Tag Archives: education

My Year with Four Female African Presidents

by Liz Grossman ’05

As I struggle to come to terms with the current state of gender politics in my own country, I am looking to Africa for inspiration, where many countries are actually making steps to bring women into positions of public leadership. Seven African countries make the top twenty of Inter-Parliamentary Union’s statistical rankings on the percentage of women in parliament, Rwanda being first globally. Not only this, but four different women from four different African countries have served in the highest office of the land.

This past year, I have had the honor to listen to, shake hands with, meet with, and grow professionally with all four of these women:  Her Excellency Ellen Sirleaf Johnson President of Liberia and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Her Excellency Joyce Banda Former President of Malawi, Her Excellency Catherine Samba Panza President of the Transitional Government of Central African Republic, and Her Excellency Ameenah Gurib President of Mauritius.

My first exposure to these female African heads of state was with Gwen Young, a role model and inspirational leader who runs the Women in Public Service Project at the Wilson Center.  Gwen moderated a panel entitled “Women’s Political Participation: Leadership and the Global Agenda” at the Concordia Summit in New York City, featuring Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, the first African woman president, and Dr. Joyce Banda, the second. Fortunately, I had the chance to sit down with Gwen and Dr. Banda during a break, and my first impression was how down to earth Dr. Banda was. I noticed several young African women come over to her, nervously make small talk and ask for pictures, to which she graciously obliged. I noticed how much she cared about people, especially those with a passion for making change in Africa.

Next in the presidential circuit was Ameenah Gurib, the sitting President of Mauritius. She was a keynote speaker at the MIT Sloan Innovate Africa Conference this past April. President Gurib inspired the audience with her vision for Africa, supporting entrepreneurship, improving access to education, and getting more women into political leadership.

The journey continued in May, when I applied for a consultancy at the Wilson Center, specifically to support Dr. Banda on the research and writing of her policy toolkit entitled “Advancing Women’s Leaders in Africa.”  Alongside Dr. Banda, I attended the launch of the African Women Leaders Network at the United Nations, where some of the continent’s most prominent leaders in government, business, and civil society gathered to figure out how to promote one another and address the issue of gender parity in public service.  Another important attendee was Catherine Samba Panza, former President of the Central African Republic.

Rounding out this year in Accra, Ghana, at the Harvard Africa Alumni Action Forum, came a second opportunity to listen to President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, a Harvard alumna, deliver a keynote speech alongside President Nana Akufo Addo of Ghana. Several weeks later, I was flying back to Accra on a plane with my now client Dr. Joyce Banda, honored to accompany her to the UNDP Africa’s High-Level Policy Dialogue on Governance in Africa and support her while she spoke to policymakers about how promoting women’s leadership can end corruption and promote peace.

It has been an inspiring and humbling year, to say the very least. What has encouraged me the most was that four of these women all shared traits of relatability, kindness, and openness. All were receptive to questions, comments, often quite long-winded project partnership pitches, and even seem to genuinely welcomed them. Dr. Joyce Banda was sharing personal life anecdotes and taking selfies.  Catherine Samba Panza was handing out her personal business cards.  Ameenah Gurib was attending a conference dinner to chat with more participants, and Ellen Sirleaf Johnson was delivering an extra session about women’s leadership as a way to engage more with the audience in Accra.  These women all know how to relate to other people, and they all have a knack for making the average Joe and Jane feel like they were worthy of a President’s time.

Politics, particularly in Africa, can be dirty, but these women all showed no outward sign being bothered or upset by it. Each one of them, and most female leaders globally, have been dealing with harassment, reputation tarnishing scandals, and lies. They hold their heads up with poise and grace, remembering the real reason for their existence is for the people they serve, and the future young leaders who need their coaching and example to break the glass ceiling.

Being in proximity to these women leaders, and now counting Dr. Joyce Banda as a role model and mentor, I am energetic as ever to find ways not only to empower young women in Africa to access education and develop as leaders, but also to push my own compatriots to challenge the way we view women’s leadership. Women have to work twice as hard to prove themselves, fight harassment and overcome sexism in the workplace, and these four women in particular are showing that anything really is possible.

