A.I. Totten: A Thanksgiving for a Role Model

J Ross Peters:

During our Grandparents and Special Friends Day celebrations on each of St. George’s Campuses this week, I had the opportunity to speak briefly about the vitally important role of grandparents and friends in the lives of our students. During my brief remarks, I mentioned that my own grandparents had played critical roles for me growing up. Just thinking of my grandparents reminded me that a great educations for our children most often results from partnerships between student, parents, grandparents, friends, neighbors and schools. My reflections yesterday reminded me of the blog entry below from a few years ago.

Originally posted on Ross All Over the Map:

My grandfather A.I Totten, led a remarkable life and though he passed a number of years ago now, I still think of him often. (In fact, I think of all my grandparents often, and I am certain I will write about each on this blog at some point.) A letter I wrote to him on the occasion of his 90th birthday seems particularly appropriate today—Thanksgiving. I am so fortunate to have had a number of role models both in my family and beyond it. I am particularly thankful to have people in my life about whom I can say things like I wrote to him.  Here is an excerpt:

“Papa, I have been thinking of what to say in this letter that will reflect what I appreciate most about you. In the end I see in you an example of what I want to be—how I want to care…

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Thanksgiving Chapel Talk: Faith and Action

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L-R: Ross Peters, Sophia Quesada, Bill McClain, Mayor Luttrell, Mayor Joyner, and Brendan Gorham.

(St. George’s was selected as the 2015 Good Sports Always RecycleTM Sustainability Steward winner by the Tennessee Office of Sustainability for advancements in reducing its overall waste footprint through energy and water conservation, recycling programs and the use of green space. St. George’s Independent School is the only school in the state to be awarded the designation this year. Today Shelby County Mayor Luttrell and Collierville Mayor Joyner joined us for chapel today to celebrate the school’s good work in this area. I spoke as part of the chapel service.)

Good morning!

Last Saturday morning, I woke up early to feed our dog, Mic, and to let him outside. Dogs don’t understand weekends, so our weekday schedule, really HIS weekday schedule, prevails on Saturdays. At 6:00 a.m. he got to work finding ways to wake me up, to let me know that it was time to go. There was snorting, some bumping, a little licking of my hand dangling from the side of the bed. After his inevitable victory that lead to my sleepy walk to the kitchen as he charged and bounced beside me and to his breakfast and later to his sprint around the back yard, Mic was already headed back to sleep with a full stomach, as I, now mostly awake, fixed some coffee and began to read the news and to watch CNN. It should have been a comfortable Saturday morning reveling in the knowledge that the Gryphons would have another home game after an impressive victory the night before, but it was not a comfortable Saturday morning. World events in Paris on Friday were disquieting to say the least.

There have been other disquieting national and global news moments in the last few years such as, Sandy Hook, Ferguson, Baltimore to name a very few. Additionally, there have been names of countries that have become shorthand for conflict and tension—Iraq, Iran, Syria, North Korea. And last week terrorist attacks in Beirut on Thursday and Paris on Friday have drained those of us who pay some attention. Drained us. Drained us to the point that it becomes difficult to take much more in. Becoming a knowledgeable citizen is exhausting, even disheartening because at times. What we learn can challenge our faith; it can dampen our hope. It might even, during this season of thanksgiving, cause us to postpone explicit expressions of gratitude.

As I have continued to process the tragic events of the last week, I have also been gathering my thoughts about what I might share with you this morning. Here is the core of what I would like to share:

  • First, becoming knowledgeable about national and global events is the beginning of engaged citizenship, and it is an obligation of a thoughtfully faithful person.
  • Second, we must respond to global events by taking local action in our school and in our community to make the world around us better for our presence.
  • And finally, our positive actions in the world represent both faith and thanksgiving.

Becoming knowledgeable about national and global events is a responsibility. The freedom we enjoy and, once you are 18, the power of our individual votes calls us to be growing in knowledge. Our opinions should be informed as we have an obligation to know what we can know and to strive to understand what can often feel beyond comprehension. To meet this demand we need both faith and reason—and perhaps a neglected truth is paramount here…developing faith and reason takes dedication, practice, and work.

