Head of School’s Blog
While some families have already crossed this threshold, the majority of parents will face an important decision in the years ahead: when should my child be allowed to have a smartphone? Plenty has been written about this topic, but I recommend that you read one piece in particular before making this purchase.
In “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?, an article appearing earlier this fall in The Atlantic, Jean Twenge synthesizes current data with her own research on the “iGen” (those born between 1995 and 2012), noting an abrupt shift in teen behaviors and emotional states since 2012. At first glance, teens appear to have made progress. They are physically safer than they were a few years ago. They drink less, and they get into fewer car accidents. They also seem less concerned with proclaiming their independence – less likely to date, even less interested in getting a license – which certainly might appeal to many parents hoping to hold on to the innocence and safety of childhood.
Accompanying this physical safety, however, is a meteoric rise in psychological vulnerability that Twenge labels a mental health crisis. Today’s tweens and teens have grown up with the iPhone – Apple’s creation was first introduced in 2007 – and the device’s ubiquity is impacting a generation in ways that go much deeper than simple concerns over screen time. Teens might be staying home more often, but they aren’t doing more homework or hanging out with their families. Instead, they are “on their phone, in their room, alone and often distressed.” In fact, for teens today, time on these devices strongly correlates with unhappiness, depressive symptoms, sleep deprivation, and even suicidal ideations. Why? Twenge posits that social media “exacerbates the age-old teen concern about being left out.” Studies suggest that, for girls in particular, these feelings have spiked in the past 5-7 years.
As engrossed as I was with Twenge’s article, statistics are only so persuasive. Many of us likely feel that our kids and families are different. We impose rules – no devices at the dinner table, social media is monitored, phones must be charging in parents’ bedrooms by a certain hour – and we trust our children to make good decisions. This last point might fly in the face of research on adolescent brain development, or even what we did as kids, but to me, this isn’t really about trust. Having spent the past 23 years working with Middle Schoolers, I can tell you, without hesitation, that they are actively developing social skills. Adolescence is awkward and messy. They need practice speaking to each other, navigating issues, working out conflicts, learning from mistakes, and developing empathy. More broadly, they need to find their voice, advocate for themselves, and develop their communication skills. All of this requires face-to-face interactions. Smartphones don’t just take time away from this, they interfere with it.
Exasperated by the trend toward putting phones in kids’ hands at younger and younger ages, a group of parents banded together, and the Wait Until 8th movement was born. The mission of this grassroots organization? “Let kids be kids a little longer” by “empower[ing] parents to say yes to waiting for a smartphone.” If your children have begun to beat the ‘everyone else has one’ drum, or if you’re interested in reading more about the effects of these devices, I encourage you to take a look.
Douglas E. Norry
Head of School
Last night, Mitch Prinstein spoke to parents and teachers about his book, Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World. Dr. Prinstein shared his lifelong interest in the causes and effects of popularity, which has led him to extensive research as Director of Clinical Psychology at UNC – Chapel Hill.
Rooted in the development of language several thousand years ago, humans are a social species, and popularity has long been recognized as a trait possessed in large quantities by some, but not others. More recently, scientists have come to understand the importance of popularity (or lack thereof) in determining quality of life, health, and even life expectancy. Popularity matters, perhaps more than it should, or more than we’d like to believe, when it comes to predicting success in life.
Dr. Prinstein explained that there are two types of popularity – each associated with starkly different outcomes – and we are increasingly preoccupied with the wrong type. Likability is a trait which shows stability across different social situations. What makes people likable? Not surprisingly, making others feel as though they are valued members of the group. Those regarded as more likable are included more, have more learning experiences, and thus cultivate these social skills even further. Research suggests that likability is positively correlated with good grades, healthy relationships, happier marriages, and longer lives. To be sure, it’s good to be likable.
In introducing the second type of popularity, Dr. Prinstein highlighted changes associated with puberty. The activation of our limbic system spurs an interest in rewards which, alongside a heightened importance of peers and a lack of impulse control, causes a fixation on status: the domain of power, prestige, and influence. The aggressive behavior exhibited by many teens increases status while simultaneously making them less likable. [Insert flashback to awkward high school experience here!] While status might confer short-term rewards, studies suggest that the narrative of ‘cool kids peaking in high school’ is not a myth. The ‘high status / not so likable’ cohort is more prone to addiction, relationship trouble, and a host of other negative outcomes in life.
But the best thing about high school is that it ends, right? All of us eventually figured it out. Or did we? Prinstein posited that social media has cemented our focus on status well into adulthood, causing a “perpetual adolescence” where the goal is to take the best selfie in order to collect as many “likes” as possible.
Facebook is here to stay, so what can we do to help our children navigate this status-obsessed world? Dr. Prinstein offered parents four tangible pieces of advice:
- Recognize that how we were treated years ago affects our parenting style today. Parents need to come to terms with their own biases and seek to understand what has caused them.
- Pay close attention to what messages we reinforce at home. Do your children witness you posting on Facebook and/or checking to see if your posts have been “liked?”
- Help kids decode social media. Let’s make sure our children are aware that many posts are curated, manicured, and far from reality.
- Teach listening and empathy. Truly understanding how others feel is not just the antidote to aggression and bullying, it makes us more likable.
Particularly with this last point, we at TDS seek to partner with you in pursuit of this long-term goal. Along those lines, please consider reading Popular. To purchase a copy, contact Deb Newlin.