Engaging with four African female presidents renewed my certitude about the immense potential of girls and young women across the continent to become leaders of the next generation. Thinking of the students I spent three years teaching in Senegal and the countless entrepreneurs and community leaders I’ve met across the continent and here in the United States, I am confident that I already know many other future presidents.

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A Miracle of Sorts

by Ralph Lelii

I want to share a wonderful class experience I had today with the community. My students presented their Shakespearean recitations in my HL English class. Students had to don the Shakespearean hat, stand on an ersatz stage, and recite from memory. With one exception, these were not theater kids. Only two had ever memorized and recited from memory before, and none a passage of 65-70 lines.

Most of them chose the St. Crispian’s Day speech from Henry the V. For me, it is a most extraordinary passage, one which reveals Shakespeare’s unerring comprehension of human consciousness and the vagaries of the human heart.

King Harry has brought along an army to France to fight a war so he can marry a woman and thus earn him more land. The soldiers in the fight have no personal stake in it, nothing to gain in any material sense, as is the case for millions of men who have fought and died in wars across all cultures and all times. The passage rouses them to an existential epiphany, where they come to see their death as a form of honor, of transcendence.

Watching scared 17 year olds, having spent hours taking this beautiful, complex and archaic language deep into their memories and then reciting it, making it into a kind of spoken music—what literature has been since the times of Homer—is a wondrous thing. To do something hard, really hard, is to gain self-esteem, I believe, an enduring sense that one has agency in this life, that they can make a life by facing down whatever challenges are presented to them.

This was a challenge; George School provides them many challenges; it is not the only one they had today, perhaps not even the hardest one, but it was something they could not fake or avoid or BS their way through; it was a challenge they had to face or go home, and they all did it, the shy, the diffident, the lost, the confident and the haughty. It makes me so proud of them.

Here is the miracle. Scientists have charted a map of the brain’s somatosensory cortex for specific facial and oral body parts. The resulting brain activity is like a carefully tuned orchestra; each instrument section generates a specific sound, and those sounds are coordinated to produce the overall symphony. The time from a word’s identification to its travel to the mouth is 1/600 of a millisecond. What miracles these young people are—this speech, the mystery of memorization, the confrontation of the emotional lability of anticipation–wonders all. I find it astonishingly beautiful.

 

Henry the V: St. Crispian’s Day

 

WESTMORLAND. O that we now had here

But one ten thousand of those men in England

That do no work to-day!

 

KING. What’s he that wishes so?

My cousin, Westmorland? No, my fair cousin;

If we are mark’d to die, we are enow

To do our country loss; and if to live,

The fewer men, the greater share of honour.

God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.

By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,

Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;

It yearns me not if men my garments wear;

Such outward things dwell not in my desires.

But if it be a sin to covet honour,

I am the most offending soul alive.

No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.

God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour

As one man more methinks would share from me

For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!

Rather proclaim it, Westmorland, through my host,

That he which hath no stomach to this fight,

Let him depart; his passport shall be made,

And crowns for convoy put into his purse;

We would not die in that man’s company

That fears his fellowship to die with us.

This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.

He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,

Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,

And rouse him at the name of Crispian.

He that shall live this day, and see old age,

Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,

And say “To-morrow is Saint Crispian.”

Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,

And say “These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.”

Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,

But he’ll remember, with advantages,

What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,

Familiar in his mouth as household words—

Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,

Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester—

Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.

This story shall the good man teach his son;

And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,

From this day to the ending of the world,

But we in it shall be rememberèd-

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,

This day shall gentle his condition;

And gentlemen in England now a-bed

Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,

And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks

That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

 

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Civil Discourse

by Tina Oddleifson ’82

I’m related to the first person executed for murder in the U.S. You may not have heard of him, but his name was John Billington and he came over on the Mayflower.  He was a troublemaker who killed a fellow colonist and was hanged in 1630.  My grandmother bravely fought for access to birth control in the 1930’s, despite the social stigma. But she also once told me that she thought Apartheid wasn’t so bad.  My hometown of Boston is often the first to stand up for higher American ideals like equality.  But it also has a long and complicated history of racism. I could tell you that I’m a Mayflower descendant, that my grandmother crusaded for progressive causes, and that Boston is a leader for enlightened thought in America.  But that wouldn’t be the whole truth, would it?

