GFA Athletics: A Commitment to Community

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In my 35 years serving as an educator, the role of athletics in the lives of children has certainly changed.  Many of us can remember when school athletic teams were limited to boys only, and girls were expected to watch from the sideline. Lacrosse was slowly taking shape at a few independent schools, mostly in the mid-Atlantic, and the number of children under the age of 10 playing soccer on Saturday mornings was nearly non-existent. Schools, therefore, could establish priorities without regard to the market pressures of athletics guiding school selection, after-school activities, and college admission.  

As is often the case, the changing face of athletics has brought significant improvement to the lives of children. Girls’ athletics is now on par with boys’ athletics. Children of all abilities are now more actively engaged because of town sports leagues.  And most children at some point in their elementary education life have the experience of serving on a team and playing for a coach, leading to lifelong lessons in cooperation, collaboration, strategy, and managing disappointment.

I fear that we have gone too far, however. The days of kids jumping on their bikes and riding through the neighborhood after school are long gone — not to mention lying around after school with a good book, or sitting at the dinner table at a reasonable hour predictably every night. By the age of 10 children and their parents are thinking about travel teams, academies, and even, sadly, school choice based not on an academic and community fit, but rather the coach of a particular team, or the perceived strength of athletics  in a particular school. Teenagers are being prohibited by soccer academies from playing for their school team, lest they get distracted from the intense training regimen prescribed by that team. Students, parents, and sometimes schools can make decisions and choices that are driven by athletics, rather than by academic  priorities and  what  is best for the student.   

GFA’s mission statement refers to our globally minded community in which students and teachers partner to prepare for a life of purpose. Where does travel soccer fit into this?  Well, there is nothing better than being on a team to learn what “partner” means, and surely seeing the entire Upper School on the sidelines of our recent boys varsity soccer FAA finals games (in which we were awarded best sportsmanship award, as well as the Class C WNEPSSA Champions award) is a perfect representation of community.

GFA encourages students to play more than one sport, but to also participate in a variety of other extracurricular activities, like the school play, chorus, orchestra or band, and a wide range of clubs like robotics or student diversity leadership. We think this helps athletes of all abilities, from the Division 1 basketball player to the third-string soccer player, to understand and value their contribution and commitment to the GFA community, and to celebrate all of our scholar athletes. I am proud that GFA walks the talk around sportsmanship and integrity, and encourages our students day in and day out to maintain the culture of kindness and commitment in their athletic, academic and school life.

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Empathy: Embracing Our Common Humanity

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Each year for the past few years, as a community, we have had an emphasis on a particular word that we have stressed throughout the year in many and  varied ways. The word is important because of the idea and meaning behind it and is intended to help us be intentional about how we think and act.

This year, our word is: Empathy

Many of you have read or will read To Kill A Mockingbird the novel that deals with coming of age, and racial injustice in a small town in Alabama in the 1930s; during the course of the novel, Scout the narrator, learns many important lessons about life and humanity, some from her own experience of the events that take place  throughout the novel, and some from the wisdom and advice of her father, Atticus, a lawyer in the town. Early on in the book, after her difficult first morning of school and disagreements with her teacher, Scout does not want to return to school, and Atticus tells her:

“First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view- until you climb into his skin and walk around in it “

This theme of walking around in some one else’s skin to help you really understand his or her point of view continues throughout the novel, and underscores many of the relationships and events. So what does walking in someone else’s skin help you to do? It is essential for understanding another person and his or her perspective, in other words, it helps you to develop empathy.

A book I came across this summer is called Born for Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered co-written by a science journalist and a child psychiatrist. The book argues that the human brain is hardwired for empathy, and that we are built to connect to others, but we’re not born that way. Our amazing ability to sync our minds with others actually takes years of practice.

From the beginning, learning to recognize an emotion in another person involves trying to feel some of that emotion yourself, for example, we don’t just infer that smiles indicate happiness because we notice a correlation between good fortune and grins. We understand smiles through our urge to smile back.

