Today, I Will Choose JOY.

As we approach the Thanksgiving season, we have so much for which to be thankful. If I tried to share the many things I am thankful for, the list would be exhaustive. I hope that is true for each member of the Walker community.

On the other hand, many of us are struggling with challenges, obstacles, or hardships. Some of those challenges are temporary, like a quiz, test, or job responsibility; some of the hardships are long-term, like an illness or the profound sense of loss of a loved one.

The Walker community has experienced a number of hardships in the last few weeks, as we mourn the loss of longtime Lower School art teacher Sherry Walker-Taylor. It is impossible not to feel her 35-year legacy every time you step foot in our Lower School with its hallways that are filled with artwork made by the hands of our first- through fifth-graders. Sherry, or “WT” as most of us knew her, inspired generations of Wolverines to both create and appreciate art; her daughter, Jessica Whittingham (‘02), follows in her footsteps as our wonderful Primary School art and science teacher.

As many of you know, our son’s first wife succumbed to kidney cancer two years ago this month. I am inspired every day by what our son shared with us on the day his wife died. Joseph and I were driving on a very dark road, in silence, to a family gathering when he turned to me and said, “Dad, I’m going to be okay.” Fighting back multiple emotions, I said, “I’m so glad to hear you say that.” And then he shared the most palpable example of “Choosing Joy,” that I have ever heard:

“You know how Perrin and I always said that we were going to choose joy in spite of the cancer,” he stated, “Well, last night, she told me that I could not let her death be something that caused me to live in sorrow. She made me promise that I was going to choose to live with joy.” And then he added, “I am going to honor that promise.”

Wow. I had to work hard to keep my hands on the wheel and my eyes on the road. It was a moment I will never forget; a lesson from my children that transcends the ages. For all of us who have lost a loved one, it is a lesson that may help to navigate what comes next.

It has been said that life is a journey; one that is filled with great moments of exhilaration and other moments of loss, heartache, or sadness. As parents and educators, it is our job to recognize the truth in this and to model and teach our children to embrace the life-long pursuit of “choosing joy.”

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Nurture, Structure, and Latitude

During his recent visit to The Walker School, child and family therapist and educational consultant, Dr. Rob Evans asked the following question: Do you think your child’s school should be preparing the path for your child OR preparing your child for the path? Click THIS SURVEY LINK to answer that very question. This question framed his talk with both faculty/staff and parents because Dr. Evans recognizes that parents and schools are less confident about setting parameters for children and are more anxious about an uncertain future. In that context, he shared his sense of what decades of research tell us about what children need most from their parents – nurture, structure, and latitude.

To nurture is to care for and encourage the growth and development of children (and adults). For Dr. Evans, nurture is the bedrock to healthy development, and the best way to nurture someone is to spend time with them. He disparaged the notion that parents can force quality time. “Quality time,” he said, “only arises from meaningful interaction, which, of course, takes time to develop. It cannot be forced.” When I consider our family dynamic, quality time has almost always been generated by playing board games, camping, or simply relaxing together. For my wife, Cathy, and me, it happens when we go on long walks. I concur with Dr. Evans, nurture takes an investment of time.

Structure, in Dr. Evans’ mind, is like a box: “What’s inside the box is what we do, what is appropriate behavior; what’s outside the box are the things we know we should not do.” Interestingly, research shows that the contents of the box, what behaviors are acceptable, vary from culture to culture, and even from family to family. But children must be taught what those parameters are, and parents must be consistent in handling instances where children test the boundaries. I remember one time when Cathy and I had to discipline our children for testing the boundaries. When we found out that our children lied to a babysitter about their bedtime, we had a decision to make: would we take the children to the Cardinals baseball game the next day, as planned, the day that we now know Mark McGuire set the homerun record for a season? The answer was clear; we would not. Lying was not acceptable and we needed to be consistent with our discipline. They were both disappointed; our son was mad. But, as Dr. Evans’ mother would have said, “You will just have to get glad again.”

Finally, our children need latitude or room to make mistakes. “While it appears that many parents want their children to have stress-free childhoods,” Dr. Evans said, “that is actually not helpful. What will distinguish your children, what will reveal their character, is how they respond to mistakes, hardships, failure. It is vitally important that children learn from non-catastrophic mistakes.” Dr. Evans implores parents not to intervene when a child is working through a problem or a challenge. He loves to tell the story of the head of school who tells parents at the beginning of each year, “We hope each of your children experience failure this year. We are not going to facilitate it, but we hope, nevertheless, that it happens. And when it does, we ask you not to intervene or attempt to rescue your child. If we want them to grow into resilient, self-confident problem solvers, they need experience working through the problem.” And I believe, if they grow into experienced problem solvers, they will be able to face an uncertain future with self-confidence, which is exactly what we hope for our students at The Walker School.

