learning from Auggie.

*I shared these thoughts in my Monthly Newsletter, Middle Eagles Nest, this month.*

Several years ago, I joined the legion of readers who immersed themselves in the life of Auggie Pullman through the incredible R.J. Palacio book, Wonder. If you have not read it, I commend it to you and your family to enjoy both a wonderful story and share incredible lessons of kindness, empathy, and compassion. Schools across the globe have embraced the “Choose Kind” movement to increase these positive character traits in their community. (I won’t give you spoilers because it is a powerful read for all ages.)
Before break, we experienced an uptick in unkind language across our Middle School. Middle School is a time of rapid growth for our children. Their intellectual brains and their bodies grow at a much faster rate than their decision-making and social-emotional brains. This is what frequently leads to missteps in character, including unkind speech. We, as intentional Middle School educators, see these moments as times for growth. We had many conversations between students and teachers about the golden rule in our language and what our core values as a school mean when it comes to the way we treat one another. I had the opportunity to build community with students, stretch our use of language to articulate emotions, and grow inclusive friendships. I’m constantly reminded of why I love being a Middle School Director when I work with students in this situations.
We have a quote of the week in our community and I frequently pull these quotes from the follow-up to Wonder entitled 365 Days of Wonder, which offers daily quotations on kindness and character. Many of our teachers use this book or the parallel iPhone app to explore topics of character with our students. My dear friends use the quotations as catalysts for discussion during family time. As you have conversations  with your children in the car  or at the dinner table, I highly recommend this strategy for opening discussions of kindness, empathy, respect, compassion, integrity, patience, and beyond.

We know that our school is a community. We work together to help our children fly the nest not only with strong minds but with strong character. We truly love partnering with you as we develop leaders of character in The Montgomery Academy family.


yes, chef.

I am currently obsessed with the Netflix series, Chef’s Table. While I am not an avant-garde food eater, I’m mesmerized by the stories and spectacles that unfold in each hour long episode. I watched two episodes to unwind last night and found myself grappling with thoughts on schooling/learning in the process. The two episodes from last night featured Magnus Nilsson (Season 1, Episode 6) and Grant Achatz (Season 2, Episode 1) two incredibly creative and envelope-pushing artists. As I became entranced by their stories and their food magic, I wondered:

  • Where does one develop a capacity for this level of creativity?
  • How does one develop the resilience to try and fail consistently?
  • Where do we build complex problem solving skills?
  • Are we providing experiences in teaching-learning that focus on these major skill sets and character habits?

I see these skills, traits, and habits as crucial to success in any field in our modern era. The work these masters are doing in the kitchen are just one example of how they are critical to success.

Case in point, for six months of the year, nothing grows in the area of Sweden where Magnus Nilsson has his restaurant, Fäviken. He has taken old world root cellar concepts (preservation, pickling, fermenting, harvesting and storing) and transformed them into inventive culinary creations I couldn’t ever imagine. He went to France after culinary school with no ability to speak French and, after being turned down by every 1-3 Michelin starred restaurant in Paris, he continually hounded Alain Passard at L’Arpège until he was given a place in the kitchen and then years of on-the-job training. Where did he learn to be so inventive? Where did he learn his tenacity?

In Grant’s case, he takes so many risks not only in his work but also with his life. When he was diagnosed with Stage Four Mouth Cancer, he took the risk of experimental treatment rather than losing part of his tongue and jaw. What was resulted was not only a body cured and his body preserved, but also the experience of slowly regaining each of his taste bud areas. This allowed him to rebuild his palate and gain a deeper, more savored appreciation of individual tastes. Where did his ability to take on life-or-death risk come from?

If I were to draw my own conclusion as to where these skills and habits came from, it would not be from traditional learning. It would come from a wide range of learning in and out of the classroom. A deep and wide reading of literature, the study of art and music, experimenting with science and playing with numbers, and being outdoors. And play; so much play. Growth mindset and consistent messages that trial and error are the best way to learn are critical in this development. We need to allow kids to construct their own learning, to risk and fail, to get dirty, and see the whole view of the world. It is in this, they shall begin on paths that can lead them anywhere they want-perhaps even to the kitchen of Alinea, the courtroom, the operating room, or lab.

Chef’s Table


pause. breathe. love.

It’s no secret. This is a crazy world we are living in. We can so easily get caught up in the noise around us that we are left impatient with change, personalities, and even those we love the most. Well, here comes KP to the rescue with his list of How to Disagree with People:

We watched this in 7th grade leadership and discussed how important some of these steps are to keeping civility and humanity in our community. We are politically divided, like many communities, but that doesn’t mean we have to lose our sense of compassion and empathy. Frankly, it means we have to dig deeper into our character to keep our community unified and strong.

