Skip to content

The Gift of Time

By Kyle Armstrong, Associate Head for Academics

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes.

A measurement in minutes for one year made famous by the Broadway hit Rent. Time can be measured in different ways, but none of us can escape its passage. As you think about the New Year, consider the simple yet profound gift of time for your child[ren]…

Time to Wonder

Just as Walter Mitty does in the famous 1939 short story written by James Thurber, allowing children time to wonder, daydream, and create is crucial to their development. Mitty’s daydreams were heroic and seemingly far-fetched, and we can only speculate that his mind went to these places to combat the mundane nature of his life, but maybe his daydreams represent our deepest desires to make an impact on the world?

As we enter 2014, create space in your home for blog-1dreaming, tinkering, designing, and creating. Children deserve time and space to explore, build, and make playful decisions.

This only happens when we, as families and educators, resist the urge to overschedule and hold dear time for generative thinking. The guts of solving any problem consist of time, collaboration, and trial and error. Make 2014 a year of wonder.

Lead Dialogue

Many times as adults in conversations with kids, we tend to control the pace through giving direction, making a point, or downplaying their ideas. Of course, there are certainly times when children need direction and advice, but leading conversations rather than directing has a different feel altogether. Consider these three points in conversations with kids:

Become a Question Generator

Resist the temptation to give answers during a conversation. When questions arise, turn those questions back toward your child. While they ponder, provide them with leading ideas that may take them closer to a solution. Author Thomas Berger once said, “the art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge.”

Protect White Space

Allow time in dialogue for white space. In other words, be comfortable with pause in conversation. Too often we hurry discussions without giving space for reflection. Think about a piece of lined paper that has white space in the margins, except insert that white space throughout a conversation. That space can be valuable real estate for reflection, appreciation, and consideration for other ideas.

Listen versus Hearing

Many times in conversations that involve some type of blog-2problem solving, I often find myself searching for a solution in my head as others are talking. Although I might be hearing them, this is different than listening and considering. In fruitful dialogue with children, it is crucial that their ideas are validated and considered, because working through this process with them fosters design thinking and problem solving. They must navigate through this trial and error in order to develop as resilient solution makers. Create time in conversation to work through your child’s ideas by truly listening with your whole self.

Understand Plasticity

As we learn more about brain development, researchers tell us there are certain periods during the first 20 years of life when the brain is ripe for growth. Dr. JoAnn Deak states “if the brain is used during one of these periods, not only is it stretched and made bigger, but also it seems to enhance its plasticity for a lifetime.” This is one of the reasons why schools promote early childhood education (preschool and prekindergarten) and early foreign language exposure. Exposure to listening, talking, singing songs, etc. during the early stages of childhood “sets up the language sectors of the brain to be able to do things [language based] throughout life.”

blog-3With adolescents in particular, we all know that the prefrontal cortex – the area crucial for organization and decision-making – is not fully developed. Research indicates that the brain acts like a muscle, meaning it must “DO the work to change it.” In thinking about middle schoolers, simply telling them to be organized and scolding them to be responsible is one thing, but allowing them time and space to work through issues of organization and independence fosters growth in the prefrontal cortex.

Ultimately, performing almost any task successfully requires a certain amount of time and trial and error, so practice modeling resilient behavior and take an over the shoulder approach, but strongly resist the urge to perform these important tasks for your adolescent. They deserve time to become makers and doers.

Happy New Year to all, and I hope 2014 is a great year. Give the gift that you cannot see, hear, or feel – the profound gift of time.



Renewable Ideas…

Believe it or not, another school year is upon us. For the 84th time, The Swain School will open its doors to eager students from across the Lehigh Valley. Excitement reigns, and passion for education is palpable as you walk the hallways; it’s that magical time to begin again.

As we all renew this time-tested process, below are three ideas to consider this fall:

Promote Grit

ImageAs defined, grit is courage, resolve, and strength of character. It’s resiliency, determination, and perseverance rolled into one. As human beings, it’s what allows us to survive those inevitable bumps in the road – while maintaining and even building a sense of confidence. It’s the mettle of a marathon runner, the determination of an entrepreneur, and the hardiness of a seasoned educator.

