The Cadet Chapel, The Episcopal Diocese of West TN, and SGIS

United States Air Force Academy Chapel
United States Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel (photograph by J. Ross Peters)

On Monday the Diocese of West Tennessee and St. George’s Independent School (SGIS) announced their renewed partnership. Below I have copied the letter to the Diocese from The Right. Rev. Don E.  Johnson, Bishop of West Tennessee, as well as my letter to the SGIS community. As I was drafting my letter I found myself reflecting on our family’s visit to the United Stated Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel in Colorado Springs a few years ago. The connection in my mind between the Cadet Chapel and our relationship with the Episcopal Church is partly circumstantial–it was three summers ago that we visited my sister and brother in law, as well as their three children in Colorado Springs where my brother in law served as the Air Force Band Commander, and while enjoying new summertime adventures I often look back on past ones. However, there is more to the connection as well…

The Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel is a stunning space. Unmistakeable as a place of worship, it does not look like any other place of worship I have seen or heard of in the world. Bathed in blue light, the sanctuary calms and centers its visitors, as well, I am certain, as the generations of cadets who have sought solace there. One reason my thoughts drifted back to it is that I realize I wish for our students a similar spiritual solace and comfort in the face of challenge that the Cadet Chapel provides. The world we ask young people to enter is difficult; it is confounding; it is often disappointing. The world we ask young people to enter has always been so. The world we ask young people to enter today seems particularly torn and frayed. What we strive to give our students at SGIS–regardless of where they find themselves on their spiritual journeys–is both the comfort that faith can offer, as well as the challenge it provides to live lives of service to others grounded within faith in something greater than themselves alone. The Cadet Chapel sends this message.

United States Air Force Academy
United States Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel (photograph by J. Ross Peters)

In architectural form it communicates the priorities that I believe should accompany our school’s work as an Episcopal School. By design and function it welcomes people of all faith backgrounds–it embodies the idea that all of us are children of God. For all the community, national, and world problems that await the next generation of students, they will also enter a world rife with opportunity–opportunity to contribute, to design, to make, to serve, and to lead. In order to take on the roles we wish for them as adults, I hope our school can help them grasp both the comfort and challenge of faith.

United States Air Force Academy Chapel
United States Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel (photograph by J. Ross Peters)

 

Letter to the SGIS Community
Letter to the SGIS Community

 

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Letter from The Rgt. Rev. Don E. Johnson, Bishop of West Tennessee
Letter from The Rgt. Rev. Don E. Johnson, Bishop of West Tennessee

The Adult’s Challenge after the Tragedy in Orlando

From CNN.COM June 6, 2016
From CNN.COM June 6, 2016

Last November I wrote a piece the morning after the Paris terrorist attack. (I have copied it below). Much of what I wrote seems sadly relevant to the Orlando attack at the Pulse Night Club where there were forty-nine victim mortalities and even more injuries, many critical. This latest attack is just that…the latest attack.  Even though it has its own very specific context—in Orlando, at a Gay Nightclub, a single attacker—it seems to be not only identified by its specific details and scale, but by the fact that it is the most recent. There is a growing resignation and accompanying corrosive angst that the next incident of mass murder is inevitable and not that far in the future. That combination—resignation and angst—does not serve us well. It diminishes us. As parents and as adults in the lives of young people we should rise to the challenge of being the thoughtful people our children most need us to be in this moment of disquieting uncertainty at home and abroad. As our nation and the world seems to be pulling at its seams, we need to pull young people to us and into conversation.

My work is as an educator, specifically a school head, and my worry today regards the anxiety we pass to our children even without an awareness that we are doing so. Rather than having conversation with young people about what has occurred in Orlando or in Charleston or in Paris or San Bernardino, we too often move on without the reflection such moments should prompt.

“I wonder if this makes us vulnerable to a sort of national depression, borne from under-sharing what we should share, ironically in a time when oversharing the mundane and unnecessarily intimate is increasingly normative.”

Generally, there are two mistakes that families are likely to make with children when something as truly terrible as the Pulse Nightclub attack occurs. First, the news media shares such graphic imagery that we pull our children out of the way of it and thus do nothing to share with them at all. Each time we do this, the weight of our perceived loss of control over national and world events gets a bit heavier and consequently, the young among us carry an increasing share of the weight as well. Second, and perhaps even worse, we give our children too much access to graphic media, and we do not create avenues for them to process what they see and hear.  Either mistake we are likely to make–providing too little or too much access to media regarding such tragedy– leads to the same problem, that is, without discussion, there is nothing to break the tension created by what has happened. I wonder if this makes us vulnerable to a sort of national depression, borne from under-sharing what we should share, ironically in a time when oversharing the mundane and unnecessarily intimate is increasingly normative. We fail to talk about what is important, and talk incessantly about the things that are not.

