Because Counting Our Blessings Just Isn't Enough

Embracing Stress

cc licensed image shared by flickr user Brian Ford

cc licensed image shared by flickr user Brian Ford

Chasing Meaning is better for your health than avoiding discomfort.

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D

TED Talk, How To Make Stress Your Friend, Edinburgh Scotland, June 2013

Among the very first lessons I received as a school leader was to avoid stress whenever possible.

I began my career as a school administrator working as an associate principal alongside a wise, gentle principal who worried about stress. He had cause for concern. Several years earlier he had suffered a serious heart attack and his doctor had warned him to avoid stress. “Avoid stress?” he relayed to me of his conversation with his doctor. “I’m a school principal. How could I possibly avoid stress?” This principal calmly shared with me his doctor’s words: “I can’t tell you what to do, but I will tell you that if you experience too much stress, you will die. So, here is what I recommend. Each time you begin to feel stressed consider whether you will care about or even remember what is stressing you in five years. If the answer is ‘yes’, go ahead and be stressed. If the answer is ‘no’ then let it go.”

I’ve often paused during stressful moments and remembered this story, mostly allowing myself to let go of smaller stressors, or what I perceived as smaller stressors, while worrying about the large ones. Sometimes I’ve wondered whether or not I’ll remember a particular stressor, unsure as to its longer term seriousness or import. I’ve also shared the story more times than I can remember, conveying to others what I long viewed as wisdom about coping with stress.

I’m by no means alone in thinking about and stressing about stress. A survey of teachers and principals by Metlife, published in February, 2013 revealed that both teachers and principals experience substantial stress. Half of teachers and half of principals reported feeling under great stress several days a week. (Metlife, 2013)

We worry about stress. And yet . . .

Last week, on a trip to the library, I perused the new books section, open to something interesting I might not know about and might not ordinarily consider reading. I chanced upon The Upside of Stress by Kelly McGonigal and experienced a welcome paradigm shift. According to McGonigal, unlike the advice the well meaning doctor offered the principal for whom I worked so many years ago, in order to maintain good health we need not avoid stress, but rather embrace it. Choosing to see the good in stress can help us discover strength, courage, and compassion, meet challenges in life, and even lengthen life. The research is compelling.

In 1998 thirty thousand adults in the United States were asked both how much stress they had experienced in the past year, and whether they believed stress is harmful to health. Eight years later, 43 percent of those who both had high levels of stress and believed the stress was harmful to their health had died. The researchers estimated that during the eight years they conducted their research, 182,000 Americans may have died prematurely not because they were stressed, but because they believed stress was harming their health. McGonigal puts this number in alarming perspective, sharing that based on this estimate, believing stress is harmful to your health is the fifteenth leading cause of death in the United States, killing more people than skin cancer, HIV/AIDS, and homicide. Perhaps as astonishing is the finding that those who reported high levels of stress, yet did not view the stress as harmful to health, had even lower death rates than those who experienced little stress.

Many educators have been inspired by Carol Dweck’s book Mindset, and her distinction between those who hold a “fixed” mindset (believing their intelligence and talent are fixed traits, consequently seeking to prove their ability or avoid showing weakness) and those who hold a “growth” mindset (believing their abilities can be developed through hard work, consequently persevering despite obstacles). McGonigal explains that there are many different mindsets, or rather beliefs that shape our reality, including competing mindsets about stress; one maintaining stress is harming (depleting health and vitality, debilitating performance and productivity, inhibiting learning and growth) and the other proclaiming stress is enhancing (enhancing performance and productivity, improving health and vitality, facilitating learning and growth).

For years, convinced of the damaging impact of stress, I avoided, denied, or reframed as positive as many stressful situations as I could, striving as much as possible to remain unruffled by difficulty and calm in the face of adversity. Despite my best efforts, life happened. I experienced the usual stresses so many in education experience as well as a number of major, dramatic, life altering crises. Through it all, I learned to go into “crisis mode” when necessary, taking action to navigate through difficult situations, while mindfully expressing gratitude for the tremendous amount of good in my life; appreciating each good day, and even good moments during otherwise difficult days. Still, I viewed the stress as harmful and damaging. With a new mindset on stress, I feel I have received a precious gift; the invitation to embrace the many stresses in my life as challenges with the potential to enable me to strengthen qualities such as courage and compassion, connect with others by both giving and accepting care, trusting my ability to overcome difficulties, and forging greater meaning in life. It does not mean I wanted or sought the stresses, especially those that are significant and involve the suffering of others, but it does mean that if face them I must, I can allow myself to be transformed by the experience for the better.

