Cultivating Screen Awareness

by Mark Lukach, Ninth Grade Dean

Once I was walking through San Francisco with my family, and I walked right into a pole. I was texting-while-walking.

It really hurt.

It was also embarrassing. My wife and son laughed at me for the rest of the day about it, and I deserved it. My crash jolted me into momentary self-awareness about my phone use. My head throbbing, I was suddenly convinced that I was never going to text and walk again. I was going to keep my head up, shoulders back, and engage in the world, from here on out.

This all happened about six months ago. I couldn’t keep track of how many times I’ve reverted to old habits and broken that pledge.

More problematic for me are the Friday evenings when we all pile into the family room to watch a movie, and my four-year-old picks the same Disney movie to watch for the hundredth time, and within a few minutes, I take out my phone to read the news, and my wife takes out her phone to do whatever it is she’s doing, and there we are, all in the same room, but all engaged with different screens. “Alone together,” as Sherry Tuckle calls it.

I’m guessing I’m not the only one who has caught themselves in these behaviors. In fact, with my office in the Commons and my windows looking out at the activity of the Quad, I know for certain that I’m not the only one. I’ve seen all of us walking while texting or spending time in a group while isolating in our phones: students, faculty, parents, admin…all of us.

As Ninth Grade Dean, I spent the summer reading two books about technology use: Mindful Tech by David Levy and Alone Together by Sherry Turckle. After our visit by Catherine Steiner-Adair, I’m planning to check out The Big Disconnect as well. I also read a lot of articles about tech use—ironically, on my phone, in bed, before going to sleep, all of which I probably shouldn’t be doing—like Andrew Sullivan’s essay “I Used To Be A Human Being”.

Many of the books and articles in this genre sound the alarm of tech addiction throughout 80% of their subject matter, and it’s a dizzying Siren song to hear, but they don’t get into solutions until the last 20%, if at all. I think we all already know there’s something going on. I recently asked ninth graders if they think we have a problem with tech overuse here at Athenian, and the overwhelming majority agreed that we do.

The book I resonated with most was David Levy’s Mindful Tech. His masterful little book is pretty much entirely about solutions. Not necessarily big picture, society-wide solutions, but intensely personal solutions, for how to become more aware of our tech use, to empower us to make changes if we want them.

I especially like his emphasis on mindfulness as a lens for examining technology, because mindfulness deliberately distances itself from guilt. I don’t want my approach to tech to be about shaming. Not for myself, my family, or my students. (Although people who walk into poles while texting are sometimes caught on security cameras, and are definitely shamed!) This is instead about becoming more aware and empowered so that we can all make decisions that better our experiences and enhance our relationships.

So what’s that looked like for me?

For starters, I’ve made a lot of personal changes. I really do try and avoid texting and walking, especially on campus. If I need to text, I stop walking, and then when I finish the text, I put my phone away and keep moving. Another change has been if I’m in a group of people and I need my phone for something, I announce to them why I’m going to be using my phone (“let me check MyAthenian to see what we’re doing during today’s Morning Meeting”), and then I put it away when I’m done. I’ve also scheduled tech-free times during my day, especially in the evening during family time, so that I’m not always available via email or text.

Of course, I don’t do these things perfectly all of the time. But I’m trying, and I have to say, I’m already noticing a difference in how I engage with my phone and the people around me.

As for my job as Ninth Grade Dean, I’ve been experimenting with this in our ninth grade advisory program, and most recently on PSAT Wednesday, when the ninth grade has a half-day with an open agenda that I get to shape around current needs. I took some of Levy’s exercises and applied them to our ninth grade, not to shame them or mandate any change, but instead to help the students realize their own behaviors. Students were asked to pay attention to which app they use the most on their phones, and how frequently they check the app. In that exercise alone, without any mandates to enact changes, several students opted to restrict their use of the app.

Even cooler, on PSAT Wednesday, students brainstormed a few Town Meeting proposals to bring before the School to vote upon, such as creating tech “blackout” days during the school year, or places on campus where no technology is allowed (like designated rooms in the library, or the Main Hall during lunch). Very cool ideas. We’ll see where those ideas go.

I know that this is just the beginning, but I’m glad Athenian is getting more involved in this conversation. I am only one voice of many here who want us to be more active about addressing our tech use, and I’m excited to see where it’s going to take us. I’ve always admired this school for being at the forefront of the most advanced educational thinking practices, and I suspect that more thoughtfulness around tech is going to be a big part of that going forth.

