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Best of Aaron Cooper’s “Letters from the Head”

The Elisabeth Morrow School





Foreword When I began writing the Letter from the Head for our weekly school newsletter in 2013, I approached the task with some trepidation. As Head of School, I frequently have the opportunity to communicate with families in a variety of venues, but never before had I regularly offered my own — and, by extension, our school’s — opinion on a variety of issues ranging from educational trends, to parenting, to the importance of identity in our work as educators. Beyond deciding on a topic and writing the actual piece, I also was committing to a deadline every Monday at noon, regardless of whether inspiration struck or not, and no matter what else may have been going on at school, where Mondays are often the busiest days. I launched my first column that September with a discussion of the books that our faculty read over the summer (Now You See It by Cathy Davidson and Mindset by Carol Dweck), and talked a bit about how these authors’ understanding of neuroscience helped inform our ways of teaching students. From there, it was on to topics as varied as whether tough teachers get the best results (a response to a Wall Street Journal article), the crucial differences of a school that ends in eighth grade, the lessons learned from a hardfought victory on the basketball court and the importance of social-emotional learning. It wasn’t long before I began to see that what had begun for me as a way to express my

About Aaron Cooper, Head of School Aaron C. Cooper has been Head of School at The Elisabeth Morrow School since 2012. Previously Dean of Students and Assistant Head of School, Aaron joined EMS in 2003. During his tenure, Aaron spearheaded the school’s middle school and STEAM (science,

technology, engineering, arts and math) programs and pioneered the incorporation of instrumental music lessons into the school day. Aaron, who holds two master’s degrees from Teachers College, Columbia University, and a B.A.

Contents Educational Leadership

thoughts about a wide variety of topics in which I have deep interest was quickly turning into a full-bodied conversation between me and the families at EMS. Families started to pass along links to news stories that they thought might make for a good jumping-off point for a column. Others wrote notes praising a piece or telling me when they felt that I had missed the mark. I realized soon that I was engaged in (and engaging our community in) regular conversations about what matters deeply to all of us — the growth of our students — and what it means to be the adults who will help guide them on the path to becoming their best selves. Communications like this aren’t always easy; I have written more notes to help families explain tragedies to their children than I care to remember. However, my favorite columns are ones in which I can use some routine situation at EMS — practice for a concert, a history lesson, an interaction with a student in a hallway — to illuminate who we are as an institution and the core values in which we believe.

2. What Makes a Good Teacher? 4. In Praise of “Thick” Institutions 5. What Sets Our Program Apart 6. The Parent/Teacher Conference

Social-Emotional Development 8. Seeking Excellence Through Habits 10. A Focus on Identity 12. Deriving Purpose from Bridging Differences 13. A Lesson in Grit



The 4 C’s — Courtesy, Consideration,



Cooperation, Compassion 14. How Teachers and Students Inspire Each Other 16. Leadership Grows from Empathy and Courage 17. The Road to Character 18. Creating the “Win-Win”

I hope that you enjoy this compilation of “greatest hits” from my four years of writing Letter from the Head. I appreciate the opportunity to share my thoughts with you, with the desire that they can help make your parenting journey just a little bit easier.

Parenting 19. Ethical Parenting IS Possible 21. Intrinsic Motivation and Lifelong Learning 22. Parental Advice 24. The Voice In Your Child’s Head

from Haverford College, also has served on the boards and committees of nonprofit organizations, including the Elementary School Heads Association, the New Jersey Association of Independent Schools and the Community Chest of Englewood.

Aaron’s wife, Kara, is an educator and youth development specialist for the Bergen Family Center at the ZONE, a school-based youth services program. Their daughters, Julia and Charlotte, in sixth and fourth grade, respectively, began attending The Elisabeth Morrow School in the Threes.


Section Header Educational Leadership

What Makes a Good Teacher? Joanne Lipman’s recent piece in The Wall Street Journal, “Why Tough Teachers Get Good Results,” was a celebration of the teacher as gruff taskmaster, coupled with a rant against education today. While we at EMS agree with some of what Ms. Lipman writes — for instance, that teachers must give constructive feedback even if it hurts a student’s feelings — we take exception to many of her suggestions that schools return to “old-fashioned education.” Yes, tough teachers may sometimes get good results, but good teaching is so much more than that. At Elisabeth Morrow, we believe in high expectations coupled with high support. We know that students rise to those expectations particularly when they can draw from the passion their teachers feel for the subject matter and for working with the students themselves. When I reflect upon the teachers who had the most impact on my life, Mrs. Bolger, my fourth grade teacher, Mr. Tulp, my eighth and ninth grade Latin teacher, and Tom Donnelly, my 2

coach in college, immediately spring to mind. They are three of the most demanding, yet most supportive, teachers I have had in my life. Though I had one or two “tough” teachers like the Mr. K who taught Ms. Lipman, those individuals are far from the most influential. Ms. Lipman writes that for teachers, ‘’strict is better than nice,” but we at EMS believe that’s a false choice. We look for the teacher who will be like Mr. Tulp was for me — he loved Latin so much that there was no way we could not love Latin. Even though he gave a tremendous amount of homework and expected us to translate seemingly impossible sentences on tests, he would spend hours working with us after school until we understood the material thoroughly. There was no doubt that he cared deeply for us and supported our work toward the goals he set for us. Ms. Lipman also says that “praise makes you weak” while “stress makes you strong.” This is another false choice. Yes, when our students strive for excellence, the satisfaction should be in the pursuit of that excellence, and praise

