A Real Conversation

The following appeared as an editorial written by Janet Hartwell that appeared in the 2016 Moffly Magazines Independent School Guide:

A great education is concerned with students’ intellectual growth, emotional development, and that old-fashioned word, character. As educators, we must help equip


As seen in the 2016 Moffly Independent School Guide

our students to make good and ethical decisions, to know right from wrong, not just because wrong will be punished but because right is right.

From a young age, our students experience undue and often unfair cultural pressures and need the strength of character and habits of mind to withstand them. We can highlight these habits of mind, praise acts of kindness, have conversations in and out of class, and encourage students in their talks to the community to focus on being positive, empathetic, and authentic. Honesty, integrity, and the now-famous grit and resilience are all attributes we want for our students as they make their way through school, college, and beyond.

In The App Generation, by Howard Gardner and Katie Davis, the authors caution against young people “yoking identity too closely to certain characteristics of these technologies, and thereby lacking the time, opportunity, or inclination to explore life and lives offline, which may result in an impoverished sense of self.”

We want to encourage the kind of deep connections that sustain relationships and nourish character, and for our students to inhabit a world where there is accountability for behavior, and where face-to-face conversations trump shallow, often transient online connections.

In an article in the Sunday New York Times Review, Sherry Turkle, professor at MIT and author of Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, writes: “across generations, technology is implicated in an assault on empathy.” She cites a 2014 study of children at a device-free outdoor camp. After five days, these campers were able to read facial emotions and correctly identify the emotions of actors in videotaped scenes significantly better than a control group. What fostered these new empathic responses? They talked to one another.

In conversation, things go best if you pay attention and learn how to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. This is easier to do without your phone in hand. Conversation is the most human and humanizing thing that we do.

We want our students to be fueled by excitement about the great reservoir of possibilities the world holds for them, and by the indomitable nature of the human spirit, and to be inspired by their education, all supported by the foundation of a strong character.

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Mirrors, Discourse, and Ambiguity: Raising Adolescents


Both educators and parents should be advocates for kids. Part of that is holding up a mirror to show both the beauty and the blemishes in order to help kids negotiate adolescence. We also need to show a blend of respect, understanding, and compassion.

Knowing better than to offer what one teacher calls “an owner’s manual for raising a good kid that parents only have to consult in order to press the right buttons, turn the right switches, and produce, at the other end, a perfect child who would roll out all the spanking fresh and new, the good kid of your dreams,” I would urge parents to trust their own instincts and moral code and to use their own resources to look realistically and calmly at kids and at raising them. This is especially true in this current tsunami of social media and the technology. As a friend of mine wrote in his book, Raising a Good Kid: “A good kid is not one who does nothing; a good kid is learning how to be trustworthy and respectful of people and perhaps stumbling along the way.”

Outside of the family life, school is the primary way our children grow. We have to think about the ambiguity of rewards such as grades, achievement, self-esteem, and the way in which our culture defines success, including winning and losing in athletics. From  countless dealings with kids, most educators will land on the side of discussion rather than prescription. It is the responsibility of teachers and parents to encourage young people to make their decisions through reasoned discourse and with clear messages from the adult world. The best decisions that kids make come from inside the kids themselves. Knowing that parents cannot ultimately protect kids from all damaging events, teachers and parents together can teach kids to think and to exercise some internal controls.

We have read much about the importance  of allowing kids to fail, knowing that failure as well as success is part of the landscape. Giving kids permission to fail can be liberating and restore a sense of control to a world that often seems beyond or out of their control. In addition, I believe that families and schools need to commit to a moral standard in this increasingly ambiguous world. Kids need the consistent and clear message that there are things that are right and things that are wrong. The hard work of engaging kids in moral discourse is the responsibility of parents and schools, and we need to help families maintain their standard in the face of cultural pressures.

