Head of School’s Blog

Blind Spot

Professional development days offer a unique gift during the sprint from late August to early June – the gift of time. Yesterday, faculty and staff came together for an energizing day of learning. We began with a review of emergency medical procedures during a training and recertification in CPR and First Aid. Following this, teachers met in groups to discuss a variety of curricular initiatives, including our new literacy program in Lower School.

White Fragility coverAfter a hearty lunch provided by sixth-grade parents (thank you!), we met once again to discuss two books from our summer reading: White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, and Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People. As the titles suggest, these books fit nicely with our effort to identify and reduce our own blind spots, develop awareness, and build an inclusive environment where all persons are supported, valued, and engaged.

Blindspot begins with the understanding, confirmed by countless studies spanning sociology, psychology, and economics, that “the social group to which a person belongs can be isolated as a definitive cause of the treatment he or she receives.” Despite our conscious commitment to egalitarianism, the authors point out that the human mind “works automatically, unconsciously, and unintentionally,” often registering preferences in attitudes involving race, sexual orientation, age, and a host of other factors.

Blindspot coverBlindspot highlights the Implicit Association Test, an assessment tool created by Anthony Greenwald that has revolutionized our knowledge and insight in these areas. The test is surprisingly accessible and easy to take. In fact, all teachers took one of the tests yesterday.

As the test has grown in popularity, researchers now have millions of data points to analyze. The IAT reveals that a majority of people have an “automatic preference” for white relative to black, young as opposed to old, as well as various gender-related stereotypes (most associate men with work and women with family, for example). It seems that “whether we want them or not, the attitudes of culture at large infiltrate us.”

The authors point to the history of symphony orchestras to illustrate the implications of these automatic preferences. In the 1970s, women constituted approximately 20% of new hires in orchestras across the country. Few seemed concerned by this. After all, the world’s top (or best known) instrumental virtuosos were all men.

During that decade, orchestras began tweaking their hiring procedures. The live audition remained the key component, but instrumentalists began performing behind a screen. Now, of course, those auditioning were audible but not visible. In the years that followed, the percentage of women hired doubled from 20% to 40%.

It seems that most of us are more susceptible to automatic classification and judgment based on stereotypes than we would like to believe. The elegant design of the IAT brings our hidden biases into focus. And then what? Armed with this knowledge, we must at a minimum ensure that our unconscious thoughts do not translate into behaviors and actions. Additionally, we can seek out experiences that might help reduce or reverse the “mindbugs” nestled in our brains.

To learn more about the science behind and implications of the IAT, watch this interview with Mahzarin Banaji, one of the authors of Blindspot.

Doug Norry
Head of School

Twister Trot

October, 2006. A crisp, autumn weekend morning. I remember standing outside my kids’ preschool in Bethesda, MD. Will and Emily had just finished the toddler sprint – 40 yards across the parking lot – and it was time for the parents to take the stage. A 5K was planned through the neighborhood.

Two friends approached to let me know that a big group of dads was running together. Leisurely pace. No stress. I should join.

At this moment it hit me. While I played sports in high school, I had never run a mile before. And certainly not 3.1. I had visions of keeling over half-way through the race. It was truly a “Brené Brown” moment.

Thank goodness for Kate! I clung tightly to the stroller with our seven-month-old inside. I would have to walk with her. I assured the dads that, in fact, no one else could do this. The following weekend, I set out to run my first mile…alone.

In contrast to my rather sedentary experience, kids today run all the time. In Middle School Physical Education, Wednesdays are running days – either the mile or the pacer – and Coach Morrison charts their progress.

We have some fit, fast students at TDS! Just look at the times for the top-five finishers this past week:

  • 8th grade – Otto (5:45), Cooper (5:59), Kylie (7:00), Taleah (7:00), Nnamdi (7:10)
  • 7th grade – Avery (6:37), Oliver (7:10), Olivia (7:14), Ash (7:23), Wil S (7:23)
  • 6th grade – Connor (5:58), Nayan (6:13), Ben (6:26), Oliver P (7:06), Bruce (7:23)

Beyond these fifteen, several other students finished the course in less than eight minutes. And nearly every middle schooler ran faster than I did on my first run in 2006.

Looking ahead to yet another Saturday in October, the entire TDS community will have the opportunity to gather for a morning of exercise and fun. Calling all runners and walkers: I hope to see you on campus on Saturday, October 19th at 9:00 AM for our 5K run, or 1-mile fun run, through American Village.