Douglas E. Norry
Head of School
With last Thursday marking the conclusion of the first quarter, teachers offer feedback on their students’ progress in the form of report cards. Please look for an e-mail tomorrow with instructions on how to access these.
In Lower School, while specific categories vary by grade level, students receive feedback in several major subjects or areas:
- Approaches to Learning
- Social / Emotional Development
- Social Studies
- Science / Science Lab
- Spelling / Vocabulary
- Physical Education
Each of these areas is divided into a group of skills (for example: “works neatly;” “uses a variety of strategies to solve problems”). For each of these skills, teachers assign a mark according to the following scale:
- 4 – Exceeds expectations consistently and independently
- 3 – Meets expectations consistently and independently
- 2 – Meets expectations with support
- 1 – Currently does not meet expectations. Additional support and practice needed.
In most cases, you will see a comment about overall performance in each subject. In addition, students in grades three through five receive letter grades in some of the subjects according to the following scale:
- A – Excellent work
- B – Good work
- C – Average work
- D – Below average work. Remediation needed.
- F – Failing
In Middle School, students receive two grades in each of six subjects: Social Studies, Language Arts, Spanish, Math, Science, and Physical Education. One grade assesses performance and is expressed as a percentage (0 – 100). The second grade reflects class conduct and uses the following scale:
- 5 – Exceeds expectations in demonstrating core values
- 4 – Consistently demonstrates core values
- 3 – Inconsistently demonstrates core values
- 2 – Needs support to demonstrate core values
- 1 – Infrequently demonstrates core values
Teachers will write narrative comments for all Middle School students at the conclusion of the second quarter.
These reports (along with the conferences next week) offer you a good sense of where your child is right now in each subject. These marks represent a starting point in a long process that continues until June. Please keep that perspective in mind as you engage your children in conversations about what they are most proud of, and how they think they can improve.
Along these lines, please pay close attention to the descriptions listed above. Whether it’s a seventh grader with an 83%, a fourth grader with a B, or a second grader who earns a “3,” these are all defined as “good” marks, which students have earned within a challenging program. Even amidst our zeal to pinpoint how our children can achieve more and score higher, let’s be sure to celebrate all that they have accomplished and ‘gotten right.’
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!
- “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.”
- 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.
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.
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
- 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.
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.
- 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.
Those who attended the Spring Concert earlier this month witnessed a team of TDS parents, teachers, and alums playing Chariots of Fire on the chimes under the patient direction of Ms. Carnes. Buoyed by this experience, I felt a desire to rekindle my interest in ringing – I last played handbells in tenth grade – the only type of making music that ever afforded me a drop of success or confidence. Seeing Ms. Carnes the next morning, I boldly proclaimed my willingness to fill any empty seat in her ensemble.
This Tuesday, I got the call. Someone was absent from Advanced Chimes. Answering e-mails in my office that afternoon, I found myself eagerly anticipating seventh period.
Five minutes into class, I felt like a single A ball player who was thrust into the Major League. I realized right away that Ms. Carnes had been merciful with our parent group, choosing a piece that was accessible to us. More significantly, we all began at the same place – ground zero. Quite the contrary in this class. Suddenly, I had four chimes instead of two, and I was expected to decode some secret symbols in the music that indicated a shift to sharps. The tempo also changed mid-song. Quarter notes mixed with eighth notes, and even these seemed to divide into thirds. If all that wasn’t daunting enough, measures repeated in a pattern that everyone fourteen and under seemed to understand.
This being the advanced class, it moved at a breakneck pace. I began to sweat. Almost immediately, I had three questions. Not wanting to slow everyone down, or perhaps concerned about revealing my confusion (or downright cluelessness), I only asked one of them. That didn’t end well. One thing about the performing arts: mistakes are quite public. To their credit, while the sight of their principal fumbling his way through various songs no doubt amused them, the students treated me with kindness. My neighbors did all they could to keep me afloat, but it might be a while before I return.
Beyond simply dining on an oversized piece of humble pie, this experience served as an important reminder for me. Students can feel lost and overwhelmed in our classes. For some, this might happen once a year, while others are more accustomed to the sensation and accompanying physiological responses. Sometimes we dig in, refocus, and ask questions. At other times, we shut down or act up. As parents and educators, we are well served to remember these instances from our own lives, to keep our antennae up, and to do our best to help children gain a better foothold and the confidence that comes with it. As for Ms. Carnes, she didn’t slow the pace, but she did put my mind somewhat at ease by conveying that mistakes were both plentiful and part of the learning process.
Greetings from the road. The Great Fifth Grade Adventure is a yearlong project that requires students to research a city within a certain distance from Durham, plan a three-day trip complete with budget, present the trip to the class, and ultimately vote on the adventure of their choice. This year, the GFGA has taken fifteen students, seven parents and Mr. Forringer to Virginia.
Wednesday, we learned all about Thomas Jefferson by exploring his home at Monticello, dined at the oldest restaurant in the state, and toured UVA’s camps. Thursday, we descended to the subterranean world of Luray Caverns and hiked in Shenandoah National Park. Today, the Serengetti will come to us as we visit a Safari Park. We’ll conclude by trying to escape before time expires at the One Way Out Escape Room.
With sixth graders engaged in a series of outdoor activities at Chestnut Ridge and seventh and eighth graders exploring Jamestown and Williamsburg, the fourth grade is ruling the roost this week. I look forward to seeing you on Monday!