A few suggestions for books on parenting and raising children:

How Children Succeed. Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, by Paul Tough

The Pressured Child; Helping Your Child Find Success in School and Life, by Michael Thompson with Teresa Barker

The Road to Character, by David Brooks

The Gift of Failure, by Jessica Lahey



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Welcome, Rhea



Our Upper Schoolers were wondering about the sculpture that appeared on the lawn over spring break. I finally put the speculations to rest by telling them:

It is not an oversize sock puppet, a giant elbow, or knee, or any other body part. It is not an animal, half-eaten whale, vertical iguana, or small dinosaur, and it is certainly not an intergalactic device for detecting life on other planets. So, what is it?

I know you’ve all been very worried since you came back, and to stem the rumors I thought you should know the sculpture is called Rhea and is an abstract representation of the Greek Titaness daughter of the earth goddess, Gaia. Weighing about 2,000 pounds, Rhea is cast bronze, and I hope you will come to accept her for who she is and let her be free.

Rhea is by a modernist British sculptor, William Tucker, who was born in Cairo and moved to England with his parents as a child, where he was raised. He went to Oxford and now lives in Brooklyn. Since living in NYC, he has taught at Columbia and at the New York Studio of Drawing Painting and Sculpture.

Rhea was recently part of a three-month retrospective exhibition called “William Tucker Mass and Figure” at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao Spain and prior to that, Rhea was on loan and display at MIT. She also lived for several years at Ashforth’s Greenwich Plaza.

Rhea has been offered on loan to GFA for a minimum of five years or longer. So let’s have a community effort to adopt Rhea and make her our own. I have it on good authority that she loves it here.

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Hope for Turning the Tide

The ED round is over, but other early decisions are trickling in — EA, EA1, ED2, etc. — winding up the unrelenting pressure and stress for students whose junior year had become their de facto senior year. These are students who last fall risked having their focus and intellectual energy consumed by the frenzy of early admittance to the college of their dreams.

The whole college admission scene is driven by the needs and desires of colleges: to build the perfect class, to ensure athletic teams have their desired “picks,” to fill orchestras with enough string players, and to maintain their rankings in various reports. What is missing from this picture? The students.

All of this places unrealistic and unhealthy pressures upon students, whose joy in learning and intellectual curiosity is often squeezed out of them by the need to take all the AP and honors courses a school can offer, plus be a super human in the extracurricular realm. Many are being robbed of what high school should be for students: a place of intellectual exploration, of ideas, and of learning the skills and habits of mind that will carry them into college and beyond.

Will this process ever change? New York Times columnist Frank Bruni sees some hope in new initiatives:

“The best evidence is a report to be released on Wednesday. I received an advance copy. Titled ‘Turning the Tide,’ it’s the work primarily of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, though scores of educators — including the presidents and deans of admission at many of the country’s elite institutions of higher education — contributed to or endorsed it. Top administrators from Yale, M.I.T. and the University of Michigan are scheduled to participate in a news conference at which it’s unveiled.

“’Turning the Tide’ sagely reflects on what’s wrong with admissions and rightly calls for a revolution, including specific suggestions. It could make a real difference not just because it has widespread backing but also because it nails the way in which society in general — and children in particular — are badly served by the status quo.”

Read the full article here, and let’s advocate for turning the tide.

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Athens: A City in Lights


Photo credit: Tim Baker

December is not the usual or intuitive time to visit Greece, but Christmas in Athens is full of unexpected and joyful surprises. With azure skies and bright sunshine without the searing heat of summer, the weather is perfect for wandering through streets decorated with giant stars strung overhead, Christmas trees, and lights dancing from every surface. A vibrant city, Athens revels in its glitter and sparkle, celebrating the season on every corner, every balcony, and in every taverna.

In a city with history and soul, even in this time of austerity, Athenians go about daily life with resilience and a kind of grudging acceptance. Many Greeks refer to their economy as a “mattress economy” (from many years of distrusting banks and keeping cash in mattresses), and many transactions are cash, and only cash.

