Deconstructing the "Single Story"

NewsNotes Spring 2016

In her now famous TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story”, writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about growing up middle class in Nigeria and being exposed only to American and British books. The characters in those books, as she tells it, were exclusively white. These stories impacted her own writing and artwork, influencing her to populate her stories with white, blue-eyed people who talked about the weather, played in the snow, and ate apples despite the fact that she experienced none of those things growing up as a black woman in Nigeria; her peers were black, who, like she, ate mangoes which were more available than apples, and who had never seen snow. Growing up exposed to foreigners exclusively through these books and not through any other sources, she developed what she calls a “single story” about foreigners.

Adichie goes on to talk about her experience with her American roommate while attending college in the U.S. She explains that her roommate was shocked that Adichie could speak English so well, that she knew how to use a stove and disappointed when, after asking Adichie to play her favorite music, Adichie produced a tape of Mariah Carey songs. Adichie also observed that her roommate’s default position about people from Africa (often identified as a country rather than a continent) was pity. Her roommate’s single story of Africa was of famine, war and AIDS – a single story of catastrophe and suffering narrowed by pop images, literature and news stories. 

Adichie’s own single story about foreigners was formed when she was a child, as it is for most of us. But even in adulthood, she illustrates, we still struggle with seeing beyond what we are exposed to. The constant stream of images and stories we receive from news sources and social media about refugees, the war-ravaged Arab countries, and terrorism in Europe, for example, influences our perception of those places and minimizes the complexities of those challenges. (During this election year, watch for the over-simplification of topics such as immigration, economics and foreign policy – a form of single story.) 

Children are impressionable and highly vulnerable to defining their world through single stories. As adults we have a vital responsibility to expose children to many stories, many perspectives, many experiences. I have particular pride in how Peninsula School, over the course of its 90 year history, has courageously combatted the single story by engaging students in exploring challenging topics and exposing them to perspectives outside of their own communities. Going back to the very foundations of the school, Josephine Duveneck led the school to challenge Japanese internment, segregated schools, and farmworkers rights, and later the school community was vocal in its opposition to the Vietnam war and in promoting a connection to nature. 

That proud tradition continues today in classrooms with teachers diving into topics about the Jewish holocaust, civil rights, Black Lives Matter, the plight of refugees, immigration, gender stereotypes and sustainability. Students examine sources of news and social media to deconstruct the single stories and discuss history, systematic oppression and prejudice. 

What I find most powerful at Peninsula is the value we place on engaging students in a democratic process – this value lies at the foundation of Josephine Duveneck’s dynamic vision for the school. The profound power of the democratic tradition occurs in student meetings that are a regular part of each classroom’s school day. It is in these meetings that students are exposed to the perspectives of others, where students find their own voice, where they learn how to resolve conflicts, and where they experience the balance of individuality, diversity and community. 

Peninsula has a legendary 90 year history of providing a space where children thrive and develop their full potential as confident contributors to the world. It’s our mission! Inherent in that mission is our duty to help them gain a deep understanding about their communities, about others and about the rich complexities of the world outside our campus so that they have not a single story, but many, many wonderful stories that will help them become ethical leaders and compassionate citizens.

Fostering Passions

I spend most mornings standing by the K classroom yard greeting families as they arrive at school. Over the course of one particular year, I noticed a group of children, both boys and girls, but mostly 3-4 boys in the kindergarten class who consistently play outside in the yard for about 15 minutes while I’m greeting arriving families. 

Nearly every day this year, this group of boys would come out into the yard after finishing their classroom sign in and then immediately make a B line for the swing set in the K yard. This particular swing set has a couple of bars hanging by chains, similar to a trapeze bar one can swing on by the arms, along with the typical seated type of swings that most people are familiar with. But the seated variety of swing holds less interest for this group of youngsters. 

Each morning this set of boys would devise all sorts of games and challenges that involved this trapeze bar. They would run and grasp it to swing. They would run headlong, grasping it to harness the momentum of their bodies to land on their feet on the other side of the trough. Some boys would hang upside down from it, looping their legs around it and dangling their bodies and arms groundward.