For me, the most important element from his list is: Pause. Breathe. Love. As this applies to our current national turmoil, it also applies to so many of our human interactions. (And, if you’re a dog-mama to a high energy mutt like me, to our canine ones, as well.) We need to take MORE time to pause, breathe, and love and less time to react, judge, and discard. We simply must listen openly to other points of view even if they are diametrically oppositional to our own. For this is our greatest gift as humans, the ability to listen–to empathize–to love.

Be of good courage friends. The work we do is sacred and matters not only in the short term for for generations to come. Press on.


celebrate & enjoy

I went to a fabulous dance party this morning. The 6th grade has finished their first piece of long writing in their Writing Workshop and they had a celebration, complete with dancing and hats. They also had to use alternatives to awesome and amazing to share their feelings of completing this six week long process. They included: accomplished, joyful, proud, relieved, excited, and happy, among others. I am so pleased their teacher invited me to join them for their dance party. file-oct-13-9-36-46-am

(Party Hat aka Principal’s Unicorn)

This comes during our annual Homecoming Spirit Week where we break out of our starchy uniforms, relax, and act a little crazy in the spirit of community. Friday, we will have our first annual “Middle School Capture the Flag Game”, the pep rally & parade, grade level breakfasts, and general hype as we move towards our Homecoming game and Alumni weekend. I love times like this at school because it allows us to have fun as a community.

I’m a middle school leader-teacher because I love kids this age. I believe we have a unique opportunity to celebrate and enjoy life with our students on a regular basis. Yes, they make us crazy sometimes. Yes, we challenge them and sometimes they don’t love everything we do. Yes, this is hard work. Yes, it takes a special sort of human to enjoy early adolescents with passion, energy, and love. AND, this work is holy and important.

We may not be doing all the reading, writing, history, science, or math this week-but we are building community and celebrating time and life together. And this is just as important in building a well rounded life.

Have you celebrated time with your students and teachers, lately? If not, don that party hat and go have a dance party. I promise, you won’t regret it.

Book Review: Helping Children Succeed

*Many thanks to SAIS for allowing me to, again, review a best seller.*

“It is a responsibility we are failing to meet.” It is with this sentence that Paul Tough begins the follow-up to his 2012 best-seller, How Children Succeed, in his new data-filled book, Helping Children Succeed. We, as a nation, are failing to meet the needs of children from disadvantaged backgrounds in American schools. He proceeds to offer extensive data in 23 areas that identify the challenges in meeting these needs and providing support to meet these challenges.

It all comes down to the earliest of childhood development. While How Children Succeed, focused on the non-cognitive (soft, character) skills required for success in academia and adulthood, his newest book focuses on the ways that these skills are often stunted in communities of poverty. Beyond the access to books and responsive parenting, he discusses the way that childhood trauma, neglect, and chronic stress, found in childhood adversity can have irreparable impact on physical and mental health as well as academic and social readiness.

He points to the key Building Blocks (ch. 12) necessary for children to develop strong executive function skills. It is within the early childhood (birth to 5 years) where children “deepen and evolve into a more complex collection of habits, mindsets, and characters strengths” that will be required of them to be successful when they enter formal academia in pre-K or Kindergarten. These executive function skills are established through “calm, consistent, responsive interactions in infancy with parents and other caregivers [to] create neural connections that lay the foundation for a healthy array of attention and concentration skills.” (p. 49) Without these foundations, children are more apt to struggle on a wide array of situations, including academic development, motivation, and behavior – all three areas which are crucial to school and learning success.

Mr. Tough offers examples of early intervention programs from throughout the U.S. that are typically on a small or pilot level to increase the responsive caregiving of young children. He makes the case that these are needed on a greater scale within disadvantaged communities. However, he does not draw correlations between any of these studies and communities of privilege. More often than not, independent school students are not subject to early childhood trauma as defined by Mr. Tough’s research. While there are certainly avenues in which children of privilege experience stress and trauma in early childhood, this particular body of work does not address these issues.

However, independent school educators can draw learning from the chapters on motivation, mindsets, relationships, pedagogy, challenge, and deeper learning. In his section on motivation, Tough points to the work of Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, the originators of self-determination theory,

a theory that is frequently cited as the key to intrinsic motivation. Our students are motivated by their needs for competence, relatedness (connection), and autonomy. Growth mindset (based on the work of Stanford’s Carol Dweck) coupled with positive, pro-failure messages also stimulate non-cognitive factors of success. We are reminded that positive classroom climate, appropriate levels of challenge, and building strong relationships are all necessary factors for student success.