Among the approaches McGonigal shares to embrace stress include transforming perceptions of stress from a threat to a challenge, helping others and accepting help from others, and trusting the human capacity to transform suffering into meaning. The shifts impact more than perception, altering biological processes in ways that enhance health. When anticipating that stress will help us, we produce more dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), a hormone that speeds up wound repair and enhances immune function. Higher levels of DHEA have been linked to reduced risk of anxiety, depression, heart disease and other illnesses we often consider to be stress related, as well as greater focus, less dissociation, improved problem solving skills, and fewer post traumatic stress symptoms. Helping others and accepting help from others releases the hormone oxytocin, reducing feelings of hopelessness. In one study, every significant stressful life event among those who did not routinely help others increased the risk of dying by 30 percent. However, study participants who went out of their way to help others showed absolutely no stress-related increased risk of death. Accepting help is also vital and while there are likely very few more universal human experiences than stress, often we feel isolated and disconnected in our stress, making it far more challenging to take action, see any possible good in a situation, or reach out to others to receive help we need or to benefit from being able to help others. Trusting our own capacity to learn from adversity can enable us to forge meaning and protect against health risks. Edith Chen, a psychologist at Northwestern University, found that people who grew up in poor or unsafe environments and yet both accept that they can learn from adversity and maintain optimism in the face of adversity do not experience the toxic buildup of stress related ailments common among others who have experienced similar stress; including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, and inflammation.

And so, my gift to myself is to strive to shift a long held mindset about stress and embrace my stress, remaining open to growth and transformation. Might you accept the same gift? If so, how might you embrace stress and discover strength, courage, and compassion, meet challenges in life, and even lengthen life?

For more information, I highly recommend reading The Upside or Stress by Kelly McGonigal and viewing her TED talk How To Make Stress Your Friend, Edinburgh, Scotland, June, 2013



cc licensed image shared by flickr user Denise Krebs

cc licensed image shared by flickr user Denise Krebs

Creativity, courage, and uncertainty is integral both to joyous opportunity and painful struggle in education and in life.

While uncertainty has always been part of life, the changing nature of work is cause for parents and educators to pause and consider potentially seismic shifts in the ways in which students in our schools today will one day experience work. Differences in generational attitudes toward work are already substantial.

To put shifts into perspective:

  • From about 1880 to 1980, having a good job meant being an employee of a particular company for many years, perhaps even for a lifetime. (The Economist, There’s an App for That, Jan 3, 2015)
  • Generation X (people born between 1961 and 1981) have experienced the end of the expectation of a job for life. (Forbes, Where the Money’s At: The Fastest Growing Sectors for the Self Employed, Meghan Casserly, 8/22/2013)
  • 60% of Millenials (people born between early 1980’s and early 2000’s) are leaving their companies in less than three years and 45% would prefer more flexibility to more pay. (Forbes, Why Millenials are Ending the 9 to 5, Kate Taylor, 8/23/2013)


Many today aspire to a freelance lifestyle, qustioning the nature of having a traditional job at all. (Is the Era of Mass Manufacturing Coming to An End, Peter Acton, Harvard Business Review, December 5, 2014) A recent study by the freelancers union, a group promoting the interests of independent workers, suggests that 1 in 3 members of the American workforce (and a higher proportion of younger people) do at least some freelance work. (The Economist, There’s an App for That, Jan 3, 2015)

Knowledge and creative companies, demanding ideas rather than labor and services, are subject to the same forces promoting freelancing as the industrial and service economies. Topcoder can undercut its rivals by 75% by chopping projects into bite-sized chunks and offering them to its 300,000 freelance developers in 200 countries as a series of competitive challenges. InCloudCounsel undercuts big law firms by as much as 80% using freelance lawyers to process legal documents for a flat fee. Innocentive has turns companies’ research needs into specific problems and pays for satisfactory solutions to them.  Quirky operates as a next-gen manufacturer and R & D firm whose global online community of about 800,000 people submit, vote and fine-tune potential inventions. Quirky then manufactures, packages and sells promising ideas at retailers such as Home Depot and Best Buy as well as directly on (The Economist, There’s an App for That, Jan 3, 2015)

With all the uncertainty, there is creative potential difficult for members of previous generations to imagine. Vocation, avocation, work, and leisure combine and expansive options for crafting a life of joy and meaning, albeit with less security.

Among the most inspiring innovative endeavors for me is E-Nable, which I learned about at the World Maker Faire this past fall. Created by Jon Schull, a researcher at Rochester Institute of Technology, e-NABLE pairs children and adults with missing or deformed fingers, hands or forearms with makers who produce customized 3D printed prostheses. Making a huge impact with little more than 3D printers, open source product design, and the intelligence, passion, time, and good will of a growing cadre of volunteers, E-Nable has cut the cost of prosthetic limbs from tens of thousands of dollars to a mere $50 a limb. The organization went in 2014 alone from 200 members to more than 3200, and a recent $600,000 grant from google will enable E-nable to do so much more.