On Monday evening, several MS families convened for the Spring Sports Banquet, an opportunity to recognize and honor our student – athletes. Our high level of participation – 75% of Middle Schoolers joined a spring team, and several fifth graders played soccer or tennis as well – made for a full gym. Coaches spoke about their seasons, their players, their 8th graders in particular, and the progress that these boys and girls made. Our 8thgraders then followed suit, thanking their coaches for their time and investment. Congratulations to the following student – athletes:
Girls Soccer (Coaches – Jonathan Dowd, Sam Taylor): Bethany Allen, Fiona Clancy, Addison Dombcik, Maya Dulli-Ray, Ally Fox, Miranda Fox-Peck, Adriana Garcia, Halcyon Hall, Merinda Harry, Rachel Jiang, McCallum Keats, Easha Kuber, Jaimie Legg-Bell, Caroline Makanui, Emily Norry, Kate Norry, Kate Patillo, Evie Taylor
- Defensive MVP – Evie Taylor
- Offensive MVP – Emily Norry
- Overall MVP – Fiona Clancy
Golf (Coaches – Dan Forringer, Alex Hurka-Owen ’14): Briana Ballentine, Elise Benware, Georg Erdmann, Graham Hairston, Owen Jennings, Luke Lawida, Trey Orantes, Xavier Rogers, Ethan Smith, Owen Smith, Matt Summerson, Jack Wainio
- MVPs – Trey Orantes & Xavier Rogers
- Coach’s Award – Briana Ballentine
Boys Tennis (Coach – Tina Ward): Ethan Benware, Jacob Dye, Brandon Fox, Noah Lipkus, Will Meyers, Noah Rokoske, Otto Schonwalder, Tovi Varlashkin
- MVP – Jacob Dye
- Team Leadership – Ethan Benware
- Rising Star – Brandon Fox
Boys Baseball (Coach – VeQuain Joyner): Divesh Anchaliya, Ben Ballentine, Caleb Bowers, Nate Constantine, Devan Govindji, Kyle Hawkins, Mason Jennings, Jerrod Meltzer, Joey Miller, Elijah Omar, Joey Sizemore, Ryan Voorhees
- MVP – Caleb Bowers
- Most Improved – Nate Constantine
- Coach’s Award – Kyle Hawkins
The evening closed with a magnificent video featuring our spring athletes, including what they looked like many years ago. A huge thanks to Ted Rogers and Jon Meltzer for putting this together. Click here to watch!
Middle School parents have likely heard of “13 Reasons Why,” the new Netflix series based on the 2007 young adult novel by Jay Asher which shares the same name. If this hasn’t appeared on your radar, ask your children. If they engage with social media, they know about it and might be interested in watching it.
Rated TV-MA and 16+ by Common Sense Media, 13 Reasons Why is an intense, dark drama that picks up the story of Hannah Baker after the high schooler dies by suicide. Hannah has recorded and sent out thirteen cassette tapes, aimed at thirteen people whom she blames for her suicide. The mini-series is often graphic in its depictions of bullying (and cyber-bullying in particular), sexual assault and rape, drunk driving, and suicide.
Many educators and health professionals have rightfully expressed serious concerns about the attention this series is receiving from young people. And this show’s reach extends far beyond high school and college. A superintendent in Florida, quoted in a Washington Post article, reported an “increase in youth at-risk behavior at the elementary and middle school levels” over the past month. In particular, many take issue with the fact that 13 Reasons Why romanticizes suicide. Hannah appears to take her own life as part of a plan to exact revenge. Moreover, the show does not focus on any mental health issues (such as depression), which, psychologists have pointed out, factor heavily in the vast majority of cases that result in an attempt on one’s own life.
For these and other reasons, the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) recommends that “vulnerable youth, especially those who have any degree of suicidal ideation,” do not watch this series. This seems straightforward enough, especially given that suicide was the second leading cause of death in teens in 2014. But what about everyone else? What if your children want to watch? Even the NASP admits that it’s an “opportunity to better understand young people’s experiences, thoughts, and feelings.”
We have not crossed this bridge in the Norry household, as neither of our teenagers has expressed a desire to watch the series. If your children do watch the show, I strongly recommend that you view it with them and follow up with conversations about the mature themes as well as making healthy choices. There is simply a lot to process. Moreover, while there’s no doubt that bullying, objectification, sexual harassment and violence are real issues in many high schools, it’s worth remembering that this is most definitely a drama.
At TDS, we remain steadfastly focused on the health and safety of your children. This takes on many forms at school – teaching social/emotional skills, providing specific support to students of concern, communicating with Mrs. Durham, partnering with all of you – but none as important as building positive, supportive relationships with every child.
Here are some additional resources dealing with this program:
Common Sense Media – Conversations to have with your teen after watching.
National Association of School Psychologists – Considerations for educators and parents.
It was great to see many of you on campus this past Saturday for TDS’ 25th Anniversary celebration. We enjoyed sunny skies for the first bit, including some exciting times in the dunk tank. Thunder boomed only seconds after Mr. Sikes (revered Middle School Social Studies teacher and dean from 1977 – 2011) yelled “Play ball,” forcing the cancellation of the softball game. At that point, the crowd migrated into the gym, dancing to the music of Ms. Katy and the Managers of Mischief (Katy Shoemaker taught Kindergarten at TDS from 1991 – 2006).
Also on Saturday, I shared some highlights from the first 25 years of TDS. Even as we look to the future, it’s important to understand the people, events, and accomplishments that helped shape the TDS of today. I hope you enjoy this brief tour of TDS through the ages, broken into five-year increments:
1991 – 1996
The school opens as Trinity School on this site, previously home to a John Deere sales and service center (1991).
