Brains + TJ Education = A world of possibilities
I recently attended a TJ alumni reunion in San Francisco. It was an informal gathering in the stylish home of a member of the class of 2005, bringing together people from every decade of the school’s seventy-year history. As we talked I was struck by how much these diverse individuals had in common. And it wasn’t simply by virtue of their TJ education; rather, it had to do with the quality of their lives and careers since TJ. To give a small sampling of who was there: the senior-most alum in attendance, a Holocaust survivor and refugee who came to TJ thanks to our founder Charles Merrill, went on to college and law school, and eventually became general counsel for one of the largest supermarket chains in the country. Another attendee took his TJ foundation in Ancient Greek through the graduate level, en route to a career in academe. But at a certain point he decided he’d really like to go to medical school. So he did. A member of the class of 1997 described a dizzying but obviously successful career path that has taken her into and out of a wide variety of domains and enterprises, both public and private. As for the host of the reunion, he studied economics and then became an artist, designer, software developer, and entrepreneur who has created everything from iPhone apps to street art and murals.
Why, one asks, do TJ alumni choose to do all these different things? Well, because they can. Or more precisely, because they KNOW they can.
We see evidence of that phenomenon in TJ’s inner workings today. A few years ago, we needed to find someone who could teach geometry, AP Statistics, and Italian. The résumés that came our way offered either math or Italian, but not both. So for that unusual combination we went to a TJ alum. He now also teaches yoga and leads the service learning program. Similarly, when we were looking for a new school trustee who could truly understand and support TJ, we went to an alum. During a campus visit he was asked by a student what he had thought he’d do as he entered college, and he replied that as he had always loved English, history, and writing, he thought he might go towards humanities. But then an inspiring biology professor fired his interest, which ultimately led a Ph.D. in computational biology and a return to St. Louis to start up a genomics enterprise…
It’s simple, really: TJ is a haven for tremendously bright and creative students, a perfect place for them to grow and thrive, both intellectually and personally. They’re immersed in an accelerated program that is unusually deep and rich, one that challenges them with the occasional, indispensable gift of constructive failure. Such opportunity doesn’t exist everywhere.
So I will now make a sweeping statement:
I know of no school, proportionally speaking, that has more interesting and accomplished alumni than this one. It’s not an exaggeration to say that TJ’s alumni are extraordinary in their achievements— their stories are endlessly fascinating. But what really sets them apart is the capacity and confidence they have to embrace, execute, and lead change. They envision possibilities and pursue them. I can say this objectively, as a well-educated person with long experience in a variety of educational, business, and not-for-profit settings, who did not have the joy and privilege of a TJ education. I can’t change that fact, but what I can do is my utmost to ensure that the brilliant minds our world so desperately needs will continue to find a safe, stimulating, and necessary home right here in this remarkable place.
Black History Month
February is a time to focus on the accomplishments of black Americans and honor their contributions to our country and the world. It’s also a call for all of us, whatever our race, ethnicity, or background, to consider more deeply and purposefully what black experience in the United States has been over time. Recent history has shown in a vivid way how this country continues to struggle with a very significant part of its history and culture— clearly, there remains a great deal of hard work to be done. At TJ, we are committed to doing such work.
TJ was founded in 1946. In 1950, it enrolled a Japanese student, one of the first from that nation to bravely enter an American prep school following World War II. In 1952, two years before the landmark Supreme Court school desegregation decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education, TJ was the first independent school in this area to admit an African-American student. Our doors have been open for a long time.
As I look at TJ now, I take great pride and pleasure in its remarkable diversity. It is the bedrock and, I truly believe, the greatest strength of our school. But we must not take it for granted. Welcoming students and their families is only the first step— the real question is, what happens next? How do we design and deliver our programs to give our students the depth and breadth of knowledge and understanding they need on the topics of race and social justice? How do we foster and facilitate honest and informed discussion around those topics? What relation do they have to the development of character? How do we ensure that they remain among the values that reside at TJ’s core?
In the wake of Ferguson and all that has transpired in connection with the November elections, we are more resolute than ever in our commitment to educating our students in ways that will help them be thoughtful, compassionate, and principled people. We see this as crucial to their well-being and to that of our necessarily interconnected world.
Please join TJ in celebrating and learning about Black History: follow our daily posts on Facebook. Attend the Morgan Lecture on February 28 featuring Dr. Jason Purnell. Engage in conversation with TJ students and teachers about what they are reading and discussing. Seek out the resources that we highlight in our weekly TJ Updates. And going forward, engage fully with us to ensure that TJ continues its tradition of being a knowledgeable, inclusive, and equitable community.
The WOW Factor
It’s admission season. We’ve opened our house. We’re conducting interviews and hosting “shadow” days. Skyping with students on the other side of the planet. Running ads. Our perennial task, as it is for all schools, is to make a clear argument for what we have to offer and to show what sets us apart from the competition. We have to highlight what one prospective recently referred to as our “WOW factor.”