For those who may be looking for additional resources for parents and/or teachers, please check out the following:

FROM my November 14, 2015 Post “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.

[I wrote about the 2005 terrorist attacks in London in a post entitled, 21 July 2005: Cambridge, King’s Cross, The British Library, Tavistock Square, The British Museum, and the Long Cab Ride“]

St. George’s Non-Negotiables: Not Experiments

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Experimentation exists at the center of great learning experiences–it is inextricable from them. Students must learn to experiment—to try various approaches in order to discover what will work best. Importantly, an experiment is something a person or group DOES, not something a person or group IS. So while at St. George’s our students do many experiments, and as a school we pilot a number of ideas designed to discern the best way to serve our students and community, the school, including all its essential parts, is not an experiment.

In the headline of an article printed on-line on Friday and in a special report section on Sunday, The Commercial Appeal calls St. George’s three campus model an “experiment.” (The story was also picked up by USAToday.) The use of this word is, I am certain, well-intended, but it is inaccurate in describing our community in that it potentially makes what happens on the Kimball Avenue Memphis Campus (PK-5) and continues on our Collierville Campus (6-12) seem like something we do at St. George’s rather than something we are. To be clear, each of our three campuses–Germantown (PK-5), Memphis, and Collierville–is essential to St. George’s. Each is a part of a larger body. There is mutuality in the relationship of each campus, and all members of our community benefit from relationships with those from backgrounds different from their own.

Several years ago I started writing about an idea regarding how we should conceptualize the work of great schools operating in a quickly and dramatically changing world. I call this idea “Progress Culture.” A Progress Culture is able to name what should never change within it—what are its non-negotiable parts. Additionally, a Progress Culture is bold enough to ask hard questions about why we do what we do in the context of the specific strategic vision of the school, and it is resolute in building the answers to those questions into the fabric of the school even when they require arduous paths forward.

I believe our non-negotiables are:

  • St. George’s mission statement: 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.
  • Our devotion to our three campus model. Inherent within this model is the belief in the mutual benefit of bringing together students from all over the Memphis area—from over fifty zip codes and from the same wide economic and racial diversity that reflects our larger community.
  • Our commitment to the tenets of an Episcopal education:  centered in a belief that every child is a child of God and that a balance between faith and reason should be critical in the education we seek for our students. This belief is at the core of our work and makes serving students in the best way possible the alpha and omega of any conversation.
  • High standards for academic achievement, as well as school community engagement. Our collaborative learning environment is built around a belief that 2016 Salutatorian Sydney Lanyon captured in her commencement address by quoting this African proverb: “If you want to go quickly go alone; if you want to go far go together.”
  • Learning about and serving our city and area. At St. George’s we believe that the education we provide is not just for the person receiving it but for the communities and professions in which he or she will serve and lead. Their path toward playing such a role as adults begins when they are with us. In a blog entry I entitled, “Ready to be Part of What’s Next in Memphis”, I wrote, “if we want our students to become civically engaged, community leaders as adults, our schools must be civically engaged. We must demonstrate as institutions the skills and priorities we want our students to learn within our curriculum and extra curriculum.”

What is negotiable are the means by which we strive to live toward fulfillment of the non-negotiables. I am particularly interested in how piloting ideas can drive us toward better fulfillment of the non-negotiables. (I have written extensively on this blog about this topic HERE). Pilots are institutional experiments. A pilot program’s success is less defined by whether or not it is something we would replicate exactly in the future than it is by the extent to which we learn ways to improve our work in one of the non-negotiable buckets from it. For example, this summer beginning today actually is a three-week summer pilot course called, “Amplify Memphis.” Taught by Associate Head of School Will Bladt, Director of the Institute for Citizenship Jason Hills, and Giving Strategist for City Leadership Justin Miller, the course will immerse students in their city. (You will be able to follow the course blog HERE). It is a result of our desire to “learn about and serve our city and area.” Please see the course description and essential questions below:

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I am certain students will have a great experience in this unique course this summer, but I am equally certain that the course will not be exactly the same next year. The teachers who lead and the students who participate in the course are pioneers and experimenters. We will learn a great deal from their experience that will help us refine the idea, reinvent it, or even perhaps abandon it for something stronger next time. This is how we learn. This pilot is a form of experimentation. Please note, however, nothing that happens in the course will change the fact that “learning about and serving our city and area” is a non-negotiable aspect of our identity as a school.

