Posts by Paul Costello1

Losing control of your story

Late Again Stock Illustrations – 29 Late Again Stock Illustrations, Vectors  & Clipart - Dreamstime

Every year, we start a new team, and like them, we are full of good intentions. There is a need to be met among stuggling students who need another caring adult in their lives. There are inspired and generous adults who have applied to join the Project CHANGE team and are signed on. The story is meant to go from there, onward and upward, to the “Happy ever after” ending.

But then, life happens. Someone gets sick. Someone realizes that the 40 minute commute in peak hour traffic every morning is just too much. Someone has a family emergency and has to pivot to meet an unexpected need. Most of the time, the program can adjust. We can make best allowances to ensure a win-win, because we need our members to feel confident in their role. They too have real needs that they must attend to, if they are to be able to serve the needs of the students. But keeping the balance can be complex at times.

When the program feels that the member’s time and energy has somehow been diverted, or they are not showing up for the students they pledged to serve, then one has to start a conversation about what is happening.

One might think it could be a disciplinary hearing, a wrap on the knuckles, a warning, but it should not have to come to that. Smething more important than discipline or commitment needs to be faced. Has the member’s own needs become more their priority, for whatver reason? And is that state of play likely to continue for a significant part of the service year? If so, then the program will advise the member to take time out and sort their own needs out. We do not want them to try and stretch between what they need to do for themslves and what they promise to be for the students. That is a situation that is a short trip to burnout. Plus, it is unfair on students who need to count on those who profess to be their champions. To promise and not show up is worse than not promising at all.

To serve for a year on Project CHANGE, you have to be someone whose life is stable enough and predictable enough to be assured you are able to meet your own needs, and you are not constantly struggling. That way, you are in the best situation to serve your students. Even more important, you are not relying on them to meet your needs. You are able to withstand their crises, and their adolescent judgments, even of you at times.

If a mid schooler says he does not like you, that is not going to send your self esteem into a nose dive. You know yourself. You know the kids you are dealing with. You expect their moods, their tantrums at times, their being unresponsive or unmotivated. You have your own support team, in friends and family and the AmeriCorps team, to bounce back from a hard day at work.

But when your own life is not working out, it becomes doubly hard to serve students whose own lives might also not be working out. One thinks of a football game when a player suffers a bad concussion. The coach is not going to allow him to go back to the field, even though the player assures the staff he is alright. The same applies to the life of service. It is vital we respect our own health and needs, and not play the hero or the martyr. You have needs, like we all do, and you must do them justice.

If life gets in the way of us showing up, we best declare that. If we just disappear from our commitment, we leave our supervisors and team mates guessing. If they feel let down, or if people are relying on you and you prove to be unreliable, you are losing control of your story.

Humans cannot long tolerate gaps in meaning. If something does not seem right, we are apt to make up a reason, regardless of what facts we have to hand. Someone is not at the program again, and we have no word as to why, then we supply the why, and that can go downhill pretty quick. We are going to jump to conclusions about commitment and care. We are going to turn “not showing up” and “not telling anyone” into an explanation about “he is always like that.” or “he doesn’t really care” People soon start to second guess motive and intention. This is not necessarily the fault of those left to cover the absence. They have to do extra duty because their team member is not there. They will feel it is unfair, especially if it is allowed to go on.

The member who does not show and does not tell, is losing control of their story, and feeding a reputation that does not augur well for any future, whether it be employment, or even getting a good reference. Reputation is like gold, and we all have to slowly build it, particularly in new situations. Then we need to protect it. If we are cavalier about it, it sends the wrong signal to the program and to the team. It is then that the directors need to step in and say Enough. Do justice to what you need. Otherwise, everyone loses out, you, the students, the program.

It might mean AmeriCorps is not going to work out. That might be sad, but it could be the best favor your do yourself and save everybody the drama. Or you take a Time Out and get your act together, and restore the balance to a healthy equilibrium.

4 Ways To Incorporate Learning Science Research Into SEL Teaching

SEL supports collaboration among students


As educators, staying updated on the best ways to support our students’ learning experiences can be difficult, especially given all of our other responsibilities. Luckily, the field of learning sciencehas taken on that important mission for us by translating theory and research findings into practical tips, techniques, and pedagogies that we can implement every day in the classroom. Most learning science research takes place in the authentic, chaotic, and noisy environments we call our classrooms, which makes it relevant and practical. Simply put, the goal of learning science is to help teachers teach better and learners learn better, and that certainly applies to the domain of social emotional learning (SEL). This blog aims to present several best practices from learning science research that you can use in your classroom when teaching SEL.

1. Make Feedback SPARK

Feedback provides students with a better understanding of what they know and what needs to be given another look. Feedback is all about making informed decisions and implementing changes: it should enable students to revisit their understanding and update their work accordingly. 

As educators, we are constantly providing feedback. Following some research-based best practices enables us to communicate more effectively with our students:

1. Students often want to know the right answer after making a mistake, but the best kind of feedback engages them in a productive struggle to error-correct on their own rather than giving them the solution upfront.

  • Try “let’s brainstorm other ways to share toys peacefully” instead of  “grabbing the toy from your friend is not a good solution, and you should ask them nicely instead.” 

2. Students tend to ignore feedback outright when it is accompanied by an external motivator (such as a letter grade, score, or other marking). Studies show that feedback is implemented more often when it is provided independently and references the work rather than the student.

  • “Great job drawing what a happy reaction looks like. Next time, how might you make the angry and scared faces look more different from one another?”

3. Feedback is taken up more frequently when it is given immediately rather than delayed. 

  • For example: if groups of students are acting out role playing scenarios, provide feedback to each group about what went well and how they can improve before moving on to the next group’s scenario

It is helpful for both teachers and students to have a framework for giving and receiving feedback. One popular method is the SPARK method, which gives guidance on how to structure feedback for students. Here are some examples of how to give SPARKly feedback in SEL scenarios for young students:  

Specific: feedback connects to a particular point in the work or conversation

  • “Your solution to take turns playing with the toy for 5 minutes each seemed very smart to me.” 

Prescriptive: feedback offers a potential strategy that can be implemented for improvement

  • “Next time, we can try taking a deep breath before talking to someone about why we are angry.”

Actionable: feedback clearly indicates tangible steps for improvement to the student 

  • “When you talk to your friend, try starting your sentences with ‘I feel…’ to communicate your emotions.”

Referenced: feedback is grounded in the skills or criteria needed for success 

  • “Part of being a good classmate is treating others with respect and not hurting our friends’ feelings. It seems like you hurt Annie’s feelings when you ripped the toy away from her.” 

Kind: feedback is encouraging and never puts students down

  • “Even though it didn’t go the way you wanted it to, I’m proud of you for the effort you gave.” 

By celebrating student effort, SPARK feedback shows students how to be supportive of each other and themselves. When students receive kind and constructive feedback, they begin to view themselves in that same positive light. In that way, SPARK feedback helps students develop self-compassion and a supportive inner voice. 

Other feedback frameworks are explored here. If you are interested in digging deeper into feedback research, reading work by Dylan William is a good place to start. 

2. Incorporate Embodied Learning

Learning science and social emotional learning

Embodied learning theory centers the physical body and movement as key to learning. Research shows that manipulating our bodies actually can have effects on the way we think (our cognitive processes). In other words, movement helps shape our construction of meaning and conceptual understanding. One common form of embodied learning is gesturing; we all use gestures to make connections between things (pointing) and represent inner states (with a thumbs up). Gestures allow us to provide information to students in more than one way simultaneously, deepening their comprehension.