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For me, E-Nable models the potential for balance between knowing and doing; thinking and making, with a focus on being impactful in the real world. There are certainly many other models we can share with our students, assisting them to consider how they might contribute through vocation or avocation. In the words of organizers of the Maker Impact Summit, held in December, 2013, “We are on the cusp of an opportunity to more fully tap into our creative potential, driven by significant technological innovation that is democratizing the means of production and enabling connections between resources and markets. Realizing this opportunity will require rethinking and redesigning all of our major institutions innovating the way we work, learn and consume.

What are ways we might rethink and redesign learning experiences, supporting students to be courageous in letting go of certainty, finding creativity and meaning in the process?

CC licensed image shared by flickr user Bryan Zug

CC licensed image shared by flickr user Bryan Zug


The big challenge for leaders is getting our heads and hearts around the fact that we need to cultivate the courage to be uncomfortable and to teach the people around us how to accept discomfort as part of growth.  Brene Brown

When you identify the discomfort, you’ve found the place where a leader is needed.  Seth Godin

For many years, I believed leadership was about vision, certainty, confidence, and solutions. With a wall full of degrees, a position high in my school’s organizational hierarchy, and a job description demanding action, I felt it was my obligation to make decisions that would propel our school forward; perceived it to be my responsibility to tell rather than to ask, and to know rather than to search. How painfully wrong my perspective proved to be.

The economic downturn of 2008 hit the school of which I was then a part quite hard and demand for tuition assistance sky-rocketed, leaving the school with a painful choice; say farewell to students whose families could no longer afford tuition or function with a large deficit. The decision was made by the Board of Trustees to run at a substantial deficit for one year, and to craft a more sustainable business plan moving forward. As lower school principal, I was called upon to drastically cut expenses, primarily by eliminating positions, while at the same time significantly raising the quality of the school to more effectively compete with the growing competition we faced. It was a perfect storm. I wish I could say I navigated through the turbulence with the courage, compassion, and connection that Brene Brown describes as the hallmarks of wholehearted living in her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. Being honest with myself, I was painfully unprepared. I floundered, made mistakes, and lacked the wisdom to know how to engage others in courageous, compassionate, connected discomfort. I did not yet know how to embrace vulnerability, to humbly engage in difficult conversations, to ask for help, and as Brene Brown so articulately advocates, “to lean into the discomfort of ambiguity and uncertainty, holding open an empathic space so people could find their own way”. Through the heart-wrenching pain of letting teachers know they would no longer have positions, demanding more of everybody, responding to increasing perhaps unrealistic expectations of me, and absorbing tremendous anger and distress, I faltered. Through many angst filled, sleepless nights and long, agonizing days, I found myself ill equipped for the many challenges facing me and recognized I needed to learn new ways of leading.

My transformation as an educational leader in some ways mirrors Brene Brown’s description of Lululemon’s CEO Chrstine Day’s leadership, moving from “controlling to engaging with vulnerability – taking risks and cultivating trust.” Day characterized the changes in her leadership as a shift from “having the best idea or problem solving to being the best leader of people”. Over the course of several years, I invented my leadership anew, learning to focus on supporting more than directing, coaching more than evaluating, wondering more than answering, and imagining collaboratively more than deciding individually. I accepted a new position as Head of School in another school community, crafting my approach to leadership with hard earned insights on vulnerability, risk taking, and trust building.

Echoing Brene Brown’s articulate words, “I’ve come to believe that a leader is anyone who holds her- or himself accountable for finding potential in people and processes.” I embraced leadership as serving to unleash the greatness in others. To that end, there are many techniques from the world of coaching that I have deliberately trained in and implemented, most significantly, giving feedback. Like Brene Brown, I have found receiving and giving feedback to be the key to normalizing discomfort, helping individuals to lean into discomfort with safety and support in order to stretch, to learn, to overcome challenges, to build on strengths, and to reach toward aspirations and potential. “At first, I was terrified by the idea that if education is going to be transformative, it’s going to be uncomfortable and unpredictable,” states Brene Brown, a sentiment that captures my intense emotion prior to the paradigm shift leading me from a leadership model focused on “knowing” and telling others what to do to an approach focused on “being”, deliberately nurturing trust and collaboratively striving toward shared, aspirational goals. In order to give feedback, I first had to be open to receive feedback. For that, I needed to embrace vulnerability – accepting that not only can mistakes and crises happen, but for any person or community that is striving to improve, mistakes and crises will occur. Acknowledging the inevitability of failures on the road to improvement enabled me to develop my resilience, patience, and fortitude in the face of challenge. I not only normalized discomfort for myself, but even became more comfortable with discomfort, welcoming the growingly familiar tension in my shoulders and flittering in stomach that arises when I have stretched myself beyond what I have done before, when I worry I have moved too quickly or made a wrong turn, when I face criticism that feels unfair or when I face criticism I feel I deserve. I have come to welcome the discomfort for it is through the stretching beyond the familiar that I grow and become more effective, more capable, more courageous, compassionate, and connected than I was before.

