• A Response to Carolyn Walworth

    Posted by Doug Thompson on 9/4/2015

    This piece was originally posted March 2015.

    I read Carolyn Walworth’s article in Palo Alto Online yesterday with a mixture of great sadness and mounting frustration. We have come to the point where it takes an 11th grader who has every right, I might even say unalienable right, to, in her words, have “fun … growing up, learning, and being a teenager in our city,” to demand that we in the adult world take notice of what is happening in some of our schools. The situation she describes is by no means limited to the Palo Alto School District—it is endemic throughout the world where test scores and college placement are all that matter.

    The real sadness is that the adults in this world, on whom students like Carolyn rely for reasoned leadership, have known this for a long time, and have done nothing, or at best very little, about it.

    I want to reassure Carolyn and others like her that education does not have to be an endless pile of homework and stress. For 36 years, Mid-Peninsula High School has been graduating students and sending them on to college and productive lives without any of the burdens she describes. It can be done, but it involves a change in view on the part of adults. As Carolyn points out, education is not and should not be competition. In fact, “challenging oneself academically and intellectually [by means of] a mental challenge which involves understanding concepts at a deeper level,” specifically cannot happen in a competitive atmosphere. But the “no pain/no gain” myth is so ingrained in our college-prep culture, that we deny it at the great risk of being accused of “lowering the bar” and “dumbing down” the curriculum. But as Carolyn points out; what is smart about hours and hours of mind-numbing homework?

    As she says, the college-prep school world is sick. Too many of those schools, rather than being places where learning is embraced and even enjoyed, have become characterized by a “competitive insanity” that “crushes you on the inside.”

    When she says that “Telling us to go see a school counselor for stress is insufficient,” she is right. It is indeed not enough to “put a band aid over a gunshot wound.” The world she describes cannot be fixed with temporary palliative measures, measures that any teenager with half of Carolyn’s good sense and powers of reason can tell are only offered as cover up. Teenagers are blessed with a very high sensitivity to “empty promises”: they will always get it that what we do is what matters, regardless of what we say. If we tell them that all students matter and then institute tracked pre-Algebra classes in Middle School, they will understand what we really value.

    I write to salute Carolyn for her courage and her outrage. She writes with wisdom beyond her years—wisdom we in the adult world must listen to. We cannot ignore this articulate, passionate voice.

    If we want our schools to be healthy institutes for learning, places where learning is not some finite, measurable goal to be achieved, but something to be pursued and, yes, even enjoyed, for its own sake, then we must make student health the first priority. Not grades, not SAT scores, not AP programs, not college admission profiles—not the whole sad litany of misplaced priorities that have caused us to deny Carolyn and so many others their “genuine interest in learning.”

    It is time for the adults in the world of education to shut down the treadmill.

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  • Springtime

    Posted by Anne Marie Schar on 4/30/2015

    As the school year winds down I find myself thinking and preparing for the coming school year. We say goodbye to students whom we’ve seen grow from children into adults heading to colleges like UC San Diego, Northwestern, and Cal Poly Pomona.  We are proud of Mid-Peninsula High School students. They have worked hard and achieved amazing goals.  But as they prepare to take the next step we prepare for the next year to support new students in achieving their goals.

    So, every spring, as I attend conferences and visit other independent schools I gather ideas and look to the future.  I spent some time learning more about BlendedEd (or hybrid teaching), Social Media use in classrooms, and using video.  Recently the Huffington Post had an article about students being in and enjoying online classes but that there were caveats as the students realized that online coursework meant that they were more responsible for their work than in traditional classes. They touted the benefits and cited drawbacks as well; words worth considering from children of the digital age. 

    And I reflect on these words. I gather my information and we move forward, preparing our students for their next steps, for college, for careers.
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  • Peer Wisdom

    Posted by Randy Johnson on 4/16/2015
     Peer Wisdom at Mid-Pen
    Just now, I said to one of our seniors, “I really don’t know what we’ll do without you.” It’s that time of year when everyone in the Mid-Pen community starts thinking about daily life without our current seniors. College bound seniors are making choices on what school they’ll attend in the fall, juniors are wrapping their heads around being seniors next year, and teachers and students are processing what school life will be like without awesome people with whom we’ve formed such tight bonds.
    The particular senior I mentioned above will be missed for so many reasons. But I told her I didn’t know what we’d do without her after watching her exert some positive peer pressure on a student who needed some motivation to work through a challenging Friday. I had already checked in with this student to see where he was at and encourage him to get after it. These check-ins yield results (some of the time), but after I had done my thing to encourage and motivate, a few well-articulated and forceful words from his friend struck home in a way that can rarely be accomplished by adults.
    As adults we can present a case, share from experience, and develop meaningful working relationships with adolescents. Nothing, however, reaches a young person like another young person. At Mid-Pen we are fortunate to have young leaders who teach through their experience. Our young leaders are kids on the verge of full blown adulthood, and it’s a joy to see them realize the impact they can have on others in their community. I know we’ll never have another student leader just like the one I’m celebrating here, but I take heart in the knowledge that she’s done such a great job leading, and her peers have done an equally great job learning from her. It’s this kind of peer leadership and receptivity to leadership that maintains the culture of a school.

