Category Archives: sage reflections

When Safety is Dangerous…

If you were to ask a set of parents why they chose one school over another (in this valley or beyond), the lists of rational reasons would probably start flying. One school is better at this thing that is important, the academics are better, the math program, etc etc. However, I don’t think this to be true in most instances. I am more inclined to believe Seth Godin, who says: No one is here for the product. They are here for the story and the way believing it makes them feel. We are driven by deep underlying emotions that guide our behavior much more than any list of reasons we may categorize after-the-fact.

There are a few emotions that I think drive a lot of educational decisions (and probably much more than just educational ones): Safety; Prestige; Social Currency; Achievement. When I hear parents telling me why they send their kid to this school or that, I can often hear through their words down to one of these (and there may be others) driving forces. These are the things I am trying to pay more attention to.

Some people don’t consider The Sage School because they feel it might not be the ‘safest’ choice. They don’t doubt the safety of their children here, rather that our approach is different than their own education, and they fear that might hold their children back. However, that ‘safety’ comes at profound costs that we, often, willingly overlook. Our kids may be disengaged- they may learn to cheat the system- they may be slowly learning to hate learning or to let their curiosity die- they may be carrying some level of depression or anxiety. Or they could be doing well by all traditional measures- but they are following a prescribed path that doesn’t help them unfurl their best selves. They may actually sell some of their potential futures away for the safety and security of that ‘A’. They may not be developing a rich enough skill set to face the challenges of their lives and of the future. And yet, we let that ride in the name of safety.

At Sage, we believe that education needs to change. We believe we can do better by our kids. We believe that kids can know better- know themselves better, know their environment better, and know their community better. But, we have to be willing to take that risk, that leap. At a parent meeting last night, a parent of a senior, who has been with us since 6th grade, recently came to the realization that she couldn’t possibly have envisioned the entire growth path her child has engaged in. As a family, they are thrilled that they made the leap and feel incredibly lucky to be part of the school. We’re here because of the story behind it and the way believing it makes us feel. Yes, Seth Godin, you are right. And we should look for bigger, bolder feelings to be pursuing with our kids. Be Bold. Take the Leap. Know Better. Your child’s future depends on it…

-Chris McAvoy

Challenging Assumptions

Recently, I had the chance to spend eight days living on a boat. I grew up in Idaho and saw Jaws way too young to be comfortable on the ocean, so when our captain, my father-in-law, told the crew, my family, to watch a series of safety and preparation videos, I did. Not being nautical, these videos were new to me, and they appeared to be fairly comprehensive. I was taught about everything from different styles of anchoring, to the importance of GPS in navigation and emergencies, to how and why to conserve water on the boat.

The lessons were both redundant and also repetitive- the teaching methodology that underscores the importance of the material. All of the material was also covered in person when we got on the boat, by multiple individuals. Four different people walked us through navigational regulations, all of the charts, weather conditions, and available options for anchoring in the islands we would visit, the mechanical systems, and an inventory of everything on the boat. This took all of one day and required returning the next.

Now, flash forward to the end of our trip. Here were three problems we encountered. First, our anchor winch consistently jammed, with the immediate challenge being an inability to bring up the anchor, and the ancillary and much worse problem being that if you did not catch the jammed winch in time, the anchor chain fell off the winch, at which point 180 meters of chain streamed out to the ocean floor in a terrifying half minute. Second, our primary freshwater tank ran to empty, causing the water pump to shut down, meaning we could not use our back up water supply. Third, the depth finder died and we lost the electronic ability to determine water depth.

Here is how we solved each of the above problems (and editorial information about each of them). The anchor. In the compartment next to the anchor was a “window”- an opening that allowed someone to push chain back as it came in, thereby alleviating any jamming. (We were never told this or shown it, but rather discovered this as we navigated our various anchor problems.) The water pump. We were able to fill up the empty tank with an onboard water maker, at which point my wife turned the water pump on and off multiple times until it started working. (No one told us we should not let the main tank run dry or that a possible solution was the on/off switch.) The depth finder. The depth finder was a blown fuse and mechanical issue that had to be repaired by a specialist with special parts in a harbor, which we were able to do. (No one ever suggested a possible solution to this problem was the huge roll of charts we got. Nautical charts meticulously detail islands and their surroundings and are specifically based on depth. These charts were first produced in the 1500s and have been increasingly improved and refined since then.)

This extended story is, of course, an analogy about education. We assume that what we know and get in education is valuable, that the topics, content, and methods are essential. The longer we do a certain thing, the more habit dictates that what we are doing is right. Our current education system is presented urgently, incessantly, and compulsorily. And then, it competes with our experience in the field, in life, which provides at least two invaluable perspectives: 1. Experience shows us what we actually need, and 2. Experience gives us knowledge and weds it to understanding; in short, we are not just taught something, we learn it.

My boating safety orientation highlighted that we are often taught what is considered essential, only to learn it is not what we need. The voyage demonstrated the power and immediacy of the right kind of experience, and showed how easily we overlook or disregard ancient knowledge in favor of the new. And one final example highlighted something else.

There is piece of equipment called a bridle that is attached to the anchor. It is attached by a cylindrical bolt-like screw with a broad, flat head. This head is perfect for a pair of flathead pliers, which are almost necessary as this screw is cranked down, invariably wet and slippery, and, because it is attached to the anchor of an undulating boat, it is always very tight. Originally, our toolbox had no flathead pliers, just two wire cutters.

Many types of education use the same language. Unfortunately, this sea of similarity masks critical and important differences. The Sage School is a school. It is education. But it is an education designed to challenge the assumptions of our current system. It is based on ancient truths, on the importance of the type and quality of experiences students have, and, ultimately, on giving students the right tools to navigate a complex and dynamic world with confidence.

-Harry Weekes

The Real World- Part II

Reading Harry’s piece last week on the lies we tell our kids about the real world has really stuck with me. I keep coming back to it as I pass through my week. There is something powerfully haunting about the narratives we tell our children and how they linger- how they infiltrate the children’s minds- how they build the realities for that child and for all of our children.

A certain conversation I had with a child in the past few weeks keeps coming back to me again and again. It was a young student- a 5th grade child considering whether or not to attend Sage. In my interview at the end of the day, the child was reviewing the day, the possibilities, and the realities of schooling. “Well, I don’t really like the focus on testing that other schools seem to have- I like all the projects and hands-on learning that you do here. It was super-fun. But I am going to have to learn about testing someday, so I might as well do it now.”