From seeking feedback for myself, I moved toward giving meaningful feedback to others – leading with a “coaching hat”; striving to focus more on support than evaluation. I revamped my approach to feedback; visiting classrooms as often as I could and sharing written feedback, including a compliment, and nonjudgmental reflections following four prompts: I noticed, I wonder, what if, and how might. I met with each teacher to set a professional learning goal, along with an action plan, supports we would put in place to help the teacher meet the goal, and ways we would measure progress toward the goal. I shared with each teacher that our end of year reflection, in lieu of formal evaluation, would not focus on whether the goal had been achieved, but rather on how much the teacher, and her or his students, had grown. I wanted teachers to adopt ambitious goals rather than playing it safe, and in order to do so I needed to create a culture in which striving was celebrated and protected. Teachers and I also filled out a rubric on professional practice as another means to reflect on practice, celebrate strengths, and identify areas more challenging. I made the commitment to teachers that the process would be focused on learning and that if I had a specific concern, I would be direct and share my concern with the teacher; enabling most conversations to be focused on professional growth and exploration of the possible, rather than being evaluative and judgmental. I reveled in teachers’ learning and growth; celebrating with teachers their forward progress.

Within the shifts in myself and our teachers, I caught glimpses of more dramatic forward movement for our school’s culture.  “A daring culture,” says Brene Brown, “is a culture of honest, constructive, and engaged feedback.” Nurturing a daring culture requires, according to Brene Brown, a “daring strategy”. We must dance with time, paying attention to the distance between where we have been, where we are, and where we want to be. While goals and accomplishments are important in this process, they are insufficient because, as Brene Brown shares, “culture is less about what we want to achieve and more about who we are.”

As we embrace one another’s strengths, along with one another’s quirky imperfections, we engage in painful yet potentially transformative disruption, offering the promise of engagement, creativity, innovation, productivity, learning, and trust. The key to this transformation is a frightening, yet potentially liberating, embrace of vulnerability.

I welcome you to engage in courageous, compassionate, connected conversation on vulnerability and growth.
How have you cultivated the courage to be uncomfortable?
How have you helped people around you to accept discomfort as part of growth?
How has discomfort helped you to learn and to grow?

CC licensed image shared by flickr user Chez Pitch

CC licensed image shared by flickr user Chez Pitch

“Our hearts would sing if our administrators really made it safe to try new things and make mistakes,” a teacher I had never met and will will unlikely ever meet again shared with me at the recent NYSCATE (New York State Association for Computers and Technology in Education) conference. We were at a session on Creating a New Learning Culture in schools. The presenter, Dr. Billie McConnell, was informative, even inspirational, sharing the need for change, compellingly presenting statistics about how unprepared our children are for the world they are inheriting, and sharing a vision, replete with videos of some of the most creative, insightful student-centered, individualized learning experiences I have ever witnessed. He outlined a problem, a significant problem with schooling today, and showed us a profound solution.

And, then, came the question I wait for at conferences; the question I hope somebody will be brave enough to ask in a setting in which we do not know each other, do not need to work with one another for more than a few hours, and consequently, sometimes, when courageous or frustrated enough, can express what is truly on our minds. I must paraphrase, yet nontheless share the essence of the words spoken. “This is all well and good, but it takes a tremendous amount of work, way beyond expectations in our contracts,” a teacher boldly stated. “I am a teacher and in my early years in the classroom I would have aspired to teaching as you show. Yet, now I am also a father of two young children and the demands to teach the way they do in those videos are way too high. It takes much more time to prepare than we have. What do you expect for us to do?”

Dr. McConnell respectfully validated the question and moved on with his presentation. In fairness, Dr. McConnell was showing us through his presentation what a new learning culture can be. He was wise, experienced and insightful, relaying a profound vision and a substantial amount of  information to us in a very short time. I appreciated and respected the learning. And yet, I longed to engage in further conversation with this outspoken, articulate teacher and the other educators who had chosen to come to a session on Creating a New Learning Culture. I longed to delve into dialogue beyond making a case for what is needed in schools, beyond a vision for what is possible in schools, to an honest sharing of what creating that culture is like in the trenches, in real schools and in real classrooms, with the multitude of demands and challenges that exist.

I raised my hand and myself blurted out, with more urgency in my voice than I had intended, a request to pause and speak further about what this teacher had shared, to open the conversation with others in the room about how we can work with the limited resources of time and funding available, and yet make progress. How can we engage with teachers open enough to attend conferences and speak their minds, passionate about helping students, yet skeptical about what is possible in their own classrooms and schools? How can we support teachers honest about how very challenging and demanding changing a culture of learning is? Was Dr. McConnell showing in his videos a few outlier teachers, particularly wise and resourceful, or could the remarkable accomplishments of these superb educators be replicated in classrooms and schools throughout the country? Again, respectfully, Dr. McConnell validated my participation and moved on. I admire Dr. McConnell’s ability to remain focused in the face of participants, primarily me, attempting to shift the focus of his well thought out, well received, important presentation. Looking back, I appreciate that he remained focused and moved on. And yet, I continue to long for a venue in which to discuss the truth from the trenches of our classrooms and our schools; the demands and complexity that envisioning our efforts anew will entail.