has little role. However, we do not believe that unhealthy stress, whether external or internal, should be a motivating factor for our students. The healthy stress that comes from understanding that excellence is a continuum is what we hope our students experience. They should understand that the moment you have achieved excellence in an area, another goal immediately arises, and that becomes the new definition of excellence. While it may be a bit scary to feel that you are never “done,” that is the very definition of being a lifelong learner. If you are always learning, there’s always something that you haven’t accomplished yet, and the desire to improve can be a positive stressor in young lives. As a college sophomore, Mr. Donnelly told me that he believed that I could be on the varsity team. I disagreed because there were far too many good runners ahead of me.

Nevertheless, as the season progressed, I started getting faster, and I was able to achieve a place on our team that went to the Nationals. There, I ran the best race of my life thus far and knew that I had achieved “excellence” in its current definition. A few days after the race, my coach told me that he thought I could be an All-American, helping me redefine excellence again. He neither praised me, nor did I feel pressured to achieve this new goal. Just as it should be for our students, it was the pursuit of excellence that trumped all, and I knew that I had the support of a coach and peers in that aim. And, as it turned out, two years later, in my last college race, I did accomplish what Mr. Donnelly knew that I could, and became an All-American. Wherever your children are on the continuum of achieving true excellence in their endeavors, our faculty are there to both support and challenge them. We believe that is more meaningful than just being “tough.”

“They should understand that the moment you have achieved excellence in an area, another goal immediately arises, and that becomes the new definition of excellence.” 3

Educational Leadership

In Praise of “Thick” Institutions Last week, I referenced a recent David Brooks piece about institutions that make a lasting impact on people who belong to them. He calls them “thick” institutions. He notices that such places touch a person’s “head, hands, heart and soul.” I continue to think of this perspective as it relates to EMS. There is no doubt that we have a compelling origin story (we regularly quote the letter that Elisabeth Morrow wrote to her mother when she founded the school, and having our middle school housed in the Morrow family home adds to that connection) and many opportunities for people in the community to connect in ways that bind generations (think of the morning handshake, the Apple Tree Song and cocoa parties).

“...we have several unique community events that help make EMS a ‘home’ and connecting beacon for people.”

In addition to those aspects, we have several unique community events that help to make EMS a “home” and connecting beacon for people. Two such events this week illustrate this point. On Saturday, hundreds of people came to EMS to participate in our second annual Maker Day. Dozens of booths run by teachers, students, parents and community members greeted participants, and over 100 people left with at least one project they had made themselves. Our student and family participation in running booths jumped up to 40 percent of our booths from 10 percent in our inaugural year last year, and we had several students volunteer to provide general support for the event. Students ran tables and showcased demos along an entire 4

wall of the Cohen Center. Lower School teachers Kara Gustafsson and Rurik Nackerud spearheaded the event and inspired their colleagues, students and families to participate and share their interests. A number of people asked if the event could run later next year, and it has clearly become a highlight of the spring at EMS. On Monday, dozens of students were joined by their peers and many family members to serenade our newborn chicks in our annual Concert for the Chicks. After enjoying the event as always, I returned to Morrow House to teach my seventh grade math class. When I told the students about the concert, all of them commented that the event is one of their favorites. Even though only some of them played in the concert, while others watched, the uniqueness of the event connects them to the school and sparks an emotional response. Over time, I know that Maker Day will continue to help make EMS an even “thicker” institution. Thank you to everyone involved in making these two events part of the fabric of EMS.

What Sets Our Program Apart I recently read two articles that underscore the value of EMS’ belief in an interconnected curriculum. The first broadly details some of the pedagogical evolution currently underway in schools in Finland, long recognized for its world class education system. The second discussed why inauthentic methods of developing passions in children can be detrimental to their futures. Both reinforced the philosophical underpinnings of how our students learn at EMS today. Our STEAM initiative, focused on the intersection of math, science, art, technology, research and design, is exactly the type of program that is both relevant today and focused on building the skills — collaboration, creativity, character, cross-cultural competency,

communication and critical thinking — essential for future success. It joins our humanities program in linking the interconnected subjects into a greater whole. Further, our broad middle school program, in which students take six academic courses, play on a sports team, learn an instrument and are part of many other co-curricular activities, provides our students with skills and dispositions that reinforce their value when they are performed together. We know that childhood is the time when lifelong passions are born and that those passions are more likely to be realized in a world where students understand the connection between ideas and disciplines that an EMS education makes obvious.


