The Newfound Strength in Learning to be Vulnerable

Chris Andrews ’12 had passed through El Paso and was somewhere just outside the New Mexico border when he lost his cell phone signal. He knew that ahead of him lay at least seven days of desert and technological desertion, and his reaction was visceral.

“When I walked into that silence, it was awful,” he said to the assembled Upper School. “It was withdrawal in the simplest sense. I was hearing phantom dings and rings. I was losing my mind and it was a basic, biological response.”

This was the most psychologically trying part of Andrews’ “Let’s Talk” project. From August 2016-March 2017, Andrews walked 3,200 miles from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles, in an effort to connect with people one-on-one and to interrogate the effect of technology on ourselves and our interactions with one another. He set out with a three-wheeled cart with all of his possessions for the trek, and relied on the kindness of strangers to help him along, and to engage with him and his message. Over those eight months, Andrews conducted almost 11,000 interviews and, through them, came to better understand himself and his fellow Americans.

This quixotic voyage of American discovery began, ironically enough, in Scotland. Andrews was a junior at the University of St. Andrews and found that he “felt numb.” His days were interspersed with and bookended by long dives into social media that he came to recognize as a crutch. “Whenever I felt discomfort or boredom or exhaustion, I would reach for my phone,” Andrews said. “It was always in a moment of weakness.”

Andrews has given TED Talks about our relationship to technology, and the chronicling and broader message about his effort is on the web at www.LetsTalkUSA.com. In preparation for his visit, Upper School students were invited to go phone-less for a day, and then discuss the experience with their advisor groups before Andrews’ talk.

Betsy Heim sat in an eight-desk cluster with her advisees as the she talked about the experience with her kids who did and who didn’t participate.

“I personally believe I have healthy phone habits but I thought I should test it,” said Amelia S. ’21. “The thing I didn’t realize was all the little moments throughout the day when I look at my phone. Like, at one point I had to get up and go find a clock because I didn’t have my phone and that’s what I always look at to see what time it is.”

Heim’s advisees also talked about involuntary phone separation.

“There was a period of time when I lost my phone, and I learned how to bake and cook, and do a bunch of things I wouldn’t have made time for otherwise,” said Amelia S. ’21

Bella D. ’21 said, “I got my phone taken away for three months, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. My friends told me what was going on, and since then, I’m not on my phone nearly as much.”

For Heim, running is her catharsis, the way she gets at solutions and separates the signal from the noise. “The harder the problem, the longer I run, or the faster I run,” she said. “Ms. Stuart does her best thinking in the shower and what our approaches have in common is that there’s nothing else to focus on in that moment, there’s nothing to distract you. When you’re running, you’re running; when you’re in the shower, the shower’s the only thing you’ve got going on.

“It’s OK to be bored, right?! Just go with it. See what you end up doing,” Heim said.

Back in the theater, Andrews was finishing up his talk before playing a song off his new record and fielding questions from one of the most enthusiastic and engaged Upper School audiences ever to assemble for a speaker. His message wasn’t some nutty Luddite preaching, but rather a practical prescription for navigating the modern world while freeing a part of yourself from it.

“Phones are great. They open up the world to us. But sometimes we sense that we use them more than we’d like,” Andrews said, before laying out his “reasonable and exciting way forward.” This consists of small steps such as using a dedicated alarm clock instead of your phone’s alarm, to setting aside time for thoughtful reflection and simple person-to-person interaction and contact.

“Fear is at the center of all this [dependency,]” Andrews continued. “Talking to people is scary and walking is slow but it blows technology away. You’ve got to remember to be vulnerable, and to listen to others and to yourself. Only then are we truly alive.”


Click below to read more about Chris and “Let’s Talk.”


Learning How to Learn

“Neuroteach” co-author Glenn Whitman will speak at Country Day Thursday, Aug. 16, about helping children achieve their full potential. The event is free but tickets are required. Click here to register.

Last year when Rachel Schmalhofer walked into a workshop on learning and the brain, she was curious. When she walked out, she was converted.

“I was just blown away at how fun and charismatic they were, and how easily they took meaty scientific research and made it accessible. As soon as I left the workshop, I knew we could apply what they were talking about across the whole LCDS community,” said the director of learning services.

“They” are Ian Kelleher and Glenn Whitman, and the pair distilled current research on mind, brain and education science into an eminently readable and practical book called “Neuroteach,” which every teacher received a copy of at the beginning of the year.

“This is just the jumping off point,” said Schmalhofer. “LCDS has made a commitment to staying on the cutting edge of mind, brain and education research and our efforts will continue to grow every year. What we are doing is a really big deal and represents an effort to create a culture of learning not just for our students, but for our teachers and parents as well. We want to practice what we preach.

