Head of School’s Blog

“Truth and Lies” October 20, 2017

Immediately after college, I taught 7th grade Life Science at an independent school in St. Louis, MO. In our first lab, students grew bean plants to test the effects of different variables on plant growth and health. When the experiment concluded, some kids took their plants home, while others tossed them in the trash. Apparently, some had a different idea. That afternoon, one girl reported that a toilet in the bathroom was clogged with what appeared to be potting soil.

It didn’t take much detective work to determine the identities of the three culprits. I called them into my office one at a time. The first two had similar reactions: total denial and tears. The third offered a simpler response to the same question (and I remember her words as though I heard them yesterday): “We tried to flush the plant down the toilet.”

Jessica Lahey’s New York Times blog post is full of thoughtful reflections and sage advice about raising resilient, well-adjusted children in today’s world. As both a teacher and a parent, #3 caught my attention. “We promise not to believe everything your child says happens at home if you promise not to believe everything your child says happens in our classrooms.” This reminded me of a story from when my ninth grade daughter was in Pre-K. Informed by her mother that afternoon snack was contingent on finishing lunch at school, Emily shared that she had eaten four hotdogs before carpool. (It’s worth noting that, even to this day, Emily has never taken even one bite of a hotdog.)

In “Learning to Lie,” an article appearing in New York Magazine, Po Bronson reviews the findings and conclusions of several researchers who have investigated why kids lie. If you doubt this issue’s relevance, consider the work of Dr. Nancy Darling, who interviewed scores of high school students. 98% of these students reported lying to their parents about a variety of topics. Interestingly, the same percentage agreed that lying is morally wrong.

According to Dr. Victoria Talwar, lying is a “developmental milestone,” in that it requires young kids to understand the truth and dream up an alternate reality. In some children, the behavior is “socialized out” by age 7 or 8, but in several others it becomes ingrained as a coping mechanism.  The most interesting aspect of Talwar’s research involved an experiment in which 6-year olds were enticed to cheat during a game. Afterwards, 95% lied about it. Talwar then introduced a variable – reading to the children beforehand. While hearing The Boy Who Cried Wolf (boy gets eaten because of his lies) did not affect the lying, listening to a generic version of George Washington and the Cherry Tree (boy confesses and shares a nice moment with dad) reduced lying by 43%. Talwar concludes that parents should stress the intrinsic worth of honesty rather threatening punishment, which has actually been correlated with increased lying in kids.

Bronson’s most provocative statement, which gave me pause in light of the hotdog incident and others like it, is that children learn to lie from their parents. According to a study conducted by researchers at the University of Massachusetts, 60% of adults lied at least once during a ten-minute conversation; it was reported in Scientific American that 90% of on-line daters lie on their profiles. This goes well beyond telling the telemarketer that you’re not home. Kids are taught to tell “white lies” in social situations; we are proud when our children react positively to a gift they don’t like. Over time, kids become comfortable with lying, and they come to understand that honesty creates conflict.

In my experience, parents typically have two reactions to learning Dr. Darling’s statistics regarding children lying. First, we assume that our children are in the 2% of total truth-tellers. Then, (and hopefully our knowledge of statistics helps move us past reaction #1), we wonder what we can do to facilitate a more open relationship with our children. Along these lines, after interviewing the students, Dr. Darling mailed comprehensive surveys to their parents. Her results suggest that permissive parents do not know more about their children’s lives. She concludes, “the type of parents who are actually most consistent in enforcing rules are the same parents who are most warm and have the most conversations with their kids….the kids of these parents lied the least.”  When asked why they told the truth in certain situations, teenagers responded that they hoped their parents might change their mind and give in. That ‘give and take’ – even if it takes the form of an argument – can keep open lines of communication and even strengthen your relationship with your children.

In light of this research, I’ve come to wonder about the parents of my incredibly honest, matter-of-fact student from 1994. Did they have an open relationship with this ‘gave and take?’ Thanks to Google, I have reached out to her this week. I’ll let you know what she says!


