Selma: Our Past and Present March Toward Freedom

selmaParamount Pictures released the movie Selma, by first-time director Ava DuVernay, on December 24. The movie tells the story of the social forces, political obstacles, as well as the strategic and tactical planning efforts that lead to the historic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in March 1965. In the months prior to the march, and with the support of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was engaged in a voting rights campaign in southern states to register blacks to vote. The ability of SNCC and SCLC to mobilize African-American volunteers, King’s political acumen, and the media’s coverage of the vitriolic reactions to segregation by local whites and the city’s police officers—including the events of March 7, 1965 which came to be known as “Bloody Sunday”—brought sufficient pressure to bear on President Lyndon Johnson to push for passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The movie reminds the audience of the immense sacrifices African-American men, women, and children made to secure the right to vote. Enfranchisement, they believed, carried with it the promise of full participation in our democracy and legal recognition of their rights as citizens. Selma’s release, at the end of 2014, was timely. Our nation watched as a series of protests—some of which were marred by senseless acts violence and destruction of property—dominated the news following the grand jury decisions to not prosecute officers involved in the deaths of unarmed black men. The protests generated lively discourse at home and schools about race in our country, the relationship between police and the communities they serve, unconscious bias, the grand jury system, and our collective humanity. These conversations continue in the hallways of our Upper School among teachers and students, and through moderated talks with student groups like our Student Awareness Council.

Selma is a powerful and resonant reflection on our recent past, and an important reminder that the struggle for justice, equality, and for some mere visibility is long and arduous, but ultimately worthwhile; the arc of the moral universe does bend toward justice. In re-telling the story of the brave yet ordinary individuals who marched, sat, protested, and endured threats of economic insecurity and physical harm, Ms. DuVernay underscores the message that the power to change the course of history is within all of us. The past century is replete with examples of everyday folks using nonviolent, civil disobedience to raise our consciousness, galvanize our spirits, and call us to action, whether in Selma, Atlanta, Oxford, Kiev, Delhi, Beijing, St. Louis, or Paris.

Screen Shot 2015-01-13 at 9.55.52 AMThis year, The Bush School will be joining thousands of Seattleites at the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Rally and March Monday, January 19, to walk in support of human rights for all. We hope that you will join us—look for The Bush School banner, and those wearing Bush apparel on the northeast corner of 23rd and Jefferson—on Monday as we share in the tradition of Selma and honor Dr. King and the countless others who blazed the path on the long march to freedom.

Percy

P.S. I have attached links to resources you may use to talk with your children about race and Ferguson (or http://bit.ly/1xkJKXd).

Halloween Spirit

Halloween SpiritI have always approached Halloween with a hint of skepticism and apathy. As a child, I was very clear about the reason—I DON’T LIKE BEING SCARED. Sure, like most kids, I enjoyed gorging myself on Pixy Stix, Big League Chew, Nerds, Sugar Babies, Dum Dums, Sweeties, and Zagnut bars after my parents inspected them.

As I grew older, and candy became less of an attraction, my friends turned to silly pranks and ghoulish stunts meant to frighten our peers and wreak havoc on our neighborhood.  Again, this seemed to me to be destructive and SCARY, albeit for different reasons. Now, Halloween seems to give some adults license to publicly engage in silly or even debauched behavior. This can be a whole different kind of frightening.

The Halloween practice of trick or treating derives from the medieval tradition of “souling,” in which children would sing and say prayers for the dead in return for cakes. It is interesting how customs and practices morph (especially in culturally heterogeneous societies like ours) and take on new rituals and interpretations.

We are often uncomfortable with acknowledging death; it brings up memories of painful losses and reminds us of our own mortality. For many cultures, including the Mexican tradition of Dia de los Muertos, remembering loved ones publicly and being confronted with the inevitability of death also offers the opportunity to be grateful.

Like you, I read about the tragic deaths of two Marysville high school students at the hands of a fourteen year-old boy with feelings of dismay, anger, and helplessness. Each time I hear about a school shooting, I am reminded how precious and fleeting life is. Perhaps this Halloween we can spend a few minutes with our own version of “souling,” giving our heartfelt thoughts (if not prayers and song) for those who lost their lives last Friday.

Although I have never been much of a fan of Halloween, this year as I roam the streets amidst the costumed children I will be reminded of those innocent victims and generous souls who are no longer among us, and I will hug my children in gratitude before they head off to collect their treats.