First high school graduation (1992). TDS began as a K-12 school.
The official name changes to Triangle Day School; the high school program is dropped (1993).
The Board of Trustees officially dedicates the library to Bela Kussin (1993). As a former Head and Board member, Bela remains an advocate, volunteer, and friend to TDS today.
The property at 4911 Neal Rd. is purchased from original owners (1995).
TDS organizes its first Annual Auction (1996).
During these five years, Ms. Tedeschi joins the TDS faculty (1993).
1996 – 2001
TDS tops the 100 student barrier for the first time (1996).
TDS launches a stand-alone Middle School program; the Middle School wing is constructed (1996).
The Great Fifth Grade Adventure begins (1998).
Myers Field opens, dedicated to Al Myers, who worked tirelessly to clear and prepare the field (1998).
The official mascot changes from Titans to Tornados.
The Technology Lab opens (2000).
TDS joins the Southern Association of Independent Schools (2000).
Ms. Lucas and Ms. Simpson join the TDS faculty.
2001 – 2006
TDS hosts its first Grandparents Day (2002).
The barn is torn down, and the Gymnasium is built in its place (2004).
The Back Building is constructed; it’s home to art classrooms and the library (2004).
TDS adds more athletic teams and purchases a bus for field trips and athletics (2005).
Ms. Aguilar and Mrs. Myers join TDS.
2006 – 2011
TDS purchases the land across the street and creates soccer and baseball fields (2007-8).
Marcy’s Run is established in memory of Marcy Speer (2008). Today the race is known as the Twister Trot
SMART boards are installed in classrooms (2009).
Ms. Gobble, Mrs. Durham, Coach Morrison, Ms. Hoyle, Ms. Cowan, Ms. Fisher, Mr. Forringer, Dr. Nelson, Mr. Dowd, and Mrs. Logan join TDS.
2011 – 2017
TDS hosts a 20th anniversary celebration (2011).
Transitional Kindergarten is added to the program (2012).
TDS reaches 200 student milestone (2012).
The Technology Lab moves, and the Commons opens (2014).
The Strategic Plan calls for incremental growth of the Lower School (2015).
Middle School goes 1-1 with Chromebooks (2016).
Plans to break ground on new classroom building are unveiled (2017).
Ms. Cabrera, Ms. Tucker, Mr. Yarbrough, Ms. DeLaTorre, Ms. Riebl, Ms. Morgan, Ms. Qualls, Ms. Mandl, Ms. Newman, Mr. Straus, Ms. Bassler, Ms. Hughes, Ms. Womble, Dr. Bankhead, Mr. Butera, Ms. Carnes, Ms. Hopkins, Ms. McAllister, and Dr. Schweller join TDS.
So, where will the next 25 years take us? The future will bring new alumni, new students, new teachers, new Board members, new buildings, and new ways of teaching. Even as all this change takes place, and even as we grow our enrollment and program over the next several years, we will do this without ever losing sight of who we are – a warm and welcoming community devoted to academic excellence and our core values; a place where children are known, valued, and loved; and a school that inspires confidence in each student to lead a life of purpose.
With the processing of report cards, this has been a week of reading rather than writing for me. It was great to see so many of you as we once again celebrated the arts this week at TDS. Expanding to two days this year, the TDS Art Fair featured more than two hundred works of art, including one or more pieces from each student. Individually, these artworks are striking. Viewed collectively, they highlight a talented group of aspiring artists, two creative and dedicated teachers, and the progress that students make over time. The most beautiful example of this progress is the group of seventh and eighth grade paintings – stunning pieces – which will be on display in the Commons for the next few weeks. Please come take a look.
The Art Fair also featured a new element this year. Yesterday, Middle School classrooms were transformed into maker spaces. Students were given piles of “scraps,” or random supplies, and tasked with working in small groups to construct a vehicle. As Ms. Lucas pointed out, fewer directions can lead to much greater creativity. Please come take a look at what our students created. Thanks to Ms. Lucas and Ms. Hughes for all of their efforts to make the Art Fair a huge success.
Also new this year, Ms. Bassler invited all Lower School parents to observe a regularly scheduled Lower School music class. Many parents and grandparents found their way to the trailer to see kids singing, dancing, drumming, counting, reading music, practicing rhythms and melodies, playing games, and having fun. Thanks to Ms. Bassler for establishing these “Informances;” our students definitely enjoyed having an audience.
If I can stay awake long enough, I like to read to Kate, our fifth-grade daughter, each night. Every few months (I presume when she has had a rough day), she will eschew whatever she is currently reading and opt for an old favorite, The Berenstain Bears. What can best be described today as the literary equivalent of comfort food, these bears, who live “in the big tree house down a sunny dirt road in Bear Country,” were the books of choice for many years in the Norry household. Perhaps that is why I was thrilled to oblige when, earlier this week, Kate pulled Report Card Trouble off the shelf. My enthusiasm subsided, however, when I remembered that I have some issues with Papa Bear.
Put in the kindest terms, he acts like a child. In Report Card Trouble, when Brother Bear comes home with less than stellar grades, Papa’s yelling and screaming – “the biggest explosion ever heard in the tree house” – brings his son to tears. And Papa’s character issues extend well beyond his temper. In The Trouble With Chores, he makes excuses for not doing his share of the housework, and he advocates “easing up on the chores a little.” In Too Much TV, Papa protests against the no-TV week, and he is caught sneaking downstairs in the middle of the night to watch television. In Too Much Junk Food, he cannot bear to give up his Choco-Chums, and he makes several runs at the refrigerator, only to be intercepted by the cubs. Finally, in The Bears Get The Gimmies, the cubs’ greedy behavior is attributed to the overindulgence of Papa, who buys them things to avoid a tantrum.