    So while we’ll surely miss our graduating seniors, we know that so many of them are moving on to new places where they will be enriched and supported. We also know that the wisdom and support they shared while at Mid-Pen will still ring out in the voices of the kids they influenced along their high school path. In this way, strong school communities perpetuate as they accrue a type of institutional wisdom over the years. Thanks a lot to our kids, the walls at Mid-Pen echo with wisdom that imparts the qualities of respect, kindness, acceptance, and responsibility.

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  • You Never Know

    Posted by Anne Marie Schar on 3/19/2015
     March is often an intimidating month, for me at least.  March often is accompanied by Accreditation visits at different schools, the CUE conference (going or sending a team), and, finally and most importantly, our annual retreat.
    When I began it Mid-Peninsula it was crazy because the second week that I was on-site there was a visit from and Accreditation Team (CAIS) followed by the retreat my third week.  A lot going on at a new place.
    13 years later and you'd think that I would be used to it. I've juggled this load for quite a while, yet I still find it intimidating. Especially when I am actually facilitating a training or workshop at retreat.
    It is not my nature to enjoy bonding. Possibly why I have embraced my computers to my heart.  However, it's important at a school like ours to appreciate and work with our colleagues. One can't hide.  It's very important to be able to work together if not be best friends.
    This year I facilitated one of those trainings.   The trainings that make me think, "wow, I can see the eyes rolling now," the trainings that make me think, "oh, they hate reviewing," the trainings that make me think, "is it really worth the hours that I've spent on this?"  Yet I move forward. I had an idea. I thought it was good.  It had potential to totally flop.
    The beauty is that despite my idea being somewhat unorthodox my Administrative Team encouraged me to do it.  They listened to my idea and why I thought it would be beneficial, and how it could go so right and so wrong...And they supported me.  
    The beauty is that a number of my colleagues helped me to coordinate what turned out to be a bit of a logistical puzzle.  I had those who lent me an ear, let me talk out ideas, and helped me to implement them.  
    I even had a number of colleagues who agreed to help me without knowing fully what that help would entail other than, "keep the group going and make certain everyone participates."
    The training did not work as I imagined. It never does.  But whether it was what I imagined or not, it was a great experience knowing that I had support from my colleagues and that they were willing to work with me to make this happen.
    It was a beautiful couple of days at the beach. 
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  • A View Through a Stranger's Lens

    Posted by Randy Johnson on 3/5/2015
    Photography Day

    Yesterday a professional photographer spent the day at Mid-Pen capturing images of what life looks like at our school. Heidi and I had the pleasure of guiding the photographer around the school as she visited classrooms and worked with the kids in group photo sessions. I know that all three of us appreciated how special it was trying to see and capture as much student activity as we could in a single day.
    I especially appreciated how often the visiting photographer complimented our students, faculty, and overall vibe of the school. Time and time again, she would say things like, “my school had nothing like this,” or “these kids are so lucky to get to play music during break,” or “the teachers and the students are so close,” and “I wish I could’ve gone here.” She almost immediately understood what Mid-Pen culture is all about, and I think this happened because her job involved her total focus on her students as she snapped shots of them in class and during breaks.
    I think there’s a lesson here that illuminates why Mid-Pen is such a special place. Our teachers and administrators come to know our students in much the same way as a skilled photographer—they focus entirely on students and look to place them in a context in which each and every kid will shine. Just as our photographer used empathy and kindness to help the kids loosen up and be themselves, our teachers strive to create a nurturing environment where kids can develop a comfortable individuality that sets them up to learn and develop positive relationships.