If you’re interested in observing or changing your own practices with technology, I strongly encourage you to check out Daniel Levy’s book Mindful Tech. Just do yourself a favor and get the real book, rather than download it your phone. I don’t think we could handle the irony of reading that book on your phone while walking across campus.

Involve Me and I Learn

by Lauren Railey, Head of the Middle School

“Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results.” -John Dewey

Dewey, a philosopher, educator and social reformer, was an early pioneer of progressive education and believed that students learn through experience.  The idea of “learning through doing” is a visible part of the Athenian experience, from our mission statement to AWE to Focus Days in the Middle School.  Students are highly engaged through experiential learning because they are active participants in the learning process rather than passive observers, which makes learning not only challenging, but fun.

Focus Fridays, often considered to be the hallmark of the Athenian Middle School experience, provide a chance for students to participate in their learning and connect together various strands of the curriculum while keeping students active in the learning process. Focus Days provide space in the schedule for enrichment or extension activities, interdisciplinary learning, or culminating events that conclude units of study. The flexible scheduling on these days allows for teachers from various disciplines to collaborate outside of the classroom as well as off campus, where they can take advantage of the educationally enriching resources of the Bay Area. These thematic, hands-on, daylong programs bring to life concepts and skills from the curriculum, where students learn by doing.

So what have our students been doing so far this year?

6th graders started off the year participating in a brand new Focus Day, Brain Olympics, which challenged them to explore how the human brain works by participating in a series of brain challenges related to memory, planning, and dexterity, all controlled by different parts of the brain. They also launched into our 1:1 iPad program on Digital Candy Day, traveled to San Francisco to see the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival and participated in an Equity and Inclusion Day that included a community service component at the Food Bank.

7th graders traveled to San Francisco for their first three Focus Days; they toured the Asian Art Museum and the Conservatory of Flowers and then built sand sculptures at Crissy Field inspired by the work of Andy Goldsworthy during Environmental Sculpture Day. One seventh grader commented that this was her favorite Focus Day because it was really fun and interesting to see how different people used Goldsworthy’s art to inspire their use of the seven artistic elements.

8th graders, our Focus Day experts, dove right into some of our signature Focus Days. During Robinson Crusoe Day, students went through a series of survival skill challenges including communicating via telegraphs (that the students made) and rescuing a giant teddy bear from under a tractor tire. Students collaborated during Pool Volume Day and Archaeology Day when they participated in all-day science labs and simulations, and finally, they traveled to Chinatown for a field trip in conjunction with literature about immigration that they are reading in English.

The title of this article is part of a quote by Benjamin Franklin.

Update from Germany: The Round Square International Conference

screen-shot-2016-10-13-at-4-07-21-pmGreetings from Louisenlund School and the 2016 Round Square International Conference. We arrived here on Monday afternoon after three train rides. The Athenian delegation is doing well, making many new friends, and enjoying their time at the conference. Here’re some of the highlights of our last few days.

On Saturday, we got a bus ride higher into the Schwarzwald (Black Forest) to Feldberg Mountain. It’s the highest mountain visible from Birklehof School. We caught a gondola to the top. On a clear day, you can see the Swiss and French alps from the top of Feldberg Mountain. Ours was a cloudy day, so no Mount Blanc, but it was still beautiful with great views—and a monument to Bismarck. screen-shot-2016-10-13-at-4-07-29-pm(The above photo is the group in front of this monument.)

We hiked down to and around gorgeous Feldsee Lake and had lunch at an inn that was just a few meters away. The lunch was another classic German meal, vesper. Vesper was traditionally a light meal, but we were served a huge spread with a dozen meats, a dozen cheeses, bread, fruit, sausage noodles and more. We were well fed for the eight-kilometer walk back to campus from there.

screen-shot-2016-10-13-at-4-07-34-pmBirklehof held its Halloween Dance that evening because the end of October is an exam time at the school. The drinking age for beer in Germany is 16, so the older students at Birklehof were able to buy and drink beer at the party. (No beer for the conference delegates!) This seemed especially odd because the dance was for high school and middle school students.