Mr. Tough ends his book with a call to action for public education in America: “…if there are children suffering in your community – or your nation – there is something you can do to help.” (p.114) This can serve as a strong conversation starter for public-private partnerships in order to strengthen our communities. How are we, as independent schools, working to solve the complex problems facing our surrounding communities? Do we, as independent schools, believe it is our purpose to be an integral part of our communities outside of the campus? I think Mr. Tough would offer a resounding “yes.”

Like many of our fellow independent schools across the Southeast, students at The Montgomery Academy participate in programs to build cultural competency and serve disadvantaged communities through organizations like Bridge Builders of Alabama and Mary Ellen’s Hearth as well as tutoring at a local public schools. While our students may have different early childhood experiences than those described in this book, we have a unique opportunity to serve as advocates for justice and equality in education by guiding our leaders and scholars to a greater understand of the world around them.

Jail and the moral imperative. 

I took someone to jail last Friday night. I also watched tickets be written, domestic violence situations diffused, and watched the unique relationship between police and fire departments when a fire engine blew a turn and hit a pole. But observing the process of crime scene investigation resulting in at least a night in jail for one citizen was quite profound. I received a 360 view of the policing process from first arrival on-scene to final signature to place someone in jail.

These were all a part of my ride along with the Montgomery Police Department as part of the Leadership Montgomery program. I spent eight hours patrolling District 12 of West Montgomery from 10pm-6am. I specifically chose a district out of my comfort zone, out of my daily drive. I specifically chose the third shift to challenge my own sense of time and to get an impression of what happens when I am sweetly sleeping in my safe Garden District home.

While I still have unanswered questions, one thing is for certain for me as a leader. I have a moral imperative to develop character in my students. Yes, encourage them to take tough math classes and become avid readers. Yes, cheer for them at games and applaud for them at concerts. Yes, encourage more water and less sugar. AND, more than anything else, encourage them to become good people, who build strong, healthy relationships, have open minds, and on a regular basis make good choices. In my privileged life it would never occur to me to be out after 11:30pm at a party with an infant child (without a baby seat.) It would never occur to me get behind the wheel after massively intoxicated to the point that I drive my car off a cliff. It would never occur to me to flat-out lie to a police officer. Perhaps these elements are based on privilege but in my gut, they are more about education. They are about the fact that I have been educated, not just for my occupation, but also for my character.

I also have the moral imperative to help my students break out of their bubble. We live in a small city, 200,000ish residents. But I wonder how many of my own students know of the abject poverty in this town? How many of them know about the deplorable conditions in which children are being raised? How many of them know that living in poverty should not be a crime? I don’t know how many of them know these things, but in order to be leaders who serve their community well, they must know. They must have an understanding of the whole world around them to be truly educated.

This goes beyond standards and objectives, tests and essays and digs to the heart of what we do. I wonder if the man I put in jail ever had the opportunity to learn? I wonder if he will ever appreciate the fact that he is still alive (the crash was horrible) and move forward? I wonder if someone had reached him at age eleven if his life would have been different? My current prayer for him is that he uses this as a learning opportunity and starts anew. As for my students, I hope they have a chance to see the whole view of their city and work diligently to improve it. It is time to break the cycle here and I truly believe it is our job to build the leaders to do it.


surprise and yes.

Week before last, I nonchalantly asked my athletic director if we had hired a new Asst. XC Coach as our previous (awesome) one had moved to NC for grad school. He said, “hmmm…” The next day, he came to my office and explained that the new Head Coach needed to resign the team and he was in need of coaches for the season, immediately. I panicked at first and quickly catalogued all the ways my time would be stretched this year–schedule revision, teaching leadership, teaching digital literacy, spending more time in classrooms, engaging in instructional rounds, and participating in Leadership Montgomery, on top of all the regular things I want and need to do with our amazing division.

And, I said, “Yes”, anyway.

This was the sort of surprise that would be able to meet a school goal of all admin serving as teachers-mentors-coaches AND fulfill my own desire to spend more time with students. I love coaching cross country. It allows me to get to know students in a completely different way. It allows them to see me in a completely different way. It will provide an opportunity to use a set of skills that had to lay dormant in the 15-16 school year. My confidence in the choice was assured when a senior, whom I had never met, shook my hand and said, with all genuity, “Thank you for stepping up. I am looking forward to getting to know you because I’ve heard good things about you.” I was blown away by his maturity and grateful for the opportunity to build relationships with students on the grassy fields.

Yes, time will be stretched. Yes, Toby may spend a little more time at daycare. Yes, I will need to remember sunscreen. But, I guarantee that I will get to move the needle on our school mission and live our core values every day with this new group of students and I am simply thrilled.

I am very good at saying No. Comfortable with it, in fact. But sometimes we receive surprises and our YES will take us beyond our imagination in good things. Embracing the yes as teachers and leaders will open doors for us to connect with students. We just have to be willing to embrace the surprise and say the word. #maxcrules