    I am proud of how our students represented themselves and the school on photography day. And I am proud that visitors to our school are able to quickly see the value of our school culture. If the photographs succeed at capturing the spirit of our school, they will be special images indeed.
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  • Standing with Confidence and Pride

    Posted by Wendi Wells on 2/26/2015
     Last night, I went with Doug and a few other colleagues to the Boys and Girls Club Youth of the Year event. Two of the five youth nominated from the area were Mid-Pen students, Alyssa Taylor and Stacie Foreman. It was so awesome to see them shine in front of such a large crowd, standing with confidence and pride. They each worked so hard to get to where they are and to be nominated for such a huge award was well deserved. I couldn’t help but feel so grateful to be able to attend the event and to be a part of the Mid-Pen community, which has so many wonderful students. In being at the Boys and Girls Club, I was also reminded of all of the amazing things they do for youth and families. It’s events like these that reaffirm what a privilege it is be a part of such an amazing community; from the staff at Mid-Pen, the parents, the organizations and the individuals that are actively involved in supporting our youth and one another, there is no other community I would rather be a part of.

    Best Regards,
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  • Now I Can Finally Relax!

    Posted by Anne Marie Schar on 2/5/2015
    Every year, it’s AWESOME! I wait for Winter Break. I KNOW that if I can just make it to Winter Break everything will slow down. After all, the baking, buying, and traveling will be over. No more wrapping, decorating, stressing about family events. We all do it. We see it in our colleagues, we see it in our students. It’s stressful. But we know if we can just get past the holidays then we can relax. We work and strive to get all of the holiday decorations put away because it’s over.

    Well, except we really should do something for Super Bowl. But the, it’s over. Hey, college letters are coming out. Now the students are looking stressed again. A flurry of activity because we are now moving into finals.

    Hmmmmm…more and more. The dirty secret, that HUGE elephant in the room is that this stress, this activity, this flurry of excitement is never ending.

    Can we get off the Merry-go-Round? Sure. But then my daughter will be disappointed because I am not there to help at her school. She’ll be sad because she and I won’t be camping with the Brownies. The students could jump off, but then, work won’t get done. They won’t be moving forward excited about their future and learning and all kinds of good stuff.

    This is part of our culture. For good or ill. I, myself, have learned in my 40+ years of the trip downstream that being the water, moving and trying to avoid the rocks can make for an awesome trip.

    So jump in. The water’s great. Bring your colleagues, bring your students, bring your kids and enjoy the ride.
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  • Philosophical or Pedagogical?

    Posted by Doug Thompson on 1/29/2015
    Drive-time Synchronicity (28 and 29 January 2015)

    One day recently, as I drove around on errands, I caught part of a “Fresh Air” interview with Frances E. Jensen, author of The Teenage Brain. During one segment, Terry Gross, host of the program, asked about teenage suicide. Jensen pointed out that a defining aspect of the teenage brain is the late development of both the frontal and pre-frontal cortices. These being the centers of impulse control, Jensen argued that teenagers, lacking that control, are especially vulnerable to acting on suicidal thoughts. Then the next morning, I caught part of Michael Krasne’s Forum episode addressing the issue of another series of suicides among students at Gunn High School. These two discussions struck me especially heavily as I have been thinking a lot lately about stress in schools—a topic much talked about, but one that few seem to be able or willing to address.

    Some time ago I visited a start-up high school in this area. I met the two principal founders, who were very excited about their new venture and obviously very dedicated to it. They talked at length about the pedagogical foundations of their approach, their curriculum, designed to challenge students and foster excellence. They clearly had given these topics a great deal of thought. Quite late in the conversation, they stated that they also wanted to implement an “empathy program,” and asked me how we went about “teaching empathy” at Mid-Pen. I can’t remember what I said; I only know that I didn’t have the heart say what I wanted to say: if you want to create an empathetic learning environment, you need to make that your first and guiding principle, than build your pedagogy and your curriculum on that. The same goes for stress-management. I find it sadly ironic when schools create highly competitive, stressful environments, then try to ameliorate the very stress they’ve created by adding “stress management” programs. The last time I was involved in designing and implementing a program of this type, for Juniors, they protested strenuously that we were only adding to their stress.

    Jensen and others who have written recently on teenage cognitive development (Laurence Steiner, Age of Opportunity; Daniel Siegel, Brainstorm, among others) also emphasize that adolescence is a period of tremendous excitement and sensitivity. It had been my experience that, among their charms, teenagers are highly attuned to differences in what we say and what we do. Faced with a contradiction between the two, they will always take the latter as their guide. It is not enough to say we want our students to be less stressed—it is up to us to create and foster less stressful academic environments. Unless and until we undertake to do just that, we will just be talking, and our students will dismiss that talk for the easy and empty blather that it is.

