A License to Use Cell Phones

Head of School Peter Becker has been reflecting on the question of why we require teenagers to obtain a license to drive a car, a process that typically involves some level of preparation and training, and yet, no license or training is required for teenagers, pre-teens and even younger students to own and operate a smartphone. It’s a question worth exploring for parents before they simply turn over the keys to the internet and social media to their children, and allow them to attempt to safely and appropriately navigate that terrain without proper guidance.

I have not looked to see whether anyone else has proposed this idea before, but I assume that someone has. It emerged out of a conversation with colleagues and I honestly don’t remember who said it first. My wife and I decided a couple of years ago, once the requests from our three children for a device began, that we were going to wait until they were in ninth grade before allowing them to have their own smartphone. (We may not be in the minority here. According to a report issued this month by “Parents” magazine, which polled 1,000 moms of children ages 1 to 10, only 21 percent of kids ages 10 and under have their own smartphone. But more than a third of kids who have their own phone got it before their sixth birthday, the magazine said.) Our decision was made after watching so many terrific students be swallowed alive by their devices over the 11 and a half years since the iPhone® debuted. As a teacher, a school leader, and a parent, I have had misgivings about any approach ostensibly intended to equip teenagers to use technology wisely and well that amounts principally to telling them what they can’t do, which is how most schools and families seem to handle this topic. I’m very aware that given the power of a smartphone, for both good and bad, simply postponing the moment when they have access to one is not the same as helping them learn to use it well.

During the aforementioned conversation with colleagues, we drew a parallel between smartphones another device that most teenagers long to get their hands on: the automobile (although research from the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute and the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, among others, indicates that, for a variety of reasons, an increasing number of teenagers are now getting their driver’s licenses later). While I’m sure there are important ways in which the parallel breaks down, there is a lot to learn from that comparison. We are very aware of the damage that a young person – or an adult – can do to themselves and to other people if they are not adequately prepared to handle a car. The rules are different in each state, but they all require a licensing process that hinges on a computer-based test and a practical test wherein an expert gauges the user’s ability to navigate different frequently occurring pitfalls and common mistakes. Many of us may have had to take one or both of these tests more than once, and know teenagers today who have had to do the same, as in most cases the standards have risen. Moreover, we should note, a teenager cannot drive a car without both a carefully earned license and proper insurance because we know that even with the training and preparation that goes into the license, there is a chance that they will hurt themselves, the vehicle, or other drivers, and that risk is greater in the first year, when they are simply less experienced. Some families invest serious time and money, for good reason, in driver education courses to prepare teenagers to drive and insurance companies occasionally offer a discount if they know that a person has taken one of these classes. Clearly, preparation and experience are important factors in determining a young driver’s success.

So, what would it look like to create the same process before we put a smartphone in the hands of our beloved teens? I am early in my thought process about this, and as I mentioned, there are probably models for it already to borrow from, but at the least it could require classroom learning and having to pass some sort of written test or interview. It is easy to envision (and perhaps some families already do this) a probationary period during which the student and parent agree to meet weekly to monitor and review together usage statistics from an app like Moment or Apple’s Screen Time, which automatically tracks your screen time as well as which apps you view most often, and can even help you to schedule downtime. Perhaps families could determine ahead of time what a healthy total amount of screen time would look like, and what a healthy breakdown between different types of apps would be, much like financial budgeting, and then compare reality to the ideal and make adjustments accordingly. Only after a student demonstrates that he or she can use the phone appropriately, at least in terms of time allocation, does he or she gain either unfettered access to the device, or permission to use certain apps that require more discernment and wisdom, such as SnapChat or Instagram. Obviously, how teenagers allocate their time between different apps is one thing, but what they actually do with an app, using it for positive reasons versus habitualizing negative social patterns, are different things and require different kinds of conversations and feedback loops. But I have to imagine that some families and schools, especially middle schools where so much of this activity seems to begin, have already developed protocols for this from which we all can learn.