In the face of scary issues—global warming, terrorism, political and cultural polarization—it is easy to withdraw, and it is easy to boil our opinions about complex issues down to simple sound bites. Indeed, we are often pushed in this direction through the news media that too often gives us the quick and the easily digestible instead of something more nuanced and closer to the truth.

And each of us individually bears responsibility for oversimplifying a complex world in that we want what we want immediately. When we can’t get what we want quickly, we quickly move on. Too rarely are we willing to read to the end of a news item. We stop after a paragraph or two, or worse, we read the headline and move on. I have been guilty of this, and I bet many of you have too. I believe we are fortunate to be in a school that pushes us away from the seductive gravity of short attention spans, ignorance, and apathy. In thinking about the things for which you are grateful this Thanksgiving, be thankful for teachers who challenge you, those who don’t let you off the hook for shallow thinking.

Sometimes, however, in our reading or watching of news we simply become overwhelmed not because we are not concerned enough, but because the depth of our concern stops us in our tracks. Rather than avoiding the news, rather than apathy regarding world events, we become paralyzed by them. In these moments our understanding of national or world events ceases to have any discernable narrative and becomes a sort of ominous background music to our daily lives.

There is, however, good news, friends. The good news is that there is much we can do to affect our world locally, and I argue that while we want to develop national and global understanding, we want to center our action locally, in the world that surrounds us—our campus, our community, our city, and state. The statement—“THINK GLOBALLY, ACT LOCALLY—is particularly helpful here. The school and larger community in which we live should be better because of our presence, better because of our willingness to overcome news overload and spiritual paralysis to make a difference in the city and region where we live.

Now, so far from the reading of the Beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew to my words, you might wonder, given our close proximity to the holidays, specifically to Thanksgiving, what does all this has to do with the season? The answer is: “it has a lot to do with Thanksgiving—it has everything to do with Thanksgiving.” I believe that our positive actions in the world represent both faith and thanksgiving. Through our actions, we live appreciation and thanks. And, importantly, through this sort of appreciation and thanks, we change the world. Words alone, while powerful as a means by which to give thanks, are not enough. As we move into a season of thanks and of giving, let us remember that our best way to give thanks is to give of ourselves to others.

After many many years of spending time in the mountains and woods of Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee, feeling overwhelmed by global events is for me like losing my compass, while re-reading the Beatitudes is like finding it again. To end I will read the gospel again. Listen in particular for the words: “mourn”, “merciful” and “peacemaker”. 

Matthew 5 When Jesus[a] saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

By our lives in this school and by the tragic events of the last weeks, we are called to action in the world—called to mourn, called to be merciful, and called to be peacemakers.

Happy Thanksgiving.


Parenting in the Wake of the Paris Terrorist Attacks


As our thoughts have been drawn today to France and to Paris in the wake of the tragedy of the terrorist attacks yesterday, I feel a bit ill-equipped as a parent. My daughter is in sixth grade–old enough to have some understanding of the scope of the event, of the larger global context, and of the anxiety such attacks produce in the free world.

However, the graphic nature of the news reports makes me uncomfortable allowing her to watch much on TV or on through her iPhone or computer. In the advent of HD, and of uncut, live-feeds, I worry about both parenting that would allow us to let her see too much AND that would push us to let her see too little.

My instinct is to make sure that:

  • we reassure children that that they are safe.
  • what we watch and read, we watch and read together.
  • we limit exposure to media, particularly repetition of dramatic and graphic video.
  • we discuss what we watch and read without the TV or device running concurrently all the time.
  • we do things together away from media that represent a maintaining of our routines and connectedness to each other. This afternoon, we are going hiking.
  • we don’t oversimplify, minimize, or exaggerate the situation for her.
  • when we don’t know an answer to a question from our child, we don’t pretend we do. Instead we seek an answer together.

Some questions I have:

  • where can parents find appropriate resources to support our kids in moments where global uncertainty is in ascendency?
  • what signs of anxiety should we be aware of in our children in such moments?
  • where are the media sources that, while maintaining the highest standards of journalism, produce content consistently appropriate for younger audiences?