Promote grit in your household this fall by fostering a growth mindset. Praise or constructively criticize effort, focus on the process, and help your child frame difficult circumstances in a positive, enduring light. It’s mental training for a triathlon.

For more on grit, watch this superb TED Talk.

Develop a Bedtime Routine

Every child is different, but most children, and adults, Imagebenefit from routine and structure. Although there is evidence that mixing study locations helps retention, there is also evidence that a clear, consistent routine in the evening promotes order. Involve your child in decisions about the evening routine, and help them develop balance and consistency after dinner hours.

Set healthy limits to screen time, monitor cell phones (for older students), and read for pleasure – often. This includes adults, as modeling how to snuggle up with a good book helps develop children into lifelong readers.

Work Hard

This simple concept is sometimes overlooked because, well, it sounds simple. But good old-fashioned hard work – toward something you are passionate about – is Imagealways a critical ingredient. Hard work promotes meaning, helps develop grit, and provides each of us with a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction.

School is not easy, friendships can be unstable, and the field hockey game may not always turn out as planned, but working incredibly hard at things we enjoy truly promotes meaning in our lives. Find joy in sweating, grind out that study time for the history test, and work hard at relationships – it’s worth it in the end.

Check out Ashton Kutcher at the Teen Choice Awards this summer—truly inspiring.

Have a wonderful start to a brand new school year. The Swain School is as vibrant as ever, and with grit, balance, hard work, and a healthy dose of reading, we are primed for a tremendous year –

Kyle Armstrong
Associate Head for Academics

Not just for English class anymore: Poetry lives in all subjects

By Marilyn Hazelton
Swain Poet-in-Residence

This year as Swain’s Poet in Residence, I collaborated with 3rd through 8th grade teachers.  As a poet who teaches, I model creative writing and thinking in subjects as diverse as mathematics, history, memoir and studies for peace and justice.  My role at Swain is to be a mentor, facilitator and technical advisor on creative writing skills.  As a rostered artist with the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, I’ve been trained to integrate the art of writing with diverse subjects across the curriculum.

Recently I worked with Ms. Armstrong to lead the 5th graders in playing with the idea of Book Spine Poetry.  Divided into teams, students looked through the library shelves for books to create a poem from titles. Ms. Armstrong then recorded several of the groups reading their poems.

In Mr. Stansbery’s class on “Comparative Culture: Peace and Justice through World Leadership”, 6th graders wrote haiku on war and peace.  They were inspired by examples from a haiku anthology that my husband and I produced for an editor who is a veteran of the conflict in Bosnia.  The students read poems from writers in Serbia, Romania, Vietnam, Croatia and the U.S. before adding their own voices to the issues.

Here are two of the wonderful poems from those classes:

the bullet

snaps the truce apart

bleeding through our hearts

– by Zoe


light fills the darkness

people arise from their homes

there will be peace again

by Tomas

In Mrs. Kreitz’ and Mrs. Franzyshen’s Math classes, Math artSarah7th and 8th grade students used symmetry and geometric figures to create designs inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture.  Then, inspired by a poem I wrote,  The Line, they added poetic language to their drawings.  Here is a fine example by eighth grader Sarah (right).

For Black History Month, I collaborated with Mr. Burns in his 8th grade class, “U.S. History 2:  Reconstruction to Modern Day.”  Students chose a contemporary or historical man or OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAwoman to celebrate poetically.  Five 8th graders read these poems at Grandparents & Special Friends Day, including Jeff (left).

As a teaching artist, I present my own writing and revisions in each class I work with. By doing the creative writing assignments myself, I can model the process that leads to success, that all students can share.

The Swain Eighth Grade Experience

A research project about how Hurricane Sandy impacted school-aged children.

A Swain lacrosse game captured on video and then narrated as an example of sports broadcasting.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA 5K run for polio. A choreographed dance session featuring Swain students. Teaching soccer to younger students.

In early May, The Swain School Class of 2013 presented their Independent Study projects to the community.  The requirements were simple: partner with a faculty member, choose a topic of interest, provide a visual and short research paper, and then present. The results were amazing: a huge variety of topics, a tapestry of interests, and gratitude toward faculty members who were there each step of the way.