Embodied learning is especially powerful for students learning social emotional skills such as identifying emotions. Having students mirror facial expressions and body language associated with certain emotions helps them recognize those emotions in their own bodies. Similarly, recreating physiological reactions that occur during stressful moments (shaky hands, tensed muscles, dilated pupils) helps students more quickly identify those triggers when they occur in real time. Some sample questions to ask your students involving embodied learning: 

  • What does your body look like when it is angry? Afraid?
    • How do you know when you are angry?
  • Squeeze your muscles really tightly and shake your hands. How does that make you feel?
    • Are there other times you have felt yourself having this kind of reaction?

For an active break between lessons or during transition time, have your students do “emotion dances” with their bodies: 

  • How does your body move when it is happy? Afraid? Stressed?
  • What does your “sad dance” look like? What about your “angry dance?”

The possibilities for emotions are endless and your students will have fun moving around and exploring the connection between their bodies and their emotions. When your students play the Body Language or Physiological Responses activities in Wisdom: The World of Emotions, have them try acting out the body language and reactions they see on screen to incorporate embodiment into their learning.

Body language game_social emotional learning

Lastly, virtual and augmented reality are other forms of embodied learning that use technology to help students make conceptual connections. For example, the augmented reality feature in Wisdom can teach students how focusing on their breath in stressful situations will calm them down. 

Augmented Reality breathing exercises

3. Encourage Collaboration 

Facilitating productive teamwork is hard. It requires steady monitoring of many teams at once, and it can be difficult to ensure that all students participate fully and understand the task at hand. Here are some things research says about collaboration: 

  • Collaboration is different from cooperation, in which students have shared goals, but divide and conquer the completion of tasks individually. 
  • Productive collaboration occurs when group members are aligned in their goals, tasks, and processes.  For that reason, collaboration is really an exercise in social awareness. 
  • Productive collaboration coincides with joint attention, which is when students are visually attending to the exact same stimulus or object.
SEL supports collaboration among students

How can we use these findings to support effective collaboration for our students? First, ensure that all students have an awareness of what their group will be doing together. Taking a few extra moments to clarify that everyone is “on board” will smooth things out in the long run. Appointing roles for collaboration (such as the question asker, idea recorder, etc.) helps students stay aligned as a team and gives individuals specific areas to be a leader in. As conflict naturally arises during group work, emphasizing the social awareness component is crucial so that students can be empathetic to their peers’ thoughts, emotions, and experiences.

One of the best forms of collaboration in SEL is to have students practice their conflict resolution and coping skills with each other. Students can mirror each others’ emotions and play “emotion guessing games” where they try to guess what emotion their partner is feeling based on body language or facial expressions. The same can be done with voice intonations or physiological reactions. Working together in these ways builds up that crucial collaborative skill of social awareness. 

Lastly, there is another form of classroom collaboration called knowledge-building. In a Knowledge Building Classroom, the whole class creates a concept map together demonstrating what they have learned about a particular topic. Using concept maps helps students synthesize knowledge, form theories about why something is, and raise questions about what they would like to know more about. 

Knowledge Building concept maps can be extremely useful during SEL as students form connections between different competencies and skills. (See CASEL’s 5 SEL competencies for more information.) Even more, this kind of activity allows students to share what they have learned with others, celebrate the diversity of ideas and experiences their classmates have, and form a tighter-knight classroom community.

  • For young students, one example of a helpful concept map is to have everyone draw pictures of themselves experiencing a particular emotion. The class can collaborate to place the pictures on the concept map, exploring the similarities and differences between each of the drawings and establishing a shared understanding of what that emotion looks and feels like for different people.

4. Introduce the Brain

Even our youngest students can benefit from learning about how their brains work. Equipping students with the basics on the brain empowers them to take an active role in identifying, managing, and regulating their emotions. This also builds up students’ belief and self-confidence that they are able to take control of their emotions, thoughts, and actions.

Dr. Daniel Siegel’s “Flipping the Lid” model is an approachable way to teach young students about the connection between parts of their brain, emotions, reasoning, and decision-making:

Daniel Siegel's hand model of the brain
(Image courtesy of Lindsay Braman)

Using this model, students are able to visualize how their fists can form a representation of their brains. When they feel overwhelmed, anxious, or afraid, the “decision-making” prefrontal cortex represented by their fingers flips up, exposing the amygdala represented by their thumbs, which is the hub of our emotional system. 

Learning about the brain - SEL curriculum

If you are using the Wisdom SEL curriculum, Lesson 4 provides a simple activity for students to learn more about how their brain works.

If your students are not ready to learn about all the names for different parts of the brain, that is okay. Simply making them aware of the connection between their emotions, actions, and brains is a great start on their journey to learning about self-awareness and self-management

We wrote about one more research-based practice, skill modeling, in a previous blog post, which you can check out here. These are just a few of the ways you can incorporate learning science research into your SEL classroom. We hope you and your students will benefit from these evidence-backed approaches to teaching and learning. Do you use any other research-based practices in your classroom during SEL time? We want to hear about them! Fill out this check-in form to reflect and let us know.


Ben recently graduated from Duke University and is currently pursuing a Master’s in Learning Design and Technology at Stanford University. He is passionate about bringing learning science into the development of educational technology products. Outside of school, he enjoys solving crossword puzzles and playing tennis.



In the opening pages of the recent best-seller, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, the book’s authors note that we as teachers tend to make a lot of assumptions about how students learn—and, therefore, about what counts as effective teaching—on the basis of our own experiences, wisdom passed down by our mentors, and our sense for what’s intuitive. Intuition, of course, can be a powerful byproduct of long-term engagement with a set of concepts or skills. But it also has its risks: not only is it hard to interrogate practices that “just feel right,” it can be especially hard to let go of and revise those sorts of practices, even in the face of counterevidence.

For example, when students and teachers are asked about the effectiveness of reading a text only once versus reading it several times, they tend to intuit rightly that “only once” isn’t the best approach. But when asked about the effectiveness of reading a text several times versus reading it a few times, with time and self-testing between each reading, teachers and students alike tend to inuit wrongly that the mere repetition of readings will lead to better comprehension and long-term retrieval. The dissonance between what our intuition tells us and what cognitive science can show us isn’t limited to this example. As Make It Stick argues, “It turns out that much of what we’ve been doing as teaching and students isn’t serving us well…” (9). The good news, however, is that the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, or SoTL, has shed considerable light on the science of learning in recent decades, yielding insights about a wide range concrete, practical strategies for instructors in all disciplines.

How Memory Works

Memory is the ongoing process of information retention over time. Because it makes up the very framework through which we make sense of and take action within the present, its importance goes without saying. But how exactly does it work? And how can teachers apply a better understanding of its inner workings to their own teaching? With a basic understanding of how the elements of memory work together, teachers can maximize student learning by knowing how much new information to introduce, when to introduce it, and how to sequence assignments that will both reinforce the retention of facts and build toward critical, creative thinking.


Comprehending and Communicating Knowledge

Communication and comprehension are the giving and receiving of knowledge, and until knowledge has been received by a student, it’s fair to say that it hasn’t truly been communicated by a teacher. The challenge for teachers, of course, is how to get knowledge out of their own heads and into someone else’s—and how to know it’s there. This challenge is compounded by the fact that teachers and students confront something more than the everyday adventures that greet individuals trying to understand, relate to, negotiate with other individuals. On top of that, they also face a paradox at the heart of teaching and learning: on the one hand, the more expert you are, the more knowledge you have to offer a novice; on the other hand, the more expert you are, the less “like” a novice you’ve become and the less attuned you might have grown to how novices experience their learning. This gap between novices and experts needn’t become an impasse, however.


Metacognition and Motivation

One of the most common issues teachers face is keeping their students motivated and aware of their own cognitive processes during learning experiences. This is because student comprehension becomes more difficult if students lack the motivation to remain present and engaged in the construction of their knowledge. If left unaddressed, this lack of motivation can lead to poor academic performance. Another factor that can impact student comprehension and performance is metacognition. Metacognition refers to an individual’s awareness and critical analysis of their own thought processes and cognitive ability. It is an important determiner of student performance, because if students are aware of their own comprehension and cognitive processes, they are better positioned to revise or discontinue them when needed.