Empathy is at the root of knowledge of other minds, and according to the co-authors, those who are unable to see the world from the perspective of another person are “cognitively crippled.”

Empathy opens when students of all ages, are in places where they feel safe, accepted, and heard. And warm relationships are the incubator of caring—it’s why parents who have warm, close relationships with their children are more likely to raise empathetic kids. It’s also why classrooms and schools with positive climates have less bullying, and students who feel less marginalized can be empathetic with their peers. In essence, the very nature of being empathetic, involves looking past one’s own perspective in any given situation and understanding as best as possible the needs and experiences of another person.

When we look at ourselves, each of us has vulnerabilities and weaknesses as well as strengths. Some students will shine in the classroom, others on the athletic fields, others in performances or in community service.  The important thing is that we help each other where help is needed and we learn from each other rather than making each other feel inadequate or embarrassed. We develop empathy to help us understand what others are feeling and experiencing.

Back in the dawn of history, when I was in high school in England, a new girl joined our class in what was the  equivalent to 10th grade. Her name was Tiu and she was from Estonia . She was different from most of us in that her native tongue was German and her English, at least  to begin with, was fractured and very accented. She had no knowledge of or real interest in the music we listened to; even though we all wore a uniform, somehow Tiu managed to look different, perhaps it was because her uniform was home made rather than bought in a shop , or perhaps because her hair style was, in our eyes, rather old-fashioned. In other words Tiu didn’t really “fit in” to the cultural norms of my all -girls school. Tiu’s life for the first few weeks of school must have been miserable, and she must have been very unhappy. It wasn’t until my history teacher pulled a me and few friends to one side and asked us to make an effort to include Tiu in our affairs that I made an effort to get to know and understand Tiu. I had my first real conversation with Tiu and learned of her life in Estonia, and why she and her family had left and come to Cambridge- their living and political situation was untenable, and they had come to make a new life for themselves in a university town. Her father was a scientist and  had gotten a position  lecturing in the physics department, and they were starting anew. I was intrigued and fascinated by Tiu’s story, and from that conversation, I began to learn the meaning of empathy.  I tried to imagine myself and my family moving to a new country, a new job, a new school, trying to make new friends,  and all the time feeling and being made to feel different. I walked in Tiu’s skin for a few days, and we became good friends.

Be kind to each other, and let us be a community that is inclusive  rather than exclusive. As a healthy community we support everyone and celebrate and reach out to people whose interests may be different from our own. At a time when our society emphasizes what separates people and groups from one another, we seek out what unifies people and how we can indeed walk in each other’s shoes. Henry Louis Gates Jr. suggests we should think of American culture as a “conversation among different voices,” and I suggest that we should listen carefully to the different voices within and outside of this community in an effort to learn and achieve greater understanding, and we will surely find some shared language and ideas which will reflect our common humanity, and in so doing, begin to understand the true nature of empathy.

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Critical Thinking in Times of Distraction

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The following was a speech delivered at this year’s Class Day. 

“Five hundred years ago the printing press replaced pen and ink as the communications technology of Europe.” Instead of manuscripts artfully copied and produced by monks and scholars, where illustrations illuminated the language, word and image were separated for the first time by the printing press. Within decades millions of printed volumes flooded the western world, and these books not only changed how people communicated, they reshaped what they communicated, hence what they thought and what they taught.”

Several years ago, the pixel replaced the type slug as the world’s communication technology of choice, and The World Wide Web joined the laser printer to restore the old balance of image and word that the medieval scribes had taken for granted.  Being able to work with this marriage of image and word is essential in a highly technological world, which is without borders or boundaries. Among the many skills we can now give students is the ability, not only to read critically, but also the ability to process complex visual information.

