Time to Think — It’s Essential

In his very readable book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown tells us what we should already know about our limited resources when it comes to focus, work, and energy.

The single best thing we can do to improve our performance and our level of happiness, he says, is to narrow our focus to just one or two things that are truly essential. In its application to education, McKeown’s idea is clearly related to the mindfulness movement and to all manner of wellness issues as they pertain to students and teachers alike. But because it is so simple, it is especially striking.

So this summer, I gave myself an essentialist gift: time to think. It’s what everyone involved in teaching and learning wants and needs due to the pace and nature of the school year, with its many deadlines, checkpoints, and requirements.

I let my mind roam. I thought about the state of the world, politics, culture. I thought about my marriage, my children, our respective health. Pretty soon, I felt able to think about my work, and what I love about it, and what more I think I can contribute. And I went further — I thought about which community service project I want to get involved with, and about getting a puppy.

I thought about a lot of other things, too. But I didn’t do a whole lot about any of it, or worry about when I would. For me, that was a significant and welcome change.

School is about to start up again. What I’m thinking about needs to shift, and fast. There are classes to plan and meetings to run, conferences to have and presentations to give. But I feel more ready than I ever have before to jump back in.

Having time to think is the reason why. I know what I am going to focus on this year, and what I am going to politely push to the back burner. I’ve asked my leadership team to do the same, so that we can be aligned in our focus — on students and what is essential for them.

Summer Session in the School of Life

The tagline that I wrote for this blog when I started it 18 months ago is my tribute to John Dewey, a simple statement that I really believe: because no matter where it happens, school is always in session. School, the “place” we go to learn things from and with other people, transcends walls and calendar days. It is always happening and we are always learning something.

I was reminded of all of this and more when I traveled to France two weeks ago. As I usually do, I brought several books with me, books I really wanted to read. I looked forward to the more than 24 hours I would have to read on the planes and trains we were going to take. But each time I tried to read, I found my attention drifting. Book after book fell into my lap half read and abandoned. I was incapable of doing anything other than looking out of windows, looking through my camera lens, watching the world around me.

Yes, at the end of the school year I am tired — of talking, of thinking, of reading. But it was something else too. There was much to see that actually felt new. In Paris, teeming bags of garbage lined the streets and there was graffiti in surprising places. Armed police men and women stood nearby, watching, ready for what I didn’t dare think about. In Avignon, Syrian refugees stood fully clothed in the hot sun at intersections holding signs pleading for help. News about Britain’s decision to leave the European Union compounded a feeling that things are changing, and not necessarily for the better. Trash, refugees, security risks, crowds, exits, break ups, everything on the brink of something less familiar and seemingly less good.

Of course, much of what I was seeing was actually quite old – perhaps just less familiar to me. Conflict and concern about security goes as far back as humanity itself. Many of the places I visited were once walled off — the stone city of Gordes. Roman ruins in Glanum. The hospital at St. Remy where Van Gogh painted and tried to heal. I found myself taking pictures of spaces and places without people. Windows and doorways, walls and lavender fields, crumbling walls. The specter of the rise and fall of cultures, clashes among the people within them, was all around.

At my parents’ house for a quick pit stop on the way home from France, I woke up early and found myself lingering at their bookshelves. I finally wanted something to read after so much watching, reflecting, resting, thinking. One book shimmered at me, asking me to pick it up. It was Sebold’s Austerlitz, which I knew nothing about and had never read. I opened it up. There was a bookmark with someone’s handwriting on it. It was in the handwriting of my father’s friends from Belgium, where he had studied in the 1960s. It said, “Whenever you pick up this book, I will be with you.” Tears immediately came to my eyes. Yes, I was tired from travel. But my tears were the result of something more. I began reading Sebold’s book and felt my heart in my chest.

Austerlitz is about a man who is searching for his identity. His name is Jacques Austerlitz, and he travels Europe studying cities, fortifications, and architecture – but really he studies cultures, people, and conflicts. Eventually (spoiler alert) we learn that he was one of the lucky children to have been saved from the fires of the Holocaust – sent to England on a kindertransport, he lived a safe and other life while his family perished presumably at Auschwitz.

