Let’s Stop.

Let’s stop emailing.

This isn’t a soap box or sanctimonious lecture. It’s an earnest plea, to myself as well, for reconnection. Obviously I don’t mean let’s never, ever use email. Email can certainly be a useful tool, and it is an innovation we can be grateful for. It speeds up the exchange of information and makes certain kind of work easier. It has saved us time. But the fuzzy boundaries that have always existed between the land of “useful” and “exhausting and harmful” are only getting fuzzier. 

When I began my career as an educator email was a part of my world. But in the past 5 years email is ever closer to becoming my whole professional world. Early in my work as both a teacher and administrator, it was a sign of professionalism if you were “on top of” your email inbox. Prompt, thorough, warm responsiveness was a hallmark of an efficient, well-rounded, attentive teacher and leader. I prided myself on my attention to detail and my ability to both manage communication on screen, and show up as a competent, kind teacher/leader in person with my students and faculty.

Today, I could easily spend my whole work day managing email. Responding to email, following up on email, initiating new emails. It’s endless. And it is NOT why I chose the work of education or leadership.

I chose this work because I care deeply about people. I care about the dignity of children, and the right they have to a joyful childhood that equips them with necessary skills for navigating the intellectual, emotional, and social world that they are growing up in. I believe in the power and necessity of human connection for individuals and communities to thrive, and I chose this work because I want to give my time and energy to shaping communities and cultures that care for children.   

In recent years – this part of my job…the part that fills me and that I love most, the humans, is at risk of being subsumed by the constant pressure and cloud of urgency that can surround email. It arrives at will, demands attention, and provokes feelings. It’s a problem I participate in and I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately.

Why are we up at 10:00pm, 12:00am, 3:00am emailing multi-paragraph descriptions of worries, fears, concerns, or rebuttals to one another?

Why are we spilling out, in typed words, the worries of our hearts and sending them off to someone else who can’t or won’t respond for hours? 

Why are we sitting at tables, lying in bed, or relaxing in our living room with our heads down and our fingers flying over the screen composing these missives (“sent from my iPhone”)…at the expense of time with the people right next to us? Or of time with ourselves?

I bet we can all tell a story of a long, unexpected email that knocked us off balance. If we’re honest with ourselves, we can all tell a story about a time we wrote an email like that to someone else. I would suggest that one of the reasons we’re doing it is because the human experience is fraught with feelings. And sometimes those feelings are uncomfortable ones (sadness, hurt, disappointment, anger, frustration, confusion, jealousy, etc.). When I get an uncomfortable feeling I just want it to STOP. I want to make it go away. Quickly. I want to solve it, conquer it, vanquish it, soothe it. And email is a tempting escape hatch. I’ve used it (and I’m sorry if it was with you). I can respond to (or generate) an email that temporarily takes that uncomfortable feeling and, with the clickity-clack of some keystrokes and the press of the “send” button – puts that uncomfortable feeling in someone else’s court (or inbox, as it were).

And therein lies the cycle. Now someone else probably has an uncomfortable feeling. Maybe it’s surprise, confusion, exhaustion, or a deepening sense of feeling misunderstood. And now they want that uncomfortable feeling gone too. So……they see email as the same escape hatch. *Phew!* Now they, with the power of email, can quickly and temporarily soothe their uncomfortable feeling as well.

Stop.

We can stop. You, or I or anyone, can be the one who interrupts the cycle. When you have an uncomfortable feeling, instead of pulling out the computer, phone, or tablet what if we each asked ourselves:

  • What am I feeling right now?
  • Why am I feeling this way?
  • What other things (my own history, other experiences I had today, etc.) might be influencing how I’m feeling in response to this moment?
  • What is it I want to do? 
  • Does that response embody the core values I believe in? If not, what might I do instead?