As humans, we tend to hold onto certain parts of our story and ignore or gloss over the messy parts because they don’t support our idealized version of reality.  This has become an alarming practice in today’s political environment where partial truths and absolutes are ubiquitous, often in the form of memes and sensational headlines addressing the outrage of the day.  “Liberals want to take down the flag – share if you don’t give a damn” or “Conservatives are literally pining for a dictatorship” are two that came through my feed recently.  One of these is bound to irritate you, maybe even both.

Our obsession with sound bites, memes and partial truths may serve our need for self-justification and help us commiserate with our political team, but they not only promote divisiveness, they miss the chance for exploring a much more fascinating and complex story.  The recent cultural conflicts over civil war memorials and kneeling during the national anthem are just two more examples of how our social media obsession is drowning out civil discourse and the opportunity to explore those gray areas, where the truth actually lives.

So where does one go to have an honest and respectful conversation these days?  How do we move forward as a country teetering on the edge of a democracy and something altogether different?  Admitting that your life story or point of view is filled with a certain degree of hypocrisy is a good place to start.  Having a murderous Pilgrim, a feminist but prejudiced grannie, and a hypocritical hometown forces you to admit that maybe things are a little more complicated than they appear. Recognizing your own inconsistencies can help others admit theirs as well. The next step is to find someone who thinks differently than you and actively listen to them.  This is not the kind of listening where you spend your time figuring out your next counterpoint while someone else is talking.  It’s about being curious and asking questions.  It’s about making the other person feel “heard,” even if you don’t agree with what they are saying.  Civil discourse is not about trying to change someone’s mind.  And it’s not about giving up your own values, or trying to avoid conflict altogether. It’s about disagreeing without being disagreeable.  It’s about being open and respectful enough to consider a different viewpoint, so that we can engage in the healthy deliberation of ideas that a successful democracy requires.

If you’re wondering how someone you have always liked can have such a different worldview, maybe it’s time to reach out and ask them how they got there.  And maybe it’s time for all of us to admit that not all conservatives are racist, not all liberals believe in unlimited government handouts, and we all love our country.  It would open up a desperately needed conversation for addressing urgent policy issues from sensible gun laws, to health care and immigration.

If you are interested in learning more about ways to advance civil discourse, the National Institute for Civil Discourse has launched the Revive Civility project in Maine, Ohio, Iowa and Arizona with plans to go nationwide.  They offer resources for talking to friends and family about issues that divide us, including a new program called “Setting the Table for Civility” with tools for families and friends to have civil conversations over the Thanksgiving holiday.  You can find them at ReviveCivility.org.  Additional resources to explore include Allsides.com  and Livingroomconversations.org.  If we begin to model civil discourse, maybe our politicians will too.

Note: This op-ed was originally published by Portland Press Herald on October 16, 2017.

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Friends Council on Education Statement – August 15, 2017

The violent expressions of hatred, racism, white supremacy, and anti-Semitism in Charlottesville, Virginia were directly opposed to the values our schools stand for. These events serve to deepen our commitment at Quaker schools to teach our students habits of heart and mind that insist upon a disposition of openness and respect for every member of our community regardless of race, creed, religion, sex, sexual orientation, place of national origin, gender identity or gender expression.  

As we wrote in November:

William Penn founded the first Quaker school in 1689, one hundred years prior to the formal addition of the Bill of Rights to the United States Constitution.  Penn directed that the school educate students from all walks of life, genders, religions, and ethnicities to prepare them to be moral leaders within the Commonwealth no matter what profession or trade that they might someday pursue.

Penn’s school created a program of study through which these young people might together imagine a more ideal society. Today all Quaker schools strive to serve this critical public purpose just a Penn imagined it in the earliest days of what would become the United States.

In time of uncertainty, and deep distrust, Quaker school communities turn to the Quaker values of peace, integrity, equality and community, as well as the longtime practices of peaceful conflict resolution and nonviolence, as touch points for navigating these turbulent waters.

It is our sincere hope that as children everywhere return to school that they may come together, in the spirit of respect for all, to find a way to listen deeply to one another, to value the gifts that all students bring with them to school everyday, that they might, together, imagine an ideal society.