In the end, it is our loving connection to our children that provides them comfort. They need to voice their questions, worries, and opinions in a safe environment.

Creating a Progress Culture Through Pilot Programs: Compiled Thoughts

In the Spring of 2012, I wrote a number of blog entries about the role of pilot programs and courses in creating thoughtful progress in a school. These entries feel more relevant than ever to me. My writing in this area grew out of other thinking I had been doing around a concept of a healthy school culture called, “Progress Culture.” Given its relevance to the discussion of the role of pilot programs and courses below, I encourage readers to see my original blog on Progress Culture here: “School Transformation: Becoming a Progress Culture.”

My reason for compiling all my thinking here is that I find I am coming back to these ideas over and over again in my current work at St. George’s Independent School in Memphis, TN. St. George’s is a fascinating and powerfully diverse community with two PK-5 campuses, one in the City of Memphis and the other just east in Germantown, and a 6 – 12 campus a bit further east in Collierville. It is a school that has grown remarkably in the last twelve years from roughly a 350 students PK-6 on one campus to around 1150 students PK-12 on three.

The school remains forward thinking, entrepreneurial–it is in its DNA, thus I can feel the relevance of the work I participated in at both Hawken School in Cleveland, OH and at The Westminster Schools in Atlanta, GA, as both of those schools were steeply ambitious during the time I was on staff at each school.

Everything I have included here (except section VI) I have published elsewhere on the blog. It is my hope that it is helpful to have everything in one place.


RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 leaving Southampton Water into the Solent. (Photograph: Jim Champion) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:QE2_leaving_southampton_water.jpg
RMS Titanic (http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/fd/RMS_Titanic_3.jpg )

Consider the “Turning the Ocean Liner” metaphor to describe school change. I have described and have heard many people describe changing a school to be like trying to turn the QE2: “it might turn,” we say, “but it will not turn quickly.” My issue with this metaphor is that it implies that everything has to turn slowly and in perfect harmony. We should not feel confined in the same way we would be confined on a ship. Today I am making a pledge to abandon that metaphor (“Abandon Ship!”) as it seems to give us a ready-made excuse for slowing down, or giving up on, priorities we have named as being mission-driven and strategic. The metaphor slows us down because it traps our thinking—it becomes an accurate metaphor because we have chosen to believe it. From now on schools are not big ships. Schools are challenging enough without having them have to be ships as well.

I am not of a mind to mint another metaphor to replace the one I just buried (or better “sank”); instead I am interested in describing an approach to making progress happen in a non-ship metaphor loving school. The accumulation of such steps together will lead to creating sustainable progress cultures, and it will not take long to see larger impact on the school. I want to support a budding culture of piloting ideas, and my definition of what exactly this means has come into greater focus. Supporting pilots:


  • “Supporting pilots points toward the progress we want to see in the school. Piloting an idea foreshadows the direction we are trying to go (I have written about the importance of foreshadowing progress in an earlier post). Accepting the idea of a pilot course or program is far easier than making a change that purports from the start to be permanent. Pilots allow a school to test drive ambitious ideas.”

Schools have a hard time changing course in large part because the muddiness of transition to something new feels too risky, and the pressure to be perfect from day one is oppressive. Doing something new in a school can feel like skipping all of pre-season practice and just showing up for the first game…or having to know how to juggle the first time you ever try.

In an earlier blog I tried to capture this predicament this way: “There is an old metaphor for leading change in schools: ‘Leading change in a school is like needing to be the best airplane mechanic in the world because you can only fix the plane while it is in the air.’ The tentativeness this statement encourages is inappropriate for the pace of progress that will be demanded of schools in the coming years.”

Creating pilots helps us avoid that tentativeness, and it provides one way to avoid having to be perfect at something before there is ever a chance to practice and refine. Additionally, when a pilot is successful, it provides an artifact in support of the direction of the school that will help provide momentum for what is next.


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  • “Supporting pilots creates opportunities to extend what is already good in the school culture or curriculum. The lion’s share of progress should allow additional space for the most strategically aligned parts of the existing culture and curriculum to flourish as unconstrained by other factors as possible.”