While Papa Bear has his moments, too often he is portrayed as lacking any semblance of willpower or self-control, prone to angry outbursts, and downright lazy. By contrast, Mama Bear is the voice of reason and responsibility; she remains calm, identifies the problem and then initiates a solution to help the family.
When compared with how women are portrayed in many children’s books, Mama Bear actually fares pretty well. Plenty of scholarly research suggests that these books often depict women as passive, dependent, and incapable. While the needle has moved somewhat in recent years, the problem persists today. Other articles point out that “boy books” focus on robots, dinosaurs, cars, and pirates, while “girl books” involve princesses, fairies, flowers and butterflies.
Why does any of this matter? At a minimum, children come to understand at a young age that society has different standards and expectations for boys and girls. This is incredibly limiting, and also confusing for many kids. By contrast, there is evidence to suggest that non-sexist books can lead to positive changes in self-concept and behavior.
Of course, gender does not have a monopoly on stereotypes in children’s literature. Racial stereotypes abound and can be equally harmful. What can we as parents do to counteract these influences? First, be on the lookout for these stereotypes, and help your children – in age-appropriate ways – identify and deconstruct them. Kate and I had a fascinating conversation about how I was similar to, and different from, Papa Bear. Additionally, while I don’t think it’s necessary to empty your shelves and start over, consider augmenting your collection with some books that defy or redefine traditional gender roles and racial stereotypes. Here are two resources to help with this.
Last Friday afternoon featured a signature TDS event, which took on a new format this year. Students, teachers, and parents explored and celebrated cultures, rituals, and traditions from all corners of the earth during the International Festival. Beginning in the gym, Lower Schoolers, many of whom dressed in traditional clothes from their own cultures, performed songs from Kenya to China, and from Hawaii to the Middle East. From there, students fanned out to a variety of experiences and activities:
- TK students learned an Indian dance from Nayna and Bhupendra Patel and wrote their names in Hindi and Gujarati. They also created papel picado, a decorative craft from Mexico, with Suzanna Hernandez.
- Kindergartners focused on Colombia (thanks to Lina and Ben Boytor for the interactive slideshow!) and South Korea, making puppets and learning about tae kwon do.
- First graders made galimotos, African toy vehicles, with Eleanore Shianna. They also sang both German and Persian songs with Ulrike Hoffman and Fariba Mostaghimi.
- In second grade, students participated in an Ethiopian coffee ceremony (thanks to Matt Oettinger!) and created crafts and games from the Philippines.
Our upper elementary students encountered a diverse set of experiences as well, including:
- Writing their names in Urdu, learning the rules of cricket, and exploring Pakistan with Mariam Ali and Taha Afzal.
- Writing Chinese characters with Shilan Wu.
- Receiving Henna tattoos from Heena Mehta.
- Learning an Indian dance from Emma Riebl.
Finally, Middle School students learned the salsa and merengue with Jason Straus, practiced traditional drumming techniques of the Congo with Pline Mounzeo, or investigated the science behind Aboriginal music with Dr. Melissa Rooney of the Durham Arts Council.
Sandwiched between these experiences were trips to the International Cafe, where students dined on delicacies and family favorites from sixteen different countries. Thanks to the many parents who volunteered, both in their own kitchens and in the cafe, to make this happen.
With 140 performers, 200+ participants, and 40+ volunteers, this was truly a community event. Thanks to Ms. Bassler – TDS music teacher extraordinaire – for her vision and organizational wizardry. We are already looking forward to next year!
It has been quite a week of activities and performances leading up to spring break. On Monday, our second graders morphed into famous changemakers during their Wax Museum. Parents, grandparents, and several other Lower School classes learned about the lives of Jackie Robinson, John Muir, the Wright brothers, Rosa Parks, and several more heroes. Culminating a lengthy research project, students dressed the part and spoke in the first person, explaining a hardship they had overcome, why they were admired, and a lasting contribution they had made to society.
On Tuesday, our fourth and fifth graders performed “Great Americans of the Twentieth Century,” a musical highlighting the accomplishments and contributions of many, including a few who aren’t featured prominently in history texts. The audience learned about Martha Graham and Babe Didrikson, watched a feud play out among the Roosevelts, and laughed at the literary antics of Ernest Hemingway.
Following a study of William Shakespeare, today, our seventh and eighth graders traveled to PlayMakers Theatre in Chapel Hill to see “Twelfth Night.” Tomorrow, all middle schoolers will take part in a day-long, off-campus excursion. Groups are traveling to Duke, UNC, the State Capitol in Raleigh, the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro, and Eno River State Park for a day of learning outside the classroom. More on these Mini-Mester experiences after break!
Finally, we celebrated Pi Day today. All Lower School classes chose a circular object in their rooms, measured its circumference and diameter, and used this data to calculate pi. Congratulations to the fifth grade for coming the closest to the actual value; they were off by less than two thousandths.