To be sure, in-person conversations are slower. They take more time to arrange and schedule. They don’t immediately assuage the mounting urgency that pounds against our chests and presses at the back of our eyes when we’re feeling uncomfortable. Nonetheless, the solace they offer is deeper and ultimately more genuinely soothing. They offer connection and the chance of empathy, of truly being seen and seeing someone else. Interpersonal conversations can be harder, for many reasons, but ultimately the reward they offer is much greater. 

It is imperative that we do a better job for children and for each other in navigating our feelings. We are burying them under apps and distractions and texts and emails. And even as we may temporarily dodge or escape uncomfortable feelings, we ultimately also miss out on joyful ones through these behaviors. Children are learning from us. I want more for them then learning that email is the first coping mechanism to lean on when things (feelings) get rocky or unpredictable. I think you want more for them too. I want to know and understand people: children and adults. Email isn’t helping with that. There is another way. Let’s find our way back to each other.

Wayfinding: An Antidote to Fast & Distracted

I’m sitting outside on our 14 acre campus at Hillbrook School. I see a pair of Kindergarten girls walking to the office together. I say hello. They wave and smile and one of them says “I’m going to get my jacket I forgot in the music room, but first my teacher asked me to deliver this note to the front desk.” They go on their way. As they walk the next stretch of their journey they amble along. One of the girls takes a little skip and speeds up her step. The other matches it…and within moments they are sprinting towards the music room. On their journey back to their classroom they take a different route. A group of 8th graders (giants!) crosses their path and they freeze, staring. They get a couple high fives and hellos, and then they resume their journey.

Two 2nd grade students are walking down a small hill with a tote bag full of books. They share the load, each carrying one handle, and struggle with it a bit. Sometimes one of them moves faster than the other. Sometimes one of them loses their grip. They make it to the library, deliver the books, and start to walk back towards their classroom. They take a wrong turn towards a fenced off construction area. They realize, turn around, and get back on track.

A group of 6th grade students sit at a picnic table working together. Every now and again there is some screechy laughter, or one of them rolls off the bench and flops on the ground, but they are flipping through books and making progress on their work. They are keeping an eye on the clock, and pack up their things and move to the next class at the appropriate time.

None of these children are accompanied by adults. And that independence is a gift.

I’ve been mentally tending to a theory for some time now. My theory, in brief, is as follows: Children are showing up to school differently than they have in decades past. Most notably, they are showing up with underdeveloped self-regulation skills. The experience of childhood is changing, and that is having some concrete effects on child development.

I have some hypotheses on why this is happening, none of which are yet backed by any data beyond anecdotal, qualitative observation. I think there is a complex interplay between the increasingly fast paced nature of our world and the way we as adults interact with screens and devices. As adults we are FAST and we are DISTRACTED. We are leading largely unexamined lives around how the speed of living, and the inattention we give it as it passes us by, is profoundly impacting the way we interact with children and alters the types of experiences we provide for and share with them. We are trying to raise children, as parents and as schools, in the same way we navigate from place to place: by typing a destination in to our phone and waiting for that phone to tell us when and where to turn and how long it will take to get there.

We are thoughtlessly overscheduling and overprotecting little human beings through childhood, because it’s how we are living our own lives….and as a result the journey we (and by extension they) are on is less fruitful, more frenetic, and highly reactive.

Which brings me to the question at hand: What if schools were more like wayfinding and less like GPS navigation?

Wikipedia offers an interesting look at the term “wayfinding”. In addition, I like to describe it as the experience of moving about the world with open eyes, a present mind, and a willingness to embrace serendipity. What if school, what if childhood, were more like that?boy_and_girl_hiking_along_sunlit_path_in_woods_with_walking_sticks_and_backpack

True moments of wayfinding require time. They require parents, teachers, and leaders to prioritize possibility, ambiguity, and some uncertainty over what is predictable and scheduled. Wayfinding requires a firmly held belief that there is power in the emergent, and that when learning and living are supple in response to what shows up they can be that much more transformative and lasting. Opening up the world to children through a wayfinder’s mindset requires that we (as adults) be comfortable with reasonable risk and relinquish some of our much treasured illusion of control.  