As the presentation ended and I stood to leave, the woman sitting next to me turned to me and said, “I am a teacher and I can tell you what I would like from my administrators.” “Please do,” I replied, “that would be so helpful.”  “Our hearts would sing if our administrators really made it safe to try new things and make mistakes.” With that, as participants for the next session began to file into the room and we both needed to leave, I thanked her and bid her good-bye, realizing that in a conference boasting many experts, numerous of them nationally reknowned, this wise and honest teacher had just offered me the greatest gift and insight I had received during the entire three days of the conference. We can only risk growth in environments in which we feel safe and protected. This is true for our students and is true for our teachers as well.

Can we hold the bar high with a vision of learning that is compelling, meaningful, and relevant for our students? Can we support teachers facing a plethora of demands and seeking to make progress with limited resources, time as well as funding? Can we empower teachers to make progress while still attaining a healthy work-life balance, grounded and present for their students as well as their families and themselves? Can we enable teachers to feel safe and protected as we venture forward with approaches requiring risk?

 How can we help make risk-taking safe and progress manageable? How can we help our teachers’ hearts sing?




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Screen Shot 2014-08-17 at 9.53.12 AMWhat if we could untether our strategic planning processes from typical constraints? What if we looked at building on our strengths and capitalizing on our opportunities rather than fixing our weaknesses and responding to threats? What if we unlocked our potential to grow, thrive, and evolve? What if rather than sustainability and stability we focused on transformative possibility?

Members of Solomon Schechter School of Queens’ professional development team and Board of Trustees spent a day and a half with Charles Cohen and Ray Levi of PEJE (Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education) in imaginative exploration of the possible.  Piloting a generative, creative planning process known as “asset optimization”, we began with a few “rules”:
* No silos allowed – multiple voices identify disparate assets, including human assets, to unleash new potential.
* Thinking must be interactive.
* Change and success must find common ground. We must not view change as an end unto itself, but rather as a vehicle for achieving success. Similarly, we must challenge the potential constraints of success, which can lead us to being stuck in what has worked even though our world is rapidly changing around us.
* The power of imagination must be embraced.
* In order to “connect the dots” in new, innovative ways we must identify dots we might not have even realized existed.
* The Head of School must accept not being the expert.
* The Board must support innovative thinking.

From there, we played. Using a model created by Shattuck-ST. Mary’s School’s President Nick Stoneman as a means of sharing the creative process that transformed his school over the span of a decade of innovation, we first engaged in two rounds of asset optimization using assets from schools other than our own. We worked with a very specific asset in each of six areas: Physical Plant, Faculty and Staff, Brand Recognition, External Relationships, Geography and Region, and Program Offered. Our task was to optimize potential by intertwining assets in these six disparate areas, finding opportunity previously unrecognized by connecting and combining asset categories in new and innovative ways in order to improve in seven specific areas: Faculty Engagement, Student Retention, Increased Enrollment, Facility Expansion, Endowment Growth, Additional Programs, and Alternative Revenue.

Charles Cohen and Ray Levi functioned as our coaches, activating our learning by observing, asking reflective questions to stretch our thinking, and offering feedback on what we might consider. They challenged us to be more specific and less “neat”, freeing us to resist the impulse to tie loose ends together quickly and instead to consider as many possibilities for building on strengths as we could. Working in two separate groups, we strove to optimize assets for two fictional schools, each with seemingly unconnected assets. Through the brainstorming, we crafted narratives of meaning, building on strengths to create schools that are world class – one emphasizing community and character; the other science and social policy. Inspiring us to live with the inherent messiness of creativity, at least for awhile, our facilitators sent us off on round two with two new schools and two new sets of assets to consider. To the delight of our facilitators, we emerged with “messier” packages of potential, and multiple potential directions for the schools presented to us – one a girls’ school emphasizing the arts and expanding into wellness programing and therapeutic arts for students and the broader community, and the other a struggling school in need of substantial intervention with a plethora of possibilities for improvement based on strengths, some of them initially hidden.

With the experience of imagining the possible in connection to fictional schools, with fictional assets, we were ready to identify real assets in our own school; dots we might not have yet even recognized in order to then connect those dots in new, innovative ways. Feedback from our coaches Charles Cohen and Ray Levi on our identification of our own assets was consistent with the feedback they offered in relation to our efforts at optimizing assets in the fictional schools which which we had practiced: be more specific. And so, we went back to work – identifying with much greater specificity faculty members, alumni, programs, and opportunities made possible by our physical plant. Those assets became the raw material with which we returned the next day to engage in multiple rounds of the asset optimization exercise using real assets of our own school.