The example of the Amplify Memphis experimental/pilot course paired with the non-negotiable “learning about and serving our city and area” illustrates the difference between an experiment and identity. Because what The Commercial Appeal‘s headline indicates is an experiment is as essential to St. George’s DNA as any other non-negotiable component of our identity, a different headline would have better captured the full significance of St. George’s bold three campus story.

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To hear about the St. George’s experience from members of the Class of 2016, follow these links:

To learn about our unprecedented partnership with City Leadership and Serve901 through the new St. George’s Bunkhouse, follow this link:

To keep track of the good work taking pace at St. George’s, follow these links:

(#2 of 2) Straight From Class of 2016 Mouths: Commencement

Valedictorian Sope Adeleye and Salutatorian Sydney Lanyon at Baccalaureate
Valedictorian Sope Adeleye and Salutatorian Sydney Lanyon at Baccalaureate

[Late on Sunday afternoon, May 22nd, members of the Class of 2016 at St. George’s Independent  School walked across the stage, shook a couple of hands, and received their diplomas. Both the Baccalaureate Service and Commencement Ceremony ceremonies were lovely. There were a total of four student addresses–two at Baccalaureate and two at Commencement, and each was excellent. In this post I have pulled excerpts from the two Commencement Addresses–in the last post I included excerpts from the Baccalaureate Addresses. I have posted my own address from Commencement HEREBelow the excerpts, I have included St. George’s “Portrait of a Graduate”.

As I re-read each talk, I was struck by two things: first, the families, faculty, and staff of St. George’s should feel proud of the school’s newest graduates, as well as proud of the supportive role they played for the class, and second, it will be our work going forward to deserve such praise fully. Their ability to capture the meaning of the St. George’s experience they have had was particularly impressive, and interestingly they were able to put into words so much that is directly relevant to our highest aspirations for the education we wish to provide.]

FROM COMMENCEMENT:

Sydney Lanyon (Salutatorian):

Yes, St. George’s is a school; it is a building with classrooms and teachers where, after your time is finished, you receive a diploma and go on your way. After all, that’s what brings us all here today. So, yes, St. George’s is a school, but what it teaches isn’t just school…there is math, science, English, and history, but I can confidently and proudly say that these are actually insignificant in comparison to the other lessons St. George’s has taught me.

St. George’s teaches compassion, the importance of perseverance, accepting your mistakes, and doing your best to correct them, treasuring your relationships, and cherishing your time, making other people happy–knowing that is how personal happiness is attained, being selfless, trusting and relying on God, and knowing that while faith is mighty, action with faith is mightier. St. George’s teaches smiling even when things aren’t going the way you’d like for them.

St. George’s teaches to put away your worries and fears and deciding not to let them hold you back, to throw away the store-bought and spoon-fed guidelines in order to make our own paths and experience a life we think worth living.

St. George’s teaches that happiness depends more on our character than our circumstances. St. George’s gives you the freedom to learn, the freedom to be yourself.

St. George’s teaches you in different ways and allows you to take the lesson in your personal direction.

I want to read y’all a quotation that I think reads true to what St. George’s is all about: “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” [African Proverb]

I believe that there are few institutions as successful as this school in solidifying young people’s sense of themselves with such integrity, positivity, and resourcefulness.

Sope Adeleye (Valedictorian):

I have realized that going to this school has led me on a path that has allowed me to learn things I never thought I would learn, grow more than I ever would have expected, and experience things I never could have imagined.

…I learned the lesson that here on our path at St. George’s what we expected and what we experienced rarely matched because this place and the people of St. George’s almost always exceeded our expectations.

Mom and Dad, choosing to send me to St. George’s is the second best thing you have ever done for me other than teaching me to love God above everything else, and there is no way I can repay you for it.

Finally, I want to thank the Class of 2016 because you all have made my time at St. George’s life-changing. So now I want everyone to take just a moment to look around and take it all in because this is it. This is the last time we will be all together, like this as one class, and remember that there was a point where two roads diverged in a wood, and we, the Class of 2016, took the one with St. George’s and that has made all the difference.

Portrait of a Graduate:

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