Of course we understand that what “wows” one person may not matter much to another. Some people are excited by a maker space with 3-D printers or a video production studio; others are drawn in by collegiate-grade athletic facilities or performing arts centers or fancy dorms. Certainly, all those things are great to have and nice to show off to prospective families, and I’m not saying we shouldn’t have them. But are they true necessities? How do they improve and enhance what we do as a school? Are they in keeping with our particular mission, philosophy, and priorities? Put another way, how do they figure into our value proposition?
Before we commit resources to things like new buildings and new technologies, we must be able to answer those questions— which, by the way, prospective parents should also be asking. Because at some point, every new building, every new technology, every new program will have to be paid for, and the reality is that some things will actually become obsolete before that happens. Are we prepared to deal with that?
So now to TJ’s WOW factor. In my view, it’s less about what we have, and more about who we are and what we do. It’s what drew me to this school in the first place, and it’s what keeps me here, thinking about what we’re doing now and what we’ll need in the future to sustain the effort. To me, it’s very clear: TJ’s WOW factor lives and breathes in all of our spaces, day in and day out. Our “shiny object” is an intangible one: deep engagement and meaningful, real-time interaction. It can be seen all over the school, wherever students and the adults who work with them happen to be. At every turn, the remarkable intellect that is the hallmark of a TJ student is being challenged, nurtured, and developed. And along with intellect, character.
TJ’s WOW factor is most vividly present in the work of our devoted, multi-talented faculty who are themselves inveterate learners. Their daily task, as teachers and scholars, is to envision, design, and deliver the best, most relevant version of the education that our incredibly talented students need and deserve. It’s the kind of experience that will shape what our students eventually become. And I must say, when I see what they become, all I can say is, “WOW!”
The Strongest Possible Academic Background
It’s September again. I like to begin every school year by revisiting our mission statement:
Thomas Jefferson School gives its students the strongest possible academic background through a classical education. Within a nurturing community, students develop a responsibility for their own learning and a desire to lift up the world with beauty and intellect.
Those are lovely words. But what, exactly, do they mean? As a school, we need to be able to answer that question. If we can’t, then our mission statement amounts to no more than lovely words and isn’t the aspirational touchstone and guiding force that we need it to be.
Beginning with the first key phrase— strongest possible academic background— here is what the TJ mission statement means to me:
Seventy years ago, Harvard graduates Robin McCoy, Charles Merrill, and Graham Spring founded Thomas Jefferson School with the objective of opening a top-flight boarding school for bright boys in the Midwest. Their new school’s academic program and standards were meant to equal or exceed those of well-known boarding schools in the East. From the outset, there was no question that the bedrock of TJ would be intellectual: this was a school founded by scholars, for scholars. Academic excellence was its first priority.
The TJ of 2016 adheres to that same priority and continues to be an academically intensive school, offering one of the most challenging programs in the St. Louis area and the wider region. It is an amazing place for students identified as gifted or high ability. TJ students must be able to take on a rigorous, classical liberal-arts curriculum that includes a significant number of Advanced Placement, college-level courses.
TJ’s strong academic program prepares students for college by developing their critical and expressive capacities in truly remarkable ways. Highly interactive, discussion-based classes, a relentless program of writing, insistence on skills and knowledge that allow for imagining possibilities and solving problems—all of these things set TJ apart from other schools. We certainly pay close attention to trends and innovations in education, but even as we adjust and change, we remain committed to the classical core that has been with us since the beginning. In fact, in some ways, TJ is ahead of the curve. For example, we’ve had “flipped” classrooms forever—our students have always been expected to work ahead, to come to class ready to discuss, expand, question, argue, challenge, and be challenged. TJ has always been interested in building resilience, by allowing students to make mistakes and to be wrong at times. What our founders knew is what we still know today: Without some amount of struggle or setback, there is no real learning.
Obviously, the quality of our academic program matters because we want our students to be successful in college. However, beyond that short-term goal, we want TJ graduates to have the skills, knowledge, and confidence to be self-reliant in a challenging world and thrive in a professional landscape where ways of working and living are continually being reinvented. Some of that reinvention will be activated by TJ’s own. Ultimately, isn’t that the best argument for providing the “strongest possible academic background”?
Talk less. Smile more.
In the Broadway show “Hamilton” (yes, I’m among the fortunate—I’ve seen it), Aaron Burr repeatedly tells Alexander: “Talk less. Smile more.” For me, implicit in Burr’s advice is an invitation to listen.
