Saturday, April 25, 2015

What Kind of Story Have We Fallen Into? In Which the Headmaster Remembers What He Said Twenty Years Ago

What Kind of Story Have We Fallen Into?
In Which the Headmaster Remembers What He Said Twenty Years Ago
Tonight is Trinity’s 20th Anniversary Auction. Many thanks to Kate Barron and her dedicated crew of auction volunteers,  who have worked tirelessly so that every dollar raised tonight goes to support the Blake Hubbard Commons furnishings.

I go back to the first auction, in November 1995, at the Fearrington Barn. My mind is a sieve, and there is so much I don’t remember: what I wore that night, what items we had for sale, or what our auction total was (I’m guessing $12,000). But I do remember what I said when I introduced our speaker, Bruce Lockerbie. I evoked Frodo and his band of hobbits as they rested and convalesced at Elrond’s House, Rivendell, what they called “the last homely house” before the wilderness of daunting adventures. Like those hobbits, we had a few adventures under our belts, but I had a sense then that there were some rough spots ahead.  And on that November night in 1995, I was glad for the warmth of the Fearrington Barn, for the hospitality of those who had planned the event (thank you, Jim Lamont and Desiree Denton!), and for the fellowship of people who thought this was something worth doing. Rivendell.

Twenty years later, I am looking forward to another respite of an evening with the Trinity community, and my mind goes again to Tolkien’s tale. I’ve been warned not to go there—I know that Middle Earth is not for everyone. But being part of a great story is for everyone, and Frodo’s story reminds me so much of our own. I’m thinking of an episode at the end of the second book, when Frodo and Sam are at the gates of Mordor, resolute but nearly hopeless. In a rare moment of calm reflection, before the storm that is looming, Sam waxes eloquent:

We shouldn't be here at all, if we'd known more about it before we started. But I suppose it's often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that's not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind.

Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually—their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn't. And if they had, we shouldn't know, because they'd have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on—and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same—like old Mr Bilbo. But those aren't always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in! I wonder what sort of a tale we've fallen into?  (The Two Towers, pp. 320–21)

There are four things that Master Samwise can teach us, and one we can teach him.

  • We shouldn’t be here at all if we had known what it would mean. Too true, Sam.  If we had started Trinity by saying, “We’ll need twenty acres of land, several million dollars, extraordinary teachers, a board that meets twice a month for five hours, and a mission that will take us years to craft”-—would we have ventured to start Trinity School?  

We didn’t choose this so much as we fell into it.  I don’t think any of our founders set out to start a school, but we found ourselves in a place where the world’s need was for a school such as this. “I will lead the school, though I do not know the way.”
We may have made a lot of mistakes, but we just went on.  Decisions about admissions, about expansion, about not expanding, about discipline, about hiring and not hiring, about policies, about uniforms, about carpool—there is no end to school conundrums, and God knows that we have gotten it wrong more than we’d like to admit. And when we do admit it, we might want to turn back and give it up.  But we haven’t, and with God’s good help we have continued to show up. For twenty years. That’s something to tell about.
We don’t know what kind of tale we’re in. Indeed we don’t. How many times have I been surprised. I thought we were going to buy additional land with the proceeds from the Blake Hubbard Memorial, but God closed that door three times. And then we did master planning and the board set out to build this new student and learning commons. Who’d a thunk it?

These are things that Sam teaches us.  But there is one more he cannot see, but we do, the readers of Tolkien’s tale. Not because we are wiser than Sam or better, but because we stand in a different place. As we read the trilogy and see the stories of the broken Fellowship--of Sam and Frodo, of Pippin and Gandalf, of Aragorn, of the warriors of Rohan, of Gollum even--weave together and arc toward a fitting telos, we understand that Sam’s story fits into a larger story. Tolkien’s richly layered metanarrative, thick with mythology and history and tangled with many agendas, emerges as a single story (spoiler alert!) of the triumph of the humble good over arrogant evil. Sam cannot see this from his dark path into Mordor, but we see it emerge slowly. We can almost see it coming together.

Two years ago, at our auction at Bay 7, I walked upstairs for a moment of quiet in the middle of the chaos and loud chatter. I stood above the crowd and looked down on all that was happening. I will never forget that perspective, that sense that I could see things unfolding that those below could not.

