Mind Games

Last month I had a delightful lunch date with three boys in our third grade, a “Hangin’ with the Head” opportunity offered as an auction item at our parent association fundraiser.  I thoroughly enjoyed observing their interaction and conversation—and the insights it provided me about the world of contemporary third graders.  Gaming was the most frequent topic of conversation, with Minecraft taking center stage.  The most memorable quotation that emerged from the gaming conversation was this: “Minecraft is just too complicated for adults.”  I think there is definitely truth in that statement, especially for this adult.  There is no doubt that every one of our ten grandchildren is more adept at manipulating electronic devices than I.  They are digital natives one and all.  I am clearly a digital dinosaur in terms of chronology, evidence of which is that I was a mid-
20s adult when the game Pong was introduced.  No first grader in our school can read better than I or solve math problems better than I, etc.  However, I am quite certain that most—if not all of them—could easily eclipse me in iPad manipulation skill.  That represents a huge paradigm shift for educators.  The tables (tablets?) have been turned.
Hand of Asian girl playing Tablet.This development can be good news for children and adults, but there is an ever growing number of cautionary tales.  Not a week goes by that I do not see an article in professional literature about the perils of excessive screen time for young people.  This is of particular concern for me as head of a school with a 1-to-1 iPad program in our middle school and a commitment to the incorporation of other new technologies into our PK-8 educational program.  One of the harmful side effects of excessive screen time is the deleterious effect if has on the development of social-emotional skills in students (and all of us, for that matter).  This has risen to the level of a public health issue as demonstrated by the guidelines developed by the American Academy of Pediatrics.  This is particularly worrisome for me as head of an Episcopal school that puts a high value on development of such social-emotional skills in our students.

This is not intended as a diatribe against new technologies.  These ever-changing and ever-advancing tools can provide many benefits, and they are not going away.  Minecraft provides a brilliant array of options for learning and problem-solving.  I myself have been exhilarated by the ways in which I have grown as a learner through contemporary technology.  We adults need to help our young people to manage their use of technology; they can figure out the manipulation piece on their own.  To provide that assistance, we need to model what we desire.  We need to get off our devices more often and model genuine healthy personal interaction at home and at school.

I sincerely believe that children’s brains are changing in new ways because of new technology.  My hope is that this will be an evolutionary moment in human development- not a devolutionary one.  I also firmly believe that we adults can be very influential in influencing that outcome.

Until next time…

My best,

Leo

A Beginner’s Mind

At last Wednesday’s opening faculty-staff meeting, I shared with my colleagues an insight that I had recently discovered in a daily meditation book:  Buddhists talk a lot about having a beginner’s mind.  Having a beginner’s mind means doing things as if you were doing them for the first time.  So when you eat, eat as if you were eating for the first time; when you pray, pray as if you were praying for the first time…And I would add “teach as if you were teaching for the first time, lead as if you were leading for the first time, learn as if you were learning for the first time, serve as if you were serving for the first time…”

Today marks the return of our students for the first day of the 2015-16 academic year.  I am always excited for this day each year, but I begin this year with the renewed perspective of a beginner’s mind.  Recently I re-read a statement of educational philosophy that I composed decades ago.  I was consoled that the statement has stood the test of time for me even as I read it again with a beginner’s mind.  As the school year begins, I am happy to share this statement of ideals and principles with readers of this blog:

My attraction to education is one to a vocation rather than a career.  My more specific calling is educational leadership through private school administration.  My particular approach to leadership is greatly influenced and shaped by a number of sources, including the servant leadership model of Robert Greenleaf and the philosophy of Ignatius Loyola which regards our talents and skills as gifts to be cherished, nurtured and shared.

More specifically, I believe the task of the school leader is to articulate a mission for the educational community that is positive and dynamic, rooted in moral values and vision, and oriented toward the betterment of individuals, society and the world.  While the mission must be specific, it should be capable of diverse embodiments.

My commitment to education as vocation is rooted in my passionate belief in youth as our most precious resources and the mirrors of that which is best in humanity. The two most pernicious attitudes of adults toward youth are indifference and contempt.  As a result I am firmly committed to creation of a school climate in which every person – and most especially every student – is seen and heard, is respected and valued.  Then teachers and administrators can rightly aspire to be role models. Our most effective teaching depends ultimately on the congruence between our rhetoric and our actions.