The character, Austerlitz, is fictional, created by Sebold to express and make real the unreal reality that people can and do disappear from our memory, individual and collective. Books have the power to startle and stun us with their artistry. But books are not the source of understanding — we are, as readers.  In order to make real sense of books, and the worlds in which they are created, we sometimes need to look up, listen, and take note of the life and times we live in.

We are called to read — words, yes, but perhaps more importantly, the light in the trees, the faces of the people we love and know, the changes in atmosphere as we travel to new and old places and spaces.

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School’s Out for Summer (but not forever)

Although June 21 is the solstice, Friday June 3rd was the unofficial first day of summer for students at my school. Exams were all wrapped up on Thursday and before I even realized it, the quad had become a ghost town.

Students vacated swiftly and definitively, disappearing like dreams. The courtyard, usually bustling with the activities students do best — eating, sharing videos on their phones, talking about how much work they did and how much work was still left to do — was no more than a silent sweep of concrete and greenery.

The lockers, usually shut neatly, looked askew with their doors left hanging wide open. The library was so empty that when I walked through, I felt a kind of uneasy solitude and found myself calling out, “Anyone in here?” From the back, the voice of a student with a late exam replied in a distant, quiet voice. Outside, it was already nearly 90 degrees in the sun.

In the aftermath of their departure, many of us felt bereft, me included. Don’t get me wrong; we greeted each other with a sense of gratitude — it’s over! — but also resignation — it’s over. It’s not that we don’t want a break as much as our students do from the rigorous, sometimes unrelenting, pace of school life. We do. It’s just that without them, school feels so lonely and dull. The fun of preparing classes, schedules, lessons and assemblies is sharing them with students, hearing what they like and don’t like, thinking about things from their perspectives, realizing our blind spots and omissions, laughing about the things they thought we said that we don’t think we ever said.

The close of the school year is a longed for but bittersweet moment, a necessary interruption in a story that isn’t ever really finished. Learning takes a lifetime. And if the summer solstice comes early, it only means that the September equinox with students is that much closer.

Pop-up Bookstore(s)

During the past few days, I have handled hundreds upon hundreds of books.

I am the person who manages the book orders for the many classes we offer to our more than 500 high school students. I have a lot of help from department chairs, teachers, and the very patient representative at the online company that secures and sells the books we and our students use. But it’s still a lot to keep track of.

I like the challenge, though. Not just because I like books, which I obviously do, but because I like how they are still completely essential to who we are and what we do as a school. Historian Barbara Tuchman famously said, “Books are the carriers of civilization.” And, in many ways, books are still the lifeblood of education.

Last week, my office was transformed into a pop-up bookstore. There I sorted and distributed to faculty 70 copies of Jessica Lahey’s The Gift of Failure, 20 copies of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, 12 of The Buddha in the Attic, and 14 copies of Netherland among others. In addition, I handled countless single copies of carefully chosen and dedicated books to be bestowed to our top scholars in an awards ceremony on Thursday and at graduation on Friday. The local pool just opened for the season but I haven’t made it there much at all — I have been swimming in books.

As if that wasn’t fun enough for me, my husband emptied out a huge bookshelf at our house. Lining the fireplace until last night were stacks and stacks of our children’s books, which I finally hauled upstairs into the study where there was, no surprise, no room for any more books. The books are sitting in somewhat neater piles now, waiting for me to find the time and the space to file them away. I’m anxious for the weekend, when I’ll have time to thin the stacks and organize things on to shelves. A patient pile of books in disarray exerts a subtle pressure: pick me up, read me, put me in order.

Yes, book publishers have had to reconceive their business models, and ebooks are likely here to stay. Some booksellers have unfortunately gone out of business. But it’s no accident that after all the fanfare of moving bookstores to online settings, amazon.com itself is considering buying 400 brick-and-mortar bookstores according to Greg Bensinger’s February 2 report in the Wall Street Journal. I can’t think of too many places as pleasant as a peaceful bookstore — only maybe the peaceful pages of a book.

Near the end of last week, I had a few extra copies of the books I had ordered, so I invited faculty to stop by and take what remained. The first two takers were math teachers, and the extra books were gone by the end of the day. My office is mostly back to normal; the pop-up bookstore is closed. Until the next time.

My Bitmoji

If I do anything fun with social media, I have my teenage daughter to thank. She’s the one who put the GIF app on my phone and helped me get an “avatar emoji” known as bitmoji. Without her, I would be helplessly uninformed about these and other features of communicating in the 21st century.