Educational Leadership

The Parent/Teacher Conference I recently came upon a blog post by Chris Crouch, a fellow educator, that fits nicely this week as we prepare for parent-teacher conferences. We view this week as a chance to speak about your child’s growth, relative areas of strength and challenge and the steps you and your child can take to enhance those strengths and address those challenges. This week shows the partnership between home and school at its most evident. Indeed, Mr. Crouch’s three items all encompass the notion of the partnership between home and school: educate yourself about education, forget your own student experiences and work with those who are teaching your children. I would like to address the first two here, as the third one is selfevident in the environment of partnership we aim to cultivate.


will not result in identical school experiences. Leaving our own memories at the door allows our children to fully experience their own educational journeys. When we think back on our own experiences, our memories may not be as applicable as we think they are. Our daughter, Julia, is in second grade. When I think back on my own second grade experience, I remember my teacher, Mrs. Gosselyn, and I remember where our classroom was. However, when I think back on specific classroom experiences, I cannot remember any that were clearly from second grade. The journaling assignment or math project that I remember from second grade may just as likely have been from fourth grade. Thus, it would be inappropriate for me to draw on my specific student experiences when thinking of Julia’s or my other daughter, Charlotte’s.

Throughout the year, as the division heads and I have written thoughts about articles relating to education, we have received feedback from you that has ignited dialogue and discussion. Further, many of you have emailed pieces you have come across in your own reading. The extent to which you educate yourself about trends and theories in education helps put into context all that we are doing to both innovate and respect tradition here at EMS. Please feel free to ask the teachers this week about some of the things you have read. It will be sure to ignite a valuable discussion!

It is common to feel anxiety about one’s children when reflecting on one’s own student experience. As a math teacher for many years, I have heard countless parents explain away their children’s struggles in math by pointing to their own. Too often, I heard [insert selfdeprecating tone here], “Well, I was terrible at math, so I guess he/she got those genes,” rather than, “So, how can we support our son/daughter in learning algebra?” Focusing on our child’s growth, rather than our own experiences, is in the student’s best interest.

Mr. Crouch’s second way to support teachers is both the hardest and the most important. He asks parents to “forget their student experience.” This is important because our children are not wholly like us and their path will certainly not be identical to ours. It has been 30 or 40 years since we were their age, so even if they are identical learners to us, that

That said, forgetting our student experience is very challenging. I can relate directly to those self-deprecating, anxious statements. Sometime in third grade, when I finished a set of books, I did not know where to turn next. Despite having been a voracious reader until that point, I essentially stopped reading for pleasure. It was many years before I

rediscovered my earlier love of reading. Julia is also a voracious reader now in second grade, plowing through children’s novels. I have to work hard not to put my anxieties about my own experience on her or her teachers. I trust and know that the teachers at Elisabeth Morrow will have the perfect suggestions for books should Julia experience the same lack of direction with reading that I did. And, whether she does or not, I know that they will be there for her when she experiences challenges in

other areas. Also, I know they will let me know about those areas during weeks like this one so that we can work together in partnership for our children’s best interests. I wish you productive and enlightening conversations about your children’s progress this week and specific goals to support them in their work forward, and I hope we as parents can together resist the urge to insert our own student experiences into our children’s.

“Leaving our own memories at the door allows our children to fully experience their own educational journeys.”


Social-Emotional Development

Seeking Excellence Through Habits Aristotle once said, “Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” He also said, more simply, that “good habits formed at youth make all the difference.” Last Friday, like many days, saw students throughout EMS portraying our belief in the wisdom of Aristotle’s outlook. I was fortunate enough to witness many of these instances throughout the day. The third grade violinists began the day by sharing their learning with parents. During the half-hour-long performance, the students, through their music, led their parents on the journey from beginner to intermediate musician that they themselves have experienced these past few months. Immediately afterward, the fourth grade presented both their Egypt research projects and their recent statistical analysis of “the average fourth grader.” While I was not able to view the presentation due to teaching my own fifth grade math class (and instilling the training and habituation necessary for students to achieve excellence), by all accounts, the fourth graders not only 8

produced excellent work, showing a deep understanding of the concepts, but also articulated their learning effectively for both adults and fellow students. Friday also saw the final day of the Kindergarten Post Office, where students sort, read, organize and deliver mail to all parts of the campus. Their work demonstrates their math, reading and social studies knowledge. Finally, in the afternoon, the middle schoolers enjoyed their annual Founder’s Day Carnival, in honor of Elisabeth Morrow. The carnival, while a fun afternoon featuring carnival booths invented, built and staffed by students, is a fundraising opportunity directed by the Student Council. The process of seeking and determining the recipient of the funds is months long and involves the input and engagement of all of Morrow House. The day showed what EMS is all about: an engaging curriculum, focused on community and character, that values student work and student input while instilling the habits of mind that set our students up for excellence now and in the future. While all left Friday afternoon excited for the extra breath that comes with a long weekend, that sort of outlook is one that has us all looking forward to returning to school today.

“The day showed what EMS is all about: an engaging curriculum, focused on community and character, that values student work and student input while instilling the habits of mind that set our students up for excellence now and in the future.� 9

Social-Emotional Development

A Focus on Identity One of the most important areas of growth for children is the formation of identity. Throughout childhood, and especially in the early adolescent years of middle school, children discover and define their own identities, whether it be in terms of their learning style, race, gender, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, religion or mental/ physical ability. This is an essential and healthy transition from the dependence of childhood to the self-determination of adulthood, and it is one that we at EMS observe and support in our students every day.

through our work together on the various facets of human identity. Last year’s February Faculty Study Day, in which we showed American Promise and engaged in facilitated discussions around the issues raised in the movie, was an important step in increasing our awareness of the role that race and economic difference play in the lives of independent school students. This year’s February Faculty Study Day will further explore identity, with a particular emphasis on gender. Our presenter will be literacy coach and LGBTQIA educator Amy Fabrikant, author of When Kayla was Kyle.