In a 2011 issue of Evolutionary Psychology an article titled “Children’s Risky Play from an Evolutionary Perspective: The Antiphobic Effects of Thrilling Experiences” was published. The authors write,

“Risky play primarily takes place outdoors, often as challenging and adventurous physical activities, children attempting something they have never done before, skirting the borderline of the feeling of being out of control (often because of height or speed) and overcoming fear…Most of the time risky play occurs in children’s free play as opposed to play organized by adults. In modern western society there is a growing focus on the safety of children in all areas, including situations involving playing. An exaggerated safety focus of children’s play is problematic because while on the one hand children should avoid injuries, on the other hand they might need challenges and varied stimulation to develop normally, both physically and mentally.”

One of the types of risky play that the authors identify is “Exploring on one’s own.” In other words: wayfinding. Children NEED it. And we are increasingly seeing children who are either unusually fearful or unusually unable to manage themselves when afforded age-appropriate freedom…because they haven’t had any practice.

You might have started reading this article because you were hoping I would give you “7 Strategies to Make Schools More Like Wayfinding and Less Like GPS Navigation”…but I’m going to disappoint you. Not only do I not know what those strategies are…but making a list like that would be doing the thing that I’m suggesting we resist: prescribing concrete strategies and sequences of steps towards the mythology of a sure outcome.

The only suggestion I have is, instead of looking at what adults (whether they are parents, leaders, or teachers) can do to control, change, adjust, innovate, or adapt the landscape of schools and parenting…I think we should take some time to turn the microscope on ourselves. How can you be more of a wayfinder? How can you disconnect (literally or figuratively) from the GPS systems in your life? What might emerge when you do?

Children will follow our lead.

Par For The Course

Image

In a departure from my typical posts about education, leadership, and children….today I’m going to write a bit about my experience learning to play golf. Thus far it has been one of two things:

Absolute satisfaction.

or

Muddled confusion laced with fury.

The smallest thing can turn a swing from smooth to clunky, and making adjustments on the course is difficult. My husband often jokes around saying, “Golf is an easy game!” The humorous irony being the moment you start thinking that I give you about two holes until you’re melting into a puddle of grumbly, confused sadness. As Arnold Palmer said,

“Golf is deceptively simple and endlessly complicated; it satisfies the soul and frustrates the intellect. It is at the same time rewarding and maddening – and it is without a doubt the greatest game mankind has ever invented.”

I have found golf to be a gratifying way to spend the day outside, it’s a sport that keeps you in the moment. Recently I’ve had a few rounds that I felt really good about and proud of. There’s nothing like pride to make a golf ball want to humble the hell out of you. I was not proud of yesterday’s round, I was inconsistent and I couldn’t hit anything longer than my 7 iron without topping it. After the front 9 I decided that keeping score was increasing my frustration, and stress is a silly thing to pay money for….so I decided to try keeping score with emojis. What if, instead of counting strokes, I qualified my play with everyone’s favorite emotive graphics?

🤬- After a frustrating front 9, I finally had a grilled cheese sandwich and thought the subsiding hanger might give way to more consistent play. It did not. I swore. A lot.

😡- This is when I made two decisions: this round sucks, so I’m done keeping score since that’s only making it worse. And secondly: It must really suck to be my husband right now because I am no fun at all.

😱- Screeeeaaaaaaaaaaam.

😏- Oh hey golf skills, nice to see you again.

🤷🏼‍- Excellent tee shot, terrible putting…meh.

🌾- After a lot of walking around in the pokey dried out brush on this hole to try and find my ball my legs were all itchy.

🤞🏻- At this point, every time I swing I’m holding my breath because who knows what will happen.

🌬- This hole was very windy.cms golf

🚗- Crushed a 220 yard drive (downhill….but still).

