Farewell to the Class of 2014

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It falls to me to bid the class of 2014 a final farewell on behalf of the Randolph faculty.  We take pride in your many, many accomplishments, we share the joy mingled with sadness and melancholy on this special day, and we look with you to the future with anticipation, eagerness, and possibility as you greet the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

Each class forges its own identity in the life of Randolph School.  You have made your own way here, charted your own course.  More than anything else, you embody an extraordinary blend of unique individuality and corporate community.  Time and time again you’ve shown your ability to go your own way, and at the same time to care for and support each other as your classmates forge their own path forward.  This rather extraordinary blend of seeking truth and nurturing all has everything to do with your character and what you have built here in your years at the school. You seek challenges when others might turn aside, you welcome depth in all of its richness and complexity when others take comfort in what looks good on the surface.

Your coaches and teachers and directors and advisers have you pegged: there’s great range and diversity in the class of 2014, but there are not divisive cliques.  You draw strength from a will to prevail that comes from within as well as from a sense connectedness and relationship that comes from each other.  You have been a class that didn’t want to leave the practice field when the day was done, did not want to take off the uniforIMG_0519m after the final game, leave the stage after the final production, or walk away from the last Science Olympiad competition.  More than most classes, you live out our hope that students here will make the most of an inter-connected life of academics, the arts, and athletics, a blended range of experiences that inform the whole of who you are, both individually and collectively.

I have long admired the bravery and courage of the class of 2014. A mid-year tragedy that no one expected or could have foreseen shocked and saddened us and grieves us still, but your resolve to stand together as one and push ahead into the unknown has been an inspiration to us all.  The author Anne Lamott observes that “hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come.”  You’ve proven that this year.  Countless times in the classroom, on the athletic fields, and in the arts, in your out of school commitments in dance or in the workforce, we see you taking risks and making the most of your time here at Randolph and beyond.  You may not have always prevailed, but your undaunted courage has left its mark and made you whole and made the School better.

Of all the negative forces in life, fear might be the most debilitating.  When we fall prey to fear, we cheapen our lives and sell ourselves and each other short.  May you, in the years ahead, hearken back to the courage you showed here in all areas of school life and drink deeply from lives full of promise and possibility, even in the midst of difficulty and occasional despair.

May you have the integrity, wherever you go and whatever you do, to live boldly and authoritatively, remembering, perhaps, what Nelson Mandela once proclaimed about what individual men and women can do unshackle themselves and each other when they overcome their fear and reach beyond themselves: “Our deepest fear,” Mandela wrote, “is not that we are inadequate.  Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.  It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.  Our playing small does not save the world.  There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so other people do not feel insecure around us. We were all made to shine as children do. It is not just in some of us. It is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear our presence automatically liberates others.”

As you navigate the uncertain shoals of life, bring bravery, courage, compassion, humility, perseverance, and gratitude to the fore.  Remember at all times to respect the dignity of your fellow man, even when your beliefs are very different and your styles wildly divergent. May you remember the strength that you drew upon here in this special school, from your teachers, coaches, parents, and especially from each other.  May each of you know that you are a gift with an important contribution to make every day.  Above all remember that the gift of life is an invitation, not a guarantee, and that you may do with this gift what you choose.  We wish you the very, very best in the months and years ahead, and hope you will come back to visit your teachers and coaches and your kindergarten buddies many, many times as proud alumni of the Raider Nation. Godspeed to the class of 2014, and best wishes to each of you in the years ahead.

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Farewell, Randolph!

Closing ConvocationRemarks from Closing Convocation, Spring 2014

I am very happy to welcome you to this spring’s convocation, the last opportunity of the school year for the entire community to gather together to mark the beginning of the end of what has been another excellent year in Randolph’s history and for the Raider Nation.  This is one of the year’s signature events, an opportunity to celebrate our common investment in ourselves and each other as a community of learners seeking excellence in all that we undertake.

Today’s convocation holds special meaning for me personally.  First of all, my wife Jennifer and I are the parents of Claire, a current kindergartner, part of the walking in in the fall and the walking out in the spring.  Secondly, I have an even greater than usual and more enduring fondness for the class of 2014. We share with each other a loss that still grieves us, and we share, too, gains in the aftermath of that loss in our recognition of our unbroken interdependence. You have helped me in ways I will never be able to convey, and I am and always will be very grateful to you. And lastly, I’m bonded to the class of 2014 because we are leaving the School together.

A year ago when Jennifer and I shared with our children Ben and Claire that we would be leaving Randolph to return to Woodberry Forest, our son, Ben, looked at me disbelievingly and asked, “Dad, how could you ever leave Randolph?” It’s a great question, one that’s not easy to answer.  I didn’t say then, but would like to offer now, that I am really only able to leave because Randolph has lifted me up and challenged me and cared for me in ways that have prepared me for a an adventure that lies ahead, just as we hope and believe that the Randolph experience has prepared each of you seniors for your own adventures in the years to come.

Leaving for me won’t be easy, because there is so much here that I hold very close to my heart.  I wanted this morning to share brief remarks on “Ten Things I Love About Randolph.” There are many more, but here are some highlights for me that make me so proud to be part of this special community, and so bonded with the Randolph students and teachers.