First of all, whose words does this child utter? At they ripe old age of 10, they have learned to parrot these words as reality. They may be the words of their parents, their teachers, or our larger society. And yet, the child is, fairly joyfully, constructing their world in this image. Why should any 10 year old really commit him or herself along such lines? Why do we let our fears dominate this child’s life and create their future? At what cost?

I discussed with this child (but clearly needed to discuss with their parents and with others in the child’s life) why our school stands as a living testimony against this reality. There is no doubt that the SAT’s are gatekeepers, but they are the better part of a decade away- nearly this child’s whole life path needs to be redoubled still lay ahead. Why not asking the nursing mother- how will that ‘nursing stuff’ ultimately prepare your child for the test? We so often miss children’s current realities and growth potentials in life, because we are preparing them for the test. Crawling is not merely ‘walking-prep’. It is crawling, and we let them crawl. It is a sad story fraught with poor logic, but logic we gladly keep retelling and recasting as real. And more children will fall prey.

To be sure, our kids at Sage will be prepared for the tests. But their path to that reality is filled with enthusiasm, joy, excitement, diving in to topics, exploring our community, and learning how to live. Our reality is that our kids are succeeding. If they leave us to go to the ‘traditional’ education world, and its testing, they end up on honor rolls. When they graduate and enter college, they enter prepared on many levels. They succeed. Our reality can meet theirs- gloriously and in its own time.

I couldn’t help but feel the weight of the world on this 10 year old. They had constructed their reality, with a lot of help from others. And they are surrounded by people who keep perpetuating the story as fact despite the world of evidence we could present. Their reality trumps. Their reality boxes, defines, creates, and is the dominant ‘reality’. It wins. Ultimately, though, it misses so much of what this child could become in favor of the fear of missing out on a low-level skill. We can do better. In this reality and that one. Let’s not keep sacrificing kids on its altar.

Chris McAvoy

‘The Real World’ And Other Lies We Tell Our Kids

There is something about the weather that is bugging me. It is neither the six feet of snow we received in February nor global reports of wonky weather, although it is more closely linked to the latter. What has been bothering me is the separation between weather and climate and how people keep going out of their way to say that the weather and climate are different. I could literally go down this rabbit hole for the length of this piece, which is not the point in a blog about education. My intention is to make an analogy between how we talk about things, and how we create and maintain these false separations to the point where we either believe the separations exist, act like the separations are how the world should work, or, most dangerously, both.

Climate is weather over time. Yep, they are different, but they are inextricably linked. The analogy is to this phrase we often hear in education- “The Real World.” And we hear this in many different ways, from the questioning of students, “When am I going to use this in the real world?”, to the scolding of teachers, “You won’t be able to do that in the real world”, to the global goal of education, “To prepare students for the real world.” Most often, the real world and education are set up as opposed, as not related. On one hand, this is utterly bizarre to me- as though we could actually create a fake world in which people lived. No matter what, you are in a real world, even if it is virtual. Another rabbit hole.

There is something otherworldly about education, today, though. Or rather, there are many, many things. By way of thought experiment, imagine you were an extraterrestrial visitor coming to a high school with your sole scientific task to determine what was valuable to an adult human based on how we treated and taught our children. It is impossible to have the emotional remove of this ET, and equally impossible not to force connections- “Oh, of course you learned about all of the Chinese Dynasties, and photosynthesis, and the conjugation of the past tenses of Spanish verbs- this is important.” Um, no.

In fact, something even more peculiar has happened which was just pointed out to me. Our education system is actually set up not to be like our adult world so much so that any education that works to be more like that adult world is foreign and should be resisted. If you do not believe me, try this experiment at your next party. Tell anyone who will listen you are going to start a school, a preparatory academy that is really going to get students ready for the real world. All students will have to work in a business and run its books, keeping it solvent over the length of their time at school. They will work like architects and engineers of the human condition, understanding what makes themselves tick, the relevance of body language, and the importance of empathy and compassion. These will not be mere add ons to their curriculum, but the curriculum itself. English will be communication, and math will be numeracy and financial literacy, and you will always abide by one rule- for every math class a student takes, they have to take at least four on relationships, in love, and emotion, and ethics. And, if the idea of a class on love does not choke your audience, tell them this- you will not ever have a single kid look at a Standardized Test.

Folks, you will have precisely three students at your school, because despite the fact that adults live in a world almost completely unrelated to what happens in most schools, we somehow seem bent on perpetuating this system, content, at some level, knowing that we choose students based on how they answer this question: “The equation 24×2+25x−47ax−2=−8x−3−53ax−2 is true for all values of x≠2a, where a is a constant. What is the value of a?”

At this point in your conversation, you might hear a polite cough, then, “How about that weather?”

Harry Weekes

Community and Connection

We just got back from our Winter Ecology Field Study at Camp Perkins, up near Stanley, ID. The goals of this field study are wide ranging. Groups of students learn snow science, avalanche safety, winter adaptation of animals, and winter tracking of animals, among other skills. The objectives of the trip, however, are much broader than the winter ecology topics we dive into.

The “Perkins Trip”, as we call it, falls at the end of our second trimester and often at a time when the fabric of our community seem to start to fray a bit. It tends to be that time in the middle of the winter when some students start to say to each other : “Just leave me alone”. Rather than ‘grinning and bearing it’ or simply ignoring it, we see this as a time to lean in, a time to actively expend some effort constructing our community culture.

This community construction takes the form of things ranging from game nights and a student run dance to mixing the ages in rooms for some new possibilities of relationships. A dance where, mind you, that because we are on a winter trip near Stanley, takes the form of students dancing in long johns and down puffy pants. A dance attended by 6th through 12th graders- by the entire student body, in fact. A dance where a 6th grader and 12th grader can have an active dance off, and frequently do. A dance that is a student driven event the buoys everyone’s mood, and is not about what you wore and if anyone asked you to dance. It is about being a kid- a teen- joyfully and with intention.

