Director’s Remarks – Lowell’s Comments at the Upper School Assembly

In a show of support, the faculty and staff lined up behind Director Lowell Libby as he delivered the remarks below:

Joined by a sizable contingent of your mentors, I am going to conclude today’s assembly by reflecting on the state of our country in the aftermath of the executive order issued last Friday. Raise your hand if you know to what I am referring. (The vast majority of students raised their hands.) For those of you who don’t know about the order, it banned travel from seven majority Muslim nations to the United States.

Despite significant publicity, there is certainly much that I do not know about this executive order. I don’t know for sure what it was intended to do or how it was intended to work. I don’t know what its long term effects will be or whether or not it will ultimately be ruled legal or constitutional by the courts. There have been massive protests across the country against the ban, but I don’t know if those protests express the viewpoints of a solid majority of Americans or a just a vocal minority. I certainly don’t know what is going to happen next or how history will eventually judge this moment in time.

But I do know that by focusing on seven majority Muslim nations, intended or not, the order invariably reinforces a dangerous idea that has been growing in recent years, which is that people of Muslim faith and especially those who are immigrants are somehow collectively a threat to American safety and American values.

Such damaging stereotypes are deeply troubling because any time a group of individuals is lumped together and labeled as a threat, that is not only profoundly unfair to the innocent but it also creates a justification in the minds of some to lash out against them. We saw that happen tragically last Sunday five hours away in Quebec City when a gunman walked into a Mosque and killed six people and wounded many others while they were praying. We saw it closer to home last Friday afternoon when four Casco Bay High School students were accosted at knifepoint and subjected to racial slurs while waiting for the bus after school. It happened a couple a weeks ago to one of your Muslim classmates when she was stopped on the street by a man who insulted her religion and told her to go back from where she came. That is hate speech. That is wrong.

And when one group is singled out like that, other vulnerable populations start to worry. Right now I know that some of you are feeling afraid for your own safety and for the safety and well being of your family and friends. As a school we obviously do not control world, national, or even local events, but we do control how we respond to them. Anyone of you who is feeling vulnerable right now should know that as a community, we all bear witness to your worries and stand solidly with you. You are loved and valued. Your lives definitely do matter. You are all at home at Waynflete.

Waynflete is made whole by drawing strength from the diversity of backgrounds, beliefs, experiences, and viewpoints that we each bring to school every day. I firmly believe that our country will transcend its current state of turmoil, distress, and division when we learn as a nation to do the same.

Until that time comes, know that your faculty, administrators, and staff are ready to support you in all of the ways that we can.

Thank you for listening.

Leaning into a Difficult Conversation with Portland’s Chief of Police

As the next step in the Waynflete Dialogue Project, the Portland Chief of Police Michael Sauschuck will speak  at an Upper School assembly on Tuesday, November 15. Two students, Najma Abdullahi ‘18 and Josh Lodish ‘17, will interview him on stage about the relationship between law enforcement and communities of color across the nation and in Portland. The assembly will be followed by an advising lunch dedicated to a dialogue about the issues raised in the assembly and what Chief Sauschuck had to say about them.

The assembly will take place one week after the highly contentious presidential election, a date that many are hoping will mark a return to normalcy. Unfortunately, while the election has highlighted painful divisions in our country and likely exacerbated them, it did not create them. Instead, it revealed multiple rifts that will exist long after the election until we find the means and muster the will to heal them.

One off the many divisions that has emerged is the racial divide in our country exemplified by the tensions nationwide between the police and the communities of color. At the funeral this past summer in Dallas for the five fallen officers, President Obama characterized the divide and challenge the nation faces as a result in this way:

Faced with this violence, we wonder if the divides of race in America can ever be bridged. We wonder if an African-American community that feels unfairly targeted by police, and police departments that feel unfairly maligned for doing their jobs, can ever understand each other’s experience. We turn on the TV or surf the Internet, and we can watch positions harden and lines drawn, and people retreat to their respective corners, and politicians calculate how to grab attention or avoid the fallout. We see all this, and it’s hard not to think sometimes that the center won’t hold and that things might get worse.

As a citizen, I take note of the fact that the President of the United States is concerned “that the center won’t hold and that things might get worse.” As an educator, I worry about the effect of such divisions on the mindset of our young people. I wonder, with so much animosity and the threat of violence being expressed on this and too many other issues right now, how can we as adults guide the young people in our charge so that they can experience a legitimate sense of optimism that the center will indeed hold and that their futures will be bright?