Percy

How Diversity Works

In the September 16 issue of Scientific American (http://bit.ly/1qLZR2E), Katherine Phillips discusses how diversity makes us smarter, or more specifically, “more creative, diligent, and harder working.”  While acknowledging that creating diverse work environments and promoting inclusive dialogue among individuals is difficult, research by organizational scientists, psychologists, sociologists, and economists suggest that these efforts not only support altruistic social aims, but actually make institutions more effective, innovative, and more productive.

Phillips’ article discusses two areas, in particular, in which diversity supports institutional learning and growth—informational diversity and anticipatory planning. When we surround ourselves with people from similar backgrounds, we tend to believe that we share the same perspectives. Research confirms what many of us have experienced throughout our educational and professional careers, namely that “people who are different from one another in race, gender and other dimensions bring unique information and experiences to bear on the task at hand.” The studies cited in the article demonstrate that diversity leads to improved organizational performance.

It is not just different perspectives, experiences, and information that matter in helping groups to function more productively. Group diversity also affects individual members’ planning. When placed in a context where group members realize that there will be others from different social, racial, gender (or even political) backgrounds, they anticipate the different perspectives and realize they will need to work harder to reach consensus. As Phillips notes, “this logic helps to explain both the upside and the downside of social diversity: people work harder in diverse environments both cognitively and socially. They might not like it, but the hard work can lead to better outcomes.”

Last month I attended a symposium in Washington D.C. entitled “The Future of Diversity” with board member Tracy Stanton and Director of Intercultural Affairs Jabali Stewart. The hosts invited independent school heads, board members, and diversity practitioners from around the country to discuss how to create more inclusive communities for students, parents, faculty, and staff from different backgrounds.  When I began working in independent schools over 20 years ago, schools often explained their outreach efforts to communities of color (there was much less emphasis on outreach to and support of LGBTQ communities) in terms of its social and moral value. They tended to emphasize the opportunities “we” (the schools) were providing for “them” (families of color).

It was nice to participate in a conference in which independent school educators were focusing on how inclusive communities not only supported our school missions, but how this work made for more robust and innovative learning environments. In fact, if our schools want to improve, then diversity and inclusivity will be a necessary part of our future.  I believe that The Bush School has been working on this for quite some time, and I appreciate that science supports our efforts.

Brain Science and the Art of Teaching

brainresearch_imageThis summer, the Bush faculty in all three divisions read Mariale Hardiman’s The Brain-Targeted Teaching Model for 21st-Century Schools[1] as part of their professional development for this year. Dr. Hardiman’s book offers strategies for translating research on plasticity and neurogenesis into effective practices for educators. Our faculty spent part of this fall, before classes began, examining the neural systems that underlie emotions, and considering how teachers can connect with children to improve the emotional climate in the classroom and student learning. We will continue to use Hardiman’s brain-targeted strategies going forward to explore ways to inspire creativity and innovation, develop meaningful assessments, teach content mastery, and create dynamic physical learning environments.

Much like Hardiman, James E. Zull, a professor of biochemistry and biology at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, uses research in neuroscience to inform pedagogy. In Zull’s book The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning[2] he offers thoughtful ideas that merge teachers’ intuitive practices with neuroscience to improve teaching and learning. Dr. Zull is also the Director of the University Center for Innovation in Teaching and Education. While Zull admits that his lack of background in education and pedagogy made him an unlikely candidate for the directorship—in truth, no one else wanted the position—he found that his background in science, and biology in particular, gave him an opportunity to approach the task in a very different way.

Instead of focusing on student motivation, families’ demographic backgrounds, and merit pay for teachers as ways to improve student learning, Dr. Zull focuses on the system that he knows best and the one that is most responsible for learning: the brain. He developed an approach based on three functions of the cerebral cortex: to sense an environment, to integrate what is sensed, and to generate the appropriate action.

Simply put, by creating teaching practices and learning environments where sensing, integrating, and acting are at the center, schools can take advantage of the brain’s basic functions to improve learning.  The book reminds me of Bush’s goal to leverage our students’ natural curiosity in order to stimulate their interest in learning.

Zull describes specific functions of the brain and how they affect learning in a way that makes complex ideas applicable and practical. While schools of education and teacher education programs are beginning to adopt these scientific principles to train the next generation of great teachers, many of these ideas are inherently part of the teaching philosophy mapped out by Helen Talyor Bush 90 years ago. Bush faculty are accustomed to creating learning environments in which sensing, integrating, and acting are at the center of their work. Such efforts have helped dispel the notion that good teaching is simply an “art” or an innate talent, when, in fact, we now know much of it is scientific, and good teaching practices are confirmed with robust research. Today, brain research confirms what Helen Taylor Bush knew 90 years ago.

[1]http://amzn.to/1Bbak87

[2]http://amzn.to/ZYO1qH