Just as the police have the authority to issue tickets for improper use of a vehicle, incorporating a scale where the response corresponds with the severity of the infraction, perhaps both families and schools can develop more nuanced responses based on different types of infractions, up to and including removing certain apps entirely or revoking a student’s use of his or her phone. I’ve learned recently about schools experimenting with not allowing smartphones on their campuses. While I understand the attraction of such an idea and expect that such a proposal would be implemented thoughtfully, I’m skeptical on the face of it that this is actually the best preparation for life that we can give to students. The reality is that sending your children to boarding school does not mean that they will be separated from their devices but I hope that all of us at boarding schools can think creatively and purposefully about how we can take advantage of our 24/7 learning environment to equip students to use these powerful tools for good rather than unwittingly being used and shaped by them. It’s a life lesson for all of us, and one we can pass on to our children at any age.

Navigating Our Relationship To Risk

I took our kids, ages 12, 10 and seven, to see “Free Solo,” a riveting, beautiful, white-knuckle documentary about the free climber, Alex Honnold, and his attempts to free-climb El Capitan. Just to clarify, the film is about a human being who attempts to climb a 3,000-foot vertical wall of granite with no ropes – just using his hands, feet, fingers and toes to make the climb. My palms get sweaty just writing about it.

The film is an extended meditation on and exploration of risk. As it demonstrates repeatedly, Honnold and his free-climbing peers recognize that a single mistake will likely result in death. There is nearly zero margin for error. As far as risk/reward equations go, it doesn’t get much more absolute on the downside than that. (To underscore the point, at least twice in the film Honnold and other climbers list fellow climbers they’ve known who have died.)

I brought my children to experience this film because I find something admirable, attractive and counter-cultural about this kind of relationship to risk. I wanted them to see that most of us (“us” being anyone in an independent school, and certainly my kids) live the most sheltered, bubble-wrapped lives in history. What we consider risky – whether physically, socially, intellectually or financially – barely registers on the risk Richter scale compared to what these people choose to do, and what most humans throughout history have faced with no choice. And yet we’re the ones experiencing an epidemic of anxiety and depression? What are we getting wrong? I want my kids to develop some perspective about their own lives in context and to begin to ask themselves what they are going to do with and about the incredibly comfortable situation into which they’ve been born.

Obviously, free climbing El Capitan (or any of the other rock faces depicted in the film) is an extreme example. But its extremity is both helpful and instructive.

First, and most starkly, Honnold and other free climbers in the film love life and living in ways we should pay attention to. I would argue that they are more alive – more tuned into what gives life fullness – than most of us.

Second, they seem to live very simple lives (in the best sense) – streamlined, no extraneous stuff and relationships – with clarity of purpose (setting up and executing the next climb). They’re human, as the film makes clear, with complications in relationships, but they’ve stripped life down to essentials in a way I’d like to emulate. (Honnold – unmarried, no kids – takes this to an extreme; he lives in a well-equipped van and wrestles later in the film with more traditional forms of domestic life. I want to see the sequel just to see how this thread plays out.)

Third, they’ve reconciled themselves to the reality of death in a way that leads to freedom. Though this isn’t something we read about a lot in educational philosophy, it made me wonder if we should be finding ways to integrate it into high school more than we do. The ways in which humans in various societies have grappled with the reality that we all die is fascinating and instructive. The primary ways we in the developed west do that today is to figure out how to push off our last breath to the latest possible date as if more of life is unequivocally better. Few of us today can say, “O death, where is your sting?” We spend a lot of energy afraid of the sting rather than finding peace and meaning in the face of it. What is it that Shakespeare knew that allowed him to put these words in Caesar’s mouth:

“Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard.
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.”
(“Julius Caesar,” Act II, Scene II, Line 32)

I want to be more like that than someone who chases the elixir of life. That’s what “Free Solo” depicts – a healthy, balanced relationship to death. It’s instructive to watch Honnold’s approach to his climbing attempt given what I’ve described about his willingness to risk death regularly. You might think he’s a daredevil who thinks he’s untouchable. Far from it. He approaches the climb with scientific precision. He writes detailed notes about each move – each finger hold, hand role, toe placement. He memorizes these steps both on and off the mountain (he practices with a partner using ropes and harnesses multiple times leading up to the attempt). It’s safe to say that I’ve never approached anything as intentionally as Honnold approaches his free solo attempts.

