Differentiating Instruction but not Message: Giving a JK-1 and a 2-5 Chapel Talk


My notes for a Chapel about courage February 2, 2016
My notes for a Chapel about courage February 2, 2016


Yesterday I spoke in Chapel at our Germantown Campus about our theme for February: Courage. Actually I spoke twice–first to grades 2 through 5 and a little later to JK through 1.

Planning for the seven minute or so talks served as a reminder for me of the importance of differentiation in teaching. Great teachers are always differentiating in ways large and small. They differentiate between groups by grade level and by student readiness. They also differentiate instruction by time of the day and day of the week. Additionally, they are forever building a nuanced understanding of the specific learning needs of individual students that allows them to differentiate their instruction by student. Not every successful strategy for one student is successful for all students. In short, it takes remarkable finesse, in addition to deep pedagogical and curricular knowledge, to do the work of an outstanding classroom teacher.

So…back to my chapel talk about Courage…

I had notes and a plan, but it was incumbent upon me to adjust my plan not only by my preconceived notion of the age ranges in the pews, but also by my ongoing read of their engagement. Fortunately for me, the students assembled in both chapel services were fantastic.

In the first talk to the older elementary students, I was able to call upon several responses to questions–“How do you define courage?” and “What is an example of courage?” Not only were their answers interesting and relevant to the direction I wished to go, but the other students were listening attentively to what others were saying. As I spoke extemporaneously to flesh out a couple of ideas (mostly about aspects of their lives that require courage), I was able to go a bit deeper than I expected before I began.

About twenty minutes after the older group departed the chapel, the younger group arrived. When I reflect on both chapels I realize that I feel good that the core message of each talk was the same, but the means by which I got to it were quite different. With the younger kids I used different examples, and I didn’t ask for responses from the audience–with that age group, I felt as if we might head astray too quickly if I had done so (though if it had been a much smaller group that would have been a good strategy). I also used different and more concise examples of courage.

So…the plan I created and notes I wrote were aimed at helping me design what I wanted to say and teach, while my adjustments to that plan were made thinking about what I wanted our students to hear and learn.

St. George’s and Serve901: A New Partnership to Meet an Old Need

JSt. George's Junior Alton Stovall, CEO of City Leadership John Carroll, yadayada, and Head of Serve901 Jeff Riddle gather to see and discuss the shared space at ADDRESS
St. George’s Junior Alton Stovall, John Carroll/Executive Director City Leadership, Shelby Smith/City leadership, and Jeff Riddle/Coordinator of Serve901

[Last night we sent a letter to the St. George’s Independent School community about a new, and I think, unprecedented partnership with Serve901 to share space and to create service learning experiences for our students. Serve 901 is an initiative of Memphis’s City Leadership, which also supports the vibrant and successful Choose901 campaign. I will let the press release below describe the relationship; however, it is worth noting here that I believe that this sort of partnership is exactly the direction great schools should be going to best underpin their academic, athletic and other co-currcular programming. We are not just seeking to graduate students who know things…we are seeking to graduate students who make something valuable from knowledge and experience. We are not just charged to graduate students headed toward successful professions…we wish for them, and the communities in which they will live and serve, engaged lives. In order to create this type of school, we want as an institution to focus on things greater than ourselves, so that our students will become people who live lives of contribution, meaning, and impact. Our partnership represents a new answer to meet an old need. Our city has always needed people ready to listen and to learn, ready to serve.] 

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January 29, 2016
Contact: Sarah Cowan
St. George’s Independent School
901-261-2390 / cell: 901-494-4777 / scowan@sgis.org

St. George’s and Serve901 Forge Unique Partnership Affiliation Provides Shared Space and Programming

Memphis, TN — St. George’s Independent School and City Leadership today announced an exclusive joint partnership to support service learning and community engagement in Memphis through collaboration with the Choose901campaign and Serve901 program. While the partnership is multi-faceted, the most visible aspect of the relationship will be newly renovated shared space at 815 N. Mclean Blvd. in the Vollintine/Evergreen neighborhood.

Named the “St. George’s/Serve901 Bunkhouse,” the facility will include bunks for more than 100 people, as well as common areas. For Serve901, a program that curates service experiences with college students to understand and serve Memphis and logged 7248 volunteer hours from 434 participants in 2015, the space will enable program growth. St. George’s constituents will be able to use the facility for a variety of purposes including alumni events, meetings, or class, club or team retreats.

“Both Serve901 and St. George’s need a place like the Bunkhouse, but neither organization would use it every day of the year. Creating this space together and sharing it is such a great investment of maximizing resources,” noted John Carroll, Executive Director of City Leadership.

Equally significant, the affiliation will include a four-year programming partnership in which Serve901 staff will collaborate with SGIS faculty and students to create outstanding year-round learning experiences, from summer camps to “deep dive” leadership opportunities for middle and upper school students.