The best schools are those in which the standards are high. In turn these standards are primarily rooted not in external measures but in internal markers such as integrity and conscience.  When I lead a school, I aim high.  Yet my goal is not to create the perfect school, but rather one in which as many persons as possible are inspired and empowered to be the best they can be.  I want schools to be places in which young people are free to learn from successes and failures, places marked simultaneously by challenge and security. The best schools are those characterized by intellectual rigor but not pedantry, pride but not arrogance, critical thinking but not cynicism, comfort but not complacency.

Making Private School Education More Accessible

The following op-ed was featured in the Central Phoenix and Northeast Phoenix Arizona Republics on Saturday, August 8, 2015. 

Head of School, All Saints' Episcopal Day School

Leo P. Dressel, Head of School, All Saints’ Episcopal Day School

Making Private School Education More Accessible 

The landscape within private school education has changed dramatically and rapidly. Two contextual factors have played a major role in some of the most recent changes in that landscape. The lengthy recession has had long-term financial impact on schools, requiring the need to devote more tuition assistance to more families — including some who could previously pay the full tuition at a school. The “new normal” makes determination of annual tuition levels a more painstaking process, which in fact requires careful stewardship.

A second factor that has had significant influence is the growth of charter schools, a particularly impactful reality in Arizona. As school options have increased, private schools now have to demonstrate and communicate more effectively their educational and developmental value – and not just their cost.

There always will be a role for private education in our country, but in order for those schools to thrive they will have to be flexible, nimble and creative. I strongly believe that the best private schools have a clear community purpose and that purpose can be embodied in a variety of ways.

One way a private school can achieve its public purpose is by a commitment to easier access of education to traditionally underserved segments of our community, especially during the crucial early learning years. This commitment of inclusion is deeply rooted in the All Saints’ Episcopal Day School educational philosophy and school culture.

We recognize paying for an independent school education can be a challenge for many families, and it is our goal that economic standing should not be the only determining factor when weighing educational options. Therefore, we have adopted the Indexed Tuition model because we want to provide our offerings to as many deserving children as possible by working with each individual family’s situation.

Diversity on every level enriches the educational opportunity for all students, and participation of a wide range of families is critical to a healthy thriving school and overall student experience. Indexed Tuition allows us to further enrich the community, fosters inclusion, and enhances the educational and social-emotional experience for both children and their parents.

At a school like ours, which is pre-secondary in scope, we are acutely aware our mission is to prepare our graduates for extensive continued high-quality education and personal development long after they leave us. Our mission statement captures that sentiment quite well in its closing words: “preparing students to lead fruitful lives and to serve a world in need.” At the core of our mission is a commitment to enable all students to lead lives not only of success but more importantly of meaning and purpose.

Globalization is a reality that cannot be ignored by schools. While there remains essential value in a school being a safe haven, no longer can we be places of insularity and exclusivity. We must prepare our students for the world in which they will live their adult lives, and so we must open the world to them in developmentally appropriate ways while they are with us.

We have the luxury of offering a rich palette of enrichment experiences for our students on an intimate scale that ensures that no student falls through the cracks. We can set our expectations high without apology and with the support of the school community. One way in which we describe this dimension of our school is as a place of “maximum challenge and maximum support.”

The Episcopal identity of our school is also a wonderful asset since we have a clear religious identity, one core feature of which is a commitment to inclusion. We encourage every child and adult to respect his or her own religious and cultural traditions, and also the traditions of others. We are able to speak and act clearly regarding the non-cognitive dimensions of a quality education of children “in the light of God-mind, body, soul.”

While my life’s work has been in the sector of independent private education, most of it in faith-based schools, I am a strong supporter of public education. As states have felt the negative effects of the recession and its lingering aftermath, support for public education seems to have taken a disproportionate share of the brunt of budgetary constriction. This is certainly true in Arizona.

Accountability is important and necessary for all schools, but the budgetary approach taken in many states seems quite shortsighted. Both the educational and business communities seem to recognize this, but the political sector seems to be on a different page. I happen to believe that a community is strongest when the traditional public school, charter public school, and private school sectors are all healthy. That is not the case in most parts of the country, and we are the poorer for it- now and in the years to come.