Finally, the film depicts another way in which Honnold lives out the relative peace and clarity of purpose that he’s achieved. He gives away 30 percent of his income (no idea if that’s pre- or post-tax, but it’s ridiculous regardless) to help build solar roofs in impoverished areas. Thirty percent! Who does that? Someone who has found contentment and equipoise – without thinking that those will only come once the bank account reaches a certain level. I wanted my kids to see Honnold’s radical generosity, too.

See the film. As one friend said, see it on as big a screen as you can find. I won’t tell you whether he succeeds or not. Most importantly, ask yourself what you can learn from the main character. I’ll be asking how we can integrate its lessons in the 24/7 boarding school environment. No, I don’t think allowing kids to free climb sheer rock faces is the answer. But we need to do a better job helping them establish a healthy relationship to real, positive risk – which at our school, might involve spending a night in a tent in Connecticut in January, being kind to the kid who ends up on the receiving end of a joke, trying out for the play when you’ve never acted before – and determining what the necessary preconditions are to making that happen.

How Do You Prioritize Your Time?

At a School Meeting this month, Monte Blaustein, who teaches sciences and is the director of our engineering program, known on campus as IDEAS, spoke to students and faculty about how people prioritize their time. So many of us lead busy, overscheduled lives and we know it’s important to take care of certain basic needs, such as nutrition, sleep, school or work, exercise and staying connected with family and friends. However, it’s worth taking a moment to think about Mr. Blaustein’s question: What is important to you? Being more thoughtful about what is important to us can help us to prioritize the people, work, events, activities, commitments and tasks that compete for our time and attention. What follows is an excerpt from his speech.

What is important to you?  What should be important to you? Every year the amount of stuff we try to fit into each day is increasing, but the number of hours available to do these things is not.  The only option is to try and figure out what is important to you, what will make you happy – today and in the future – and what are the things you really care about.  We need to prioritize our lives, to decide what are the things that are most important to us, and then don’t worry as much about the small things. Don’t sweat the small stuff, but you should sweat the big stuff. If you know which is which you will be happier and more successful.

  • Classes – like it or not you need to learn things that you don’t already know, and until we figure out a better way, for now learning occurs in a classroom – real or virtual – and involves practicing what you learned so that it stays in your brain – we call that homework or studying.
  • Games – most of us play a sport, create works of art, act in a play or musical, or take part in one of the myriad of other things that we do for fun.  Yes, some of you may go on to make this your career, but for most people it is something we do just because we enjoy it and like spending time doing it – and just like homework, practice, practice, practice is the way you get better.
  • Eating – we do it because our bodies require nourishment – no option there.  Of course some of us enjoy a good meal, and it creates a great opportunity to relax with friends and chill for a while.
  • Social media is also a part of our lives.  I love this word. Being “social” is a good thing – humans love to be with others, to interact, and yes to connect with each other.  “Media” – this is how social is often done these days, and that is fine. How else would you get to see what your friends who don’t live close to you are doing everyday?  It is a great way to keep in touch with family and those who are not part of your everyday life.

There is one thing I have not talked about, and it is very important: Each of us needs to be aware of how others are feeling.  It is really easy to congratulate someone for getting a goal, a good grade, being selected for some position or role. We know they are happy and we respond without thinking about it. It is equally important to watch out for your friends when they are not having a good day.  They may have received a bad grade, did something that caused the team to lose the game, received bad news from home, had a fight with someone, or maybe they are just feeling sick or lonely. Letting someone know you care about them, that you sympathize with their problem, that you are sorry about what happened, and that you understand – that can be hard sometimes, but it is so very important.  Sometimes it means helping in some small way, such as getting that person a glass of water or picking up what they dropped. Sometimes it means just sitting there quietly while they tell their story, and listening to what they say.