We live, teach, and learn in a noisy culture, one that tends to reward extroversion. I think that, on the whole, our educational system doesn’t do a very good job of purposefully developing the skill of listening. The fact is, we spend more time teaching and requiring students to talk. How often a student’s voice is heard in class remains a grading criterion (“class participation”) for many teachers, which is why the parents of quiet students continue to receive comments like: “Alex produces excellent work but needs to speak up more in class.” Or “Jesse has wonderful ideas to share with the class— we need to hear them.”
Of course there’s nothing wrong with encouraging students to talk—oral communication skills do need to be developed. But is “class participation,” in the traditional sense, a true measure of learning? Is there some other means of holding students accountable in class that doesn’t force them to talk before they really have something to say?
If you tend toward extroversion, talking is usually easy. Listening can be hard, especially when your mind is racing and your preference (and habit) is to articulate your thoughts as they form. It’s tempting to say that the converse is true for a more introverted person—i.e., listening is easier than talking—but that really isn’t quite right. Introverts aren’t necessarily better listeners; they, too, have to understand process. However, they do have the advantage of knowing how to be quiet, which is a start.
My wish is for every student to be in an environment where the skills of both talking and listening are purposefully modeled and taught. Perhaps we can borrow from Burr and teach them this: “Talk less (but when you talk, talk well). Smile more (and while you’re smiling, listen well).”
It’s all Greek to me.
In Medieval Europe, before the invention of the printing press, written works were duplicated by hand, most often by monks who were among the literate few at the time. Copyists worked in dimly lit halls, cloisters, or scriptoria to transfer the content of manuscripts onto new pieces of parchment. It was slow and painstaking work, and errors were certainly made. At certain points, a copyist might encounter letters or words that he could not decipher and therefore could not render into intelligible Latin. Those letters or words were often deemed to be Greek. Whether they actually were Greek or not, in many manuscripts they were not copied verbatim but instead were represented by the substitution of the Latin words Graecum est, non legitur (“Greek, not readable”).
Link to Artwork
To this day, English speakers use the phrase, “It’s all Greek to me” to denote something they can’t understand. There are similar expressions used by other national, cultural, or linguistic groups to convey the same idea of inscrutability. For speakers of Greek, it’s Chinese. For others, it’s Hebrew, Turkish, Arabic, hieroglyphics, chicken feet, fish-egg language, Spanish village talk— clearly, the unintelligible can take many forms!
But a basic inability to decipher language is not the whole story here; sometimes, we’re confounded not just by words, but by culture. It’s ridiculous to expect that we’ll comprehend everything we see or hear— the real question is, what will we do about the incomprehensible? How will we confront it? Will we acknowledge that we can’t understand and then try to remedy that? Or will we take the Graecum est, non legitur approach and move on? If we choose the latter, then we will have to accept the limits imposed by such a choice (from a practical point of view, sometimes that’s necessary).
We’re constantly called upon to determine what’s worth understanding. In that process we depend, to a great extent, on the history informs our lives, the language(s) we know and use, and the quality of our education. In this day and time, we have extensive resources available to assist us, well beyond anything the copyists of the Middle Ages could have imagined. My hope for our students is that they will draw intelligently on those resources as they attempt to deal with the things that challenge and mystify them. This has to begin with acknowledging that they don’t understand, that they need to learn, and that they will have to figure out where and how to look for answers. In the broadest and, perhaps, most important sense, such a habit of mind will open them to seeing and embracing the differences that exist within the complex pluralism that is our world. Having been educated at TJ, the chances are great that they’ll recognize Greek.
Prefatory note: I composed this blog entry just prior to the attacks that took place in Paris on November 13th. In light of that tragedy, which comes on top of all the other traumatic local, regional, and world events of the past year, I believe it’s more important than ever for us to do all we can to prepare our students for an uncertain world.
One Right Answer
In late October we received a visit from Denis Belliveau, the photographer who followed the path of Marco Polo and documented the whole extraordinary adventure in video and print (see: In the Footsteps of Marco Polo). The time that Denis spent on our campus was a rare opportunity for us to learn from him. His remarkable journey was one that earned him an Emmy nomination and landed him in the New York Explorers Club, among the ranks of other amazing adventurers. It also linked him to all manner of other historic travelers, both real and imagined.
All such journeys are built on some basic questions: Where am I going? How will I get there? What will I find when I arrive? What will I discover along the way? Ever since human beings started moving from one place to another, they’ve relied on a variety of navigational tools. They’ve used maps, of varying precision. Some have had people to guide them. All of them have had the sun, the moon, and the stars. Many have had faith. And more recently, GPS. Whatever their navigational tools, it is certain that at some point, all of the travelers faced doubt.