The answer, it seems to me, is to engage youth as directly as possible in the real work of holding the center and creating a better future. We can do this by teaching them how, in the words of President Obama, to open our hearts to each other so that:

we see in each other a common humanity and a shared dignity, and recognize how our different experiences have shaped us…. With an open heart we can learn to stand in each other’s shoes and look at the world through each other’s eyes… With an open heart, we can abandon the overheated rhetoric and the oversimplification that reduces whole categories of our fellow Americans not just to opponents, but to enemies.

Seeing the world through the eyes of others, recognizing the richness inherent in our different experiences, steadfastly avoiding the overheated rhetoric that turns fellow citizens into enemies – those are the goals of dialogue and describe the intent of the Waynflete Dialogue Project on which the school has embarked.

In Michael Sauschuck, we in Portland are fortunate to have a Chief of Police who wants to build bridges between law enforcement and all of the communities that his department serves. He told me that he wants to acknowledge problems, address concerns, and work collaboratively and transparently with community members towards solutions. He is especially interested in talking with young people and addressing whatever questions and concerns are on their minds. In short, in his visit to Waynflete, Chief Sauschuck is inviting our students into dialogue with him on one of the most difficult challenges of our time. In so doing, the Chief is sowing the seeds of a legitimate optimism that we can create a better future together not only in our youth but also in those of us who bear witness to the conversation.

The Waynflete Dialogue Project

The Waynflete Dialogue Project (WDP) is a focused initiative to make dialogue a keystone habit in the Upper School. It is not a single program but instead touches on many facets of the Upper School experience, in and outside of the classroom. Dialogue, at its best, is an approach to bridging differences among individuals to find common ground and extract the wisdom inherent in a diversity of viewpoints and backgrounds. As such, the primary goal of dialogue is to learn and understand, not to persuade.

Developing dialogue as a keystone habit at Waynflete will enrich the education of all students by helping them to learn from differences rather than be divided by them and thus help Waynflete avoid the fate of many colleges, which are too often diverse but divided. Inclusive communities are also healthy communities in which no student should feel alone. In addition, because of its power to tap wisdom from diversity, dialogue promotes innovation, creativity, entrepreneurial thinking, and problem solving.  

By putting dialogue at the center of the student experience, the WDP will deepen learning, strengthen community bonds, and prepare our students to be catalysts of progress in a divided world. As the faculty and administration work at cultivating the capacity for dialogue in our students, we expect that the effort will cultivate that capacity in ourselves as well. We hope it will prove to be a model that other schools want to emulate.

The Genesis of the WDP

From our mission to our daily practices, Waynflete is fertile ground for teaching dialogue. Key elements that are necessary for dialogue to flourish have long been hallmarks of the Waynflete experience, including a climate of mutual respect; discussion as a primary pedagogical strategy in the classroom; a premium value placed on teaching students to think; and, thanks to the school’s ongoing commitment starting in the early 2000s, an increasingly diverse student population in the upper school.  

The latter development – the increase in student diversity – caused us to become more intentional with how we talk with each other. Alums then started telling us how important learning those skills in high school has been for them as they navigate the increasingly polarized climate they find in college. With that in mind, in the fall of 2015, we decided to get more systematic in how we cultivate dialogue. Recent events in the news worldwide as well as the 2016 presidential election have subsequently affirmed the choice to commit ourselves to dialogue.

With planning underway, in March of 2016 in partnership with Maine Seeds of Peace, we sponsored and hosted the first annual New England Youth Identity Summit (NEYIS). The incredible success of that event – in which nearly 300 students from 27 schools across Maine and New England converged on the Waynflete campus for an evening and a day of mostly student led workshops and dialogues on a host of topics – solidified our commitment to promoting dialogue and encouraged us to see ourselves as a catalyst for doing so in the larger community. Thanks to the leadership of Head of School Geoff Wagg and the hard work of Director of Student Affairs Lydia Maier and Development Director Sarah Plimpton, we have subsequently been awarded a grant from the EE Ford Foundation that will allow us adequate resources to support the Summit for the next three years as well as the launch of the WDP.

Early in the summer, Lydia and I started mapping out a launch plan. We defined dialogue by drafting the Waynflete Building Blocks of Dialogue, linked here. We then began to engage the faculty with the project by holding a dialogue training in July. Although that session was originally intended for Upper School faculty, interest from the other two divisions as well as the development office led us to broaden the participation. By the end of the day, the prospect of making the WDP an all-school initiative had been introduced. A month later, the Upper School faculty opening retreat focused on how best to promote dialogue, and the administrative team had discussed making the initiative school-wide.  

What Form will the WDP Take?