Sometimes it means getting help from another student or an adult, especially if that bad day morphs into a second or third bad day. The most important thing is to make sure the person is not ignored and that you are sincerely trying to be caring. When you see that someone is down, think about them above yourself, and go out of your way to be kind.

I am not going to tell you what should be important for you.  Everyone has their own priorities, their own goals and objectives, and their own passions. Think about what is really important to you, what will make you happy today and tomorrow. Spend your time doing what is important to you, and keep that in mind when you prioritize your time.

Practicing Character through the Intentional Use of Language

The Gunnery celebrated the opening of a new school year – our 169th – at Convocation on Friday, September 7.  This event is a reminder that, as students and educators, we are all part of something historic, a place that has been added on to by each successive student body, and now that’s us. It’s both a responsibility and an opportunity.

I find it helpful at this time of year to remind ourselves of what we say we are trying to do here, to remind ourselves of our mission. You may be vaguely familiar with it but allow me to share it here as a point of orientation:

In 1850 Frederick Gunn established a school based on the belief that strength of character was the goal of education. Today, The Gunnery rests on the four cornerstones of character: scholarship, integrity, respect and responsibility. Character is forged in a cohesive, diverse community informed by a challenging college preparatory curriculum, a broad range of athletic, artistic and social activities and a faculty of scholars and committed educators dedicated to the intellectual and ethical development of every student. A Gunnery graduate is a broadly educated, socially responsible citizen with tested beliefs, strength of character and the courage to act on convictions.

We are here to help our students grow in strength of character – in scholarship, integrity, respect and responsibility. I think you can agree that it’s a good goal, a goal of real substance. Our founder, Mr. Gunn, believed strongly that even as we pursue this mission and help students grow in strength of character, this whole endeavor of school should also be fun. So, allow me to try to provide just a few examples of how the pursuit of character could actually be fun  – and what growing in character looks like.

I want to use Red Sox fans as my example. My Aunt Liz (and most of Mrs. Becker’s family, for that matter) is a Red Sox fan. I saw her the other night and she said, “I’m sorry your Yankees are having a tough season.”

Now, I want to unpack that seemingly innocuous comment and then connect it to how we live together at school and live out the growth of character. First of all, the statement is untrue. The Yankees are not having a tough season. Many other teams in Major League Baseball would be very happy to be having the season the Yankees are having. But, yes, the Red Sox are having an awesome season – a gloat-worthy season. Kudos to them.

But more important than the inaccuracy of the comment is what Aunt Liz meant by it. We all know that she did not actually mean “I’m sorry.” She’s not sorry. So right there, Aunt Liz is using language, knowingly or not, to provoke a response. She’s not trying to make me feel better, even though the words she used might make you think that. She’s trying to squeeze lemon juice in the open wound of being in second place to the hated rival. It is an intentionally unkind comment. This is what Red Sox fans do.

Now, this – what I’ve just done – is an example of me using the power that I have – the power of access to a microphone, of a prominent place from which to speak – to try to inject some fun into the conversation about what character looks like in action, somewhat at the expense of Red Sox fans and my Aunt Liz. Obviously, I’m not particularly concerned with who is your favorite sports team and how you behave as a fan. But here at The Gunnery, we do care, a lot, about whether our students use language intentionally in other contexts and situations.

How we use language – the words we say out loud and what we type, especially with our thumbs – is one of the primary ways that we live out character, especially integrity, respect and responsibility. We live in incredibly charged, divided times. The examples we get on television and social media of how to use language are, for the most part, terrible. Television and social media rarely have the patience or interest in language used well, for positive, productive purposes. And this is where what we try to do here, at Mr. Gunn’s school, flies in the face of what we see outside of this place. What we value here is very obviously not what the world around us values. That creates a tension, but it’s a tension from which we can learn.