They engaged in this type of play until the rainy season set in. At that point, their curiosity about the many ways they could use the trapeze satisfied, these boys became enthralled by marble runs indoors. Similar to their time outdoors which was focused on the swing, they now became focused on constructing marble runs from a kit of wooden grooves, tubes, curves and holes. 

They would create runs individually and sometimes collaboratively. Some were simple, involving a drop and a short roll in a pitched groove and others were elaborate configurations involving multiple tunnels, drops, canals and grooves for the marbles to travel to the end of the run. Sometimes the boys would save these constructions for later or even the next day. At one point when the weather dried up, they were provided cardboard and some tape, and these same boys, joined by a few more, used the cardboard to create a huge configuration of gutters and angles outside on a play structure and instead of marbles they used a handball.

During all of these activities, from trapeze to marble runs to cardboard constructions, these boys  engaged intensely in play. They don’t realize it, but the conditions for all this to happen are carefully curated to allow kids to play. These kids, as well as the entire class, are provided with

1. Unstructured time and a flexible schedule. 

2. The freedom to choose how to use that time both for teachers and students.

3. A robust activities program.

4. Teachers who understand the importance of #’s 1, 2, and 3.

Through this intentional curation of materials and circumstances, unstructured play naturally lays the foundation for developing a passion. People who regularly engage in activities linked to their passions refer to these activities as creative or play - scientists and mathematicians talk about how playful their work is; entrepreneurs  who are successful refer the their work in terms of play and enjoyment; and artists think of their creative explorations as play. 

Time, materials and freedom of choice begin in nursery and continue through the school all the way up to 8th grade in two important programs - Activities and Choice. Kids in Jessica’s K-1 up through 8th grade choose which activity they will be in for one hour each day. Their choices can be challenging - library, PE, art, ceramics, music, science, woodshop, weaving, and math are all enticing!

During activities, there is no curriculum. Students devise their own projects to work on during that hour and are supported by teachers. No adult forces them to choose a specific activity and while there is no schedule that dictates to them which activity they will to attend, they may not always get their choice every day due to availability of space. But they will have a choice. 

The Activities program changes a bit in the upper school, because kids can now choose to go to an activity or they can choose not to and rather play basketball, work on a class project, play music, or just hang out with a teacher. Some choose to do homework. 

In the Upper School, in addition to Activities, the Choice program involves general interest classes created and run by teachers, specialists and teaching assistants. There are 5 cycles of choice, 1 hour per day for 2-3 weeks each session. Examples are: History of the World Through Tea, Sunlight Prints, Blacksmithing, Hip Hop Culture, Sushi Making, and Kinetic Sculptures. A wide variety of Choice classes are offered and students sign up for their top choices.

When provided with this very carefully created program, those boys in K and all students don’t realize that they were laying the neural foundations that are essential to being lifelong learners. 

So, the next time you are on campus and see some kids on a swing, or your child comes home excited about a “potion” they made in science activity, or if you are presented with a kinetic sculpture from a Choice class, I hope you’ll appreciate all of the careful curation that went into helping your child find and develop their passion.

Can Peninsula School Remain “Progressive?”

NewsNotes May 2017

In my last article on Why America Needs Progressive Schools, I wrote about the need to teach children how to think critically in order to make decisions and participate in a democratic society. No matter your political allegiance, the national election raised some important questions around the importance of critical thinking in using information to make decisions in our country. It also brought to bear essential issues around change dynamics.

Over the past ten years, there has been a revolution happening in education. Ignited and enabled by technology, new schools have been founded on a model whereby students learn almost entirely on a computer with cursory interactions with peers and teachers. These schools employ software that individualizes lessons to the students’ specific learning profile and pace. Seeing this as a trend that won’t fade, and as attractive to many parents, numerous established schools have transformed themselves to this “1:1” (computer to student) model as well. Still other schools have adopted models where children participate in virtual classes, where peers and teachers are scattered around the globe. 

Education has been ripe for a revolution, which has raised important questions: Are these models the new progressive schools?  What are essential elements for educating children in today’s world? Will schools like Peninsula survive or become anachronisms?