And that’s the thing about golf….it just takes one good hole to keep you coming back. If you’re a golfer…and your game is falling apart and you’re wondering when you forgot how to play…try emojis sometime, if only for the opportunity to tell a story that’s better than the numbers.

Want to hear a joke?

flag photo

One of the first memories I have of visiting Hillbrook School, where I now work as Head of Lower School, was learning about the rituals and traditions of what is called “Flag” during my initial tour of campus. On Monday mornings, the whole school community (children, faculty, parents, etc.) comes together to share announcements, sing Happy Birthday to those celebrating that week, and start the week. It naturally struck me as a beautiful way for a community to mark time together through connection and celebration. And then I learned that at the end of Flag there is the invitation for children to tell JOKES, and I fell head over heels in love with the school.

In her book Voice Lessons, social-clinical psychologist Dr. Wendy Mogel writes,

“The first time you make your baby laugh is a delight. But the first time your child makes you laugh out loud is cosmic: a reward for your years of toil and a reliable bellwether of the quality of his life ahead…Laughter is our consolation prize for the indignities and cruel plot twists we all endure, beginning in childhood…it is the best relief valve for our culture of relentless striving, and children learn how to use it by watching you.”

If you’re not familiar with Hillbrook, some of what’s written below will be idiosyncratic to the rituals and rhythms of our school culture (and you should come visit!). That said, much of it is transferable to all children and their development. It is such a joy to watch children try on humor through joke-telling, and a privilege to reward them with our laughter. I find that there are a few recurring archetypes of joke experiences, and every time one of them makes an appearance during Flag I get a little giddy.

The one where the joke’s not really funny.

This happens almost every Flag, and I know there are people (mostly grown ups) in the audience who just don’t get (yet) why this archetype is the greatest of them all. I often get asked why I let kids go to the microphone to tell a joke that doesn’t make any sense. I do it because in that moment, the act of joke-telling isn’t about me or any adult, it’s about the risk that child is taking and the reward they deserve for that risk (the applause and appreciation of a crowd). The unfunny joke reminds me of how wondrous and mysterious child development is. When those 5-7 year olds (because that’s usually the age range the non-funny jokes come from) get up in front of 400+ people to introduce themselves and share a joke….they don’t know it’s not funny. Honestly, most of the things we find funny don’t really make sense to them yet. As their brains develop, the intricacies and nuances of language are just beginning to sprout. Most humor, and especially most jokes, are based on knowing these subtle nuances and double-meanings of words and phrases. In spite of that, these children have learned a few critical things:

  • Making people laugh with you feels good. It feels good to them and it feels good to you.
  • Words and language can be used to communicate needs and to elicit emotions (like joy and delight), this makes words powerful.
  • Jokes (and humor) have a rhythm to them. There is often a question posed, and there is a punchline. The punchline is what makes people smile.
  • Anyone can tell a joke to anyone (or hundreds of anyones at the same time!)

So they stand up and introduce themselves to all of the Hillbrook community, and tell a joke. And every time they are rewarded for their efforts. And I promise, they all learn how to tell truly funny jokes eventually. Stick it out with them. In the meantime, don’t shut down their non-funny jokes. They are trying on a lot of behaviors, and their motivation is to delight and captivate you. A laugh is a small price to pay in exchange for the gift they are giving you by trusting you with their developing sense of humor.

The one where they refuse to tell me their joke before going to the microphone.

This usually happens towards the beginning of the year, when the routine of needing to “practice” (read: pre-approve) their joke with me before going to the microphone isn’t fully understood yet. There have been a handful of time over the years when a child has flat out refused to tell me their joke before going to the stage. They look at me like I’m a thief, like I’m going to steal their joke or am cutting in line by not waiting to listen to it at the right time. Eventually I can usually get them to practice, but they still look at me like I just don’t get how this Flag and joke-telling thing works. Which brings me to….

The one where they practice one joke with me and then tell another one from on stage.