This construction also takes the form of deeper conversations led by our teachers. Like the one we had with our seniors about the importance of vulnerability within a community as a tool to allow connection and understanding with your peers. Even as seniors, they learn and grow emotionally. It is also like the conversation that the 8/9 had on how they are relating to each other- and each of the other bands taking the time to pay attention to their dynamics as part of the curriculum.

Connection and understanding are major factors of why we find it is so important to constantly and actively cultivate a sense of community at our school. Many of us can remember back to a time during our adolescence when we felt disconnected- whether that be from family, friends, or school groups. Connection to community and friends is key for our development of a sense of self and self worth. So we put in the time with our student to have the fun needed to create connection by playing games, telling jokes, and allowing space for them to be with each other. We also put in the deep work of asking the tricky questions, exploring group dynamics, and upholding community norms.

All of this creates the atmosphere of our students feeling connected to the Sage Community and their friend group beyond. As one of our Alumni Devon noted at a recent alumni event about what Sage taught her about community: “I learned how to connect to a variety of age groups- from kids to adults, we can manage relationships with all of them.”

We can tell you all of this, or we can tell you what the kids said at the end of their week together, and let them speak on our behalf. We can cite the11th grader saying that the best part of Sage is “walking down the hall and knowing you have something to say to everybody who walks by- from 6th grade to teachers” or to the 10th grader who recently spoke to the school board on behalf of Sage, saying “because of what we learn at Sage, we have the skills and ready to lead the next generation” or a 9th grader who says that she is learning “to be a better person and build a better world.” Ultimately, it may rest in the several students who simply said they are “excited to go to school every day”.

These are lifelong skills, but ones that need to be actively taught and reinforced. We tackle that process because we know the power of students having the ability to be an active and constructive member of their community when they head on to their next steps in life. And, it also makes today’s journey for them that much more enjoyable and meaningful.

Nathan Twichell

Student Voices

This week had a few events come to pass which coalesced around the theme of student voices. It started last Friday at our creativity workshop presentations, which were especially impressive. Watching Molly Kucher put together a 12 foot long “poster presentation” on the history of Nike sports advertising while Angus Gilbert dressed in full fireman gear in order to display his learnings under the tutelage of SVFD provided some intriguing visuals and reminders of the broad spread of interests our students will pursue when given the time and space. There were several ski videos, a goofy presentation of a ‘project runway’ class, a group of singers, and many other reminders of the creative talent of these youngsters. The day ended with the seniors discussing their plans for their Independent Trimesters- a full culmination of all of these skills and interests together.

Then, I received final copies of a set of videos that an alum, Travis Wilkinson put together as You-tube style advertisements for the school. They contain the views from the student perspective, teacher voices, the founding story, and the journey of adolescence itself. They are about a minute long and will soon be loaded onto our website. More than that, they represent the power of a student who spent 7 years with us crafting his ability to communicate and create. They also represent the capacity of our students to sift through a pile of complex information and choose what is important and what is irrelevant. The ability to find and communicate the essence is a golden trait, and these videos are living proof that skill is being practiced here at Sage.

Finally, we had several of our students speak at the Blaine County School District Board meeting about the dual enrollment policy. This was, perhaps, the most impressive of the 3 examples of ‘student voices’ this week. Students were upset at the new policy. They asked what they could do, and I said they should speak at the board meeting. I met with a few that were planning to do so after school for 5 minutes to talk about decorum and about how the process will work. Then, on their own, and quite impressively, 10 individual students showed up at the board meeting and 5 of them chose to file for their right to speak their minds. They spoke of passion, of commitment, of community, of justice, of opportunities, of personal growth, of standards, of friendships, of shared identities, of common goals, of their hope for future generations and their hope for themselves, and of the hope for solutions that bring people together. They could have just complained and done nothing. They could have name-called and whined. Instead, they saw the full impact of these decisions and how best to communicate. They saw this policy within a societal structure and they understood the interlinking relationships. They spoke respectfully and compassionately about a topic that affects them deeply.

They cared.

They acted.

They spoke their minds confidently and powerfully.

They chose the path on their own.

They will carry these habits forward.

They make us proud.

They make us grateful to be in their presence.

Thank you.

Chris McAvoy

Founder, Sage School

Towards The Mountains…

I have been taking a parenting class, along with a group of others, with Carrie Thomas Scott, focusing on Simplicity Parenting. We have spent a considerable amount of time in this class thinking about how (or whether) we honor our teens and tweens- and with the natural connection to the mission of Sage; it has been a wonderful discussion. Carrie reminds us that our young children are establishing a ‘bedrock foundation’ of our family’s values. After that, they move through the ‘living forest of feelings’ as tweens. Here, they need our guidance, even as they begin to proclaim (perhaps hostilely) their need to be with friends. They need to be reminded, at this age of the 3 t’s- time, tone, and team. They need to remember to approach us at the right time, with the right tone, and demonstrate an understanding of other’s needs (the family team) in their plans. As they come up with their ideas and plans, we need to remind them that we, not they, are the ‘authors’ of family life. “Tell me your plan, we’ll discuss it, and then we (the parents) will decide.” Helpful phrases.

As our kids move into their teen years, they move into the mountainous landscape of thinking and choice making (and practicing). We become Guides rather than Gardeners at this phase of life. We help them find, and stay in touch with, their ‘true north’ rather than watching them get pulled aside towards magnetic north or worse. It becomes our task to become aligned with their goals, constantly figuring out, alongside them, how they can stay on track to their hopes and dreams.

This is both helpful in its language and reminders. When things get challenging and frustrating, it is time for us to ‘get curious.’ ‘What is really going on here?’ becomes our mantra. We have the capacity to step back and stay in touch with what they are communicating (which may have nothing to do with their words). While we might not always feel like we have this capacity, we certainly have it more than them, and we must work to invoke it- compassionately.