Ask a Fifth Grader!

As the Head of the Lower School, I’m often asked what makes the Lower School a special place. This is difficult to answer in just a few words; there are just so many reasons why I think this is a special place.

We have classrooms and hallways full of joyful children who love to learn. We have families that support and nurture the educational journeys of their children while encouraging them to be good people. Our teachers consider teaching a vocation, and they genuinely respect and enjoy children. We feel strongly about the importance of providing a challenging academic curriculum while supporting the social-emotional growth of all our learners. We recognize that play is an important part of learning and celebrate the growth that occurs in music, art, PE, and foreign language classes. I could go on and on, as I have the benefit of seeing so much of what transpires here on a daily basis.

But really, what do I know? I’m just an observer! For a true test of the pulse of the Lower School, we need to ask the experts. At the start of each new school year, we invite fifth graders to apply to be Lower School Ambassadors. These students complete an application and interview for these coveted positions. Those selected become the faces and voices of the Lower School students at various events on campus. Just last week they escorted our visiting authors and illustrators around the buildings and later in the year, they will speak to prospective parents during our open houses.

During this application and interview process, the ambassador candidates were asked a number of questions. Keep reading to learn more about what these fifth graders had to say about our amazing school!

The Walker School is a special place because…

  • everyone at Walker cares most about the joy that everyone shares.
  • everyone is nice and caring and empathetic and welcoming. Even if you make a mistake the kind people here will accept it and help you learn from it.
  • it makes you feel like you’re a part of one big family. It is also special because the teachers bend over backward to meet each student where they are.
  • everyone who walks in the Walker community walks out a part of it.
  • of the people. The teachers at Walker teach us so much and they commit to teach us to our fullest potential.
  • kids can learn different techniques and strategies in a fun atmosphere. Our teachers encourage us to think outside the box and want us all to have a fantastic elastic brain.
  • you can be yourself and can learn a lot of cool subjects. It is a place that is unique and our students and adults are unique.
  • the teachers genuinely care about my progress and education. I feel safe voicing my opinions. It allows me to focus on subjects I like the best and pushes me on those I don’t.
  • everyone is valued at Walker.

How are you different than before you came to The Walker School?

  • I feel more valued and I’m more confident. I am now able to say ‘I don’t understand’ and I am more outgoing and friendly. Now that I’m at Walker my love of reading has been unleashed!
  • I love to learn especially in math and science. Now I have many more friends who also love to learn.
  • I learned to a be a leader, a good friend, and a role model.
  • I am taller.

If someone is unfamiliar with Walker, what would be the most important thing you’d like them to know about your school?

  • There is something for everyone at Walker. You can do sports, you can create art, or join a club.
  • The teachers meet you where you are as a person to help you be the best you can be.
  • It’s okay to make mistakes. People will help you learn from them.
  • It’s a great place for learning.
  • Everybody matters whether old or new.
  • The Walker community is very diverse, and I am grateful for the chance to experience different cultures, religions, and traditions through the eyes of my peers.
  • The teachers are caring and enjoy teaching. They make learning interactive and fun! They challenge us to be ourselves and make us feel accepted and loved. Walker builds character and helps us take risks.
  • You would be crazy if you didn’t come to The Walker School.

I couldn’t say it better myself! Here’s to another school year filled with the wonders of Walker!

Wisdom Begins in Wonder

IMG_8092 (1)As I reflect on our community’s first month in the Warren building, I can’t stop smiling.  Walking through these halls everyday and observing kids exploring new and different paths to learning has been inspirational.  There are so many spaces our students and teachers can use both in and outside of the classroom to find the time and space to ponder, collaborate, make thinking visible, and struggle with complex, meaningful problems – these are the spaces where transformative learning happens.  Every classroom now has space for teachers to get their students up and moving, transitioning seamlessly between hands-on activities and discussion.

IMG_8008 (1)Having 6-12 science and technology in the same physical space makes it so easy for our teachers to plan, imagine, implement, and reflect together.  I am tickled pink to watch this building’s first cohorts of our public health and engineering concentration students envision, carry out, and communicate their own novel scientific research in our TWO, not one, but TWO student research suites!  These spaces open the possibilities for new senior projects, to increase the number of students leaning into up and coming science – further strengthening their ability to stand out and succeed with confidence and competence in college and beyond.