And of course, no Pi Day celebration would be complete without the Memorization Contest. Congratulations to our class champions:
- TK – Lucy Dandridge
- Kindergarten – Avery Owens (Ms. Morgan) and Patrick Dean (Ms. Cowan)
- First Grade – Nicholas Strohlein (Ms. Mandl) and Calla Golembesky (Ms. Fisher)
- Second Grade – Joseph Schneider
- Third Grade – Parker and Lily Soderberg [tie]
- Fourth Grade – Wil Schneider
- Fifth Grade – Kate Norry
- Sixth Grade – Noah Rokoske
- Seventh Grade – Ally Fox
- Eighth Grade – Emily Norry
In total, these thirteen students memorized well over one thousand digits.
Founded in 1983, MATHCOUNTS is a non-profit organization that offers a series of programs designed to “improve attitudes toward math and problem solving” in Middle School students. The Competition Series, one of the signature MATHCOUNTS programs, took place earlier this week at the Staff Development Center in Durham. Mathletes from fifteen local Middle Schools vied for a spot in the next round, the state competition.
On Tuesday, I accompanied six TDS students to this event, pacing the aisles and watching as they battled their way through three rounds of challenging problems. While I haven’t seen the results, I was proud of our students (Jacob Dye, Ally Fox, Graham Hairston, Emily Norry, Ethan Smith, and Evie Taylor), many of whom also endured a Language Arts test in the morning and a Physical Science test in the afternoon.
In a morning full of equations and calculations, it was a personal narrative that captured my attention. Kevin Primus, organizer of the Durham chapter, recounted how, as a Middle Schooler in the mid-1980s, he won this very competition. Primus acknowledged his affinity for all things numerical, but he stressed that, in his case, hard work made the difference. He shared how he tackled problems with his teacher before and after school (his own version of ‘two-a-days’), how his victory gave him the confidence to realize that he could find success in other areas, and how he remains in touch with that teacher more than thirty years later.
Why did this story resonate with me? First, Primus’ tale of the two-a-days made me think of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. The author highlighted a study of violinists at Berlin’s Academy of Music in which students calculated how many hours they had practiced throughout their careers, and faculty rated these musicians as “stars,” “good” or “unlikely to play professionally.” On average, the “stars” had practiced for 10,000 hours, the “good” players for 8000 hours, and the others for 4000 hours. Gladwell concluded that, once a musician has a certain level of ability, “the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That’s it” (39). Or, to quote someone that some of our students idolize: “Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard” (Kevin Durant).
Second, when Primus relayed how his success inspired confidence, I thought of Dr. Ralph Davidson, former Head of Greensboro Day School. Dr. Davidson put forth one simple question that he hoped every GDS student could answer: What are you good at? At TDS, we work with students on this path toward self-discovery. Finally, Primus’ lifelong connection with his math teacher illustrated the importance of relationships. Spending time in our classrooms, I see these connections developing each day, and I’m never surprised when graduates return to school – they make a beeline for their teachers!
With more than sixty experiments, demonstrations, and research projects on display in the gym, and just as many budding scientists proudly displaying their hypotheses, results and conclusions, last night’s Science Expo was a stunning success. During the first hour, students took turns standing by their projects and visiting those created by their peers. As I made my way around the gym, I learned: how to make ice cream; what type of flour makes the best brownies; about static electricity, crystals, and roller coasters; and how the New York Times has covered panda bears over the past fifty years. I also saw some excellent social science experiments as well.
During the second hour, students and parents migrated to the main building, where students from Duke University led a wide variety of engaging, hands-on activities. Our students extracted DNA from strawberries, investigated all sorts of physical properties and principles, and got up close and personal with the microscopic world of bacteria and fungi. In the Commons, high school students from Trinity School explained how they built different robots, and then turned over the keys – or the remote controls – to our students.
It was wonderful to see so many of you supporting your children, and all of their peers, last night. In particular, I’d like to thank Dan Forringer, Karen Fisher, Erin Nelson, Morgan Schweller, and Steve Butera for their hours of planning, organizing, and working with our young scientists. Our students chose a topic of personal interest, performed research, designed and carried out experiments, and displayed and explained their results.
These positive experiences serve as a wonderful foundation, often propelling our graduates to continue their interest. As one example, Akshay Mankad (TDS Class of 2016) won first place in the Jordan High School Science Fair earlier this year. He advanced to the Regional 3A Science Fair and placed second among all area high schools in the Physics category. Akshay will compete next month in the North Carolina State Science Fair.
Akshay’s project: “Heat Transfer Capabilities of Natural and Polymer Textiles: Phase II,” encompassed two years of research. As an 8th grader at TDS, he was curious about the effect of color on a fabric’s ability to dissipate heat. His experiment yielded some support for the adage: “white clothes keep you cooler in the summer while black clothes retain heat.” This year, he focused on textile type, testing brand name versions of technical fabrics as well as cotton. He learned that in a controlled environment, both technical fabrics did transfer heat much faster than cotton. However, the brand name did not out perform generic fabric.
Akshay grabbed hold of the microphone last night, encouraging all students to participate in science fairs after graduating from TDS. His creativity and intellectual curiosity – ignited and nurtured at TDS – continue to serve him well in high school!
If a picture is worth 1,000 words, click here to view an 88,000 word essay on the Expo.
Our children grow and develop each day, but their progress is far from steady. Instead, it’s punctuated by a series of milestones or “firsts,” many of which both open doors to further growth and cause a shift in our parenting techniques and strategies. A baby takes her first steps, and we soon realize that we must keep a closer eye on her whereabouts. Our children’s first day of school comes with the realization that they will now be spending half of their waking hours with peers and adults who we barely know, so we choose carefully, and we aim to get involved. And then there’s the threshold that our son Will just crossed – obtaining a piece of paper from the state of North Carolina that allows him to operate a motor vehicle.