The journey towards, and through, those great mountains of thoughtful consideration was one I just got a beautiful glimpse of with this senior class. They choose a bunch of issues for us to look at in the senior year- effectively they design a map of the intellectual landscape they want to climb around in, and then we explore together. One of the mountains was about ‘positive psychology’. We looked at Mathieu Ricard’s TED Talk on happiness and read part of Erich Fromm’s Art of Loving. Essentially, both men argue that love and happiness are skills or arts- to be practiced consistently and to be trained in. They are more than just casual feelings beyond our control. As part of the discussion of these ideas with the class, I asked, if these guys are right, then couldn’t we develop a school that teaches these skills? Immediately, and nearly unanimously, the group said no. We discussed it a bit more, and their opinions remained the same. Then I said, “What if I told you that’s what we’ve been doing for 7 years?” Confusion reigned. I asked them to think back to 6/7. Discussions about how ‘saving seats’ for someone feels good to the friend, but then tells everyone else you are closed off to their friendship. In 8/9 we spend time talking about our whole community. We pull in the Advocates for Green Dot training, and do Mindfulness with Flourish for the whole arc of adolescence. We use wellness to talk about inclusivity, and we do service every year to teach adolescents that their world is bigger than them, and that they must practice serving others. It gelled. They understood.

It is only now, as seniors, that they can see it. Their mind is ready to look back and understand the journey from new heights. They all realized that they have been doing this work all along, and were unanimously thankful. Suddenly, they understood much more about their journey than they were even aware. And, it’s because they were walked, carefully and cautiously, from the bedrock of their existence, through the forest of feelings, to the mountaintops of understanding. And the view is beautiful…

Chris McAvoy

Founder, Sage School

“Experimental Education”

Two events converged this past week- our annual Open House and a discussion on vaping given by our regional health department. In one instance, the event was positive- the Open House was about showcasing the various elements of the school and all that we do. In the other case, I got a look into the increasingly unsettling and growing world of e-cigarettes and what appears to be nothing short of a nicotine revival.

Amidst the statistics and stories and science and history of vaping, the presenter made an almost offhanded comment that was also the most unnerving, “We learned about the dangers of tobacco from people getting sick. That’s how we’ll know how harmful vaping is; we are experimenting on our kids.” Sitting through this presentation, it was hard not to come to the conclusion that a huge portion of the vaping world is directly targeted at teenagers. And even if it isn’t, teenagers are definitely a growing and significant demographic of users.

What keeps popping to mind with these two events stems from the word experiment. It reminded me of the first years of the school when people would say, invariably negatively, “You are experimenting on kids.” There is a part of me that understands this perspective. However, there is something that it misses also. Our current ‘traditional’ school system is also an experiment run out on a grand scale- what happens when we demand a group of curious, adventurous souls be confined indoors and made to sit in rows and memorize facts for hours a day? Why are we the ones who are seen to be experimenting? Their ‘experiment’ has been going on for a hundred years, and by contrast, ours appears new.

However, while what we started seems to be new in the world of education it is only ‘sort of new’ if we consider education over the vast scope of humanity. If you walked around our Open House, you would have seen projects on family trees, and hominid history in our 6/7 Band, where students are studying their ancient roots. In the 8/9, there were explorations of social justice and displays around our relationships with one another and the natural world. The 10/11 are diving into the American Story, looking at emigrant trails, the gold rush, and westward expansion. And the seniors are discussing comparative religion, milestones in science past and present, and what it means to have a global perspective. There were tables of books read, math projects from pre-Algebra to Algebra II, and what a fully immersive Spanish program looks like. One room featured dozens of our service partners and projects, another a growing list of where this year’s seniors have been accepted to college (now totaling 29), and on the wall in between the two a list of clean up jobs around the school, a simple roster of which students are cleaning which part of the school this week.

In all of this is something new- evidence of a different kind of education. It also reflects something ancient- that humans are social, that we learn from stories and from each other and from experience, and that adolescence is about engagement and discovery and meaning. It is about trying on the world and figuring out one’s role in it. And it is about doing all of these things in the company of caring teachers and mentors and adults who realize the importance of our students’ experience today and the central role that each of them will play in the future.

We embark on our “experiment” with both expertise and humility and find ourselves in this wonderful place- where we are old enough to demonstrate that what we are doing with our students is working, small enough to adapt to and respond to what we are learning in the classroom and in our community, idealistic enough to believe we are adding a demonstrably different narrative to education, and cautious enough to know we do not have all of the answers. We can also see the results of the traditional school’s “experiment”, and know that we are seeking different results.

I realize there is one striking similarity between these two events, and it is an important one- the focus on our kids. The constantly evolving world of vaping highlights that our students need us as they always have. Education, too, has its outcomes that we need to be there for our kids during. It is our ongoing work to support our adolescents and to fight for the kinds of experiments that help them thrive.

Harry Weekes

Teaching as Craft

One of the joys of working at The Sage School is having an eye towards how to progress the craft of teaching. Teaching is not a static practice and, as such, we as educators at The Sage School are constantly attempting to hone our craft and looking to grow our abilities to better our students’ experiences. We have several methods we employ towards this goal:

  1. We team teach Human Ecology. By team teaching we give ourselves the opportunity to be observed by our peer teachers regularly- and to observe how other teachers teach regularly.  This also allows for real time feedback on lessons as well as the collaborative process of developing curriculum and lessons as a group. This collegial approach to feedback allows for an authenticity within the feedback process.
  2. Directed mentoring, led by our administrative staff and lead teachers, really assists  younger faculty. The ability to have our experienced teachers work with our new teachers allows for an authentic and safe place for questions to be posed around curriculum building, classroom management, and assessment. This feedback has allowed for more rapid maturation of teachers within our school and has allowed experienced teachers to directly transmit cultural and curricular aspects of the school’s vision to new teachers. All of this enhances and consolidates the school culture and the quality of the program we deliver.
  3. Consistent use of self-reflection, and directed feedback from that serves all of our teachers.  Our Head of School, Harry Weekes, designed a system he named “SuGroMot” (which is shorthand for Support, Growth, and Motivation).  He gives us a series of self-reflective questions on our teaching practices and professional development and we write the reflections during a short block of our weekly faculty meetings. We keep a copy in our reflective journal and give Harry a copy for review. This process allows us to continue to explore our craft and have accountability to goals we set by having Harry review our work and reflections. Our most recent example of this was a mid year reflection on how we were progressing on our professional development goals for the year- much like we ask the students to do prior to mid-year conferences.
  4. Professional development is a central tenet of our philosophy around growth as teachers. We encourage, and include as part of each individual’s yearly planning, a commitment to engaging in a professional development opportunity of his/her choosing. We have encouraged and financially supported activities ranging from pursuing master’s programs to helping faculty pay for conferences to supporting a teacher’s drive along the route salmon take to the sea from Stanley, ID down to Astoria, OR as a learning endeavor. The goal of each of these experiences is to remove obstacles that might stand in the way of each teacher’s journey to continue to grow as teachers.
  5. We have developed our own unique ‘modules’ and ‘levels’ system to help teachers grow within in the school. It is a structure which helps track and facilite faculty growth in teaching, administration, and community responsibilities over their time at the school. The program asks faculty to read a subset of books, attend conferences, write reflections, and develop curricular methods within 4 subsets of teaching at Sage: Developing oneself as an Adolescent Anthropologist, a Human Ecology, a Systems Thinker, and as a Self Aware practitioner.  Each faculty member sets goals with our Head of School for how they will progress each year and when they want to “level up”. The levels are modeled on Jim Collins’ idea of a ‘level 5 executive’. This is supported by a series of check-ins throughout the year and “leveling up” ceremonies are done with the entire faculty. The modules and leveling program help create accountability with in our staff to improving the craft of teaching within a system aligned with our values.