So it is with Trinity. Those of us in the chaos and loud chatter of daily life at school are caught up in the conflicts and triumphs of the day, and we find ourselves confused and challenged by the crisis du jour. And when something really big happens—like the death of a ninth grade boy—we wonder if there is really any Story at all, or if this is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury.  Without vision, the people perish, and God has given us a bird’s eye perspective of our story and how it fits into his: “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).  He knows the plans he has for us, plans to prosper us. These things we cannot see from where we are, but we believe them, and that belief makes our journey a great joy.

Non nobis.

Chip Denton

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Spring Strings Fest 2015

Back in the day when we held school at Hope Creek Church, I decided that I would try to master the first Suzuki Book with my son, Chad, who was taking up the violin.  It was a humbling experience in many ways.  Despite my best efforts, I was never able to master the art of the bow hold, which my son seemed to get instinctively.  Every time I hear young students play the violin, I stand amazed and am grateful for their hard work and dedication.

When we were nearing the end of Book I, I decided to make an object lesson of my mediocre violin accomplishments.  I stood before the entire student body and played Bach's Minuet No. 3; then I asked Nancy Brooks, then on the board, to come up and play it.  The lessons were legion, and I made all I could of my humiliation.  Mostly I talked about excellence and the importance of practice in many things, not just the violin.

So you can imagine that I took a strange pleasure tonight in hearing our young strings group playing that same Bach piece.  I closed my eyes and listened with joy, glad that these students so young had already surpassed all that I had been able to do, hopeful that they would keep learning.  Here is the very last of that piece:


And here is a piece (Minek) played by the ensemble and danced by senior Alexandra Hall.


Our strings program continues to grow.  It was wonderful to see our younger players beside our most accomplished musicians.  Here is one of the several quartets that played tonight, this one performing Vivaldi's Concerto for Four Violins in B Minor.


Special congratulations to our seniors, Cammie Behnke, Anna LaDine, John Matthews, and Christopher Wu, whose modeling and leadership has helped to build this program.

Nancy Brooks and Carrie Engsberg Wiseman, our two directors, should be commended for a fine program and performance.

May it continue to grow, Non Nobis.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Our CSI/SAIS Accreditation Team.  Left to right: Jean Joudon, LS Director at Donoho School in Anniston AL; Marylou Capan, Curriculum Director at Covenant Day School in Matthews, NC; Ellyn Grosh, Chair of Modern Languages at St. David's School in Raleigh; Ken Cheeseman, Head of School at St. Paul Christian Academy in Nashville and SAIS Chair; Bob Vanwieren, CSI Accreditation Director and CSI Chair; Karen Dye, LS Director Episcopal Day School in Augusta, GA; Brooks Batcheller, Dean of Students at Westminster School in Atlanta; and David Ritter CSI Consultant and former Headmaster.

Accreditation has me thinking backwards. On Tuesday afternoon, we welcomed the accreditation team and watched the 20th Year Video. We remembered together the Lord’s many blessings to Trinity School, read Psalm 103, and affirmed that God has done us great good here at Trinity.  

But accreditation has me thinking forwards too. And I have two texts in mind, which I'm putting side by side.

Philippians 3
12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. 16 Only let us hold true to what we have attained.

Carol Dweck on Fixed and Growth Mindsets
In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort. They’re wrong.
In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities.

Why bring these two texts together?  
  1. The integration of faith and learning.  Philippians tells us about our faith, and Dweck is one of the most cited authors among educators. Where do they intersect and how?
  2. All truth is God’s truth.  What is the truth in God’s revelation in Scripture?  What is the truth from this Stanford psychologist.
  3. We want, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians, to take every thought captive to obey Christ.  What does that look like in this case?

There is, it seems, some resemblance between these two passages, separated by millennia.  Both speak about mindsets--ways of thinking that impact our ways of acting in the world.  Both promote a certain straining and effort.  Both applaud a posture that leans towards the future and leaves the past behind.  

So on the surface, Dweck and Paul seem to be saying the same thing: Press on, lean into the future with striving, don’t rest on your laurels.  

And whatever these two are saying about individuals, I’d like to extend to institutions like Trinity.  Schools, also, need to develop and foster a growth mindset.  Like the people that make up Trinity School, we need to forget what lies behind and strain forward toward what lies ahead.  