Next week, as students enjoy the fourth day of their long winter weekend, faculty and staff will be on campus for a day of professional development. The focus of the day will be on further developing our common language around, understanding of and support for the formation of identity in our students. We will center that focus on a study of gender identity. The topic of gender is an active one in our world: our seventh and eighth grade students, in the diversity elective, presented on the topic at an assembly of sixth, seventh and eighth graders earlier this year, and as recently as this past weekend, The New York Times highlighted the topic of gender identity, writing a story about how the University of Vermont has given official recognition to gender that is neither male nor female.

Planning for this day has been a collaborative effort between the instructional administrators and our Equity & Justice Task Force, and we are excited to invite you to come to:

To provide more context for our work on February 17, I share below the email I sent to our faculty and staff in preparation for the day: Dear Colleagues, EMS is a school that puts students’ social and emotional well-being at the heart of all we do, and so we have made it a priority to give you the opportunity to deepen your knowledge of our students and your ability to reach them 10

• expand your vocabulary for discussing issues of identity thoughtfully; • reflect on the implications of your practices and language; and • engage in conversation about the diverse schools and workplaces that all of us will continue to inhabit as we move through the 21st century. An understanding of the various facets of identity is fundamental if we are to have the impact on our students’ lives that they deserve and that we seek to have as educators. I am looking forward to engaging in more of these occasionally challenging, but always rewarding conversations around issues of equity, justice and identity. I believe that what we can take from these rich discussions will help form behaviors in all of us that are as meaningful to our students as the daily handshake — a clarion signal to all students that they are valued, understood and irreplaceable members of the EMS community. I look forward to a rich learning opportunity on the 17th.


Social-Emotional Development

Deriving Purpose from Bridging Differences Normally, at this time of year, I would be writing to share thoughts on summer lessons learned, and the pleasure of relaxing or rejuvenating time with family and friends. I do hope that many of you have experienced some of that these past several weeks, as it is important. Yet, even in the swirl of our summer activities, it is impossible to escape feeling deep worry, anxiety, fear and even anger at what is gripping our country and world. Current events bring into stark relief the many ways in which polarized views on ethnicity and race, religion, sexual orientation and class result in alienation, hate and unspeakable violence. Political rhetoric has sadly sometimes only served to disparage differences and heighten unhealthy emotions.


cultivate moral growth and social responsibility than at a school as diverse as ours and in a community that believes as deeply in character as ours? What a gift we have been given to be able to learn from one another all of the important ways in which we are different, which in no way minimizes those attributes that we have in common.

Perhaps, like me, you have found it easy to despair at our current state and our future. There is no doubt that violence and hate demand our attention while virtue and understanding too often go unnoticed. Yet, it is only through virtue and understanding that we can seek meaningful change and bridge the gaps that can sometimes seem like chasms between us. It is within this framework that our school lives its mission and derives its purpose.

The faculty and I derive great purpose from the knowledge that we have the opportunity — and indeed the responsibility — to change the world through the education of our students. Our goal is for our graduates to be thinkers of good character who treat others with respect. We endeavor to create in them a mindset where they can lead as well as follow, working well with others as well as alone. We want to ensure that they understand that in a community, each person’s perspective is derived from their identity and experiences and that embracing these differences is the key to recognizing one another’s humanity. It is only through an empathetic understanding of each person and community’s unique struggles and triumphs that we can move beyond the us-versus-them mentality that tears at and weakens the fabric of every society.

As a former student of architecture, I know the importance of a strong foundation for building amazing edifices, and I believe that the same tenets hold true for human development. At EMS, we are proud to be able to nurture children throughout the entire arc of childhood. We know that it is in these years that many of our values, our assumptions and our biases are formed. Where better, then, to

As we spend the summer planning for next year, we do so with the mindset that our mission of educating the whole child and supporting the whole family has never been more needed. We look forward to continuing to partner with you in the crucial work of supporting our students, and helping them develop the dispositions that will change the world.

A Lesson in Grit I first brought my daughters skiing last winter. We went to a local ski area on several weekends in February and March and they quickly advanced from barely being able to stand on the skis to skiing down relatively challenging runs in a few weeks. Reflecting on their experience, I am struck by the connection to the popular education topic of grit. Grit is often described in a linear fashion: try something and, if you fail, try again. Repeat, and eventually, you will be successful and you will display grit. In reality, such a process is much more complex, rich and rewarding. I learned that lesson (and more importantly, hopefully, my daughters did too) during their attempts to successfully navigate a “black diamond” (advanced) trail. Soon after starting skiing, both girls expressed an interest in attempting a black diamond trail. This was mostly due to hearing about them from classmates and the naive bravissimo that comes from constantly improving at something new. In our last skiing expedition of last year’s season, they finally got to try. While on the steepest face, both fell/sat down out of fear and hesitation. Neither knew how to continue, and I think both secretly wanted to be transported back to the safety of the gentler slopes. Eventually, both made it down — one with the help of a friendly fellow skier — and both felt a healthy dose of fear and apprehension. Leading into this year, one said that she would “NEVER” do a black diamond again, while the other said that she “might want to try one again.” Neither of those responses fit particularly well with the definition of grit, which says that they should dust themselves off and try again. Of course, it is not that simple. This year, as we re-acclimated