Each of the 78 Quaker schools across the United States is founded on core Quaker values and practices. These principles strive to address issues of societal injustice. Friends schools seek to create inclusive and diverse communities and to live into the Quaker values of peace, equity, and social justice.

Friends Council on Education supports schools in their efforts to teach for justice and equity. To that end, we lift up just a few examples of how Quaker schools and Quaker school educators are actively working to provide students with skills in mediation, conversations about differences, and peaceful ways for resolving differences.

Upper school students have a social justice collective where they meet weekly to engage in conversations utilizing the model of Intergroup Dialogue. (Germantown Friends School)

Students participate in a Peer Facilitator Training Program that strives to provide students with skills in asking open ended questions, clarifying and summarizing what you have heard, giving respectful feedback – all with the goal of preempting conflict. (Media-Providence Friends School)

The social curriculum serves as a foundation for a Social Justice Unit as early as preschool focusing on fairness, inclusion, and community. (Friends School Haverford)

Upper school students team up with students at other independent schools to host a student-led Mid Atlantic Regional Diversity Conference. Students explore issues of identity (sexual orientation, race and ethnicity, age, ability, socioeconomic status, gender, and religion) through activities that encourage building community and leaning into discomfort. (Abington Friends School)

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March 3

After our wake-up call at 2:15 a.m., smooth flights at 6:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. and a warm reception at the Managua airport where the 11th grade class met us with their teachers, we drove to the school accompanied by the students. A late lunch of chicken, salad, rice, and fries was awaiting us. Everyone ate well! Soon after, we were entertained by dancers and a poetry reading as we took in the whole scene. Such excitement! The students in pairs went into the older students’ classrooms and helped the teachers with their lessons. By 6:00 p.m., one by one, families came by to pick up their GS student. It was lovely to see them meet. We hope you like the photos!

Starting tomorrow, the students will write the blog entries. They are doing fine; their Spanish is really quite impressive as they dive into their first evening of immersion. We’re heading to bed now and hope that they are too. Tomorrow, we will visit Managua.

Tom and Cheri

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The Opposite of Hazing

2016-10-03-24

Photo by Jim Inverso

by Amanda Acutt, school counselor and Paul Weiss, athletics director

Last spring Amanda and I presented a concept during assembly that we described as “the opposite of hazing.”  Our intent was to challenge the community to engage in purposeful behaviors that we called “Friending.”  Essentially, we asked the community to embrace the concept of engaging in pro-social, empathetic, and sometimes uncomfortable, leadership behavior. We were trying to communicate the behaviors and feelings that underpin being in a safe, supportive, and mindful community of Friends.

Most people are generally familiar with the definition of hazing. Traditionally the term is applied to ritual abuse used as an initiation rite in fraternities, sororities, military settings, sports, or clubs.  The actual definition of hazing has recently expanded to include “any action taken or any situation created intentionally that causes embarrassment, harassment, alienation, or ridicule, and risks emotional and/or physical harm to an individual, regardless of the person’s willingness to participate.”*

Many institutions provide community education and resources focused on identifying, reporting, and preventing hazing, and we believe this is an important part of culture creation.  However, our intent is to address culture creation in a different way.  We would like to start a dialog about an intentional approach to creating a safe, mutually supportive, and empathetic school culture or as we like to call it, the opposite of hazing.

This proactive approach to culture creation is consistent with many of the fundamental elements of a Friends community. The George School Mission (found HERE) says the following: “Students learn about the tension between the individual and community, that fairness and justice are inherently tied to each other.  They learn to express themselves without trampling others…” and “…in what seems a fitting fulfillment of our mission, George School students joyously go out in the world comfortable in their self-awareness and confident that they can make the world a better, kinder place.”

Our mission is not simply to educate academically, it is to perpetuate the values inherent in a Friends community, and for George School graduates to carry these values with them. When we ask if there is hazing in our community, we are asking the wrong question.  Instead, we should ask interconnected questions like:

  • What does it mean to intervene, to be a hero, to champion someone else, to be empathetic?
  • How aware are you of how others feel, of whether someone feels excluded, unheard, unseen, or uncomfortable?
  • What can you do, individually and collectively, to take responsibility for each other?