The TDS Twister Trot, formerly Marcy’s Run, is a race to honor the courage and strength of our community. Marcy Speer was a dedicated wife, mother, and world-renowned geneticist at Duke University. She lost her battle with cancer in 2006. At the time, Marcy’s Run was created as a way to honor her memory, as well as her contributions to the TDS community, and to support science education. Sadly, in the years since the race began, the TDS community has had many other families affected by cancer. With the blessing of the Speer Family, the race took on a new name a few years ago. The Twister Trot honors all families who have been or currently are being affected by this terrible disease, and we invite all of our racers to honor a friend or family member impacted by cancer at our race. Most importantly, Casey Speer (TDS ‘10) will be on hand before the race to speak about her wonderful mom.

Racers will have much to look forward to upon crossing the finish line, including some treats from local merchants, face painting, a performance by the TDS cheerleading squad, and a fire truck to explore! You, and more importantly your children, will not want to miss this community event! Click here to register for the race. The early-bird discount ends Monday, September 30th, so act now!

To ensure the success of this race, we need a team of volunteers. If running or walking isn’t your thing, please consider directing runners on the course, managing the water station, or helping with race-day registration or parking. Click here to join a team of dedicated race-day volunteers.

Finally, my annual challenge for TDS students (not parents or alums!), which has lightened my wallet in recent years: All boys who cross the 5K finish line ahead of me, all LS girls who finish the 5K ahead of Sra. Hoffman, and all MS girls who beat Ms. Morrison, will earn an all-you-can-eat lunch! Please consider joining us for this fun-filled morning at TDS. Sign up today!

Doug Norry
Head of School

Turn It Off

In recent years, researchers have attempted to document and quantify the extent to which various forms of media have monopolized our children’s lives. Though its tenth anniversary is approaching, the comprehensive study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation is still cited by nearly all those who write about the subject. The central role of media in our lives makes it imperative that we understand what and how much our children are consuming, as well as the effects of this consumption.

For the past nine years, bloggers have plucked this Kaiser statistic for their headlines: On average, 8-18 year-olds spend 7 hours and 38 minutes each day using various media. Additionally:

  • Heavy media use correlated with poor grades, and frequent users reported less personal contentedness.
  • In a typical day, 46% of 8-18 year-olds reported sending text messages on a cell phone. From this group, respondents sent an average of 118 text messages per day, and they spent more than 90 minutes sending and receiving texts.
  • In a typical day, 8-18 year-olds spent an average of 1 hour and 13 minutes playing video games. Boys spent twice as much time as girls, on average.
  • 71% of 8-18 year-olds had a TV in their bedroom. (Of course, today, virtually any laptop or hand-held device functions as a television.)

While I freely acknowledge that listening to music in the car is not the same as playing a video game, that figure – 7 hours and 38 minutes – has stuck with me since I first read these findings several years ago.

Several studies have investigated the effects of this media consumption, and screen time in particular. The Learning Habit (Donaldson, Pressman, and Jackson) refers to a study that surveyed more than 50,000 families. Significant screen time correlated with:

  • A drop in academic performance, which is more dramatic in Middle School
  • More trouble falling asleep
  • Greater social-emotional volatility

Researchers also found an inverse relationship between grit (defined as the “ability to perform a strenuous or difficult task without giving up”) and amount of screen time. By contrast, performing chores correlated with greater self-worth and responsibility.

In another study, a team of psychologists at UCLA probed the link between screen time and interpersonal intelligence. 105 sixth graders were evaluated for their ability to recognize people’s emotions – happy, sad, angry, scared, confident, excited – in photos and videos. Then, kids were randomly assigned to one of two groups. Half spent five days at a camp and did not glance at a screen. The other half followed their normal routines, reporting an average of 4.5 hours per day texting, watching TV, and playing video games. When tested a second time, the “no screen” group showed significant improvement at reading human emotions. The authors concluded that, for adolescents, screen time can cause “decreased sensitivity to emotional cues.”

In my view, all of these studies (and countless more) have one thing in common: their results are alarming but not surprising. We seem to have crossed a great divide when it comes to the presence of media in our lives, and the pace of change is accelerating. From what I’ve read, the 5G network will revolutionize the connectivity of devices, the speed of information flow, and the usefulness (and thus omnipresence) of technology in our lives. As we all grow increasingly plugged in, my concerns extend far beyond the sheer number of hours spent staring at a screen. We must recognize that technological change is ecological. Our media – and smartphones in particular – have altered the environment in which we live, and how we interact with others. As we are sucked into this digital world, we can surrender the values, activities, and relationships essential to a meaningful life.

As I said last week at MS Back to School Night, while it might not always seem like it, our children are paying attention. They notice when we pull out our devices during dinner, or neglect to speak with or even acknowledge the clerk at the grocery store because we’re on our phones. So, please, don’t abandon tossing the baseball, playing hide-and-seek, racing matchbox cars, constructing an elaborate fort using couch cushions, device-free meals, or family game night. Among their many benefits, these activities all necessitate direct interaction with others – and call upon us to share in the things that make us most fully and most happily human.