Leo P. Dressel is head of school at All Saints’ Episcopal Day School.

For more information about the Indexed Tuition program offered at All Saints’, please call 602.274.4866 or visit http://www.aseds.org/.

The Interior Life

There were many intriguing and intellectually challenging presentations at the recent annual conference of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS).  Design thinking was the centerpiece theme of the gathering, an idea that stretched my perspective in exciting ways.  However, the session about which I have reflected the most since the conference is the conversation conducted by a panel of four current and past university presidents and facilitated by John Chubb, President of NAIS.  The expectation for every student in our school- and in almost every independent school- is that every one of our graduates will continue his or her formal education long after leaving us.  Although our oldest students are in eighth grade, we think of ourselves as a college prep school.  The structure of the conversation among university presidents focused on what pre-secondary independent schools ought to be doing to make their graduates as ready as possible for university life.

While we are a college prep school, we also claim in our mission statement that we are a life prep school (“… preparing students to lead fruitful lives”).  I was reminded of that when one of the panelists mentioned changes she has noticed in today’s collegians from those who have gone before.  While she certainly urged all of us to continue to help students develop language and quantitative skills (imperiled skills at that), she also lamented the fact that today’s college students have an inadequately developed sense of interiority (her word).  There is no doubt in my mind that external stimuli have overwhelmed the interior life for many of us- to our detriment as the panelist pointed out.  She further noted how many students on her campus are plagued by anxiety and depression.   While I have no clinical standing to make such a connection, I have wondered whether a healthy interiority might make us less susceptible to those maladies.

Student Chapel Presentation

One of the All Saints’ eighth grade students was the guest preacher in chapel on March 10, 2015.

On a brighter note I am consoled that at All Saints’ we consciously and intentionally make the effort to develop the interior life of our students in age-appropriate ways.  Chapel is an obvious means for promoting such development.  When all of us on occasion are asked by the celebrant to be still and reflect quietly, the result is extremely powerful.  The student presentations at chapel provide other invitations for us to be reflective – exquisitely demonstrated by our eighth grade preacher at this morning’s chapel.  We are committed to our weekly chapel services because they are uniquely powerful moments of community and contemplation, wonderful examples of educating our students head to soul.

Until next time…

My best,
Leo

What Kind of Character Do We Wish to Build?

Several articles in the Education Issue of the New York Times Magazine dated September 18, 2011, attracted my attention, none more so than the effort by Paul Tough entitled “The Character Test.” The question at the heart of the article is even more provocative and intriguing: What if the secret to success is failure? In fact this article has sent a buzz throughout the independent educational community. The article focuses on two seemingly disparate educational environments: the innovative KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) charter schools and the rarefied atmosphere of Riverdale Country School, a top-tier independent school in New York City. In each setting the challenge is the same: to develop an effective character development program.

In his explication of the two different approaches taken in the service of this goal, Tough notes the distinction between two categories of character education: programs that attempt to develop moral character (based for example on fairness, generosity, integrity) and programs that focus on performance character (based for example on effort, diligence, and perseverance). The KIPP school educators featured in the article have chosen to emphasize performance character because of the research that showed disturbing trends of KIPP graduates failing to succeed in college. Their conclusion was that the graduates had not developed the “grit qualities” (i.e.. those at the heart of performance character) essential for long-term success. As a result KIPP students are now given character grades on indicators based on the core “grit qualities”: zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, curiosity. I must admit that I really like that list. If our students do not develop a resilient core, they will not be ready to face what life will have in store for them.

Riverdale Country School emphasizes moral character development while recognizing that developing the “grit qualities” may not fit easily with the culture and expectations of the school. The implication is that Riverdale and other fine independent schools may be terrific at preparing its students for academic success but not so adept at preparing them for the inevitable failures in life. That leads me to the conclusion at which my counterpart at Riverdale has also apparently arrived. We do not have an “either-or” situation in exploring moral character and performance character; it is essential that we take a “both-and” approach. In doing so, I answer affirmatively to the core question at the heart of the article: What if the secret to success is failure?

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

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