My bitmoji is definitely a little silly (she says “let’s taco about it!” with a taco in her hand) and I tend to be serious. But I have to admit that I like being able to respond to people with a funny cartoon that looks a little like me doing funnier things than I usually do.

A great article in the New York Times magazine this weekend about avatars by Amanda Hess asks a question, one I have been thinking about since getting my bitmoji: “Online, we present ourselves in ever-more-numerous guises across a variety of platforms. What does the ‘avatar’ we choose say about who we really are?”

Hess recounts the history of avatars from Hinduism to today. “In Hindu theology, Vishnu assumes various earthbound avatars — among them a fish; a tortoise; a half-man, half-lion — in an effort to restore order at times when humanity has descended into chaos. Now we’re the gods,” she says, “reinventing ourselves online in the hope of bringing order to a realm we can’t quite keep under our control.” When I paste a bitmoji image of myself into a text message, I don’t consider myself a god, but I see Hess’s point about wanting to participate in, if not reinvent, the world I’m living in.

Hess points out that we represent ourselves differently via different platforms and uses herself as an example: “On Facebook, I’m posed by a professional photographer, waist contorted into a slimmed line, eyes peering up out the window of a skyscraper. On Snapchat, I’m burrowed into my office chair, blankly blinking my eyes open and closed.” She is not alone. Although my bitmoji is my only cartoon avatar, I use different photographs of myself on Twitter, Linkedin and Facebook to communicate different things about myself, as do many others.

But I wonder, haven’t people always acted, and presented themselves, differently in different settings? At least to some degree? And isn’t it arguable that successful people know how to modify their affect or appearance to suit a given context? Don’t we all, for the most part, dress up for the opera, and down for the grocery store?

As I usually do when pondering these kinds of questions, I turn to literature. In response to Hess’s question about what our choice of avatar says about ourselves, I think about Jay Gatsby, a lower-class kid from the mid-west who could have won an Oscar for his performance as a monied New York blueblood. Gatsby’s charade didn’t last forever, and it cost him his life, but in my opinion it wasn’t criminal that he tried to be something that he wasn’t.

I probably owe my attitude toward human chameleons to another literary figure, Oscar Wilde, who was the subject of my undergraduate thesis and with whom I spent a good year of college. It was Wilde more than anyone else who helped me to understand and accept that identity is not a static state of being, but a fluid reality. He understood that better than most, given that it was illegal at the time for him to be who he was.

In our use of digital avatars today, we continue a long legacy of trying on different masks and seeing which ones fit.

Yes, It’s a Thing

I really loved a recent article by Alexander Stern in the New York Times titled “Is That Even a Thing?” I had started using the question myself (“Wait. Is that even a thing?”), but I hadn’t stopped to think about what I was really asking. Stern’s article made me think more about, well, this whole thing, the asking about what is and isn’t a thing.

Stern says that “we [ask] about a thing because we are engaged in cataloguing.” I agree that we have a deep and innate desire to put things in their places, to order our world. And we can’t begin to do so until we have decided what things are worth our attention, until we have tried to group those things that are in our grasp.

The work seems that much harder—perhaps even different—when there is nothing to actually hold in our hands. So many of the things we consider to be “things” today aren’t things at all—they aren’t tangible artifacts or touchable realities. They are literally ghosts in the machine, passing digital trends, fads, or phenomena. In Stern’s mind, ours is a world “gone to pieces,” where things are not always real enough or real at all, leaving us in a constant state of bafflement and ironic detachment as we try to cope with what F. Scott Fitzgerald called “unreal reality.” Still, we try to flag it or file it.

An antidote to some of this confusion came to me when I saw a student approaching my office on Monday morning with a laundry basket filled with, of all things, things. She had decided to use a laundry basket to transport her final project to school. Her final project was a collection of things that she had collected to pay homage to the Museum of Civilization featured in Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Elevenwhich she had just finished along with Lily King’s Euphoria and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

Two of these novels are distinctly dystopian, revealing the ways in which society is restructured in the aftermath of a cataclysmic break of some kind (pandemic in one case; culture war in the other). The other features a culture clash of sorts in which Western and aboriginal notions of civilization are put in dramatic juxtaposition. My student wanted to explore her own ideas about what constitutes her civilization and how it impacts her and she, it. So she collected meaningful artifacts, gathered them up, and brought them to school: her grandfather’s typewriter, which she frequently uses; a dream-catcher; one red Chuck Taylor high-top sneaker; a music box with a spinning ballerina and two black and white photographs of her parents when they were younger; a vinyl record that a friend made for her; an iPhone; a Rubik’s Cube.