Doug Norry
Head of School

Daring Greatly

During our opening meetings, the TDS faculty discussed Daring Greatly by Brené Brown, a book which several teachers read over the summer. Brown has spent years researching and highlighting the importance of vulnerability, which she champions as “the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity,” or the key to leading a full, wholehearted life.

While Brown explores many factors affecting our vulnerability, she saves her final chapter for a conversation about parenting. She begins by reframing the question that has so many of us preoccupied. Rather than focusing on a particular style or formula, we should ask ourselves a seemingly simple question: “Are you the adult that you want your child to grow up to be?” Brown offers research to support her assertion that “who we are and how we engage with the world are much stronger predictors of how our children will do than what we know about parenting.”

I’ll admit that her words stopped me in my tracks. For the first several years of my teaching career, I keenly observed parenting styles and philosophies, as well as how those appeared to play out with different children. By the time Will, Emily, and Kate came along, I knew how I wanted to parent. This summer, Brené Brown taught me something that I should have known all along: essentially, my children are likely to ‘do as I do, not as I say.’

While Brown asks parents to first focus on themselves, she does offer some advice for orienting toward our children:

  1. Avoid perfectionism. We must communicate to our children that what they think, or how they feel, matters more than how others judge us. This sounds easy enough, until we remember that we must lead by example.
  2. Understand the difference between shame and guilt. While guilt (“you did something bad”) can be a constructive feeling, shame (“you are bad”) can derail one’s development and lead to a fear of being unlovable. Since our children are bound to be exposed to shame at different points, Brown encourages parents to discuss personal stories in order to help our kids develop “shame resilience.” Of course, she cautions that “we can’t raise children who are more shame resilient than we are.”
  3. Make sure that home is a place of belonging rather than fitting in. Our children should be accepted for who they are, both at school and at home. Brown suggests that, before we quickly check this one off the list, parents should consider how we handle the situations when our children don’t live up to our expectations.
  4. Finally, let children experience adversity. It’s hard to read any parenting article from the past ten years without coming across this message, but Brown explains that “we can’t stand the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure, even when we know that it’s the right thing to do.”

Perhaps Brown’s suggestion that parents first shine a light on themselves is not so remarkable. For years, I have guarded against seeking to fulfill my unrealized athletic aspirations by pushing my children to excel in sports. Parents who maintain a healthy body image or relationship with technology help their children on the path toward doing the same. I even discourage parents of the children I teach from expressing their apprehension about math, explaining that our children are quick to pick up on these signals. All that said, Brené Brown has pushed me to recount moments of embarrassment and failure, along with my realization that these moments don’t define me. I encourage you to have similar conversations with your children.

Daring Greatly has quickly ascended to the top of my recommended reads. If you’d prefer a smaller dose of Brené Brown, try this TED Talk, or read her one-page parenting manifesto.

Doug Norry
Head of School

Welcome (back) to TDS

It was so wonderful to once again see smiling faces and hear laughing in the halls yesterday. While many of us were here for much of the summer, school never feels like school until the kids arrive! Thank you for entrusting us with the care and education of your children. If a picture is worth one thousand words, then click below to see a 41,000-word essay documenting our first day at TDS! Thanks to Ms. Farrer for putting it together.

Yesterday afternoon, we gathered in the HAC Commons for our first all-school assembly of the year. We introduced new faculty and students, challenged our older students to learn the names of everyone in the school, and then I offered a few thoughts for this year. Building on the first-day themes from the past two years – kindness and courage – I began by showing this three-minute video. Below are excerpts from my remarks:

What did this man do? He REACHED OUT TO OTHERS. This is what I’d like you to focus on this week, this month, and this year – REACHING OUT TO OTHERS. It takes kindness and courage, but in return you get so much. You get love, and understanding, and happiness, and the feeling that you are helping to make the world a better place.

There are so many ways to REACH OUT TO OTHERS, and most of the ways are so simple. While the man in the movie did offer some money, offering help and kindness doesn’t cost a thing. To the returning students in the room, you have now been introduced to all the new students at TDS this year. You were once in their shoes. Reach out to them. Ask them to join your lunch table. Include them in your games at recess. Pull them into our TDS community. Our assembly concluded with our eighth graders reaching out to our TK by walking our youngest students back to their classroom.

Picture: 8th graders reach out to TK

Our assembly concluded with our eighth graders reaching out to our TK by walking our youngest students back to their classroom.

I hope to see many of you tomorrow evening at our All-School Picnic, beginning at 5:30 in the gym. To our veteran parents, please model this year’s theme by making a point to REACH OUT and meet our new parents at this event. I’ll be revisiting this theme at Back to School Night (September 5 for Lower School, September 12 for Middle School) as well.