Dear Hilltopper Community,
Thank you for joining this monthly conversation regarding Marshall's mission & purpose, and thank you for providing feedback on the most recent essay. As always, I welcome your thoughts on this topic as well.
- And vs. Or
- Creative Solutions: The Next Level of Student Engagement
- Our Good Faith Covenant
- A Larger Stage
- What Do You Wonder?
- Baseball, Humility, and Education
- The Reset Button: Our Statement of Community
I had a conversation with the parents of a ten-year-old who feared their son would not make a top level soccer team in their city. They painted a grim picture for me. Unless he plays Academy or Premier, odds are he will never be in line for a college scholarship. The boy, a top student and good musician, was not far from the table where we spoke. I wondered whether he had begun to internalize this pressure to perform. The parents saw only one solution, more private coaching, which meant something would have to give—perhaps drums, perhaps recreation league basketball.
Two days earlier, I watched as we sent off our all-state participants in dance, skiing, music, and mathematics. Our band director made special note of one senior who was scheduled to ski at state on Thursday and then play percussion and piano at the state band competition on Friday. If his parents had felt the same pressure, which of these lifelong activities would he have sacrificed at age ten? And what about his two senior classmates on the Nordic team: one, an Eagle Scout; the other, a varsity soccer player who is investigating Nylon and other fabrics as part of an independent study in chemistry.
Student Before Athlete
As an independent school, part of our job is to be responsive to the wants and needs of our families. If families seek top-level athletic competition, we must to do our best to provide just that. Another part of our job, however, is to occasionally buck a trend and provide academic leadership when it's needed. The notion of specialization has much appeal to families who are driven to see their children succeed, but it is not the only way to find success, and it has many unintended consequences.
It is entirely possible to compete at the highest level while maintaining a healthy well-roundedness. Our winter season has provided all the proof families should need. Our girls' hockey team, for instance, just missed qualifying for the state tournament in one of the most competitive sections in the country. They also won the Academic All Section Award with a team GPA of 3.9, and will be a contender for top academic team in Minnesota. The girls on the team include students who participate in band, choir, orchestra, drama, speech, student government, and several other sports. In fact, many have participated at the state level in a second sport.
Less is Not More
The conversation I had with the family of the soccer player is one I encounter with increasing frequency. When I meet these parents, they are 100% certain there is only one path forward and they have found others who reinforce this notion. These are caring parents who want the best for their children, and want to provide every advantage. While these families are not always receptive to my guidance, if they do ask for advice, I offer this question: Ultimately, what is it that you want for your child? Better yet, what do they want for themselves?
Win or lose, I'll take our teams. As hard as they compete, as difficult as that final loss may be, our student athletes have the ability and the opportunity to redirect their passions to other pursuits—to sing, to play a second sport, to lead a club, to travel abroad, to compete in a poetry contest ... who would want to rob a child of those moments? Following this well-rounded path, our graduates earn tens of thousands of dollars in merit, far more than they would earn in athletic scholarships. From the special moments to the scholarship money, a choice to double-down on specialization usually leads to less rather than more.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Marshall should feel good about the numerous school districts promoting “engagement” in their current TV spots. We made engagement a top priority in 2014, when we participated in a national study and published a strategic plan emphasizing social, emotional, and cognitive engagement. Our goal then was quite simple: we wanted our students to be as engaged as the students in the nation’s very best schools. When we achieved that goal in 2016, we raised the bar again and began speaking of engagement at a higher order. These days, in place of the word engagement, Marshall uses phrases such as risk-taking, creative tension, and problem-solving.
When it comes to offering empirical support for aspirational outcomes, educational institutions are relatively new to the game. Test scores and college placement have long offered some statistical evidence of academic achievement. But studies have proven that the best indication of future test scores is past test scores, meaning these metrics give some indication of how smart your students might be, but do little to measure a school’s impact. If we wish to determine how well our students solve problems, and then stake a claim that we nurture that skill better than other schools, we must find ways to measure ourselves.
Next month, we will participate in the High School Survey of Student Engagement (HSSSE) and the Middle School Survey of Student Engagement (MGSSE) for a third time. These national, longitudinal surveys allow us to measure our progress and compare ourselves to both a public school and an independent school norm. The eventual report is quite sophisticated and the findings provide great detail and insight. For instance, in 2014, we learned that our 10th and 11th graders were not asking many questions during class, so we made that a point of emphasis. We also realized that our students were not as socially and emotionally engaged as were the students at the best independent schools, an issue that required a more complex solution.
To build social and emotional engagement, we made our Upper School advisory system more robust, built an academic commons and a coffee house, created more student leadership opportunities, introduced a social skills inventory in the Middle School, added group work in the classroom, and started the school year with leadership and ice-breaking activities. When we tested again in 2016, over 95% of our students reported that they “felt safe,” and that they “belonged” here at Marshall. And, nearly 80% agreed with the statement, “I am an important member of my community,” while only 53% of public school students felt that way.