It was more than fun to look at these things together. We spent time talking about how important the curator is to the exhibit, just as the author is crucial to the story that is told. We discussed the importance of historical context, and also how some things—jewelry, toys, cooking utensil—are as old as human time itself.

In this age of fleeting impressions and impermanence, I find myself challenged by the simple question of whether something is a “thing” to me or not. That’s probably why I got so much comfort looking at my student’s basket of things. In that moment, I felt that it was at least possible that the answer to this question is a lot simpler than the question itself.

Dynamo Girls

A few weeks ago, our younger daughter surprised us when she insisted that we do a “backyard birthday party.” We asked her what that meant, wondering whether she had in mind a throwback party from our own childhood birthday parties at home, before the age of parties at Sky High, Monkey Joes, and Sports Connection.

“Games,” she said. “Running around. But not with a counselor we don’t know. With you.”

Momentarily challenged, we quickly enlisted our older daughter and four of her friends to help us play games with eighteen second grade girls. It took some planning and some baking. There was basketball, corn hole, swinging on the swing set, cupcake wars, water balloon toss, and some epic rounds of freeze dance. Best of all turned out to be the simplest: donut on a string.

It was so much fun to watch these girls have fun. For 2.5 hours, it seemed that they never stopped moving or playing. They were loud. They were competitive. They laughed when they got out, got tagged, or missed a shot. They howled with glee when they threw water balloons at each other. They casually wiped away the powdered sugar that got all over their faces and the chocolate frosting that covered their hands, or left it there and didn’t care. It was beautiful and unruly all at the same time.

My friend Vanessa Bennett, founder of Dynamo Girl in New York, had a piece in the Huffington Post this week that really resonated for me. The first-person essay begins, “We are living in an age of girls’ empowerment. Every shampoo and tampon commercial tells us so — urging girls to be themselves, stand proud and redefine what it means to be a young woman. Around the country we espouse language that encourages girls’ efforts over results; risk-taking over complacency; speaking out over keeping quiet.” 

Vanessa is right about the soundtrack of youcandoanythingyouputyourmindorbodyto currently playing in girls’ lives. But what’s remarkable is seeing the origin of that soundtrack — it’s the girls themselves. They know these things intuitively and act accordingly.

To Writers Who Dare

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People close to me know that my favorite author is Virginia Woolf. The image featured here is from a gift my friend Vicky gave to me just today with a pink sticky note attached: “Dear Jess — I saw this and couldn’t resist getting a copy for you.”

I owe my mother for my appreciation for Woolf’s writing; an English professor, my mom was the one who encouraged me to read rather than watch tv and gave me my first real books — Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Tess of the d’Urbervilles.

I didn’t always understand Woolf’s political essays, but I always felt connected to her works of fiction. I wrote a paper in college on Between the Acts about the role of pauses in both theater and life, and a paper in graduate school on the importance of shopping in Mrs. Dalloway. I think I have read To The Lighthouse six times, each time more inspired (how did she create such a haunting, indelible text?) and depressed (when will I ever contribute anything remotely as worthy?) than I was the last time.

It was brave, then, for my friend Rachelle to give me her manuscript to read last week — she knows that I read a lot of pretty legit stuff. It’s a book about an older woman, her family and her circle of friends, and the simple but beautiful contributions she makes to her world. It’s about more than that, but I don’t want to give anything away. It’s a work in progress. It’s the product of two years of her time and more than a pound of her flesh.

I told her with some bravado that I’d be able to read it on the plane to and from Chicago and have feedback ready for her within the weekend. But even 5 pages in, I knew that I had not only overestimated my own abilities as an editor, but also vastly underestimated the weight — literal and figurative — of a real live author’s words.

Balancing her book on my thighs while I hunched over it on the plane, in my hotel room, and in my study at home upon my return, I thought about how indebted I am as a reader, a teacher, and a human being to writers everywhere who have dared. Especially those writers who, like Virginia Woolf, pioneered a space in their homes and in their societies despite commitments, subtle or overt resistance, or doubt.