The Independent Study is just one powerful example of the capstone year at Swain. For some, this final year is the last of eleven. For a young man from Asia, this year marks his first and final, yet he will leave Swain with the same sense of pride and fulfillment.

Other opportunities in eighth grade include giving a community speech MSC_classroomabout someone in your life who inspires you, traveling to an outdoor science lab in Wallops Island, Virginia for the annual class trip, serving lunch – dressed in formalwear – at the Holiday Boutique, creating robots that traverse a Mars landscape made of recycled materials, biking and rafting along the Lehigh River, and on-and-on.

STEAM The program is designed to give early-stage teens an opportunity to be accountable  and take on more responsibility in a safe, secure environment. The novels they read are sophisticated, the classroom discussions are in-depth, and – when given space to complete a task in a nurturing environment – the results are truly inspiring.

In early March, a number of Swain teachers attended the annual NAIS (National Association of Independent School) Conference in Philadelphia, and we had the pleasure of listening to renowned ‘Poetic Voice’ Sekou Andrews. Of the many lines that Sekou rattled off, his most memorable: “children are heaving with curriculum.”

Listening to our students, valuing their input, and giving them space to create is gratifying and inspirational. This is the eighth grade year at Swain, and what a special experience it is.  Join me in celebrating our eighth graders for who they are and what they will become; it’s what the Swain experience is all about.

Leadership Designed

by Kyle Armstrong, Associate Head of Academics

Greetings from Swain, and I hope your family is well during this busy, unpredictable season.

Not only was our area hit with a rare hurricane, but the election season certainly brings some extraneous or invaluable chatter into our lives, depending on your outlook.

For me, as an educator in a school such as Swain, the national dialogue about our next leader brings to mind the concept of how to develop leadership skills in our students.

The second grade pollsters – Nathaniel and Claire – take their job seriously, as
Mrs. Ritchie stops by to cast her vote.

Recently, NPR published an article titled: “Decision Time: Why Do Some Leaders Leave A Mark?”  This piece examines why we remember a president like Abraham Lincoln and not presidents like William Henry Harrison or Millard Fillmore (our ninth and 13th presidents, respectively).

Essentially, the premise of the article is that waterline decisions may or may not produce outstanding leaders, but that successful decisions come with courage, foresight, and usually an element of surprise.  For example, during the Ft. Sumter ordeal of 1861 when the US was on the brink of the Civil War, most people thought Lincoln would either declare war on the South or ignore the seceding states.  Instead, Lincoln bucked all public opinion and only sent supplies to Sumter (a sea fort off Charleston, South Carolina).  As a result, the Confederates fired the first shot attacking the Union, spurring a groundswell of unity and nationalism from the Union side.  This in turn emboldened Lincoln and the Union to launch into the Civil War.

According to Warren Bennis, a well-known leadership scholar and professor at USC, “Abraham Lincoln and George Washington both had long-range vision.  Washington was not a great general, but one overriding, passionate goal was to keep this country unified.”  In addition, Bennis also sated that while everyone else is focused on the next battle, the greats focus on posterity.

In our schools—in this age of unpredictability and constant change—we must intentionally teach leadership.  Maybe some people are born with natural decision-making skills, but that is not an idea humanity can count on.

Instead, creating situations in safe environments where kids can practice making decisions has to be something we weave into the fabric of school.  For example, at Swain we have programs that give students opportunities to weigh options, consider consequences, and then execute decisions.  From learning how to self-monitor in Guided Reading groups, to lab-based science programming, to our capstone Eighth Grade Independent Study curriculum, to a formalized leadership plan for the older students, these areas of school life afford children independence, responsibility, and opportunities to practice decision making.

Eighth graders Zach, Alex and Connor collaborate on the program they’ve written to power a Lego robot, in our new STEAM program

In accordance with our Mission and ethos, programming decisions at Swain always come back to the great triumvirate of collaboration, integration, and problem solving.  Each concept in-and-of-itself gives students opportunities to make decisions.  Taken together, programs that incorporate all three concepts—such as our seventh and eighth grade STEAM initiative—maximize our ability to expose kids to the complexities involved in making sound and sometimes breakthrough decisions.  Anecdotally, it is the repetition of making sound decisions that hardwires the brain to function that way on a regular basis.  In the end, sound decision making skills enable leadership reserves to be tapped in each and every child.