Promoting Engagement

If learning is the goal, student engagement may not be sufficient, but in most cases—whether they’re in the classroom or studying on their own—it is necessary. When considering how to promote the greatest likelihood of engagement, a number of internal and external factors come into play. Students need to be actively attentive, for example—and often to maintain that attention over an extended period of time. Internal factors such as alertness (How much sleep did my students get?) and distraction (What sorts of family matters are on my students’ minds? Why does it sound like there’s a jackhammer in the room above us right now?) are, as every teacher knows, often completely outside of our control. That being said, whether you’re talking about classroom settings—where teachers can more directly regulate many, if not all, aspects of the learning environment—or dorm rooms and libraries—where students must do their own regulating—cognitive science on how attention works offers a range of practical applications for improving student engagement.



For the Peace Studio, storytelling is community-building

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By Sophia Solano

Maya Soetoro-Ng, professor, nonprofit founder and former president Barack Obama’s half sister, talks about her new children’s book, ‘The First Day of Peace,’ her life’s work and her mother’s influence on her efforts

The neighboring agrarian communities in the new children’s book “The First Day of Peace” are not at war. The mountain people stay atop their high ridges, drinking from the lake that flows below to quench the valley people. Neither share their crops, which dwindle as heat waves and heavy rain startle their land into vacuity, and they squabble at the border. Not at war but not quite at peace.

Until — “A wise and brave mountain girl said, ‘We need to help.’ From house to house, her idea spread. Love catches on.”

The idea that peacecan begin with the small actions of individuals and communities permeates the work of Maya Soetoro-Ng, a professor at the University of Hawaii, an activist, the half sister of former president Barack Obama and the co-author, with Todd Shuster, of “The First Day of Peace,” which will be released Sept. 21, the United Nations-declared International Day of Peace.

In 2019, Soetoro-Ng and Shuster founded the Peace Studio, a nonprofit group that trains storytellers in “conflict transformation,” or the construction of new narratives that combat the emotional and interpersonal impacts of a violent world. They wrote “The First Day of Peace” as part of that mission, hoping, as Soetoro-Ng notes in the book’s afterword, to encourage children to “imagine a better world and begin to make it real.”

We spoke recently with Soetoro-Ng, 53, who is also a programming adviser to the Obama Foundation, about storytelling as a tool for connection, the links between environmentalism and peace-building in the face of climate change, and how her mother’s work abroad influenced her life choices.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Q: Why did you set out to write “The First Day of Peace”?

A: So adults can speak to children about difficult topics like climate change and share the lessons of the book, namely that children are powerful, that you don’t have to be of a specific age to participate in a movement, helping others and working to better your community. Peace is something that we all have to commit to building with whatever resources, networks, ideas and creativity that we have, day after day and year after year. It’s not so much for children to explore on their own, but for adults to be facilitators of conversations that enable young people to think about their own capacity to help someone on the playground or to create peace in their own communities, to feel strong.

Q: The book links environmentalism and peace-building. How should we think about that connection in our own world?Share this articleShare

A: By 2050, nearly all of the world’s children, over 2 billion of them, will be exposed to extreme, frequent heat waves each year. We need to tell stories about the climate crisis that are not frightening but are empowering, and that enable us to think about what we can do to engage community solutions, especially in front-line communities, how young people can connect across their differences to help build social movements that allow for shared resources for circular economies rather than just hoarding resources. We need to think about the ways we can engage in mutual support and refamiliarize ourselves to nature and to one another to prevent the worst effects of the climate crisis. Communities that demonstrate positive peace-building repair more readily.Advertisement

Q: You also wrote the children’s book “Ladder to the Moon,” published in 2011. Do you see yourself writing more?

A: I’d love to. I don’t anticipate leaving my work as an educator, but this is one way that I would love to continue to bring pedagogical principles to young people embedded in stories. So I have a book that I’ve written. I’m just doing final edits on it. It’s a young adult novel called “Yellowwood.” It has a lot of the principles of positive peace-building and a philosophy of restorative justice and conflict transformation in there. Hopefully it’s not pedantic. Hopefully people like it and want to read it. But I always think that we learn best when we care about the characters and we feel empathy for their journeys. And storytelling is the best way to accomplish that. That creative connection that we can forge through narrative is such a beautiful thing, and I hope to be able to do that for the rest of my life.

Q: What is “Yellowwood” about?

A: It imagines a world and a girl who is in the in-between. She’s in liminal space. Her father comes from one culture and her mother from another. It uses a lot of the Hindu and Buddhist principles and stories of my childhood in Asia and weaves them in with a Western narrative construction. She’s a healer, and there’s some magic and young romance, and she endeavors to end a war. So she’s a peace builder.

Q: Was this taken from multicultural experiences in your own life, growing up in Indonesia and Hawaii?

A: I utilize a lot of the experiences and the images and stories of my childhood in Indonesia, and I think that Indonesia gave me a sense of and commitment to bridge-building. There’s syncretism and interfaith imagery and art there. Mom[Stanley Ann Dunham] worked as a consultant, building microfinance programs in the Asia-Pacific. I would go with her to these villages where she worked with weavers and tile makers and shadow-puppet makers and blacksmiths. And in these villages she would sit in a circle, and she would become family with many of these artists, and there was this spirit of collaboration that I witnessed.Advertisement

And in 2013, I went to Mount Bromo [in East Java, Indonesia] after the devastating volcanic eruption. They were, as a community, creating microfinance programs because their fields were scorched. They were building each other’s homes. They had built 200 homes for one another voluntarily. Over the course of three years, they were using high-tech solutions to guard against the lahar (mudslides), but also doing all this gorgeous community mapping so that everyone knew their responsibility and would take care of each other. Those lessons are lessons that I have taken with me for the rest of my life, and I’m really dedicated to sharing them.

Q: Your fiction deals with the same subjects, such as peace education and connection in the face of climate catastrophe, that you engage with in your nonprofit and academic careers. Do you see it as a tool to continue that work?

A: It is. And I don’t know that I’m the best at it. But I know that in creating a world and drawing from all that I cannot only see but also imagine, and making meaning in ways that are helpful to me, is an antidote to despair for me. You know, this idea of being able to make meaning of the tough stuff, of sorrow and of difficulty. That’s the whole idea of Peace Studio, that there are so many storytellers, many of them more clever and innovative than me who are out there and who cannot only make meaning for themselves in creative storytelling that draws from both reality and imagination, but can also help us to make meaning and make sense of the world around us.


Why learning isn’t the most important thing kids lost during the pandemic

Perspective by Valerie Strauss

There’s no question that most children have lost learning opportunities over the past year, and most did not get the same amount of schooling they would have received if there had been no coronavirus pandemic.

But there are different points of view about what kids will need to recover. For example, this Washington Post story quotes Michael Petrilli, president of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute, as saying that “job number one” for helping students is a high-quality curriculum. Others have said that a focus on mental health and school climate is paramount.

In this post, Steve Merrill, chief content officer of the education website called Edutopia, argues something different. He writes: “The consequences of getting our priorities wrong and putting the content before the child are serious and long-term.”

Merrill is a former high school teacher of English and history who started a second career as an editor and media product leader at outlets including CNN, Outside magazine, and Newsweek Budget Travel.

This first appeared on the Edutopia website, which seeks to improve K-12 education by sharing evidence and practitioner-based learning strategies, and I was given permission to publish it.

