Dependence & Thanksgiving

Mr. Becker sent this to our students last week as they finished exams and began Thanksgiving break last week.

Dear Gunnery,

As you finish exams, I find myself in The Garden State (New Jersey) visiting three schools (Peck, Far Hills Country Day, and Rumson Country Day). I had a series of meetings with parents, alumni, and trustees yesterday in New York. Energizing stuff, but I’m sorry to miss the chance to say goodbye to you as you leave for the first extended break of our school year. I wanted to share a few thoughts as you finish up exams.

When Mrs. Becker is out of town, as she was last Sunday, I realize how dependent a person I really am. As I sat in church with Penny, William and Marilee and they acted fairly squirrely, I recognized how much I depend on Mrs. Becker and others for the care, feeding and organizing of our family. I also saw how dependent we are as a family on the communities of which we are a part. My kids illustrated this clearly that morning as I found myself part way through the service with only one child next to me and the other two visiting families in other pews.

Dependence quietly gave way to gratitude for those people and communities on whom I depend and that led me to reflect on what now seems like an obvious relationship between the two. As we in the United States move in to a season of thanksgiving, I wanted to recommend to all of us that we recognize how dependent we really are and, as a result, how thankful we ought to be. When we think about the first Thanksgiving celebrants we know that they were much more aware of their dependence—their creaturely dependence—than we are, separated as we are from the sources of the food, shelter, and energy we enjoy. Part of what gave rise to their celebration was very real gratitude for survival—for just being alive, and for the provision that came through the native peoples of New England and the land itself.

In 2014, it would be good for us to recapture some of this dependence and this gratitude. We are separated from the sources of our food production. We never have to wonder where the next meal will come from. We turn on the tap and clean water flows without end. We turn on lights and computers, and charge smart phones, without wonder or even curiosity. We take these truths for granted at our peril and much too easily. So my hope for myself this Thanksgiving is to cultivate a recognition of my dependence on the land, yes, and, even more, on the people and community around me.

I encourage each of you to give thanks, in person, for a friend, a teacher, and for a family member on whom you are dependent and for whom you are grateful.   I hope you feel good about the work you did this week as you wrap up exams. Enjoy the opportunity to rest as you travel from here and I look forward to seeing you in December.

All the best,

Mr. Becker

A 21st Century Education?

For obvious reasons, a major topic in education-public and private, secondary and in higher ed-is what it means to prepare students for the 21st century. I don’t know how far into the 21st century we have to get before we reframe the question but I’m guessing (and kind of hoping) that 15 years will be enough. Not that it’s an unimportant question. But the answers are fairly well worn by now. If there’s not an app for it, there are certainly lots of other places to explore possible answers. (http://www.p21.org/ or http://www.21stcenturyschools.com/what_is_21st_century_education.htm) Many of the initiatives under this moniker are great-they reflect sound pedagogy and purpose and get students actively excited about learning. I loved my 20th century “maker space” (mandatory shop class at Buckley-I still have the monkey I made that climbs the string and I have all of my fingers too-and Buckley boys continue the longstanding tradition of carving their own wooden bas-relief plaque at the end of their tenure that then hangs on a school wall in perpetuity-we moved from New York to New Orleans well before I had the chance to create one) and computer programming (DOS) and really wish we’d had robotics.

However, as the centennial of the start of World War I came and went this summer, it struck me that at the very least; 21st century skills must include equipping students to understand thoroughly the causes of major conflicts of the 20th century. It will be tragic if we equip our students to be innovators without the historical presence of mind to inform their innovation. It’s not just that “those who don’t know their history are bound to repeat it” (I think, human nature being what it is, we’re bound to repeat it to a degree anyway), though there is that too. We forget at our peril that the 20th century was both the century of the world’s greatest technological advancement and of the largest loss of human life to war and man-made famine and disease (15-17 million military and civilian deaths in WWI, at least 60 million in WWII, tens of millions more under various despotic regimes throughout the century).

Moreover, we will fail our students if in the rush to adopt technology and ride the STE[A]M train we don’t help them learn to think carefully about the technology at their fingertips. Doing so, of course, begins with thinking effectively about technology and its impact ourselves, as adults. There’s little point to having a rule that says you can’t have your cell phone out at the dinner table or in class if the student doesn’t understand why having the phone out is a problem—and about where and when it isn’t a problem. It’s easy, in this area, to play whack-a-mole to the end of winning a battle here and a battle there only to lose the war, namely equipping students with the inclination to reflect on their behavior and choices and how those choices may, unwittingly, shape them over the long term.

It was to this end that I asked the faculty to read one of three books this summer: Mediated by Thomas de Zengotita, Alone Together by Sherry Terkle, or The Circle by Dave Eggers (all of these books are available for order through Washington’s terrific independent bookstore, The Hickory Stick Bookshop). I may comment on them further in a future post. I also commend a 2011 article by Jonathan Franzen on the topic of the uses and abuses of personal technology (“Liking Is for Cowards. Go For What Hurts”). There is so much more to say on all of these topics. How do you help a sixteen year old to care about what is happening in the world around them today let alone a hundred years ago? More on that anon, but you have to begin with a commitment to do so. You have to believe it matters.

Meet Ed Surjan

One of the newest members of The Gunnery faculty is Ed Surjan, our Library Director. I asked Ed to introduce himself and his thinking to the broader Gunnery community via this blog. You’ll see that he combines a deep love of learning, of books, and of literacy skills with great experience in the “real world” and innovative thinking about engaging students and using space (broadly defined) to that end. Welcome, Mr. Surjan!

Having started my first company while still just an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, I come with an active, participatory, entrepreneurial, and technology oriented mindset to my school library career.  Prior to appointment as Library Director at the Gunnery this summer, I spent four years in the library at Berkshire School, and am currently a MLIS (Master of Library & Information Science) candidate at Syracuse University.

My approach to librarianship focuses on people, relationships and community, in contrast with the passive methodologies usually associated with libraries in the past.  Today, the focus is clearly on our students and actively facilitating knowledge creation in our school community.  This centers around developing information, research and digital literacy skills that prepare Gunnery students both for college and lifelong learning in a substantive and comprehensive way.  In fact, the critical transition from high school to college is an area of intense personal interest and concentration rarely far from my mind.

The Gunnery Tisch Library will extend well beyond its physical walls as the library staff and I will be a frequent presence in the classroom and around campus.  Enhanced library digital resources will be available to our entire community on or off campus anywhere an internet connection can be found on any device.

A passionate lifelong Chicago Cubs and Blackhawks fan, I live off-campus with my wife, BJ, and our yellow Labrador, Joe.  In my (limited) free time, I remain an avid, omnivorous reader and music lover, especially of blues and jazz.  ​