Collaboration, integration, and problem solving.  Courage, foresight, and a sprinkle of surprise.  Whoever you vote for today, maybe it is with the hope that they can execute these ideas central to sound decision-making and quality leadership.

With our students, we must not simply hope for that to happen.  We must be intentional about providing a

framework that fosters soundness in thinking.  Schools exist to provide nurture, knowledge, and organization, but maybe above all else they exist—or should strive to exist—to develop young men and women who can diplomatically and peacefully navigate our changing world.

Enjoy the end of the fall season, and please keep in your hearts and minds those who have been so greatly impacted by Hurricane Sandy.  Thanks for reading, and until next time:

“The secret of a leader lies in the tests he has faced over the whole course of his life and the habit of action he develops in meeting those tests.”

 -Gail Sheehy, American Writer and Critic

Introducing STEAM!

Eighth grade students have been sharpening their problem-solving skills by building and programming Lego Mindstorms Robots in Swain’s new STEAM program.

Christian, Hannah and Gianna confer on the calculations needed to get their robot to move along the grid pattern on the floor.

In STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) education, students collaborate to solve meaningful challenges in a hands-on way that demands analytical thinking.

With the guidance of teachers Deb Lindsay, Ellen Gerkens, and Julie Kibelbek, students have spent the first six weeks of the semester taking turns as builders, programmers, and project managers within small groups.

First, students constructed basic robots that carry “bricks”— onboard mini computers onto which programs can be loaded. Experienced Lego builders shared their expertise with other students; everyone had the opportunity to think and build in three dimensions.

Rachael and Marcy are hoping they’ve made the correct calibrations.

Next, groups programmed their robots to solve a series of challenges, breaking down each problem into its logical steps and using Mindstorms software to code the steps.  Students showed both perseverance and flexibility in generating solutions to these challenges.

The process was spread out over several class meetings and required lots of hands-on experimenting, testing, refining, and troubleshooting.  Students (and teachers) felt a real sense of accomplishment as each robot executed its routine perfectly, followed by a round of applause!

As the eighth graders became more proficient, they added touch and light sensors to their robots and took on programming challenges with switches and loops.

Sometimes things don’t go as planned, as Steven shows!

As both robots and programs grew in complexity, so did the students’ understanding: they learned that there was no “right” way to solve their challenges; rather, each group was aware that they were generating their own unique solution.

As we move forward, our students will create their own robot challenges centered around a Mars Exploration theme.  This is where they’ll experience the Art component in STEAM, designing an alien landscape, a mission, and maybe even a robotic Martian!

Innovation in Education, Lessons from the Business World: STEAM at Swain

In a recent edition of Independent School magazine, outgoing NAIS president Pat Bassett published an article titled The Innovation Imperative.  As he has been preaching for years, in this article Mr. Bassett urges independent schools across the nation to immerse themselves in a paradigm shift.  He argues that our prevailing educational model was built for a previous generation, and – if we are going to educate our children to be leaders in a changing world – we must adopt educational practices that foster creativity and give students opportunities to problem solve.

In his article, Mr. Bassett references several authors from the business world who have written about ideas for generative thinking.  In a recent New York Times Op Ed piece, writer Jon Gertner maintains, among other ideas, that putting creative people in close proximity to one another inevitably produces unexpected conversations.

An article titled “A CEO’s Guide to Innovation in China” states that “ameliorating the ‘fear factor’ in inculcating a culture of risk-taking [occurs] by shifting the risk away from individuals to teams.”

In yet another piece from the business world, economist Edward de Bono in his book Six Thinking Hats contends that one of the “hats” necessary for generative thinking is the “green hat” (i.e. green as in go).  Wearing this “hat” – given time, space, and simplicity – subjects focus on growth, creativity, and alternative thinking.