“The partnership between St. George’s and Serve901 is a natural fit all around. With a long track record of being focused on things greater than ourselves alone and a commitment to preparing our students for college and life, we look forward to broadening our efforts to provide compelling service and leadership experiences for our students,” said Ross Peters, St. George’s Head of School. “Our collaboration with Serve901 is a manifestation of our desire to serve our students by showing them how they might serve our city.”

About St. George’s Independent School

St. George’s Independent School is a college preparatory school in the Episcopal tradition of education that is dedicated to the pursuit of excellence, preparing students for a life of learning and meaningful contribution in an inclusive learning community that nurtures outstanding academic achievement, relationships, leadership, and character reinforced by Judeo-Christian values.

About City Leadership
City Leadership exists to recruit, develop, & catalyze leaders for the benefit of the city of Memphis. City Leadership was founded in 2008 in order to maximize the leadership capital and potential of Memphis.

About Serve901
Serve901 curates service experiences with college students to understand and serve with Memphis.



When Most of the Snow Skips Over Your Snow Day Town

Eleanor and Middle School Friends Make the Demand for a Snow Day
It was the sure thing. 3 -5 inches. High winds. Treacherous conditions. Dire travel warnings.
By mid-morning on Thursday, it already seemed to be a foregone conclusion that Memphis would be paralyzed in blizzard-like conditions by Friday morning. I was attending the Memphis Area Independent Schools (MAIS) Heads Retreat downtown, and much of the discussion before our meeting even began was not as much about whether we would announce a Friday Snow Day for our respective schools but when we would announce it. During a break in the meeting I texted our Director of Communications at St. George’s Independent School regarding an idea I had about how we might announce the Snow Day even though I was not yet 100% certain I would need to cancel for Friday. The result of that text is the brief video above, which we posted about 5:00 p.m. At this writing, it has close to 4,000 views—-shocking!

By early Thursday evening virtually everything for Friday was cancelled in Memphis–schools and businesses.

IMG_2153We awoke Friday morning to barely enough snow to support tentative sledding on area golf courses. Snow ball battles might be intense, but they would be short in duration. Eleanor and I cleaned off the car in five minutes and a couple of those were dominated by Eleanor writing her name in lovely script on the hood. The roads were mostly clear. The air was still.

Suddenly the call to announce a snow day seemed a little funny. Was it just hype that caused me and my independent school colleagues to call it all off? Heads of Schools, I have found, can have a bit of a chip on our shoulders about snow days. One secret fear is that we might go it alone and call off school when our other school friends hold off and later we would find to our horror there is only bright sunshine and mild temperatures welcoming the new day. The counter-balancing fear is that we would be responsible for getting the entire community to school in the morning and then be unable to get them home when the weather deteriorates.

As I reflect on the last couple of days, I am happily reconciled to our Snow Day even though there was not a Memphis version of a Snowpocalypse (I was in Atlanta in 2014). Under the threat of foul Winter weather, there was a sense of energy and fun around school on Thursday afternoon. The often not so subtle lobbying of key administrators by students and faculty alike became a post lunchtime refrain. …And once the announcement was made, I was reminded through the excitement of my daughter (who, along with her classmates in the video, had been sworn to secrecy after the filming) just how big a deal a well-timed snow day and thus break from routine can be. All that said, rarity is the key ingredient that makes a Snow Day great.

Last bit of Snow Saturday afternoon
Last bit of Snow Saturday afternoon

Martin Luther King Chapel 2016–The Present and Future are Ours to Make

Martin Luther King speaks at the Mason Temple in Memphis April3, 1968
Martin Luther King speaks at the Mason Temple in Memphis April 3, 1968

[This morning I gave a reflection as part of our Martin Luther King Chapel for grades 6 – 12 at St. George’s Independent School in Memphis. It will stand as one of my favorite memories of this year. From the opening of a student singing Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” (he nailed it!) to the choir beautifully singing a spiritual, it was a lovely service. With a daughter in the sixth grade, I kept thinking about how important it is for her and all of our students to be part of  a community that values coming together in this way on this day. My comments from chapel are below.] 

Good Morning!

A photograph, a certain kind of very rare photograph, can come to stand for a period of history. It can somehow capture a moment larger than the scene depicted in the frame itself, and most relevant to my comments this morning, it can make the past feel present, immediate, relevant. Screen Shot 2016-01-13 at 8.38.02 PM The foggy brown and black and gray frames of Civil War dead after the Battle of Gettysburg, Screen Shot 2016-01-13 at 8.57.54 PM the inferno of the USS Arizona as it tilted into the shallow water of Pearl Harbor, and Screen Shot 2016-01-13 at 8.38.46 PM the Naval seaman kissing the nurse in Times Square on VE Day 1945 are each photographs that take us right up to the edge of the past—a place where we can feel strong emotions and yet be completely powerless to affect any influence. A more recent photograph that holds a similar poignancy for me is an image of the body of a young boy, a three-year old Syrian refugee washed up on a Turkish beach after drowning in a perilous and desperate attempt to escape his war torn country with his parents—his name, it turns out, was Alan. No amount of sadness or concern now can help Alan—we are powerless to provide him comfort or aid. To be honest with you, I did not include this image this morning because as a parent, as someone who has dedicated my professional life to young people, I couldn’t bring myself to show it. It is heartbreaking.