The overall goal of the initiatives listed above is to remove individual barriers to the process of teacher development. Creating a culture of growth with in our faculty has allow us to do several things. We actively show that we can always be working to better ourselves as professionals. We model for our students that it is important to continue to strive to improve your self regardless of where you are in life. We help keep The Sage School on the cutting edge of the educational landscape, and we hold to our core.

Nathan Twichell

Flourish-ing

It seems that it is a fairly consistent trend that when we sit down with Ryan Redman and Noah Koski for our weekly mindfulness practice with the Flourish Foundation, we find an amazing array of crossovers. Whether they are talking about concepts that connect with the academic content of our class or a social lesson we are working on with the kids, the ‘practice’ always provides some overlap and some time for additional reflection and consideration.

This week was no different, and equally as connective and joyful. Ryan began talking about how we have gyms all over town dedicated to physical health but so little dedicated to mental health. In his recent readings and understandings, he was saying that if kids can learn to ‘decenter’, it can be one vital skill that can point them on the road to positive mental health. There is evidence that it can help people prevent depressive incidents and slow down and reduce anxiety. Decentering is effectively a mindfulness practice where you begin to remove yourself as the center of your narrative, and begin to simply label your thinking as ‘thinking’. As Psychology Today notes, “Instead of (creating) a reality of “I can’t do anything right,” one learns that they had a thought “I can’t do anything right.” Being aware this thought is only a thought, and not the whole of reality, can be freeing. This practice, Ryan lets us know, would be a wonderful gift for each of us- even if we could do it just once. However, if we could make it happen regularly, it could provide years of benefit to each of us. He asked us to explore what that felt like and if it seemed true.

In class, the seniors are in the middle of a six week unit where they have chosen issues we are exploring as a class. They have chosen the war on drugs and positive mental health, among others. I was just discussing with the seniors a connection between these two topics. The day before Ryan’s comments on decentering, I was discussing how my recent reading list included a set of books that talked about addiction and healing. Those books included suggesting it might be helpful to consider addiction a ‘learning disorder’ rather than a disease. It is a learning disorder that often starts in adolescence as a failure to cope with the difficult emotions and realities that face them. The addictions can take many forms- alcohol, drugs, cell phones, vaping- but they are all attempts at solving inner problems. They are all systems that give us short-term dopamine ‘rewards’ that we learn to rely on in difficult moments, and then form habit loops around those behaviors. Mindfulness, in this look at addiction, can help us decenter, observe the habit loop, and create opportunities for other behaviors.

So, in a matter of a few days, the students were thinking about drugs and their effect on our brains, considering how we may get addicted, thinking about what habits in our daily lives might be giving us dopamine rewards, and then learning from Ryan and Noah some hands-on strategies to pay attention to their minds in a way that could benefit them and prevent negative habit loops. These unplanned, serendipitous connections happen too consistently to be ignored between the Flourish curriculum and the Sage curriculum.

Ryan asked as part of the class, ‘What if part of a school’s curriculum was teaching us how to be mentally healthy?’. I was proud to feel that, in that moment, we were working together to do just that for our kids. It is vital work, and thrilling to think about what selves students may construct as they grow forward. I am grateful to be part of it.

Sage School: Be Interesting

One of the joys of this time of year is the trickling of Alumni through the Sage School doors. They come singly or they come in small groups. They come unannounced or they request permission to join the senior circle. Either way, they return and bring us ‘stories from the field’- what life is like on the ‘other side.’ This past week, we had our first official Alumni Event- 12 students that graduated during the past 3 years were welcomed back onto campus for lunch with the teachers, a shared wellness, and a presentation to our 10th/11th/12th grade students. Between this event and the folks who have trickled in, we have been visited or reconnected with nearly 50% of Sage School Alum- an impressive rate (even if the total number of contacts- in the low 20’s- isn’t quite as impressive as the rate implies).

One thread that emerged from this is what they have learned about themselves: “Sage School kids are just interesting.” Our alum, as they go to college and beyond, find that the people they meet are intrigued, if not mystified, by the depth and range of experiences they have had as students. People ask them many, many questions about their experiences- You went to a slaughterhouse as part of a class? You went to Ecuador? What’s a fish hatchery? How many kids were in your class? You designed a trimester long curriculum on whatever you wanted and spoke about it to an auditorium of people? How? You learned to sail? The questions just keep coming.

Not only do they get barraged with questions, but they also realize that they have the capacity to speak intelligently and with intrigue about all of these topics. The emotions come pouring out, and the audience is enthralled. These kids have been speaking to a wide range of audiences- from younger kids to random adults in their community- for years, so they have long learned that “age is not a barrier to develop relationships.”

This is not only amazing for gaining and keeping friends, it is also tremendously helpful for getting jobs and internships. Another alum was recently asked to put together his resume, and at first was mystified. Then, he realized, that if he simply put together a list of all the experiences he had at Sage, he was ready and able to demonstrate a wide skill set and a wide range of abilities to serve many an employer.

The alumni further tell us that they have come to realize it may not be any single course at Sage that makes them ‘interesting’ (although that is part of it), but it is how they have learned. They have learned to make connections and to seek connections between ideas and people. They have learned to construct community, practiced doing so, and learned the language and skills to do so effectively. They now demand this of their own education and their own communities. Interesting, indeed.

