Critical Thinking in Times of Distraction

 

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?

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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How Do We Do It?

It’s November, and across the nation independent schools are deep into the “admission season, ” with admission professionals and faculty explaining the value added of an independent school education.

If I could put the GFA experience into a sentence, I would say: We offer a high caliber education through a multi-layered, fully rounded experience that is student-centered but also carefully guided by caring adults.

But, more importantly, how do we do it?

The culture at a school like GFA encourages academic ambition and high standards. It celebrates how “cool” it is to be smart. Being actively engaged is almost non-negotiable, and students find it the norm to be excited about collaborating in the classroom, pursuing their passions through independent studies or even taking advantage of specialized semesters across the United States and abroad.

Students sense they are on a journey of intellectual awakening and discovery, guided by their teachers every step of the way. I look to GFA to be almost counter-cultural, to defy the predominant media portrait of adolescence and graduate young men and women who know how to push themselves to think deeply about the issues of our times.

GFA is small enough to allow us to explore codes of conduct, civility and honor, placing an intentional emphasis on character and accountability. Visitors to GFA always comment on our lockers without locks, and on the expectation of honesty from each member of the community.

The GFA ethos instills in students a strong academic foundation, good habits of mind and a desire for life-long learning. After many years in education, I can say that these are the values we need in place to best serve this generation of young people.

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An Inspiration at Age 6

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When leaders from around the world met this fall at the UN for a Summit on Refugees, President Obama shared a letter from 6-year-old Alex from New York. Alex wanted to invite a young Syrian boy to come live in his home and wrote to Obama to ask help in making that happen. Alex’s humanity and empathy are an inspiration. At age six, he has not learned to be judgmental, suspicious, or fearful. His instincts are pure and loving.

Alex is surely a living and powerful example of what it means to be deeply and authentically inclusive.

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