As a warning to the majority of you who have yet to experience this milestone as a parent, it opens a dam, ushering in a flood of emotions. Pride? Absolutely. Relief at the thought of less errand running? Sure. But those are just part of the mixed bag.
Starting with the obvious, I worry for his safety. Insurance rates are astronomical for male drivers under 25 for only one reason: they are based on statistics. Along these lines, I was interested to read a summary report of the National Young Driver Survey, entitled “Parenting Styles and Teenage Driving,” which appeared in Pediatrics. More than five thousand high schoolers were asked to rate their parents’ style as: authoritative (high support; high rules/monitoring), authoritarian (low support; high rules/monitoring), permissive (high support; low rules/monitoring), or uninvolved (low support; low rules/monitoring). Compared with the “uninvolved” group, teens with authoritative parents were half as likely to have been in a crash, 71% less likely to drive when intoxicated, half as likely to speed, and twice as likely to use seatbelts. While correlation doesn’t necessarily equate with causation, there are clearly positive outcomes associated with parents paying attention and making rules, while still listening to their children.
Statistics aside, Will’s safety behind the wheel is only part of the equation. A license, in the purest sense, means independence and freedom. Granted, Will’s license is provisional. For now, either Carrie or I must be in the car, so we have a year to warm up to the concept. Soon enough, however, he won’t need to rely on us to get around. I have no doubt that, when it comes to his driving, we will constantly negotiate the where, when, and with whom, but there’s no denying the significance of this step toward adulthood.
Faced with this milestone, I enjoyed reading Perri Klass’ piece in the New York Times earlier this week, which artfully frames this transition. Given that Klass resides in New York, it wasn’t his son’s license, but rather his needing to take the subway (alone) to school that opened the door. Klass reflects, “The long arc of this parental negotiation is about losing, gracefully, over time.” Perhaps “graceful” is a nod to the authoritative, high-rules and high-support, parent. Even when we say NO, it’s temporary. “We’re slowly and thoughtfully negotiating a time lapse surrender, a handover of increasing power and independence.”
Klass refers to a quote attributed to Mark Twain: “Good judgment is the result of experience and experience the result of bad judgment.” Knowing that, in the end, our children’s safety hinges on their ability to make sound decisions, we walk this line, desperately wanting skinned knees, yet not anything worse when behind the wheel. We supervise, we restrict, we make “stupid” rules, knowing that there’s a balance to this game, and the line of scrimmage moves with each passing day and month. In the end, no matter our style, our children will eventually make their own choices for one simple reason. They’ll be adults one day. At that point, we simply hope to be what Klass calls “the voice in our child’s head.”
With report cards and comments in production, this has been a week of reading rather than writing for me. Please look for an e-mail from Kelly Aguilar on Monday with instructions on how to access your children’s reports.
These reports will offer you a good sense of where your child is right now in a variety of realms. In all cases, teachers have identified both strengths and areas that would benefit from more attention. Please keep that perspective in mind as you engage your children in conversations about what they are most proud of, and how they think they can improve.
Now that I said I wasn’t writing anything…
Last night, our daughter Kate (5th grade) was complaining about one of her soccer coaches. In her words, “he’s so mean.” After a few follow-up questions, I diagnosed the issue: he sticks to the drills and doesn’t allow her or her teammates to goof off. Just as I was teeing up a lecture, complete with logical reasoning and helpful anecdotes, on the difference between “mean” and “strict,” my wife interrupted – thank goodness – and shared a narrative published in The Players’ Tribune yesterday by Jeff Capel III entitled “The Tree.”
Jeff Capel burst onto the college basketball scene in the mid-1990s as a star on the Duke basketball team. After graduation, he entered the coaching world, and today he serves as the Associate Head Coach for his alma mater. His story, written as a beautiful tribute to his father who is battling ALS, gets to the heart of “mean” vs. “strict.” While I know that, in all likelihood, none of us is raising a top-25 basketball prospect, and many bleed Carolina blue, State red, or simply aren’t interested in the sport, I would nonetheless encourage you to read the words of this 41-year old son.
One of the highlights in the weeks leading up to the Auction is witnessing the coming together of the class projects. Thanks to the herculean efforts of Sheryl Blackwell and Jeanne Dombcik, along with the dedicated help of Jodi Hughes, Cindy Lucas, and Rose DeLaTorre, this year’s creations are wonderful expressions of our children’s artistic talents. Several of these works of art are on display in the Commons, and all will be ready to view by week’s end. Here’s a recap of what your children helped to create:
- TK students lent their fingerprints to decorate a large bull’s head.
- Kindergarteners drew adorable self-portraits, which were then affixed to a wooden tray (one per class).
- First Graders used overlapping sheets of colored paper and embellishments to design a multi-layered rectangle. These were then cut into the shape of fish and used to form a collage (one per class).
- Second grade students traced and colored birds, which were then artfully placed on a painted tree, all on a rustic wood background.
- Third graders painted wooden sticks, which were then incorporated into a vibrant starburst mirror.
- In fourth grade, students painted and initialed two ceramic, leaf-shaped platters.
- Fifth graders illustrated the Durham skyline with Sharpies and watercolors, and these creations were blended together into one continuous overlapping image.
- Sixth grade students selected and cut paper to create mosaics in the shape of a bull’s head, which were then combined in a collage.