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Here are just a few examples of the powerful, and just plain fun, learning that I’ve witnessed since the start of school:

  • 8th grade Physical Science students using every inch of the break-out spaces on the MS floor to design their film pod rockets, and THEN using the front of the building to test and analyze them;
  • 7th grade Life Science students researching on our new Chromebooks and exuberantly debating with each other what it means to be biologically alive;
  • Biology students using microscopes to observe and interpret cellular transport in real time;
  • Physics students building and testing pendulums, deeply immersed in dialogue about the patterns they see emerging from their pooled data;
  • Environmental Science students doing microbial and chemical analysis on water supplies from around campus;
  • Both public health and engineering research students engaged in vigorous peer review and support of their research proposals;
  • And seniors during their free periods pulling up comfy seating next to the collaborate whiteboard spaces to work through challenging ideas together.Image-7

I invite you to visit our new home often, to see the magic happening within.  Whether you sit in on a Life Science class creating their Mars mission packing plans, see the Biology classes track the coming flu season’s genetic evolution, listen to our Chemistry students engage in argument from evidence after a chemical reaction lab, or just spend some time in our halls, I hope that you will know and feel deeply what a difference this space has made in the lives of our students and our faculty.  Our outside now matches the passion and talent on the inside that I believe our science and tech community has always had. I can’t wait to see what comes next, but I know it’s where wonder leads.

 

Great Minds Do Not Think Alike

Walker is a school known for producing “A-ha!” moments. Whether it is Primary School imagestudents watching their “bots” carry out the pattern designed, or Lower School students discovering exactly how the digestive system works in a hands-on lesson (entitled “Making Poop” of all things!) in Mrs. Morris’ class, or Middle School students realizing they can engage in a thoughtful debate on gun control and the Second Amendment without depending on Mr. Surkan to lead the discussion, or Upper School students being able to amplify and analyze the DNA of a plant from the outdoor classroom in our new Warren Science & Technology Building, these moments and many, many more are part of what makes learning so transformational here.

I had an “A-ha!” moment this summer during the SAIS Institute for New Heads, which I have had the privilege of co-leading the last five years. The memorable moment came when one of the new heads walked into a session wearing a school t-shirt. On the front was the name of her school; on the back was a quote that captured the way I look at The Walker School. It read “Great Minds Do NOT Think Alike.” The quote stopped me in my tracks; not because of its novelty, but because it encapsulates the essence of what is so special about Walker.

Imagine a school where:

  • for five consecutive years, no two seniors have had the same academic schedule;
  • the variety of advanced courses exceeds that found in schools five times it size;
  • faculty encourage students to ask questions, to look at a problem or issue from multiple perspectives;
  • students with different learning styles and teachers with different teaching styles thrive and are embraced;
  • families of all faith perspectives, political persuasions, socio-economic and cultural backgrounds are welcomed and valued.

This is The Walker School. It is the quintessential school for the 21st century, a time marked by technological innovation, rapid change, and the need for collaborative diversity and cross-cultural competency. In essence, Walker, a school proud of its rich diversity, is an incubator for nurturing multi-talented young people who are characterized by confidence, integrity, and resilience and who possess strong criticalthinking and problem solving skills. As adults, we can lead the way by modeling civil discourse, respecting perspectives that may differ from our own, and recognizing the reality that great minds do not think alike. Now more than ever, adults and children alike must ensure that Walker is a place where each individual is known, valued, and loved. As Mister (Fred) Rogers once said, “Knowing that we can be loved exactly as we are gives us all the best opportunity for growing into the healthiest of people.”

Trailblazers, Pioneers, Mavericks and Troublemakers

When I grow up, I want to be…a troublemaker!” Of course, most parents don’t want to hear their child utter these words, but I want to ask you to consider a different perspective.

Jennie T. Anderson

Miss Jennie, pictured sitting on her father’s lap

Every fall, new members are inducted into the National Honor Society (NHS) at The Walker School.  During the induction ceremony, everyone in attendance is told that Walker’s NHS chapter is named for Jennie Tate Anderson, for whom the nearby Marietta Civic Center is named. As the speaker describes “Miss Jennie” and her accomplishments, the audience learns the four words that best describe her: “Trailblazer, Pioneer, Maverick and Troublemaker.” Most parents would enjoy watching a son or daughter blaze a new trail or be considered a pioneer in his or her field, but a maverick or troublemaker?