Why does this matter? From 2014 to 2016, as our social and emotional engagement improved, our cognitive engagement followed suit. Our composite score of 34.1 improved by one full point surpassing the independent school mean (and widening the gap with public schools). Specifically, we made notable progress in these important areas:
- How often do you work on a project that requires you to interact with people outside of school?
- How much does your school emphasize: Analyzing ideas in depth for classes?
- How much has your school contributed to: Thinking critically?
- How much has your school contributed to: Developing creative ideas and solutions?
What strikes me after five years of using empirical data is that the numbers often mirror the “eye test.” Two things bothered me when I first joined the Marshall community: our students rarely wore their Marshall gear, and the upperclassmen were often slumped and apathetic at school assemblies. Today, I would guess a third of our students are wearing black-and-gold athletic gear and our assemblies are now run by upperclassmen.
When we measure ourselves again this spring, we will determine whether our students truly are engaged at that next level: solving problems with creative solutions. My guess is that we will fare quite well. As I walked these halls during iTerm, I saw problem solving at every turn. In fact, I would not be at all surprised if problem solving and creative tension are the very buzz words we see other schools begin to use in their TV spots a few years from now.
Over the holidays, I read an interview with a retired educator. The interview focused on his observations of two significant changes in schools since he first accepted a leadership position in 1976. He listed the connection between brain science and learning as the most significant improvement during that time, noting that these new understandings enable teachers to reach all students, even those who learn differently. The troublesome trend he has witnessed is the steady decline of what he calls "good faith," the core belief that parents, teachers, and administrators are all working towards shared goals, with the best interest of children at heart.
The dictionary definition of good faith is, "an honesty or sincerity of intentions." In schools, I am not certain how to fully quantify good faith, but I think you know it when you see it. There was a time, argues the retired educator, when parents and teachers would come together and ask: "What are we going to do to fix this together?" Back then, the assumption was that all parties shared similar aspirations for students, and trusted each other in the work of guiding them towards desired outcomes. To be sure, if that covenant is on the decline, it would be important to prioritize its restoration.
At Marshall, our best articulation of our shared aspirations for students is our Mission Statement, and these Community Conversations are written to remind us that in our work together, we aspire to educate students to become curious and ethical citizens. Our Mission Statement is our community's covenant - one made in good faith and partnership. In the midst of challenges, it should serve as a beacon - guiding us back to our highest aspirations for our most important calling - our children.
Open and honest communication is the best evidence of a school's commitment to good faith, which is why we have added weekly newsletters in the Middle School and a series of lunches for the parents of 7th and 8th grade students. In December, 27 families joined us for our first Transitioning to Upper School luncheon. Our next is scheduled for this Friday, and our annual Town Hall meeting will be held shortly thereafter. All these opportunities for open communication are designed to take the mystery out of our methodologies and explain how exactly we are trying to achieve and live our Mission. We hope they also serve as forums for good faith partnership in that endeavor.
Some might argue our society's good faith problem extends far beyond schools, concluding that we are experiencing a proliferation of uninformed criticism and distrust. If that is true, part of our job as a school is to teach students how to form valid insights, construct balanced assessments, and exercise judgment on their own. If our students see parents and teachers as good faith partners in support of these new understandings, we win in two ways: We increase good faith here in our hallways, and we educate future leaders who, in turn, just might help our society restore good faith on a broader scale.
In January, we will welcome twelve high school students from Turkey to spend two weeks immersed in Hilltopper life. Turkey is a fascinating country, whose residents have a unique window to the world. Geographically, Turkey bridges continents together; historically, it bridges millennia. Turkey is also vitally important in today’s geopolitical realm. I know of no other school hosting such an exchange, and I can only imagine how rich classroom discussion might be when students have the chance to share and compare perspectives on current events, religion, and foreign policy. Nonetheless, I understand the visit will not be fully embraced by all. Global education, at the moment, is encountering significant backlash.
From a common sense perspective, it is difficult to imagine why.
Most students need to be encouraged to step outside their comfort zone. It is how they grow. At independent schools, we celebrate the upperclassman who dares to try theater for the first time, as well as the student who accepts the challenge of an honors or an AP course. Neither endeavor is easy. The actor may sing off key in front of family and friends, and the AP student may earn a lower grade because of the increased rigor, but we believe the risk is worthy. We believe growth happens in periods of discomfort. That is why we encourage our students to travel on language immersion trips and to befriend students from all over the globe. Engaging outside of one’s comfort zone requires students to make decisions, so it is important to lay out the benefits of broadening one’s perspective.