In 1925 Peninsula School itself was revolutionary. Remember that schools at that time were based on a factory model, focused on efficiency and student conformity to prepare them for work as an adult. Peninsula had a vision of education that was, in today’s lexicon, disruptive. Peninsula’s founders viewed childhood experiences as precious and held that children could learn to think critically to tackle complex ideas and contribute to important decisions. They believed that children played a critical role in participating in their own learning and that schools had a responsibility to teach kids what living in a democratic society required. Most importantly, Peninsula’s founders believed that there are essential life lessons to learn by interacting with others in a diverse community.

As we move forward with a vision of Peninsula’s future, we need to ask ourselves: How can we be sensitive to the core values that define Peninsula and resonate with each of us today, yet remain mindful of contemporary issues to ensure we are meeting the needs of children and their futures?

With this essential question in mind, I’ve developed three principles to guide us as we consider the future of progressive education:

  • Learning is inherently a social activity.
  • Schools fulfill a social need.
  • Schools must be institutions of continual renewal.

1. Psychologist Lev Vygotsky suggested that most learning takes place through interactions students have with their peers, teachers, and others. While some forms of learning can certainly take place while working with others in a virtual environment (i.e. video or some other type of technology), face-to-face discussion, collaboration, and feedback require following social rules and developing social skills - learning that is irreplaceable and self generating. It is only through this proximity to others who may interpret the world through different cultural and experiential lenses or those who may have different abilities and disabilities that children are forced out of their comfort zones and learn about diversity. Besides, learning with others is more fun! 

2. As I wrote in my last article, schools have a responsibility to teach students about participating in a democratic society. However, how do we as a society expect to teach children to be democratically responsible and socially active adults if we don’t allow students time and opportunities to practice? Students need to learn about democracy in a school setting where decisions are not virtual but have real impacts and consequences. School environments are uniquely equipped to teach values, empathy and the importance of leading and joining with others to make change.

3. As a progressive school, we need to be perpetually learning and renewing our vision of education and what is best for children today and for their futures. Learning is not static, it is dynamic and must be perpetual. If we want children to learn throughout their lifetime, to be cognitively flexible and to think critically about change, we as parents and teachers must model the same for them.

My hope is that we can use these concepts to guide progressive education and Peninsula School as we prepare young people to assume the mantle of leading and working with others to inhabit this blue marble of a world. While what we know about the future is that change is certain and will continue to be rapid, we want to prepare children for the future with skills and values that serve them today and for decades to come. As Lincoln wrote, “As our case is new, we must think anew and act anew.”

Echo Chamber

HotNews April 6, 2017

Since the election, I’ve become increasingly annoyed when I look at Netflix, Amazon, Facebook and Instagram. I watched one nature documentary on Netflix in January, and I shopped on Amazon for a duffel bag a few months back. On Facebook I “Liked” an NGO my son works for, and I follow a mountain biker on Instagram.

The annoying result is that Netflix now thinks my video-watching taste leans exclusively toward nature shows, Amazon is convinced that I need luggage, my Facebook feed is flooded with select political causes, and Instagram is promoting a mountain biking vacation in New Zealand.

I’m sure you’ve experienced something similar. I understand that these tech giants farm my data to tailor ads to my spending habits and my feed to my browsing trends, but there’s an unintended impact on us as a society when this happens.

When we are surrounded by our own selves, on an island of our exclusive tastes, thoughts, ideas and perspectives, we are left in a universe that is unchallenged and antiseptic. We are not exposed to contrary arguments, divergent theories or provocative theses. As writer Chimamanda Adichie implied, we become victims of understanding the world through a single story.  

The simple annoyance that our Netflix suggestions for shows to watch are narrow is actually a bigger issue; it forces each of us into a virtual echo chamber, separate from each other, leaving our thoughts and perspectives unexpanded and unchallenged. In contrast, living and working in the real world, in a diverse community, is less familiar and less comfortable. It’s not easy when people nearby may not look like us, think like us, have a common background, perspective or experiences. Between us there may be anger, frustration and disagreement.