There are programs in our schools, often ones that have grown up organically, that reach a kind of ceiling in their progress. In order to continue to allow them to grow (or, even better, to accelerate their growth), a pilot expansion may provide a good option. I am particularly interested in this as it may pertain to augmenting a successful and strategically aligned existing program with a curricular program or course offering.

At St. George’s the best example of potential in this area may be the school’s Institute for Citizenship. As one of the marquee programs in the school, the Institute occupies a key strategic placement in the Upper School curriculum. “Grounded in the school’s mission to prepare students for a life of meaningful contribution, the St. George’s Institute for Citizenship offers dynamic academic lessons and real-world learning opportunities to juniors and seniors who are selected to participate in this prestigious program. Through coursework and off-campus experiences, students grapple with what it means to be an engaged citizen both now and in the future, focusing on the regional, national, global, and environmental interplay.”

It is an important part of the Upper School Program, yet as it stands it is limited in the number of students it is able to serve. An area where we are likely to explore the use of pilots is in trying to determine ways we might expand the reach of the Institute. The guiding question is: how might we find ways to get the work of the Institute to touch more of our students? This does not mean simply expanding the number of students who apply to the original course. It more likely means thinking about the purposefulness of the program and finding different means to accomplish some of the same goals.


  • “Supporting pilots encourages experimentation and mitigates the damage that may occur when a new idea falls short. If we are trying to push the boundaries of what we can make happen in a school, we are likely to take a bridge too far from time to time. A pilot course or program creates a safer space for trying something new.”

Part of what we are trying to encourage in a moment of cultural and curricular transition in a school is a kind of entrepreneurial spirit. We want faculty members to experiment and to try new things in order to find a better way forward in our work with students. In the business world this approach, when thoughtfully and creatively applied, pays off in increased profit and market-share—in schools our “profit” is deepening and enriching student learning.

Experimenting and trying new things is difficult to say the least if everything happening in a school must operate constantly as if we have been doing it that way forever. Working with a pilot course or program places experimentation in a safer and more exciting place—there is a remarkable pay-off for success, and there is not lasting damage done by falling short.  It gives a school the rare ability to learn from both success and, importantly, from failure.  Interestingly, this also places the school in the position we seek for student learning—we want our students to learn the same way, and thus in working with pilots we model the approach we want them to take in their own education.

Another advantage is that when faculty members design and teach pilots, they are in the position to lead the school toward strategic outcomes. Designing, teaching, and reflecting on a pilot course places the faculty member at the center of the action where they should be. Such opportunities are important levers to impact faculty culture and thus student learning.


  • “Supporting pilots creates opportunities for the school community to see the efficacy of the school’s direction. We need chances to demonstrate success in the specific context of our school. Just having examples from other schools is not enough. Just speaking in the abstract has an even shorter lifespan.”

Particularly when the direction a school has chosen may seem abstract, piloting programs can help a community develop a definition of the components of the plan and a vocabulary to describe those components. It may not be overstatement to assert that, without such early artifacts of the strategy, getting people to commit to the bigger picture of progress may be impossible.

During the early stages of any significant initiative, communities vacillate between arguing that the progress the school seeks is not really progress at all (but rather only the latest sound and fury representing nothing) or that it is a dangerous veering from core aspects of the school’s mission, tradition, and identity. A school needs stories to counter these equally inaccurate ideas of the steps the school is taking and the purposefulness of them. Piloting courses and programs can be the basis for that effort by creating institutional campfire stories.

Pilot courses and programs allow for some students and teachers to benefit first hand, but importantly, if the story is told well, they also allow the larger school community to share vicariously in success. In this way the school begins to build what is new into the school identity, and at this point the legacy of the strategy begins to set-up on firmer and firmer ground.


  • Pilot courses and programs have another advantage in that they offer individual members the school community the opportunity to lead and to drive forward key progress in the school. When change is driven up from faculty members and students, it has a far greater chance of success than if it is simply driven down from leadership.