Digital Citizenship

All sixth graders at TDS take Technology with Ms. Cabrera. In addition to establishing proficiency with a number of programs, the class focuses on digital citizenship. Earlier this week, Ms. Cabrera utilized a current event to discuss cyber-bullying. Students were shown the photo below and instructed to write a comment as if they were commenting on a social media site.
Here are a few examples of their comments:
  • “Just wrong.”
  • “That lady isn’t taking care of her baby.”
  • “You shouldn’t be on your phone, lady.”
  • “She’s got her baby on the floor. That’s gross.”
After allowing the students to comment freely, Ms. Cabrera directed everyone to read the real story behind the photo. In a nutshell:
  • The photo was taken, without mom’s permission, in a Colorado airport in 2016.
  • It quickly went viral. Mom was mocked for preferring her phone to her infant.
  • In reality, this took place during the Delta Airlines computer shut-down. Mom and baby spent more than twenty hours in airports on their way home from visiting family.
  • Exhausted, mom needed a break, and she needed to communicate with her family.
Message received. In the words of Ms. Cabrera, “Students felt ashamed. I even saw a few cowering in their chairs, embarrassed by not considering how their comments might have affected the mom.” On this day, students took a giant leap toward digital citizenship, truly understanding the importance of empathy. Ms. Cabrera’s goal – that “students become upstanders, not bystanders, in this world, standing up for what is right and being active, empathic listeners” – extends far beyond the realm of Technology class.A few weeks ago, exhausted from refereeing one too many sibling disputes, I found myself imploring my children to consider two questions before speaking to each other: Is it necessary? Is it kind? Comments focused on judgment or blame typically fail both tests. Kudos to Ms. Cabrera for helping our students come to understand this by and for themselves.

“Joists and Trusses, Nails and Screws” – September 21, 2017

It was wonderful to connect with so many of you at our Back-to-School Nights over the past two weeks. Last Thursday, I offered some reflections to Middle School parents. While the concept of adolescence is merely a blip on the horizon for some of you, I nonetheless want to share these thoughts more broadly:

As Florida braced for Hurricane Irma last week, and millions of residents headed northward, news agencies interviewed scientists to get a sense of the storm’s destructive powers. On NPR, I heard David Prevatt, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Florida, offer this analysis. “How well structures hold up depends not just on the strength of the building materials, but more importantly, the strength of the connections holding roofs, walls and foundations together.”

According to Prevatt, the Three Little Pigs fairy tale might have focused on the wrong thing. More important than the raw materials – the straw or sticks or bricks – are the joists and trusses, the nails and screws – all the pieces used to connect the various materials.

Why do I bring this up? Because, in my view, our job as educators is to serve as these connecting pieces, this glue, to facilitate connections among our students, our raw materials. If our children truly feel connected – to us, to each other, to the TDS community – then they can grow, develop our core values, and yes, withstand the strong winds that blow from time to time.

Now, if you’re following this analogy, you’re probably wondering why I am equating a hurricane with Middle School or adolescence. Most of you have heard me say before that I absolutely love Middle School, but there’s a lot that accompanies adolescence – the hormones, the growth spurts, the acting without thinking, the going to great lengths to establish independence including trying on different masks and personas instead of simply being who we raised them to be – there’s a lot that can feel like a hurricane force wind, both at home and at school.

So we work hard to establish these connections, and we keep our focus on our North Star, which is not preparation for high school, but rather our core values. The portrait of a TDS graduate is one who is respectful, honest, resilient, responsible, and compassionate, and as a result exceedingly well prepared for high school, poised to lead a life of purpose, and ready for any strong winds that come her way.

“Hurricane Harvey Relief” – September 7, 2017

Over the past few weeks, we’ve received many inquiries from families about how TDS can help those recovering from the storm in Texas. We have officially partnered with a local elementary school. Please read the note below from Kate Newman, Community Service Coordinator, and consider supporting the cause. Thanks to Kate for springing to action and organizing this initiative!

From Kate Newman:

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, many of us in the TDS community have been eager to extend compassion to those affected in Texas and Louisiana. As the service coordinator, I have been working to contact schools in the affected areas to learn how we can help them in meaningful ways. Some of you may know that Dr. Nelson, Lower School Science Teacher at TDS, is from Dickinson, Texas and her family is still there. The entire city of Dickinson had a mandatory evacuation on Monday, August 28th that lasted for four days. Dickinson received over 52 inches of rain, and 75% – 85% of all households were flooded. You can read more information about how Dickinson was affected by Hurricane Harvey here.

We will be working to help Bay Colony Elementary School, one of seven elementary schools in the Dickinson Independent School District. Bay Colony serves nearly 1,000 students in grades PK-4. Virtually all staff members and students experienced some degree of flooding, and the school itself was flooded.  Teachers returned to school two days ago, and students will return next Monday, September 11th, more than two weeks later than originally scheduled. As you can imagine, all members of the school community are emotionally and physically drained by this tragedy.