What would it look like, and sound like, if we committed to using language not to provoke or divide but positively, to learn from one another, to inquire rather than badger, to build up rather than tear down? This takes practice, courage, and the willingness to learn new habits and buck social norms but I know our students are all capable of it and most of them already do it at least some of the time.

We want our students to advocate for their ideas passionately. We don’t want them to be afraid to say what’s on their minds. But we do want and expect them to say it respectfully. And we expect them to listen to one another respectfully. Can you hear how countercultural this is at this particular moment? Do you think it’s possible? I do. Do you think they can do it? I do.

An example of how this worked out practically, here on campus, is the effort that a few students made two years ago to create the Gray Party – not gray like mushy nothingness lacking color, but gray as in most of the best answers to challenges that our world faces exist not in the black or white extremes of one party or another, but in the middle ground – the difficult-to-navigate middle ground. It takes courage and patience to stay there and work through the pluses and minuses of different answers.

We don’t promise any of our students that they have a right not to be made uncomfortable by something that another student or faculty member may say. I can’t emphasize this enough. But the flip side of that coin is that here you also don’t have a right to say, write, or do things that are intended to be inflammatory or harassing.

This is a very high standard to set and even harder to live out. It requires all of us to allow each other to make mistakes and learn from them, to practice extending grace and forgiveness to one another at times, to consider others before we consider ourselves. We are inviting our students to live differently, not for the sake of it or out of fear of confrontation, but because it’s better, more fulfilling, and will bring out and nurture the best of them. We want this to be a place of real learning and that implies robust disagreement and debate, even having feelings hurt at times, but only if you can say in your heart and your head that you actually meant to be respectful, to care about the other person, and to learn. Those, among other things, are our standards at this school.

I listened to an interview recently with a writer, thinker, theologian, and former pastor who I’ve long admired named Eugene Peterson. He thinks a lot about using language well. He said, “We cannot be too careful about the words we use. We start out using them and they end up using us.” My hope and prayer for all of us this year is that as we practice character and grow in scholarship, integrity, respect and responsibility, that we use language intentionally, with care and even love, even though that’s a very unusual thing to do in 2018. Through doing that, we will make this school, our school, a place that would make Mr. Gunn very proud.

Commencement Address

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What do Emily Dickinson, Beyoncé and the psalmists of the Hebrew scriptures have in common? You’ll find the answer to that and other questions in the Commencement Address I delivered to the great Class of 2018, faculty, family and friends on May 28. You can read the full text on our website.

A Good Life

I recently had the privilege of speaking to accepted students and their parents who came to The Gunnery for Revisit Days. (We had record-breaking attendance both days, despite a spring snow storm!)  When it comes to choosing a school, these campus visits are critically important and can affirm, particularly for students, whether they have found the right fit in the school they have chosen. I’ve modified my talk to fit this space.

To get at the question of how to find that right-fit school, I asked families at our Revisit Days to consider some bigger questions via Yale’s most popular course in history. Not Shakespeare, American history or economics. Psychology 157 – Psychology and the Good Life. How is it possible that one quarter of Yale University’s undergraduates feel the need to take a class on what means to lead a good life? It raises the question: why are we doing all of this in the first place? What is it for?
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With Class…

At our School Meeting this week, Mike Marich, Director of Athletics and Head Coach for Boys Varsity Lacrosse, shared a few words about sportsmanship, respect and the Golden Rule, particularly as it applies to spectators and the teams they support. His message resonated with our students as players and fans, and with our faculty and coaches, who cheer for our teams from the sidelines, but I also think it holds value for any parents who have found themselves in challenging situations while cheering on their children.

At The Gunnery, we ask our players and coaches to honor visiting teams and spectators as their own guests and treat them as such, and likewise, to behave as an honored guest when they visit another school. We ask them to be gracious in victory and in defeat, and to learn especially to take defeat well. We ask them to be as cooperative as they are competitive, and to remember that their actions on and off the field, court or ice reflect on them and our school. These same guidelines apply to spectators but sometimes, we fall short of those goals. Here are Mike’s words on how we can all be the best fans.

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