  1. Kindergarten-Senior Buddies: perhaps Randolph’s most cherished tradition, capped by convocation and our seniors in the fall escorting our kindergartners into the School and in the spring our kindergartners escorting our seniors out of the School as they prepare to graduate. I am especially moved that many of these relationships endure beyond the school year and remind me that the Raider Nation is connected through and beyond the graduating class.1. Sr Buddies Kite Day
  2. Head of School Art Gallery: Your art has brightened my office and lifted my spirits every day.  I appreciate that every class, K-12, is represented. But most of all I love hearing the stories about how the art was made and how, in almost every case, the student-artist responded to a mistake and created an even more beautiful piece of art. That’s a life lesson that came from you, and one I’ll take with me forever.2. HOS Gallery 2 (2)
  3. Friday Night Lights: It’s an electric K-12 atmosphere, full of great play on the field from a team eager to get better and better, a team passionately supported by parents and students and cheerleaders, and lifted up by a band that keeps us cheering from start to finish. These are magical, carnival-like nights at Randolph and they bind us together as one community.3. Friday Nights 1
  4. Interim: I love the learning outside of our academic routine, whether on class trips to Williamsburg, Tremont, Washington, D.C., or Chicago; smaller trips to the Grand Canyon, a writer’s retreat in Arkansas, or a Habitat build in Florida; career exploration with a Randolph alumnus or parent; or community learning here in Huntsville. Friendships are forged and we come to believe that great learning can and should happen anywhere at any time.4. Interim Canyon 2
  5.  Middle School House System: Everyone needs a place to belong, and our 5th-8th grade houses are extended families of students and teachers who come to know each other in and beyond class and who challenge each other to make the most of the Randolph experience.5. House 3
  6. The Honor System: Every one of us can reach for greatness in a community in which we are trusted to be our best self, to tell the truth, to take responsibility for our own work, and to respect what belongs to others. Randolph’s community of trust is the heart of the School and what I love and respect the most.6. Honor Tradition
  7. Meetings with Seniors: I have learned more from seniors about Randolph in my annual meetings than I do through any other activity.  Through you, and through each class that has come before you I have learned what makes the School special, what you love most about Randolph, and how we can get better as a school community.  You have made me a better Head of School, and I am grateful to you.7. Sr. Meeting
  8. Early Start Wednesdays: you come to school late on Wednesdays, but we on the faculty come early. I admire and respect the ways your teachers come together to challenge and support each other to get even better and live out their call to you to be a life-long learner. The faculty’s appetite for learning is infectious, and makes us all better.8. Wednesdays 1
  9. Grandparents Day: It’s the happiest day of the year at Randolph. I’m reminded of the love and affection that flows in families between grandchildren and their grandparents and special friends.  The Randolph family is wide and deep, and here we are safe and free to be better than we thought we could be. Our grandparents remind many of us that we will always be loved, no matter what.9. Grandparents LS 1
  10. Commencement Weekend: You see it in the awarding of the diploma or the tossing of the caps at the end of the morning on Saturday, but I’m most drawn to the night before at Baccalaureate.  The anticipation of what lies ahead is thickest then, full of sweetness and possibility. The class hasn’t yet graduated and gone its separate ways. That night we’re all one, reminding me that at our best we are bound together. And it’s in that night that I see the common thread that holds all of this together: it’s the people, the friendships, the relationships, the memories shared together, the value of a shared enterprise that lifts a whole community up over each of us as individuals, a sense that we are part of something much greater than any one of us will ever be.10. Graduation 1

That’s what I love most about Randolph, and that’s what carries me forward and fills me with enduring respect for you and a very grateful heart that I had the chance to be here, part of the Raider Nation.  Thank you, and best wishes for a great end of the school year and a happy and healthy summer.

What Is College For?

2014-04-02 11.32.02Seniors across the country are using the month of April to finalize college choices. After years of observing this culmination of the college search process, I’m attuned to the many variables that factor into their decisions: proximity to (or distance from) from home, cost, perceived strength of the academic program, residential offerings, and social life are among the most important. Ideally, seniors choose a college that is comfortable enough to start, and demanding enough to challenge their growth through four of the most exciting years of their lives.

It’s hard to get that balance right, so it’s also true that we end up making decisions based on other factors, some of which are fleeting and some of which are so deeply etched into our psyches that we can barely articulate a single persuasive reason why we make such an important life decision.  I’ve seen students turn down a great college option because it was cold and rainy on the day they toured.  I foolishly chose not to apply to Rice University because I thought the tour guide was weird and I couldn’t understand why he would sacrifice his Spring Break to read Dickens’ Bleak House.

And I’ll never forget a conversation with a Woodberry Forest father many years ago explaining why he wanted his son to go to the University of North Carolina: “I’ve always wanted,” he told me, “to go the games with my boy.”  In my household, the one non-negotiable was we had to leave home for college.  So when we lived in Nashville, Vanderbilt was off the table, and when we moved to Lubbock, Texas Tech went off the radar.  My dad (who definitely loved me by the way) couldn’t have cared less about going to game with his boy, he just wanted me get a good education, preferably at a school a good long way from home.

Lurking beneath these calculations and family dynamics is a question that we should answer: What is college for? We should candidly allow that the answers to this question are murkier now than they have been at any time in our nation’s history since the GI Bill in the aftermath of World War II.  For generations we have assumed that going to college was the surest route to social and economic mobility. But with undergraduate college loan debt at an all-time high and with the labor market still stubbornly soft, more and more Americans are questioning return on investment.

With the dawn of the Information Age, we’re seeing the jobs we took for granted being outsourced across the globe, and associated career paths are drying up and being re-directed in ways we can barely predict.  Google now admits that they care very little about test scores and grades and a college record when they hire new employees. What matters more is “emergent leadership” and the ability to work together as a team of humble learners more interested in getting to the right answer than claiming individual credit.