Interesting they are. Proud of them, we are. Thrilled, we couldn’t be more. Thanks to all of you- current and former families- for taking this journey on. The results are coming in, and they are nothing if not interesting.

Chris McAvoy

The Language of Sage

Lately, I have been interested in “ways of knowing”- exploring how different people see the world. A connecting theme in all accounts, whether the stories are about Polynesian wayfinders, or Siberian trappers, or members of a particular political party, is language; not only as a central cultural thread, but also as a way of interpreting the world.

Language shapes communication as much as it shapes thought. The words we use matter as they simultaneously describe our experience and determine how we see the world.

A long-understood challenge of this is when someone or some culture is forced to speak in the language of another. Anand Giridharadas sums this up nicely in his book Winners Take All when he says there is a danger not “only in what they say in this new language, but also in the possibility that they might somewhere down the line stop thinking in their native one.”

The danger flows the other way, too, when we easily, casually, use language, but we do not fully inhabit that language- we co-opt it to meet our needs and do not actually live it.

We started a new school to live our language- not just to say that we are developmentally appropriate, or that we pay attention to the whole child, or that we are experiential and place-based, but to inhabit those pieces of language fully. When an 8th or a 9th grader starts to wrestle with questions of fairness and independence, this is the time to study social justice. Knowing that a student’s family is going through divorce, or that she just lost a pet, means that student’s teachers need to understand that expectations now have another filter on them. To be of this place is to be in this place- to experience it fully from its landscape, to its people, to how we survive in a world covered in snow five months of the year. Living our language lets us do all of these things, but only if we commit fully to it.

I continually struggle describing The Sage School because a major part of our current culture is the soundbite, the synopsis, the elevator pitch. How do I sum up in 30 seconds what is designed to be seven years of education? How do I do this in an educational world where, increasingly, everyone uses the same catchphrases?

My goal is not to show that The Sage School is the same as other schools, but rather that the school brings a different focus to education. Humans learn through story and experience, and now more than ever we need the experience of our past to inform what we want to do and how we want to be in the future. We need to modernize an ancient process and teach students differently. Or rather, I need to. I understand that not everyone wants this, which makes it particularly challenging when so many schools use the same language.

Ultimately, we can break The Sage School down into its Spanish and Math and Writing curricula; into its focus on Human Ecology; into how we believe that being of and in this place is critical enough to schedule community action every week; into how we both honor and celebrate adolescents. These are all important. However, something critical is missing. I found Wade Davis’s description of Polynesian navigators in Wayfinders nicely captures what this is:

But as we isolate, deconstruct, even celebrate these specific intellectual and observational gifts, we run the risk of missing the entire point, for the genius of Polynesian navigation lies not in the particular but in the whole, the manner in which all of these points of information come together in the mind of the wayfinder.

The magic of The Sage School is not in its elemental parts, but in how we weave them together. It is not in the words and phrases of our curriculum, but in the entire language of the school.

3 January 2019 – Harry Weekes

Growth Mindset: Math Approach

One of the major principles that we work with in and strive towards with our students and faculty is to help everyone develop and maintain a growth mindset. This principle is outlined by Author and Psychologist Daniel Seigel in many of his writings, but most notably in The Whole-Brain Child, although the work is first attributed to Carol Dweck. The gist of the principle is that we need to work with our children to help them understand that we have the capacity to change our ideas and understanding (having a growth mindset) vs. holding the belief that our ideas and understandings are fixed and unchanging (having a fixed mindset). The former allows us to apply effort to grow and change in our lives, while the latter leaves us set in unchanging attributes about the self (such as intelligence).

This, as we all know, can be a challenging topic with adolescents. I myself often reflect on myself at 16-18 and remember that is sure was nice when I knew everything there was to know about everything. But in that nugget is the crux when working with students as they move along their journey. Often it is easy in life to get set in our ways/fixed in our mindset, but true introspection and growth occurs when we strive to push for an open mindset- and push ourselves past the “I don’t get it moments”.

An anecdotal, but helpful, example of this is how we have reshaped our math program over the last several years. Traditionally math is a very fixed subject. Problems are presented by the teacher. The formula to solve them is noted and memorized. One’s inherent ability is ‘proven’ and ‘checked’ on a written test. Students refer to themselves, in this setting, as either ‘good’ at math or ‘bad’ at it- the very definition of fixing their mindset around something. This method, we have found, does not allow for the most advancement in student understanding or depth of growth in their math abilities. And, even more damaging, it allows them to remain in the belief they are ‘bad’ at math- a notion which may linger for years (and may resonate with some adults still), and a lost opportunity at teaching them that some things require more effort than others (growth mindset).

So, on the ground, what did we do? We redesigned the system to integrate a program which is more likely to help students develop a growth mindset within our math program. We did this by making the process of learning math a lot more messy: we work with students to grapple with the concepts themselves as opposed to just presenting the concepts to them; we have diversified the ways students have to demonstrate understanding of math topics; we have students embrace the fact that failure will allow growth and have a system that reinforces rather than gives lip service to the importance of failure; and we are there as teachers to act as guides instead of mere pushers of information. This has been a journey for all of us, but with the aid of patience and programs like YOUCUBED, we have had some interesting results. Students are owning their understanding of math and being excited by the project of enhancing their own understanding. And students are showing better retention of information when we assess their understanding of topics.

By looking to move our program towards being centered around helping students develop a growth mindset, we have been able to accomplish some goals that we would all desire for our students and children- that they be self-reflective critical thinkers who understand the value of effort as the path to success. This is another example of how we continue to look to refine our system, while still holding to the center of our value system.

Nathan Twichell

Turns out, it’s all of it.

We have an informal ‘tradition’ here at Sage. For the past few years, recent graduates return to campus during their winter breaks. They visit with teachers, re-join a wellness game, and talk with our seniors (often, their former band-mates) about life on the ‘other side’ of Sage School. Participating in these discussions turns out to be a joy every year. Listening to our graduates articulate what they learned, how they transitioned to college and more traditional education, and formulate college ‘survival tips’ for our current seniors is a reminder of what we do at Sage.