ourselves to skiing, I decided to say nothing to the daughter who said she would never try a black diamond again, while I gently encouraged the other one to try it again. Neither had any interest in trying it for a while. Interestingly, the one to whom I said nothing was the first to want to attempt it again, at the end of our second day out. Once she did, it was gratifying for me to watch from above as she successfully navigated the steepest section and then threw her hands in the air in triumph. Our other daughter was not yet ready, despite (or perhaps because of?) my encouragement. It was her sister’s support that got her to try it the next time we skied, and the two of them went down the steepest section together, the one who had completed it yelling encouragement the entire way. When we finished and got in the car, both agreed that had been their favorite run. The lessons as an educator and as a parent are many in this story. The path to “grit” is an individual one. Sometimes, our children need a push and need to have a bar set for them. Often, they set that bar for themselves — and at a higher level than we might. In such cases, the lessons they learn — about themselves and the activity — are more valuable than when we are directly involved. Our children are naturally resilient and also naturally selfaware. Allowing them to find that intersection results in deeper learning for them. Finally, and equally as important, there is an unending series of do-overs in this parenting journey. We can make a mistake — like my pushing my one daughter to try the black diamond again — and then adjust and change tactics. Giving ourselves as parents the room to make a mistake is as important as providing the space for our children to do the same. 13

The 4 C’s — Courtesy, Consideration, Cooperation, Compassion





How Teachers and Students Inspire Each Other Last Sunday morning, my alarm rang well before dawn. In a haze, I asked myself the question I often do when awoken so early, especially on a weekend: “Why?” Once my brain adjusted to being awake, I heard dozens of cars driving down Speer Avenue, and quickly realized that there were about 75 reasons why I sacrificed sleep on a Sunday morning. Sixty-three members of our orchestra and about a dozen adults had volunteered, for the third year in a row, to play “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the beginning of the Run 10 Feed 10 road race, providing food for hungry New Yorkers. Paul Baly and I joined the students and adults with plans to run the race (along with Brittany Sklar, who both played the anthem and ran the race) because, while neither of us plays an instrument, we can both run a 10K, and running the race seemed an appropriate way to support the cause and the students. Our students no doubt felt as I did that morning, but yet showed so much dedication to their music, the school and living out the meaning of the 4 C’s in those pre-dawn hours. Both Paul and I raced the previous day as well and had planned to use Run 10 Feed 10 as a training exercise. However, when we 14

saw the size of our group, the enthusiasm of our students and the passion with which they played the anthem, there was no choice for us but to also put our best into the race, which we both did. Afterward, hurting from the effort and the humidity, it was clear to me that the morning’s experiences mirror so much of what we experience at EMS: the interplay of teachers and students giving their all is a staple of our school. Teachers set extremely high expectations for students and support them to achieve those goals. Students, in turn, put in their best to meet and even exceed the expectations set by the teachers, and that motivates the teachers to set the bar even higher. This can be observed throughout the school, whether it is in a teacher pulling a student aside to work on a challenging concept, the faculty passionately discussing the best placements to ensure student success or students and faculty spontaneously breaking into Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” 10 minutes before playing the anthem for a race to support those less fortunate than ourselves. These are all proud moments for the school and our children that truly embody what an EMS education represents.

“Teachers set extremely high expectations for students and support them to achieve those goals. Students, in turn, put in their best to meet and even exceed the expectations set by the teachers, and that motivates the teachers to set the bar even higher.�






The 4 C’s — Courtesy, Consideration, Cooperation, Compassion

Leadership Grows from Empathy and Courage At Morrow House’s Back-to-School Night, my remarks focused on leadership because it is one of the most important — and most needed — skills we can cultivate in our students. At EMS, we define leadership as choosing behaviors that, from a place of empathy and courage, can influence others so that a group meets or exceeds its goals. Not coincidentally, that definition can be met from anywhere in the room and at any volume and is thus attainable for everyone. Leadership is one of the reasons I have dedicated my career to working in schools that begin with very young students and end after the eighth grade. In these schools, students in the impressionable middle school years have the opportunity to participate in genuine leadership experiences. At EMS, our eighth graders can lead the Student Council, edit the school newspaper, design the yearbook, become a student ambassador, take a leading role in a play, be a captain of a sports team and play first violin in the orchestra. No school with older students can possibly provide the leadership experiences that our students undertake. Those experiences matter because they help our students learn about themselves, learn about how groups function and about the roles they can play to make the group better (and worse). They matter because leadership begets more leadership: our graduates go on to leadership positions in their high schools, colleges and beyond at an astounding rate. Seeking to make the leadership opportunities at EMS even more impactful, our middle school faculty decided that teaching the theories of leadership (and practicing 16

leadership in even more ways) would be an extraordinary complement to the experiences students receive here as a result of their being our oldest students. Thus, the “Leadership Symposium” for our eighth graders has emerged. In its pilot year, students have experienced leadership simulations, engaged in team-building activities and redesigned our middle school assembly program. Combined with the secondary school admissions process, it allows them to dedicate more time and greater focus to articulating their passions, their personality and what they hope to pursue in high school. The Leadership Symposium is just one way in which our faculty is constantly examining our practices and results, and refining them to ensure that we remain top of class in educating children to be thinkers and leaders. Truly, we live Elisabeth Morrow’s own aim to marry the best of the tried-and-true in education with the most innovative thinking about how to enrich students’ lives throughout the arc of childhood.

