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Reaching Back, Looking Forward

September 7, 2018

How well do you remember 2004? Britney Spears married Kevin Federline. Janet Jackson suffered a wardrobe malfunction at the Super Bowl. Friends aired its final episode. And all but a few current Gardner students had yet to be born!

2004 also is the last time The Gardner School started work on a strategic plan. A lot has changed since then, hasn’t it? The population of Clark County has grown by nearly 100,000 residents, and with it a dramatic increase in educational options—including online schools, unheard of in 2004!—available to our current and future students. Where does Gardner fit in this landscape? What shall be our unique contribution to our community in the next decade?

The time is right for Gardner to take stock of its strengths, assess its challenges, and plan its future as a destination school in SW Washington and Portland. This is why the Board of Trustees has elected to complete a Strategic Plan during the 2018-19 school year. Strategic planning enables independent schools to evaluate their vision and mission within the competitive landscape. Through this process, we will identify those facets of Gardner most essential to our excellence and that truly set us apart from other schools in our region. We will emerge from this process with a unified and compelling narrative about who we are, what we do, and where we are going.

As part of our Strategic Plan process, we will identify Big Questions around those substantive challenges and opportunities that will influence Gardner’s long-term success. For example, a Big Question might be “How do we maintain affordable tuition levels while also providing competitive salaries for teachers and staff?” At the end of this endeavor, we will determine those priorities requiring immediate attention while establishing other strategic priorities to be addressed in due time. In addition, we will construct our Strategy Screen during this process. The Strategy Screen is a tool used to evaluate decisions against important and meaningful criteria. Using this Strategy Screen, current and future school leaders can assess not only the fiscal and strategic reasonableness of future actions but also ensure they are aligned with and supportive of Gardner’s mission, values, culture, community, and heritage.

Heritage and tradition are important components of this process. We cannot look forward without reaching back to what has made Gardner what it is today. Nor can we look forward without engaging with our present community, including alumni. In collaboration with our Strategic Planning consultant, Alexa Carver, we have crafted a process that ensures participation from key populations in our community.

During our August In-Service Week, our consultant spent an entire day working together with our Board of Trustees, faculty, and staff. A strategic planning committee–comprised of two staff members (Jared and Jackie), two parents (Rebecca Kendrick, Tahoma; David Wilhoyte, Loowit), and two Trustees (Maida Sussman, Cody Goldberg)–will continue to work throughout the fall and early winter on major components of the strategic plan. On December 5 (early evening) and December 6 (morning), Alexa will moderate parent focus groups in which you are invited to participatealumni also are invited.

Our goal is to publish our Strategic Plan this spring. Between now and then, we will continue to communicate about the value of strategic planning and the nature of our Gardner-specific process. The participation of our community is vital to this work and we look forward to your contributions.

 

 

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In Defense of Boredom

June 8, 2018

Twenty-seven years ago (yes, that’s right), the poet Kurt Cobain summed it up nicely when he sang, “Here we are now. Entertain us.”  Whether speaking about Gen Y or Millennials or the I-Generation, Cobain captured in six simple words what many have written endlessly about for the past three decades.

Children today don’t know how to be bored.

And it’s MTV’s fault.

No, I mean it’s the fault of video games.

Actually, it’s the fault of smart phones.

Or maybe children have never been very good at being bored. Before MTV and long before portable entertainment, I remember going out to eat with my parents, being dreadfully bored, and hoping like mad they wouldn’t order coffee after dinner so we. ​could. finally. leave.

I’m skeptical that children have changed all that much. I think what has changed is how adults today value boredom. Part of this could be nostalgia . . . nostalgia for days when teens spent hours lying on their bedroom floors listening to records and scrutinizing album covers (something CD’s and then Steve Jobs ruined perhaps).

Guilty as charged. While I’m quite sure my parents thought I was not using that time wisely, science now is on the side of that teenager who was endlessly fascinated by the cover of The Who’s Quadrophenia or The Clash’s London Calling. So says Tony Wagner of the Harvard Innovation Lab: “Downtime is up time. The brain needs time off to synthesize, to integrate.” Similar to when we sleep, moments of wakeful inactivity allow our brains to process the day’s stimuli, providing essential cognitive and emotional connections and cleansing.

If this seems counterintuitive, think about those times you’ve had a great idea in the shower or while driving to work, moments when the hamster-wheel in your brain could turn and turn and turn.

In her book Beyond Measure, Vicki Abeles argues that we must leave space in our children’s lives for “daydreaming, quietude” because such downtime supports creativity and psychological growth. Downtime is essential for our children’s brains to process what they’ve learned. This also is essential to memory; children remember content more deeply and with less effort at recall when they have quiet moments to process and reflect.

Abeles cites this research to advocate for a change in how school’s assign homework (or perhaps not to assign it at all). Referring to Wagner’s research, she also notes that diminished time for brain rest and daydreaming also inhibits key skills such as curiosity and imagination, reflection and refinement, and assessing and filtering.

Abeles poses a bit of a Catch-22. Children are less able to assess and filter stimuli because their brains are continually active. And as we well know, all too often their brains are continually active because they are immersed in digital environments. This is not a recipe for success.  Digital spaces are precisely where our children must assess and filter stimuli and content.

Which is why building opportunities during the day when students can rest their brains is vital. Free, unstructured opportunities to play are one way to provide this downtime. This is especially so when play is outside in natural environments, where their eyes and minds have opportunities to take in stimuli at medium and long distances.