The WDP is now being introduced to students in a series of steps. I alluded to the goal of cultivating our capacity for dialogue in my remarks to students at the start of the year. Over the first couple of weeks of school, some of the student leaders involved with the Summit have heard more about the initiative. At a recent assembly, I explained the WDP to the entire student body and asked them to participate in an advising lunch dialogue about the concept of privilege as articulated in the MTV video. My assembly remarks are linked here. The video is linked here.

Next Thursday, October 6, Waynflete will host a hip hop performing and teaching duo, Eric and Oliver. Eric is white and grew up in Skowhegan, Maine, loving hip hop music but having virtually no contact with the people or culture that spawned the music he loved. He subsequently attended Brown University and got involved with the hip hop scene in Providence, where he met Oliver, who is Dominican and from Providence. The two have joined together not only as hip hop performers but also as diversity educators at the Wheeler School. At Waynflete, they will perform for students and then tell their story of how they bridged their differences to become artistic collaborators and close friends. That evening, with support of the Maine Arts Commission, they will host a public event in Franklin Theater entitled Hip Hop, Racial Inequality, and Cultural Appropriation: A Night of Cultural Dialogue and Hip Hop Performance.

As the year progresses, we will practice dialogue in advising lunch sessions, in our various dialogue-based activities, and in our classrooms. In addition, the Upper School team has adopted the Building Blocks as our meeting agreements, which will give us the chance to practice what we teach. In the spring, we will again co-sponsor NEYIS with Maine Seeds of Peace, which will give our students the chance to practice dialogue as facilitators and participants with students from across New England. By year’s end, we hope to well on our way to establishing dialogue as a keystone habit as well as having enjoyed the many benefits of making the effort.

A Final Thought

As noted earlier, Waynflete is fertile ground for dialogue. In fact, dialogue is so closely aligned with the school’s identity that the basic elements of dialogue as we have defined them in The Building Blocks – curiosity, caring, and courage – are also descriptors of the school’s core values. We are currently running ads extolling the importance of questions; when asked to describe Waynflete in one word, “kindness” was always former Head of School Mark Segar’s answer; current Head Geoff Wagg gave the same response when asked to summarize his philosophy in a word; and we ask students to take positive risks daily as a prerequisite to growth. As such, when we work at getting better at dialogue, we strengthen our core identity, which in turn makes us better able to learn from each other in dialogue.

It is exciting to think of where this initiative might take us.

Writing to Learn While Learning to Write

A visitor to the Waynflete campus might well wonder what is going on upon entering the Emery Building in mid-March and passing a group of students huddled in an alcove whispering with conspiratorial urgency.  The mystery would deepen as the visitor turns the corner and trips over another student who has crawled into position to spy on the apparent conspirators.  Stepping into the classroom of history teacher and department chair Alice Brock, the visitor might find a small group of students feverishly wordsmithing a document in response to a hastily scrawled message on the whiteboard that reads: “Dear France, We are truly sorry we took Alsace-Lorraine from you and we promise to be nice to you and we hope you will forgive us. Your friend, Germany.”

So what is going on?  “Learning to write,” according to Alice, among other lessons.  The students are sophomores taking Modern European History engaged in a week long role play exercise.  Alice has divided her class into groups representing European countries and assigned them the task of turning back the clock to 1914 to see if they can do better than their diplomatic predecessors by preventing the outbreak of war. The Great War unit, in addition to the role play, includes extensive document analysis and classroom discussion, culminates in a term paper in which students are asked to develop their own research based historical analysis of the primary causes of the war.

The role play is intended to deepen and make tangible the more academic and abstract study of the war.  According to Alice, “Role plays are amazingly effective in helping students to “get it” and appreciate an issue on a visceral level.  Without the role play, this topic – why the Great War happened – would remain highly abstract.  With it, students are much more invested in writing their term papers.  They understand why this topic matters and can delve into it much more deeply than they would otherwise.”

In short, Alice’s students are deeply immersed in the writing process. The Great War provides an excellent opportunity to engage students in active historical study, which in turn stimulates focused thought and in-depth writing because the causes of the war are complex, elusive, and still debated.  Thus, according to Alice, this study, especially the role play, “is empowering.  It drives home the fact that individual human beings can make a big difference and change the course of history.  In this role play, the students are rewriting history realistically and learning (or at least beginning to learn) that the concepts of “inevitability” and “forces beyond human control” need to be challenged.  In other words, they learn, I hope, that people make history, not the other way around.”

“Rewriting history” in this way illustrates a core methodology employed throughout the School: writing to learn while learning to write.  Ask any Waynflete graduate if she or he felt prepared for college.  Far more often than not, the response will be something like, “Oh yes, especially with writing.”  While Upper School English and history teachers might like to take full credit for this persistent response, in actuality, credit is due to the entire faculty because Waynflete teachers across disciplines and divisions understand the powerful interplay between writing and thinking and design their lessons accordingly.