One of the things that is lost when we talk explicitly about hazing is the proactive ways in which we can do more for each other and our community.  The higher-level expectation is to seek out opportunities to connect with each other, particularly individuals and groups in the community who are most likely to feel different, disconnected, alienated, misunderstood, or invisible.

There are many examples of George School students exhibiting behaviors that embody the opposite of hazing. Here are just a few.

  • The student who sees a new student in the dining hall looking around nervously and calls out “come sit with us!”
  • The student who stops another student in class who is disrespecting a first year teacher.
  • The student who sees another student is upset and walks them over to the Student Health and Wellness Center, stays with them, and offers to let that student join her group of friends so they feel less alone and more connected.
  • A student who sets up a meeting with the school counselor to ask for tips on how to help a friend through a difficult time.

These examples are real. These students did not know they were being observed, and had no motive other than their belief that their behavior was the right thing to do.

Perpetuating a culture of treating each other as Friends is not limited to students interacting with each other.  This is one of the reasons we call everyone by his or her first name; we try to foster an environment in which every individual has intrinsic value, and making sure we see, hear, recognize, and care for each other is the shared thread in the fabric of our community.

The call to action is simple: strive to be intentional, externally aware, and empathetic.  Thinking about what behaviors not to do is a start, but leadership and positive culture creation is a deliberate process.

When the intent to do the “opposite of hazing” is shared by many, the effect is powerful.

*paraphrased from www.hazingprevention.org

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Religion or Religions Department?

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by Tom Hoopes ’83 Head of Religions Department, Assistant Dean, Coach

“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare asked this famous rhetorical question, and school children for generations have used it as a foil for considering the power and meaning of words and names.

It is a question that we in the Religions Department recently considered in a searching, deliberate process. You may have noticed in the previous sentence that I said “religions,” with an “s” rather than “religion.” If so, good catch. You might be wondering, “what’s the difference?” I am so glad you asked! Allow me to tell a story…

Some years ago I found myself in a hospital bed, having experienced a grave illness which was not diagnosed at first. (They not-so-jokingly called me “the House patient,” referring to Dr. House on TV, who takes the presumably unsolvable cases.) I felt deep, abiding gratitude for the care I was receiving from myriad professionals, including many doctors and nurses as well as the people who took my temperature and blood pressure and changed my IV tubes, the people who brought me food and those who changed my bedding. I was there for two weeks, so people came and went with regularity.

People were consistently friendly to me, and engaged me in light conversation. I decided this was the perfect opportunity for an experiment! Usually the question would come up, “what do you do?” I noticed a pattern emerging. If I said, “I teach religion,” they would politely acknowledge my response, and then gently change the subject or fairly quickly find a way to end the conversation and get on with their work and out the door. By contrast, if I answered with, “I teach world religions,” the response, almost uniformly, sought deeper engagement. People would say, “oh, that sounds interesting, tell me more” or “World Religions was my favorite subject in college” or, “which religions?” The variety of their responses was as diverse as the people.

Given that this was a large, urban hospital, I encountered a full gamut of skin tones and people visibly presenting as members of at least four different religious denominations known to me (Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu), and numerous more discovered upon further conversation.

“What is going on here?” I thought to myself. Recognizing my vulnerability to confirmation bias and selection bias, I did my best to control these in the few days I had remaining in the hospital. Upon my discharge, I have continued this experiment in multiple venues for the last several years, with complete strangers at baseball games, weddings, shopping malls, parties, and anywhere else I may go. My results in the hospital have been replicated with extraordinary fidelity.

What I have determined is that the statement, “I teach religion” was consistently getting interpreted as a statement of my efforts to promote one doctrine or dogma at the exclusion of others, and many people find it to be a conversation stopper.

So do I. And so does George School. Our work in the Religions Department is to create a safe, stimulating and open context for students from all backgrounds to try and make sense of the dizzying array of knowledge claims they encounter on a regular basis in their lives. Learning about some of the major religious traditions of the world—including their symbols, practices, rituals and representations of the divine—is a wonderful portal into the discipline of becoming a world citizen. Alongside the rest of a George School education, courses in the Religions Department help our students to learn about their world and themselves, thereby equipping them to let their lives speak in ways that engage other people.