We are now accustomed to meshing words and images. For example, the verbal “crawler” at the bottom of the television screen occupies the same visual field as the visual footage of an entirely different news story. Viewers are asked to make sense of words and image that are unrelated. Looking at the connection between words and images leads to a number of questions.

Do such media images act as supplements or “illustrations” to words, or vice versa?

What relation lies between word and image, and how does it insert itself into our consciousness? Furthermore, does the blending of word and image lead to the same level of close reading and critical thinking that only a text would?

How have words and texts changed the way we view the world of information?

Two genres that by design combine word and image are comics and graphic novels, and their very form reinforces not only the written word but also the images that illustrate the words.  Basically, a comic book is a series of words and pictures that are presented in a sequential manner to form a narrative that may or may not be humorous . Originating in the United States in the late 1800s, the comic book contains everyday language, slang, and idiom, as well as color and a sophisticated interplay between text and image. The history of comic books points out that “traditionally occupying the fringes of pop culture, the comic book is actually a valuable historical text that comments on how young people and adults alike identify with cultural and political issues.”

The graphic novel genre is one of the most fascinating in literature, and it too occupies the combination of word and image space.  Its positive qualities are impressive, especially when the topic is as difficult as the Holocaust, as in Art Speigelman’s Maus  or Marjann Satrapi’s Persepolis.  Both authors  mesh the worlds of word and image so very well, thanks to their ability to “speak the unspeakable” and by using to perfection the popular maxim, “a picture is worth a thousand words.”

Persepolis, which many of you have read, is about the author’s coming of age in Tehran, living through part of  the Islamic revolution in Iran and its aftermath; Satrapi draws very simple images, which somehow convey a great depth of emotion and graphic weight. The contrasts between light and dark are very effective in communicating the message of its words.

Satrapi’s drawing style is bold and vivid. She paints a thick inky black-on-white, in an affectedly simple  pastiche of East and West; there is also a degree of paranoia, for example,  the child dwarfed by looming parents, would-be rescuers dwarfed by giant policemen guarding the locked doors to a movie theater that’s been set on fire — but when Satrapi depicts a schoolyard brawl, it’s straight from Persian miniature.”

In both Maus and Persepolis, creativity and courage are intertwined, and each has underlying themes of what it means to be human, reinforced by the clever combination of the word supporting the image and vice versa.

You, our students, need to have the visual literacy that comes with an educated mind and eye to know when you are being manipulated by the media and other forces that want to reduce everything to its lowest common denominator.  You need the ability to read closely and critically, to discern the well-crafted, good image from the tawdry, and to develop the capacity for independent thinking, and clear, effective writing.

You all need to pursue your educational choices with passion, perseverance and an open mind.  Our world  needs young people to think critically, to question assumptions, and pre-conceived ideas and fuzzy thinking.

It is important for you to understand the word and the image, but mostly to be open and ready for other ways of seeing and other ways of thinking. This is the best use to which you can put your education and the best way to be in the new world. That’s what the faculty at Green Farms Academy are excited about and dedicated to imparting. And today we honor you and how well you have learned this lesson.

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Sportsmanship is Paramount

 

For the fifth year in a row, the GFA boys varsity basketball team has made the New 31768130010_2d3581c86c_zEngland Final Four. Quite an accomplishment! As with all our GFA teams, each player brings great heart, skill, and teamwork to every game. Perhaps, however, the most important aspect of the team and of each player, no matter the sport, is sportsmanship.

Sportsmanship not only defines the character of an athlete, but defines how he/she plays the game. Learning how to be a good sport is also a life lesson in how to be a good citizen, espousing fairness, honesty, integrity, hard work, and respect for the other team — or other point of view.  These are the qualities that a sportsman should display not only during a game but also in life.

Athletics play an important role in the lives of our students, allowing them to discover and deal with both successes and failures. Athletic competition is one of life’s greatest teachers. Its lessons, along with the significant relationships developed through athletics, are truly lifelong gifts.