With all due respect to scholarship, none of these ideas alone are groundbreaking.  Yet, in aggregate, these ideas from the business world provide a roadmap for a thriving educational future.  What we are talking about in layman’s terms is arranging people in teams, giving subjects a bright, open space to learn, and providing them with time for ideas to emerge through conversation and problem-solving.

After all, Bassett contends, this is the model that Google utilizes in their workplace.  Google “hires smart people who can collaborate and communicate, puts them in an open-space office environment…and gives them 20% of their time each week to do whatever they choose.”

As one enters our new STEAM lab at Swain this fall, you will see these conditions at play.  STEAM – an acronym for science, technology, engineering, art, and math – is a new program that will be launched this September for seventh- and eighth grade students.  Organized by a team of three teachers, the STEAM lab will be in a bright, open classroom.  Students will be arranged in teams, and meeting times will be in 85-minute blocks.  The centerpiece of the eighth grade program will be robotics (LEGO Mindstorms), while the seventh graders will explore the field of biotechnology using digital microscopes (seventh graders will also be exposed to robotics).

The concept of STEAM is simple: provide the time, space, and equipment for emerging adults to participate in generative thinking.  After all, developing new ideas to solve global issues is what is needed out of future generations.  We cannot simply wish this to occur; instead, we need to develop the conditions within our educational institutions for this type of thinking to be practiced.

Pat Bassett also references The MacArthur Foundation, one of the nation’s largest independent foundations supporting “creative people and effective institutions committed to building a more just…and peaceful world.”  The Foundation summarizes the changing structure in education as “The Big Shifts:” from knowing to doing, from teacher-centered to student-centered, from individual to team, from consumption of information to construction of meaning, from schools to networks, from single sourcing to crowd sourcing.

Across the country in the independent school world, these shifts are taking hold. At Swain, we are developing and tweaking programs to position ourselves squarely in the middle of this paradigm shift in education.  In fact, offering a STEAM program in the middle school – within school hours – positions Swain at the forefront of this movement.  All change in schools ought to be thoughtful and without a dogmatic approach.  The field of education is too important to simply follow current fads.  Rather, through an exploration of best practices, attending workshops, and visiting like-minded schools, here at Swain we are navigating what is right for our students at this given time and place.

From Guided Reading, to STEAM, to eighth grade independent study projects, to Faculty Cohorts, to our focus on global education, we move forward with hope, engagement, and focus.  The educational bedrocks of reading, writing, and math will never diminish, nor will the need for simply acquiring a certain body of information, but we must blend these tenants with an educational purpose that meets the coming landscape.

“If you give people tools, [and they use] their natural ability and their curiosity, they will develop things in ways that will surprise you very much beyond what you might have expected.”

                                                                                                                             –  Bill Gates

I hope everybody is having a great summer!  Stay cool, read a good book, and celebrate with the wonderful people in your life.  See you in September.



Todos somos más iguales que diferentes

Hello Swain family and friends:

I hope everybody is off to wonderful 2012.  Already this new year, so many wonderful activities have been happening in and around school, and I feel honored to be able to witness all of the love and hard work that goes into making Swain such a vibrant community.  This past December, we said goodbye to eight of our friends from Guatemala, and this month’s blog – written by our Lower School Spanish Teacher, Miss Christine Parente – is a reflective piece about their time here.  Please enjoy!

Todos somos más iguales que diferentes

“We are all more the same than we are different”

Just a couple months ago now, several brave students from Guatemala arrived at the Philadelphia International Airport, shuffled off with new families, and prepared themselves for a two month stay in Pennsylvania.  Perhaps a bit nervous and unsure, they then stepped into The Swain School and

Our cultural ambassadors and their hosts

transformed into their roles as cultural ambassadors.

I met the cultural ambassadors – Angelo, Sebas, Juanfer, Cami, Sofi, Marreh, Gabi, and Juancho – on their very first day at Swain while teaching Mrs. Monahan’s first grade class. Mrs. Coverley and Mrs. Fabiano led them into my classroom, introducing our special guests to our youngest Spanish learners. I remember Sebas smiling so big, the girls shyly giggling, and Angelo fearlessly shouting “¡Hola!” and “¿Cómo estás?” From that very first interaction, I knew their visit would be a remarkable opportunity for them, our Swain community, and for me as well.