What ‘learning loss’ really means

A better way to make sense of pandemic ‘learning loss’

By Stephen Merrill

Despite the understandable skepticism — and all the adjustments and sacrifices we’ve grown accustomed to — a sort of miracle is materializing in the distance. Published reports from the Centers for Disease Control suggest that the vaccines are doing their slow, steady work, and just a few days ago the state of California announced that it expects to be “fully back to business by June 15.” The siege appears to be lifting, and this time a full return to schools across the nation, while perhaps months away, is almost certainly not a mirage.

Large-scale disruptions like the one that’s ending now are always a hardship, sometimes a tragedy, and often an opportunity. Frequently they’re all three, points out Ron Berger, a former teacher of 25 years, the author of eight books on education, and a senior adviser at EL Education, in his recent piece “Our Kids Are Not Broken,” published in The Atlantic magazine online.

“Our kids have lost so much — family members, connections to friends and teachers, emotional well-being, and for many, financial stability at home,” the article begins, sifting through a now-familiar inventory of devastation, before turning to a problem of a different order. “And of course, they’ve lost some of their academic progress.”

That last issue isn’t trivial. It’s perfectly sensible to worry about academic setbacks during the pandemic. Ever since the first stay-at-home orders were issued, teachers in Edutopia’s community have reported that some students have been pressed into caretaking duties or forced to get jobs, while many others couldn’t get online at all.

The crisis first exposed, and then cruelly amplified, the inequities bound up in issues of poverty, race, disability, and rural isolation. Months into the pandemic, attendance and attentiveness remained abysmal. There’s a broad and growing consensus that online learning, in both its hybrid and purely remote forms, has been an anemic substitute for in-person instruction.

But our obsessive need to measure academic progress and loss to the decimal point — an enterprise that feels at once comfortably scientific and hopelessly subjective — is also woefully out of tune with the moment, says Berger.

“I kept hearing about ‘remediating learning loss,’ and I had this vision that school was going to be a place where all the kids come in and get tested and triaged and sent to different areas to get fixed,” Berger told me, almost wincing as he explained why he wrote the article for The Atlantic.

The intention is good — but our children are resilient, not broken, “and as long as kids feel like their job is to come to school to be fixed, their hearts won’t be in their own work,” he insists.

A failure of imagination

If there’s a pressing need for measurement, it’s in the reckoning of the social, emotional, and psychological toll of the last 12 months. Over 500,000 Americans have died. Some kids will see their friends or favorite teachers in person for the first time in over a year. Others will be overwhelmed by the sheer joy of recess, band practice, sporting events, and the myriad academic and social passions they’ve missed.Share this articleNo subscription required to readShare

Teachers, too — who have been deeply and unfairly maligned for insisting on safe working conditions — are desperate to see their kids, to connect, teach, elevate and love. The need to rebuild the frayed social fabric of our learning communities, which study after study indicates is foundational to true learning, should be the paramount concern.

The consequences of getting our priorities wrong and putting the content before the child are serious and long-term.

“We fall into this trap of thinking if a kid misses three months of math content, that’s a crisis,” Berger tells me, reflecting on the toll that remediation and tracking often takes. “The truth is that if your kid was sick at home and missed three months of math content, but got her confidence back, it wouldn’t be a big issue in her life. But if her confidence as a mathematician is destroyed because of labels that were put on her, it’s a lifelong issue for her. She’ll never be confident in math again.”

Whatever we do when we return will be historic by definition. If all we come up with is passing out diagnostic tests to quantify learning loss and then track kids into groups for remediation, it will be a terrible failure of imagination.

“You know what’s going to happen to the kids who couldn’t get online last year because they had to support their families or because they were homeless when the sorting happens, right?” asks Berger. “They’re going to be sorted in a way that will only exacerbate the equity issues.”

Trailing down the backside of a steep mountain at long last, and picking up speed as we head into a promising new year, we seem to have our eyes fixed on the wrong problem entirely.

More harm than good?

We have every reason to know better.

Already the federal government is requiring that states administer standardized tests, and Berger worries that districts will add other assessments and diagnostics to identify a battery of “student weaknesses.” We should use the data wisely, not “to judge and rank students, teachers, and schools,” he insists, but to guide our response to individual student needs — and spend our time and resources on creating an asset-based culture where everyone belongs.

Focusing on the social and emotional needs of the child first — on their sense of safety, self-worth, and academic confidence — is not controversial, and saddling students with deficit-based labels has predictable outcomes. Decades of research demonstrates that stereotype threat is a real phenomenon, anchoring kids to the self-fulfilling prophecy of lower expectations.

Simple gestures like greeting kids at the door, meanwhile, improve academic engagement by 20 percentage points, and the mere presence of images of women in science textbooks moves the needle on inclusion. Ensuring that all kids have at least one adult who cares about them is an effective buffer against adverse experiences like poverty, violence, and neglect.

Last year, a group of renowned researchers and influential educators including Pamela Cantor, Linda Darling-Hammond, and Karen Pittman published a paper on the science of learning and development that didn’t mince words: “The presence and quality of our relationships may have more impact on learning and development than any other factor.”

It’s not that learning loss isn’t real, or that social and emotional initiatives alone will solve it. “Districts face a hard reality,” Berger concedes. “Many children lost a great deal of academic growth last year … Districts need to know which students need extra support, including tutoring in and outside the classroom. But educators need to assess students’ abilities in a way that motivates them to grow.”

But high schools are filled with kids getting Cs and Ds who have “begun to tune out academic instruction,” he writes. His colleague, Uri Treisman, a professor of mathematics at the University of Texas at Austin, has conducted research showing “that when students interested in pursuing mathematics were assigned remedial work, it was essentially a dead end for those students’ future in math.”

To motivate students now, as at any other time, we have to address learning gaps — they “should learn mathematical facts and build literacy skills” — but do so in service to challenging work that shows them that schools, like the athletic field or their after-school lives, are a “domain where they can contribute something great,” Berger says. “They’ve gotten the message that school isn’t a place where they can do that.”

It’s an unexpected and even radical idea, but if we make school both welcoming and highly engaging — difficult, even, according to Berger — we stand a better chance of honoring the needs of all children and open up the possibility of connecting kids to topics they feel passionate about as we return to school next year. “Addressing concerns about learning loss by raising difficulty levels may seem counterintuitive,” he says, in one of his most provocative statements, “but with strong relationships and support, this approach can be surprisingly effective.”

Rising to the occasion

The last 12 months have been a furious, unrelenting assault on the senses. In March 2020, in what seemed like the blink of an eye, the in-person school year was first suspended, and then abruptly canceled. Many children from historically marginalized communities simply failed to appear online, their absence pointing to enduring, systemic inequities in our school systems. Only a few months later, as our collective sense of dislocation grew increasingly taut and unbearable, George Floyd was killed in Minnesota, setting off months of some of the largest protests in U.S. history.

Maybe it’s time to consider that the emerging science of learning and our national reckoning with unfairness and inequity are pointing in the same direction. Perhaps the size of the moment requires a commensurate response. We have a better sense of the tools we need to do the job, and a clearer sense of the size and nature of the problems.

Can we — should we, in the aftermath of the clarifying events of the last year — find the will to challenge the testing regime, return some agency to both our teachers and our students, bring the science of learning into our classrooms, and honor all children with challenging, engaging work that ushers in a new, better, fairer era in education?

Why social-emotional learning isn’t enough to help students today

Perspective by Valerie Strauss

For years now, we’ve watched a movement called social-emotional learning become popular in U.S. schools with the aim of meeting the needs of students beyond academics — a recognition that many aspects of a young person’s life outside school affect how they achieve in a classroom.

Social-emotional learning (SEL) programs are intended to help people learn and effectively use “knowledge, attitudes and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” That comes from the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, which you can learn more about here.

Academics and others have raised questions about the creation and implementation of SEL programs, and others have questioned whether the approach is enough to meet the needs of students today. In this piece, two well-regarded scholars argue that SEL is not enough — and they detail how the United States is far behind other wealthy countries in dealing with the well-being of young people.