Prompted by our coaches to think more expansively, more ambitiously, more creatively, more flexibly, and more specifically, we imagined a world class school. We envisioned signature programs and strategic partnerships enabling us to be ever more relevant to our students, preparing them in concrete, innovative ways for the rapidly changing world of work with emphasis in technology, science, and entrepreneurial ventures; infused with commitment to being socially responsible; deeply grounded in the enduring values and texts of our Jewish religious tradition. We described potential ways to build upon global connections stemming from our own multi-national, multi-lingual student and family population. Considering museums, universities, libraries, businesses, organizations, and individuals with whom to develop strategic partnerships, we recognized ways of cultivating connections to benefit our students. We imagined expansive potential for recruitment and facility expansion based on a virtuous cycle of optimizing assets.

CC licensed image shared by flickr user Slipp D. Thompson

The toothpaste is out of the tube! CC licensed image shared by flickr user Slipp D. Thompson

Beyond the imaginative ideas, we experienced important shifting of mindset. Possibilities requiring effort, risk, and courage were shared aloud as possible, leading not to a sense of anxiety or outright dismissal, but instead to openness to further exploration. “The toothpaste is out of the tube,” one participant playfully remarked, in reference to our rapidly changing world as well as the possibilities we together imagined.

Ready to leave the limitless world of potential and possibility and return to the more mundane day to day world of the operational and the tactical, we considered next steps that would enable us to build on positive momentum generated. Members of the professional leadership team considered concrete actions we could take to actualize some of the more manageable suggestions offered as well as to lay the groundwork for more ambitious innovation. Most significantly, we considered ways of bringing others who had not participated in the training into the process, primarily our Trustees and our faculty. Recognizing that at this time two days of learning combining theory and imaginative play with a purpose would not yet be achievable or even advisable for our very busy Trustees, or our very busy faculty members, we considered specific ways to infuse the language and thinking behind asset optimization into our work as we seek to shift our school’s mind set to a focus on identifying, cultivating, celebrating, and building on strength and opportunity. While much remains to be done, the conversation and learning has already had a potent impact. The toothpaste is out of the tube!


Career Ready


cc licensed image shared by flickr user huppypie

cc licensed image shared by flickr user huppypie

With so much conversation about preparing children for the rapidly changing world they will inherit, I have wondered why there is so little programming yet available in schools related to careers or vocations. Yes, there are high schools with work study programs or vocational training, but very little in K-8 schools.

Striving to take  seriously a commitment to  making learning relevant, my school has designed a career related electives program for seventh an eighth graders, aimed at enabling our students to consider their possible future work lives in an interactive, engaging manner. Electives will be taught twice a week by teachers in our own school.  Each elective will involve students in collaborative projects utilizing skills needed for the particular career about which they have chosen to learn and will include a social action component helping students consider ways the skills of the career can be used to make a positive impact for others.

Our career related electives are (in alphabetical order): Business; Education; Graphic Design; Health and Fitness Science; Medicine; Psychology/Social Work; Technology: Making, Tinkering, and Innovating; and Theater/Entertainment Industry. Descriptions of each course are provided below.


This course will focus on the area of Marketing and bring in the financial implications relating to the goods and service being marketed. Marketing focuses on the methods,policies and institutions involved in the flow of goods and service from the producer to the consumer. Activities such as product development,research,communication,distribution,pricing and service are core marketing activities.During the school year we will study each if these activities. As mentioned the cost of the development of the product and it’s financial implication will be discussed. Students will develop an understanding as to why items are distributed and marketed the way they are. They will understand the challenges of competition in the marketplace.

The class will be divided into a number of groups for a project where each group will introduce a new product and they will develop the marketing plan for this product from the research and development stage through distribution.

Related subjects studied will include Finance, Advertising and Consumer Behavior.



Our own school will serve as our lab as we explore the field of education. Students will have the opportunity to participate in “learning walks”, a professional learning approach in which educators, in this case our own students, observe learning in classrooms and then reflect together on what they observe. Prior to the learning walk foci to explore are selected from a range of potential areas including student engagement, physical design of the classroom, opportunities for individualized learning, opportunities for collaborative learning, integration of technology, evidence of student learning, and more. Students will learn techniques of observation, reflection, and lesson planning. They will provide individual or small group support in classes with younger children and receive feedback on their work. Students will collaboratively prepare a lesson, using a professional learning approach called lesson study, which originated in Japan. Each student will then teach the lesson they have created collaboratively in one of our younger grades. Students will observe each other teaching the lesson and offer feedback to one another using a professionally designed protocol to promote respectful, professional reflection and learning.


Graphic Design

Graphic Design is about how you interpret your visual world.  It is problem solving and sometimes making something really cool in the process. Everything that is not made by nature is designed by an artist. Graphic designers produce the labels on every product from shampoo bottles to a carton of milk.   In this course we will design book covers, tee shirts, street signs, posters and logos, while incorporating color, form and symmetry in the designs. We will plan together ways in which our creations can be donated in order to benefit others.


