on Bellah’s work and the naturalization ceremony within the context of contemporary society.  Many have (rightfully) lamented the decline of civility in our society.  And one could also assert some activities presented in the name of religion are neither civil nor religious.  One of the reasons that this year’s naturalization ceremony was so inspiring and consoling is that it was both Civil and civil- a specific civic commitment conducted within an atmosphere of civility, hospitality, and acceptance.  Similarly, the ceremony was both Religious and religious- hosted by an Episcopal school with multiple references to an inclusive God.  As such it served as antidote and encouragement as we in the United States struggle to find a path back to the lofty notion of civil religion so eloquently articulated by Robert Bellah 50 or so years ago.

We prayed for our US citizens that morning that their embrace of the American Dream will strengthen our country in the ways that immigrants who preceded them have done for so many years.  May all of us who are US citizens embrace that Dream with renewed commitment and conviction.

Until next time…

My best,
Leo

Becoming Thinkforyourselfees

The first day of school is always one of my favorites.  Today seems to have gone quite smoothly as we welcomed 519 students to the 2011-2012 school year.  Last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review was the annual back-to-school edition, perfectly timed for our schedule.  There was much in the issue to excite and inspire me as I anticipated the new academic term.

What has stayed with me most of all since then is a poem written by the late Shel Silverstein.  Silverstein was a person of diverse talents, multiple interests, and an eccentric sense of humor.   He is probably best known as the author of children’s books, including the classic The Giving Tree.  Here’s the short sweet poem I wish to share, which I have already done with parents of new students yesterday at their orientation event and again this morning at our opening chapel of the school year.

YESEES AND NOEES

The Yesees said yes to anything
That anyone suggested.
The Noees said no to everything
Unless it was proven and tested.
So the Yesees all died of much too much
And the Noees all died of fright,
But somehow I think the Thinkforyourselfees
All came out all right.

My hope is that the experience of an All Saints’ Episcopal Day School education enables our students to make great progress along the path of becoming Thinkforyourselfees.  This is essential for them to develop the resources and resilience as they confront the opportunities and challenges of the adult lives that await them.

Another reason this poem attracted my intention is its delightful whimsy.  Our mission is a noble one, and our purpose serious.  However, I deeply hope that this entire process also provides many moments of fun- and sheer whimsy- for our students and for everyone in the school community.

Until next time…

My best,

Leo

The Long View of Love

I hope the past two months have brought rest, renewal, and lots of enjoyment.  That has certainly been the case for me as the start of the 2011-2012 school year looms ever closer on the horizon.

Much of the consolation of the past two months for me revolves around grandparenting.  Most obviously that is in turn connected to the two weeks Jan and I spent in the middle of this month with our three children, their spouses and our ten grandchildren at our annual beach vacation on the shores of Lake Michigan.  This was the fourteenth consecutive such gathering so things have become quite ritualized.  The cottage we rent has not grown, but our grandchildren certainly have in those years.  However, they have no interest in finding more commodious accommodations.  The memories they have built and the familiarity of the surroundings are keys to their enjoyment of this annual event.

Grandparents bring a particular kind of comfortable familiarity to their grandchildren’s lives.  Being a grandparent is a singular privilege and blessing.  While parents and grandparents have the same fundamental task regarding the children in our family, i.e., to love them purely and unconditionally, there is a sweet nuance to grandparent-grandchildren love.  It’s a bit difficult for me to articulate the quality of that nuance, but it has to do with time and perspective.  The grandparental perspective makes their love a bit less anxious than it is for parents, a bit more serene about the future.  And conversely the youth of our grandchildren points to a future that will happily extend after our years on earth come to a close.

Another less predictable grandparenting experience took place in late June at the Institute for Experienced Heads that I attended.  At the closing session of the event one of my colleagues, the head of an Episcopal school in San Francisco, was asked to offer his reflections on where he experienced the “juice of the job”- an image used by one of our workshop leaders, Rob Evans.  My colleague noted that at this stage of his career as head he was increasingly aware of the legacy dimensions of his job…of the grandfatherly impact of his leadership.  (That notion certainly resonated with me and is quite compatible with the wisdom that a school’s board is making decisions that will ensure the school’s strength for the children of the current students.)  My friend also powerfully suggested that our schools are called to be places of belovedness.  My hope is that my presence contributes to making my family and my school places of belovedness…a noble legacy to which we can all aspire.