The Road to Character Reading a recent David Brooks piece on compassion and character reminded me of an interaction I had last spring. I was biking along Henry Hudson Drive in Palisades Interstate Park and stopped to observe and admire a pair of bald eagles nesting in a tree alongside the river. While there, I met a man who was observing the eagles on behalf of the Parks Conservancy. While chatting, he told me that his children had graduated from EMS. He commented that, of all the schools his children had attended, including some of the premier high schools in our area, multiple Ivy League colleges and top-rated medical schools, they had learned the most about character at EMS and that, as a result, EMS had the biggest impact on their development. He commented that “every school says they teach character, but no one does it like EMS. I don’t know how you do it, but I hope you continue to do so.” Cultivating the moral growth and social responsibility of our students is part of our mission, and instilling good character continues to be one of our prime aims as an institution. While the former parent “didn’t know how we do it,” our approach to building character is simple, yet all-encompassing. It begins with our mission statement and our foundational notion of the 4 C’s. The 4 C’s are a part of the curriculum from Chilton House, where they arise in Morning Meeting, when students learn to thoughtfully listen, to ask good questions and to participate actively, to Little School, where students actively discuss the meaning and implication of each of the 4 C’s, to Morrow House, where students more deeply analyze each of the 4 C concepts and come to understand each in a new way — for example, that consideration is in many ways analogous to empathy.

Our approach to building character continues to the many caring adults who know and attend to each of our students. Whether making a good choice or a bad choice, struggling through a difficult peer interaction or helping peers struggle through theirs, teachers are on hand to guide students to understand the implications, productive or not, of their actions and to support continued choices that promote good character and learning around those that do not. Over the course of many years, with the support of families who similarly value character and chose this school in support of that, character matures, deepens and develops.

“Our approach to building character is simple, yet all-encompassing.” Some of the results of this focus was evident last Tuesday, when 10 of our recent alumni volunteered to take time from their first days of Thanksgiving vacation or arranged their schedule to miss a morning of classes to return to EMS to speak as part of our alumni panel for students and parents. Among the many impressive perspectives and experiences our alumni related, I was most struck by the multiple peer leadership activities each is pursuing. Whether they are chairing an existing club or founding a new one, each of our alumni from the panel has taken the lessons from EMS and the self-confidence that grew as a result of their education here and is taking on these leadership roles surrounding activities intended to positively impact the world. That event, along with the Brooks article and my interaction from last spring, should make us all very proud to be associated with this community, whose values are so aligned with what is best for children. 17





The 4 C’s — Courtesy, Consideration, Cooperation, Compassion

Creating the “Win-Win” Last week, a panel of six high school admissions directors came to EMS to speak with our seventh grade parents about their schools and the application process. This is one of five separate events we provide in the spring of seventh grade to orient, prepare and advise our seventh grade parents as they transition to the process of applying to schools in the eighth grade fall. As with every other aspect of our school, partnership with our families and education for our parents are top priorities, and the high school application process is a shining example of that mindset. At the event, one of the admissions directors talked about the head of school at their school regularly meeting with the entire student body to talk about various aspects of education and life. The admissions director gave a specific example of a talk centering on the notions of kindness and competition not being opposites. He expanded on that by talking about the importance of nurture in a successful pursuit of academic excellence, a notion near and dear to EMS and one that certainly resonated with families in attendance. The example also reminded me of a leadership class I took two years ago at

“[Win-win] can have an enormous impact on long-term relationships, on future interactions and on finding the balance that EMS’ mission strikes between achievement and character.”


Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. Our class played a version of the classic “Prisoner’s Dilemma” game as a lesson in negotiation and communication. This challenge helped us as students reframe the notion of competition from a “just win” mentality to one where seeking a “win-win” can be even more valuable for all involved. It strikes me that, in this world of increased anxiety and with potentially higher stakes attached to all sorts of activities, looking for a “win-win” is only becoming more important. It can have an enormous impact on long-term relationships, on future interactions and on finding the balance that EMS’ mission strikes between achievement and character. It was gratifying last week in the admissions director’s tale of the lesson about kindness and competition to hear yet another way that the philosophies of the high schools our students attend complement EMS’. Such connection only benefits our students’ continued growth in young adulthood and beyond and builds on the amazing intellectual and character foundation they have from their years at EMS.