- In seventh grade, some students used watercolors to create sports silhouettes, while others added complementary text, blending together on canvas.
- Finally, eighth graders waded into the world of scrapbooking, cutting letters to spell their names and meaningful images from magazines, which were then affixed to a real guitar.
Please make a point to stop in the Commons in the next several days to admire these works of art. Each creation followed an evolutionary process, with kids’ understanding and application of instructions leading in different directions!
All class projects will be up for bid during the Silent Auction phase of the TDS Auction, next Saturday, January 28 at Bay 7 of the American Tobacco Campus in Durham. Buy your tickets today! [If you cannot attend, but are interested in bidding on one of these treasures, please contact Sheryl Blackwell.]
During a faculty meeting several weeks ago, I asked teachers to reflect on several questions related to what transpires in their classrooms each day. This took the form of a written questionnaire in which all responses were narrative-based. I shared many of their responses, along with some themes, at a faculty meeting earlier this week.
One question might be of particular interest to parents: “What traits are most critical to success in your class?”
While some responses mentioned various academic skills – problem solving, writing ability, number sense, reading comprehension – non-cognitive traits carried the day by an overwhelming margin. Sorted by frequency (that is, how many teachers listed a particular trait), here are the top seven vote-getters:
- Effort / work ethic
- Focus / attention
- Organization / study skills
- Participation / active listening
- Eagerness to learn / curiosity
- Ability to follow directions
The second set of seven follows this same theme:
- Asking questions / asking for help
- Cooperation / working well in groups
- Willingness to take risks
- Responsibility / autonomy
Many of these traits overlap, and they form the basis of what authors and researchers today refer to as “performance character.” Beyond simply leading to success in school, there is much research to suggest that these traits provide a scaffolding for life achievement and satisfaction.
Lending voices to this claim are a pair of social scientists: Paul Tough and Angela Duckworth. In How Children Succeed, Tough highlights what we’ve learned from longitudinal studies following the now famous marshmallow test [years later, children who were able to wait fifteen minutes for their treat at age six scored significantly higher on the SAT than those who couldn’t], from the effect of M&Ms on IQ test performance [scores improve significantly when kids are offered candy for each correct answer], and even from an assessment measuring coding speed, billed as “the world’s most boring test” [twenty years later, the fast coders were earning significantly more than those with slower coding speeds]. Drawing from these and other experiments, Tough highlights the importance of self-control, motivation, and conscientiousness in all aspects of life.
A former Middle School math teacher, Duckworth attempts to wrap all aspects of performance character into one four-letter word: grit. She defines this as “a passionate commitment to a single mission and an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission.” She developed a twelve-item grit questionnaire and administered it to 1200 freshman cadets at West Point. In the end, her data proved more reliable than the military’s comprehensive evaluation system, more accurately predicting which cadets would survive the summer training course.
Like intelligence, performance character is malleable. Tough advises that “the best way for a young person to build character is for him to attempt something where there is a real and serious possibility of failure” (85), and he encourages schools to provide these challenges. We need to let our children experience the painful bumps along the way, knowing that character growth comes from pulling oneself through a crisis, and from overcoming one’s shortcomings. As parents and teachers, we then lovingly stand by their side as they pick themselves back up.
When I was a kid, my parents and I played a lot of Scrabble. I remember close games where the order of turns was of utmost importance. No one wanted to follow my father, who played quite defensively. My mother, by contrast, would lead me to some Triple Word Scores. I remember the sense of pride that came, eventually, from knowing that I could hold my own in the family game.
Over the holidays, I received Wall Scrabble as a gift. Tiles are magnetized, as are the tile racks, which hang down from the board. Much like the electronic version, playing does not require opponents to sit at the same table. We simply make our moves, record our scores on the white board, and move on to the next thing.
And so it goes with two teenagers and a third who might describe herself as “mature beyond her years.” As I write this, two are off in corners of the house doing their homework, and the third is reading (or playing on her i-pod).
A few weeks ago, attempting to assuage my guilt, I recently read a New York Times article entitled: What Do Teenagers Want? Potted Plant Parents by Lisa Damour. As the title suggests, Damour proffers that “the quality parenting of a teenager may sometimes take the form of blending into the background like a potted plant.” What does she mean by this? When kids are younger, not only do they need us more – for homework help, bath time, etc. – they also seem eager to play all sorts of games with us. As they head into the teenage years, many become less needy, less interested in family time, and far less chatty. (Middle School parents know all too well the monosyllabic utterance – “fine” – that comes in response to the ‘how was school’ query.) And yet, psychologists report that seemingly independent kids regularly ask for more time with their parents. Based on hundreds of conversations, Damour lays out the paradox: “The same adolescent who laments her parents’ absence might only faintly acknowledge their presence when they are in fact home.”
There is research to suggest that sheer proximity leads to enhanced psychological health in adolescents. Why? Perhaps because even as teens seek greater distance on multiple levels, they take comfort in knowing that we are around.
As your children approach and eventually navigate their way through adolescence, remember that closeness does not necessarily correlate with word count. Watch TV with your kids. Read in the same room. Answer e-mail next to them as they complete their homework. Or consider Wall Scrabble.*
*As it turns out, this game can spark much dialogue (so long as arguing counts). Just last night, our son Will attempted to play “BAJA.” We explained that BAJA is both a locale and the first part of a restaurant chain, but not a word. After a brief trip through the Oxford English Dictionary, he was forced to remove the tiles and play again!