The authors are Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley, both professors at Boston College. Their book “Well-Being in Schools: Three Forces for Uplifting Your Students in a Volatile World” was just published. They previously published together the book “Five Paths of Student Engagement: Blazing the Trail to Learning and Success.”

Hargreaves has been working for decades to improve school effectiveness. He has been awarded visiting professorships in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, Sweden, Spain, Japan, Norway and Singapore. He is past president of the International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement.

Shirley has for many years worked with schools around the world to improve teaching and learning, helping educators in diverse environments work together across disciplines and schools.

The good news: Social-emotional learning is hot. The bad news: Some of it is giving cognition a bad name.

A broad movement is tearing through our schools. Many teachers love it. Professional developers can’t get enough of it. Systems are investing heavily in it. Finally, it seems, schools can focus on something else other than test scores and technology: our children’s emotional and mental health. It’s called social and emotional learning, or SEL for short.

SEL is aimed at developing skills that enable young people to understand and express their own and each other’s emotions, manage feelings, learn self-regulation, and build positive relationships. SEL has become a front-line effort to battle the mental health epidemic that is plaguing our young people.

But the question remains: Is it enough?

In the face of rampant racism, digital addiction, a climate change crisis that threatens our entire species, and the greatest economic inequalities in 50 years, positive psychology books that urge us to manage our behavior with calmness, resilience, and grit have been flying off the self-help shelves. SEL has joined them. Psychologists, consultants, philanthropies, and system leaders are tackling the mental health crisis with individualistic, psychological strategies.

No, it’s not enough. When it comes down to the quality of our kids’ lives, we need to go all in.

We’re not against SEL as one way to deal with the covid-19 crisis in education and the spate of mental health issues that preceded it. Covid-19 pulled everyone up short about what truly matters during students’ time in school.Share this articleNo subscription required to readShare

Separated from their peers, teenagers were the most likely age-group to get anxious and depressed. Adolescent suicide attempts escalated by over 30 percent between 2020 pre-pandemic levels, and 2021 levels during the pandemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Adolescents spent over seven hours a day on screens — over double their pre-pandemic use levels. Childhood obesity levels have skyrocketed.

It’s not just the pandemic that has been getting to our kids. So is climate change. Some three-quarters of young people said in a recent survey (conducted in 10 countries by a group of universities) said they view the future as frightening in regard to the climate.

For years, the U.S. record on child well-being has been atrocious. UNICEF places the United States at 36th out of 38 wealthy nations on a table measuring the well-being of 15-year-olds. On physical health, with its astronomical rates of child obesity and third-world levels of child poverty, the United States ranks dead last.

It’s hard to be well if you live in a sick society.

Overdue efforts by U.S. government to turn the tide for America’s poorest and most marginalized young people are more than welcome. TheBuild Back Better Act promises to reduce child poverty by as much as 40 percent. It will extend paid child-care to millions.

But even all this is insufficient. Compared to many other nations, the United States is still taking a more limited response to the student mental health crisis. Other countries pin their hopes on a broader concept of well-beingthat was advanced by the World Health Organization in 1948. It brought well-being onto the world stage, regarded it as central to peace and security, and made it a societal issue as well as an individual one.

The United States is not fighting awful ill-being with a quest for better well-being. While schools in other countries are confronting big issues such as digital dangers, wealth inequality, children’s rights, excessive testing, and climate change, SEL is offering U.S. educators and their kids into a lesser world of trainable, culture-free, psychological competencies.

By 2013, all U.S. states had identified preschool competencies for SEL. Many states have also developed age-appropriate competencies for K-12 education. Countless professional development courses are being accessed by teachers eager to promote SEL in their schools.

In a world that seems to be falling apart, and where people’s quality of life is collapsing, influential organizations such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (famous for its PISA tests), and the US National Center for Education and the Economy, are turning to social and emotional competencies for most of their answers. This is like responding to the catastrophic flooding caused by climate change, with calls for more sandbags.

The manipulation of social-emotional learning

What does this mean, in practice?

  • SEL emphasizes keeping calm and getting children to self-regulate “negative” emotional states like anger, anxiety, and depression. A wider view of well-being, however, regards so-called negative emotions like righteous anger and indignation as exactly what’s needed to fire up civic engagement in response to the monumental challenges of our time. Emotions like frustration (with dithering leaders), enmity (toward hatemongers), and disgust (with racism) rarely receive validation in SEL.
  • SEL justifies almost everything in terms of learning. Perhaps this is a strategy to stave off conservative criticisms that SEL detracts from academic achievement. But pushed to the limit, SEL can be just one more way to jack up test scores. In its very name, SEL addresses only those aspects of well-being that can be regarded as learning, rather than ones that also affect the human development of the whole child. This is very different from well-being policies in Canada, Australia, and Europe.
  • SEL is indifferent to high stakes tests that are responsible for widespread ill-being. A real well-being agenda challenges such anxiety-inducing practices of top-down accountability.
  • SEL has limited psychological ways of managing digital risks such as online bullying. Well-being strategies advance systemic strategies of ethical technology use concerning issues like excess screen time and digital addiction.
  • SEL ignores spiritual, physical, and societal well-being. It doesn’t encourage students to learn outdoors in nature and become stewards of the environment. It has nothing to say about physical fitness. Nor does it address young people’s spiritual hunger to feel part of something greater than themselves.

To be sure, SEL has led to some improvements in student achievement and mental health, including among racialized and minoritized groups. After years of criticism that the so-called neutral competencies of SEL favored privileged White forms of emotionality, an emerging movement toward what’s being called “transformational SEL” is now helping some students find their voice in relation to racism and poverty. But, in general, we think SEL is still being massively oversold.

It’s time for U.S. educators to go beyond the positive and culturally neutral psychologies of grit, growth mindsets, resilience, and self-regulation as the answers to the mental health crisis and everything that’s causing it. We have to reclaim the bigger and bolder well-being agenda for our students and ourselves.

Our world needs to wake up. Keeping our kids calm and just helping them to carry on will achieve the exact opposite. So, instead of turning inward to our skill sets, let’s go all-out and all-in for well-being in our schools and in our societies, to give everyone a better education, for a better quality of life, in a better world.Share14Comments

By Valerie StraussValerie Strauss is an education writer who authors The Answer Sheet blog. She came to The Washington Post as an assistant foreign editor for Asia in 1987 and weekend foreign desk editor after working for Reuters as national security editor and a military/foreign affairs reporter on Capitol Hill. She also previously worked at UPI and the LA Times.  Twitter


Coach Prime is the American Dream

By Theodore R. Johnson

The University of Colorado football team is undefeated, and the sports world is in a tizzy. It’s not just the winning; it’s what the winning has come to represent.

First, some context. Playing Saturday against rival Colorado State, the Buffaloes endured their opponent’s efficient offense and unsportsmanlike conduct to win in double overtime. A team that was a miserable 1-11 last year is now 3-0 and ranked in the top 20.

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They’re doing it under the spotlight. Colorado’s opening game was an upset of Texas Christian University, the most watched season opener in Fox Sports history. The next week, the city of Boulder brought in an estimated $18 million in revenue from the team’s first home game, a win over Nebraska. Then this past weekend, rapper Lil Wayne led the team onto the field wearing a Buffaloes jersey, with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, NBA all-star Kawhi Leonard and many more Black celebrities in attendance. Even a dude from Mississippi who served with me in the Navy was there with family and friends, despite having no connection to the state or to either school.

Why? They had gathered to see a marvel.

