December 15, 2011

The Art of Choosing

Third graders at their Ancient Egyptian Celebration this week
Sheena Iyengar is a professor at Columbia University and the author of The Art of Choosing.  Recently I heard her speak and came away highly impressed by both her delivery and her topic. She spoke at length about her research on choice and about her book in which she aims to help us become better choosers.  I listened to her fluid and eloquent presentation, given with no notes and in complete synchronicity to a slide show that played behind her.  There is nothing remarkable about that for a gifted professional speaker who clearly knows her stuff.  Except for the fact that Sheena Iyengar is blind. 

Diagnosed as a toddler with a rare form of retinal degeneration, this superbly intelligent woman was completely blind at the age of 14. I found it remarkable how she was able to regale her audience with stories, quote exact figures from her research, and show both amusing and informative examples to illustrate her point, all in perfect order with the PowerPoint she had created.

Iyengar’s talk was about the relationship between leadership and choice.  Some leaders are literally born into the role. Others are simply born with bucket loads of charisma and naturally rise to the top, while most of us in leadership positions have arrived there because we have developed the ability to choose well and to enhance the power of good choices for transformative good.

I am proud that Friends’ School teaches children how to make good choices.  This is such an important part of our educational philosophy that we have times of our week when students get to choose what activities they would like to partake in.  Teachers put out different types of materials, quite often art supplies, items to build with or glue together, thingamajigs where scientific discoveries can be made.  And if a child does not choose to spend time doing one of the choices set out by the teacher, he or she may choose to do something else. Quite often the choices presented are connected to the current area of curriculum study, but sometimes not. 

We have discovered that, at choice time, children actively engage in the process of defining themselves.  They are given the opportunity to make decisions and think for themselves, and they shine.

This is what we want from our Friends’ School and college graduates.  We seek collaborators and team players who know themselves, think for themselves, and have great ideas.
It is clear that effective leaders today have to be dedicated practitioners of the art of choice.  They have to understand the people they lead and work with them to give them the right amount of choice to empower them. Sheena Iyengar herself was dealt a rough hand in the game of life, a disease that robbed her of her eyesight.  She chose to rise above it, to become an expert in her chosen field, and she chose to shine.  Our Friends’ School students are on their way to doing the same.

Wherever you choose to be this holiday season, and whomever you choose to be with, I wish you a peaceful, restful, and happy winter break.

The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar, published by Twelve, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, 2010

December 8, 2011

Something To Sing About

Friends' School has many wonderful traditions.  Some of them date back to the first year of the school’s existence 24 years ago, when our founding families created warm and nurturing rituals to mark important passages in their children’s growth.  One of the joys of my first year as Head of School is to be a part of these traditions.  Some of them I’ve added my own twist to, such as the dramatization of the telling of Stone Soup at Harvest Celebration.  Some of them, I know to leave well enough alone…

This week our Great Room was home to a beautiful evening as preschool families braved freezing temperatures to join each other in song as part of the Preschool Winter Sing-Along.  With sparkling lights adorning the walls, preschool music teacher Kristen McLean led dozens of families in a program of familiar and child-friendly songs.  Kristin, who has a B.A. in music and early childhood education, is a natural performer and has a gorgeous voice.  Turns out many of our parents and kids do too!

Families sat together, with three and four year olds, and a few parents, leaping spontaneously to their feet in dance.  Grandparents, babies, and older siblings joined their voices in this wonderful Friends’ School tradition.  I felt an enormous sense of community.

Every day our preschool teachers sing with the kids.  Every day when I stop by the preschool classrooms, I am always so impressed with the way the teachers talk so respectfully to the children and teach them how to talk respectfully to each other and how to express their needs and wants.  Our students are learning real life skills.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve received a few unsolicited letters from some of our preschool families who wanted to share their thoughts about their children’s experience.  I quote a few of them below.  As we begin to fill all our preschool places for next year during this busy admissions season, you are more than welcome to pass these comments to your friends and neighbors who have two and three year olds, or even babies.

“Meg and Christie are thoughtful, kind, listen to the students (and parents), and give amazing instruction.  (My son) and I enjoy their company. The classroom is organized, creative, and structured.”

“We feel like a part of a community.  I love that we can go to the "big kids playground" after school and play.”

“(My husband) was announcing to his friends how Friends' has "the best preschool program around." He was not shy about our feelings and experiences with the preschool. The most wonderful part was hearing other fathers chime in with similar experiences in the preschool at Friends’.”

“(My son) uses at home what he learns at school.  He and his sister use the skills while playing and in problem solving. (My son) is thriving!  What more can we ask for?”

“We continue to be 'wowed' by Jessie. She is consistently an amazing teacher and our children have been the recipients of her gift. With both of our children, we saw incredible strides in their emotional, social and academic lives. Jessie communicates with the children and parents on such a candid level that one cannot help but listen and appreciate her words.”

“I'm thankful, each and every day, for everything that you are GIVING to (my daughter) and her new friends.  She adores each of you uniquely and is very, very engaged in her days at school.  The ways in which details of her day spill into our time together outside of school is so blissful!  It is clear to me that she is thriving.”

And really, what more could a parent ask for?

Well, perhaps an opportunity to sing and dance….