As educators, we spend a lot of time thinking about the journey we’re on with our students. We know we’re preparing them for something, but what is it, exactly? Yes, we’re a college preparatory school, so in the immediate term we’re getting our students ready for that next stage of education and life. But do we really know what they will need as they move through college and into adult life? In a complex world whose hallmark is constant disruption, that question is increasingly hard to answer. Will our students be ready? Will they be able to deal with uncertainty? Tolerate ambiguity? Will they be able, as Rainer Maria Rilke expressed over one hundred years ago in Letters to a Young Poet, to “live the questions?”
Learning how to live the questions, right now, as they grow and learn, is what will take our students to answers. Their answers won’t always be right, of course, but they will see that a failed answer is an automatic learning opportunity. Sometimes students will find an answer they don’t like. Or they may get confused by finding more than one answer that seems right. Or there may be no answers at all. My point is this: Wherever they land, they must be flexible, adaptable, and open to possibility. Whatever they find, they must have the knowledge and skill to confront and understand it.
Along the way, all students will inevitably make mistakes and missteps. They’ll take wrong turns. They’ll feel at times as if they’re about to drop off the edge of the Earth. But if we’re doing our job, if we’re educating them well, they’ll recognize that it’s all right not to know exactly where they’re going. What matters is for them to know that they’ll get there. Because they’ll have the necessary tools, including the courage to deal with the fact that there may not be one right answer.
A recent Microsoft study brought forth the rather startling revelation that my attention span is now shorter than that of a goldfish. Given that most learning requires some level of concentration, there are obvious implications of the goldfish finding for how we teach students. At the very least, it raises the perennial question: How long should a class period be?
As most of us know from direct experience, the duration of a class in an American middle or high school is typically 45 or 50 minutes. Some schools combine periods into 90-minute blocks. Some schedules are rotational and differ from day to day. The academic day commonly starts at 7:30 or 8:00 and ends at 2:30 or 3:00. It’s a schedule that hasn’t changed much since my own (long-ago) high school days. And frankly, it’s one that doesn’t pay much attention to attention span.
Back to the goldfish. Even when fully awake, alert, and interested, no one—not even a goldfish—can focus fully for 45 minutes at a time. Which raises another question: What’s the best use of classroom time?
Our school has a long history of short (35-minute) class periods. The exceptions to that are art classes and additional, longer periods for classes that need more time for labs and special projects. Of course there are disadvantages to the short period, but on the whole, they seem to be outweighed by the advantages. In a TJ classroom the level of engagement is extraordinary. That has a lot to do with our exceptionally bright students, but it has also to do with pedagogy and lesson design. From a teacher’s point of view, the 35-minute period is challenging: you have to enter teaching. You can’t arrive late, because every minute counts more heavily in the shortened format. You can’t spend time shuffling papers or writing notes on the board while students shuffle their own papers or watch you write on the board. The 35-minute period is all about preparation, on the part of students and teachers alike. On a normal school day, we blaze through eight periods of 35 minutes, starting at 8:30. We’re finished at 1:10. But that’s only the beginning. After the final 35-minute period, teaching and learning continue in other settings: teachers’ offices, Student Commons, study hall, gym, dorm rooms, outdoors beneath the ancient beech tree—wherever we happen to be. Every afternoon looks a little different, but they all last until 5:00.
So we’re not goldfish, and we’re not teaching them. But we do need to understand and honor how brains are wired for attention, and then make sure that we’re engaging our students in ways that will leverage and, we hope, expand their ability to concentrate.
In many schools (including ours), the official start of the academic year is referred to as Opening Day. It’s a time of excitement and hope, a perennial exercise in possibility. It’s the day on which everyone has the opportunity to take up the gift of a clean slate and begin to write the next part of the story.
To state the obvious, “opening” represents a status change, from “closed” (or perhaps “non-existent,” as in “grand” opening). But for a 21st-century school, that status is now more a matter of mindset than objective reality. We’re well past the time when schools emptied out and locked their doors for the summer. Whether because of the heat or the need for children’s hands on the farm, the school calendar of yore excluded summer. It’s rather strange that today, even with those reasons no longer really in play, even with a clear understanding of how a three-month hiatus can compromise learning, the American school year remains virtually unchanged: still nine months, still fall, winter, and spring.
And yet, though we still “close” for the summer, we’re anything but empty and locked. Whether physically present or operating remotely, we’re here, processing the past year and preparing for the next. And while students may be away, their learning doesn’t stop. One example of this at our school is a long-standing practice of requiring students to engage in a program called Outside Reading (and writing). They’re held accountable for it because we know it works—we have decades of enthusiastic attestations from alumni as proof. But a program like Outside Reading doesn’t just build extraordinary skills; it also ensures that during breaks, our students maintain an active connection to their teachers and their school. This is greatly facilitated by current technologies that dissolve the limits of time and space, and allow so much to be shared. Once students are back on campus, such connection eases their transition back into the school year routine. As they travel through Opening Day, they’re simply passing from one stage into the next on the continuum that is their education and growth.