At this moment of accreditation, such counsel seems particularly relevant.  We haven’t invited these eight experienced educators to Trinity to document our achievements, talents, or gifts.  We haven’t assembled a team from CSI and SAIS to help us name the things we have done well.  That is not because we don’t think we have done some things well, or because we aspire to some false humility that says “Aw shucks!” about God’s many blessings to Trinity School.  No, it’s because we live in a world where excellence is a vision always unfulfilled, which draws and drives us forward into a future where we hope for that which we do not yet see fully.

And so the deliverable for this week of accreditation is called a “School Improvement Plan.”  I want to thank these eight people from schools in several states for their time and devotion to help us get that Plan as right as we can.  In this way I hope we can all learn a Growth Mindset for Trinity School.  

But there is one really important difference between the Gospel according to Dweck and Paul’s Good News. Dweck says that people with growth mindsets believe “that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work.”  This is not quite the same as what Paul says.

I've been reading Robert Caro's Master of the Senate, which is part of his biography of Lyndon Johnson. Caro says that Johnson had an uncanny knack for being able to read people, to know what they feared and what they loved, to be able to put his long Texas forefinger right on the spot that made them tick. (Johnson used this knowledge to much political advantage.) I think that if LBJ were reading these two texts, he would see that what made Paul tick was something different than what Dweck calls the Growth Mindset.

Paul does not believe, at bottom, that dedication and hard work are the keys to the kingdom.  Paul believes that “Christ Jesus has made me his own.”  For Paul, the driving force of his life was that he belonged to God in Christ.  For Paul, the difference-maker was that he knew that Jesus Christ loved him in a way that was perfect--beyond what he deserved to be sure, and even beyond what he could imagine.  Paul pressed on not because he thought he might attain that love and somehow find a way to belong to God.  No, he pressed on because he had this vision of a Christ who loved him outrageously and he heard the Siren Song (“the upward call,” as Paul puts it) of that love and wanted nothing else so much as that.  

A Fixed Mindset says, “I am what I am.”
A Growth Mindset says, “I am what I do.”
A Gospel Mindset says, “I am whose I am.”  

A Fixed Mindset is focused on talent.
A Growth Mindset is focused on grit.
Both are focused on ourselves.
A Gospel Mindset is focused on Jesus Christ.

And so I would like to extend Paul’s Gospel to Trinity School.  May we always know that we belong to Jesus Christ, and may we be focused not on ourselves but on Jesus Christ.  Non nobis, domine, non nobis.

Pi Day

I stopped by the sixth grade this morning and witnessed Mrs. O'Briant leading the students through Pi Day.  There were four or five tables, each with challenging Pi puzzles and activities.  And I got to hear this version of the Pi Song.


Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A Sane View of New Technologies and Learning

My friend and Trinity parent, David Hostetler, who now teaches virtually at Appalachian State in the areas of school law and humanities, passed along to me a blog by Frederick Hess, Pundicity.  

David and I have kept up a conversation about teaching, learning, and technology over the last several years.  His teaching at App State, which started as traditional teaching, has migrated over the years to blended classes and now to mostly virtual instruction.  Those transitions have forced David to think long and hard about the limitations and affordances of different ways of teaching.  He's a great resource for us as we move into our Digital Learning Initiative at Trinity.

David's perspective is a balanced one, and Hess' blog entry has that same perspective.  I like the way Hess takes measure of the possibilities and limitations of new technologies by looking at the history of the book in education.  Check it out here

Hess avoids both the Scylla of the digital sceptics and the Charybdis of the tech evangelists.  His recommendation about what we should look for in our employment of these new technologies is spot on:
First, new tools should inspire a rethinking of what teachers, students, and schools do, and how they do it. If teaching remains static, sprinkling hardware into schools won't much matter.
Second, technology can't be something that's done to educators. Educators need to be helping to identify the problems to be solved and the ways technology can help, and up to their elbows in making it work.
Third, it's not the tools but what's done with them. When they discuss what's working, the leaders of high-tech charter school systems like Carpe Diem and Rocketship Education, or heralded school districts like that of Mooresville, N.C., brush past the technology in order to focus relentlessly on learning, people, and problem-solving.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Grammar Schooling

Yesterday I sent the following email to all of our faculty and staff.  Thought I'd share that with the rest of the Trinity community.  The NPR piece is worth checking out, and the quiz is fun to take.  

I've received already several encouraging and funny responses from faculty.