Like the two archetypes before it, this one also stems from a not-yet-fully-formed understanding of how jokes work. They seem to think that once they tell a joke, they can’t repeat that same joke at the microphone. They’ve used it up! So somewhere between whispering to me a joke and when they get to the stage, they invent a NEW joke (usually unfunny or nonsensical, see above). Common themes of invented jokes include: puppies, kittens, chickens, cookies, and anything with the knock-knock format.

The one where they try to tell the knock-knock joke with the banana & orange and botch the delivery.

I’ve been an educator for nearly 15 years and this happens multiple times every single year, even at schools that don’t have Flag and don’t do jokes! The joke is supposed to go like this:

Knock, knock!

Who’s there?

Banana.

Banana who?

Knock, knock!

Who’s there?

Banana.

Banana who?

Knock, knock!

WHO’S THERE?!

Banana.

Banana WHOOOO?

Knock, knock!

Ugh! WHO’S THERE?!

Orange.

Orange who?

Orange you glad I didn’t say banana!

Kids love this joke, and even very young children understand it. There’s suspense. Confusion. Frustration. And the inevitable dawning of comprehension and ensuing hilarity. It is an automatic home run. So naturally, they want to give this gift of extraordinary humor to the Hillbrook community at Flag. They want to be the deliverers of such hilariousness! Who wouldn’t?

But almost always, in their eagerness to get to that moment where they bask in the glorious laughter and appreciation of the audience…they switch the fruits. They start with orange (instead of banana). You can see a little furrow of confusion on their face as they realize that something is off, but they can’t quite put their finger on what. Sometimes they even get to the end and sort of mumble through an uncertain “Banana…you glad I didn’t…say…orange?” And they walk off looking at each other like “Why didn’t that work quite right?” Nevertheless, the community always applauds and cheers.

The one with the chicken that crosses something to do something else.

I admit, I don’t particularly like this joke. However, there is something comforting about it. It’s like a warm blanket or a comfort food. It shows up when you need it and it’s always there to fall back on. Because, at the heart of it, getting up to tell a joke at Flag isn’t really about funny. It’s about community. It’s about exemplifying our core values through a shared experience. I find that more often than any other age group it’s our older students who most often pull out the “Why did the chicken cross the road?” joke during their last years at Hillbrook. I know it’s not because they’ve run out of ideas or sources. I like to think it’s because they are rehearsing the parts of Hillbrook that are most beloved to them through laughing at Flag and semi-funny tried and true chicken jokes.

I invite you to watch for and delight in these archetypes at Flag throughout the year. If you aren’t fortunate enough to join us every week, I imagine many of these archetypes play out in front of you from the children in your own life, and now you know to look for it. These are little morsels of childhood, clues to where their brains are growing and signposts for the road ahead. I am sure there are more I have missed and will continue to uncover in the years ahead. Jokes remains my favorite Hillbrook tradition because no matter how bad your case of the Mondays is, you can come to Flag knowing you will be treated to a display of courage, humor, risk-taking, delight, teamwork, and joy. Flag, and the tradition of jokes, is about belonging – and that’s why we show up and laugh and applaud and cheer no matter what.

The First Six Weeks of School

Hillbrook Voices

Contributed by: Head of Lower School Colleen Schilly.

As we enter into the first three weeks of school, children and adults in the Hillbrook community are beginning to find a rhythm in the routine and expectations of the new school year. For elementary age students, the first six weeks of school are a pivotal time during which we set the tone for the year to come. At Hillbrook, we believe that by investing in the following fiveIMG_1399 things children are more available to learn, meet challenges, and reach their potential during the rest of the year. We spend these weeks:

  1. Establishing a safe and caring community that is connected and joyful.
  2. Familiarizing children with all their learning environments, both indoors and outdoors.
  3. Teaching and modeling expectations for the safe, respectful, and appropriate use of materials and tools for learning, exploration, and play.
  4. Co-creating expectations for how we learn and resolve problems.