Another way is to build time during the school day for quietude-opportunities for the mind to engage less active stimuli so it can drift. ​Such moments may include brainstorming, free-thinking, and mind mapping activities where ideas can flow freely and unfiltered; open-ended puzzle and mind-games that allow students to engage in imaginative and speculative thinking; doodle or sketching activities where students express ideas visually rather than verbally; quiet opportunities where students exercise independent choice in their reading; or maybe just time to rest the brain and daydream.

​The title of this piece is purposely facetious. Of course we don’t want school to be boring. Teachers should be engaging, content should be meaningful and informative, and student activities should be challenging and stimulating. We know that learning interesting content and acquiring new skills can be extremely fun and enjoyable for learners of all ages. And we know that boredom usually is in the eyes of the beholder, so to speak. Often, students can be encouraged to find meaning and connection to activities or subjects they initially find boring.

But boredom also gets a bad rap. In the end, teachers and parents should be okay if their children/students ​are bored sometime. Should it be our responsibility to endlessly entertain our children?

​Children benefit from cognitive downtime. Downtime (what children might call boredom) provides their brains with valuable time to filter, process, and synthesize what they had previously learned. And because their brains will ​have opportunities to scrub away the non-essential stimuli, they will return to active learning activities with brains refreshed and ready to make new connections.

 

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Free Agency

May 18, 2018

Parents have often asked me for suggestions for summer, the subtext usually being that summer might be a good time for their children to learn a foreign language or advanced calculus. That might be a bit ambitious, I suggest, but perhaps reading a couple of books might be a good thing.

But even this bit of advice gives me pause because of an experience I had very early in my teaching career. I had assigned summer reading to my incoming 8th grade English students. Actually, I assigned one book and asked students to choose one or two others from a list. None of the selections were very long, and I thought they were pretty good reads. I felt no qualms about doing this. After all, who could argue with reading a couple of books over the long summer?

Well, at least one parent could. I wish I had kept the letter this parent wrote me to complain about my assignment. I say letter because this was before email. The parent was so mad he actually wrote me a letter. I don’t remember all the details, but the gist of the parent’s argument was that I was one of the worst human beings in the world and clearly someone who did not like children. How dare I, the parent demanded, assign summer reading when kids should be running free outside all summer!

The parent went on to describe an idyllic summer that sounded very much like an episode of Lassie, with little Timmy rambling across the countryside from dawn until dusk. I had my suspicions that in reality summer for this student probably involved a lot more video game playing, but who knew.

The question lingers, though. What should we ask of our students over the summer? The data is very compelling that students regress in their learning from June to September, although the impact is more keenly felt among low-income students. This suggests that students should not pause for an entire summer in their learning. This makes intuitive sense, as well. Imagine taking a summer off from running or playing tennis. How long does it take for you to get back to where you were before the break?

On the other hand, summer also is an opportunity to set classwork aside and focus on hobbies or new experiences. There is much to recommend about this approach to summer. And then there are those students for whom their parents cannot take summers off. Many parents face the stressful (and budget busting) challenge of finding camps or other ways to occupy their children. Keeping them busy and supervised is a matter of need not choice.

Personally, I think it’s not a bad thing to take the foot off the gas a bit for summer. But taking it easy doesn’t necessarily mean holding down the sofa and playing Minecraft or binge watching Netflix all summer. So, how to find that middle ground between over-taking our students during the summer and letting them become sloths?

In their interesting new book, The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over their Lives, William Stixrud, PhD, and Ned Johnson underscore the importance of giving children agency.  They write, “Agency may be the one most important factor in human happiness and well-being. We all like to feel that we are in charge of our own destiny.” It’s why, they suggest, kids usually love sleep-away camp, where they experience a range of choices and no parental influence. What’s not to love, right?

Stixrud and Johnson contend that a good part of the stress children feel has at its root our innate need for agency and how our brains react to loss of control. This suggests that my summer-reading loathing parent’s reaction to my summer reading assignment had more to do with his feeling that I had diminished his control over his child’s summer rather than a hatred of reading. Students probably despise assigned summer reading for the same reason.

Stixrud and Johnson suggest asking our children what they’d like to be in charge of that they currently aren’t. They also suggest offering choices rather than deciding the plan ourselves (“Today we’re going to do this and then this”). Giving children choice and agency, they conclude, will help reduce the number of arguments between parents and children. They note that arguments over getting ready on time and doing homework often have more to do with the child’s desire for control than the morning rush or homework. From a scientific perspective, the authors further explain that giving even very young children the ability to make decisions for themselves activates the prefrontal cortex and builds the circuits necessary to effectively handle stress.

This is an important reason why at Gardner we look to provide students with choice, such as stations to explore in our early childhood classes. This is especially so in our higher grade levels, when the need for agency and the stress felt by our adolescent students rises considerably. When students are able to direct their own learning, they are more engaged because they feel in control. Moreover, studies reveal that students retain more information and can do more with it when they have agency and ownership.

What to do about summer, then, especially if we really don’t want our kids to hold down the sofa? Taking a page from The Self-Driven Child, perhaps we should let our children take the wheel some. We are perfectly within our rights as the adults in their lives to say, “You can’t spend all summer with your face in a screen. What else would you like to do?” Have them make a list and ask them to articulate the advantages and disadvantages of their ideas. Stixrud and Johnson even advise letting them make poor choices (not dangerous ones, of course) because that’s how children learn to make better choices in the future.

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