For staking out a room of her own, and sharing her sometimes strange and always beautiful vision with others, Virginia Woolf remains the patron saint of writers everywhere.

When it Comes to Words Per Minute, Less is More

“The Power of Handwriting,” a recent Wall Street Journal article by Robert Lee Hotz, argues what many teachers already believe: that students who handwrite their notes learn better than those who type.

According to Hotz, faster note-taking does not correlate with deeper or even adequate understanding of the material. Researchers have found that “the very feature that makes laptop note-taking so appealing — the ability to take notes more quickly — was what undermined learning.”

Interestingly, digital note-taking does appear to result in short-term gains for note-takers. But after 24 hours, those who type notes start to forget the material they transcribed. Researchers at Princeton and UCLA compared the work product of students who took longhand notes and found that they retained knowledge for longer and more readily understood new concepts.

Hotz reminds us that taking notes by hand has been a key learning strategy since ancient times and tells us that “writing things down excites the brain, brain imaging studies show.” Adds Michael Friedman of Harvard, when we take notes, we actually “transform” what we hear, making information acquisition both dynamic and personal.

Any notes are better than no notes, say researchers. But teachers can attest to the greater level of focus they see in students who write down their thoughts as they listen and learn vs. those who type transcript style notes. The sharpest edge still belongs to the student who can distill and synthesize information as he/she hears it, and commit it to memory through a practice of writing notes by hand.

There is a reason we are sometimes allowed to take a handwritten notecard into an exam with us — in deciding what is essential information to have with us in the exam room, we have likely undergone a very rigorous and helpful process of separating the wheat from the chaff, and committed to long-term memory those very concepts we are most likely to be tested on.

Global America

Today it was back to school after a week off. While some of my colleagues took fortunate students to India and China over the spring break, I stayed home with my family and read a number of excellent books by authors from around the world.

Each year, a group of teachers and I select a number of titles within a given theme for students to read during the months they are not in school.  Last year’s summer reading theme was Suspense and Problem Solving, and titles included All the Light We Cannot SeeIn Cold Blood and Murder on the Orient Express. We built an assembly around a mystery involving a beloved Chemistry teacher’s disappearance and put students into groups to collaborate together to solve the case.

This year’s theme of Global America feels both more challenging and also more important. The books we are considering, many of which I read over the vacation, show a very complex reality for immigrants to America.

Take Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, about a young man named Changez who leaves Pakistan to study at Princeton, finds success at a Wall Street firm and falls in love with a charismatic but ill young woman from New York. As the title suggests, he is a fundamentalist, if a reluctant one, by the end of his sojourn in America. His experience in the US somehow pushes him to extremism, something that he never anticipated or particularly wanted. It’s an unsettling book, particularly in light of current events.

Equally unsettling and engaging is Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory, about a girl raised in Haiti by her grandmother and aunt who goes to live with her mother, a nurse who cares for the elderly, in New York. The reader doesn’t immediately know why Sophie’s mother left her for so many years in Haiti, but eventually we do learn and understand the terrible reason. The book addresses the very real challenges that women can face in both their home country and in ours, and shows an America that both restores and takes life.

After hearing for years of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, I finally sat down and read it cover to cover in a single day. It’s a beautiful book about Indian parents raising children in America, and it’s also a sad book about how difficult it can be to find one’s place in the world and in one’s own life. Gogol Ganguli, named in haste after his father’s favorite Russian author, never feels completely at ease in his own skin. He constantly wants to change his name and moves in and out of relationships seeking a sense of belonging, which he arguably never finds.

I also finally read Junot Diaz’s The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a rollicking story about a Dominican boy with strong passions and unpopular habits living in New Jersey and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s brilliant Americanah, about a Nigerian woman living in the US who, like Changez and Gogol, never quite finds her place among Americans.

Like most good books, none of these works is entirely pleasant. It’s arguable that a litmus test for a good book is that it makes us uncomfortable, that it forces us to stop and think. If while reading, we find pity for others or for ourselves, or feel catalyzed to do something to make a difference for someone else, all the better. And if we can feel these things while on school vacation, as a result of going absolutely nowhere outside of a book, then I think it’s safe to say that literature still has a very important role in an increasingly complicated and complex world.

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