Until next time…

My best,

Leo

Farewell and Fare Well

 

I am posting this message on graduation day for the Class of 2011. I commend them for the great year they have had as our student leaders. As with each class at All Saints’, members of this year’s graduating class move on to a world of many exciting possibilities. Our hope is that we have equipped them with the values and skills that will put them in good stead as they consider those possibilities and make choices in the future.

While life is still in its early stages and about new beginnings for our graduates, this day is also about a significant ending. There will be plenty of smiles today but no doubt also a few tears. I prefer to use the word “farewell” rather than “goodbye” on a day like this. This allows me to focus on what is most important–not that our graduates are leaving us but that they “fare well” in school and in life in the days ahead. God bless each member of the All Saints’ Episcopal Day School Class of 2011.

Today is the last day of school for all our students. I hope to check in on this blog a few times this summer as the pace of life at All Saints’ changes until August.

Until next time…

My best,

Leo

The Power of Memory

Gifts for the Class of 2011, decorated with care by Kindergarten students

          Last week we celebrated two great annual All Saints’ chapel traditions: the Head of School recognition chapel and the Memory Chapel created and presented each year by the graduating class. The memories shared by our eighth grade students at their Memory Chapel included some “insider” stuff about which most of the adults in the church were clueless. These were all shared with a light heart and good will. Some of the reminiscences were about their teachers, delivered with affection for their quirks, their methods, and their genuine care for their students. Some of the memories hearkened back to their lower school years, which for 14-year olds is half a lifetime ago. I was most touched by the extended reminiscences from several members of the Class of 2011 that demonstrated that the lessons we hope they learn were imprinted in their memory: the importance of persistence, the power of compassion, the strength of friendships, the joy of learning, the commitment to continuing growth, the value of service, the blessings of both success and failure, and the awareness of the bigger world and depth of reality to which All Saints’ provided developmentally-appropriate glimpses. All in all, a most consoling experience…

            At the Head of School recognition chapel, I had the honor of recognizing faculty and staff members who had reached a milestone of service to All Saints’ Episcopal Day School. The aggregate total recognized was 170 years. Imagine the hundreds of wonderful memories that these dedicated folks have created for our students, present and past, in those years. As I know from my own life experience, these happy memories have incredible staying power.

          Memory is a powerful force in life and in school. At All Saints’ we aspire to create memories in our students that will last a lifetime- a lifetime of growth, gratitude, and generosity.

Until next time…

My best,

Leo

Finding Their Voice

Grade 7 clay faces inspired by Modigliani

          Over the past few weeks there has been an amazing series of events here at All Saints’ that demonstrates the importance of a school providing each student with opportunities to find his or her voice.  This voice can be expressed in a range of media and settings.  Among these events have been the dramatic rendition of the Passion of Christ by a drama elective class, the heartwarming chapel presentation by our Pre-Kindergarten students, the amazing art show that annually dazzles all who experience it, our CrossWorlds event that celebrates the range of cultures and interests in our school family through prose, poetry, technology and food, the course-culminating projects in many grades and academic disciplines, the charming and elaborate spring musical performances by students in grades 1 through 8, and the celebration of the range of community service that lends substance to our commitment to “preparing students to lead fruitful lives and to serve a world in need.”  The list is not exhaustive but illustrative of our focus on helping our students articulate their passions and aspirations eloquently and creatively.

 

           This approach is a departure from the one I experienced when I was in school.  I did not have the opportunities our children have on a daily basis.  In reflecting on my own schooling, I believe that I did not have such opportunity until I was a senior in high school.  Creativity has been identified by many educational theorists and leaders as one of the core competencies essential for 21st century learners.  At All Saints’, enhancing our students’ creativity is at the core of what we do, and it begins in the earliest stages of education. 