If college is meant to be merely a credential or an assumed rite of passage between childhood and adulthood, the traditional model we know today is sure to fail.  The debt is too great and the outcomes are too uncertain. Even a steady flow of conference and national championships in the super-funded world of college athletics are not enough to save college as it was when I went to the University of Virginia in 1990 and to graduate school at the University of Texas in 1992.  After all, wouldn’t it make more sense to get a far less expensive degree on-line than risk the downside of significant debt and a shrinking labor market? Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are treading into the marketplace, and some colleges and universities are beginning to offer credit for life experiences outside of the walls of the Ivory Tower, arguably two signs that what we have valued in the past is no longer as relevant today.

But if we grapple more rigorously with the question about what college is for, we might chart a path forward that renews our belief in the purpose of education as the engine of economic and social mobility and restores our ailing political culture.  I believe we should hold ourselves more highly accountable to the larger purpose of an education.  It is for sure important to train the next generation of the nation’s workforce, and business publications like Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, and Business Week all offer assessments of return on investment for students and families anxious about what’s after college.

The College Board doubles down on the economic argument, emphasizing that “greater wealth means more choices.  Whatever your dreams–owning a home, traveling the world–college is the way to support a richer life.” And except for some spectacular exceptions, and reputable and necessary trades that don’t require traditional college, it is true that most of us need a university education to open doors that will otherwise be shut.

But I like to think that the answer to “what is college for” includes far more than mere preparation for a job. After all, we hear constantly that most of the jobs of the future don’t exist today.  The best way to prepare for that uncertainty is to make a commitment to life-long learning, starting in kindergarten and continuing through retirement.  The stakes are higher now in The Information Age.  While we can take far less for granted, Socrates’ call to a self-examined life is more relevant than ever.  And as former Barnard President Judith Shapiro suggests, we crave a life of learning because “you want the inside of your head to be an interesting place to spend the rest of your life.”

Finally, college in a democratic republic should be more than about mere self interest.  We need in our nation a more educated and more thoughtful citizenry, less susceptible to demagoguery and more inclined to commit to the common good.  Perhaps John Alexander Smith, professor of moral philosophy at Oxford in the early twentieth century said it best when he addressed his students: “Gentlemen: Nothing that you will learn in the course of your studies will be of the slightest possible use to you in after (college) life–save only this–that if you work hard and intelligently, you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot, and that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole, purpose of an education.”

College_We’ll continue this conversation at Randolph’s Thurber Arts Center on Wednesday, April 16th at 7:00 p.m. when we host Dr. Judy Bonner, President of the University of Alabama, and Dr. John McCardell, Vice Chancellor at the University of the South in Sewanee.  They will share their thoughts about the purpose of higher education, and we’ll open the floor to your questions, concerns, and hopes as we keep digging into answers for that important question: What is college for? This event is free and open to the public. Please RSVP here.

How Do They Know They’re Learning?

IMG_7849I don’t mean to be trite when I remind myself and others that schools are for children. They don’t exist for me or for our parents or for our teachers or our coaches or for the Board of Trustees or for the alumni. Instead, schools exist so that we invest ourselves in preparing students for their future so that the world can be a better place.

So many of our conversations about schools, sadly, go off the rails when we spend too much time and energy on ourselves and too little focused on what it means for every child to be a resilient and robust learner in an era that has most of us anxious and many of us baffled.

We had parent conferences yesterday at Randolph, but for a number of our students, it was very different than it had ever been. Typically we take a day in the fall and a day in the spring for classroom teachers and advisers to meet privately with parents to provide updates on the progress of our students.  It’s a demonstration of our belief in the partnership between parents and teachers on behalf of the children under our care. And the day generally works well.

But couldn’t it be better? By that I mean that parent conference days aren’t learning days for students, and aren’t schools for them, rather than for us? Provoked by those questions and willing to take a significant risk, several of our faculty piloted an entirely different kind of conference—a student-led conference organized around a demonstration of student learning over the course of the semester.

First grade students worked with their teachers to prepare a presentation of what they’ve been learning in each subject. The time and care our boys and girls poured into this presentation reflect Randolph’s commitment to support their ability to communicate with confidence and take pride in their learning. Most of our students jumped at the chance to show off what they’ve been doing at school. And each first grade class made a video showing what every child’s classmates thought of him or her in a single word. How great is that!

conferenceTrish King and Jennifer Ragsdale piloted student-led conferences for a number of sixth and eighth graders respectively.

I sat in on Jennifer’s conference with eighth grader Tristen Hunnewell and his mother, Peggy. It was an extraordinary demonstration of learning. Designed to encourage student initiative and accountability, the conference hinged on Tristen’s creation of a portfolio of his work in every class.

Tristen was the center of our attention, but Peggy and Jennifer were interactive participants, too. They asked follow-up questions (Peggy once asked about ERBs if we were “teaching to the test” too much), and Jennifer focused not only on what Tristen had mastered so far, but what he hoped to do for the rest of the year and into his Upper School career going forward.

Most important, the structure of the conference required that Tristen speak to areas of strength and areas he hoped to develop in school and beyond. It was one of the highest level conversations I’d ever witnessed about the wonder of learning and the potential for ongoing growth and development in the coming years.

