Study Leave

The Board of Trinity School has generously given me four weeks of study leave each year in my contract.  For many years I pretty much ignored this provision, being consumed with the press of running a school.  But some years ago the Board got insistent, and I began trying to squeeze it in.  I've gotten better about it over the years and tried to develop some patterns and rhythms that work for this.  The last few summers I've tried to find a week or two during the summer, and this has worked pretty well.  I've learned over the years that two weeks is a good stretch--it takes me a few days to unwind and off-load and really get into a study and reading mode.

Mostly I read, then write.  Or write, then read.  I hop on my bike most days and let the reading marinate a bit.  It's a good rhythm.  I like these days--they feel more humane to me than school, which is so hectic and stressful.  I am thankful for this gift.

I've always got a big stack of books to read.  And I am a slow reader, so I have to be smart about these times.  What's more, one of the best things about this kind of time is the serendipity.  You start out on one trail but before you know it you're off on another.  One of the best books I've read this time around I had never heard of before I started reading down my collected list.  Following footnotes is an adventure.

So here is a list of some of the books I'm reading.  Some I read slowly and fully, some I skim and read partially.  But they've all made an impact.

Andrew DelBanco's College.  Probably the best thing I read this study leave.  He is a professor at Columbia.  I read his The Real American Dream on another study leave.  My friend Allan Poole gave me this new book and I am so glad I started with it.  One of the marks of a good book is that it leads you to many more.

I began but did not finish my first MOOC (Massive Open-Source, Online Course).  Harvard's Michael Sandel's popular class, "Justice," on political philosophy.  Really stimulating and wonderful.  See below for a big idea coming out of this.

Christensen, Horn, and Johnson's Disrupting Class.  This has been on my list for a while now.  In fact, when I came home from Barnes and Noble with my new copy at the beginning of my leave, I looked at the cover and thought, "This looks awfully familiar.  I think I might already own this one."  Sure enough, when I checked my shelves in the office, there it was, and I returned the other.  One reason it has gone unread is that I don't generally enjoy reading books that are written for the educational establishment.  I find them often uninspiring, obvious, and tedious.  But one ought to stay informed about the issues of the day.  Turns out I misjudged this one.  Christensen's theory of disruptive innovation is fascinating and well-researched, and his application of it to the world of education is provocative.  In fact, I would say that it was during my reading of this book that I got the best idea I've had in a long time.  More on that later.

In an online version, I read parts of George Marsden's The Soul of the American Univesity) at the end of the nineteenth century between Princeton's President McCosh and Harvard's President Eliot.  The issue was whether to stick with the traditional standard and mandatory core curriculum (Princeton) or drastically reduce the number of required courses and allow students to choose most of their courses as electives (Harvard).  Marsden's account is fascinating, as is former Trinity friend Paul Kemeny's Princeton in the Nation’s Service: Religious Ideals and Educational Practice, 1868-1928, which covers the same material and includes especially Woodrow Wilson's important contributions to this discussion.  I find this debate fascinating and enlightening of current issues at Trinity and in education at large.
In the course of reading about the debates at elite colleges and universities in the period leading up to and between the world wars, I learned a good bit about the history also of the elite private boarding schools.  I discovered Endicott Peabody, the founding head of Groton, who was FDR's Headmaster.  And I learned about a novel that had been written about a figure that is drawn from that day, that ilk: Louis Auchincloss' The Rector of Justin.  Auchinclosss (who must be related to Jackie Bouvier Kennedy, who had an Auchincloss in her lineage) paints a fascinating picture of a larger-than-life fictional Headmaster named Frank Prescott.  Those were the days when Heads were benevolent and stern dictators, when Boards were in their service, when it was not uncommon for one man (always a man) to serve forty years.  Think of Frank Boyden, memorialized by John McPhee, who served for 62 years at Deerfield, in the generation that succeeded Peabody.  Auchincloss' book has gotten under my skin.  I think I'll be haunted by the specter of Frank Peabody for a long time.  

I read Cathy Davidson's Now You See It as part of my exploration of what it means to lead a school into this strange digital future we are all part of.  On that same quest, I read as much of  Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach's The Connected Educator as I could take, started Michael Chorost's World Wide Mind, and Scott McLeod's What School Leaders Need to Know about Digital Technologies and Social Media.  Davidson's book is well-informed and interesting, though I thought the absence of any dialogue with Daniel Kahneman on the mind and attention was a serious flaw.