After a few weeks, they settled in at Swain. Angelo, Sebas, Juanfer and Juancho added a great dynamic to our soccer team, while Cami challenged herself to play field hockey, a new sport for her. They showed off their Swain School hoodies and attended classes with our students – working towards developing their English language skills every step of the way.

Gabi dazzled us with her creativity and artistic talent

They continuously impressed me with their courage to try new things. Having studied abroad myself (as junior in college, not as a seventh grader), I understood the challenges they faced of living with a new family, attending a new school, and communicating in a new language. When I lived in Madrid, I worried often about people judging my Spanish, and sometimes that concern prevented me from actually speaking and practicing.

As I watched our cultural ambassadors interact with the student body, sometimes they became hesitant and nervous to speak, but most of the time, they just went for it. I will never forget Sebas and how quickly and confidently he spoke English. He never feared making mistakes. One day, Sebas explained to seventh grader Meg Bennett that he knew she was hiding something from him because well, Meg, “your face tells you all.” (We helped him with that expression afterward.)

As the weeks went on, we arranged for our cultural ambassadors – soon to be brilliant teacher’s assistants – to work with the lower school students in their Spanish classes.  They spoke Spanish with the students, they played games, and they shared about their families, schools, and traditions. Gabi, Marreh, Cami, and Juancho each constructed their own lessons and delivered them with poise and purpose. They even handed out prizes and bracelets from Guatemala.

One afternoon, Juanfer, Angelo and Sebas led a discussion

Angelo helps Calista create a Guatemalan worry doll

with Mrs. Reger’s class. They sat in front of the fourth graders and answered an endless string of questions, which sparked the most invaluable conversation among students that I have ever heard. Our Swain students began to realize that in Guatemala you can go to McDonald’s or have a burger at TGI Friday’s. They learned that some schools in Guatemala City are big and some are small, and some have bullies and others have cliques. They discovered that these three boys hang out at the mall for fun, that they play Xbox and have iPods. Juanfer explained that his father is a doctor and his mother is a lawyer. Angelo clarified to a few students that just like cities in the United States, not everyone in Guatemala City is poor, and certainly not everyone is rich. As the conversation grew, I stood back and observed as the students engaged and challenged each other.

The period ended, but I heard the dialogue continue as they rushed into the hallways. I found myself standing in my classroom and hearing the phrase, “We are all more the same than we are different,” a phrase Professor Chris Kovats-Bernat shared with our community last year during his Haiti presentation. Though the students did not quote his speech during their discussion, they certainly discovered just that.

The ambassadors were warmly welcomed at Founders Day ceremonies

November came and went and just like that I was hugging each one of them and exchanging email addresses.  I will never forget the two months they lived here and how much they taught my students and me. They taught me new ‘cool’ lingo. They encouraged me to live courageously and to make mistakes. And most importantly, they reminded me of the importance of learning from each other – whether you are a student or a teacher, you are always a learner.

The Long Conversation

I’ll be brief.

Recently, I attended a conference around the topic of building safe and inclusive classrooms.  Some professional workshops are better than others, and frankly this one was not as dynamic as it could have been, but for me the take away was the value of the long conversation.

We live in a time of text messaging, fast food, and instant access.  It seems that it is always about the 4G, the latest and greatest gadget, and the 30-minute meal.  Most of us can now access information on our phones in less than 10 seconds, and the amount of email we all receive can be mind-boggling.

We all know and appreciate the benefits of instant access, but we must take care not to let that quick fix mentality creep into our approach with children.  There is nothing wrong with attempting to solve problems quickly, but when it comes to children the quick fix is short lived.

Even at this conference I attended, many attendees simply wanted to fold down the issues we were discussing and wrap them in nice bows.

Life is not about little boxes and neat wrapping paper.

As we search for greater understanding in a complex world, it is imperative – from teachers to parents to administrators – that we always keep in mind our true role as mentors and teachers.  All human being are complex, but this complexity is two-fold with children and adolescents because their brains and decision-making abilities are not fully developed.  It’s time to introduce ourselves once again to the long conversation.