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Lessons From The Road: For Traveling & Living

high fiveI recently had the opportunity to travel across country for 11 days. After driving over 4,000 miles, sleeping in a different place every night, camping under stars, taking hundreds of photos, and seeing our country in ways that took my breath away…I learned some things and was reminded of many more – about traveling, mostly…but also about living:

Strike a balance: Planning comes naturally to me. I like a schedule and a sense of what is coming next. Some of my best memories (from this trip and beyond) are those that were a result of spontaneity. I’m learning to hold them both and value them equally. To allow my nature to create a plan…but to leave ample room to change that plan spontaneously. We had planned to visit at least 2 spots that, because we spent the bulk of our day exploring something else or because we were exhausted from being on the road, we ended up not visiting. Would they have been beautiful? Certainly. But allowing for a change of plan meant a gentler, healthier overall 11 days. Plans & spontaneity can coexist.

Turn around if necessary: On our first real day-of-adventure we awoke in Badlands National Park in South Dakota. We were up with the sun and had our campsite packed up…we were among the first in the visitors center, coffee in hand. We enjoyed a beautiful hike back through some of the formations to a spot overlooking the prairies below. Feeling energized by the physical exercise and the natural beauty surrounding us, we quickly packed up for another, longer hike through some prairie lands. Within a few tenths of a mosquito bitesmile it was clear that the mosquitoes were mustering their forces and had some serious battle plans. After a half mile or so we turned around. We did something else. You don’t have to be a hero. Go get a beer instead. 🙂 But seriously…when all of the warning bells are going off: listen. Backtrack. Go a different way or stop and reset. Life is too short to lose your leg to mosquito bites…or stubborn pride.

Pick the right sunscreen: Seriously. Goopy, thick sunscreen is the worst driving around with the windows down, getting sweaty, and absorbing dust. Bad sunscreen gets in your eyes (and god forbid you wear contact lenses) and stings them like hundreds of tiny needles. In my humble opinion the good sunscreen is anything Neutrogena. Consider yourself warned and wisely advised.

Eavesdrop on (and occasionally converse with) strangers: Turns out children say amazing things to their parents in National Parks.

photo bombBadlands, young boy to mother: “This is better than…better than…ANYTHING!”

Yellowstone, young girl to father (with evident disdain in her voice): “Dad! This is one of those UNCOOL geysers.”

You’ll find that asking someone to take your photo will always result in a story. The friends of a woman who took our photo at the entrance to Grand Teton National Park photo bombed our picture after deciding we weren’t looking excited enough! After offering to take a photo of two folks at Crater Lake National Park, they asked if they could return the favor and snapped some of the most amazing action shots of us jumping in to Crater Lake (the country’s deepest lake) together. I don’t know the name of the girl who took our pictures…but I’ll always remember her. Strangers aren’t always dangerous.

water jump

Appreciate and savor it: There were moments on the trip that felt like all of the stars aligned and we couldn’t have orchestrated it more beautifully even if we’d been able to control/plan it. 80-85 degree weather and sunshine every day? Check. Arrive at Old Faithful in time to get a cocktail on the deck of the hotel and see the geyser go off on the bearfirst sip? Check. Drive into Yellowstone park and see a mama grizzly and her two cubs? Check. Find an equal quality but peacefully secluded swimming hole a few hundred yards from the really crowded swimming hole? Check. Snag one of the few remaining campsites? Check. There were plenty of times that things didn’t go perfectly….but why focus on those? Effortlessly timing it right is a beautiful thing…appreciate that joy, celebrate it when it happens and let THOSE memories prevail.

Share the wealth: One of my favorite parts of chronicling our journey on a photo stream was getting to share it with friends and family instantly…and to read their comments and questions and feel like the circle of who was a part of our move was a little bit bigger, and a little more full of love and joy in our journey. Keep in mind that no photo or video will ever do justice to your experience (on the road or elsewise). That little uncapturable psunrise2iece will always be just yours. Your story. Your experience. Your memory.

Wake up early for the sunrise: You will never regret it.

Explore on, friends!