By allowing children the time to engage in the messiness of interpersonal relationships in a community, Peninsula confronts the inherent discomforts of diversity through dialog, class meetings and courageous conversations both among students and adults alike. From our Core Values, we recognize, appreciate and honor the differences in each child and find inspiration to dismantle the echo chamber. I hope you take a moment to read our Core Values and find inspiration for your travels.

Things Not Seen

On certain Thursdays in the fall, Admissions Director Mary Lou Lacina schedules tour days for parents who are looking for a school for their children. Most parents at Peninsula visited the school for the first time during a tour day. While the visiting parents wait for Mary Lou to begin the tour, in my role as the Head of School I provide them with a bit of history about Peninsula, some context about progressive education, and a sense of Peninsula School’s unique residence in the range of independent school choices in the area.

It’s challenging for a parent to choose a school based on what one experiences during a brief open house or tour, so I try to prepare them for what will be evident to them as they walk through the grounds, classrooms, and Big Building. More importantly, however, I tell them that during their tour, as our News Notes readers likely know, they WON’T be able to see the most essential things Peninsula provides for students.

Among many great things at Peninsula, it’s easy to see our excellent teacher to student ratio, with enthusiastic head teachers and teaching assistants collaborating in their work with small groups of children in classrooms. Visiting parents will most likely see children happily playing on the grounds or edging the Big Building because we are intentional about providing children with lots of time to play. They will see buildings and grounds that are intentionally rustic to ensure that children feel comfortable in their environment, that no area is too precious for their hand and foot prints or their joyous voices. And as they visit classrooms, visitors will see student-centered classrooms with kids engaged in lots of challenging, hands-on activities.

Less perceptible during a visit to Peninsula are the myriad ways we inspire kids to be active participants in their learning or how we nurture their curiosity and passions. During their tour, visitors won’t see how abundant freedom and responsibility for students fosters autonomy and develops instincts and self-knowledge. Visitors can’t possibly witness the thousands of conversations teachers have with students that build deep and trusting relationships and social and emotional skills. 

Invisible to visitors is how we engage students in learning through trust and respect. It will take more than this one visit to understand how we use the democratic process in classes and during class meetings to help students learn about diversity, community and individuality. And on their short tour it will not be evident how our teaching harnesses inquiry and critical thinking to stimulate intellectual curiosity that lasts a lifetime.

As Antoine de Saint Exupery wrote in The Little Prince, “L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.” “What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

With Freedom Comes Responsibility

HotNews Jan 24, 2017

Hans Monderman is a retired traffic safety engineer who re-designed roads and especially intersections in Holland to make them safer. In response to a sharp increase in traffic accidents in Friesland, a small city in the north of the country, Mr. Monderman removed all the speed signs, traffic lights, speed bumps, center lines, and even the sidewalks.

Whaaat? He REMOVED the very things conceived to make the roads safer? “It is only when the road is made more dangerous,” Monderman explains, “when drivers stop looking at signs and start looking at other people, that driving becomes safer.”

When I discovered Mr. Monderman’s work in 2005, it articulated what I instinctively felt for many years - road safety engineering is a lot like school culture.  Whaaat?

Think of it this way: road engineering can rely on lots of ordinances and laws, an abundance of signs, and police to enforce compliance. Basically it’s about rules and obedience. Conversely, the engineer can base the design on fewer ordinances and require that people respect each other, communicate and act responsibly. This approach is founded on the concept of trust and cooperation. 

With the former approach everyone, from pedestrians to drivers, must behave in a prescribed manner with an expectation that they would, as psychologist Barry Schwartz put it, do what’s required rather than do what’s right. The latter approach relies on trust with the expectation that people will look each other in the eye, have personal interactions, and communicate. 

Generally, schools inhabit a place on a spectrum between these two approaches. The culture can be based on rules and obedience or on trust and cooperation. At Peninsula, trust and cooperation form a scaffold underlying our values and are most clearly conjoined with three values in particular — Authentic Interactions, Community, and Freedom and Responsibility.