We do not “teach religion”—we do not teach what to believe, nor the right (or wrong) way to think. Rather, we teach the beliefs and practices of many religions, and we invite critical inquiry, so that students learn to appreciate and value the wisdom traditions that have come down to us through the ages, while reconciling them with their own experiences and family traditions. I have yet to have a student in class that did not learn a substantial amount about their own family’s spiritual and religious traditions; and in most cases the experience has deepened their appreciation for those traditions. Indeed, I would claim that most of the students at George School who identify as religiously faithful see me and the other members of the Religions Department as strong allies for their journey. May that continue to be so.

When we gathered to consider possible alternate names for our department, we considered a variety of options which are visible at other high schools that include, Religious Studies; Religious Thought; Contemplative Studies; Religious Life; Quaker Studies; and various combinations of each of these. While each of these has compelling justifications, as a team we were able to reach unity in support of “Religions,” because it had the greatest virtue of accuracy and inclusiveness for almost all of our courses. This includes Theory of Knowledge, which can be taught as a cut-and-dry philosophy course, but at its best it is fundamentally aligned with the Quaker mission of George School, to seek truth and to invite students to let their lives speak. While that may not be “religion,” per se, it is certainly congruent with the overall mission of the Religions Department.

Going forward, the Religions Department looks forward to the Quaker discipline of continuing revelation. In the last several years, we have begun to offer the following courses: Religions of the African Diaspora, Feminist Theology, and Spirituality and Sustainability. I am considering augmenting my current Peace Studies class to create one more explicitly focused on spirit-led non-violent direct action. A fundamental precept of Quakerism is the importance of staying open to new Light, and keeping the dialogue going. If you have ideas for courses that you think might be offered through the Religions Department, or other thoughts about this blog post, I look forward to hearing from you.

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Five Reasons to Attend a TEDx Talk

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by Alyson Cittadino

Are you considering attending TEDxGeorgeSchool but aren’t really sure if it’s for you or not? This might help. Happening on December 3, TEDxGeorgeSchool features thirteen passionate and remarkable speakers that are doing innovative work in the fields of design, science, and engineering. Speakers include a Nobel Laureate recipient, the co-chair of Physicians Against the Trafficking of Humans, and co-founder of BalletX. In addition to the great lineup of presenters, TEDxGeorgeSchool will feature informative breakout sessions and opportunities to interact with George School students.

But, if we still haven’t convinced you, here are five reasons to attend a TEDx Talk.

It will expand your knowledge base. TEDx Talks have a theme, but the individual subjects are usually relatively different, making it a well-rounded event. For example, TEDxGeorgeSchool is focused on innovation, but subjects range from opera to bean breeding to engineering toys that inspire learning.

Attendance at TEDx builds community. Network with likeminded individuals, industry professionals, or leaders just like you and grow your professional (or personal) network. Plus, adding the experience of a TEDx Talk to a resume, shows future employers a desire to learn and a real interest in the industry.

The breakout sessions. In between each speaker session, TEDx requires breakout or “brain break” sessions. These sessions can include anything from learning tai chi or singing to dancing lessons and chocolate tastings. Audience members will not be disappointed with the wide selection of choices designed to get the juices flowing just in time for the next fascinating speaker.

You will meet really interesting people. TEDx Talks encourage a diverse audience to mingle with the presenters. TED requires an application-based registration process to guarantee that a good mix of professionals, students, and community members are in the audience. The unique format of the talks also allows ample time for attendees to interact with speakers and each other.

Experience face-to-face communication in a digital world. TEDx Talks allow presenters the opportunity to speak directly to a live audience; not through a camera or chatbot. Interact with these speakers in person, in real time, face-to-face, and learn about the innovative work they are doing.

Learn more about TedXGeorgeSchool here.

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A Note on the Need for Civil Discourse

2016-09-05-02

By Head of School Sam Houser

Anyone paying attention to this election season, regardless of party affiliation or ideological orientation, would probably agree that the quality of much of our political discourse is not what a healthy democracy deserves. Across the political spectrum, we have heard presidential and other candidates—and their supporters—make claims and statements that are sometimes shocking, disrespectful and insulting to individuals and groups of people. Often, such claims and statements shed little light on issues confronting the country and the world and therefore are of limited value to the electorate.