School leadership–the Board in partnership with the Head–can and should create the strategic framework for progress, but how the school fills in that vision forward should have many people leading individual components of work within the context of the strategy. In this way pilot programs and courses provide a way of positively flipping the coin on strategic execution from the Board and Head side over to the faculty and student side. It is all the same coin but each side has a different role to play and a different moment to play it.

I believe independent schools have created an array of valuable and necessary strategic goals over the last decade. Schools have increasingly prioritized Experiential Learning, Service Learning, and Collaboration, and they have worked to create curricula that better connects students to real world learning not only by renovating course work approaches, but also by generating and stewarding partnerships within the communities in which they operate. However, school leadership has only rarely been able to get communities to flip the coin–to move from leadership-driven progress to community held responsibility for moving a school toward serving students in the most relevant and powerful ways possible. In short, we will have to do better if we are to remain vital and necessary.

No matter how efficacious the goals of a strategic plan are, without growing support for it within the community that will live with its results, it is doomed to fail or, not much better, doomed to settle in mediocrity. Pilot programs and courses can be a catalyst for enfranchising the widest possible swath of a school community in the direction of the school.


Westminster’s first experience with JanTerm was not an end unto itself. It was always part of something larger. As the final part of a two-year rollout of a new daily schedule and school calendar, the JanTerm represented the single biggest curricular step forward in the Upper School since its founding–45 new challenging and varied electives, offered over the first three weeks of January for the entire 820 student Upper School at The Westminster SchoolsThe new schedule, in addition to adding a JanTerm, includes a later start, longer classes that meet less often, and more time for teachers to work in teams. The schedule falls from the school’s Strategic Planand it is a creation of a group we called the Time Task Force, an outstanding group of six faculty members. Over the course of a Spring, Summer and Fall, the Time Task Force did deep research, listened carefully to all the school’s constituents–faculty, students, and parents–and then crafted a remarkable proposal, which both aligned beautifully with the school’s vision and challenged us deeply.

In planning for JanTerm, we recognized that there would demand for internships, but we didn’t have the staff to support it, nor did we have an immediate vision for what this program, adjunct to the courses of JanTerm, might look like. So we did not commit to creating opportunities for interships until the registration process for the JanTerm courses was complete. And when we did decide to take this step, we thought of it as a pilot, as something we might try out and buy or as something we might have to put back on the rack.

In essence the heart of the idea is that schools have often built significant curricular/extracurricular programs without the “D” of “R and D”. They have leaned into Research, but tried to skip Development. When schools make this mistake, they inadvertently raise the stakes of the bet, they increase the pain of failure, they miss an opportunity to test drive a program, and they fail to build the momentum of support a good idea needs from a school community.

In the late Fall of 2014 when a couple of our planned JanTerm courses did not have adequate signups to support them going forward (in registration talk..they “didn’t make”), we decided to try to pilot a small number of JanTerm Internships and Independent Studies for a small number of seniors who had particularly well-formed and thoughtful ideas. We could take this step only because of the fact that a couple of courses didn’t make, thus leaving us the staff to lead this pilot of an Internship Program. Also working to our advantage we knew we were likely to have just a few seniors whose ideas for what they might like to do were advanced enough to work in January. Not being overwhelmed with demand was an advantage.

The application process was fairly rigorous, and the time window for sign-up was short. This was mostly a result of deciding to take a stab at this pilot program late in the game (November for a January rollout), but it was also fortuitous as only students who already had a passion were prepared to submit an application. As a result, the applications were for the most part excellent, and in the end six students were approved to move ahead. Each had a mentor, and one faculty member was assigned the task of observing them and organizing their final presentations and assessments Their execution of those plans was even better.

In the end the Internship Pilot was a big success on a small scale–just what we wanted. Each of the six students had a powerful experience, developed a quality relationship with his or her mentor, and represented the school well in the community. By ensuring our ability to do well whatever we set out to do in this pilot, we preserved the ability to grow the program in a steady thoughtful manner in the years ahead. We generated the momentum for the program it will need to continue on a positive growth trajectory going forward. By keeping the scale small, we did not become overcommitted to a program that has yet to define its long term placement in our JanTerm program.