At Peninsula, children are provided with freedom and trusted with responsibility to have plenty of personal interactions with peers and adults alike. We place a premium on teaching students the value of these interactions and the importance that authentic, honest and direct communications have in those relationships. In the process, children learn from the inevitable conflicts and mistakes that come with growing up in a community. Most importantly, they learn that cooperation is challenging and messy, yet it is a powerful ally.

Tech with Intention

HotNews Jan 11, 2017

Here we are in Silicon Valley, the neonatal ward of technology that revolutionizes the world, and Peninsula School is decidedly a “low tech” school. How come? I’m asked that often during prospective parent tours. An article in the NYT written by law professor Darren Rosenblum recently provided me with some answers from the college and legal world that are perhaps more relevant to an elementary school in Silicon Valley.

Mr. Rosenblum bemoaned the loss of interactions between professor and student and the dialog students have with each other. This, he reasoned, has been the result of the trance-like focus students have for the laptop screens in front of them in classes. “Education,” he writes, “requires constant interaction in which professor and students are fully present for an exchange.” 

While Rosenblum teaches law, two skills he argues that are essential for budding lawyers are also important for young students no matter what work they imagine doing when they grow up. “Students need two skills to succeed as lawyers and professionals: listening and communicating.” These skills, he writes, are being diminished by laptops. As a result, laptops are banned from Rosenblum’s classroom.

Aside from assistive technology, laptops don’t appear in Peninsula classrooms until 5th grade for the same reason — kids need to have face-to-face interactions. And when they are used in upper school, it’s for less than an hour a day. You see, schools have this incredible opportunity, when children are together as a group, to teach them the importance of community, of collaboration, and of diversity. This is our golden opportunity to help children practice the skills they will need to be productive and compassionate citizens of the world, and we don’t get the opportunity again. 

Not all interactions children have are as positive and productive as one would wish, but the great work of a talented teaching staff comes into play to help students learn that growth comes from being out of one’s comfort zone, when two people face each other and listen to different perspectives. 

As we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on Monday, we live again in a time when our nation is philosophically polarized. It is a time that requires us to face each other, to listen and reach beyond our comfort zones. Yet as Dr. King demonstrated, these times also require us to engage with others to communicate clearly and precisely, especially about what we passionately believe is just.

Why Does America Need Progressive Schools?

NewsNotes November 2016

It is undeniable that we are living in an era of change, the pace and revolutionary nature of which is equal to or more rapid than any other era in history. Educators have had the uncomfortable realization that the academic content that has been taught to students will be increasingly accessible through technology, turning the model of traditional education on its head.

In John Dewey’s writing, he strongly argued for a curriculum that is interactive and engages the child’s experience. He wrote that schools should have a curriculum that develops skills to help children think rather than a  curriculum focused on academic content knowledge that is simply transmitted from adult to child. 

Dewey saw that this content information was useful to society only when citizens had the skills to think critically about it and the freedom to use that information to participate in society. This, essentially, forms a recurring theme in his philosophy about education—it is the responsibility of schools to teach and promote democracy. This tenet remains at the heart of progressive schools across America. We don’t know if Dewey predicted that as a result of democracy, access to information would grow exponentially as it has in the last 20 years, but his overall goal of developing rigorous thinking was to help children use these skills as a tool to make decisions and, as a result, develop their individuality. 

Peninsula School’s values are deeply rooted in Dewey’s work. Articles in this edition of NewsNotes provide a glimpse into how staff members used the elections to emphasize the importance of participating in a democratic society. They engaged students in a hands-on introduction to get out the vote initiatives, campaigning, and the election and voting process, all while challenging students to think critically and objectively about the issues and propositions. Through this process, students began to recognize that in order to be an active participant in a democratic society, one must be an informed citizen. 

While the complexities of the election process are more accessible to the older students, learning how to make choices forms the core of active citizenship, and Peninsula is committed to providing time and opportunities for students of every age to make choices and learn from reflecting on the results of those choices. 

It is important to remember that Peninsula School’s values are informed by such great minds as John Dewey, Francis Parker and Maria Montessori. It’s comforting to see that these values are being utilized each day by skilled staff members who are dedicated to helping students develop their full promise of being confident contributors in the world.