I read Wendy Kopp's (founder of Teach for America) A Chance to Make History, which is a manifesto for pouring our lives into finding and supporting excellent teachers.

Another surprise: Donald Finkel's Teaching with Your Mouth Shut.  Where has this guy been all my life?  I found him in a footnote during this study leave, and his book is fabulous.  So good I've pondered maybe asking the faculty (MS and US especially) to read it.  Philosophically informed but chock-full of reflections informed by his own extensive practice as a teacher.


I worked on two writing projects.  The first was my long-simmering Once and Future School project. I reread what I wrote last January and didn't like much of it.   There is one chapter that might be salvageable, and the last chapter might be useful even if it's not very good.  I tried re-organizing the work and started slowly on one particular chapter on curriculum.  We'll see, but I wonder if it will ever see the light of day.  The second was a project that I hope might be self-published (I've been exploring LuLu) for our twentieth anniversary.  It's a collection of Parent News essays with brief introductions.  I got some good help from my daughter in organizing this project and Lynn Hand has volunteered to edit.  Desiree wants to take this rather dense volume and extract a few things and combine them with some historical pieces from the archives, some pictures, and other momentos to create a coffee-table book less dense for the 20th.  The working title is Trinity Speaks.

Wild Ideas 

I keep a list of Wild Ideas when I go on an intellectual journey like this.  Most of them will probably dissipate into the ether, but you never know.  Here are the ones I wrote down this time:
  1. Copy Valparaiso's example (DelBanco, p. 164) and offer a How Trinity Works for faculty and staff.  Maybe also for parents.  As the school gets larger, more mature, and more complex, it is harder for people to understand the school outside their own particular small part of it.  Do Lower School teachers understand what Upper School teachers do?  Do either of them understand how financial aid works?  Do staff in the admissions office understand what it takes to run a successful athletic program?  Does everyone understand the simple math of class size, tuition, and salaries?
  2. Consider replicating something along the lines of the Stanford Hope House or the Bard College Correctional Facility Project.  Fascinating.  Could we imagine Trinity upper-classmen and faculty going to a local prison to hold these kinds of classes?  What a great way to revive the humanities, to show students the value of a liberal education, and to do great good to some people who really need it.  
  3. What about Bible exams for all Trinity students?  Shouldn't every Trinity grad be biblically literate?  How would we assess this?
  4. I've decided not to teach the seniors this year (there are 40 of them, and it is unsustainable on the model we have had).  But I'm sad to give it up completely.  Warren Gould and I have played around with some different ideas for ways for me to stay involved.  Here's one: lead the seniors through at least parts of Sandel's Harvard class on Justice.  The lectures are short and stimulating; they provide ample opportunity for student involvement and input; there are excellent readings to go with them; there are opportunities for online discussion; and they beg for a Christian perspective, which could be offered either through socratic questioning or through a lecture by the Headmaster.  Implementing this would be hard--time, that most precious commodity in a school!  But it's a thought worth pursuing.  Would love for students to get the quality of a Harvard class, engage with the Harvard students in dialogue, and have a chance to reflect on these issues from a Christian perspective.  I confess, also, to being influenced greatly by my readings in turn-of-the-century elite schools and the famous class that many Headmasters and Presidents offered on Moral Philosophy/Theology, a sort of capstone experience.  Could this be a twenty-first century way of renewing and continuing this tradition?
  5. Require all Trinity students to write and successfully post a Wikipedia entry before they graduate.  They would learn how hard it is to do so and what sort of research, knowledge, and scholarship this requires.  They would never again read an open-sourced piece the same way.
  6. Consider hiring a Director of Online Education, not immediately, but as part of the long-term plan for the school.  See Disrupting Class, 227.  Would be a significant revision to our strategic plan--or a new element in the next plan.
  7. My Big Idea from Christenson's book, which Kopp's book also shaped.  I've developed a proposal, which I'm sharing slowly and carefully with a few people.  The working title (which is catchy but silly and shouldn't stick) is Project Language Dancing.


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