Sunday was the last day of the preconference. We mostly spent the day on campus doing things like archery, climbing, and playing volleyball and Black Forest hockey. It was a gray, rainy day. In the afternoon the raindrops started looking very big—and then turned into the first snow of the year. The leaves were still on the trees, flowers were still blooming, and the ground was covered with snow. The other conference delegates were from Australia and South Africa and some of them had never been in a snowstorm before.

screen-shot-2016-10-13-at-4-07-39-pmMonday was a travel day. We met in the darkness at 6:00 AM to walk nearly a mile to catch the train into Freiberg. We had 11 minutes in Freiburg to transfer to the train for Hamburg. After catching up on sleep on this six-hour train ride and eating some waffles from the food car, the train pulled into the Hamburg station. We weren’t standing at the train doors with our luggage. By the time some of us had gotten our big suitcases to the exit, the doors were locked and the train was rolling on down the tracks. As you might imagine, it was a bit of a shock to have half the group on the platform and half standing on the moving train. Gratefully, the next stop was just a few hundred meters away. Since we’d traveled around Hamburg on the public transit system, the Athenian students and I were able to easily navigate switching over to the adjacent subway train system and quickly rejoining the main group.

screen-shot-2016-10-13-at-4-07-46-pmArriving at the Round Square International Conference is usually a bit of a shock. There are dozens of groups of students from schools all over the world and it’s chaotic getting everyone registered and oriented. Louisenlund School is located right on a lake and a cold wind was blowing from the water.

In our first two days at the conference, there have been dance performances, icebreakers, small group discussions, and service projects. We’ve also had three excellent keynote speakers. Ben Saunders is a polar explorer. His most recent expedition was going on foot to the South Pole and back via Shackleton and Scott’s route. Everyone else who has tried this has failed or died. And, amazingly, he is a great speaker. We heard from Dr. Manfred Spitzer, who is an expert on brain research. This sounds kind of dull, but he had excellent slides and was really able to talk about the practical applications of recent brain research. To share just one of his points, he noted that loneliness is the deadliest disease. This evening, we heard from Souad Mekhennet, a German journalist who is Muslim and has worked for the New York Times and Washington Post. She shared some fascinating stories of her work and got some great questions in the audience on Islamophobia.

Probably the best thing that happens at the conference is the new friendships that are formed and the Athenian students are making some great connections. Tomorrow is the mid-point of the conference and so our return to California on Sunday is just days away.

Athenian Teachers Are Learners, Too: Working with Master Teacher Bonnie Mennell

By Lisa Haney, Dean of Upper School Faculty and Humanities Teacher

img_6083Bonnie Mennell, in the midst of her fourth visit to Athenian as a teacher coach, had just observed an 85- minute period of Applied Calculus. As they walked across campus together, Lalitha Kameswaran, the Applied Calculus teacher asked: “Wasn’t that boring?  All that math?” Bonnie laughed, explaining: “The math is not what I am paying attention to. I don’t understand the complexities of calculus. What I am watching is the presentation of the material, students’ engagement with the material, how questions are asked about the material and how they are responded to by the teacher. I am watching the learning.”

Bonnie and Lalitha later sat down to go over the notes she had taken, focusing first on Lalitha’s own assessment of how the class had gone; then Bonnie offered her perspective on what had gone well, and what could have gone better.

img_6077In talking with Lalitha about the experience later, she reported being grateful for the opportunity to see her work through the eyes of another and exclaimed: “Bonnie is awesome!”

Indeed. Bonne Mennell has been a teacher, teacher coach, and educational consultant for over 40 years: she brings a wealth of wisdom and expertise about teaching and learning to her work with our faculty, staying on campus for a full week, and in the last two years has come in the fall and the spring.  While she spends the bulk of her time with first-year Athenian teachers, she also visits other teachers’ classes as time allows.  She is also happy to simply meet with individuals to talk over teaching conundrums or share her knowledge of practices in other schools. Her work with teachers is outside of the more formal professional development and evaluation process; her observations and conversations with teachers are completely confidential.

img_6068As one faculty member put it, “having someone from outside of Athenian with Bonnie’s experience is an amazing way to get valuable feedback. Bonnie’s awareness of the big picture and the concept that less is more is really refreshing. She is ultimately concerned with what serves the students but her feedback is so well tailored to the individual teacher.”