GFA’s athletic program is an essential part of the education of our students, fostering the development of character, life skills, sportsmanship, and teamwork.

 

 

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Who is Really No. 1?

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The high-stakes world of college admissions is fueled in part by published rankings, which often give a far-from-accurate picture of the schools they claim to describe. Unfortunately, it was only a matter of time before these “best of” lists infiltrated the independent school world as well.

In my 30 years as a school educator and leader, this is the first time I’ve seen misleading “lists” enter the independent school space. We have been able to avoid it up until now because of good work by the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) and locally by the Connecticut Association of Independent Schools (CAIS), as well as school leaders nationwide, who show time and again that there is nothing to be gained for a school by entering the list race.

There is no one factor that will make a student successful. Anyone who has worked in independent schools knows it is rather about fit. That’s why independent schools spend so much time getting to know each child through the admission and application process. Just imagine if schools relied on Lists of the Top Kids in the same way the market is pushing Lists of the Top Schools. It’s an absurd thought. No credible school would abandon the careful work teachers and administrators do to select a group of students for whom their school is the very best fit.

Why, as a parent, rely on an arbitrary ranking based on scant information, instead of a careful consideration for the partnership and “match” that is so crucial to the success of a child in a school? In other words, should you send a child to a school because of its ranking, even if it goes against all your instincts as a parent or recommendations from the counselors in your current school?

It is a good thing that according to the SSATB, the leading independent school admission board, the most reliable source of information families use to select a school is still “word of mouth.” What better way to learn about a school than to hear from families with children already there (or recently graduated), to get the vital information you need to make this most important choice.

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Dubai: Change is Slight But Significant

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Burg Kalhifa, with its stunning light shows in the evening, give the city a surreal and futurist aspect.

With the snow this weekend, I thought back nostalgically to the recent winter break that my family and I spent in Dubai. Days in the 80s and nights in the 60s were a welcome break from the Connecticut winters and from “deep and dark December.” This was my second visit to Dubai, and while there were many changes, nothing had really changed.

Fast, expensive cars, conspicuous consumerism, coupled with people from around the world, all bringing energy, a global perspective, and a wonderful parade of nations and nationalities.

Innovative architecture, man-made islands, the Burg Kalhifa, with its stunning light shows in the evening, give the city a surreal and futurist aspect while “imported laborers” from other countries are the inhuman side, the soft underbelly of the economy.

But perhaps common sense is finally coming through.

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Celebrating Our Differences

Over the past several months, school and college campuses across America have seen increased examples of language that is offensive, and often racially, sexually, or ethnically discriminatory.  There is no place for that at GFA, and I want to emphasize our dedication to rejecting discrimination and the marginalization of certain groups. At GFA we cherish the strength and diversity of our community, and I want to take the opportunity to reaffirm our core values in the light of recent events.

At our Convocation in September, I talked about what it means to be members of a community, especially a school like GFA whose motto is Each for All, where we actively look after each other.  I also talked about our school-wide focus on inclusion, meaning that every individual in our community is viewed as equal. We value all GFA students, appreciate differences, and encourage our students to celebrate one another.

Post-election emotions on both sides have run high. As a community of learners at GFA, we foster critical thinking as well as empathy; we support intellectual integrity and courage, and we encourage respectful disagreement and debate. But that debate cannot come at the expense of other values: fostering empathy, valuing difference, and building an inclusive community. GFA is a safe place for all, where discrimination in any shape is antithetical to our core values and will not be tolerated.

It takes time and thoughtfulness to build inclusivity. It happens at the Harkness Table and during talks from the stage or in the Forum. It happens on the playing fields and when standing by lockers in between classes. It happens in the cafeteria and it also happens at home when discussing the events of the day.

I call on all of us to be thoughtful about inclusivity. It doesn’t mean we all agree, but we do show respect. GFA’s core values of Passion, Integrity, Empathy, Curiosity, and Excellence have never been more important.

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