Having surveyed the community, Amy Smith, Principal of Bay Colony, has informed us of some of the school’s most immediate needs. Currently, the #1 need is for books. Most students lost all of the books in their homes, and school classrooms lost many books as well. In addition, crayons, coloring books and toys would be beneficial for the students. These items can help comfort stunned students and occupy the kids’ minds as they work to cope with the magnitude of devastation. Many staff members are struggling to cope with their own loss while simultaneously providing care for their students and families. Of course, gift cards to local retailers will help families put their houses and lives back together. Additionally, all TDS students will make cards for the students at Bay Colony.

We will be collecting items in the bins in the Commons until Tuesday, September 19th. Please deliver gift cards to the front office. Alternatively, items purchased on Amazon can be shipped directly to the school at 101 Bay Colony Elementary Drive, Dickinson, TX 77539.

List of items needed:

  • Gift cards: Target, Kroger, Home Depot, Lowe’s, Amazon and Walmart. [Please don’t send other cards because the stores may not be in Dickinson.)
  • Coloring books, crayons, art supplies, small toys
  • Books
  • Cards and letters (in addition to what we create at TDS)

If you have any questions or concerns, please contact me. Thank you in advance for helping TDS support the Bay Colony community.

“Random Acts of Kindness” – August 24, 2017

Welcome (back) to TDS. While this newsletter will once again appear in your inboxes each Thursday, this year the letter will feature Lower/Middle School updates and thoughts from me in alternating weeks. Please also look for announcements and reminders.

Yesterday afternoon, I had the privilege of speaking to all students and faculty on the first day of school. Below are some excerpts from my remarks:

There’s really just one thing that I want to talk to you about this afternoon, or one request I want to make. Be kind. That’s it. Be kind. I ask this of you for many reasons. First, I believe that kindness is a defining feature of Triangle Day School. From speaking with veteran teachers like Ms. Lucas and Ms. Tedeschi, it has been for 26 years. Now, that tradition of kindness rests in your hands. Will it continue? It’s up to you.

Second, many scientists have studied the effects of kindness. These researchers have documented what many of us have figured out for ourselves – that kindness makes us happier. Yes, as we perform Random Acts of Kindness, as we fill the buckets of our classmates and teachers by being kind, and caring, and friendly, and positive, our own moods and feelings improve in the process.

Third, and this might be most important, kindness is contagious. Most of you know that we ask you to stay home if you have a fever because you’re probably carrying a virus that can easily spread to those around you. Well, kindness works the same way. It spreads quickly to all those around you, and pretty soon we have an incredible place to learn and work.

One of my favorite stories from this summer happened on June 22nd at a McDonald’s in Scottsburg, Indiana. It began when a woman saw a dad with four kids behind her in line at the drive-through. It was Fathers Day, so she decided to pay for his family’s entire meal. That started a string of 167 people in a row paying for the meal of the person behind them in the line. The string only ended when the restaurant closed for the night.

As much as I like that story, I want to stress that it doesn’t cost money to be kind. So what are some ways to be kind at TDS? As Mrs. Durham says, be a bucket filler, not a bucket dipper.

  • Share a toy, or ask someone to play with you, at recess.
  • Smile
  • Say something nice about someone; pay them a compliment.
  • Let someone have your place in line if it seems to matter to them.
  • Get excited about a community service project.
  • Say please and thank you, and mean it.
  • Reach out to a new student in your class and become friends.
  • Get some sticky notes and write encouraging words to your classmates.
  • Volunteer to help. Open car doors, help with Walking Club, do something nice for your teacher; there are lots of ways to help.
  • Do your best to understand other people rather than judging them. And how do you do that?
  • Ask a lot of questions, and really listen to the answers. Do you ever find yourself half listening to someone else’s story and half trying to decide which story from your own life you’re going to tell next? Instead of doing that, wait until they have finished, and then ask another question.

I want to show you a quick video that I hope you’ll enjoy.

In each case, these were two people that would have simply walked by one another on the street without even saying hello. Instead, they made a sincere and powerful connection. Why? I don’t think it was because they were sitting in a ball pit. I think it’s because they were asking lots of questions and really listening to the answers.

Speaking of listening and learning about people, I’d like to issue a challenge to everyone, but to our Middle Schoolers in particular. It will be that much easier to be kind if you know everyone, so learn the names of everyone in the school. All 197 students. How? Help me in the mornings with opening car doors. Study. Ask questions, like “what’s your name?” When you think you know everyone, let me know, and we’ll put that to the test.

Yesterday my two older children had their first day of high school. I asked them to tell me one thing about their day. If your parents ask you the one big thing that Mr. Norry talked about today, I hope you mention these words. Be kind. And have a wonderful year.