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There’s No Place Like Home

This past weekend our family took a ride to Ithaca, NY, where I grew up.  Since graduating from high school, I went away to college and have not lived in Ithaca since.  As a family, we make it back to our hometown two to three times per year.  My parents still live in the house where I spent the latter half of my childhood, and each trip back I find myself soccerwandering through my old room – glancing at pictures, books, and old clothes.  Looking out my old window onto the yard where I hit thousands of rocks with a stick into the woods, the memories of my time as a child and teenager always come back to me in vivid color, eliciting strong emotions.

There is something about a hometown visit that centers you.  Home can mean lots of things to lots of people, but the idea of home certainly brings a sense of connection and stability to our lives.  Childhood memories are strong because the people and events that were crucial to our formation as individuals dominate those memories.

This brings to mind the concept of school as home.  Of course, nothing can ever take the place of a home or family unit, but children do spend a significant amount of time in school during their growing years.  Indeed, as I think back to my schooling, people and events flood to mind, and it seems like those memories will be etched on my brain for eternity.

grade 3 girlsJust like a home, great schools – among other functions – create memories for children that will last a lifetime.  I distinctly remember in fourth grade playing the old computer game Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, and there is no doubt that game helped foster my love of history and social studies.  At different points in our schooling, adults and mentors recognized our interests, and they took time to foster those interests and created opportunities for learning.  In short, they gave us lasting memories that later serve as a force of stability and nostalgia in our lives.

Classroom experiences, school functions, and interactions with teachers and classmates without a  doubt create memories that will last a lifetime.  It is so important that schools recognize this and work to create these opportunities for kids.  We are shaping the lives of people for years to come, and at Swain we understand this and take this responsibility seriously.

This year marks our 82nd year of operation as a small, non-profit, independent day school in the Lehigh Valley.  We are a solid, grounded institution in the Valley, but walk the hallways even for fifteen minutes and you will see that we are far from institutional-like.  From Founder’s Day, to the third grade wax museum, to enjoying Asian cuisine in fifth grade, to annually reading To Kill a Mockingbird in eighth grade, the list of events that create memories for a lifetime is long.  Join us this year in celebrating school life and partner with us to celebrate the old and indoctrinate the new.  Join us in creating memories that will shape our leaders of the future.

Thank you for a tremendous start to the 2011-2012 academic year.  We are pleased to work with your children on a daily basis, and we look forward to a year of collaboration, growth, and lifelong learning!

Book Recommendation

Where Men Win Glory, by Jon Krakauer.  Author of Into Thin Air does it again with this stirring account of Pat Tillman, a professional football player who left nine million dollars on the table to serve in the military.

Universe of Responsibility

This past week, I participated in a five-day seminar titled: The Holocaust and Human Behavior.  This is one of many courses offered by Facing History and Ourselves, a non-profit international educational organization that has trained educators in over 80 countries.  Facing History’s mission is to “engage students of diverse backgrounds in an examination of racism, prejudice, and antisemitism in order to promote a more humane and informed citizenry.”  This coming school year, for the third year in a row, we will be teaching this curriculum to our eighth graders during one of our afternoon exploratory courses.

Teaching is not always about solutions; it’s about opening doors.  Make your students’ understanding messier, and leave them with questions that are different than the questions they started with.

The course took place at Teachers College on the campus of Columbia University, and it was a great experience on many levels.  First, it felt really good to be a student again.  Working with three very dynamic instructors, the course covered, among other topics, issues of identity and membership, the rise of the Nazi Party, the Holocaust, and the choice to participate.  Grappling with ambiguity is what being a student is all about, and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of exploring ideas, raising questions, and confronting assumptions.

We need to create an environment where students feel safe to explore complex issues in their lives and in the classroom.

In addition, working with 40 very smart adult learners was stimulating and challenging.  Listening to and conversing with folks immersed in difficult conversations is a rich experience that is hard to otherwise simulate.  Once again, I was reminded about how varied people are in this world.  Not only was the class full of people from all different backgrounds and beliefs, but also the power of the ideas presented during our discussions pushed my boundaries.  On many occasions, I was challenged by the comments of other folks, providing me with the same experience we hope to create at Swain.

This history plugs into our lives because it’s about choices.  How am I behaving and what are the consequences of my choices?  It’s the universal themes of blind obedience and the decisions of bystanders that will always be relevant in our conversations with kids.

Ultimately, the Facing History curriculum is about teaching what it means to be human.  Although this course is rooted in the complex history of the Holocaust, the history is the vehicle for understanding ourselves and how people interact with each other.  This fall, I have the great pleasure of teaching this course to our eighth graders, and I am excited for the journey.  It is a powerful opportunity to help students discover who they

Fun in New York

are and to understand that their choices and the way they treat others have a profound impact on community life.

This whole experience is about decision making, choices, and human beings accepting, learning, and conversing with each other.

Please be in touch if you would like to learn more about Facing History and how we teach it at Swain.  The link to their website is in the first paragraph. Thanks for reading, and have a wonderful weekend!

*The excerpts in italics scattered throughout this piece are various notes that I took during the course.

Selected, referenced reading from the course (all adult reading):

A Mosaic of Victims and The World Must Know, both by Michael Berenbaum

Ordinary Men, by Christopher Browning

A Matter of Obedience; the Stanley Milgram Experiments – VHS

Reflections on Switzerland

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Dear Swain School Families:

Welcome to the first edition of our new blog site. As the digital age moves forward at the speed of lighting, I hope you will find this format more convenient and less intrusive than the “old school” e-newsletter.

As is always the case in late July, it seems like the summer days are vanishing faster and faster. I hope your family is enjoying every moment of this time off from school.

For my family, we just returned from our third summer in Chateau d’Oex, Switzerland (two hours east of Geneva), working for The American School in Switzerland.

This year, 39 middle school students from 15 different countries (including one of our own eighth graders from Swain) attended a month-long boarding school experience in the Swiss Alps.

The view from our apartment

In the mornings, students took classes in either English or French, and in the afternoons, students participated in sports or embarked on cultural excursions. This year, I was a dorm parent, sports counselor, middle school problem solver, and driver extraordinaire. Kristen served as the Director’s administrative assistant.

We love this experience for many reasons. Just like any family that goes on vacation (in our case a working holiday), spending time together on a daily basis – without the pressures of work and school – is a gift to cherish. Summer is also a time of great fun, and – just as I challenged our students to do this summer – we had a tremendous amount of fun exploring Swiss culture.

In addition, working and living with students and teachers from around the world is an experience that never grows old. It is simply fascinating to watch individuals from 15 different countries eat, play, and study together. For middle school children, exposure to different languages, customs, and ideas is crucial to their development as global citizens. Thirteen- year-olds may not be able to fully understand the cultural and social norms that exist in different countries – such as the fact that it is considered rude to speak quietly in some parts of Iran (for fear that people might think you are talking poorly about them) – but exposure to different ideas broadens horizons and opens minds.

Ultimately, the goal of global education is to help children and adults understand that there are multiple avenues to approach life. There are so many ways to solve problems, and raising children who can approach issues from multiple perspectives gives our society a chance to create a more sustainable, peaceful existence. Is there a more just cause than developing children who can engage in serious debate and participate in finding solutions in a respectful, dignified manner?

I hope you have enjoyed this inaugural edition of News & Notes – blog-style. Enjoy the remaining days of summer, have fun with your family, discover something new, and read a great book!

Book Recommendation
The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. A monumental work about choices, love, and integrity.