“It’s different because it’s an undertaking that engages the entire community: teachers working to use current research to inform their practices, and teaching students to become more efficient, effective, motivated learners; parents continuing the conversation at home; students developing their abilities to be reflective about their learning and to approach learning from a mastery orientation rather than a performance orientation,” she said.

Classes as disparate as Brenna Stuart’s World Civ II and Sheryl Krafft’s preschool have embraced the idea that understanding the brain, the organ of learning, is critical to learning, and they’ve seen it bear fruit. The profound — if occasionally just plain common sense — ideas animating their efforts receive  thorough and engaging explication in Whitman’s “Neuroteach.”

Whitman is the director of the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning (CTTL) at St. Andrew’s School, with whom Country Day has become a partner school. Other partners include Johns Hopkins and Harvard. Whitman is coming to Country Day Thursday, Aug. 16, to speak with the community about helping children achieve their full potential. Click here to register.

Part of the partnership entails sending one administrator and one teacher from each division to a week-long workshop at the CTTL for at least the next three summers. This year’s group consists of Todd Trout, Lindsay Deibler-Wallace, Sue LeFevre and Joie Formando.

“Why are we doing this? Because we always want to be the obvious best choice for your child’s education,” Schmalhofer said.

The Never-Ending Essay

For the last three years, the kids in Stuart’s World Civ II class have started off the year with an assignment that, if it were a movie, would be terrifying and star Boris Karloff: The Never-Ending Essay.

Students start in September and, this year, they finished in February.

It’s pass-fail with four phases. The first is Argument, the second is Organization, the third is Support and the fourth and most difficult for student and teacher alike is Clarity. In this last section, students have to shorten their essays

The minimum number of drafts is four; most kids do 12.

Stuart’s rationale for pass-fail is that, “Grades are a primitive form of feedback and this takes the focus away from grades and puts it on the feedback, which they can put into practice almost immediately. And it also allows me to completely individuate the instruction,” she said.

“So I’ll say, OK, your essay is this many words, make it 20 percent shorter. Find every instance of some form of the verb ‘to be’ and change 70 percent of those to active verbs. Sometimes the result is genuinely elegant, and I’m like, ‘Go read this to your mom!’”

“At the end of it, are they better writers? Yes. And they take ownership of their work in a way they didn’t at the start of the year,” Stuart said.

Emphasizing the value of feedback to further students’ learning is a critical idea in “Neuroteach,” that aligns perfectly with the book’s goals, that is, “research-proven foundational principles of effective teaching,” Schmalhofer said.

“It occurred to me that coaches have a different relationship with their players than teachers do with their students, and they can be hard on them in a way that drives them.” Stuart the Crypto-Drill Sergeant finally cracked the code, however, because the “essay puts me in the position to coach. It changes the relationship,” she said.

Filling Up Little Toolboxes

In the preschool classroom, Sheryl Krafft is putting another “Neuroteach” lesson into practice: the idea that a mistake is an opportunity to learn and try again.

“Mistakes are part of being a person,” Krafft said. “I want to show kids that when something happens, it’s not the end of the world. You just make a new plan. I want to strengthen their resiliency and fill up their toolbox so they have strategies for when things go wrong.

“I want to enable them to feel capable and to feel confident knowing they have a hand in solving problems, that they can do things on their own and make them come out the way they want if they stick with it and see their mistakes as a natural part of accomplishing something,” Krafft said.

Schmalhofer held up Krafft’s work as another model that exemplifies a “Neuroteach” principle.

“What Sheryl’s doing is laying the groundwork for students as young as 3 to approach learning from a mastery, rather than a performance orientation,” Schmalhofer said. “It’s a foundation that our teachers will be able to build on for the rest of their time here at LCDS.”


“Neuroteach” co-author Glenn Whitman will speak at Country Day Thursday, Aug. 16, about helping children achieve their full potential. The event is free but tickets are required. Click here to register.

 

We, Robot

At the end of the robot’s long, movable arm is a claw that’s supposed to work a certain way, but it wasn’t working that way, and four members of the Upper School Robotics team stood in a tight cluster murmuring.

“You guys have got this. Have fun!” said teacher and coach, Kit Fuderich. He dashed from the room to greet Middle School LEGO Robotics students, who were stopping by for a demonstration knowing that one day they might also compete in FTC.

By the time Fuderich reappeared with MS students, the US team was already fixing the machine. “How’s it going?” Fuderich asked. James L. ’17 spoke for the team as they scrambled to pick up pieces of the arm that had stopped malfunctioning, but only because it had fallen off the robot entirely. “We’re working on it,” James said.

The Upper School technology class is competing in the Pennsylvania FIRST Tech Challenge, a competition in which teams build and program a robot to complete certain tasks on a common course. Every team starts with the same parts and has to write the robot’s code in the same programming language, but other than that, each group designs a unique robot they hope will be the most capable on the course.