Today, however, is also the last day before winter break. The 6/7 are bringing in final projects on their family- artistic and full of pride- as they get to know themselves more deeply. The 8/9 are reviewing and correcting a test on American Revolutions and Rebellion in order to understand the content of these timeperiods but also to help develop a growth mindset about content more generally. The 10/11 are presenting final their own art, drama, and story maps about the American Identity.   The seniors are ‘sweating’ through a final exam on Islam and the Middle East on their way to becoming global citizens and in order to prepare them for more traditional assessments.

The title of this piece comes into play when we consider the combination of the above two paragraphs. It turns out that our students gain from all of the aspects of The Sage curriculum and The Sage experience. It cannot be boiled down to one thing- it is all of it. We have attempted, and failed, many times to find a sound bite that covers what we do. We will, no doubt, try again, but there is a reason that it is harder to do this at Sage than at other schools.

Consider the set of notes listed below. They come from conversations over the past few days with our graduates. As you preview them, you will see references to the importance of self, place, and community (directly from our mission statement), but you will also see the residues of their work in community service, wellness, field studies- and of course, academic preparation.

Our students emerge from their Sage experiences knowing themselves, their strengths and needs, as well as having the ability to articulate all of that and the wherewithal to build the realities they crave. That path isn’t always linear, just like it probably wasn’t for most of us reading this piece. However, it ought to be filled with heart. And, to return to our mission, it ultimately boils down to a mix of their academic, cognitive, social and emotional skills- but not any one of those.

Quotes and paraphrases from recent Sage alum:

  • Sage is more like college than traditional school is.
    • I learned to manage my time, manage large projects, break down big tasks into smaller units, and find my passion. Other people my age don’t have those skills.
  • I can create my own life- I know myself first and foremost, even if I’m not sure of my path forward.
  • I realized that this (Sage School’s approach) is how I want to learn, and now I need to go after that.
  • This school helped us take a wider angle on who we are- Perspective is key.
  • Even when we have no framework, or a new framework, we can find ourselves anew.
  • We can articulate our interests and enthusiasms, and then pursue them.
  • I realized that I had an amazing resume- I just listed all the experiences, projects, service, and activities we did at Sage- and found that I had much to offer my employers.
  • I realized I could, and needed to, set aside time to connect with myself in nature- no matter where I was.
  • I could find those things that excited me, and did them even when I felt bad. I needed those connections to feel healthy.
  • I never thought I was too cool to jump into anything at college, unlike others I met. I met people and explored all sorts of things.
  • I could use college as opportunity to rebrand myself- and be the person I wanted to be.
  • I realized I needed to be physical to do my best work, so I joined the polo team (badminton team, sailing team, etc)
  • Through Sage, you come to realize that the person you are is good.
  • We were always serving something bigger than ourselves at Sage- hold that standard for yourself and those you surround yourself with.
  • Knocking on doors for hunger day helped me realize that even if I talked to one grumpy individual, there were more doors with more people willing to help. Just keep knocking.

Ultimately, it boiled down to this-

  • Find yourself, and then be that person intentionally.

I sit watching kids attack their work today with vigor- from the academic content to wellness to the Secret Santa/Spirit Week fun the seniors have planned. But I also see that which many of them can’t see because they are, appropriately, living their lives as teenagers in this space- I see that their tomorrows are also hopeful and filled with the joyful (and at times, trying) journey of becoming their best selves.

I am in awe and honored to be able to participate in the process.

Happy Holidays to all and to all a good break. (Resting, too, is part of it.)

Chris McAvoy

We The Faculty…

 

The Sage School started as an idea- a discussion. It was a conversation between colleagues about how we can do better by our adolescents, and better by the future of our planet. One of the things that Harry and I didn’t include as part of the original discussion was how we would build a faculty culture. We were, properly, I believe, focused on the kids- how do we build a culture amongst our students? How do we make it open and inclusive while still valuing challenging and engaging work? How do we tweak it ‘on the fly’ and deal with students who are outliers? But, as we now approach our 10th year, and we have 15 staff members working together and with our student body each day, our worldview has widened to make sure we are building the proper culture with our staff members, while not losing sight of the reason we are all here- the students.

One of the things we have learned over the past few years in building culture is the need to ‘ceremonialize’ certain events and rituals in order to help formalize the culture. For instance, we realized early in the school’s development that as bands broke apart and reshuffled each year, it was creating a sense of loss in our students. We created the Moving Up Ceremony on the last day of school as a way to honor those transitions, mark the students maturational process, and recreate the bands as we look forward to the following year. It has added to our culture, reinforced our values, and honored our students- keeping us true to our mission.

We have recently instituted another of these ceremonies, but this one focuses on our staff instead. We added a day in the calendar in December to have a ‘Faculty Conference Day’- a day dedicated to us consciously improving the craft of our teaching together. It is a day to reflect, to grow, and improve. In the construction of that day, we considered many options, and have come to settle on something of our own design. We looked to Jim Collins’ book Good To Great for guidance, and we have realized that becoming a teacher at Sage requires its own learning curve. Teachers here move through developmental stages just like our students do- they come to learn the Ideas of Sage, then learn Sage as a System, then develop the skills to Lead that System, and eventually, Construct the System. We want to honor our staff as they mature and develop just as we do our students.

Eric Levenson, 6/7 teacher extraordinaire, just volunteered this past Monday to be the first faculty member to walk through this development system, and present his teaching and learning portfolio to the entire staff. This requires a level of vulnerability among staff that we typically only reserve for our relationship with students. What resulted was something in the realm between impressive and magical. Eric walked us through his own growth and development, his own questions and concerns, found areas to push and challenge the system for its own growth, and set the agenda for faculty conversations for the rest of the morning. He ended his presentation with a “We The Faculty” honoring where he listed each individual on our staff and acknowledged a specific way that person helped him grow as a teacher at Sage. From conversations on rivers and mountains, to formal conversations in the school building, to examples of models and reflective ‘big picture’ talks at conferences, he showed us the arc of a teacher at Sage. He showed us the power of a team committing to our profession, to our craft, and to our specific mission. He showed us the power of a ritual done right. Pausing for a few hours out of our daily schedule has been a gift that all of us have been thankful for during this season…It recommits us to the work and to the team. Thank you, Eric. And a thank you to the entire Sage staff for their dedication, commitment, and willingness to bring this idea into reality. It is a humbling journey.

 

Chris McAvoy

Connection

It always comes down to a tiger entering the room.