I write to remind everyone at George School that as an educational community, we are obliged to model in our own behavior and cultivate in others the ability to engage in honest and well informed but also civil and respectful discourse about a range of topics, political and non-political. We do this in order to increase our understanding of one another, of humanity generally, and of the wider world. As a Quaker school, we are devoted to seeking the Light of God together and discerning and honoring the inner Light in each of us—all in the manner of Friends who prize respect for the individual, intellectual and personal rigor, integrity, and the health of our community.

We need to remember that our community is comprised of people and families holding a variety of political perspectives, who support various candidates for office and policy proposals for many different reasons. In light of this, we should be careful to treat each other with respect and avoid the temptations of snap judgments, name calling, and dismissiveness. If we choose to discuss politics (as with anything else), let’s talk honestly, thoughtfully, and responsibly about our interests and commitments, and the worries and hopes we have for the world. We may not agree on what we discuss, and we might not persuade others to our own point of view. But I firmly believe that substantial, respectful, and civil conversations strengthen our community as they advance our understanding of one another’s life experiences, concerns, and animating passions. At their best, they mobilize us to improve the world without being held back by our differences.

Thank you for keeping George School safe, strong, meaningful, and good.

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Breaking Out of Your Comfort Zone

By Amedeo Salamoni

_dsc8707-2I was asked to give a presentation on how I encourage and teach through failure. My initial reaction was not to do so. When asked what was holding me back, I thought, what if I messed it up… How ironic!

This summer at Maine College of Art, I took a class about working with new technologies and how they can be used as tools in the visual arts. What I came away with was not a vast knowledge of computer-aided design nor a comprehensive understanding of the software programs, but instead a greater empathy for what our students sometimes feel when faced with learning something new or getting outside their comfort zone.

Here I am in a class of ten art teachers from around the country, looking like a deer in headlights. While I had already incorporated 3D printing and other technologies into my classroom I wanted to learn more. But I still had a feeling of inadequacy. My instructor Bennett said something to me one day that I always tell my students. In response to a question I had about the automated CNC router and if it could be used to draw with a brush and ink he said, “I don’t know, let’s try to find a way and figure it out!”

Through a collaboration with Bennett and several other art teachers we figured out that we needed to turn off the spinning function of the router so we wouldn’t get sprayed with ink. When I wanted a variable thickness to the line Bennett suggested we alter the path speed, and so on. This is how new ideas and techniques are generated, through trial and error.

One of the things that students learn early on in my classes is that there are many ways (and techniques) to do something. I believe that the best art, design, and teaching come from people who embrace their ability to be flexible, adaptable, and vulnerable. I approach all of my work with a speculative curiosity and live for problem-solving and empirical learning. This is how I work alongside my students in class.

For those of you who have not visited the arts classes I encourage you to do so at some point, and you will see this collaboration in action, not just in my classroom but others as well.

I believe that to become proficient at making art, or anything for that matter, you need to push yourself to the point of failure to be able to learn from your mistakes. When working with clay a student needs to know and understand the material before they can make something.

I remember one time when I was in my studio in graduate school and I was working on the potter’s wheel making a series of pots. My girlfriend, now my wife, Diane was watching me work on one pot after another. She would say, “that’s good, that’s enough.” Ignoring her advice, and one pot after another, I would push the clay to the point of collapse.

This was my way of understanding the limitations of the material so the next time I made a vase I would know when to stop. It is this type of hands-on approach to a material that I teach to my students.

I incorporate many techniques and styles into my demonstrations. For example, in one of my Advanced Ceramics classes you will regularly see me ask my students questions about their project rather than give them the solution. The solution I might offer up may not be the only way to do something. Instead when a student asked if she should put a handle on her piece, my answer was “Where would you put it?” Because I answered her in this way, it prompted a conversation about balance, which led to discussing options on “how” to attach a handle.

I try to lead my students through a list of educational and artistic questions that they answer for themselves, thus instructing them to revisit and enhance the techniques they have learned. I am also encouraging them to take full ownership of their artistic work, rather than simply telling them how I would create the piece.