“We’ve had to work hard to get our robot running and we’ve had to do some engineering improvisation along the way, but for a rookie team, I’m incredibly pleased with how far we’ve come and how well the guys work together to solve problems, communicate with each other and stay cool while they’re doing it,” Fuderich said.

On this day, the class was preparing a series of trial runs both to refine the machine’s functioning and their own as a team. Each team member has different responsibilities. While Brad F. and Matt B. ’19 are in charge of steering the robot, James is responsible for writing the code that drives the robot, including how sensitively the robot’s treads, claw and other moving parts respond to inputs from the remote control. Paul is sort of the team’s director of communications, maintaining their website, shooting photos and video and more. The final member of the squad is Griffin R. ’16, a team captain who counsels the drivers during matches and contributes robot repairs and driving technique improvements via his 3-D printing independent study with Fuderich.

After they wrapped up their demonstration, Fuderich spoke to his Middle School students. “I hope you stay with this,” he said. “It’s immensely satisfying and, as you just saw, the class is about engineering and coding, but it’s even more about finding your role and helping out the team.”

Speaking before the demo, Brad offered a perspective on the class that mirrored his teacher’s, albeit in slightly blunter language.

“There are so many things that have gone wrong and so many things that we’ve had to figure out how to fix. But once everything starts working, it’s been the most fun class ever.”

Second Grade Cryptography

In the world of Bridget Runkle’s second-graders, Internet anonymity took one of two forms: pandas or puppies. After a lesson on creating a secure password, Assistant Head of Lower School and technology doyenne Caroline Badri walked the class through making an equally safe username. A good username shouldn’t help strangers figure out your identity, Badri said, so an easy place to start was with a favorite animal.

In addition to learning how to responsibly navigate the Web, the kids also revealed that puppy and panda stock is flying high in the 8-and-under demographic. Their choices didn’t bother — or even seem to surprise — Badri one bit because their unanimity didn’t compromise their anonymity, which the children understood as the most important thing.

Badri teaches digital literacy lessons like this throughout the Lower School for one simple reason, “You have to use technology to make modern life work, so it’s important that children understand it as best as possible,” she said.

Some of the questions Badri asks, such as, “What is the World Wide Web?,” might tax an adult’s brain, but she helps students understand these complex and abstract concepts in elegantly simple ways. For example, to illustrate the global computer network that makes up the Web, Badri had students stand throughout the classroom, with each one holding a bit of a long strand of yarn that eventually crisscrossed the room and linked them all.

The students’ fluency with the gear itself frees Badri to focus on the larger ideas and implications of technology. “The younger kids are more intuitive on how touchscreens work and start with a fair amount of knowledge,” she said. “I don’t really have to teach students how to use these tools, but rather show them what the technology can do and how to use it responsibly.”

 

Man and Machine Animate Gettysburg Battlefield

By Ethan S. ’16

Led by Mr. Berner, history teacher extraordinaire, and Dr. Beeghley, the school’s new instructional technology coordinator and Civil War buff, the junior and senior classes took a field trip to the Gettysburg Battlefield to learn more about what happened there during the Civil War. Most of us either are taking or have taken an American history course as part of the Upper School curriculum, so it was interesting to get up close to where that history actually happened.

 

Dr. Beeghley runs a website dedicated to Civil War history, and he was able to reel off stories at will. As we started our day on top of Little Round Top, he set the scene for the battle: Confederate troops regrouped at Gettysburg because it had 12 roads leading to it and Union troops followed them. The fighting started July 1, 1863, and the second day of battle was especially fierce. The Confederates launched an attack on the relatively lightly guarded Union position on Little Round Top. Dr. Beeghley explained that if the Confederates had won the skirmish, their cannons would have had a direct shot at Union headquarters from the hill, potentially altering the outcome of the battle. He waxed poetic on the bravery of the men who fought there, tales of soldiers fighting to their last breath and refusing to run. The most amazing thing was that he could recall all of these stories, in minute detail, off the top of his head.

It was only down to a serendipitous logistical problem that Dr. Beeghley even made the trip that day. He was just filling in for our intended chaperone, and ended up animating the history for us in ways none had imagined when we set out that morning.

Country Day’s embrace of technology continued during the field trip. The week before, students were given access to a folder of pictures taken at the Battle of Gettysburg. Using Google Drive and school-provided iPads, everyone was able to have a whole gallery of 19th-century images to enrich their experience at the battlefield. The technology helped us to see not just a bunch of rocks with explanatory placards; the pictures allowed us to visualize the carnage and travail those rocks bore witness to.

This year’s junior and senior field trip to the Gettysburg battlefield was not your average lecture. Instead, the battlefield came to life thanks to the knowledgeable Dr. Beeghley and the portable libraries on our iPads.