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  • A View

    Posted by Randy on 1/22/2015
     A View from the Enrichment Center

    Working in the Enrichment Center (EC) affords me a great view of student life at Mid-Peninsula. The day starts with what we call the “Breakfast Club,” which meets at 8:30am every school day. The Breakfast Club is comprised of about half-a-dozen kids (sometimes more) who come to school an hour early to get work done, get help from me, and make a gradual transition to the formal school day. My office is located directly in the center of the EC, so I also have a front row seat for every EC period throughout the school day, giving me the privilege of helping a lot of students and observing their study habits. And finally, we have after school EC, which provides our kids the opportunity to work and get help from me until 5pm.

    The EC is located in the direct center of school, so in addition to being a workplace, we are also a high traffic area as kids move about the school. As a result, I see and overhear a wide variety of student activity. I see hard work and I see and try to deal with procrastination. I see some setbacks and I see kids recover and earn victories. And since my work with students is never in a formal classroom setting, I get a different view of the kids relative to some of my colleagues.
    The really cool thing about my view is that I regularly see kids with their guard down. Generally speaking, the kids walk in the door either decompressing from their last class, or looking forward and preparing for the next one. They are pretty candid with their emotions in these states of academic limbo. Sometimes celebratory after a big test, sometimes downtrodden by the horrors of trigonometry, I hear kids talking about their lives at Mid-Peninsula in relatively unfiltered ways. Sometimes I hear too much. Sometimes I try to redirect their energy. But even in these moments, I strive to respect where their energy comes from and feel lucky to see the elusive adolescent in something approaching its natural state.
    As I think about my perspective of the kids and our school, I also think about Doug talking about the value of seeing students in different contexts—Doug used the example of sports as a way to see the kids being challenged and thriving outside of the classroom. Doug’s insight reminds us about the complexity of adolescent life and the importance of addressing the whole student. To address the whole student, you need a lot of information. And I think one of the great strengths of our school is how well we know our kids (as much as adults can, I suppose). I see this in our staff meetings, and I get to see teachers use this insight while working closely with students in the EC.

    I guess the big takeaway for me is that we all have a uniquely privileged view of our school, and we all benefit from the special insight, knowledge, and experience each and every one of our colleagues and students bring to our school. If you ever want a sample of voices overheard in the EC, come take a look at the whiteboard in the corner of the room. We have started an informal tradition of putting student quotes on the board for a day, giving the speaker full credit of course. The unfiltered thoughts of the kids are funny and often enlightening, trivial and sometimes profound, clear and direct or really hard to interpret. But they are always authentic. And their presence helps to give the kids a sense of ownership of the space.
    I hope that empowering their perspectives in even trivial ways helps them to invest in their school and work. Or maybe they just get a quick laugh in an otherwise busy, adolescent day. From my perspective, either outcome is enriching.
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  • When Kids Ask Questions

    Posted by Anne Marie Schar on 10/30/2014
    When I arrived at Mid-Peninsula I immediately noticed that we had a large number of servers for such a small institution. I believe that there were five or six. Seriously. And I figured out what most of them did, however, there was one that I just had no idea.

    I had come from a Catholic school in So. Cal. I had loved it there. The students were kind and helpful and oh so very respectful. They never talked back (well, almost never) and they rarely questioned a teacher. This was what I was used to from teenagers. I knew that Mid-Peninsula was different, but I had no idea how different it could be.

    After a few weeks I did figure out my new server. It was a gaming server. For those unfamiliar with the term, it ran a game that, I gather, a number of the students used to engage in with the previous Tech Guy. Gamers! Using up bandwidth. And I couldn’t even get people to use email! (Tangent warning: We’ve come a LONG way from there technologically).

    So, being me, I shut the server down. My job was to work on helping technology become part of the everyday lives of this community; not a way to play more games.

    Later, I was crawling under some tables in the EC (as one does…) and I saw a person standing right next to me. “Anne Marie, why did you shut down our game?!!!” He was clearly annoyed at this upstart who had dared to cut into his pleasures…

    I started to reply using the standard, “It’s my job”, “you shouldn’t be playing games”, blah blah blah….and then realized that this was a new place and clearly a very different environment. So I took my time coming out from under the desk and crafted a thoughtful answer rather than the adult answer of, “Because I say so.”

    I pointed out that the equipment that was installed at Mid-Peninsula was for a number of important purposes. It was for the front office people, it was for teachers, and it was for students. It was for the entire community. Mostly, it was for the entire community to put into learning. And if our resources were being squandered we weren’t getting what we were paying for and no one in the community was getting what he/she deserved. I pointed out that currently games probably could be played without infringing on the work but that I hoped for growth and usage that would strain the system.

    He relaxed. He thanked me for speaking with him. We chatted briefly about games that he enjoyed.

    Sometimes when kids talk to new adults it’s a test. I passed.
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