Simply stated, there is no substitute for rolling up your sleeves and spending time talking with young people.  They need our guidance, they need our advice, and they need for us to impart wisdom and confidence.  We never know when these times may occur – in the middle of class or at 5:30 in the morning—and as adult role models it is up to us to hold off on the phones, get down at their level, and spend some real time processing and dialoging.

This is the shared work of schools and households, and this is the real work of teaching.  It is easy to shut down an issue or a problem with a quick ‘no’ or by simply taking away a valued possession from a child.  This approach is sometimes appropriate, but real change with children comes through shared problem solving.  Dialogue, deep thought, time, and collaboration must be present for relationships to develop and flourish.

Our students are the ones who will solve many of our global problems, and to give them a fighting chance at this we must be sure we are raising socially and emotionally healthy human beings. The best educators and parents are aware of what is happening with kids, and they know just when to strike up a conversation.  Embrace this cause, and remember that the real answer to conflict that arises among and within students is often found through a good ole’ fashion talk around the table.

We know these things as educators and parents.  As the craze of the holiday season begins to rise, be alert for the times when the long conversation is needed.  It’s what future generations deserve.

We Are All “Drum Majors”

Pluralism is my new favorite word.

Yes, that’s right – I do have a list of favorite words.

In fact, here are my top five:

  •  pluralism
  •  integrity
  •  engagement
  •  diligence
  •  reconcile

By definition, pluralism is a condition in which numerous distinct ethnic, religious, and cultural groups are present.  Or, it can be a condition in which minority groups participate fully in the dominant society.  Or, said again in a different way, it is the consideration of various legitimate ideas.

Anyway you define it, it’s the thought that different peoples and ideas can coexist in the same time and space—ideally with peace and prosperity.

Lately, this idea seems to be all around us at


Our Guatemalan friends and their hosts

Swain.  Our celebration of Peace One Day in September, eight Guatemalan students entering our community in mid-October, and concentration camp liberator  Leon Bass speaking to our seventh and eighth graders are just a few examples that come to mind.

This energy surrounding the importance of diversity and multiculturalism was strongly felt on our stage at our recent Founder’s Day celebration.  Eighth grader Sara Edgar gave the keynote address, and she opened her speech by asking all of us to close our eyes and imagine that everybody in the world is our neighbor:

Sara encourages being a good neighbor

“Some of you may have imagined the ‘modern idea’ of a neighbor where slight nods or small waves are exchanged every once in a while. The neighbors I imagined, the kind that I want to talk about today, are the ones that stop and talk when they see each other.  They have a mutual sense of caring. Neighbors like this take a step back from their own busy lives and gain perspective on the importance of connection to other people.”

Sara’s speech, delivered with great poise and confidence, encouraged us all to imagine a future when people from all walks of life treat each other as true neighbors.  It’s a powerful idea, and it reminds us that even in the dark days of conflict and war, “hope springs eternal.”

As much as Sara’s words impacted our community, so did the words of Leon Bass.  Mr. Bass, who was constantly told he wasn’t good enough as an African-American growing

Mr. Bass shares his story

up in a racially charged America, urged our students to be “drum majors for justice.”  From Martin Luther King Jr.’s Drum Major Instinct speech of 1968, this reference asks Americans to be first in love, generosity, and moral excellence:

“We all have the drum major instinct. We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade. … And the great issue of life is to harness the drum major instinct. It is a good instinct if you don’t distort it and pervert it. Don’t give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be the first in love. I want you to be the first in moral excellence. I want you to be the first in generosity.”

As we creep toward Thanksgiving, take stock of how you are treating your neighbors.  Make a list of your favorite words, and check your drum major instinct.  More importantly, have a dialogue with your children regarding what it means to be a champion of pluralism.

At Swain, we strongly believe in asking students to think critically about ideas, to empathize with others, and to fill their reservoirs with tolerance and hope.  We believe these principles will build problem-solving skills that will sustain and unite future generations.

As Leon Bass said: “You are good, and so is the other guy.  Love is the answer.”

Celebrate pluralism at Swain, and be proud to be a part of school that values the riches it can bring.