IMG_7843We’re seeking parent feedback on the day so that we can be sure to strengthen the partnership that Randolph enjoys with our parents. Early returns, though, are very positive.

A first grade parent wrote that “seeing my child’s pride in all that he has accomplished this year was the highlight of the conference.”  Another wrote that “this was a good first building block for developing a confident, articulate student.” Peggy wrote that she was impressed that Tristen “demonstrated that his curiosity for knowledge drives him to take a leap into things unknown even when he may fail at grasping the new concepts.”

Jennifer’s eighth grade advisees reported to her today that the conference was one of the few times they had interacted with their parents about their learning, and one noted that for the first time at conferences his mother was more proud of his progress than upset about the final grade.

There is some parent anxiety that student-led conferences might minimize opportunities for conversation between teachers and parents about social interaction and student behavior. I was interested that Jennifer gave Peggy a self-addressed card and invited her to be in touch at any time if she wanted a private follow-up conversation. I would never want a Randolph parent to think that they’ve lost the one opportunity they had to visit privately with a teacher about a question or concern, but I would hold that these difficult conversations about social interaction or academic progress can be even more productive when we’re all in the room together rather than re-creating the conversation separately after the meeting.

For me, the gain of our students taking responsibility for communicating their learning far outweighs the cost of a private 20-minute conversation between parents and teachers about a student who’s taking a day off from learning. Our son, Ben, wanted to know more about his teacher’s “report.”  Those students who led their conferences yesterday had no such questions for their parents.

As faculty, we began the year invested in a single question: How will your students know they are learning, and how will we communicate their learning to the Randolph community and beyond? Student-led conferences underscore that students, supported by caring and nurturing parents and teachers, need to be responsible for their own learning, and that schools exist for children and not for us adults.

In Memory of Jason Dehorty

Jason Dehorty was a learner, a boy who poured himself into a ceaseless quest to know more about virtually every subject he encountered.  His teachers and I just can’t recall a time in which he was grasping at a grade or struggling for a point here or there to bolster his GPA or test scores.  That’s how I remember myself in high school, but our prevailing memory of Jason is as a boy who was, in his own way, an intellectual purist, an independent and sometimes stubborn scholar who immersed himself far more in uncovering the underlying principles of an operative idea than he did in any rote memorization of a fact or figure.  Jason was wholly and completely determined to learn from the inside out, no matter what the grade or test score.

Most of us register insights as separate data points and unrelated anecdotes.  Jason searched for patterns.  He was the first to pick up on the fact that Mr. Bell only wears bow ties on Wednesdays.  And he loved Science Olympiad competitions because he could put his learning to use outside the classroom and work by himself or with a teammate or two to make something few other people could.  He learned for the sake of learning, and the power of his intellect is an inspiration to us all.

We remember him at home here, sailing through the Randolph curriculum almost as if he were on a different plane than the rest of us.  So often we recall his gentle self smiling contentedly as he traversed the hallways and made his way from one domain to another.  His chemistry teacher Ruth McMichens says she worked for two years to bring up an idea he didn’t already know, and only succeeded once or twice.  On those rare occasions, she remembers, Jason would cock his head just so and begin to dig into a search for truth that would leave us all in awe.

He told me late in the fall that it was fifth grade science teacher Susan Smith who first convinced him that science mattered to life outside of school, and he has for us at Randolph always been the kind of student who is a natural and metabolic learner.  Jason taught himself—he was stubborn, inveterate, unceasing, and fully committed to whatever it was he’d undertaken.  He told me in the fall that his biggest regret about his time at Randolph was that he waited until his junior year to give himself permission to fully enjoy his learning.  He credited long conversations with his brother Justin for this epiphany, and told me with confidence and clarity that from that moment on “learning became my video game.”

Jason Dehorty was a teacher, a boy who loved the world of ideas so much that he was compelled to share his insights with others.  Parents Bill and Diana tell me that he derived great pleasure from the opportunity he seized to serve as Kate Crandall’s tutor.  Kate’s a sophomore at Huntsville High School.  At just eighteen months of age, Kate suffered a stroke, and has had learning challenges ever since.  This year Jason was her math and science tutor, and the time he invested in Kate and the happiness they drew from each other in pursuit of academic material he knew so well and she could but dimly see is a testament to them both and to the power of relationship hinged on a love of learning.

Calculus teacher Beth Andrada still hears Jason’s laughter and still sees his bright-eyed smile, even though he’s no longer with us.  Jason often visited this year’s BC Calculus class to lend her a hand as they dived into material that would leave me completely confused.  Because he was a natural teacher, Jason’s presence was a comfort to all, and Beth remembers him in those times keeping the beat to music he was playing and conducting in his head as he helped his classmates through the haze of momentary confusion as they grappled with differential equations.

Jason’s adviser and English teacher Nate Gee remembers stumbling across an article about string theory that he was determined to understand but just couldn’t.  Because he too is a learner, Mr. Gee recruited Jason and Ryan Murphy to help him figure it out and then the rest of the afternoon vanished.  Jason and Ryan debated each other and educated Mr. Gee; Jason had this way of explaining science clearly but also trapping us all in the conversation forever.  Every idea he explained fascinated Mr. Gee and he couldn’t help but ask more questions.  Nate recalls that Jason was incredibly patient and relentlessly curious about how he could explain something so complex in ways that we could all understand.