Now that we’re home, I carry images of a band dressed in crimson uniforms, playing carols on Christmas Day near the Acropolis, of bakeries and pastry shops with towers of glistening cakes, of flower shops knee-deep in white cyclamen and red poinsettias, and the Plaka neighborhood, redolent with aromas of souvlaki and gyros. Perhaps the most vivid image is from Christmas Eve, in the apartment of a close friend, and from the window seeing the Parthenon, illuminated, simple and elegant, a symbol of the fortitude, endurance and the soul of this city and its people.

And a coincidence: this article appeared in the New York Times this Sunday, surely with the implicit message that Greece and Ancient Greek are the bedrock of so much of Western civilization and thought.

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Holidays Are a Chance to Read (and Read Again)

It’s still the holidays, and that means we all may find some time during the day to sit with a good book. Later in this post I will share with you links to two reading lists that should give you a lot to choose from if you are wondering what to pick up next. While I’m constantly searching for the next great read, here are some that have stayed with me through the years.

It was a long time ago, actually the summer of my 16th year, when I first met, and was forever smitten with Jane Austen and her world—a fascination I couldn’t at first explain. After all, her novels were drawn from her personal experience in a limited social milieu in the South of England in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Not a lot in common with me. But her material—human nature—drew me in and held me hostage, because human nature is timeless and ageless.

A writer of exquisite comedy, Jane Austen’s observations are penetrating and totally honest. Consider some of her richly comic characters whom I grew to know almost as well as my own family—the ridiculously pompous yet obsequious Mr. Collins, who fawns over the arrogant, self-opinionated Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and the flighty, superficial Mrs. Bennett from Pride and Prejudice. I loved  Emma Wodehouse and her  match-making schemes, and the sensible and sensitive Elinor Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility. Jane Austen’s  novels are all deeply satisfying love stories, where in the end everyone gets what he or she deserves.

Lest you think I lived only in the 18th century, another world I discovered was a full century later, that of Charles Dickens, and it was Dickens  who accompanied me through college. He wrote of London, and the so-called home counties, and of a class ridden world of rich and very poor, where extraordinary coincidences made lives come full circle, where virtue was rewarded, but life certainly was not fair.

I loved Great Expectations, and I followed Pip’s growth through every pitfall and every step. I felt he was my friend whose welfare and success I cared about as much as my own. I feared for Pip when Magwich appeared on the bleak Essex coast; Joe, the aged parent, Estella and even Miss Havisham, and her frozen-in-time world view all became part of my inner world.

Bleak House was best of all, a condition-of-England commentary on society and satire on the law; yet also a romance, a murderous melodrama, and an early detective story. My companion for a number of years was Esther Sommerson, the model for goodness and kindness. I was drawn into that world of mystery of the courts-of-law in London, of the slightly seedy, mysterious Chancery, the never ending court case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, and all the intrigue that implied, and how much I learned about human nature, and our propensity for revenge and secrecy and cover up.

I also read and re-read Oliver Twist and learned from that universe of pick pockets and murderers, the full range of human experience from the evil of Fagin and cruelty of Bill Sykes to the goodness of Mr. Brownlow. I learned that good can prevail over evil, but there is always a cost.

So I encourage all of us to read—to be transported to worlds we may never actually visit and encounter characters whom we may never meet in “real life.”

I encourage students especially to live in their imagination and to be drawn in (against their will if necessary) to another universe. Reading and immersing oneself in other worlds promotes a habit of mind that involves a slowing down from our 21st century life and allowing time just to be, time to think, and time to reflect.

Here are two links to help in your quest to find the next great read:

BBC Best British Novels 2015

NY Times 10 Best Books of 2015

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Considering the Intellectual Impact of Internet

The following article from the NY Times delineates very well the cultural and technological pressures before our students (and adults). I have talked and blogged about the book The Shallows – What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr, which deals with the ongoing debate about the intellectual and cultural consequences of the Internet. One of his points is that when we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. (Click on the image below to read the article.)


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