I was born on the fifty-yard line of the 1960s, and that decade has a large number of powerful images associated with it. I have picked out images that I find particularly striking— Screen Shot 2016-01-13 at 8.34.41 PM the image of Jacklyn Kennedy, still in shock and standing beside Lyndon Johnson as he took the oath of office on Air Force One on the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Screen Shot 2016-01-13 at 8.36.08 PM John-John Kennedy saluting as his father’s casket is drawn toward Arlington Cemetery after the assassination of President Kennedy,Screen Shot 2016-01-13 at 8.39.58 PM The Beatles, just arrived in the US for the first time, stepping up to the mic on The Ed Sullivan ShowScreen Shot 2016-01-13 at 8.32.33 PM Bob Dylan, fresh from going electric for the first time, making a controversial tour of England, Screen Shot 2016-01-13 at 9.08.02 PM marchers bravely and peacefully marching toward a violent reception over the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama, Screen Shot 2016-01-13 at 8.31.45 PM a young woman silently calling for peace during the troubled years of the Vietnam war by pushing a daisy down the barrel of a soldier’s gun. Photographs like these have the power to make the past immediate, to make it present again, and in so doing they act like a computer compression file holding more than their surface alone portrays.

1968 was arguably the crucible year in a crucible decade, for it was when many things occurred that led the country to pull hard at its seams—and photographs bring the intensity, and often the anguish, of that year to life. There are far too many to choose from, so I will just include two— Screen Shot 2016-01-13 at 8.41.30 PM American Sprinters and members of the Black Panthers, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, raising black gloved fists during the medal ceremony at the 1968 Summer Olympic Games, Screen Shot 2016-01-14 at 3.44.33 PM Marines carry a wounded comrade out of the Citadel in the bloody aftermath of January’s Tet Offensive. There were other traumatic events that year—the assassination of Robert Kennedy and the subsequent Democratic National Convention, for instance, come immediately to mind. Photographers caught both of those moments in photographic images as well.
Screen Shot 2016-01-13 at 8.45.16 PM
However, no images from 1968 pack more cultural impact behind their shiny surface, than two from a cloudy April day in 1968 on the second floor balcony of the Lorraine Hotel here in Memphis. The first shows a group of men gathered casually outside. On its own it may seem to be a forgettable moment, if not for the photograph taken only moments later. The wrenching power of this before photograph juxtaposed with the after photograph awakens us to the tragedy of Dr. King’s assassination as if it occurred only yesterday. We glimpse that last moment before a single act of violence changed the course of history. Screen Shot 2016-01-13 at 8.44.48 PM And we see the immediate aftermath—the now stilled and silenced body of Dr. King at the feet of men pointing in the direction from which the shot came before the full impact could have possibly set up in them regarding who and what had just been lost. They are not cowering in the after photograph—they are bravely assertive, as we witness them at the final moment between when Dr. King’s death occurred and their mourning, and the mourning of the nation, began.

We are powerless when we view these photographs—indeed we are brought up to the edge of history, but we can go no further. The before photograph reveals that we are caught in a painful dramatic irony, for we know what is coming before it occurs, before the actors know themselves, and yet we can not change the course of the narrative. We wish to warn Dr. King on the balcony, but we cannot. And so we feel the loss as if new, the experience of his death is present in us even though only a handful of us were actually alive when it happened.

There is an intriguing message for us in all this, I believe, and it is wonderfully relevant to the life we recognize and celebrate on Monday. It is this: Dr. King’s various and ranging messages regarding race, justice, oppression, war, and poverty are each grounded in a belief, intertwined with his remarkable faith, that we can affect the world around us, we can make the world a better, more just, more peaceful place for all, but there is much work ahead.

Too often, I believe, we think of the world as it is now and as it might be in the future the same way we think of an historical photograph—as something we can not affect. That is absolutely not true. One of the central messages of Dr. King’s legacy is that we are only powerless to change the past. The present and future are ours to make and that our obligation is to work faithfully for a better world for all.

Screen Shot 2016-01-13 at 9.14.03 PMThe final photograph on the screen now is of Dr. King speaking at the Mason Temple on April 3, 1968. He gave a long reflection that evening. Not having planned on being there that night perhaps made him particularly ruminative, and his thinking flowed to his own mortality. The following day he was assassinated. I will finish with the end of that final speech and his call of encouragement and hope not for himself, but for those present with him. When you hear it, remember the scripture from today’s service as Dr. King creates a parallel between his role and the role of Moses leading his people to the Promised Land.

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live – a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.[1]”