Above all, Jason Dehorty was a friend, a boy who knew just how to connect with those who relied on him most to make the crooked places a little more straight and to smooth out the rough edges that complicate all of our lives.  Jason’s journey may have been tragically short, but he travelled well.  Band members remember that Jason the student conductor would make silly faces to lighten their load and focus their attention on the task at hand.  Mr. Bernick recalls that Jason laughed good-naturedly at all of his jokes.  He taught some of you to play poker, he made up card games deep into the night with his fellow Science Olympians, he showed others of you how you might solve the Rubik’s Cube.  He could be a prankster: one day walking into a supermarket with his lab coat on trying to pass himself off as an employee in the meat department and pulling the stunt off with grace and aplomb.  When Connor Diaz came to Randolph as a new student in his junior year, it was Jason who helped him get rooted.  Connor remembers never-ending conversations in the gravel parking lot after school in that first fall semester.  Every other car would have left and it would have grown dark, but Connor and Jason were still standing by their cars digging into the intricacies of serotonin pathways, the 2012 election, or theories of existentialism.  Jason helped Connor believe that he belonged at Randolph and he speaks for many of you when he says, “I’m not sure I’ll ever really be able to say goodbye to Jason, but I know those conversations will always remind me of the counterpart that Jason was for me and the impact our friendship had on my life.”

As we take time to celebrate all that was so obviously right and good and pure, we’re mystified by what must have gone wrong.  We are shocked and saddened, so much so that many of us keep thinking that surely this is a terrible dream and we’ll get back to school on Monday and Jason will be back in our midst.  What hurts most is that we can’t help but feel that we got more from Jason than he was able to get from us.  Knowing what we know now, we hurt for Jason, and we hurt for ourselves.  For some of us our anger has morphed to disappointment, and our shock has shifted to resignation.  Yet we’re mystified by what went wrong and grasping for answers that may never come and a peace of mind and heart that we may never find.

We are likely to never know.  At best we might be privy to an insight or two or a glimpse of truth buried in layers of need that Jason kept hidden from himself and from those who loved him.  We won’t know, and we’re likely along with his family, to carry the burden of a boy who used his extraordinary rational powers to plan for the ultimate irrational act.

Thrown off course and left searching for some meaning in the midst of what is so final and what remains so mysterious, we’re left to rely on each other for comfort, hope, and a light to make the darkness go away.  From “Bow ties for Brent” to notes and hugs and high fives in the hallways, your gestures and acts of compassion for Jason, his family, for each other, and all of us have inspired me more than I will ever be able to convey.  At every turn this week I’ve seen countless acts of courage, a natural bravery in so many of you as teachers and friends to find that place that resides deeply in us where everything comes together and where we can be our best and most noble selves.

Compassion and courage will bind us together until the very end, so long as we’re brave enough to stay the course.  Let us not grow weary and become resigned to a life defined by fear and despair.  Instead, may we be bold enough to lean into our pain and be true to the sadness we feel at never having the chance to be a part of what Jason might have become.  May we be strong enough to know that suffering makes us stronger and fortifies us for opportunities that lie ahead.  The finest scholars, best athletes, most accomplished artists, and most enduring friends have all suffered, and through this suffering we will likely find that we’re able to make an important and lasting contribution to ourselves and to the world around us.

Late Monday morning I crossed paths with one of Jason’s classmates.  I could tell that he was struggling, and he explained that the weekend had been ok because he forced himself to be with his friends.  This young man told me that he’d always seen himself as an introvert, and was forcing himself to be with his friends so that he could help them in a time of need.  It wasn’t until Sunday night when he was home in the wilderness of his aloneness that he realized that his friends had given him as much as he had given his friends.  By giving, we receive, and when we receive freely we’re elevated to give back again to those who need us as much as we need them.

That same classmate punctuated our Monday conversation when he made clear that we’re left, broken-hearted as we are, with the opportunity to do something great with our lives since our friend Jason, at least in this world, no longer can.  May we all rise to this challenge, may we know deep in our hearts that we are all under construction, and may we all care for each other and love one another in ways that make the Raider Nation stronger than it’s ever been.

 

Students honor Jason and say thanks to Upper School Head  Brent Bell for his support during this difficult week.

Students honor Jason and say thanks to Upper School Head Brent Bell for his support during this difficult week.

"Bowties for Brent"

“Bowties for Brent”

 

Randolph’s A-Team: Serving the Mission One Gift at a Time

2014-01-09 09.16.13This is Homecoming Week at Randolph, our time to celebrate the Raider Nation and the community that gives us all such extraordinary opportunities.  This year I’m especially proud of Randolph’s Advancement Team, which, along with a number of committed and generous parent leaders, has re-structured the Randolph Fund to bolster the resources necessary to make the School the best we can be.

In the past two years we have asked for gifts on the front-end of the School’s fiscal year so that we can plan in real-time for student and faculty needs in the year to come.  Last year the Board of Trustees issued a $100,000 challenge to the community, encouraging generous gifts before December 31.  And this year, a committed group of parents pooled an additional $40,000 of giving in hopes that the community would answer the call again with earlier and more generous giving.

The results have been extraordinary, and speak to the love and passion that so many in our community have for the School and our mission to seek truth, build character, and nurture all.  By the end of the calendar year, we’d blasted through the $615,000 goal and raised close to $700,000, far more than ever before.  And parent participation is well ahead of where we were in last year’s record-breaking year.

Parent and alumni participation matter more than many understand.  School leaders everywhere track annual giving as an indicator of community support and commitment to excellence.  Especially in the midst of leadership transition, few other metrics stand out as clearly when newcomers and prospective newcomers are trying to understand a school community.  In the past three years we’ve seen parent participation increase from 49 percent to 60 percent, and we’re now in the early stages of another push to eclipse our record by Spring Break.