Promoting the value of global engagement is especially important right now as the very notion of globalization is increasingly politicized. Our students are not unaware of the proliferation of xenophobic sentiments equating nationalism with patriotism, and further implications that the desire to be connected with the world is somehow unpatriotic. I believe these simplistic equations are not only false in their interpretation of what it means to be a patriot, but dangerous in their masking of a simple truth: Xenophobia is a fear; one which has been given a stage in America.
As educators, we believe it is good to help young people overcome their fears. For instance, schools act responsibly when they help students overcome the fear of public speaking. Since students overcome xenophobia by meeting people from other places, we facilitate those opportunities within the safety of our school. No Marshall students are asked to renounce their nationality when they play games or attend cultural events in our international dormitory; it just doesn’t work that way.
Our world is undeniably global, has been global, and is becoming global evermore. Our campus sits on a hill above a port city that serves the world—and has served the world for more than a century. From an educational standpoint, it would be difficult to justify a curriculum that was not designed to promote global engagement. At Marshall, we see ourselves on a different and a larger stage, with a clear calling ‘to educate students to become global citizens.’ We are a place where students will find opportunities to overcome xenophobia—not a place to maintain it. Please take the opportunity to encourage your children to participate in our global programming. It is as easy as saying hello to one of our 37 international students, and the benefits just may last a lifetime.
If you are my age and wrote a research paper in high school, you may recall your teacher imposing strict limits on the amount of information you could borrow from an encyclopedia. The rationale was simple. Using an encyclopedia was too easy; it deprived you of the opportunity to hone your research skills and hindered the process of discovery. Instead, you learned how to use the card catalog and read periodicals on microfiche, at times feeling as if you had uncovered facts known by just a handful of scholars worldwide.
That joy of discovery, that ability to seek answers not readily apparent, is increasingly at risk in today's
schools. If anything, using an encyclopedia is now judged to be cumbersome and inconvenient. Why
seek information when you can simply ask Alexa? Given this new reality, today's students are in danger of graduating with poor research skills--and absent any appreciation for discovery. And, without these key components of intellectual curiosity, how can we expect today's students to solve tomorrow's problems?
At Marshall, we have added inquiry-based learning opportunities at every grade level and in all
disciplines. Not too long ago, Upper School faculty member Paul Schonfeld asked his physics students to express a scientific curiosity in the form of a simple question. Students asked questions about the reflections they saw in puddles, about gravity's impact on plant life, and about the oxidization of certain metals. Gabby and Ava had questions about gravity, so they formulated this central question: How do skateboarders jump off the ground yet keep the board stuck to their feet? Their investigation revealed a deeper understanding of torque and Newton's Third Law.
This five day physics project begins with a question and an investigation. By week's end, the students
document their research methodology and display their findings. The final step is a reflection. Emma
researched Slinkys and seismic waves and, when she finished, submitted this reflection:
One of the things that is really interesting about physics is that once you start investigating one thing, you figure out that it is attached to everything else. Once you learn about one thing, you discover you need to learn about this other thing in order to explain the first thing, and that new concept leads you sideways and somehow you need to learn about 10 things that each demand explanation.
The project in physics is hardly a "one off" unit. By the time these students are seniors, they have
learned to ask questions and explore answers in math, fine arts, and humanities as well. For the past
two weeks, eighth grade students have pitched their ideas for Genius Hour projects, student-directed
presentations that they will share with the community in March. This unit, which Lori Durant, Middle
School Humanities Chair, introduced six years ago, allows middle school students to develop the
independent research skills they will use when they encounter similar projects in high school, college,
and in the workplace.
For many students, inquiry-based learning does more than foster intellectual curiosity. For some sixth graders, for instance, learning to ask questions in middle school math allows students to develop confidence and numeracy. Several times each week, teachers start class by writing problems or patterns on the board and asking students:
- What do you see?
- What do you notice?
- What do you wonder?
Are not these the sort of questions that foster greater curiosity? Certainly, these students will relate to
math differently than will those who only ask, "What is the answer?"
In my first year of teaching, I coached baseball and felt I knew the game fairly well. That summer, I attended a Chicago White Sox game with Jay Barry, a former college player and our head varsity coach. At that game, I realized I knew much less about baseball than I had previously thought. Jay really knew baseball. He nudged me at one point and asked, "Did you see that?" To which I replied, "No, nothing happened."
Expressing some disappointment, Jay explained that something significant had happened; the shortstop had taken a step to his right meaning that Jack McDowell was going to throw "something off speed." Sure enough, the ace pitcher threw a change-up, and Jay explained the significance of throwing that pitch in that situation. Wow! I thought. Who knew there was so much intentionality in each detail? What a lesson in humility! Until that moment, I was satisfied with my understanding of the game; now I was excited to learn and appreciate baseball at an entirely different level.