In response to my own question of “What are we trying to reproduce?” I ask the kids, in this case the 6/7 students who are just starting to explore genetics, “What would I do if a tiger came in the room?” The question seems to come out of left field, especially as we were just talking about how traits are passed down from one parent to the next.

“Ummmm…. What would you do?” someone always asks tentatively.

“I’d first yell ‘Tiger!’, then I’d throw a chair through the window and run.” I follow with, “Would I try and save anyone other than myself?” Pretty quickly everyone points to my son, who happens to be in the room. “Anyone else?” My daughters are named next. “Any more?” My niece and nephew are identified.

In our desire to get as much of our DNA into the next generation as possible, wherever that DNA may reside, there is this obvious “symptom” of our genetics – it’s called family. We don’t often think of family as a behavior, but that’s exactly what it is. The most general definition I can come up with for family is looking out for those people with whom you share something important. What I like about this generality is that it moves into that part of biology we get to change and control most directly- culture.

We live in a world that is increasingly disconnected. The Greater Good Science Center out of Berkeley recently highlighted a surprising increase in “feeling alone” in students, with girls showing a 48% increase in feeling isolated and left out, and boys reporting a 27% increase. What is emerging from these studies is the recognition that direct, face-to-face connection with people is fundamental to who we are.

Wonderfully, it turns out that the most powerful thing we can do to combat disconnection is to reach out to those people around us: our immediate family, our friends, and the tens and hundreds of people we come into contact with. Perhaps the greatest power of this connection is its simplicity- it often takes little more than a smile to engage someone. Add someone’s name and an even a basic observation- “That is a great coat”- and pretty quickly a different world opens up.

Our students need these connections, and we need them, too.

Nowadays, it is rare for a tiger to enter a room. Metaphorically, though, a certain disconnection stalks us all. The antidote is reaching out and being present with people. One of the most fundamental things we can offer our students is our attention.

Start with a hello and a smile and go from there.

7 December 2018 – Harry Weekes

How to Change the World: A two-step process backed by science

There have been two articles that I recently read about primary prevention and social norms that have intrigued me. They are about distinct topics- sexual violence and spanking- and yet, combined they can teach us much about building a better future. They can lead us down the following path:

 

Step 1: Build the culture- and the perception- appropriately.

This story discusses recent studies on sexual violence and perception. According to the authors of the study, they find that “when you’re talking about transgressive behavior, like underage drinking, drug use or nonconsensual sexual behavior, there’s often a “misperception of the norm.” Students believe that more people are ‘doing it’ than is real, and that leads them to be willing to engage in risky behaviors more often. The students further believed that, while personally, peer intervention is a good idea and they would be willing to step in at difficult moments, it was their peers who didn’t think it would work- so they didn’t act. All of this seems to make teens more willing to engage in bad behaviors, and less willing to stand up for the right thing. By working with primary prevention and building the right norms and the right perceptions, we have a good path forward to affect change.

 

Step 2: Let the long-range changes occur.

This story tracked the changes in behavior in those countries that took cultural stances against spanking. What they found was truly amazing. As countries banned spanking, they found that students growing up in that new culture were far less likely to use aggression and get in fights as adolescents: by 69 percent for adolescent males and 42 percent less for females. If we could see this sort of results with a change in spanking, what can we see by adding more and more pro-social behaviors? More over, they found no positive pro-social behavior changes in those countries that stuck with spanking, or put another way “violence teaches violence.” This may be intuitive for some, but it is a powerful effect, now demonstrated scientifically.

 

So, two studies over two random days in the past few weeks. And yet, there is a path forward. If we can teach positive social behavior to our kids; if we can help them learn honestly that those are the behaviors we are all trying to enact and we all benefit from; and if we can raise the next generation under those new norms- violence- sexual and otherwise- can and will decrease. Our role as teachers and parents is vital in helping this generation understand that we can build a better future- in two simple steps. It provides hope in a time when we can get caught up by all the bad news.

Chris McAvoy

 

Gaining Voice

When I was a kid, growing up in the traditional education system, I simply didn’t have a voice. I didn’t speak up in class. I was rarely asked my opinion. I did have a few teachers- one in 3rd- 5th grade who helped construct that sense of worth I needed to trust my voice, and another in high school who was quickly fired- that sought to build students’ inner reserves. Most of my schooling however, was listening to the only voice in the room that mattered- the teacher. If our voices were welcome in a class it was typically a simple question that you could cover in a few words- who was the protagonist of…., what happened when…, which president created….It was only later, towards the end of college, that I began to find something akin to my own voice, complete with unique thoughts and independent reasoning. I’ve come to realize that waiting until college is simply too late.

Over the years, I have realized that my lack of voice was part of the design of the education system. I covered up my own voice, ideas, and silly hopes- because it was easier. The path to success, I learned, was to keep your head down, and ‘get by’. This was the subtle message of silence and of giving up on your own voice. I learned little games and tricks to give the teachers what they wanted and learned that, in each one of those compromises, my own voice would be sacrificed. So, I sacrificed and learned to accept that fact as reality. And continued to do so for a decade or more. All of this occurred while I was a ‘good student’- getting A’s, taking AP classes, and advancing through the system. But at what cost?

Now, close to 50, I am opening a blog. But this blog isn’t simply about my voice- it is about the voices of adolescents that we have stunted, and our continual stunting of voices through our traditional methods of schooling. At The Sage School, we have a different model. We have a school where our teachers act as Adolescent Anthropologists. We work alongside teens struggling to find their voice, define themselves, and create their place. We ask how best to help them engage this task. We have the capacity, through giving them real projects that require their actual input and decision making, to help them construct, and not bury, their voices. We have the capacity, through in-depth conferences 3 times per year for 7 years, to give them voice on their strengths, goals, and directions. And we hear their burgeoning senses of self coming out daily- when you enter our doors, the building is a buzz with empowered voices. It isn’t, and won’t be, a silent learning space.

And, it works. We are raising a group of students who come to know themselves, who learn to speak for their needs and hopes, and who know, as one recent graduate said, “At Sage, I learned how to imagine something and then create it”. Precisely.

Please join us in this weekly series of thoughts and discussions from myself, our Head of School Harry Weekes, and guest faculty (or parent or student) voices.

Thanks.
Chris McAvoy
CoFounder, The Sage School