Completing our Randolph Fund campaign by Spring Break allows Linda Bryant and the faculty to address student needs in anticipation of the next school year.  Recently we’ve used this time and the community’s generosity to enhance our community in very specific ways.  Just a few (there are many more!) examples follow: 90 iPads for kindergarten through fourth grade; renovated and re-configured Middle School library spaces; expansion of our band instrument lending library; new furniture in the Shields-Jones Athletic Complex; and new furniture and built-in access to power sources in the Upper School Library.

Through the relentless work of Randolph’s A-Team and our band of fearless parent and alumni leaders, we’ve enjoyed enormous gains in our efforts to develop a culture of philanthropy at Randolph.  I’m excited that our work is capturing the attention of outside audiences.  We’ve had excellent candidates for the Head of School and Head of Upper School positions, in part because of how clear it is that our community loves Randolph and believes in our future.

And at the close of the first semester we received word that the prestigious EE Ford Foundation had awarded Randolph a matching grant of $50,000 to support the School’s need-based tuition assistance program.  The EE Ford Foundation tracks metrics like parent and alumni participation as they make decisions about their funding.  Their support of our mission is one more indication that Randolph’s moved far beyond our local and regional reputation for excellence.

I’ve always admired the fact that we at Randolph are not a boastful lot.  We’ve never been satisfied or complacent about previous successes, and that fuels our eagerness to always make ourselves better.  But we shouldn’t be bashful for being known nationally as a place on the leading edge of excellence in support of student growth and development.  More and more we have the resources to make it happen, and that’s a tribute to the A-Team and the generosity of this community.

“I Knew Who I Was”

Individual learning is a centerpiece of Randolph’s educational philosophy. Here we believe that self-knowledge is essential to a meaningful life, and we work hard to know children as individuals and support their growth and development into the young men and women they were meant to be.  This work is fundamentally counter-cultural, as children toPharrDavisUSday grow up in a world that shouts out with certitude what they should look like, how they should behave to be accepted into the cool group, and what they should do to cater to our media-driven world.

Bereft of a healthy interior life, any one of us is on shaky ground.  This is particularly so in the lives of children, as they navigate the uncertain shoals of childhood and adolescence.  Growing up, they bounce back and forth between competing friend groups and adult expectations that might or might not speak to who they are and who they want to be.  Along with churches and synagogues, the best schools and the best teachers and coaches push back against outside pressure by getting to know children for who they are and challenging them to reach beyond where they thought they might be able to go.

But even the best schools can become a grooved routine for all of us, and we rarely learn much of anything substantive about ourselves by doing what we’ve always done.  That’s what was so refreshing about hosting Jennifer Pharr Davis on campus earlier this week.  She’s a world record-breaking hiker who in 2011 completed the 2,181 mile Appalachian Trail in 46 days, an average of an incredible 47 miles per day.  On her journey she battled debilitating shin splints that forced her to climb down hills backwards in order to alleviate the pain and a scary case of hypothermia.  Jennifer’s story is extraordinary, and she connected with children in every division during her visit here at Randolph.

Jennifer’s a world class athlete.  She is brave and determined.  She is persistent, prepared, and creative.  The record speaks for itself.  But what impressed me most about Jennifer Pharr Davis is that she is a learner.  The lessons she imparted to her audiences are fundamental to Randolph’s mission and to any life that’s well-lived.  I’m not a hiker (and definitely not a camper!), but I should not have been surprised at how important community is to those who walk the Trail.  Without the accoutrements of modern life and the distractions that trivialize many of our interactions with others, hikers like Jennifer come to know and support each other much more fully and completely during their interaction on the Trail.

She shared that she had to walk all the way from Georgia to Vermont on her first Appalachian Trail journey to be at peace with the fact that she could not control the weather, the insects, or the terrain.  Despite her hopes and expectations, the Trail would never get “easy.”  We’re prone to the same inclination to seek out what’s easy and fun, but her journey became richer when she concluded it would never get easy and wouldn’t be “fun.”  Through the sleet and snow and howling winds and pelting rain and in the face of all that she understood she could not control, she came to realize that she could control her attitude.  And, at the end of her journey, she concluded that “I think this might be better than fun.”

She went weeks without a mirror, but came to appreciate “how beautiful I felt on the Trail.”  It took her quest to traverse the Appalachian Trail to separate her from the superficial expectations of others.  She’d walk for miles without seeing another hiker, soaking up the splendor of nature and long stretches of unbroken solitude.  It was in the wild, for the first time in her life, that she could look within and with confidence proclaim, “I knew who I was.”  She told the Upper School students, “I knew who I was because of what I could do, not because of what others thought I should be.”

For Jennifer Pharr Davis, this was a profound moment of self-realization.  We don’t have those every day, and few of us will embrace the challenge to walk even a portion of the Appalachian Trail.  But we’re nonetheless called upon to give time and energy to look within and learn more fully who we are and be clear about how we know.  That’s a heady hope for each of us, and I trust that Randolph will always be a sanctuary for that kind of education in an often tawdry and teeming world that yearns to shape us more than it frees us to shape ourselves in service to others.