Update from Germany: Visiting the EU Parliament and Learning About Refugees

screen-shot-2016-10-10-at-11-25-09-amGreetings from Birklehof School in Hinterzarten, Germany! The train ride south from Hamburg went well. We had a six-passenger cabin for our group, which was fun and cozy. We were all still adjusting to the time change and so we mostly slept. We stepped off the train in Freiburg and I wondered if I had bought tickets for the right city. There is also a Freiberg in Germany. I felt relief as I saw a familiar face—Carolin who came on exchange to Athenian last spring! She is a student at Birklehof and they sent her and a teacher to meet us. That’s Carolin second from the left in the picture—and the teacher even had a lapel pin with the US and German flags.

Birklehof is on a gorgeous spot looking out over the hills of the Black Forest. I didn’t realize the school was founded by Kurt Hahn. We do regular exchanges with all of the schools on the pre-conference, so as the students met each other they discovered many existing connections through mutual friends.

screen-shot-2016-10-10-at-11-25-17-amThe first full day of the pre-conference was action-packed. We were up at 5:45 AM to depart in the darkness for Strasbourg. The town has bounced between France and Germany five times in the last two hundred years. There wasn’t even a sign to note when we had crossed the border into France. The European Parliament is in a stunning building. The administrative offices are in Brussels, but Strasbourg is where the Parliament actually meets, which happens for four days each month. We got a 90-minute orientation by a Czech civil servant, who was quite a character. For all its flaws, the EU has delivered on its core goal of ending war between its member states, which is something given the history of Europe!

screen-shot-2016-10-10-at-11-25-24-amWe were able to sit in on an hour of the EU Parliament in session. There are currently eight parties and they are seated from left to right based on their politics. The Communists and Sinn Fein are on the far left. On the far right are nationalist groups that don’t believe in the EU, including members with views such as that only men should have the right to vote. Tellingly, the British members of parliament on the far right all had little Union Jacks on their desks. Most of the members of parliament hadn’t arrived yet, but we got to listen to speeches on two human rights issues: the ongoing crisis in the Sudan and the conviction in Thailand of a workers’ rights activist, Andy Hall. Interestingly. the parliament members speaking against these human rights violations were equally distributed around the hall.

The translation services of the EU Parliament are amazing. There are 26 member countries and the EU Parliament proceedings are translated into 24 languages. (The United Nations only translates into 6 languages.) It worked perfectly.

screen-shot-2016-10-10-at-11-25-49-amWe had a traditional Alsatian lunch of flammekuech. Flammekuech is similar to St. Louis-style pizza, but different in that one of the most popular toppings is sauer kraut! It was all you can eat, so the waitresses brought round after round. We spent the afternoon exploring Strasbourg. Unlike Hamburg, it did not suffer major damage in World War II and so it is full of gorgeous centuries-old buildings. We got a tour by boat and then walked around town in small groups. I could happily have spent days there. The exterior of Strasbourg’s cathedral is stunning in the late afternoon light. Like most people, I slept on the two-hour bus ride back to school, before dinner and a campfire with s’mores.

Today was another excellent day. The focus was the refugee crisis in Europe. In the morning, a Birklehof teacher gave us an overview of the topic from a German perspective. Our students said they really enjoyed hearing from him. Before and after his talk, the students met in small groups to talk about what they thought about the refugee crisis and what refugee issues are like in their country. At noon we walked into the village, caught the train into Freiburg, and visited the town’s Refugee Accommodation Center. The building was formerly the Town Hall and then the library. A new library was opened last year and the inside was gutted and converted into accommodations for refugees; 400 refugees, mostly families, now live in the center.

screen-shot-2016-10-10-at-11-25-34-amThe best part of our visit was getting to ask questions of four young refugees. Most of the talking was done by a 16-year-old girl from Iraq named Zarah. Zarah was so impressive: calm, articulate and personable. She spoke to us in German, a language she started learning just in February of this year when she was able to begin school in Germany. Her parents were killed and she was brought out of Iraq by her aunt and uncle, with whom she lives at the center. She traveled to Germany through Turkey and then in a boat to a Greek island. They are still waiting for a decision on their application for asylum in Germany. She said that she has friends at her school in Germany, but that it’s difficult to connect with her fellow students outside of school. What would improve her life? “An apartment for my uncle and aunt, jobs for my uncle and aunt, and being able to stay.” All of the Round Square delegates, including the ones from Germany, talked about how hearing from her brought home in a human way what the refugee crisis is about and the challenges the refugees face. In Zarah, I think we were seeing the face of Germany’s future—and it looks good.

screen-shot-2016-10-10-at-11-25-42-amIn the late afternoon, we headed to the center of Freiberg to have a look around the town. Dinner was the traditional local dish of maultaschen, which is akin to fried German dumplings. They were delicious—and good food makes this group of Athenian students very happy. The Athenian delegation had our daily debrief session on the train ride back to Hinterzarten. Two students from other schools joined our group as honorary members. Tomorrow we have a day-long hike through the Black Forest.