Ethical Parenting IS Possible Parenting — like education — is a lifelong endeavor. While everything we do has an immediate impact on our students’ or our children’s lives, it also has an effect, often more subtle but no less direct, on their future actions, beliefs and values. This is the premise of last week’s New York Magazine piece titled “Is Ethical Parenting Possible?” by Lisa Miller. The cumulative effect of our implicit and explicit actions on our children is immense and can have far-reaching impacts beyond what is learned in any classroom. Recent articles about members of a school community actively attempting to damage another member’s chances of college admission and stories of students routinely cheating, whether on the SAT or at the most prestigious universities, underscore the importance of the moral lessons our children learn from us as parents. These stories should give us all pause about the direct and indirect implications of our seemingly benign actions — whether it be, for example, engaging a tutor so that our

child can get ahead or putting pressure on our children to achieve certain grades. We should ask ourselves, “What will this do to our children in the long run, and will that make them better adults?” Though such choices may result in better skills now or increased focus and attention in the short-term, they also send long-term messages to our children that they cannot fully achieve on their own and that external gain is paramount. It gets even worse if taken further: parents choosing to do homework for their children in the guise of “helping” sends the additional message that the best — and sometimes only — way forward is to work around basic norms about what is “right.” Rarely do parents make such decisions under intentionally unethical circumstances and, particularly if one believes others are doing the same, these choices seem necessary and almost impossible to resist. And yet, we must resist them for the long-term messages they send and the effects they have on our children. Cont’d on next page



In order to do so, we must have a more compelling purpose directing us as parents and educators. At EMS, that framework is our mission. Each of its tenets, including fostering moral growth and social responsibility, pursuing academic excellence, cultivating individual talents and instilling the joy of lifelong learning, are long-range goals. That is why we are so proud of being a place that nurtures these qualities in our students. The picture of the graduate that EMS’ mission paints is truly compelling for the future of the world — students who know themselves and how they learn, who are driven by their interests and passions, who have the desire to pursue excellence in those areas and who have the skills to succeed in the modern world. Most importantly, we wish for all of our students to possess a strong moral compass and sense of character. Last Friday, all in the middle school were lucky to witness the effect that such an outlook can have on a community. Eleven eighth graders gave speeches to their peers and teachers asking for support in their aim to be Student Council president. Each speech was impressive in its content, in the care the student put into thinking about leadership in the context of the school and in the confident and clear way those thoughts were presented. The student who was elected president laid out a vision of a world — and a school — where kindness and good character are the top qualities, and where instances of meanness are openly rejected by the community. As he spoke movingly about experiences he had in a previous school where he was bullied, he acknowledged that he might not win a popularity contest, but that he felt so strongly about the experience he has had at EMS that he owed it to himself and the school to run for president. He spoke of an EMS where all students feel heard, respected and, most important, safe. 20

When Mr. Baly read the results (which were met with joyful cheers) to the student body, I found myself thinking how rare it is for a group of 175 early adolescents to hear such a message and believe in it deeply enough to determine their vote. There are so few places where such a scenario would play out similarly. In the New York Magazine article, the author asks whether ethical parenting is possible. We believe ethical parenting, like ethical educating, is possible, and that for the future of our world, it must be. We as parents and educators must keep our eyes on what is really important — character, lifelong passions and an active intellect. If we keep in mind the longrange view of those qualities for our students, we will be doing them — and our society — a great service indeed.

Intrinsic Motivation and Lifelong Learning On Saturday night, I had the pleasure of watching 116 EMS musicians, ranging from age four to 14, open for Sarah Chang at bergenPAC. It was a wonderful showcase for our students and our school, and the audience was packed with EMS families. This was one in a long line of opportunities our students have to further demonstrate their knowledge and love of something they are learning. Whether it is playing their instrument at an event off campus like this, middle schoolers applying to be admissions ambassadors or lower schoolers working on their latest invention or project in Innovation Alley during recess or before school, the ability to choose to pursue an interest outside of class or to dive more deeply into a topic is an important example of intrinsic motivation, a crucial concept in the quest of joy in lifelong learning, as our mission states.

participation. The promises of being on stage, of having an audience give you a resounding ovation and of a pizza party with friends beforehand all served as additional motivation for the students. Their participation, we hope, will result in lasting memories that will build intrinsic motivation for practicing and pursuing excellence in that area (in this case, music) in the future.

Intrinsic motivation is that which comes from within oneself and is in contrast to extrinsic motivation, or doing something for a kind of external reward. In an ideal world, every person would be completely intrinsically motivated, but that is rarely the case. Rather, individuals are often intrinsically motivated for some things, and less so for others.

This can be a balancing act for parents: provide our children with enough space to make decisions on their own and yet have the foresight to identify that our children should be pursuing deeper learning and opportunities in some areas. In other words, it is OK to say “no’” to some opportunities, but we need to ensure that our children are not saying “no” too often. As a wise person once told me, “Moderation in all things, including moderation.” It is important to give our children the space to form their own motivations and passions, and also to push them to be involved in certain activities at certain times. EMS always wants to be a partner in that process of learning and growth, and that is one reason why we are so proud to offer opportunities such as the wonderful one on Saturday night at bergenPAC.

At EMS, we design opportunities to encourage intrinsic motivation. Some of these are as simple as open-ended projects in class — nearly all of the activities in our Chilton House classrooms are built this way. Others encourage students to choose an activity that best interests them — think of Morrow House electives here. Still others, like the Sarah Chang opportunity on Saturday, offer a hint of extrinsic motivation to encourage student

At the same time, some of the most valuable conversations I had on Saturday were with families whose children chose not to participate. Choosing not to pursue an opportunity can be as important a component to building intrinsic motivation as choosing to participate in that self-knowledge, and the identification of one’s interests and passions is a crucial component to acknowledging one’s motivation and desire to learn.