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“Grateful to the Last”

claire thanksgivingThanksgiving is my favorite holiday, and this year, as my family and I begin to say farewell to Randolph, it’s not at all hard to name what I know I’ll miss most about the School and our community.  In no particular order, I’ll miss Huntsville, the Lifelong Learning Collaboratives, K-12 Convocations, the commitment to arts and athletics, our new daily schedule, the Board of Trustees, my meetings with seniors, the School’s mission and educational philosophy, the Alumni Holiday Reception, the Senior Capstone Course, the Randolph Parent Association, and Grandparents Day.  We’re staying in Huntsville for both Thanksgiving and Christmas and asking our far-away family to join us here.  We don’t want to miss a beat in our last year here at Randolph, a place that’s so much bigger and better than any one of us.

The inclination to gratitude is a commitment to others that elevates humanity beyond a ceaseless self interest that erodes the common good.  Gratitude is fundamental to happiness that lasts.  Our education, our faith, our relationships, and our character stand the test of time.  Everything else is temporary and can evaporate quickly in a life that can’t be predicted or guaranteed.  But we’re reminded this time of year that our devotion to excellence and our shared investment in each other connects us with those who’ve come before, and those who one day will come after.

This month in American history we have celebrated the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and observed the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination.  I admire Lincoln more than any other president because of his tenacity, perseverance, vision, and his hope for the future.  If you’ve visited the Gettysburg Battlefield and read about the slaughterhouse between the Blue and the Gray over those three days, it’s almost overwhelming to take in the words of gratitude and resolve that Lincoln delivered several months later when the outcome of the war was still so uncertain: “It is…for us to be here dedicated to the great task before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

In the aftermath of such carnage I wonder whether we should find it surprising or commonsensical that Lincoln would several weeks later become the first president to declare Thanksgiving as a national holiday to be celebrated on the last Thursday of November.  One hundred years later, in the wake of enormous personal loss, Jacqueline Kennedy summoned the same impulse to gratitude.  She crafted a hand-written letter to Richard Nixon, her husband’s great political rival consumed with a burning aspiration to be president.  She had lived with that ambition and knew it well, and wrote to Nixon that if his dreams were never realized he should nonetheless be “consoled by what you already have—your life and your family.  We never value life enough when we have it.”

It may be that we summon gratitude more naturally when we have endured great loss, and it may be that I’m especially grateful to Randolph as my family and I prepare to say goodbye to a place that’s meant so much to all of us.  But I know for sure that we have in our community men and women and boys and girls who care very deeply about the School and are grateful for who we are and who we might become.  I am reminded of this by the seniors who share with me in small group settings what they cherish most about their time at Randolph.  Invariably it’s the people—the teachers and coaches and friends and classmates and teammates who make the experience come to life.  And this year’s seniors are like every other class I’ve known: they understand from their experience that we do better and reach higher and yearn for more when we are challenged by friends and teachers and coaches whom we respect and admire.  That’s the Randolph Way, and for it I am very, very grateful.

Parents and alumni and friends commit to the Randolph Way by serving as admissions ambassadors and stalwart supporters of the School in the community.  And this time of year hundreds of parents and alumni are making year-end gifts to the Randolph Fund.  Your timely gifts matter more than you may realize.  In the aggregate, gifts to the Randolph Fund wipe away the gap between tuition and the full cost of a Randolph education.  Early giving makes it possible for us to respond to faculty ideas that come up mid-year and to dream big and plan responsibly for the next school year.  There simply isn’t an area of school life that hasn’t been made better by the generous giving that so many have contributed to the Randolph Fund.

I consider every gift to the Randolph Fund to be one of gratitude and expectation.  Those of us who give are grateful to be part of the School and this community.  We’re challenged, nurtured, and sustained through our common commitment to learning and our love of children and their potential.  And those who give expect us to remain steadfast in our commitment to be better tomorrow than we are today.  It’s that spirit that will motivate Randolph to be an even better place for children to learn and for us on the faculty to invest our life’s work, and it’s that spirit that I will take with me wherever I go and whatever I do.

One of my favorite contemporary novelists is Wendell Berry, who writes about a fictional community in Kentucky that he calls Port William.  Berry makes a compelling case for gratitude as the social ligament that binds communities together, and in Andy Catlett: Early Travels, he notes that “no one who has gratitude is the onliest (sic) one.  Let us pray to be grateful to the last.”  Happy Thanksgiving, Randolph, and thank you for all you do to make this a place worthy of our hopes and big enough to make the most of what matters most in the lives of those we’re privileged to teach and coach.

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Early-Start Wednesdays

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The things “late-start Wednesday” makes possible! (posted by a Randolph parent)

We’re blazing through the fall semester with a new daily schedule, and perhaps the most popular change for many of our families and students has been the K-12 late-start Wednesdays. As a parent, I notice how the week slows down on Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning. Jennifer, Ben, Claire, and I have more opportunity as a family to engage each other without the stress of having to finish homework before bedtime and having to rush out the door to be avoid being late for school.

This “found” time is a gift to us as parents and to the children, and is, I believe, part of what we need to do more consistently to enjoy more mindful lives. For us on the faculty, the benefits of Wednesday mornings are very different, but no less significant. We’re here by 7:30 and go through a rotation of faculty meetings designed to keep us connected to each other and challenged to grow and develop on behalf of the children under our care.

In the past we met on Monday afternoons. We missed our teacher-coaches and all those responsible for after-school activities. And most would say that we’re not at our best in late afternoon meetings that can feel tedious and tiresome when we’re weary from the day and ready to get re-connected with our families and engage in our own after-school lives.