In my Advanced Ceramics class, this does not mean that I simply sit back and watch students grasp at straws as they tackle new projects. What it does mean is that I carefully demonstrate the techniques or methods for students to work on — ones that might not have only one possible approach. I then give them the space and the skills to work through the challenge and reflect on their process and struggles as they go. Powerful learning occurs when people have to struggle through challenging material and have the opportunity to fail a few times along the way.

My interest in focusing on this type of productive struggle in my class comes from a strong belief that people learn more when allowed to fail than when provided all the answers.

This type of learning forces us to put ourselves and our ideas out there in front of everyone, becoming vulnerable—Just like I felt in that workshop in Maine. One of the things that I do to try and make my students feel more comfortable is to do my own work right along with them in the classroom. This approach to my teaching has enabled my students to see me fail!

I encourage my students to experiment, and not be afraid if they do not succeed at first. I remember so clearly when I was working on one of my pots in the studio and I was trying to lighten the form by carving away some clay, I went too far and carved through the base of the pot, but I noticed the tool that I was using left a neat pattern in the surface of the clay. It was this accidental discovery that led to the texture and surface carving I do in my work today. It started as a mistake that I took one-step further.

I always refer to these as “happy mistakes” to my students. Taking risks can often improve one’s creativity. Taking a risk and going outside your comfort zone knowing that you may fail with your artwork is how new ideas are generated.

I read an article from the Washington Post about a teacher who told her students that failure is not an option, it’s a requirement. Too often teachers are told that all material must be “scaffolded” for students. While in the classroom, it is sometimes taken to mean that all material must be broken down into such small and simple steps or chunks of information that students are all able to be successful every step of the way. If a significant number of students in a class are not able to immediately find the answer, this is often seen as an indication that the teacher did something wrong either in presenting or breaking down the material.

Students, as a result, often get the message from very early on in their education that if they do not immediately grasp how to solve a problem or get the right answer, they must not be very smart or good at that particular subject. With years of training in this way of thinking, it comes as no surprise that students often respond to challenging work by either immediately asking the teacher for help or by giving up.

My main concern with this approach to teaching and learning is that it simply is not authentic to either the practice of art or just about anything else in life. Most real-world problems are complex and do not come with clear steps to follow to reach a solution.

If we are not equipping students with the skills to tackle such problems by supporting them in struggling with challenging work in our classrooms now, then we are simply pushing the issue farther down the road when students will come up against bigger challenges in future classes, in college, or in their careers.

Providing our students with the confidence and skills to approach challenging work without an overwhelming fear of failure, and the mindset to see the failures they will have as opportunities to learn something is far more important and transferable than any set of facts we could teach them.

Another aspect of my teaching has been building my students’ group work and process skills so that they develop their abilities to collaborate, try multiple approaches, and reevaluate an approach that is not working.

In my Sculpture class I usually assign a group project in the last term. I introduced the project to the students and let them run with their ideas. Students are assigned to small groups and allowed to brainstorm their ideas for the sculpture. Each group then has to submit their design proposal, just like a professional artist would when applying for a commission. Selected faculty and staff members serve as jurors on the design committee.

Once the design is selected, the project becomes more challenging. The entire class works together to solve problems of balance, construction, and cost. Working in smaller groups, based on each students particular skillset or talents, the fabrication process begins with delegation of responsibilities. All this is student run, with only gentle nudging or guidelines from me.

This project enables my students to put into action all the skills, techniques and methods that were taught in the first two terms. I provide them with opportunities before and after each significant group work activity to reflect on how their skills are growing.

As they are working, I have to be continuously mindful of my tendency to step in and redirect groups that are taking unexpected approaches. When I step back and allow my students to work through these problem-solving issues the most interesting student learning and work products have usually come from those groups.

While all of us at some point in our lives experienced the discomfort that can come with struggle, we’ve hopefully experienced the investment in solving challenging problems, the “light bulb moments”, and the deep learning that comes with struggle as well.

I have already seen the value in tilting my classroom more towards one focused on the skills of tackling complex questions. That of course does not mean that content does not matter, but simply that it does not exist in a vacuum away from the struggles and challenges that helped people discover it. If I want my students to tackle some of the big questions in art (or science, or math, or history, or anything), they need to be prepared to approach complex and challenging issues and to learn from their failures.

So, in the end I am glad I put myself outside of my comfort zone to tell you how I feel about teaching art.

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