Think of all the people in history who were labeled “troublemakers” before they were given credit for changing the world for the better. It’s a “Who’s Who” list of epic proportions: Rosa Parks, Gandhi, George Washington, Susan B. Anthony, Nelson Mandela, Malala Yousafzai, and Martin Luther King, just to name a few. Each of these people dreamed of a better road to freedom and each was willing to persevere against great obstacles in order to see a dream come true.

From my perspective, many so-called “troublemakers” get that reputation because they ask penetrating questions about why something is the way it is. And when the response to that question is “That’s the way it has always been,” the “troublemaker” is inspired to start a movement to end segregation or apartheid, or work tirelessly so that women have the right to vote or access to an education.  Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, once famously praised the world’s troublemakers, noting that “they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.”  

At Walker, we encourage our students to ask hard questions, be engaged, and look for ways to make a difference. In essence, we want Walker students and graduates to be “difference makers.”  When I asked her granddaughter, Interim Middle School Division Head Katherine Harrison, why “Miss Jennie” was referred to as a “troublemaker,” she said it was because she was always speaking up for those who would not or could not speak for themselves.  To me, that sounds more like a “difference maker” than a “troublemaker.”  In the spirit of Jennie Tate Anderson, let’s continue to raise up a new generation of “difference makers.”

The Muddy Marsh, Deodorant, and The Journey to Our Best Selves

As our bus driver Mr. Jack pulled into Walker’s parking lot on the evening of Friday, October 27, I immediately began reflecting upon the fifth grade’s trip to Driftwood Education Center and how it so perfectly encapsulated our mission here at Walker. From the wee hours when we departed on a Tuesday morning until stepping off of the bus that Friday evening, our fifth graders were thoroughly engaged in an educational opportunity that contributed to both transformative learning and the building of meaningful relationships. Those four days on the coast of Georgia connect directly to the heart of what we do.

The scientific learning that occurred on this trip will resonate with students in both the upcoming quarters and the years to follow. Over the rest of their academic careers and throughout their lives, they will continue to make connections to the concepts and ideas that were on display in the learning centers, within the forest, out on the river, and even in the muddy marsh. Because student learning is the chief priority of our school, each and every child participated in a meticulously designed program that enriched their minds in a way that classrooms are not fully equipped to do.

Tantamount only to the content-specific knowledge gained on this endeavor are the strides that these children took on the path of their development into independent and empathetic citizens. With guidance from our leaders, students built the confidence and social skills needed to work both independently and collaboratively. Their perspectives expanded in a way that encouraged responsible decisions and to consider others and the world around them. Not only did they grow as scientists, but they also blossomed as thoughtful boys and girls.

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The questions we discussed were varied and purposeful. Whether regarding the environment (How do ecosystems evolve across various terrains?), land structures (What purpose do barrier islands have in relation to the mainland?), sustainability (What are both positive and negative effects of food waste?), teamwork (How can we get our entire team across the hot lava?), responsibility (How exactly do you fold a sleeping bag?), or personal hygiene (How much deodorant is enough deodorant?), each day was spent in exploration of our world and ourselves.

We in the Lower School did some learning as well. Our teachers learned even more about their students, the way they process information, and the systems they use to connect ideas. As with any learning opportunities, we were able to identify areas for growth leading us into a great place where we can provide a challenging environment with high expectations for student achievement as they correlate with individual needs and strengths. As for me, I was able to foster deeper relationships with a wonderful group of students. The time we spent together will empower me to spend the remainder of the school year helping to mold their character, resilience, gratitude, and ethos.

All in all, I want to offer my appreciation to Dr. Holly Martin and the fifth grade team and chaperones for their coordination and execution of this event. As with any successful undertaking, the details were many and the hours were long. I implored Mrs. Jacki Gass to turn off her notifications for the weekend, and I would like to encourage you to have your child pen a quick note of thanks to these teachers for the marvels of the week. Though such is part of the Walker package per se, we never want our students to cease to find the gratitude in every moment.

In addition, thanks is due to Nurse Dana Ferguson for her unwavering commitment to the care of students and leaders alike, as well as our Middle School liaisons Mr. David Gale, Mr. Roberto Llopart, and Mr. Kevin Tilley as they laid the foundation for the bridge between our two divisions. I invite you to join me in thanking them as well.

Walker parents have given the faculty and staff here at Walker the privilege of assisting in the development of their children, and that responsibility is never lost on us. Entrusting us as you did speaks to the partnership we have forged. It is my earnest hope that, for all involved, this trip was filled with wonder, the kind that leads us to new learning, increased empathy, and a deeper understanding of our best selves. Our week at Driftwood has been but a guide map for tomorrow.

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