In the first of these community conversations last month, I promised a year-long series of essays inspired by our Mission Statement. Already, I am writing about an ideal I would add to our Mission Statement. Education and humility go hand-in hand, which is one of the reasons each one is so important. So, when I am asked what one word I would add to our Mission Statement, I always say "humility," thinking more of the function of humility than the denotation of the word. In other words, it is not that I am advocating for modesty—important as that may be; instead, I am acknowledging that moments of humility provide us with the best opportunity to gain new understandings.
So how do we provide for humility in a world that has such little use for it? How do we ask our students to embrace the vulnerability of humility? Especially at a time when asking for humility seems counter-intuitive and dangerous? If anything, our tendency is to rescue students from moments where humility and vulnerability are on display—a parental instinct to be sure. Permit me to return to sports metaphor to provide one rationale:
If a high school athlete has played the same position for ten years, and the coach moves the athlete to a new position, that now vulnerable athlete may just "see" the entire game differently. If so, that athlete will inevitably enter into a period of learning and discovery that has been absent for some time. Who wouldn't want a steeper learning curve for a child? Nonetheless, our instinct is to fear the risk and request that the athlete stay in the position which provides the most comfort.
I believe it is only from a humble place that we embrace and commit to acquiring new understandings. If we are complacent in our beliefs, if we arm ourselves exclusively with arguments that support our own views, we will never model the behavior our children need to learn in order to accept new understandings and prepare to lead us forward. If, as adults, we can accept that we have more to learn, and then set out to acquire deeper knowledge, then we will be modeling for our children the condition necessary to gain new understandings.
As parents, we worry about our children's ability to navigate this hectic world, and we worry about the very world in which we live. As Marshall Parents, we believe we must arm our children with a great education in preparation for that world. Therefore, we must also be comfortable with humility and vulnerability, as these are the precursors to new understandings, and it is those new understandings which will lead us forward and help us find common ground.
In the early 1970's the Diocese of Duluth realized that they would no longer be able to subsidize Duluth Cathedral High School. Facing the strong possibility of school closure, a group of civic leaders came together to create a vision for a private school. The typewritten plan for that school sits on my desk, and I frequently turn to it for inspiration. It is an heroic document for many reasons. For one, those civic leaders knew "the odds [were] great against this pioneer project" and yet they "accepted the challenge because of … the rewards to the community and the nation." Many years later, Duluth again needs a school that dares to take the lead.
The Founding Board articulated a Financial Plan, a Formation Plan, and a Curricular Plan with eleven "proposals" or guidelines. I write to you today to reiterate Marshall School's commitment to those founding proposals, and draw your attention in particular to #8, which pledged the school would: "Open wide its doors to all persons—regardless of race, religion or economic status—who seek excellence in education."
While the language in that statement may seem dated, the sentiment still inspires. Our world is tumultuous and our children feel great angst. They need to know that even in times of turmoil, school can be a safe zone. They need to know there are institutions willing to take a clear stance and demand civil interactions between its members. With this in mind, a group of faculty members worked last year to draft a new Statement of Community for Marshall, a pledge which we will display alongside our Mission Statement:
The Marshall School community shares responsibility for the safety, inclusion, and well-being of all members. We nurture and protect an environment that is affirming and empowering of individual voices, life experiences, and perspectives. We commit to learning and growing through our daily actions and interactions. We seek always to value, respect, and uplift those around us.
It seems to me that our nation has begun to scrutinize daily actions in schools in a way that does not serve our students. By design, schools are places where hundreds of adults and children from varied backgrounds interact with each other multiple times a day. Many of the interactions are wonderful; some are not. It has always been such.
Lately, too much of our nation's adult energy has been spent collecting and cataloguing less-than-perfect moments and stringing those moments together to create narratives that suggest schools lack balance, or push either a liberal or a conservative agenda. This is understandable. In our 24 hour news cycle, politics is front and center all day long. But placing a political lens over daily interactions at school often distracts us from the work of educating our students; further, these narratives cause our students anxiety. Influenced by the polarizing stances often seen on TV, our students wonder whether they can express ideas without judgment, or conclude that they must deride others to prove a point.
My hope is that this well-crafted statement will be our reset button. It is aspirational, and it is impartial. It simply asks us to be better while reminding us that community is a "shared responsibility." As the school year begins, our students feel alacrity—they have new pencils and new notebooks, new backpacks and new cleats. We want them to feel great about our new promise as well, our promise to uplift each other. If we can discard old notebooks and cleats, we can let go of some divisiveness as well. Let us pledge to share the responsibility for maintaining a nurturing community.
Our Founders felt we should be bold and aspire to be "a beacon on the hill." Fifty years later, our Statement of Community asks the same. Let's agree to share the responsibility of maintaining a nurturing community, and "accept this challenge because of…the rewards to the community and the nation."