Credit the Buffaloes’ new head coach, Deion Sanders, and the roster of new players drawn by his charisma and philosophy. An NFL Hall of Famer — the multisport athlete is the only person to appear in both a Super Bowl and a World Series — Sanders was so talented and flashy as a player that his nicknames were Neon Deion and Prime Time. He brings the same energy to the helm, now as Coach Prime.P

Sanders became the talk of college football as head coach at Jackson State University, a historically Black institution in Mississippi just over an hour from where my shipmate grew up. Coach Prime successfully recruited some of the most sought-after athletes in the country. Players who could choose among luxuries at major and well-funded universities chose Prime and an HBCU instead.

In ror1, Travis Hunter, a two-way talent, became the first No. 1-ranked prospect ever to sign with an HBCU. Asked how he won the star over, Sanders responded matter-of-factly, “He came to the homecoming, and you can’t let a kid come to an HBCU homecoming if you’re another school and you want to keep him. … If he comes to our homecoming, then it’s a wrap. It’s over. It’s done deal.” If you know, you know.

By the time the University of Colorado hired Sanders late last year, his success was being questioned. It was said that he was winning because HBCU competition is weak. That his coaching ability was not likely to translate to big-time football against powerhouse universities. That par excellence in all-Black spaces is inherently lesser than excellence in the main.

Here is where the marvel appears — the true reason for the team’s sensation.

One of the most consequential questions people can ask of themselves is this: “What if they’re right?” What if they’re right about you and the reason you haven’t yet reached your goals? You’re too temperamental, too uncompromising, too uneducated, too unattractive, too bossy, too inexperienced, too smart for your own good. Each of us, in one way or another, has quietly wondered whether there’s a kernel of truth in the disparaging perceptions others have of us. None of us is immune.

If you grow up poor in a place that tells you poverty is personal failure, it’s natural to wonder why it is that you and your people couldn’t escape. Are they right? If you do succeed, it comes with an asterisk. “You’re different from your people,” they imply. “An exception.” Even in the military, I got snide remarks about being an affirmative-action charity case, selected for competitive positions because of an imaginary diversity quota. My old Navy buddy and I are both HBCU graduates who were challenged to defend the “Blacks-only” institutions, as another guy I served with once described them.

Few things are sweeter than seeing the negative stereotypes about people like you proved wrong.

Coach Prime and Colorado embody the most empowering answer to that haunting question “What if they’re right?” That’s why celebrities descended on Boulder. That’s why my Mississippi shipmate flew to Colorado with his crew. They came to see it in person, the moment the country learned yet again that it has misjudged us. The moment one of you does the thing that couldn’t be done.

Sanders’s coaching job at Colorado has captured the country because he is proving his doubters incorrect. There’s a righteous satisfaction in it, watching the people who questioned your ability have the revelation that they were wrong. They are not right about us. We are not inferior. Or deficient. Or broken.

This isn’t news, of course. Not to us, anyway. But it’s still something to see the proof of it take the nation’s breath away. With proper resources and support and room to breathe, our hard work and talent can thrive.

There is a phrase for what Sanders is achieving without compromising his identity one bit. The American Dream — but a more accurate version.

When his team took a surprising lead going into halftime during the season opener, Coach Prime said to his players: “You were a little apprehensive. You really didn’t know what we had. You really didn’t believe. But now you should.”

How can you not? It is a marvel, a sight to behold.

Opinion by Theodore JohnsonTheodore R. Johnson, a contributing columnist for The Washington Post and retired naval officer, is a senior adviser for New America’s Us@250 initiative and author of “When the Stars Begin to Fall: Overcoming Racism and Renewing the Promise of America.” Twitter


Courage, Caring (Collaboration) and Curiosity

Courage, Caring and Curiosity

Last year’s MBA Commencement at Wharton | San Francisco will linger for a lifetime in the memories of graduates, their families and other attendees. Beyond the usual snapshots and sound bites of goodbyes, caps and gowns, and hoots of joy, attendees will retain the wisdom shared by Commencement speaker Inder Sidhu, WG’91, senior vice president of strategy, worldwide operations, for Cisco Systems. We were so touched by his message that we decided to reprint his speech in its entirety:

Thank You, Dean Robertson. Congratulations, graduates, family and friends.

For a Wharton MBA graduate, there is no greater honor than to speak at a Wharton graduation. Thank You.

Today, I’d like to share with you some of stories from my life.

Inder Sidhu High-res photo 2

They don’t have anything to do with spreadsheets, PowerPoint presentations or case studies. In fact, they don’t include anything you typically acquire at business school. But they are about things that will be important to you just the same.

My Wharton MBA gave me the knowledge and skills that I use every single day. Thanks to Wharton, I am able to think with better clarity, communicate with more authority and act with greater competency than I otherwise could.

But there is more to the journey, and that is what I’d like to talk about today.

Watch it: The full Wharton Commencement speech from Inder Sidhu, WG’91.

When I was 21, I graduated from college in India with an engineering degree. At that time, no one from either side of my family had ever gone to college to study engineering. Though I had a couple of good job offers when I graduated, I wanted to further my studies in the U.S.

Unfamiliar with how to go about this, I applied to about a dozen universities. Fortunately, I was accepted to several. But there was a problem. I had no way to pay for my dreams.

Though I applied for financial aid, my applications were not received in time to qualify. When my father and I discussed our options, my hopes began to dim. First-year college expenses in the U.S. were three times my father’s annual salary. While I believed further study in the U.S. was the right path for me, there was no way that my family of modest means could afford it. It was, in a word, “impossible.”

Until my mother found out.

“The word ‘impossible’ is in the dictionary of fools,” she said. “If you have the courage, you can do anything.”

“We will mortgage the house,” she declared, “and I’ll sell all my jewelry!”

If you know anything about Indian women, you know that when they offer to sell their jewelry, it can only mean one of two things: they are really serious— or they have no jewelry.

My mother was serious. I don’t fully understand what loans she and my father took to afford my education. All I know is that a few months after she made that bold statement, I boarded a plane, incidentally for the first time in my life, to go study in America.

In one pocket I carried a bank draft made out to the University for my first year of tuition. In the other pocket was the rest of my money—all $21 of it.


Soon after landing at the University, I managed to get a small research job. I never used the bank draft.

Years later I found out that on that day when my mother offered to sell her jewelry—she really didn’t have much jewelry to sell. She just had a lot of courage, and that is the gift she gave me. And to me, that is far more valuable than all the jewelry in the world.

I’ve drawn on that courage many times.

1990 was a tough year for the economy. I was in the middle of my MBA at Wharton. As summer break approached, I needed a job.

Though I couldn’t do anything about the economy, I was determined to land the best position possible. And thanks to what I learned at Wharton, I had complete clarity about what I wanted to do: work in management consulting. My top choice was Bain & Company. With a roster of clients that included many of the world’s top companies, Bain was one of the world’s premier management consulting organizations. It was a dream destination for many of us at Wharton. But getting in wasn’t easy.

Bain offered first-round interviews to 225 students from Wharton’s pool of about 800. Afterwards, just 15 would advance for a second-round interview in Boston. From there, Bain planned to hire just two interns.

While the odds weren’t good, I was hopeful, nonetheless. Call it hubris or naïveté, but I honestly thought that having a degree from one of India’s finest engineering schools, relevant work experience, and top grades from Wharton would distinguish me from other candidates.

But it didn’t.

When Bain posted the names of the 225 students it wanted to interview, my name wasn’t on the list. Dejected, I figured my best shot at getting hired by one of the top companies in management consulting was over before it started.

Then I remembered what my mother said: “impossible is only in the dictionary of fools.” “If you have the courage, you can do anything,” I reminded myself.


Inspired, I called Bain and asked that they give me one last consideration. No, I was firmly told, “We have our procedures, and we follow them.”

So I showed up at the hotel where interviews were underway. “Just give me five minutes,” I pleaded. Once again, I was rebuffed—sternly. Refusing to give up— even if it meant making a fool of myself in front of my classmates and a potential employer—I sought out the top recruiter and asked if he would chat with me between interviews. “My calendar is full, and there’s simply no time in the day for that,” he said.