Parental Advice As parents, we receive advice all the time. We read articles in the papers, we listen to our own parents and we are given “tips” by friends whose children are older. Most of the advice comes across as a guilt-inducing, scolding “to-do” list for how to be the perfect parent, which, of course, is unrealistic. It’s no wonder that much of the advice is contradictory and anxiety provoking. What role can a school play in helping parents navigate all this advice? How can we help parents to find their way through all the noise? As educators, we hope to provide context to help you sift and sort the good from the notso-good of today’s parenting philosophies. One way we do that is through parent education, an important component of the EMS experience. Through our coffees and presentations, our writing and our conversations, we want to collaborate with you on the many challenges and opportunities inherent in navigating parenting. We also believe these events give our families the opportunity to seek community with other families in the school who have “been there, done that.” Of course, we are with your children all day, every day, and we believe our school can have the biggest impact by providing what they need to help develop the foundation for a successful life. Here (in no particular order) are 10 things that we believe will make a lifelong positive impact for our students: 1. The 4 C’s. Nothing can take the place of outstanding character. Courtesy, consideration, cooperation and compassion provide good guideposts for its development.


2. Love of learning. No matter what the future brings, a love of learning allows your child to stay ahead of the curve. 3. Thinking. The ability to think in many ways and examine a problem from many different angles will be critical in a future where most of the jobs haven’t been invented yet. 4. Leading. Planned opportunities for leadership, starting in our early childhood program, will help your child develop both conviction and comfort with ambiguity, the marks of a good leader. 5. Play. Recess in every grade, every day. It’s just that simple. Your children will learn better, and be healthier, when they are active in school. 6. Interdisciplinary education. An interdisciplinary approach cultivates your child’s thinking skills. We all learn best when we can make connections between subjects and apply that knowledge to what we are familiar with in our own lives. 7. Preservation of childhood. Ever wish you could turn back the hands of time? At EMS, we believe children don’t need to rush through the stages of childhood. As a threes-through-eighth grade school, we give them (and you) the gift of time to be a child. 8. A safe space for students. We intentionally cultivate a culture where inclusion and collaboration, not cutthroat competition, is the norm. Here, differing identities are embraced and it’s never too late to try something new. 9. Our great outdoors. Our students’ wellbeing and learning is enhanced by our working gardens, old-growth forest, brook

and the myriad opportunities each day to play or work outdoors. 10. Developing passions. EMS is small enough that every student is known and cared for, but also big enough to provide an incredibly broad program, both academically and beyond. It’s no wonder that kids discover a love for the violin, or community service, or history or soccer (or all of the above) while here. And just as importantly, they do it for themselves.

While well-meaning advice from your neighbor or relatives will always be a part of life, we hope that when you wonder whether you are doing the right thing by not enrolling your child in a fourth extracurricular activity, or worry about something about their development that you can’t (or shouldn’t) control, you will remember this list. We hope that you will be comforted by the fact that your child is receiving an education that is just as relevant now as it was 85 years ago, and still will be when you are offering advice as a grandparent yourself.

“What role can a school play in helping parents navigate all this advice? How can we help parents to find their way through all the noise? As educators, we hope to provide context to help you sift and sort the good from the not-so-good of today’s parenting philosophies.”



The Voice in Your Child’s Head Recently, at one of our middle school basketball teams’ games, I was speaking with the parent of one of our eighth graders on the team. The player had just returned to playing after 10 days off due to a wrenched back. As we sat and chatted about how nice it was to see the player back on the court, we watched him drive athletically toward the rim, stretch after the rebound and dive backward to try to steal the ball from the opponent who had gotten the rebound. The parent winced and commented that he was going to re-injure himself. Offhandedly, I said, “Learning the hard way; that is the human condition,” and that began a conversation that led to my thinking again about our role as parents in helping our children become their best selves while they grow. Around the same time, I read a New York Times article titled, “Being the Voice in Your Child’s Head,” that focused on instilling the moral guideposts and the system of checks and balances in our children’s minds so that they have some additional direction as they become increasingly independent and make more decisions for themselves. This underscores an assertion in the article that we, as parents, are slowly but inexorably losing the battle of limits with our children. No matter the age or stage of our children, the


lessons we teach them become ingrained in them, even if they have to relearn them the hard way at some point. Back at the basketball game, the parent’s worry over the player’s style of play reflects the very real possibility that the player would re-injure his back. At the same time, there are many reasons why learning “the hard way” or, better put, learning “for yourself” is valuable. The player did not get re-injured. In hustling the way that he did, the player set a tone for the team. The team’s play also improved, and it broke a two-game losing streak while winning the game. Now, the win and the player’s hustle may not be causal, but there is no question that the team played better with the player in the lineup. At the same time, there are other options for such leadership for the player than throwing his own body to the floor while injured. One can set a high standard for one’s peers through one’s words, one’s dedication and one’s focus in addition to one’s actions on the court. In this way, I hope that the player learns for himself while keeping his parent’s voice in his head: he will still dive on the floor when it matters, and he will bring the same drive, focus and determination to the huddle, to times when he is on the bench and to the words he uses to help his teammates improve.

The Elisabeth Morrow School 435 Lydecker Street Englewood, NJ 07631

Planting Seeds for True Student Success  

Best of Aaron Cooper's "Letters from the Head"

Planting Seeds for True Student Success  

Best of Aaron Cooper's "Letters from the Head"