The Athenian students are doing great—healthy, happy and making many new friends.

Athenian Round Square Delegates Arrive in Germany

by Mark Friedman, Community Service and Round Square Director

Greetings from Hamburg, Germany!  Athenian’s delegation to the Round Square Conference in Germany flew from SFO to Copenhagen and then on to Hamburg.  I always find it exciting and unsettling to get on a plane one day and get off the next day on the far side of the planet. In the short time we have been here, we have reconnected with friends, eaten delicious food, and had moving experiences learning about WWII at a historical church and concentration camp.

picture6As we were finishing breakfast at our hostel yesterday, we were met by Franzi.  Franzi lives in Hamburg and attends the Round Square school that is hosting the conference.  She came to Athenian on exchange last year.  Franzi liked Athenian so much she wanted to transfer, but her parents said it was too far away.  So she has enrolled in the International Baccalaureate (IB) program because she is interested in coming to the USA for college.  We had Franzi as a tour guide for half of the day, which was a huge treat.  (Franzi is second from the left in the photo, which was taken at the front door of Hamburg’s Town Hall.)

Yesterday was a national holiday in Germany, Unity Day, so Franzi had the day off from school. The town was deserted and the shops closed when we headed out at 9:00 AM.  We wandered the streets and waterways of Hamburg, visited the historic warehouse district, and took a boat tour. We visited what remains of Saint Nicolai church.  It’s tower is still the second highest structure in Hamburg.  Almost all of the church was destroyed in the Allied bombing of Hamburg during World War I.  The ruins have been left as a memorial to the horrors of war.  We went up the tower, which was a scary elevator ride.  We also went into the crypt, which is a museum that focuses on the Nazi bombing picture5of the English city of Coventry in 1940 and the Allied bombing of Hamburg in 1943.  The Germans introduced the concept of saturation bombing of cities, along with innovations such as incendiary bombs.  Later in the war, the Allies used these same techniques to bomb many German cities, including Hamburg.  Over 900,000 people in Hamburg lost their homes due to the bombing, code-named Operation Gomorrah.

Our day ended with a little help from another friend.  Athenian 12th grader, Kiana Amir-Kabirian, lived in Hamburg for 11 years.  We ate dinner at a pasta/pizza restaurant she recommended, Vapiano.  We ordered our dinner from the cook and watched with them as they made it—or chatted with them if we were feeling really friendly.

picture3This morning, we took an hour-long train and bus ride into the countryside east of Hamburg to visit the Neuengamme concentration camp.  Our group had a three-hour guided tour.  I didn’t know anything about this concentration camp before this trip, but it was the largest camp in western Germany and had 84 satellite camps. It wasn’t an extermination camp like Dachau or Auschwitz. Our guide called it a “death through work” camp.  Half of the 100,000 prisoners who worked in the brick and munitions factories here died. It was a profound experience to walk around the almost deserted grounds and imagine the horrors that took place here.

picture2There are different exhibits for the prisoners and for the perpetrators in their respective barracks.  The many drawings by former prisoners of the camp powerfully conveyed their fear and terror. Our guide explained that in designing the memorial they made a conscious choice to put information about the conviction of SS troops as the first thing you see when you enter the perpetrators building. No flags with swastikas. No pictures of confident SS soldiers.  If any supporters of the Nazis visit the museum, the folks at the memorial didn’t want them to find anything to make them proud.  Only 14 of the 4,500 SS guards at Neuengamme faced trial.

picture1After returning to Hamburg in the mid-afternoon, we did some shopping.  Then it was off to dinner at yet another restaurant recommended by Kiana.  With friends like these, who needs TripAdvisor?

Early tomorrow we have a six-hour train ride to Southwest Germany and Birkelhof School, where we’ll meet up with delegations from Round Square schools in South Africa and Australia.