Health and Fitness Science

Combining physical therapy, neurology, and martial arts, students will explore the way in which health and fitness science can positively impact the lives of individuals living with illness and disability. Students will explore therapeutic physical fitness, with emphasis on the martial arts. They will apply their learning through organizing martial arts therapeutic programming for children with a range of illnesses and disabilities.



This course will begin with the history of medicine, from ancient (Egyptian) times to the present, including the difference between today’s conventional medicine and holistic medicine. We will continue with a brief introduction to the two main areas of medicine we will be discussing (Nursing and Medical Physician), including the education necessary, different degrees available, and specialties. We will additionally discuss ways in which medical professionals make a positive impact in their communities and consider volunteer opportunities in the medical field.


The following are some of the items we will discuss:

Nursing:  LPN, RN, NP

Medical/Surgical Nursing, Psychiatric Nursing, School Nurse, Public Health Nurse, Private Duty


Physician: MD, DO, PA

Private Practice, Public Health, Doctors Without Borders


Specialties we will explore for both Nursing and Physician: Medical/Surgical,Trauma, Obstetrics, Pediatrics, Geriatrics, Internal Medicine, Dermatology, Orthopedics, Hematology, Oncology, ICU & CCU, Pulmonary Medicine, and Psychiatry (and how it differs from Psychology).


Psychology/Social Work

This course is designed to provide students with an initial exposure to the field of psychology. Students will learn the diagnostic criteria presented in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-V for several mental health diagnoses. We will use media, literature and other sources to assess portrayals of these mental health illnesses. Examples of this may include TV shows such as Monk, Seinfeld, and Private Practice as well as books. Students will assess the accuracy of these media portrayals. Additionally, we will discuss the mind-body connection and how one’s mental health impacts physical health/performance. This will include how it impacts learning as well as a section exploring the impact of psychology on athletic performance (sports psychology). We will use real life examples to illustrate these points and will bring in guest lecturers as well.


Technology: Making, Tinkering, and Innovating

In this course, students will have access to the latest hands-on technologies and the opportunity to invent something that interests them.  Students will be given the chance to transform from passive receivers of knowledge to real-world makers who are empowered to design, build, and share their own amazing artifacts. They will consider ways their inventions can be used to make a positive impact in the lives of others.


Theater/Entertainment Industry

 The industry has a wide variety of career opportunities including specific areas of theater production, performance and management.

 Theater production is collaborative work that brings together many different skills from the playwrights, performers, stage manager, directors, producers, and set designers including costume design, sound and lighting,

 This course will include theater history, a closer  look at Broadway and the many different theater career opportunities that exist today. This course will culminate in a collaboration of writing and producing an original short play that will be performed and enjoyed by an audience that would benefit from its presentation.

CC Licensed Image Shared by Flickr User Steve Heath

CC Licensed Image Shared by Flickr User Steve Heath

What is the purpose of K-12 schooling?

Think for a moment before coming up with an answer. Consider what you believe truly matters. Is it preparation for college? Preparation for a career? Support in growing to be an individual who is morally and ethically grounded? Is it guidance in the development of core skills and habits of being needed to successfully navigate the complex, rapidly changing realities of the world our children will inherit? Is it all of the above?

While I venture most educators would answer “all of the above” and even share additional goals, most K-12 schools seem in practice to focus almost exclusively on college preparation or perhaps college preparation and character development. While many schools are grappling with ways of personalizing learning to meet students’ individualized needs and supporting students to set and strive for their own goals, so much more is possible.

Early in the year, my first year as Head of School at Solomon Schechter School of Queens, a father of a child in our middle school challenged me, stretching my thinking and sending me on a quest to consider ways of making learning more relevant. Why is it, he asked, that schools don’t teach financial literacy? He explained that to him, the need for finanical literacy in any profession or vocation a child might choose is self evident. He questioned me as to why financial literacy skills are not a staple of K-12 education. I didn’t have a good answer or a ready solution. And so I began to explore, learn, and imagine. I wondered ways to prepare children for responsibly managing their own finances, and beyond that goal I wondered  ways of helping children consider and prepare for the complex, rapidly changing world of work. I wondered ways of helping children recognize their own strengths, talents, and interests and consider careers or vocations that might be meaningful to them. In time, I came up with what I feel is a start; a two pronged approach to making learning more relevant and taking “career readiness” seriously: a financial literacy curriculum for kindergarten through eighth grade and a career related electives program for  seventh and eighth grade. The complementary programs aim to instill both the critical thinking and critical action skills essential to setting life goals, as well as the motivation, self-discipline, adaptability, resilience, and courage necessary to put ideas into action in order to achieve life goals. These two cornerstone programs are, I hope, just a beginning; first steps to implement, assess, evaluate, and build upon.