Despite being told “no” several times, I waited outside the interviewer’s room all day. After his final meeting, he emerged in a hurry, politely apologized one last time and said he had to take a cab to the airport. “Let me ride with you,” I pleaded. “We can talk on the way.”

Exhausted after a day of interviews, he relented.

I don’t remember what I said exactly, but it must have made an impact. When the list of the 15 finalists was posted, my name was on it. Better still, after the last round of interviews in Boston, I was one of the two people offered a job.

I’d like to tell you it was due to my focus and sense of purpose. No doubt the clarity that Wharton provided helped. But what really mattered that day was the courage that I got from my mother. The same courage that she showed when she took a chance, against the odds, and put me on a plane to the U.S.

In your journey, there will be times when you will be faced with making a choice, with taking a chance. The numbers will point one way. But your heart may say something different. In those moments, have the courage to take a chance. Sometimes on yourself. And sometimes on someone who looks and feels very different than you.

I stand before you today because someone, somewhere had the courage, and took a chance on me.

My next story is about caring.

A few years ago, my children were in elementary school. My wife Deepna, who is here today, and I were friends with many families who had children in the same grades. One day I dropped by the school at pick-up time and noticed something interesting: Virtually every child greeted Deepna with a hearty “hi,” “hello” or familiar hug. It was as if they had known her all their lives. I also noticed the children didn’t do this with any of the other moms or dads, just Deepna.

I wondered why.

And then I saw it.

When a 6-year old child approached her, Deepna kneeled all the way down to the ground till she was face-to-face with the child, looking straight into his eyes before she started talking.

I also noticed that she was the only adult who made the effort to do this. And she did it for each and every child. She knew their names, their personalities, what they liked and what they didn’t.

She cared.

A 6-year old child may not know a lot. But they know when someone cares.

And when you care for someone, they don’t forget.

I still remember February 10, 1999. It was 14 years ago, and yet it still seems like yesterday. That day I got a call from India. My brother had just been killed in a car accident.

We were very close. He was 42, married, with two small children. My parents’ first child, he was the light of their lives. For them, it was as if everything ended that day.

After 23 hours of flying, and 6 hours of driving, I reached my parents’ home in a remote town in India. They looked like they had aged 10 years overnight. I did my best to console them.

The next morning, my father pointed me to the only vase of flowers in the room. I picked up the card next to the flowers. It read: “During this most difficult time in your lives, please know that we are with you, and will be always.”

It was signed, “John Chambers, and the Cisco family.”

A small act of kindness from a CEO towards an employee? Perhaps. But for my family, it was so much more. For my grieving father, it was a touch of compassion and a source of strength when he needed it most. It was act of caring— one that I will never forget.

A few days later, as I was preparing to return to the U.S., my father pulled me aside and said something that I still remember: “I’m happy that you work for a successful company,” he said. “But I’m proud that you work for someone who cares.”

I know that none of this counts when Fortune Magazine compiles its list of the “Most Admired Companies,” or when Harvard Business Review publishes its list of the “Best- Performing CEOs.”

But from where I stand, it counts.

My last story is about curiosity.

My children, Sonia, Sabrina and Neal always seem to want to try new things. Like many young people, Sonia, our oldest child, has an inquisitive, open mind. But at 17, she’s also someone with many friends and social interests. With Sonia being a second semester senior in high school, my wife and I worried she might begin to cruise academically—especially since she had already been accepted to her top-choice university.

Instead of cruise control, however, Sonia seems to have gone into overdrive. Despite her primary focus on Biology and Chemistry, I was surprised a couple of months ago to find that she had suddenly developed a fascination for business. She was on the Internet researching business topics, and talking to her classmates who were in business clubs. A few days ago, she approached my wife and said, “I need a business suit.”

A business suit? I thought she would want something from Abercrombie & Fitch or Hollister, not Ann Taylor. When I asked why, she told me she had decided to participate in a state-wide business competition for high school students. This is someone who is 17 years old and hasn’t taken a single business course or participated in a business-oriented club. Ever. Suddenly, she’s Sheryl Sandberg.

What happened? I wondered.

“I don’t know,” she said, “I guess I want to try new things and find out.”

Always curious. Always open minded. Trying new things. That’s Sonia. And thanks to her disposition, she’s always been able to acquire new skills and abilities. And that business competition she needed the suit for? Guess what: she placed second in the State of California out of 4,500 students.

Am I proud? You bet. But I’ve also learned something. Each time she demonstrates a new interest or acquires a new skill, she shows me the value of curiosity.

We all like to think of ourselves as open minded and curious. But are we? I was put to the test three years ago when I decided to write a book based on my business experiences. I worked closely with two people, T.C. Doyle and Sarah Halper. They often had different points of view than mine. And they were never afraid to express them. Even if I disagreed, I always listened to them. And there was never a day that I didn’t value what they said.


Sonia made me curious about social media. Before the publication of my book, I thought Twitter, Facebook and blogging were things my daughter and her friends did, not working professionals like me. T.C. and Sarah insisted otherwise.

They helped me set up accounts, and then helped me to write blogs, send out tweets and cultivate an online following. Suddenly, I found myself connecting with thousands of people instantly. When I did, Forbes, Fortune, The Economist, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post and more opened their doors to me, which allowed me to blog and engage with an even wider audience.

Although my book was well-received, it was a one-way monologue until I learned how to turn it into a two-way conversation with people everywhere. I’m glad I was curious enough, and open enough to try something outside my comfort zone.

Thanks to the blogs and tweets and online dialogs, word spread quickly. Three months after publication, our book, Doing Both, made every bestseller list in the country, including the one published by The New York Times.

My daughter Sonia’s example of always being curious had opened my mind to a whole new field. And being curious had paid off.

Today is your graduation. But it’s also your commencement—the start of the journey for the rest of your life.

Wharton has given you great skills. But as you begin this journey, there are other traits that you will need to draw upon.

The debates and discourses, the cases and courses, the spreadsheets and statistics have equipped you to address any business situation. Wharton has given you the clarity to determine what the right decision is. But no business school can give you the courage to make that decision.

That must come from elsewhere.

Wharton has empowered you with insight in your interactions, confidence in your conversations, polish in your presentations. Wharton has taught you to communicate. But no business school can teach you to care.

That must come from elsewhere.

Wharton has provided you engaging experiences, powerful perspectives, invaluable insights. Wharton has made you competent. But no business school can teach you to be curious.

That must come from elsewhere.

Wharton has the best faculty on the planet and although they have taught you much, you will find your courage, caring and curiosity in your own journey.

I found courage in the words of my mother, caring in the actions of my wife, and curiosity in the spirit of my daughter. Each has taught me something; and that has made all the difference in my journey.


Several years from now, some of you will have the honor of speaking to the graduating class at your alma mater, about your journey. And when you reflect back, you will likely find that your best stories are not about clarity, communications and competence. Instead, they will be stories about the courage to do the right thing, about caring when it wasn’t required, about curiosity to learn about the world and change it for the better. These stories won’t come from your head; they will be stories from your heart.

And they will be the stories that no one will forget.

Three weeks from today, our first child Sonia will graduate from high school. This fall she will start as a freshman in the College of Arts & Sciences at Penn. We are very happy that she will be at a great university where she will learn a lot.

When we drop her off in Philadelphia this August, one week after her 18th birthday, our hearts will be a bit heavier, and our home will be a lot quieter.

But as she embarks on the journey of her life as an adult, we will cheer from the sidelines, and wish for her that extra something that will last her a lifetime: her own curiosity, her mother’s caring, and her grandmother’s courage.

As you begin your journey, for each of you, I wish no less.

Good luck, and Godspeed.