English and foreign language teachers routinely use writing as a tool to hone skills of literary analysis by using literary analysis as the material for writing assignments.  And science teachers are doing the same when they assign and scrutinize lab reports.  A well written lab report is the product of sound scientific thought, while a poorly written one is likely reflects a vague or incomplete understanding of the science.  In such disparate subjects as art and math, students are asked to reflect on what and how they have learned, which again demands precision of word and thought. Such reflective writing brings students’ understanding of a concept or process or creation to a deeper level and allows teachers to better assess and guide their thinking.

Given the unique mix of serious scholarship and playfulness that permeates the School, every visitor to the Waynflete campus is potentially in for a surprise.  But some things are certain.  While the methods employed by Alice and the rest of the faculty do not always require students to go to such extremes as crawling through the hallways to spy on their peers, they do routinely inspire passions and cultivate capacities for learning and writing and so prepare our students well for any future they might encounter.

Lowell’s Opening Remarks to Upper School Students 2016

Welcome back from your first week of school scattered in locations ranging from downtown Boston to Mount Katahdin, from the White Mountains of New Hampshire to Acadia National Park Downeast, and from a host of places in between. I have heard happy reports from all directions. Now it feels good to assemble together this morning under one roof as a full Upper School for the first time this year.

Last week I was with the ninth grade up north in the middle of the 100 mile wilderness on pristine Fourth Debsconeag Lake. As most of you know who have been there when you were in ninth grade, it is a very good place to get to know people. I can tell the rest of you that we are lucky to have this class joining the Upper School. They were fun, helpful, and up for anything we threw at them, from long hikes, to deep meditations, to strange challenges such as using only their facial muscles to move Oreo cookies from their brows to their mouths.

At the campfire on the last night, I asked the students why they thought that Waynflete Upper School has opened with Outdoor Experience for more than 40 years. I wish I had recorded the responses because they perfectly articulated the philosophy that underlies the program. One response in particular stood out for me, which is that for the ninth grade, the program is designed so that the first big challenge of high school is experienced together as a class. Facing a collective challenge creates lasting bonds, underscoring the bigger idea that in any healthy community, no individual should feel alone.

That comment stood out in part because it reminded me of last year, which was the most challenging of my entire career. I know I speak for all of us who experienced the loss of two students and friends—first Payton and then Beata—when I say that at times feeling those losses has seemed almost unbearable but ultimately became bearable because of the way this community of students, faculty, and parents responded, with exceptional care and courage, tirelessly striving to reach out to one another so that nobody would have to endure such a painful experience alone.

As we enter a new year with a new mix of students and staff, some who were here last year and some who were not, I am comforted knowing that whatever comes our way, I will be in the same boat as all of you. Being in such a supportive community helps all of us both to endure great trials and to take the kinds of emotional and intellectual risks that are the catalysts for personal growth and the foundation for the powerful, world class education that awaits you.

As a faculty, we believe that our collective ties are so important to making you all feel both safe and challenged that we are seeking ways to make those ties even stronger. This year, we intend to focus on cultivating all of our capacities to be in dialogue with each other across the rich array of our differences in viewpoints and backgrounds. Building strong connections through dialogue seems more important than ever right now because we live at a time when the great diversity of our nation, which truly is our strength, is too often viewed as the cause of division and animosity.

In fact, as I read the news and the hostile rhetoric flying around social media right now, I feel great concern for the safety and well being of our students of color as they navigate their lives outside of school, especially our Muslim students, especially our Muslim girls who choose to cover because they can’t take a break and blend into the masses, even if they were to try.

As a white, middle aged male whose family immigrated to America centuries ago, I simply don’t have the life experience of feeling like the target of such suspicion and animosity. But I can seek understanding of that experience by listening to those who do and then take action based on what I understand. Creating and maintaining a school community that both holds and challenges our students in a variety of ways and teaches them to learn from each other through dialogue are tangible steps that the faculty and I can take to make the world we live in better for everyone right now and into the future.

In addition to being receptive to our efforts to promote dialogue as a habit at Waynflete, we hope that each of you will think about what steps you can take to make the communities that you inhabit better because you are present in them. Whether a long term initiative to combat an injustice or small daily acts of kindness or an extended commitment to community service – those are the actions that make a difference. Please know that supporting your efforts to be good neighbors and responsible citizens of the world are also steps that the faculty and I are always pleased to take.

Being in your presence this morning fills me with energy and optimism. Thank you for your respectful listening. I truly look forward to our year together.