Having all of our fac llcmeetings on Wednesday morning, however, has made an enormous difference. We are all present, and we are all engaged. We no longer need half-days (days which aren’t great learning days for students) for professional development. And most important, the early morning rotation is designed to make us better by pooling our talent and working through the challenges and opportunities we face every day.

This is the second year all members of the faculty have been part of a network of professional learning communities that we call Lifelong Learning Collaboratives (LLCs). LLCs are made up of ten to twelve members, each with two trained faculty facilitators. Faculty from each division populate our LLCs, so the teachers of our youngest and oldest students are regularly engaged in meaningful conversations about best practice within and beyond the classroom.

Not everyone on the faculty liked (or even likes) this approach, as some would argue that there’s not much we can learn from each other beyond our grade levels and divisions. But we hold that ours is a single K-12 school and we are one faculty community, and there is indeed a great deal we can learn from each other. The quality of our faculty conversations has never been stronger in my time at the School.

Earlier this fall I visited with an Upper School science teacher who brought a problem to discuss with her LLC. She was introducing her students to the important task of writing lab reports, and had for years, with mixed results, challenged her students to write better conclusions for their reports. She wanted her students to act more like scientists by avoiding personal pronouns in their narrative, being clear about their purpose in the lab, their expected results, their actual findings, the accuracy of their data, and any known sources of error.

Too often, students had shown a tendency to rush through their this aspect of their work and hurriedly turn it in. Her Upper School science colleagues commiserated and wondered too how they could make their reports better. The best suggestion, interestingly enough, came from a first grade teacher, who wondered whether or not the general start-of-year directions could be broken into smaller, more manageable parts, and whether or not the teacher could simplify the packet and include an FAQ format.

To the outside world, this might seem mundane and unimportant. But it was magic for the Upper School teacher who’d become frustrated over the years. What worked was the structure of the LLC, because it was fresh eyes from a colleague from another division who could most fully empathize with an Upper School student at the start of the year a little intimidated by the task of a high-stakes lab report in a hard science course at Randolph.

I’m reminded that we benefit greatly from the talent that’s all around us. What we need most is the open-minded patience and determined persistence to ask the right question and have the right folks at the table to help find the answer. This takecfg trainings the time we give over to early start Wednesdays. It takes real courage to share what another faculty member calls “unfinished” work in a way that leaves us feeling “uncomfortable but healthy.” It’s the students who benefit most from this work, and it’s the combined commitment to excellence that we share with our parents on behalf of our students that makes Randolph a great school aspiring to be even better.

Be a Learner for Life

IMG_1231It’s a heart-felt truism that sounds a little trite but certainly defines our youngest learners: kindergartners are the most curious creatures in the world today.  We benefit immensely from that spirit of inquisitiveness, that yearning to know a little more, see a little more, and do a little more.  Our central goal at Randolph is to honor and nurture that curiosity so that it’s the engine of learning that lasts our students for life.

Sadly, the curiosity that indelibly marks our nation’s kindergartners is slowly drained away by the experiences that American children encounter in their homes and at their schools.  As students grow older, too many lose their appetite for learning.  The causes of dwindling curiosity are many: over-preparation for standardized tests, indifference in the home, fascination with celebrity culture, expectation of immediate gratification, and inclination toward hyper-specialization are just a few.

At Randolph, we work hard to push back against this encroaching educational malaise.  As Barnard College’s Judith Shapiro once remarked about the true purpose of education, “You want the inside of your head to be an interesting place to spend the rest of your life.”  I was delighted last week when I dropped by Upper School Community Time and saw the students engaged in a spirited debate on our nation’s role in response to the deteriorating situation in Syria.  What moved me most was watching the students step up and take on complicated and intractable problems with an eagerness to apply their learning to the world beyond us.

IMG_1218wAll great learning comes from the well of curiosity that is natural in each of us.  Just one week before the event Upper School History teacher David Hillinck proposed the idea to the whole Upper School.  He asked for volunteers, as the Syrian morass is not part of any class’s present curriculum.  Knowing that the debate would be work beyond their current academic load, twelve Upper School students nonetheless committed to learning more and participating in the live debate in front of the entire community.

They broke into four teams, each representing a prospective American response: unlimited military intervention to end the Assad regime; targeted air strikes on Assad’s chemical weapons; cooperation with the United Nations and the international community to resolve the crisis peacefully; and absolute nonintervention.  After we watched a short video highlighting the cultural fault-lines dominating Syria today, (see below) the students and Mr. Hillinck (new to Randolph this year!) jumped into the debate.

Engagement and rebuttal followed, with fun opportunities for one-word answers on white boards interspersed to keep us all on our toes.  As the spirited debate wound down, Mr. Hillinck relayed that every student and every teacher would be polled electronically so that our now educated points of view could be shared with our representatives in the United States Congress.  For the record, over 50 percent of the students supported absolute nonintervention and 25% urged working with the international community to diffuse the crisis.  The faculty, by contrast, supported the effort to work with the international community to end the civil war by a slim majority.

IMG_1224wI love working at a school where something like this can get organized and executed in less than a week.  I’m moved by Mr. Hillinck’s commitment to act on a belief that we should all be more educated about our role as American citizens and members of the world community.  I’m especially drawn to Upper School History teacher Ann Lawson’s contention that students should go away from such an event “a bit confused.”  Bouts of confusion are inevitable and directly connected to curious and inquisitive minds.  What matters most is that these brave Upper School students are living out what it means to be a learner for life.