How to heal from trauma? This psychiatrist has a playbook.

Review by Diane Cole

A queasy mix of awe and anxiety consumed me after I viewed “Oppenheimer,”director Christopher Nolan’s exceptional film chronicling physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer’s single-minded quest to build the world’s first atomic bomb. So urgent was the deadline to complete the task and win the war that it was only after Oppenheimer achieved his goal, and viewed photographs of the human devastation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that he could also see what he called the “blood on my hands.” Human catastrophe had been the other side of his scientific triumph, he realized, and no one would be spared its consequences.

Among the most lasting and visceral of those consequences has been the mushroom cloud of raw fear and apprehension that has hovered overhead ever since. It is against that murky fog that subsequent health crises, wars, climate change concerns and threats of international terror have cast their own shadowy imprints. “Oppenheimer”provides no answers to help us confront these dilemmas or manage our fretful disquiet. It is instead left to the eminent psychiatrist and author Robert Jay Lifton, who faces these questions in his latest book, “Surviving Our Catastrophes: Resilience and Renewal From Hiroshima to the Covid-19 Pandemic.

Trauma, time and mental health — new study unpacks pandemic phenomenon

Now 97, Lifton has devoted his career to explaining the piercing anguish that follows trauma and mass tragedy in such classic works as “Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima” (1967) and“Home From the War: Vietnam Veterans — Neither Victims nor Executioners” (1973). He has also explored the mind-sets of the perpetrators of atrocity, as in “The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide” (1986). Now, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and amid ever-increasing anxiety over climate change, he distills what he has learned about how we can heal from trauma.

Despite his occasional tendency to ramble and use cumbersome psychological lingo, Lifton’s conversational style is mostly accessible, detailing a vision of resilience that cuts through the existential fog to reveal something like hope.

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Again and again, starting with his interviews with the hibakusha (the Japanese name for the atomic bombs’ surviving victims), Lifton found that “survivors of the most extreme catastrophe could take on collective efforts toward reestablishing the flow of life.” Most began that journey in a static state of victimhood, emotionally numbed and incapacitated by wounds psychic or physical or both.

Only gradually could they begin to take in and grapple with the magnitude of their loss and grief, and soon their mourning inevitably entailed a search for the “why” and “how” of what had happened. “We humans are meaning-hungry creatures, and survivors are particularly starved for meaning that can help them ‘explain’ their ordeal,” Lifton writes. “Only by finding such meaning can they tell their story and begin to cope with grief and loss.”

He found a similar dynamic at work among the survivors of other mass traumas. Sharing their stories with one another, he found, allowed them to build new bonds and rebuild old ones. They were thus able to form makeshift communities to work together and learn from one another. In doing so, they gradually shed the identity of passive victims and began to reconceive themselves as survivors whose discovery of purpose or meaning allowed, even propelled, them to re-engage with life. Countering the senselessness of tragedy with a sense of mission took many forms, he found, including aiding those who have similarly suffered; educating others to prevent similar catastrophes; and organizing campaigns for research funding and health care, whether for AIDS in years past or long covid today.

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Throughout, Lifton emphasizes that “meaning depends upon memory,” and he reminds us of the grave risks we run by denying or erasing the past. A prime example, he writes, is “the failure to sustain active cultural memory of the 1918 flu pandemic, to hold its details in our collective imagination. … That failure to retain such crucial historical knowledge left us psychologically vulnerable to Covid-19, which we perceived as totally unpredicted and random, having no relationship to anything before it.”

That is just one reason, despite the pain and trauma that remembering may evoke, collective commemorations, public art memorials and other ceremonial occasions to honor the dead and the living are essential. Think of the incalculable healing impact of such projects as the AIDS Quilt, the annual reading aloud in many Jewish communities of the names of those killed in the Holocaust, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, the Pearl Harbor National Memorial, and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which commemorates the victims of racially motivated lynchings. Such legacies — and lessons — of witnessing live on even after first-generation survivors have died, through their memoirs, writings, oral and video histories, and other literary and artistic works, to help guide us through present-day threats.

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Lifton is most deeply concerned today with the politicization of the pandemic and the split in the social core that has led to the spread of life-threatening misinformation. He sounds nothing less than prophetic in urging us to choose witnessing and survival over the destructive, deadly impact of denial. “A society must recognize the reality of a catastrophe in order to cope with it,” he writes. Lifton’s wisdom is worth reading — and heeding.Share this articleShare

Diane Cole is the author of the memoir “After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges.”


Most teachers are too busy to be culture warriors

By Jim Geraghty

A few days ago, I attended my last back-to-school night at our local public middle school. That real-world experience offered a dramatic contrast to the perpetual online brawling today among irate parents, irate teachers and irate politicians over education.

For several years now, I’ve marveled about how our middle school manages to find teachers who are relatively young and energetic (at least for one night of meeting parents) and who seem absolutely thrilled to spend their days attempting to get teenagers grappling with the roller coaster of puberty to absorb some knowledge.

Elementary school kids are adorable, and high-schoolers are taking those exciting first steps into adulthood, but a lot of us would prefer to forget that awkward transition of the middle school years. Some of my son’s classmates don’t look all that different from when they left elementary school, while others have hit monstrous growth spurts and look more like college freshmen. And yet somehow, my child’s teachers seem to love teaching kids in this self-conscious, stumbling stage of life.

The school has its share of problems, of course — an ambitious reconstruction project that has dragged on and on, intermittent discipline issues, and the continuing effort to overcome setbacks from a year of subpar “distance learning” and a few more months of on-and-off in-person learning during the pandemic. Over at the nearby high school, it’s hard to tell whether rumors of commonplace drug use are factual or based on teenage exaggeration and insecure boasts of fearless rule-breaking.P

At the back-to-school meeting, I wondered to what degree Americans’ current heated debates about education are influenced by the actual experiences of students and teachers in classrooms, as opposed to being shaped by bomb-throwing contests elevated by algorithms on social media. You don’t have to look hard to find online examples of outrageous behavior (by students or teachers), or stories of strong ideological views being imposed by teachers or administrators, or titanic struggles over which books to include on a library shelf or in a classroom (often with both sides using wild misrepresentations).Share this articleNo subscription required to readShare

Sure, you can find teachers making disturbing boasts about proselytizing their personal views to children, as tracked by Libs of TikTok, but your child’s teacher is unlikely to be one of them. No, your child’s teacher is probably dealing with matters that are much more mundane but still thorny and persistent. These students aren’t just trying to make up for learning loss from the pandemic; they’re also trying to make up for one to two years’ worth of missing socialization and maturity.

A therapist who works with children told me that many she sees are about two years behind in social development — high school seniors acting like sophomores, younger high-schoolers acting like middle-schoolers, etc. Sometimes this manifests as just misbehaving in class, but sometimes it manifests as fistfights.

After the hard lessons of online learning during the pandemic, lots of schools are trying to figure out how to integrate technology without having students staring at their screens all day. Countless teachers and administrators across the country are also no doubt trying to preserve school safety with reasonable and effective discipline policies, while also trying to ensure that students are challenged to perform to the best of their abilities.

Little of that is likely to be the subject of exciting cable news segments or viral social media posts.

On balance, it is a good thing that, during and after the pandemic, many parents became much more attuned to what their schools were teaching and became much more engaged — even if that meant some shouting at previously staid school board meetings. Parents who show up to complain about the curriculum are parents who care a great deal about their children’s education — better that than apathetic or disengaged parents who just assume everything is going fine.

But as we have these arguments, let’s not let a media ecosystem that is designed to spotlight the atypical and strange create an impression that public education is being hijacked by lunatics and extremists. There are a whole lot of teachers out there who are too busy grading papers, revising lesson plans and, in many cases, buying some class materials with their own money. They don’t have the time or inclination to fight in the culture war.