 

           Focusing on creativity has required schools and teachers to make a fundamental shift in their approach, and unfortunately many schools have not made that adjustment.  In a Newsweek article published last summer entitled “The Creativity Crisis,” the perils of ignoring or even discouraging student creativity and inquisitiveness are eloquently stated:

                Preschool children, on average, ask their parents about 100 questions a day.  Why, why, why- sometimes parents just wish it’d stop.  Tragically, it does stop.  By middle school they’ve pretty much stopped asking.  It’s no coincidence that this same time is when student motivation and engagement plummet.  They didn’t stop asking questions because they lost interest: it’s the other way around.  They lost interest because they stopped asking questions.

Pre-K Apples inspired by Cezanne

           At All Saints’ we expose our students to the full range of human experience and inquiry.  And we are about more than providing answers; we want to encourage our students to learn how to ask the right questions and create meaning that is authentic and in their own voice.

Until next time…

My best,

Leo

Broadening Our Horizons

Monday evening I received the following email message from an American Episcopal priest friend who is a key liaison for us as we develop our partnership with St. Paul’s School and Church in Haiti:

I am in Mirebalais, Haiti as the announcement of Sweet Mickey Martelly’s victory in the presidential election is announced over the radio…. and a great shout of praise and cheering went up throughout the town.  People are running around, leaping, laughing, yahooing. “The people’s choice is done” is what I think I hear.  We’ll see how the night goes. Not all people agree, but most do, apparently. 

We hope for the best for Haiti.  Always. 

campaign poster for Sweet Mickey Martelly, taken on my recent trip to Haiti

When Jan and I were in Haiti in February, evidence of the election was everywhere.  Haiti has not been historically well served by its leaders over the years, neither foreign colonial rulers nor native political and military ones.

So my friend’s expression of hope at the end of his message is clearly a heartfelt and ambitious one.  Hope is frequently about long odds after all. 

I share his hope.  I also embrace with great conviction the partnership that we have recently established with St. Paul’s in Gascogne, a somewhat remote, resource-limited, spiritually rich community.  This partnership promises to bring great benefits to St. Paul’s and to All Saints’.  

I have had a chance to share impressions from our recent trip to Haiti with parishioners and middle school faculty and students.  I’ll do the same with students and teachers in grades three and four soon.  And I hope that some parents will have time to attend the presentation on Haiti at the ASPA meeting immediately after the Tiger breakfast on April 13. 

I’ll have more Haiti reflections in my next blog.

Until next time…

My best,

Leo

Checking Our Pulse

The All Saints’ Episcopal Day School community is engaged in a self-study process this year as part of our efforts to receive re-accreditation by the Independent Schools Association of the Southwest (ISAS), the gold standard of independent education in this region of the country. 

ISAS requires schools seeking re-accreditation to conduct various surveys, one of them for current parents.  That process was completed earlier this year, and for those who have been part of the school community for a number of years came as no surprise.  Four years ago, the ASEDS Board and administration conducted a similar survey, and the commitment to seek formal feedback on an annual basis was born.   We have the good fortune to have obtained a significant history of survey results so we can trace some longitudinal patterns.  Interested readers can see this history and these patterns by logging in to the School Website and downloading the Parent Survey Historical Summary from the “Forms and Documents” section.  I have also included a companion piece that provides brief prose summaries of the themes which emerged in the survey results.  Review of this history reflects consistent positive feedback about many dimensions of school life; quite encouraging is positive trending in satisfaction levels in other dimensions. 

 A final bit of good news: We are also required to conduct a faculty survey as part of our re-accreditation process.  The results of that survey mirror quite well the feedback we have received from our parents. 

Until next time…

My best,

Leo

Weaving Webs

Bear with me, friends, as I make my first foray into the blogosphere.  I shall make occasional contributions to this blog on topics of relevance to the All Saints’ community. 

Board Chair Jack Klecan and I made several “State of the School” presentations to parents, faculty, staff, and trustees.  It’s hard to summarize the entire presentation in this post, but I did want to share here my underlying philosophy in serving as Head of School.  My presentation centered on my belief that my job is to weave webs rather than build silos.  This implies promotion of collaboration and enhancement of relationships among various school constituencies.  So my leadership focuses on encouraging teamwork, maintaining a big picture perspective, direct and transparent communication, and embracing an organic (vs. static) school model.  From that philosophical base, I cited a number of recent “web-weaving” initiatives and also some areas that require enhanced attention in implementing that philosophy. 

Until next time…

My best,

Leo