Dear Faculty and Staff,

Interesting piece this morning on NPR from Mark Memmott, their editor of standards and practices.  

He directed us to the NPR Grammar Hall of Shame.  Please check it out.  

I was gratified to learn that at the Top of the Hall of Shame Chart was a pet peeve of mine, one I keep hearing from Trinity folks (and NPR reporters!): the misuse of pronouns, especially "I" and "me."  Take the quiz at the end of this piece and see how you do.

This kind of thing is not important compared to our Christian mission, the achievement gap, and bullying in schools, but it is important, especially for a school.  Until the Mavens of Style declare that you and me can do what we want with our pronouns, it is our obligation as a school to show the way and walk the correct talk.



Tuesday, February 17, 2015

A More Nuanced Conversation about Technology and Learning?

Note: We have just postponed the DLI Event until March 19 due to inclement weather. But I'm eager to push the conversation along, so I'm posting this now anyway.

I’m thinking that more Trinity parents heard Monday’s Diane Rehm Show than would normally be the case, since we had a holiday.  I was driving back from the State Swim Meet and turned it on.

Dame Susan Greenfield (a neuroscientist) was going on about how digital technologies are leaving their (mostly unwelcome) marks on our brains.  This week Trinity is bringing an Apple educator to promote our Digital Learning Initiative, and it occurred to me that these two events might be a sort of Point-Counterpoint: Trinity saying let’s enhance the digital experience of our young ones, Greenfield warning us to watch out.  

I have several thoughts about this, and the first is that this way of thinking about things is much too simple.  Dame Greenfield is not waving us off of technology, and Trinity is not unconcerned about the “unprecedented effects” of the digital world on young minds and souls.  A more nuanced conversation is what is needed, and that is what I hope we are having at Trinity. I know that the Apple educator who is coming is having those kind of conversations wherever she goes.

We have been reading things like Greenfield for years now.  I think it was three years ago that we held a faculty reading group that worked our way through Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows.  Carr’s book might be described as a fascinating exploration of the sometimes deleterious effects of digital experience on the brain by someone who knows he could not have learned what he wanted to say without the internet but could not have written without getting away from it.  Like I said, nuance is the key.  Anyway, my point is that Trinity went into this DLI with its eyes wide open to the challenges of raising attentive, courteous, empathetic, risk-taking, gritty kids in a digital age.  

I was a more than a little frustrated by some of the Greenfield interview.  A teacher called in and asked how digital technologies might be best incorporated into the classroom, and Greenfield said something like “technology can never be a substitute for an inspiring teacher.”  This we knew already, and it would have been helpful if Greenfield had suggested some particular ways an inspiring teacher might use technology to instruct.  Another low point for me was when a camp director called in and said that they had recently reversed their policy about cell phones: They used to ban them, but now they were experimenting with teaching kids to use them in moderation.  Greenfield used this moment to get on another soap box, and I thought she (and Rehms) missed a wonderful opportunity.  I wish they had asked the director to share just how they managed that moderation, what it looked like, and how they thought it was working.  Moderation is almost always more complicated (I won’t say harder) than abstinence, and we need to learn from each other.  I’m pretty sure that the answer to how we teach our children to use technology at Trinity School is more about moderation than about abstinence.  

But there was one golden moment for me in the interview, and I wish every Trinity family could hear that part (towards the end of the show).  Greenfield was making the point that we are not doomed to run like lemmings off of some digital cliff, that we can impact culture and its impact on us.  She suggested three very simple ways that people (especially families) could counteract some of the more negative effects of digital immersion.  

Read.  Read to and with our children.  I think she (and I) have visions of a couch and a book with real pages to turn.  I think too of our Lower School teachers reading to our students as they eat their lunches.

Eat Together.  Family dinners (tech free) are a discipline and a joy we can all cultivate. Likewise, Division Directors and teachers at Trinity can shape the way we eat together at school, to promote wise and moderate use of technology.

Exercise.  Physical exercise, whether in organized sports or just time to play.  If you think of it, the time that our children spend on the court or the field is perhaps the most unconnected, low-tech time in their day.

These simple suggestions seem profoundly true, relevant, and helpful. As Trinity moves into a more robust employment of technology for teaching and learning, let us all--teachers and parents especially--tie them as symbols on our hands and bind them on our foreheads.

Thus may we be a Once and Future School.