Financial Literacy Curriculum for Kindergarten through Eighth Grade
Our school’s Financial Literacy curriculum, to be implemented next year, is modeled after a program created at the Ariel Community Academy in Chicago through the efforts of then Chicago Public Schools CEO and current Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and John Rogers, CEO and founder of Ariel Investments, featured in Edutopia’s Schools That Work. Surprisingly, despite the tremendous success of the program at Ariel Community Academy, in the almost two decades since the program’s inauguration very few schools nationally have adopted similar learning experiences for their students.

While our school’s financial literacy approach is based on Ariel Community Academy’s experience, we have substantially modified the curriculum in order to meet the needs of our student population.  Our financial literacy curriculum includes five primary components:

  • Economics
  • Personal Finance
  • Entrepreneurial Skills
  • Investing
  • Philanthropic Giving

Students in kindergarten, first, and second grades will gain a basic understanding of economics and personal finance including earning income, saving, spending, credit, and money management. Their learning will be supplemented by an interactive classroom economy including jobs in which students earn “salaries” (consisting of play money), ‘bonuses”, have required expenses, and have choices of ways to spend their discretionary income remaining after their expenses have been paid. Philanthropic giving will be among the choices for spending discretionary earnings and students will be required to consider ways their earnings can make a positive impact for others.

Students in third and fourth grades will delve deeper into a foundation in economics. Third grade students will explore public finance, taxes, and ways that communities and municipalities make spending choices. They will have the opportunity to speak with local politicians about the ways in which public funding is utilized and they will determine a project in which they can be involved to enhance quality of life within the local community. In fourth grade students will learn about currency and monetary policy, exploring what the Federal Reserve system is and its role in helping currency circulate throughout the United States as well as the value of different currencies. Students will collaboratively determine a fundraising/social action project that impacts an international community of their choice.

In fifth grade, students will engage in substantive learning about investing. The grade will receive $20,000 in an imaginary portfolio, which they will manage through the end of eighth grade. We hope in the future to potentially be able to secure actual funds for the students to manage as is done at Ariel Community Academy. Students will be actively involved in making investment decisions for their portfolio and will receive mentoring from an investment professional. When the students are in eighth grade, they will analyze how their portfolio has done and collaboratively determine among themselves and with the school administration the way in which they would want their funds to be spent to enhance the quality of the school. If in the future, these are ever actual rather than imaginary funds, even in a smaller amount, the funds will truly go to the project designed by our students. Students will present their funding proposal, offering a compelling case for the ways in which their contribution will improve the school. They will also describe and analyze what is happening in the stock market, sharing what they have learned through the experience of investing  funds over the course of the four years of managing a stock portfolio.

Middle school students will explore world economic issues and engage in learning entrepreneurial skills. They will analyze current events of economic import and consider the impact of economics within local, national, and international arenas. Students will have numerous opportunities for ongoing learning about investment as they continue to manage their grade’s stock portfolio. They will also gain knowledge and understanding of entrepreneurial skills and will have the opportunity to create their own business plans. Each year of middle school, students will determine a worthy philanthropic project to which they can contribute based on economic needs they identify through their study of current events. Integral to their project will be a business plan outlining ways they will raise the funds they will donate.

Some of the resource materials we may use for our financial literacy curriculum include, but are by no means limited to:

Financial Fitness for Life

My Classroom Economy

The Secret Millionaires Club  financial literacy and entrepeneurship resouces and learning activities

Money As You Learn

Financial Education In The Math Classroom

Online Economic Lessons

Lessons To Include Financial Literacy In Math

Lessons on Entrepreneurship

A Mobile App Lesson on Financial Capability

Games To Support Financial Literacy

Free online and mobile games to improve financial capability, confidence, and knowledge

Financial Educational Games

Genirevolution: online Personal Finance Game and Genirevolution supplemental materials for teachers

Banking Game

Lesson Ideas and Games on Financial Literacy

Career Related Electives Program

Our school’s career related electives program will give our seventh and eighth grade students the opportunity to explore the world of work in an interactive, engaging manner. Each semester students will choose between a range of elective courses, focused on a particular career. In each course, students will learn about the career and participate in a collaborative project, completed during class time, incorporating skills needed for the career and focused on making a positive impact for others. Electives will be taught two periods a week. The courses will be pass, fail, or pass with distinction. Students can stay with one course for the entire two years, or switch each semester. Offering a range of course options will both enable us to provide a variety of choices for students to explore, while also keeping each course small thereby providing substantial attention and mentoring to each child. Our career related electives, are (in alphabetical order): Business, Education, Graphic Design, Health and Fitness Science, Medicine, Psychology/Social Work, Technology, and Theater. In the future, we will seek to add even more options.

The combination of a financial literacy curriculum and our career related electives offer an opportunity for our students to achieve far more than the foundation for success in high school and college. We hope these learning experiences will inspire our students to set potential goals for themselves, and to gain skills, understanding, and positive habits and qualities needed to achieve their goals.

What else might we consider as we seek to make learning ever more relevant? 


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